The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1361

The bold spirit of Bevis is first displayed when he is only seven years old. His father was treacherously murdered, and now his mother and the assassin are engaged in shameless revelry. Bursting into the castle hall, Bevis cudgels his mother’s paramour, Sir Murdour, into senselessness. The mother, fearing future outbursts, sells Bevis into slavery.

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Honor, not slavery, awaits the courageous youth. Taken by slave merchants from England to a Saracen court, Bevis so impresses the king, Ermyn, that the monarch makes the youth a chamberlain. After holding this position for eight uneventful years, Bevis begins a series of remarkable exploits. The first is his single-handed slaughter of sixty Saracen warriors who make the error of deriding his Christianity. Next, he attacks and kills a man-eating boar and, to retain his trophy, beats out the brains of twelve keepers of the forest. These successes of the fifteen-year-old boy lead Ermyn to place him in charge of a small troop that defends the kingdom against the aggression of Bradmond, a rival king. Bevis, astride his incomparable horse Arundel and wielding his good sword, Morglay, lays waste to the enemy forces. To his later misfortune, however, he spares Bradmond’s life.

Bevis’s valor does not escape the attention of Josyan, the king’s daughter. In fact, this fair young girl becomes so enamored of him that she agrees to renounce her religion and become a Christian if he will marry her. Hitherto reluctant, Bevis, under this condition, consents. When news of his daughter’s apostasy reaches Ermyn, the incensed king determines to get rid of her corrupter. To accomplish this task, he sends Bevis unarmed to the court of Bradmond with a sealed letter requesting the bearer’s execution. Only after a considerable number of men are slain is Bevis subdued and thrown into a dungeon.

For seven long years Bevis remains in the dungeon, and during that time he grows in Christian virtue. At last divine intercession, as a reward for his piety, and his own initiative lead to an escape in which Bevis kills two jailers and a dozen grooms. Immediately, he heads for Jerusalem to confess his sins and give thanks to God. Killing a sturdy knight and a thirty-foot giant on the way, he reaches the Holy City and there receives absolution, accompanied by an injunction never to marry a woman who is not a virgin.

Then, in order to be reunited with Josyan, he starts toward Ermony, but on the way he learns that the maid, during his imprisonment, married King Inor of Mounbraunt. To have one last look at his beloved, he dresses himself as a palmer and goes to Mounbraunt. There Josyan, discovering his true identity, implores him to take her away. He at first refuses; but when she reveals that, though seven years married, she has by magic avoided defloration, he relents.

After they escape from the city by trickery, Bevis turns his thoughts toward returning to England and avenging his father’s death. Several years before he learned that Saber, his uncle, was waging war against Sir Murdour and needed his nephew’s help to gain the victory. Imprisonment, however, detained Bevis, and he was to encounter other obstacles before he again saw England.

Killing two lions with one blow and subduing a thirty-foot giant, Ascapard, who then becomes his page, the indomitable Bevis, accompanied by his mistress, makes his way to the coast. In a ship taken from the Saracens, they set sail for Germany. In Cologne, Josyan is at last baptized. Near this city, Bevis has the most perilous adventure of his life. A burning dragon is his opponent on this occasion. Only after suffering a broken rib, being knocked unconscious, and falling into a miraculous healing well is Bevis able to defeat his enemy.

Leaving Ascapard to protect Josyan and taking with him a hundred men, Bevis finally sails to England. Posing as a French knight, he tricks Sir Murdour, who is now his stepfather, into providing him with arms and horses. These supplies he then carries to his uncle and they prepare to make war on Sir Murdour.

Back in Cologne, meanwhile, Josyan is in trouble, for a German earl has conceived a great lust for her. After tricking the giant into leaving, he fancies that she is at his mercy. The resourceful Josyan insists that he marry her; then on the wedding night she calmly makes a slipknot in her girdle, strangles the unsuspecting German, and hangs the corpse over a beam. The next day, when the deed is exposed, the unrepenting widow is sentenced to be burned; but before the sentence can be carried out, Ascapard and Bevis arrive, rescue her from the stake, and kill all who oppose them.

Taking Josyan and Ascapard with him this time, Bevis returns to England to pursue his war against Sir Murdour. Although Sir Murdour has a large army from Germany and another from Scotland, Bevis, assisted by Ascapard, Saber, and a moderate number of knights, wins the battle. Sir Murdour is thrown by the victors into a cauldron filled with boiling pitch and molten lead; Bevis’s mother, on hearing the news, throws herself from a lofty tower.

Bevis has now avenged his father’s death and regains his heritage. To complete his happiness, he marries Josyan. He is not destined, however, to settle down in peace. In London, where he goes to receive investiture, an event occurs that leads him into further adventures after the son of King Edgar tries to steal Bevis’s horse and has his brains knocked out by the animal’s sudden kick. King Edgar is inconsolable over the loss of his son and intent on revenge, so Bevis proposes, in expiation of the crime, to settle his land on Saber and to banish himself and his horse from England.

Ascapard, after pondering this change in his master’s fortunes, decides to betray him. Hastening to Mounbraunt, he makes an agreement with King Inor to bring back Josyan. When the giant discovers her in a forest hut, she has just given birth to twin boys. Leaving the babies, he seizes Josyan and starts for Mounbraunt. Bevis, returning to the hut, takes up the children and begins searching for Josyan. Arriving at a large town, he decides to stay there and await news of his wife. While waiting, he enters a tournament and overcomes all adversaries. The prize is the hand in marriage of a young lady, daughter and heiress of a duke. Bevis agrees to wed her after seven years, if Josyan does not by then appear.

Saber, meanwhile, learns, through a dream, of Josyan’s plight. Accompanied by twelve knights, he overtakes the giant on the road to Mounbraunt, kills him, and frees Josyan. Then begins a long search for Bevis. After nearly seven years of wandering, they come to the town where Bevis resides, and Josyan is reunited with her husband and children. Presently, news arrives that Josyan’s father is in trouble: King Inor is attacking his kingdom. Bevis goes to his rescue, defeats King Inor, and reaches a reconciliation with his father-in-law. When Ermyn dies a short time later, Bevis’s son Guy becomes king of Ermony. A second empire comes to the family soon after; in another fight with King Inor, Bevis kills him and becomes the ruler of Mounbraunt. To both these countries, Bevis, by the method of rewarding converts and butchering recalcitrants, brings Christianity.

Again he is not destined to rule in peace. News comes that his uncle’s lands have been taken by King Edgar. Hurrying to the assistance of Saber, Bevis and his two sons lead an attack on the city of London in which sixty thousand men are killed. To end the slaughter, Edgar agrees that his only daughter should marry Mile, son of Bevis.

Guy, Bevis’s other son, resumes his rule of Ermony, and Bevis and Josyan return to Mounbraunt. There Josyan, stricken by a mortal disease, dies in her husband’s arms. A few minutes later the peace of death descends also on that incomparable knight, Sir Bevis of Hampton.

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