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The Blue Book of Wellow


The Blue Book of Wellow is a collection of twelve Middle English stories most of which have a religious theme. This is not to say that they are all instructional. The longest of these works, the alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, seems at first sight not to be religious at all. It does, however, sit alongside three other poems by the same author, known as the Pearl poet, or the Gawain poet, in a way that makes one suspicious that these poems may link together somehow, and the other three are undeniably religious. What the message is, however, may be intriguing.

In addition to these four poems by the Pearl poet, the Blue Book of Wellow contains two more Arthurian tales, one of which involves news of the afterlife from Guinevere, accounts of descents into purgatory, some medieval English saints' lives, a romance involving a journey made by a young man in search of a young lady whose tomb he has been shown, a story of a king who has to live as his own fool and eat with the dogs whilst an angel impersonates him as king, and a tale of a descent into debt and penury by a nobleman whose journey on the Wheel of Fortune then raises him again into wealth and happiness after encountering a ghost.

These tales are all translated from the original Middle English and retold in Modern English prose.

Blue Book of Wellow

A Vision of Tundale records the experiences of a dreadful man who lived, reputedly, in Ireland in the middle of the twelfth century. It is a Middle English translation of a Latin work, the Visio Tnugdali, written by an Irish Benedictine monk living in Germany. The story tells of Tundale's physical collapse as he engages in some fraudulent horse-dealing, his deathlike appearance, the journey of his soul through purgatory and the Earthly Paradise and his subsequent awakening and pursuit of a new life in penitence, poverty and great virtue, since he can recall everything that happened to him during his 'death'.

Sir Owain tells a story that is strongly associated with the life of Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland. Saint Patrick was reputed to have been shown, in a dream, an entrance into purgatory on Lough Derg in County Donegal, Ireland, and had an abbey built over the place. Sinners could receive remission from suffering after death by entering into this chasm, which was guarded by white monks. One such repentant sinner was Sir Owain, whose experiences are recounted in graphic detail.

The Awntyrs of Arthur is an Arthurian tale that is constructed like a diptych, a Medieval religious painting created on two pieces of wood that fold open to give a view of two related, or perhaps opposing scenes. The first half of the story takes place while King Arthur is out hunting beside Tarn Wathelene in Inglewood Forest, Cumbria. Queen Guinevere and Sir Gawain meet with the ghost of Guinevere's mother rising from the lake. In the second half of the tale, a knight arrives at King Arthur's hall and demands satisfaction for the theft of his lands.

Pearl is a highly-regarded Middle English poem of the late-fourteenth century. The poem is divided into sections mostly of five stanzas each, whose beginnings echo the end phrase of the previous section, all strung together like a necklace of pearls. The one hundred and one stanzas in total, suggest circularity and renewal. The story itself tells of a bereaved father's joy and puzzlement when he is taken to where his dead infant daughter now lives and can speak to her, after collapsing in grief upon her grave.

Cleanness follows on from Pearl in British Library MS Cotton Nero A x. and seeks to illustrate the hatred that God feels for what is termed uncleanness. A curious anecdote in which a man is chosen apparently at random and in haste from the general public, in order to make up the numbers at a wedding feast, and is then violently castigated for not being in his best clothes, is followed by retellings of the story of Noah and the Flood, the violent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast.

Patience concerns itself with another biblical story, the one detailed in the Book of Jonah. The story follows the biblical text quite closely and accurately, describing Jonah's refusal to comply with God's instructions, his attempt at escape, the storm at sea, his being swallowed by a whale and regurgitated on a shore near to where God wanted him to go in the first place. One wonders, though, why the poet wanted to highlight a story whose most memorable scene is Jonah's existence inside a sea creature.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps the most well-known of all fourteenth century Middle English poems, excluding those of Geoffrey Chaucer. Curiously, like Pearl, it too contains one hundred and one stanzas, suggesting circularity and renewal. Sir Gawain cuts off the head of a giant Otherworldly green knight at King Arthur's Christmas feast only to have to suffer a similar stroke of the axe himself, a year later. This he does, despite initial difficulty in finding the Green Chapel at the appointed time, possibly in Inglewood Forest. By virtue of a circular band of cloth that he is wearing, Sir Gawain is both subject to a proper blow from the axe and is perfectly safe from it. This magic girdle is emulated by all the Knights of the Round Table upon Sir Gawain's return to King Arthur's court, and worn as a sash.

Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle relates how Sir Gawain, while hunting in the company of Sir Kay and Bishop Baldwin, is guided by a deer to an Otherworldly place, again in the haunted Inglewood Forest. It is the castle of a giant who keeps wild animals as pets and which, near the end of the story, carries a hint that it may also lie, at another poetic level, in the sky; like the castle of the giant that Jack encounters in the English fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk. The story also recalls an early-twelfth century frieze on an archivolt in Modena Cathedral in northern Italy, inspired by a Breton tale of an assault by Gawain, Kay and another companion on the castle of the giant Carrado, the Irish Cú Roí mac Dáire. In Irish mythology, Cú Roí mac Dáire is involved in a beheading game with Cú Chulaind.

Sir Amadace tells the story of a knight who falls into debt and journeys with his few remaining companions into voluntary exile, where he soon comes across the stinking body of an unburied debtor in a church. He pays off the man's debts so that he can be buried, loses his companions, encounters a ghost, possibly the debtor's, and is guided into a new life by claiming that the treasure recovered from a shipwreck is his own. Soon he marries, has a daughter and lives in wealth and happiness, until the ghost returns to collect his share of the new life.

Robert of Sicily tells a very similar story to a number of other medieval verse narratives, including Sir Isumbras, Sir Cleges and Sir Gowther: a nobleman, toppled suddenly from wealth and honour, has to endure extreme poverty and ill-fortune before the Wheel of Fortune begins to climb for him once again. In the case of Sir Isumbras, this is a punishment from God for excessive pride. So too for King Robert. He falls asleep in church one evening and wakes to find everybody gone and a new king on the throne. Himself. An angel is impersonating him. King Robert's insistent protestations that he is the king are taken to be the ravings of an imbecile; nobody recognises him any more. Only after the passage of three years does the angel relinquish the facade and allow King Robert to return to his rightful place at court, on his throne, instead of under a table with the dogs.

Other romances with a similar theme, such as the Middle English Octavian, hint at the involvement of animals during a turn of the wheel. The noble Octavian is suckled by a lioness before being rescued; his brother Florent is taken by an ape before being sold to a Paris merchant and raised as the man's son. This recalls Sir Isumbras's life as an apprentice to a blacksmith, following his own sons' capture by animals. There are strong hints in these tales, and in others like Emaré and Chaucer's tale of Constance in the Canterbury tale from the Man of Law, that the allegory involves a transition from one life to another. But nowhere is it revealed as plainly as in Robert of Sicily that this new and humbler life is in a different body.

Floris and Blancheflour are two young lovers who, although from different backgrounds, have been inseparable companions in the royal court of Floris's father, the King of Spain. When, upon returning from a period spent away from court, Floris is presented with Blancheflour's tomb, he opens it, finds it to be empty, is told the truth and travels to where Blancheflour is now living. He finds her in an idyllic setting, surrounded by a garden of magic fruit trees, like a Garden of Eden. However, he is, in fact, near the palace of the Emir of Babylon, in the real world, and Blancheflour, in her new life as one of the Emir's maidens, is in desperate need of being rescued.

Saint Kenelm was an early English king of the kingdom of Mercia in the ninth century AD. Crowned at the tender age of seven years old, he was soon martyred through the jealousy of one of his sisters and secretly buried in a wood in the Clent Hills in Worcestershire. God persuaded a cow, however, to mark the spot and following the receipt of a miraculous communication through the agency of a dove, the Pope in Rome alerted the English clergy and the body, after being fought over by the men of Worcestershire and the men of Gloucestershire, was placed in a shrine in Winchcombe Abbey in Gloucestershire. A number of healing wells miraculously sprang up as a result of the proximity of his body.

Saint Edmund the King was a pious king of the English kingdom of East Anglia in the ninth century. He is killed, in this legend, during a Danish invasion and martyred in a forest, where his head is thrown into a thorn thicket. Similarly to the story of Saint Kenelm, an animal now enters the tale, showing an unnatural concern for the remains. In this case it is a wolf. It guards Saint Edmund's head and keeps it from the ravages of other scavengers until the head is miraculously found by locals and carried away. The wolf follows the funeral cortège, howling pitifully, as though it retains some unfathomable interest in the remains.

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