There have been numerous transformations of the story of Guy of Warwick since the thirteenth century to suit changing tastes or commercial necessity. What has remained constant is the hero’s development from a self-absorbed, worldly person, to a mature individual, to a near saint. Clearly a patchwork composition, with diverse romance motifs following each other in loose sequence, Guy of Warwick has many themes that could easily be eliminated or transposed. This patchwork character, according to some critics, actually contributes to the epic’s popularity.
Inventive poets who worked on versions of Guy of Warwick throughout the centuries put the work through many transformations in response to audience taste. For instance, the battle descriptions, long established in French romance, are modified to harmonize with English tradition. Elizabethans found their greatest interest was in the English history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, children happily read it as a fairy tale, with Guy’s fantastic accomplishments receiving emphasis.
Perhaps in real life many a war-weary hero must have similarly renounced the world. Some critics believe, however, that the larger-than-life legend of Guy of Warwick was initially the product of monastic imagination at work to suit the religious orientation of the clergy. Many editorial changes can be observed in the second half of the epic poem, which tells of Guy’s spiritual journey. In the second half, the change in the meter and tail-rhyme stanzas indicate that the new section is quite independent of the first. It would seem that, in content and form, English authors saw no objection to hybrid stories if they served nationalistic or religious purposes.
The Middle English romances and legends, from the period of their great flourishing between 1280 and 1380, are marked with common themes such as rejection, exile, constancy, and reward. This homogeneity in observing literary conventions is the “grammar” of Middle Ages romance. The same plot pattern, situations, and phrases recur. The reason for this homogeneity is to be found in the social context of Middle English romance.
In this sense, Guy of...
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