Sir Degare and his bat

The Middle English Sir Degare honestly reads like an episode of Game of Thrones. This anonymously composed tale of love and chivalry includes not only a young knight slaying a dragon, but also unintentional incest, bizarre weapons, surprising magic, and abusive lovers. Unlike Game of Thrones, though, these characters speak in rhyming couplets, which makes the dark content all the more disturbing. Even more alarming, much like one of Shakespeare’s comedies, everyone ends up married at its conclusion. Frankly, Sir Degare makes me a little queasy. The dragon scene, though, isolated from the rest of this happily-ever-macabre romance, really inverts some of our assumed ideas about the knight-slaying-dragon motif in medieval literature.

Some important backstory for this scene: Degare is an illegitimate child born of rape. He is raised by the sister of a hermit, christened with the name “Degarre” (“lost one”) and educated. At age 20, the “child Degare” (as the text refers to him) leaves home armed with some remnants of his birth and a large wooden bat. That’s when he meets the dragon.

Royal 10 EIV f. 18; a knight slaying a dragon, while a lion waits nearby. Unlike Degare, this knight has a sword.

Than was thar a dragon grim,

Ful of filth and of venim,

With wide throate and teth grete,

350       And wynges bitere with to bete.

As a lyoun he hadde fet,

And his tail was long and gret.

The smoke com out of his nose awai

Ase fer out of a chimenai.  

Then was there a monstrous dragon,

Full of filth and of venom,

With wide throat and huge teeth,

350      And wings bitterly beating.

He had feet like a lion,

And his tail was long and massive.

The smoke came of out his nose away

As fire out of a chimney.

When Degare encounters this fearsome beast, the monster is otherwise engaged, attacking an unnamed earl. With adrenaline pumping through his veins, Degare charges the beast with his bat. The dragon turns to face him, and Degare brings the bat down on the beast’s forehead. The dragon falls “up-so-doun” (upside down), lashing his tail. Degare heaves his bat and continues beating the writhing serpent until the fierce creature is “stille as a ston” (still as a stone).

This scene occurs about one-third of the way through the poem. Afterwards, the earl, thanking Degare for saving his life, knights our bat-toting hero, and provides him with the necessary equipment for the rest of his journey, which will include a few princesses, a Star Wars-esque battle royale, and some magic—but you’ll have to read the rest to find out exactly what happens.  

The dragon, by most scholarship, is understood as Degare’s entry into both adulthood and knighthood. As Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury write in their introduction to the story, “What better initiation into knighthood than to rescue an earl from a fire-breathing dragon, one of the most formidable enemies the medieval imagination could conjure up.” The editors also note that this individual, one-on-one combat mentally prepares Degare for the adventures to come. For the most part, I agree with this idea, but I’d invite us to think more about Degare’s overzealous attack.

First of all, Degare saves not a princess, but a grown man from the dragon. On the one hand, it serves as the ex machina to Degare’s knighthood, but on the other, it convolutes our narrative of knight saving damsel in distress. If Degare is entering into adulthood through slaying the dragon, wouldn’t it make sense for him to save a damsel, signaling his sexual maturity as well? I also wonder about what the dragon is doing in the forest, and why it is attacking the earl. Acts of violence occur in the forest throughout this text; what might that suggest about romantic heroes relationship to the natural world?

My biggest question, though, is how in the world Degare defeated a fierce, fire-breathing dragon with a glorified baseball bat. While there is a surplus of violence within this medieval lay, this scene is particularly brutal. Degare doesn’t really “slay” the dragon in a traditional sense; he bashes it until it stops moving. Part of this is because of his weapon; the bat necessitates vehement force disproportionate to the slicing action of a blade. But–does the level of viciousness in Degare’s attack cause us to respect him all the more, or does it suggest something psychologically unstable in his character? The dragon is certainly horrific in this passage, but it is truly villainous? Or, is that a title reserved for our supposed hero?

Where to read it:

Sir Degare, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, via TEAMS Middle English text series, University of Rochester. As quoted in this post, Laskaya and Salisbury also provide a modern English introduction, as found here.

The National Library of Scotland also provides a transcription of the text as it appears in the Auchinleck manuscript, accompanied by images. Find it here.