There are many earlier versions of the King of Tars story, and to my knowledge, none have yet been translated into modern English (or any other modern language). Many of the earlier versions were gathered in Lillian Herlands Hornstein, “New Analogues to the ‘King of Tars,’” The Modern Language Review 36. 4 (1941): 433–442, but she translates almost nothing, paraphrasing only the medieval German, but otherwise figuring that we don’t need translations of the Latin or Italian. Since the 1940s, knowledge of languages among humanities scholars, at least in English-majority countries, has diminished.
As you will read over the next few weeks, the Middle English version of the King of Tars features two miraculous transformations. When a Christian princess gives birth to a son from her Black, Muslim Husband, the child is born as a featureless lump. The princess convinces her husband to have the child baptized, and it immediately takes on a human form:
Feirer child might non be bore —
It no hadde never a lime forlore,
Wele schapen it was, withalle; (775-777)
(No prettier child could have been born. It was not lacking any limb, and moreover, it was very well shaped)
And then the Sultan, her husband, decides to convert to Christianity. He’s baptized, and when he receives a Christian name, he transform too: he turns white. And then he converts (this sequence of events, by the way, is very important to Cord Whitaker’s important reading of the story in his Black Metaphors: thanks to him for pointing this out).
Crucially, earlier versions of the King of Tars story tend to have only the one transformation, the child’s. Nor do these earlier versions, to my knowledge, say anything about the skin color of the Muslim king.
Hornstein’s article lists the various forms the child has at birth: it’s born hairy; or half hairy (“ex una parte totus pilosus, ex altera levis fuit”: entirely hairy in one half, and the other, smooth); or human in the upper half, and animal in the lower; or white on its left side, black on its right (when the child’s baptized, it loses its black coloring); or a formless lump. The Sultan’s Blackness, and his transformation into a White Christian ruler is, so far as I know, the Middle English text’s own addition to the story, probably taken from something like the transformation of the monstrous “Ethiopians” from the Cursor Mundi. I’m not sure if there’s any scholarship yet that grapples with the Middle English version adding these two elements to the story: neither Whitaker’s book, nor Heng’s Invention of Race in the Middle Ages do.
I’m offering two translations below, both of them probably pretty rough. If other scholars write me to suggest corrections, I’ll aim to update. But I thought it was more important for you to have this now than for me to labor over getting it all precisely correct.
First, from the second version of the two accounts in the Anglo-Latin (that is, Latin written in England) history the Flores historiarum (Flowers of History). My translation comes first, and then the Latin original:
Also in that year, the King of Tars and the King of Armenia and the King of the Georgians fought, having assembled a great army, which was 10,000 soldiers, and 4,000 knights, praying to Christ for help against the Muslims. And of the Muslims, the enemies of Christ, there were cut down, at Aleppo, Alachemala [wherever that is?], Gaza, and Damascus more than 24,000 Muslims in vengeance for the blood of Christians, spilled out at Acre and Tripoli and other sacred places. However, among the Tartars, as was reported, a miraculous conversion came to be. Cazan, the brother of the Great King of the Tartars, a pagan, fell in love with the daughter of Christian King of Armenia, and asked her father to give her to him in marriage; but the king of Armenia did not want to agree to the request unless he put away of the error of his paganism and became Christian. But he, being superior in manliness, riches, and power, threatened him with war. And the other, accepting the council that it was better to marry than to fight, agreed to the request, asking his daughter for her agreement. She wanted to spare the crowd, and for the safety of her people, she wished to be another Esther, offering herself up. Trusting in God, she granted the request willingly. And then they produced between them offspring of the male sex, but it was found to be shaggy and hairy, like a bear. When it was presented to the father, he said it wasn’t his, and he commanded that it should be burned up at once in fire. But the mother spoke against this, and asked that the infant be given to her. When she received him, she rejoiced greatly, and commanded that he be baptized, and as soon as he was immersed three times in the holy baptismal font, all the hairiness fell away from the infant, and he appeared as a smooth and very beautiful boy. Seeing this, the father believed [i.e., he converted to Christianity] and all his household.
Sub eodem quoque anno, rex Tharsis et rex Armeniae et rex Georgeanorum, congregato maximo exercitu, qui fuerunt decies centena milia et quadraginta milia in equis, invocato contra Sarracenos Christi adjutorio, dimicarunt. Et caesa sunt ex Sarracenis, inimicis crucis Christi, apud Alapiam, Alachemala, Gazaram, et Damascum plusquam ducenta et quadraginta milia Sarracenorum in ultionem sanguinis Christianorum, effusi apud Aeon et Tripolim et coetera loca sancta. Horum autem Tartarorum, ut fertur, miraculos conversionis exstitit causa. Regis Tartarorum magni Cassani frater, paganus, adamavit filiam regis Armeniae Christianam, quam a patre petiit in conjugem sibi dari; rex autem Armeniae noluit adquiescere petenti, nisi gentilitatis deponeret errorem et fieret Christianus. At ille praevalens viribus, divitiis, et potentia, sibi intulit minas belli. Et alter, accepto consilio, quod meliores sunt nuptiae quam pugnae, annuit postulatis, quaerendo assensum puellae. At illa parcere volens multitudini, et pro salute gentis suae, velut Hester altera, se offerens, confisaque in Domino, ultro cessit. Denique suscitat inter eos prole masculini sexus, inventus est hispidus et pilosus, velut ursus. Quo patri oblato, dixit non esse suum, quemque statim jussit igne cremari. Mater vero remittens et contradicens, sibi petiit infantem dari. Quo accepto, multum gavisa, jussit ipsum baptizari, et statim post trinam immersionem in sacro fonte, cecidit omnis villositas de infante, et apparuit lenis et pulcherrimus puerorum. Hoc viso, credidit pater et domus eius tota.
And now, from the Cursor Mundi, lines 8069-8132. King David and his retinue find the three wands that Moses brought with him out of Egypt. These wands will eventually form the cross on which Jesus will be crucified. While they carry the wands ceremonially, they meet a group of monstrous ‘Ethiopians’ who are a kind of blemmyae:
Attractive was that great procession,
There was then many a beautiful noble,
They went forth in the large street,
Four Muslims met with the King
Black and dark as lead they were,
Much riches they bore with them,
that no man had ever seen before that hour,
Such repugnantly shaped creatures.
Their black hue was strange,
And in their torsos they bore their mouths,
long and dangling their brows were
and hanging all about their ears.
Their mouths were wide, their eyes broad,
Un-beautiful were their faces made!
In their forehead stood their sight,
But they could not look upright,
Their hairy arms were hidden with wrinkles
And were set to the elbows in their side,
Crumpled knees and a bulge on their back.
The king wondered on them and spoke,
The king’s company looked on them,
and could not resist laughing.
They set themselves down on their knees,
And greeted the king most graciously,
And they said to the king in the following manner ,
“Sir, saved be you now and forever,
let us see that which you bear,
For, God willing, we will come face to face with it,
Show us the salvific tree, Sir King,
For, without fooling, we know very well,
He shall suffer pain on that tree
the King of Bliss and [or ‘for’ on one manuscript] all his people.
Show us the tree that all shall fear,
For therefore are we come here.
You have looked enough at us,
Our repugnant shape, as you see.
For hideous we are, and all hideous
is the wicked man’s soul and body both.
The branches (sticks? planks?) three within the root
Against all evils they have the cure,
they shall heal us before your sight,
All our fairness with grace and power.
On them shall raise the ransom,
and till all plead for their pardon,
To them that ask mercy for their sin
Cry out ‘Jesus, of David’s Kin;’
let us prove the branches’ power.”
With this the King drew out of his glove,
the branches of such great bliss,
He held them to them for them to kiss.
They kneeled and kissed them quickly
Immediately their hide became like milk,
And they had the hue of noble blood,
And all their shape was turned new.
They had nothing preventing them from having human limbs
For instead of what they were, the very same [human limbs] were [now] present.
Before the king then they fell down,
And the very same folk made their prayer.
All that saw that sight,
wept for joy and thanked the Lord.
The riches that they bore with them,
they offered them in that very place,
and again they took their way,
and went home to Ethiopia.