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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIV. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century. II

§ 7. Huon of Bordeaux

In Arthur of Little Britain and Huon of Bordeaux, Berners took up the prose tale, or romance, ofthe ordinary medieval type, most of the incidents in which are of the wildly absurd order. But the favourite of the two, Huon, is remarkable for its unusual pair of heroes. The uncouthness of Charlemagne and his court is in odd contrast to the conventional pictures of Arthur, and the whole romance is treated on a different and lower level, whether because it represents a fourteenth or even thirteenth century story, or because some folk-tale influence had been at work upon it. Huon himself is apt to remind us of the ignobly born simpleton heroes of German peasant story, and he is a bad simpleton. He runs headlong into danger, not from extravagance of knightly daring but out of stupidity, or greed, or childish impatience. He complains querulously, tries to deceive his benefactor Auberon and has no notion of either gratitude or morality. For instance, Auberon has warned him never to tell a lie, but, so soon as the paynim porter of Babylon asks whether he be a Saracen, “Yea,” replies Huon promptly, and then reflects that Auberon will surely not be angry at such a lie, “sen I did it not wilfully but that I forgat it!” It is only when he has committed some offence against the fairy that Huon prides himself upon being a Christian: his Saviour ought to shield him from the wrath of Auberon. And yet this perjured simpleton is incongruously represented as the only creature “sinless” enough to be able to drink from Auberon’s magic horn.

Auberon himself is half-way to being the fairy of poetry; “a dwarf of the fairy” is he, child of a fairy mother, “the lady of the isle,” and a mortal father, Julius Caesar (who, in the Middle Ages, obtained the same magical reputation as Vergil). Auberon, therefore, is mortal, he can weep, he falls sick; but he is never of more stature than a child of three years, and his magical powers are so absolute that he has only to wish, and his will accomplishes itself. He knows all that passes afar as he rules in his fairy capital, Momure, for he is a civilised fairy with a knowledge of politics. He is a much better Christian than Huon, and, when he dies, his corpse is buried in an abbey and his soul is carried to heaven by an innumerable company of angels.

Huon of Bordeaux was so popular as to obtain a reissue in 1601, modernised as to wording and adorned as to style. As Berners wrote it out, the English is extremely straightforward, and bears hardly more trace of the graceful fluency of his Froissart than of the novel experiment its translator was shortly to assay.