In the article “Marking Religion on the Body: Saracens, Categorization, and The King of Tars,” Siobhain Bly Calkin rejects the opinion of other researchers that a Saracen sultan’s change of skin color from black to white after conversion to Christianity in The King of Tars reveals the text’s straightforwardness of categorization of characters into religious and sociocultural groups by biological factors.
Instead, the author argues that this change is a comforting fantasy that provides a resolution to a chain of confusions related to categorization of Saracens and Christians in The King of Tars. Siobhain Bly Calkin also claims that the main message of this literary work is the necessity for reliable differentiation and categorization of representatives of different religious and sociocultural groups and the warning against integration of such groups.
According to Siobhain Bly Calkin, the confusion in categorization and differentiation of Saracens and Christians can be traced from the very beginning of The King of Tars. The Saracen sultan in question falls in love with the Christian princess of Tars, whom he has never seen. This is a reversal of the popular trope with a Western Christian man falling in love with an Eastern woman without seeing her. Later the sultan wants the princess to convert to Islam before marrying her. The text specifically emphasizes that Christian men would have had a similar demand for Muslim brides. But the main confusion in categorization and differentiation of Saracens and Christians happens after the princess’s proclaimed apostasy and adoption of Muslim customs and religion, although she remains a Christian in her heart. So the religious and sociocultural identity the princess demonstrates by her appearance and behavior (that of a Saracen) is different from her actual identity (that of a Christian).
Because of this confusion in categorization of religious affiliations, the misguided sultan consummates his marriage with the princess, thus committing the most tabooed act for medieval Christians – that of the religious miscegenation. Through a sexual intercourse, the Saracen sultan and the Christian princess become one, symbolizing the unthinkable for medieval readers integration of the two religions. The physical embodiment of this union is the monstrous child, born as a formless lump of flesh. Siobhain Bly Calkin argues that this child symbolizes Christianity that cannot clearly differentiate itself from other religions, thus completely losing its identity and becoming something indiscernible and unimaginable. The formless child that does not have a clear religious and – as a result – biological identity is one of the most striking examples of biology being determined by religion in The King of Tars.
The literary work makes it clear that the tragedy occurred because of the confusion in categorization and differentiation of one’s religious affiliations and warns about the horrible results of integration between different religious and sociocultural groups as a possible consequence of such confusion. Only after that The King of Tars provides, as a comforting fantasy, a straightforward vision of religion physically shaping the forms and biological features of characters and efficiently solving all the problems. The child changes his appearance to normal after the christening. The sultan’s skin changes from black to white after he converts to Christianity.
Siobhain Bly Calkin concludes the article by explaining the significance of the issues of categorization, differentiation, and integration of religious and sociocultural affiliations for the fourteenth-century English readers. He brings into focus the geopolitical situation of that period, namely the English-French and English-Scottish relations of the time and the identity issues they raised. So the author claims that The King of Tars was written as a metaphor of the contemporary identity issues of the fourteenth-century England.