Family is a central part of the narrative in Sir Degaré. Abandoned as a child, Degaré’s main purpose is in the search for his family and, by extension, a respectable place in society.
Degaré attains knighthood through physical strength, but his journey as a character is more complex than rescuing an earl from a dragon or defeating a king in combat. In showing bravery and overcoming obstacles through sheer physical power, he is lead closer and closer to a reunion with his family. However, there are unforeseen complications. For example, he gains a marriage to his own mother (unbeknownst to him at the time) in his triumph over the king in battle.
It also struck me that the story was like an inverted version of the tragedy of Oedipus. Sir Degaré marries his mother, but realizes the error in time to avoid consummating the relationship. He fights his father in the end, but ultimately does not kill him. During the inevitable confrontation between father and son, a reconciliation occurs rather than the “standard” death of the father. This is an unusual outcome for a story dealing with issues of patrimony and quasi-incest. For instance, Mordred (the illegitimate son of King Arthur in Arthurian legend), kills his own father in battle.
In light of everything that happened in the story, the family situation is, at best, confusing. How could his mother reunite with the father in the end after she had been raped by the very same “fairy knight?” It seems like a happy ending until the implications of what they all mean to each other sinks in, which is to say: how do they all relate to one another? In fact, I would characterize the ending as curiously happy considering the seemingly uncomplicated reunion of his parents in conjunction with any lingering issues of resentment he should have felt toward them for abandoning him as a child.
Throughout my experience with medieval literature, which isn’t entirely extensive, knights and figures of power have often inspired a sense of awe, by their profound courage, bravery, and prowess in battle. However, the tale of Sir Cleges, appears to completely reshape the notion I once held, in regard to knights and similar noble warriors. In other words, “Sir Cleges” demonstrates that a knight can be —and appear— virtuous without embarking on a contrived and valorous quest. In fact, it is the lack of these elements that seem to set “Sir Cleges” apart from knights in other works, like in the tale of Guigemar.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Sir Cleges’s atypical knighthood —and what makes up for his lack of daring and adventure, is the commitment to his wife and children. For example, despite being downtrodden and overcome with grief over his spendthrift ways, Sir Cleges still finds joy in playing and making “myrth” with his children and wife. Furthermore, rather than brood over his misfortune, Sir Cleges is guided by his, very rational, wife. Such an aspect of the knight seems to reveal a human side of him, rather than shrouding him in an air of preternaturalism.
In addition to his soft-side, Sir Cleges immense generosity makes the reader privy to his desire to promote happiness amongst his fellow countrymen. Judging by his imprudent spending habits, it seems as though Sir Cleges’s generosity stems out a true sense of altruism, rather than mere self-indulgence or the expectation of buying favors. Ultimately, by going into debt and losing his lands, Sir Cleges strong character shifts from over-generous knight to caring patriarch.
Finally it should not go without noting how Sir Cleges appears to break from the typical knight mold by his lack of chivalrous behavior. To put it more clearly, Sir Cleges does not swoon women, but rather he maintains a healthy and seemingly respectful relationship with his wife. And, perhaps Cleges’s role as a father and husband is meant be a twist on the role of a perfect knight.