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Last Updated on January 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2454

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First published: 1621

Type of work: Prose romance

Type of plot: Pseudoclassical heroic allegory

Time of work: The Hellenistic era

Locale: Sicily and the Western Mediterranean

Principal Characters:

Poliarchus, the name assumed by Astioristes, Prince of France

Argenis, Princess of Sicily

Meleander, King of Sicily and the father of Argenis

Archombrotus, the name assumed by Hyempsal, Prince of Mauritania, during his sojourn in Sicily

Hyanisbe, Queen of Mauritania

Radirobanes, King of Sardinia

Lycogenes, a Sicilian noble and leader of the rebellion against Meleander

Arsidas, a Sicilian noble, Governor of Messana, and a friend to Poliarchus

Gelanorus, a French noble sojourning in Sicily in the guise of Poliarchus’ servant

Selenissa, a Sicilian matron and Argenis’ nurse and companion

Timoclea, a Sicilian matron, a friend to Poliarchus and, later, Argenis’ companion

Nicopompus, a Sicilian courtier-poet of pro-monarchical sentiments

The Story:

Before the Mediterranean world had ever come under the dominance of Rome, a young adventurer from Africa landed on the shores of Sicily and was met by a distraught lady who begged him to assist her friend, who was being attacked by thieves. The young man, who gave his name as Archombrotus, sped to the rescue only to find that his help was not needed: the lady’s friend had dispatched the thieves single-handed. The three returned to the lady’s house where Archombrotus learned that the lady was Timoclea, a respected Sicilian matron, and that her friend was young Poliarchus, also a stranger to Sicily, who had distinguished himself in the service of King Meleander against a rebel army led by the traitorous noble Lycogenes. Poliarchus, having urged more forceful resistance to the rebellion, had been banished when the overcautious King declared a truce. Archombrotus learned that Meleander had a beautiful daughter, Argenis; Archombrotus concluded immediately that Poliarchus was in love with her.

While engaged in their discussion, they noticed signal fires blazing on the surrounding hilltops. Timoclea explained that these beacons were fired to warn the people that a traitor was at large. Presently, a servant entered with word that Poliarchus was the one accused of treachery; the “thieves” had been Lycogenes’ ambassadors, and the King had interpreted his defense as an attempt to break the truce. Timoclea, loyal to her guest, hid him immediately in a cave on her estate and then sent for his friend Arsidas, the Governor of Messana. Arsidas arrived promptly, and he and Poliarchus’ servant, Gelanorus, devised a plan whereby the rumor was spread that Poliarchus had been drowned after a fall from his horse. Arsidas pleaded with Argenis to tell her secretly the truth so that she would not be distracted by false news of Poliarchus’ death.

Meanwhile, rustics on Timoclea’s estate mistook Archombrotus for Poliarchus, seized him, and carried him off to the King. Meleander, realizing their mistake, took Archombrotus into his council but praised the peasants for their loyalty. At the same time, Arsidas arranged to have Argenis see Poliarchus. As a priestess of Pallas, presiding over the sacrifice to celebrate the truce, she was to insist that the common people be allowed to worship the goddess beforehand, and Poliarchus was to come before her in the dress of a peasant; thus, the lovers were briefly united. Poliarchus then fled with Arsidas to Italy. Argenis, throwing herself into a frenzy, claimed that the goddess would not honor the sacrifice or the truce.

Enraged, Lycogenes resumed the war, and Meleander fled with his train to the fortified seaport of Epercte. On the way, he was almost drowned when his coach, driven by a rebel spy, plunged into the river, but he was saved by Archombrotus, who was thus made secure in his favor.

The war was going badly for the King; Archombrotus convinced him that their only hope lay in the return of the champion Poliarchus. The King sent a precious brooch to Poliarchus as a peace offering; however, spies of Lycogenes poisoned the brooch, and the rebel sent his own messenger with a letter warning Poliarchus that the brooch was fatal. If the King’s messenger arrived first, Poliarchus would be dead; if Lycogenes’, he would become an enemy of the King—either way, Lycogenes would no longer have to fear him.

Poliarchus and his servant Gelanorus, however, had already left for Sicily. Shipwrecked off the coast, they were rudely hauled aboard a pirate craft. The two routed the pirates and turned the ship over to its rightful owner.

Discovering jewels and letters belonging to Queen Hyanisbe of Mauritania among the pirate treasure, Poliarchus immediately ordered the ship to Mauritania so that he could return the royal property. The Queen was delighted, for the letters concerned the whereabouts of her knight-errant son. She ordered a celebration that would have continued indefinitely had not Poliarchus been anxious to return to his beloved. In spite of his anxiety, however, he was forced to stay when smitten by an attack of the ague. Gelanorus was dispatched with letters in his stead.

Meanwhile, Meleander’s situation was becoming untenable at Epercte. When matters seemed hopeless, the tremendous fleet of Radirobanes, King of Sardinia, arrived to help defend the rights of the monarch against rebel upstarts. The combined forces of Meleander and Radirobanes routed the army of Lycogenes, and Archombrotus slew the rebel leader in single combat.

Archombrotus became the King’s favorite after the rebellion ended. Having fallen in love with Argenis during the siege and with Poliarchus gone, he thought himself the foremost claimant for her hand, but Radirobanes also announced his claim to the hand of the Princess. Meleander was in a quandary. Archombrotus was his favorite, but both gratitude and the armed fleet in the harbor lent weight to Radirobanes’ cause. Meleander solved the problem by leaving the decision up to Argenis. The Sardinian ruler advanced his plea; the Sicilian Princess rebuffed him. Radirobanes then gained the confidence of Argenis’ nurse and companion, Selenissa, who in nightly installments told him a story.

This story begins with Lycogenes, who had also demanded Argenis and who had threatened to abduct her after being refused. To forestall his design, Meleander had his daughter, along with Selenissa and certain young ladies of her court, placed in an inaccessible and heavily guarded castle. While they were secluded, a beautiful stranger who gave her name as Theocrine came to Selenissa and begged sanctuary. Admitted to the castle, she shared the chamber of the Princess. When Lycogenes’ men stormed the castle, Theocrine seized a sword, and the attackers fled. The supposed Theocrine was in reality Poliarchus, who, having heard of the beauty of Argenis, had used that disguise to be near her. When he begged forgiveness, Argenis immediately fell in love with him. He had then disappeared to return later in Meleander’s service. The King, convinced that Theocrine was warlike Pallas, had dedicated his daughter to the service of that beautiful, austere goddess.

Despairing of winning the Princess by fair means, Radirobanes planned to blackmail her into acceptance of his proposal, but Selenissa persuaded him that abduction would be the better course. Argenis, having overheard part of Selenissa’s betrayal, feigned an illness that kept her inaccessible, thereby frustrating Radirobanes’ plans. Thwarted, Radirobanes returned with his fleet to Sardinia, leaving a letter with Meleander, informing him of the true identity of Theocrine and demanding payment of three hundred talents for his aid. When Meleander confronted his daughter with the information he had received, she denied any improper dealings in the affair. Meleander, only half believing her, demanded that she marry Archombrotus. Seeing the damage she had done, Selenissa killed herself, and Timoclea succeeded her as chief lady of the household.

Meanwhile, Poliarchus, having recovered from his illness, had returned in disguise to Sicily. Seeing no chance of amicable dealings with Meleander, he asked Argenis to delay her marriage to Archombrotus while he found some means to settle the matter. Then he sailed away. Weeks passed and he failed to return. Finally, Argenis sent Arsidas to find him with letters pleading for his return.

Arsidas’ ship was wrecked, however, and he was rescued and taken aboard the leading ship of a great war fleet. Gobrias, the captain, received Arsidas hospitably and informed him that the fleet belonged to the King of France, who was preparing to attack Sicily. The King himself was commanding the flagship, which was leading the second half of the fleet.

To entertain his guest, Gobrias told him the strange history of the French ruler, King Astioristes—how his mother had kept his birth a secret so that he would not be murdered in a rebellion that was going on at the time, how he had been reared by foster parents, had proved himself a hero in battle, and had finally been revealed as the true Prince; how he had heard of the beauty of the Sicilian Princess, Argenis, and had sojourned in Sicily under the name of Poliarchus to win her, and how now—as King, the old king having died in his absence—he was sailing to claim her.

Arsidas immediately identified himself as Poliarchus’ friend and offered his assistance. Gobrias was delighted, but before the two halves of the fleet could establish a rendezvous, a terrible storm came up, driving each part to a different point on the African coast. The flotilla commanded by the French king found safety in the harbor of Mauritania, and once again Astioristes, the one-time Poliarchus, was entertained by Hyanisbe. His arrival was most fortunate, for Radirobanes was threatening Mauritania. Hyanisbe had sent for her son, Hyempsal, who was at the court of King Meleander in Sicily, but he had not yet returned. When the Sardinian troops arrived, they were repulsed by the French. Poliarchus and Radirobanes met in single combat, and the Sardinian ruler was slain. Disheartened, his followers were routed, but Poliarchus was injured and again confined in Mauritania.

Returning belatedly to his mother’s defense, Hyempsal turned out to be Archombrotus. Hyanisbe was dismayed when she found that her son and her protector were enemies; but when she learned the cause of their quarrel, she was relieved and wrote a letter to Meleander that, she promised, would end their difficulties.

While Astioristes was recovering from his wounds, Hyempsal led a successful expedition to Sardinia. The two men then returned to Sicily and presented Hyanisbe’s sealed letter to Meleander. The message proved as effective as Hyanisbe had promised. Hyempsal, it was revealed, was the son of Meleander and the King’s secret first wife, Hyanisbe’s sister. Thus he was both the heir to the Sicilian throne and Argenis’ half brother. Since there was now no obstacle to the marriage of Argenis and Astioristes, Meleander gave them his blessing, the wedding took place at once, and an epithalamium was written by the courtier-poet Nicopompus.

Critical Evaluation:

John Barclay, the son of a Scot, was born in France, died in Italy, and wrote in Latin. His last work, ARGENIS, finished only a month before his death, became immediately popular and remained so for two centuries. Seven years after its publication, it had been honored by three translations into English (the first, by Ben Jonson, in 1623, is, unfortunately, not extant), and as late as the nineteenth century it received the high praise of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Its original popularity was not entirely the result of its artistic merits, however, for it was as satire that it first caught the fancy of readers on both sides of the Channel.

Barclay had already a reputation as a satirist, but in ARGENIS the objects of his attacks are generalized behind a screen of allegory. The story of the love of Poliarchus and Argenis is supposed to represent the wars and intrigues in France before the Concordat under Henry IV. As revealed by the CLOVIS, published in the edition of 1623, Sicily, the scene of the action, stands for France, with Argenis a personified symbol of the throne contested during the religious wars, and Poliarchus and Archombrotus representing different aspects of Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV). Meleander is Henry III; Mauritania is England; Hyanisbe, Elizabeth; and Radirobanes, the rapacious and deceitful Philip of Spain. The whole work is aimed at opponents of the monarchical system.

Although interest in the work as satire lasted only as long as the controversy over the divine right of kings remained a vital issue, ARGENIS was long praised for the grandeur of its expression, the nobility of its theme, the heroic stature of its characters. Only its historical interest remains; it stands with Honore d’Urfe’s L’ASTREE as an interesting transitional work between the Greek-influenced prose romances of the sixteenth century, on the one hand, and the interminable French romances of La Calprenede and Mademoiselle de Scudery, on the other.

A literary curiosity, ARGENIS is not truly a novel; Thomas Deloney in JACK OF NEWBERRY and other works contributed more to the development of prose fiction as a popular art form. Where Deloney looked forward, Barclay looked backward, even to the point of composing his work in the “universal language”—Latin. The 1629 translation by Sir Robert le Grys is graceful and accurate but is now very difficult to obtain. Written in long, carefully constructed sentences, ARGENIS produces an effect of grandeur and majesty seldom, if ever, encountered in modern literature. The story, despite all of the embroidery, is at times exciting, filled with violent action and passions.

ARGENIS is probably the Scottish satirist’s most famous work, although he was known in his day for his SATYRICON, a severe satire on the Jesuits and modeled on Petronius. The reader of ARGENIS and Barclay’s other writings should not look for realistic characterization or plot development. The characters are impetuous and the action often implausible; both are used freely by Barclay to help make his satirical point. The characters dance around one another in elaborate patterns, suggesting at times a baroque opera rather than a piece of realistic fiction. When the tale is romantic, it is very romantic; and when it is violent, the violence is extreme. The reader can almost visualize the story as a stage spectacle—the sets, costumes, and elaborate machinery all by Inigo Jones; but this very extravagance makes the work surprisingly enjoyable, providing the reader possesses the patience to persevere with the obscure allusions and the now forgotten political and social satire. ..FT.-The work is crowded with incident, including storms and shipwrecks, violent battles, and pirate treasure; but the motivation of the characters is not always clear. Fierce anger, friendship, and several varieties of passion all play a part in the complicated, fairy-tale-like plot. Extravagant and amazing, ARGENIS is almost unique in British literature, interesting but possessing only the charm of a museum piece.