The power of the medieval Solomon-magus and Solomon-auctor revealed through the Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Tale of the Sankgreal

Karen R Knudson, Purdue University


The Solomon-auctor and Solomon- magus traditions begin in the biblical record, and attribute authority to Solomon not only through his ever-familiar wisdom but also his authorship of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs; his administration and craftsmanship in the building of the Temple; his peaceableness as king; his understanding of the natural world; and his weakness for women. The context for these traditions in the Middle Ages illuminates, in particular, the work of Solomon- auctor and Solomon-magus in the Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Malory’s Tale of the Sankgreal, which is the focus on this paper. The auctor tradition, based primarily on Solomon’s kingship and authorship, was reinforced through orthodox Christian sources of the ancient and medieval time periods. The pedagogical exercise embodied in the three texts attributed to Solomon—the penitent shall progress from learning to live wisely in the world (Proverbs) to learning to disdain for worldly entanglements (Ecclesiastes) to embracing union with Christ (Song of Songs)—began with the earliest Christian commentary. Intrinsic to the idea of progress from Proverbs to Song of Songs is the assumption that certain texts should not be available to the lewd. The magus tradition is based on the early association of Solomon with a preternatural understanding of the world. This tradition was carried forward by apocrypha and texts of ritual magic, and influenced vernacular works like the Cursor Mundi and Solomon and Saturn Prose Pater Noster Dialogue in the milieu of medieval texts. In the Canterbury Tales, two brief glimpses of Solomon- magus shine through to show Chaucer’s awareness of the tradition, but Solomon-auctor is the figure that dominates. In Melibee, where Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are Prudence’s primary proof-texts, Prudence and, eventually Melibee, learns to live wisely in the world, but the appearance of Solomon-auctor raises questions about methods of interpretation and the bases of authority. These issues move to the forefront in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, in which Solomon himself becomes the Wife’s proof text, and in the Merchant’s Tale, in which January displays the failure of the lewd to appropriately interpret love as represented by the Song of Songs. The Parson’s Tale offers the paradoxical truth that the only good interpreter is the one who recognizes, and pays penance for, his own sin. Solomon-magus, and his association with secret knowledge and supernatural power, illuminates the function of the pentangle and the green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Solomon- auctor provides narrative impetus for Gawain’s journey. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be read as a narrative test of learned magic. Gawain is armed specifically as a Solomonic knight to prepare him to meet his mysterious, supernatural foe. Solomonic texts of ritual magic, like the Ars notoria, provide the appropriate training for a knight to meet the mystery of the Green Knight: Wild Man, demon, faerie. The pentangle, and learned magic, turns out, ultimately, to be powerless, and Gawain’s battle is revealed as an internal one instead of external. The “real” Solomon and his legendary failure remind Gawain that salvation is only through repentance. The double tradition of Solomon-magus-auctor is at work in Malory’s Tale of the Sankgreal throughout. Galahad is the ultimate Solomonic knight: He is Galahad-magus as he completes the quest for the Holy Grail through his singular, supernatural traits, and he is Galahad-auctor as he fulfills the pedagocial pilgrimage from Proverbs through the Song of Songs. This interaction explains one of the mysteries of the character of Galahad because he is presented simultaneously a unique character in romance history—one who can never be imitated in his ability to heal, for instance—and as an example of holiness for his brethren (and Malory’s readers) to emulate. This study lays the groundwork for a twenty-first century understanding of the complexity of a Solomon reference in a medieval text. The powerful traditions of Solomon-auctor and Solomon-magus make King Solomon an attractive figure for a wide variety of authors to use to highlight issues of authority and interpretation regarding the operation of the supernatural in the natural world.




Armstrong, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|Biblical studies

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