Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904
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 Warwick is like other romances of legendary English heroes such as King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, and Richard the Lionhearted. They have in common their indomitable chivalric knights, disdainful fair ladies, adventures in distant lands, brave and numerous enemies, and, finally, success in love. There are supernatural elements such as dragons and giants. Angels give warnings against vicious animals and hostile humans. When the story threatens to get dull, gigantic champions appear, such as the Saracen Amoraunt or the Ethiopian giant.
In order to enhance exoticism, the author of Guy of Warwick includes fanciful Eastern elements. The hero goes to the relief of Constantinople when it is besieged by the Sultan. Inevitably, he defeats the heathens and demolishes their idols.
Aside from its entertainment value, the story is rooted in the need of the Anglo-Norman nobility to establish a native ancestry with a strong sense of history. Early printers treated it as serious history. William Shakespeare used it as a historical guide to appeal to patriotism.
Until the end of the Renaissance, Guy of Warwick had strong appeal to all English people, for Guy was thought to have saved his country from the Danes. By the middle of the thirteenth century, he was one of the most celebrated heroes of English legend. The story was well chosen to appeal to the new audience. Guy of Warwick is also an early example of bourgeois narratives in which the hero breaks into a higher social milieu through merit.
Guy, a hero of humble birth and a secular careerist, follows a familiar romance pattern. He is scorned by the lady he loves until he has proved himself worthy of knighthood in a series of increasingly hazardous tournaments. Felice is slow to yield. Her fears are not neurotic but socially valid expectations of courtly love. Guy is a model of behavior. Guy’s dedication to his friend Tirri, for instance, is exemplary. Guy’s adventures are supposed to teach the true virtues of worldly and spiritual chivalry and the value of struggle for equity and justice within and beyond the law.
The story effectively shows spiritual development from his victories in tournaments, to victory in battle, to dedication of his life to God. The motivations for his adventures evolve from simple desire to win tournaments to hatred of injustice. In this sense, the two disparate parts of the story gain a unifying purpose: The courtly romance leads to the sainthood legend. Glory of God wins in the end—but this could not be achieved without learning spiritual lessons in worldly contexts.
When Guy reaches a new spiritual level, he has many opportunities to display it. For example, Guy becomes the instrument by which God saves England from the Danes. This victory and Guy’s death are announced by an angel, certifying him as a saint. Miracles take place near him and because of him. Some critics assume the poem was originally written by a cleric or monk who wished to glorify the family of the Earl of Warwick. To appeal to the masses, the anonymous author made the moral explicit through dramatization. The epic sustained its popularity throughout centuries because of its action-packed plot.
Moral and social lessons are skillfully embedded in wild adventures. Guy’s seemingly improbable epiphany captures the imagination. Despite its weaknesses, Guy of Warwick has remained a popular work of literature for centuries.