Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.02.13 Hanna (ed.), The Taill of Rauf Coilȝear

22.02.13 Hanna (ed.), The Taill of Rauf Coilȝear

Under review is Ralph Hanna’s edition of the fifteenth-century Scots alliterative poem The Taill of Rauf Coilȝear. This is a rather wonderful king-in-disguise or king-and-commoner poem, rich in natural imagery and descriptions of dramatic weather events, and comic scenes of mismatched social gatherings. It is generically related to many other king-in-disguise poems such as The King and the Shepherd, John the Reeve, The King and the Hermit, and the Gest of Robyn Hode, among others. This was a very popular genre of narrative in the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries, but this particular version of the story is unique in many ways. It is particularly alive to the endemic inequality between nobleman and commoner, which is arguably a central feature of the genre, but which is especially powerful here because the depth of characterization is so strong: the hero of the poem is sensitively drawn in spite of his broad buffoonery, and there is real pathos in his reaction to his kingly guest’s games of identity. Beyond the expected revelation scene, where the commoner visits his guest’s court and realizes exactly whom he has been hosting, this homely tale also links with Charlemagne romance, as the plucky Rauf encounters and battles a giant Saracen and meets Sir Roland. Moreover, the king he has inadvertently hosted during a dramatic winter snowstorm turns out to be the Great Charles himself. The language and action is lively, and worthy of further critical study, as well as more exposure in the classroom.

This “ballad-romance” finally got the edition it deserves, thanks to the meticulous labor of master editor Ralph Hanna, a scholar at the height of his powers who is clearly enjoying the work. Hanna notes that he couldn’t resist completing this project in spite of his so-called retirement, and we are lucky he couldn’t (vii). This text, only extant in one problematic printing in 1572 by Robert Lekpreuik, is likely, as Hanna observes, the product of a printing partnership between the “virulently” Protestant Lekpreuik and the scholar Henry Charteris. The printer and the antiquarian collaborated in printing several important Early Scots works (3-4). Lekpreuik’s text of Rauf has been edited and treated by other scholars over several centuries but the myriad textual problems of Lekpreuik’s edition have led many to the at least partially erroneous conclusion that the poet was not in full command of his poetic tradition. Such assumptions--based on editorial choices “unduly accommodating to the textus receptus”--serve to prejudice its readers against the poet’s artistry and deep knowledge of alliterative poetic conventions (23). Hanna makes the strong argument in his introduction and throughout his edition that the poet allows his churlish character Rauf to engage in “near-miss” alliterative lines, which serve to draw the audience’s attention to his attempts to “talk up” by using “the voice of lordliness [alliterative verse] and getting it just a little wrong” (22). Hanna pulls few punches when he points out earlier editorial pusillanimity or carelessness, and makes a strong case that perceived errors or problems in meter, alliterative rhyme, and vocabulary are often intentional on the part of the poet. However, while earlier editors may have been overzealous in “fixing” seemingly problematic alliterative lines, Hanna finds their general “lack of inquisitiveness sobering, since there appear to me a good many more problematic places in the text than have attracted past notice” (23). Hanna assiduously points out (as far as this reader can tell) all these problematic places, offers new readings, emendations when appropriate, and many clarifying textual notes. All these serve to underline his reading of the work as one that overturns “the class-bounded chivalric ethos that seems inherent to the alliterative tradition. ...This is thus a poem about...language contact and the integration of diverse modes of speech; it, carefully and with deliberation, provides a prosodic and stylistic analogue to its most overt thematic” (18). This reader was convinced by this argument and by her re-reading of the newly-edited text in this light.

Hanna’s comprehensive textual apparatus is exceptionally thorough for a text of this length. It includes a glossary, a list of proper names, textual and explanatory notes, a thorough bibliography, and of course the very helpful introduction which explains many of the choices and stances that Hanna has taken in his editorial policy towards this poem. Some treasures readers may uncover in the extensive notes include these examples chosen from among many others: the note on line 126, which contains half of the proverb “kind ought to creep where it may not go” (66). Hanna notes that previous editors have misunderstood the point of the proverb’s inclusion in Rauf--it is intended as a joke here; the note on line 803, which contextualizes the “Saracen” knight Magog’s mount’s description as a “cameill”--Hanna offers an extraordinarily elucidating and well-researched two pages of analogous instances from many other texts referring to Saracens, Gog and Magog, camels, and other loaded words in this lexical field, ultimately to note that here the word “cameill” likely points to “a mount appropriate to (dangerous and overbearing) aliens,” which are “from our perspective, recalcitrantly diverse in their originary force” (91). This is a sensitive and thorough reading of a challenging moment in this text; and finally, multiple notes that elucidate the choices made in the 1572 printing of Rauf through comparison with Lekpreuik’s team’s work on Hary’s Wallace (see intro, 24-25, and, e.g., the note to line 534). In conclusion, this edition will make a great launching pad for anyone working on a project connected with this poem since nearly all relevant work has appeared or been mentioned at some point in the critical apparatus. We must thank Hanna for his generous preparation and thorough elucidation of this fascinating text.