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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIV. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: II

§ 8. William of Palerne, etc.

Besides these romances which deal, in some sort, with the knightly character, there are others which embody variations of the Constance theme, namely, Sir Triamour, Sir Eglamour of Artois and Torrent of Portugal. Like Emaré, they belong to the “reunion of kindred” type—a type which appealed to Chaucer and, still more, to Shakespeare in his latest period. One well-known romance still calls for notice. This is William of Palerne, a tale of love and action which embodies the primitive belief in lycanthropy, according to which certain people were able to assume, at will, the character and appearance of wolves. The tradition was widespread in Europe, and it still appears from time to time in modern works dealing with ghouls and vampires. The story relates how William, prince of Apulia, is saved from a murderous attack by the aid of a werwolf, who, in reality, is heir to the Spanish throne. The werwolf swims with the prince across the straits of Messina, and again renders aid when his protègè is fleeing from Rome with his love, Melchior. William, subsequently, recovers his royal rights, and then helps to bring about the restoration to the friendly werwolf of his human form.

It is striking and, to some extent, characteristic of the age, that, although the field of English romance was thus wide and varied, the personality of scarcely a single toiler in that field has come down to posterity. The anonymity of the work embodied in our ancient cathedrals is a parallel to this, and neither fact is without its significance. With the Tristram legend is connected the name of Thomas, a poet of the twelfth century, who is mentioned by Gottfried of Strassburg in the early thirteenth century. The somewhat misty but historical Thomas of Erceldoune has been credited with the composition of a Sir Tristram story, but this was possibly due to a confusion of the twelfth century Thomas with his interesting namesake of the succeeding century. The confusion would be one to which the popular mind was peculiarly susceptible. Thomas the Rhymer was a romantic figure credited with prophetical gifts, and a popular tale would readily be linked with his name, especially as such a process was consistent with the earlier Thomas tradition as it then existed.

In the case of three other romances there seem to be certain grounds for attributing them to a single writer. All three works, King Alisaunder, Arthur and Merlin and Richard Cœur de Lion, are, apparently, of much the same date, and alike hail from Kent. Each is animated by the same purpose —that of throwing on to a large canvas a great heroic figure; there is also to be found in each of them a certain sympathy with magic. The handling of the theme in each case proceeds on similar lines; the close parallel in the schemes of King Alisaunder and Richard Cœur de Lion has already been noticed; and the narrative, in each, moves along in easy animated style. Moreover, similarities of technique are found in all. The recurrence of similes and comparisons, as well as riming peculiarities in common, suggests the working of a single mind. In King Alisaunder and Arthur and Merlin appears the device of beginning the various sections of the narrative with lyric, gnomic, or descriptive lines, presumably to arouse interest and claim attention. In Richard Cœur de Lion something of the same tendency is also visible, as when a delightful description of spring is inserted after the gruesome account of the massacre of a horde of Saracens. All three works betray a joy in fighting, a joy expressed in vigorous terms. In all is evinced an ability to seize on the picturesque side of things, whether of battle or feasting; Saracens fall “as grass before the scythe”; the helmets of the troops shine “like snow upon the mountains.” But if the identity of a common author may thus seem probable, little or nothing is forthcoming as regards his personality. Certain coarse details, together with rude humour, seem to suggest a plebeian pen, and this is, apparently, supported by occasional references to trades. But nothing certain on the subject can be stated. The personality of the poet is, at best, but shadowy, though, undoubtedly, his work is of outstanding merit.