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The King of Tars | Þe king of Tars

Introduction to the Text

The King of Tars is one of the finest narrative poems written in the Middle English language, composed ca. 1330 in approximately 1,250 lines of end-rhyme verse. Its author is unknown, and the poem exists in three medieval manuscripts, the most complete of which was copied in London. It is a chivalric romance and tells a moral story through deeds of Christian valor.

The chivalric romance genre was a product of the Crusades, and religious conflict between the fictional Christian kingdom of Tars and the real-world Islamic sultanate of Damascus is the overall theme of this text. The plot develops around the daughter of the eponymous King of Tars who, initially in a position of little political power and even less bodily autonomy, wields incredible influence over both her father and the antagonist Sultan of Damascus: by volunteering to marry the sultan, she saves her father's kingdom from destruction by the sultan’s armies which had been making war upon her father following his rejection of the sultan’s pledge of betrothal on account of the sultan’s Islamic faith. This religious conflict extends into the marriage of the daughter and the sultan: because of the sultan's strict Islamic faith, the daughter of Tars must outwardly reject her Christianity while inwardly trusting in God for her deliverance. A racial conflict is introduced when their mixed-descent child is born without a face or limbs. Unable to be saved by the sultan's prayers, the daughter of Tars has him baptized by a priest, and the child is cured by (the Christian) God. The sultan then converts to Christianity and is baptized, whereupon his skin transforms from “black” to “white.” The Damascene court is ordered to reject Islam, and those who refuse Christianity are slain. The sultan reunites with the king of Tars—now as an ally rather than a mortal enemy—and the two crusade against the sultan's lesser lords who have continued to reject Christianity, killing them all. The narrative closes with peace between the kingdoms of Tars and Damascus and a prayer to (the Christian) God.

In terms of gender and sexuality, the daughter of Tars is a transcendent figure. Her maidenhood is central to the narrative's conflict, and her motherhood is crucial to its resolution. As a young woman, she saves the lives of her parents and their nobility, and through her self-sacrificing marriage, she saves the lives of her son and her husband the sultan. In terms of race and culture, she is a domesticating figure who prompts the transformation of a black Muslim into a white Christian, thereby acting as the medium through which the Islamic sultanate converts to Christianity. In effect, she renders docile the Oriental “other”: those cultures and religions which differ from Latin Christianity. The King of Tars is also a striking example of the longstanding association of whiteness with beauty, cleanliness, and purity, and of blackness with ugliness, sinfulness, and debasement. Such associations in pre-colonial times underpin current racist ideologies. Interestingly, although this text was written a continent away from its Middle Eastern setting and almost certainly by Christian author, the narrative reveals familiarity with Islamic hadith and tradition (however, it conflates Islam with the polytheism of the ancient Middle East and the paganism of the classical Roman Republic).

The King of Tars has become increasingly relevant in our times. Contemporary readers will identify themes of violent religious sectionalism, ethnic violence and racial purity, and the broad cultural reach of medieval literature. ​This romance ​has risen from obscurity to become a critical text for the study of medieval intersectionality, for which this translation has been mindfully prepared.

Introduction to the Source

The King of Tars s​urvives most completely in the Auchinleck manuscript, which is the chief textual witness to the poem. This manuscript originally contained forty-three separate works of literature, of which our poem is the third. This manuscript is itself an important document in the study of both late medieval manuscript production and in later Middle English linguistics. Paleographical analysis suggests that the manuscript was copied by several professional scribes, presumably by collaboration in a secular bookshop. The possession of the manuscript, and by extension its location, is unknown before at least 1740 despite the presence of names which suggest ownership. Its preeminent owner, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, donated it to the Advocate’s Library in 1744. It is now in the possession of the National Library of Scotland, which now hosts online electronic transcriptions and scholarly information on the manuscript and its contents.

About this Edition

The primary textual witness, the Auchinleck manuscript, is curated by the National Library of Scotland and has been transcribed on their website. This edition was the source text of my translation, and the Middle English text is reproduced with permission. A critical edition of the Middle English text edited by John H. Chandler has been recently published which includes textual material supplemented from the Vernon (or Bodleian) manuscript, an alternate textual witness. The Vernon text makes up the final twelve lines of the poem in this translation. I have noted in the translation which text has been transcribed from the Auchinleck Manuscript as provided by Burnley and Wiggins, and I have transcribed the Middle English text from the Vernon Manuscript according to literal spelling and punctuation. Abbreviations in Middle English are not abbreviated in the translation, and punctuation in the literal translation follows the general punctuation of the Auchinleck text, with adjustment made for modern English syntax. “Muslim” and “pagan” are the preferred translations of the pejorative “Saracen (sarrazin)” and “heathen,” respectively. “Muhammad” is always preferred for the pejorative “Mahoun.” “Ternagaunt” is unique to the Auchinleck MS and is translated literally, but denotes the more familiar “Termagant” (see ​The Song of Roland​ et al). Place names “Damas” and “Tabarie” are given according to contemporary English; do not confuse “Tars” for “Tours.” Titles are given according to the Middle English, as with “sire” and “dame.” The English verb “did” usually takes the place of the Middle English “(bi)gan.” Where syntactic understanding demands, lines have been translated out of order for ease of comprehension. These discrepancies will be noted in the translation. My completed translation is the first to appear in contemporary English, and is presented as a literal prose translation of the original text.

Further Reading

The Auchinleck Manuscript,​ eds David Burnley and Alison Wiggins. The National Library of Scotland. 5 July 2003. Accessed 5 March 2021. Version 1.1

  • Source text of ​The King of Tars ​and literal translation.

Chandler, John H., editor. ​The King of Tars.​ Medieval Institute Publications, 2015.

  • Critical text of ​The King of Tars ​in Middle English with modern orthography and gloss.

Hornstein, Lillian Herlands. “The Historical Background of the King of Tars.” ​Speculum​, vol. 16, no. 4, 1941, pp. 404–414.

  • Emphasizes ​The King of Tars​ as evidence of “broad contacts and cultural currents of the Middle Ages.”

Said, Edward. “Imaginative Geography and Its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental.” Essay. In Orientalism, First Vintage Books ed., 49–73. Vintage Books, 1979.

  • Argues how representations of the Middle East in European literature confine and recontextualize the Middle East and Middle Eastern people, with emphasis on Christianity and Islam.

Rajabzadeh, Shokoofeh. “The Depoliticized Saracen and Muslim Erasure.” ​Literature Compass​, vol. 16, no. 9-10, 2019.

  • Emphasizes the vulgarity and offensiveness of the term “Saracen” in contemporary translation and usage.


Based on the edition by David Burnley and Alison WigginsTranslation by Blake HahnIntroduction by Blake HahnEncoded in TEI P5 XML by Runqi Zhang

Suggested citation: Anonymous. "The King of Tars." Trans. Blake Hahn. Global Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved on July 02, 2022.