King Jovinian is quite unaware that his kingly status is an arbitrary social construction, and his hubris even inspires him to hope for physical immortality. Deprived of his royal garments during a hunt, however, the king discovers to his horror that no one knows or cares who he is, and later learns at the court that another man rules contentedly in his place. Not only do the king's former servitors rebuff his approaches, but his own wife fails to recognize him.
At last cast out of the castle in rags, the king visits a woodland anchorite, and wrests forth the sudden anguished prayer: "O Lord God, give me back myself again!" The monk now recognizes his former master, and lends him his habit and donkey. When the chastened Jovinian returns with these familiar symbols of humility to the foot of his former throne, he recognizes that its new occupant is an angel, who abdicates and points the moral of his experience: only acceptance of human contingency and mortality can provide hope for their transcendence.
Morris's revisions of the spare account found in the Gesta Romanorum (no. XXIII) elaborate the king's fluctuating emotions, the pathos of his false hopes, and the heedless indifference of those he encounters. He also moderates the actions of the king's retinue. In the Gesta, for example, the king's knight orders him scourged, but Morris's knight orders his servants to feed and clothe the confused beggar, and give him a night's lodging.
Another slight doctrinal shift appears in Jovinian's encounter with the anchorite: the Gesta's king makes his confession to the woodland hermit, but Morris's Jovinian prays directly to God.
"The Proud King" is the first of three didactic medieval tales Morris arranged in temporal succession early in the sequence (April, May, and June). Like both the March tales and "The Proud King'''s classical companion for April, it offers a homily of royal arrogance reproved. It is also one of only two medieval Earthly Paradise narratives (the other is "The Writing on the Image") which do not involve romantic love.
Morris's revisions of his sources essentially modulate the tale from a catalogue of reversals to a study in progress towards selfknowledge. The result is an austere stoic parable.
See also Bellas, 199-206; Boos, 82-84; Calhoun, 143-44; Kirchhoff (1990), 166-67; Oberg, 41.
A rough draft for "The Proud King" exists in B. L. Add. MS 45,306, and an earlier version of the lines 168-232 is inserted into Huntington MS 6418, ff. 94, 96, and 97. Most changes involve punctuation.
"The Proud King" is the fourth medieval tale in Morris's list of early manuscript drafts, where it follows "The Wanderers' Prologue," "The Lady of the Land," and "The Palace East of the Sun" (later "The Land East of the Sun").