Within medieval romance there appears to be an almost obsessive relationship with names and the process of naming,* in which identity is intricately tied to a name, and more often than not, a lineage. Yet, this concept becomes muddled when names are unknown, and lineage is obfuscated. Lybeaus Desconus, following in the tradition of Le Bel Inconnu, utilizes the trope of the Fair Unknown, which is dependent upon demonstrating self worth outside the strictly defined parameters of genealogy. This trope, however, functions two-fold as it challenges the system of professed chivalric meritocracy while bringing into question the very essence of what Norris J. Lacy refers to as “perceived identity” on the part of the individual knight (374).
Through the process of acquiring or bestowing a name, an identity is formed for the character receiving the name. However, the template for name creation is seemingly restricted to descriptive nouns that represent the traits for which the character is known, ** while also restricting the character’s potential for actions outside the narrowly illustrated role until the time comes when the descriptor can be replaced by a proper name. Arguably any means of referring to a person bears an implication, even when the moniker is as undescriptive as “unnamed man” that carries a variety of inferences. Much like Perceval in earlier traditions of Arthurian tales, Lybeaus enters Arthur’s court nameless as he never asked his mother for his own name (lines 28-29) and he does not know his patrilineal descent. Thus he can boast no lineage. His makeshift armor acquired roadside from a dead knight is symbolic of the ease with which he is able to form himself upon entry into Arthur’s halls. Lybeaus’s first test comes verbally via an entreaty from Arthur to state his name “withoute lesynge” (line 56), with this demand for truth evincing the seriousness of identity as proof of ability.
Further, Arthur remarks “Saw I never here beforne / No child so feyre of syght” (lines 59-60), echoing his reaction in the analogous scene of Lancelot’s arrival, and pronouncing the connection between pleasing physical appearance and inherited prowess – an association upon which the court structure depends. If nobles could boast superiority through their position within the structured hierarchy, they depend upon symbols of their excellence to justify that exact superiority. Their appearance serves as an indication of their right to dominance as well as a tell for identifying those of noble mettle. Arthur’s request for a name plays into this structure that demands a relationship between Lybeaus’s outward appearance and his inward gentry, and when such a relationship cannot be determined, in order to maintain order the association becomes assumed. In other words, physical beauty is an emblem of nobility, and must remain so, thus whoever possesses it is assumed to belong to a higher echelon. It is within this context that King Arthur “anon ryght / Lete make the chyld a knyght / On that ilke dey” (lines 85-87), and further granted Lybeaus the “first fight” (line 101) “what batell so ever it be” (line 105). Arthur must not only keep his promise to the lad, but simultaneously presuppose his victory. In other words, if an attractive appearance is related to inner nobility, and nobility breeds superior martial abilities, then beauty is equated to knightly prowess. Consequently, the greater a man’s beauty is, the more success will be bestowed upon his chivalric endeavors. Lybeaus finds himself at the crux between beauty and a perceived masculine identity, and will ultimately learn that they are far from mutually exclusive.
Male beauty within the Fair Unknown trope is the key to entry into the system. Once inside the hero must live up to the expectations placed upon him, and preserve the appearance of fairness and righteousness for which the system is credited. He must use his lack of a name, and thus absence of identity, to form one for himself that fits within the preconceived notions of what he should be. Moreover, his lack of a name engenders a fluidity of identity, allowing him to perform chivalry and knighthood from the standpoint of a blank slate. Despite that the reader knows from the first stanza that Lybeaus was conceived “by Sir Gawyne / By a forest syde” (lines 8-9), his disassociation from his patrilineage allows him to pick and choose those attributes he wishes, while essentially disinheriting his own birthright. The audience is able to view the construction and performance of identity unfold with full knowledge of the outcome.
Lybeaus, in an attempt to artificially construct his identity participates in perpetuating socially condoned mores of court, including an acceptable performance of his gender (Butler 21). However, his anonymity deprives him of a personal history within a specific gender, or any paternal role models with whom to associate, allowing for a gender fluidity that makes practicing gender altogether problematic for him. Unlike sex that has a physical form associated with it, gender embodies ideology, which in turn reproduces a commonly accepted image. However, within this reproduction there is always a slippage in which the artistic, deliberately created, image of self specifically fails to faithfully represent society’s conceptions and instead purposefully misrepresents and contorts the expected in order to elucidate decidedly more complex concerns (Jameson 75). Lybeaus, within the larger concept of the Fair Unknown, is that exact artistic representation.
With each articulation of anonymity among the disparate instances of knighthood and within chivalry, ranging from armor changes in Cligès during the eponymous hero’s demonstrations of prowess in tournament, to Lancelot’s adventures at the Castle of Dolorous Guard where he shields his face (Huot 20), or within the various iterations of Lybeaus Desoncus, the performance of gender is simultaneously the same as and different from all other instances. Such portrayals commence a dialogue between reality as seen within each text, and audience expectation that always rests upon the inevitable success of the knight. Throughout the multiple appearances of the hero within romance where his identity is unknown, an aesthetically pleasing physique is a common characteristic that functions as a credential and means of entry into various situations.
Northrop Frye succinctly notes that an exploration of identity in romance may be as undramatic as a change of clothes, or a lack of name, and does not need to enlist more profound means of obscurity (Frye 106), which has often been the case when a simple change of armor serves as a method for a complete transformation for a knight gone incognito. Nevertheless the need to classify and categorize inevitably will turn the most innocuous attributes of the self into often-reductive deconstructed emblems, resisting the hero’s negation of dichotomized standards. By not having a name it means others will attempt to find a name for him. Much like Arthur needed to uphold the structures of nobility by recognizing it within Lybeaus earlier, Aruthur continues to rely upon the link between beauty and nobility professing he will give the young man a name “For he is so feyr and fre” (line 75). Thusly the hero’s physical beauty behaves not only as a tell of his inner nobility, but also as a signifier of his place within a strict gendered understanding of social norms that ultimately begs the question as to whether beauty could be inherently masculine. However, if the newly minted “Lybeus Disconyusis” (line 80) is to represent the entirety of the Fair Unknown genre then “identity is that which signals group affiliation” (Bynum 163) and his beauty becomes a trait in common with his fellow knights, and by association with masculinity.
Accordingly, Lybeaus’s gender fluidity that is borne from his beauty creates the connection between beauty and masculinity. His “feyr and bright” (line 13) appearance coupled with “savage” (line 19) demeanor, clearly combine qualities ubiquitously allied to each sex and gender. Yet despite the unwieldy amalgamation of traits based on his sex, there is no ambiguity as to which gender he will attempt to perform – he clearly aligns himself with the other knights and sets out to join their ranks. He exhibits characteristics deemed highly masculine, and successfully completes his quests, conquering foes, slaughtering giants, and overcoming adversity along the way. As the romance comes to its conclusion he is rewarded, acquires the Lady of Synadon as a wife, and learns of his lineage proving he is Gawain’s son. The recognition scene, however, paradoxically operates in favor of and against his reputation. A precursory reading will necessarily negate this notion and situate Lybeaus’s success squarely within his own purview where he has achieved notoriety through his deeds, and it only so happened that he is also derived from noble stock. Nevertheless, the congratulatory remarks Gawain makes to Irain, the Lady of Synadon, play into the conception of nobility as exemplifying excellence above all else.
Identity in romance often follows an archetypal path, relying on the ending to resolve all issues, and more specifically to endow the hero with a greater understanding of self. As Lybeaus sidesteps the implications of the narrative’s resolution, he does not reject masculinity, but rather finds a novel approach to performing it. He does not turn down Irain’s marriage proposal or shun his duties. Similarly, he does not reject chivalry but uses his understanding of identity to alter how chivalry is enacted.
Consequently, through his hybridity he takes on the role of an Other, almost monstrous existence which constantly attempts to subvert socially acceptable ideologies concerned with conduct. Yet, it must be noted that this monstrous entity can only point out flaws in the system, but is never allowed to break them down. Lybeaus acquiesces to society’s demand for marriage as the proper marker for accomplishment and growth despite having elucidated numerous flaws inherent within chivalry, much like his predecessors had. He stems from a tradition that created Lancelot, Perceval, Tristan, Cligès, Erec, and numerous others who operated outside the boundaries of traditional masculinity that insists upon choosing a fixed mode of behavior in which masculinity is either overly present or completely absent. For these knights, courtly affairs were well balanced with martial escapades – all of which were encompassed within chivalry. They were thus better equipped to negotiate difficult situations, innately aware of which attributes to push forward at opportune moments and they essentially deconstructed the binary existence into which they would otherwise have been forced.
The duality necessary for such a shift for Lybeaus specifically becomes pronounced when looking at the distinction between private and public encounters. The narrative progresses through a series of juxtapositions between Lybeaus’s different personas, beginning with his own brief relation of the nickname his mother had given him, “Beuys,” noting his beauty. However, it was also his mother who came to know his nature first and best, realizing that despite his perhaps effeminate qualities he would turn “savage” (line 19) if allowed into the public sphere, hence she
hym kepte with alle hyr myght
That he schuld se no knyght
Armyd on no maner,
For he was so savage
And lyghtly wold outrage
To his felos in fere.
For doute of wyked lose
His moder kepyd hym close,
As worthy child and dere (lines 16-24).
In keeping him close she keeps him isolated, doubting his ability to curb his actions if left to his own devices – a battle he will wage with himself at various points in the storyline as he fluctuates between heroism, extreme bouts of violence, and moments of delicacy.
The distinctions in his character take root during his entrance scene at court as he casts off his mother’s moniker for him and accepts the one Arthur confers. His new name, Lybeaus, still functions as a reminder of his beauty, but it moves from the feminine beauty given by his mother to masculine beauty that equals chivalry. Moreso, in the presence of the lords and ladies he sheds his association with physical beauty and professes martial acumen to convince Arthur of his knightly potential, despite Arthur’s appraisal of his beauty as a link to Lybeaus’s noble nature. Once again the path from beauty to knighthood is clearly traced out. Then, in a definite act of relinquishing past associations, of which he has few, he abandons the “rych armour” (line 39) previously acquired from the dead knight and accepts the “armour bright” Arthur provides. Clearly he demonstrates an understanding of proper behavior, evincing the secondary, yet more important, quest he will undertake en route to saving the Lady of Synadon – he will learn the importance of his physique and the different situations in which he needs to utilize beauty or brawn, and to what extent. He will learn to temper the hyper masculinity expected of him with his more gentle side, and use his newly forged type of masculinity to construct his identity.
At first the separation between beauty and brawn is immediately made apparent through his comport in the public arena of knighthood where he must fight William Dolebraunche. He emerges from the encounter referred to by his adversary as “a strong knyght and sterne” (line 438), followed by his private rendezvous with Elyn in which he is described as “jentyll” (line 470). Both of these descriptions bear implications of his physical demeanor using the language of common gender stereotypes, elucidating his fluctuation that is dependent upon occasion. Over the next thousand lines he becomes increasingly more violent, bringing to fruition his mother’s earlier concerns. Yet these instances provide him with experience and increase his knowledge of self in order to better understand the moveable parts of his personality and the ways in which he can manipulate them to achieve equilibrium. His extremely violent episodes allow him the opportunity to participate in improper conduct in order to learn restraint.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that giants in medieval literature are an embodiment of masculine identity (Cohen 82), and so the alarming rate at which Lybeaus slaughters them would be indicative of his desires to eradicate stereotypical masculinity in lieu of a more nuanced version that allows modicums of leniency and passivity. Consequently, countering his series of intense confrontations, his stint with Denamowre, the lady of Love, signals his return to his previous reorientation of masculinity. He renegotiates strongly gendered constraints on the image of knighthood and chivalry by inverting the roles typically prescribed to each character. His manhood is not questioned, but nevertheless sinks to the background of his existence. During his stay, as he temporarily abandons the primary quest he undertook to save the Lady of Synadon, he is left languidly existing on Y’Il d’Or, entranced by minstrel music. In his state he has discarded his previously acquired identity. Through his distance from those with whom he wishes to identify he deviates from the course and takes up the persona that has up until now presented itself in private locales, such as his encounter with Elyn in the forest.
Ironically it is Elyn who must reconstruct Lybeaus, and relies on an appellation to his once desired state of being, beginning her entreaty by referring to him as a “Knyght” (line 1536), and reminding him of the “dyshonour” (line 1540) he will incur if he either aligns himself with the wrong type of woman, or neglects his duties within the code of chivalry. Her admonishment functions as a reminder that there are prescribed ways of performing one’s persona, and more importantly one’s gender, and neither Lybeas nor Denamowre are operating within acceptable roles. In other words, remaining her companion strips him of his manhood down to the bare requirements of physical attributes, and also changes Denamowre’s means of performing her role as she surrenders to excesses, thus she cannot serve as his reward.
However, Lybeaus’s persona, when confronted with domestic situations consistently reverts to one of passivity and a performance of masculinity outside what would socially be deemed acceptable. Once he enters Denamowre’s domestic sphere “sche proferd hym at a word/ Ever more to be hyr lord/ Of cyte and of castell” (lines 1507-1509), in a proposal later echoing the Lady of Synadon’s offer of herself “to wyfe” (line 2099). Interestingly, both of these women are initially monstrous in either their denial of traditional roles and embracing of excessive behavior, or physically as the Lady of Synadon who first comes to him in the form of a dragon/serpent/worm before retracting to her female form. Lybeaus’s identity as a knight is dependent upon his encounter with monstrosity, and he forms himself precisely by negating the monstrous, curbing it, and aligning himself to order and subdued conduct. If giants and monsters represent masculinity, and he takes no issue in eradicating them, he uses the same impetus to destroy the monstrous hybridity within himself that would otherwise prevent him from progression. This is made apparent once he enters the terrain of the Lady of Synadon and he must bring to a halt the feminine and enchanted minstrel music that on Y’ll d’Or entranced him. he resists being conquered and reclaims his masculine persona as the conqueror. It is therefore necessary for his survival to fluctuate between poles along the gender spectrum in order to constantly shift the way he presents himself. In those instances where hyper masculinity is needed he calls it forth, but then he is also able to essentially turn it off.
If identity is based within a name, then through his ignorance Lybeaus is able to navigate and negotiate his reality and the ways in which he wishes to perform his actions. In other words, he wants to be a knight on his own terms, outside the boundaries of the hyper masculine performance played out by others attempting to live up to their own names. He also wants respites from knightly conduct. It is only when his lineage is revealed that he must succumb to a “perceived identity,” conforming to notions of a restored order that demand his return to court and subsequent marriage. This reentrance to a societally structured life marks his perceived progress in which he proves his prowess and rightfully obtains a name among Arthurian knights. Then his bride is reabsorbed into chivalric culture, all but forgetting her monstrous stretch, much like the erasure performed upon Lybeaus’s earlier infractions. His chivalry is celebrated not as an attack on the fixed forms of masculinity, but understood as literal bouts with monsters and giants in which he is, as originally presupposed by Arthur, the inevitably successful hero of his own story.
* Baron, English Medieval Romance, pp. 50-60; Kreuger, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, pp. 1-5; Mehl, Middle English Romances, pp. 250-252; Putter and Gilbert, Spirit of Romance, p. 1; Weiss, Insular Romance, pp. 1-25.
** The Knight of the Cart, in reference to Lancelot; the Knight of the Lion, in reference to Yvain; The Knight of the Handome Shield, in reference to Fergus; The Lady of the Lake, who remains unknown outside her geographic parameters; the various forms of Le Bel Inconnu, and Lybeaus Desconus; The Daughter of King Pelles, who has been referred to as Elaine, among numerous other examples.
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