Category Archives: Escanor

Translating ‘Biau’ and ‘Perron’

First, I would like to thank Jeffrey Heyer for his questions about my translation of the words biau and perron following the latest post of Michelant’s introduction. Below is my post in answer to his comment:

You translate the younger Escanor’s epithet as Noble. Was the original word used “Biau”? There is also a reference to “Merlin’s base” which is obviously the Fountain of Merlin where Gawain and Grifflet were ambushed in Part 8. Are there alternative translations or implications of the word here translated as “base”?

Thinking about the minute details of translation is something I love. However, it is also something that can be frustrating and, as far as I can see from work done by others, can never quite be satisfactorily resolved. As a brief explanation of my choices of my English translations, which are by no means permanent yet, I will deal with each separately because they raised different questions. With biau I was most influenced by the themes of this romance. The second is purely a linguistic issue, a case of needing to understand the etymology and definitions of Old French words much better!

In Le Roman d’Escanor the term biau is definitely one I was unsure of how to translate when first approaching Escanor’s character in the text and one I will return to. In the first instance, before I started the blog, I did indeed translate ‘Escanor li Biau’ as ‘Escanor the Beautiful. However, I began to feel by translating his name in this way I was exclusively emphasising Escanor’s superficial, physical characteristics. I decided to choose an epithet that suited the character both in the context of the genre of romance and its themes.

Escanor, so far in my reading, seems to be a solidly ‘good’ and royal character as the central king. This suits the typology of his role. In medieval romance beauty is typically an indicator of inherent goodness and/or nobility, for example as for the lost sons of Octavian and Sir Isumbras, or Gareth in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. In these romances beauty has decidedly moral and/or class connotations in the heroic trajectory that distinguishes them from other people, particularly when they are living and acting in non-courtly, i.e. non royal, spaces. In this body of literature I see beauty as a symbol or code, which contains more than one layer of meaning beyond the face value of the physical form it describes. So I have been translating Escanor’s epithet as ‘Noble’ because this choice seems thematically consistent with both his character trait and his class.

The moral connotations of the word biau were in use in different medieval contexts as well. A beau-père in Old French referred to a ‘monk’ or non-specific kind of ‘religious man’, which uses the adjective to elevate the position of ‘father’ from something ordinary and biological to the special and moral (DMF). Escanor actually becomes one, taking on a religious as well as a courtly role because at the end of Eleanor’s romance he spends a period as a hermit and his death are described at length—and in detail (see my 2015 IAS paper abstract). In brief, he is described as a paragon of moral and religious virtue and an exemplar to imitate, enabling his wife to escape the flames of hell by his heavenly ascension.

My only concern with the present choice of ‘noble’ is that for modern readers it may have more class connotations than those of moral or personal traits. Class is an inescapable part of medieval romance, so generically it works. Nevertheless, there is so much in this romance that is interesting for modern readers that I might choose a more neutral word(if such a thing exists) so that the king’s epithet is ‘Escanor the Good’. If Eleanor’s romance consistently invites its readers to empathise and identify with its central king I would like to avoid alienating his character from modern readers who are less familiar with romance as a genre the first time his name is mentioned. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary provides the definition for biau as ‘good’ as well as a much longer list of interior qualities for beautiful. An English audience contemporary to Escanor’s composition would have understood it variously as: ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘noble’, ‘virtuous’, ‘kind’, ‘helpful’, ‘wise’, ‘sensible’, ‘fine’, ‘courteous’ or ‘expert’ (AND). I need to translate more of the poem before deciding for certain; my opinion may change depending upon what other events and people Escanor is involved with in the story. Arthur and his knights are described by Caxton in his preface to Malory’s Morte as ‘good’ (CMEVP). However, knights’ acts often suggest otherwise. So before changing Escanor’s name I will wait and see what other things transpire in Eleanor’s romance…

Now, to take perron, as mentioned at the start this is purely a case of my not being familiar enough with the etymology or meanings for this word. A crucial thing I need to check is whether perron is a term Michelant used independently in his plot summary, or whether he has taken it straight from the romance itself as this would greatly affect my translation. Perron in Old French seems to mean ‘block of stone’ or some other kind of stone ‘construction’ and this meaning continues today in the modern French sense of ‘steps’ (DMF; CFD). Michelant’s choice here, as opposed to earlier, suggests a monument or purely stone landmark of some kind, whereas ‘fountain’ is a water feature. Whether it is naturally occurring or constructed would affect the meaning too—all of which distinctions have too many connotations to consider in detail here. According to the AND a perron was also a ‘mounting block’ too but I doubt it means that in this context (AND). I think Jeffrey is right that by perron Michelant must mean Merlin’s fountain. Currently I am attempting to provide an accessible version of Michelant’s introduction in English that is as faithful as possible to the 19th century French. However I need to cross-check the perron de Merlin in Escanor itself when approaching the original text on this. I chose the temporary word ‘base’ for Michelant because it implies a centre of power of some kind, which I would like to look into in the romance. If it is not a distinct place from the fountain, this must just be either an interpretative gesture on the part of Michelant or a translational inconsistency. When I discover more, I will be sure to post again about this.


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Filed under dictionaries, Escanor, introduction, Michelant, names, Old French, scholarship, translation

Paper Abstract: International Arthurian Society Conference 7-9 September 2015

Mourning one’s partner in Arthurian romance: the eremitic withdrawals of Escanor and Guenever in Le Morte Darthur

Self-imposed silence or withdrawal from the courtly sphere in response to emotional trauma is a literary phenomenon seen frequently in medieval romance. This paper will explore two examples of withdrawal to an eremitic space after the death of a partner in Arthurian texts and how this acts as an expression of interiority, or subjectivity. Guenever’s withdrawal to a nunnery in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is a much-discussed action, due to the blame she receives for the fracturing of the Arthurian fellowship in the Morte as well as, traditionally, in scholarship. I would like to compare this episode with a mourning process in Le Roman d’Escanor, a thirteenth-century romance in French. In this text, Escanor’s wife dies at the end of the narrative. The scene describes various rituals enacted by Escanor, which reveal a deep attachment to his wife as well as representing an example of publicly demonstrated masculine emotion. This paper will consider the role of culpability and gender in the way grief is expressed and perceived by the community, as well as exploring how the model of a retreating or mournful monarch is used as method of narrative closure.


Filed under analysis, comparative studies, conferences, Escanor, literature, Malory

Names and Naming

Christopher W. Bruce’s The Arthurian Name Dictionary is a good reference for establishing the geographical locations of some of the lesser-known characters and places in Arthurian landscapes from any time period. There are two men called ‘Escanor’ in Bruce’s list: ‘Escanor the Handsome’ and ‘Escanor the Large’. The former is the Escanor first mentioned in this text (corroborated by Norris J. Lacy’s resource, see below), as he is described ‘Escanors, cil de la Montaingne’ (line 207) and Bruce summarises:

King of the White Mountain and nephew of Escanor the Large. Gawain defeated him in combat after Escanor tried to abduct Sir Girflet. Consequent of this defeat, Gawain obtained Escanor’s horse, Gringolet, which had been given to Escanor by his lover, the fairy queen Esclarmonde. Later, Escanor wrongly accused Gawain of his cousin’s murder. Gawain at first refused to fight him, so Sir Galantivet, Gawain’s squire, ambushed and defeated Escanor. When Escanor and Gawain finally met in combat, Gawain had the upper hand and would have killed his opponent, but a fairy named Felinete, who had once helped Gawain, interceded and convinced Gawain to spare Escanor’s life. The two knights reconciled and became friends. Escanor retired to a hermitage after his wife died (171).

Escanor does not have a full entry to itself in The Arthurian Encyclopedia by Norris J. Lacy, but it contains a useful entry on the author, Girart d’Amiens.

GIRART D’AMIENS, who also wrote Méliacin, is the author of Escanor, a romance of nearly 26,000 lines dated to ca. 1280. It may have been presented in 1279 to Eleanor of Castile. One of the two main plots concerns Kay, who falls in love during a tournament with Andrivete, daughter of Canor of Northumberland. Kay, however, returns to court without confessing his love, and Andrivete narrowly escapes being married for political motives by her uncle to someone of inferior social status. In the other plot, Gauvain is accused by Escanor le Beau of the murder of a cousin. Gauvain hesitates to defend himself against the accusation, and Gifflet’s brother Galantivet defeats the accuser. In the meantime, Escanor le Grand, uncle of Escanor le Beau, captures Gifflet when he is unable to take Gauvain. Gauvain finally defeats Escanor le Beau and the two are reconciled.

Although much of the narrative is formed by stock motifs, the author does depart from convention in his portrayal of Kay as a timid lover and Gauvain as somewhat of a coward. An aura of religiosity pervades the end of the romance. Much of the plot hinges on necromancy and the supernatural, and the influence of the prose romances, especially the Prose Tristan, is particularly strong. Composed during the same period, Escanor has much in common in terms of narrative structure and treatment of subject matter with the romance of Claris et Laris (236).

Obviously, the majority of information about the plot cannot be covered in this kind of summary, but it makes me wonder if, as is so common in medieval romance, the plot is made up of interlaced narratives and multiple strands, why was the romance named after the knight Escanor? It raises interesting questions about who is the hero or heroine of a multi-protagonist romance, and to what extent the title influences the direction of criticism on any given text. Heinrich Michelant’s edition of Escanor contains a much lengthier summary of the plot and some thematic issues, which I intend to translate into English and post later.


Bruce, Christopher W. The Arthurian Name Dictionary. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1999.

Girart d’Amiens. Escanor. Ed. Heinrich Michelant. Tübingen: Bibliothek des literarischen Vereins in Stuttgart, 1886.

Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1986.

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Filed under dictionaries, Escanor, names, summaries