He [Escanor the Great] was the son of a giant who had married an enchantress and at his birth was born at the same time as that of Gawain, a prophecy was made known that the latter would surpass all other knights in prowess. He had a sister named Eleanor, who married Bruno the Prophet, king of a country situated on the territories of the Irish, in which country she had a son, Escanor, dubbed the Noble, the same who was wounded in the ambush designed by Girfflet. Escanor the Great, trusting in his extraordinary strength, had ordered him to search everywhere for Gawain in order to fight and vanquish him; but in the fight he initiated, Gawain was the victor and in mercy spared his adversary, whom he could have killed; ever since then Escanor had vowed a mortal hatred of him that grew stronger after the attack ordered on his nephew, which he attributed to Gawain; furthermore he sought on every occasion to get revenge for this, while for his part the Noble Escanor, king of the White Mountain, challenged Gawain, in the most outrageous manner, despite having promised his uncle who feared a defeat, to never attack Gawain; but after his recovery, his uncle knowing that great festivities were being prepared at the court of Arthur, sent a troupe of knights to Merlin’s base, in the hopes of surprising Gawain who did not hesitate to go there in search of some adventure.
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As some readers might note from the previous post, at the time Michelant wrote his introduction to Escanor it was still a widely held opinion that, due to the low level of what we consider to be ‘literacy’ even amongst the nobility, women were simply not active readers, writers, commissioners of literature or as educated as their male equivalents. Thankfully, the learning of many medieval women is becoming less and less surprising to us in academia now, and gradually in the general public too; that women were educated and took an interest in areas that, historically and traditionally in scholarship on the subject, used to be considered predominantly ‘male’ domains. Since Michelant wrote his introduction, works such as John Carmi Parsons’ biography Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England are attempting to overturn these assumptions. Certainly, female voice, competition between women, women as agents in their own romance plots, are prevalent in the text to the extent that one could wonder whether ‘Escanor’ is the right character to title this work. Works such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur have recently, in the last couple of decades, been accumulating waves of interest in its surprisingly neglected female characters – I say ‘surprisingly’, considering how long the text has been around. And we are only now hearing of discussions seeking to re-evaluate antifeminist strains in Arthurian scholarship with characters such as Guinevere. I went to a fascinating panel at the Kalamazoo International Medieval Congress just last week that contained such a paper by Elizabeth Maffetone on Guinevere’s portrayal in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. So I think it is fortuitous for Escanor that it can become more prominent and more widely discussed now, and ride on the crest of this new wave of feminist interest in medieval texts. Not least because they help us learn more about gender dynamics we often take for granted and leave unquestioned nowadays.
Michelant writes: It is a delicate task to categorise the following work, to determine the genre to which it should belong, to assign the position that it occupies in the literature of the thirteenth century and to give it a title that suits it. This last question was without doubt resolved by the manuscript, but the loss of the first folio, of which there only remains a small fragment of four verses, has caused clues to disappear that could have been found there, and leaves us not knowing if the title was simply: Escanor, Le Bel Escanor or Le Roman d’Escanor; but nothing [better] could help to determine the genre of a poem that, if by the names of places, of people, and by the deeds it recounts seems to be closely associated with the romances of the Round Table, on the other hand, by the changes introduced in the characters, the multiplicity of episodes which at each instant stop the progress of action, it appears rather to fall into the class of adventure romances, works of pure fantasy which have no rules other than caprice and the author’s imagination. The great trend of the tales of the Round Table have sparked numerous imitations, such as Le Bel Inconnu [The Handsome Unknown], Méraugis de Portlesgues, Duremar le Gallois, in which the influence of the[se] traditions persists further and has left on them an impression on them more regular, more uniform, more near to the models, which has given them a great superiority; but these qualities cannot increase but by a comparison which will allow [me] to foreground the following summary.