Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, September 2, 2011

A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance

The conclusion to the medieval English romance of Sir Orfeo [1] is one of the most conspicuously conventional passages of a highly conventional poem.

Thus com Sir Orfeo out of his care.
God graunt ous alle wele to fare.

The same parallel comment on the hero’s fate and to the hopes of the audience occurs in many poems, but the essential aspect of the formula is neither of these parts, but the idea of positive fate in any form. The wish for the salvation of the listeners may appear without reference to a similarly happy end for the hero, or his eventual victory may be restated without explicitly asking the same for others. In King Horn the entire ensemble is present in the C-text while the L and 0 versions do not mention the listeners, but only the characters of the poem.

Similar lines conclude many other Middle English romances (sometimes using a couplet rhyming “king” and “blessing,” as in Octavian and Isumbras). Gowther, Amadace, and Emare are among the romances which use the convention but which adopt slightly different phrases to express it.) Texts using altogether different wording but which likewise turn the implication outward at the end in some form of a wish for the reader's good luck include the Pearl and the A-text of Piers Plowman.

The fact that this convention is so common in English romances must not lead the reader to think that it is an invariable concomitant of the genre. In fact, going back one historical step, one notes that Marie de France never ends with such a statement. Rather she regularly glances backward in the last words to the written piece itself, as though for her the emergence from the text requires a confirmation of its existence, its veracity, and its immortality. An example is the conclusion of Bisclavret.

L'aventure k'avez oie
Veraie fu, n'en dutez mie:
De Bisclavret fut fet li lais
Pur remembrance a tut dis mais.

[The adventure you have heard really happened, do not doubt it. This lay was made about Bisclavret to be remembered forever.]

In the form in which it appears in Sir Orfeo, one might at first regard this convention of closure in the first instance as equivalent to the final shot of a film: The End. It is, however, more ambitious. The phrase affirms Orfeo’s experience and links it to the reader’s in an emphatic signifier that these words have power both to encapsulate experience and to shape reality. Immediately after confirming the truth of the story, the poet speaks of the reader in the optative mood. The poem is well set off from ordinary experience by a frame which honors it, which constructs a halo of “blessedness” about the entire narrative. On a social level the convention indicates politeness in the form of a pious compassion for the souls of the listeners. Perhaps, too, it banishes any sense of wrong-doing from the literary experience, often considered dubious once sacred and profane art parted ways. Finally, however, the convention seems most potent viewed as a form of sympathetic magic with little specifically Christian content. By linking hero and reader and by imagining them prosperous or saved or both, the text attempts to fulfill a therapeutic role by causing the banishing in reality the sort of obstacles which it tells of the hero's overcoming in fantasy. Every child is better prepared for the inevitable blows of life after hearing of resourceful and courageous heroes who vanquish villains in fairy tales, and Christians are taught that Christ’s victory over death enables their own.

1. The same matter survived to become Child’s ballad 19.

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