The Boy and the Mantle + King Arthur and King Cornwall: A Second-hand Embarrassment of Monarchs

This month is a double edition, since one of the ballads I’m talking about is a bunch of fragments pieced together with guesswork. For both stories, I’m referring to The Oxford Book of Balladsedited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, first published in 1910, reprinted in 1941 by Clarendon Press. Brace yourselves to lose any remaining respect you had for Arthur.

We’ll start with ‘King Arthur and King Cornwall’. Though the ballad is incomplete thanks to damage done to the original material, it appears to be in the mythic vein of ‘Arthur and companions roam about picking fights’. Arthur is boasting about his beautiful round table when Guinevere cuts him off at the knees by remarking that she knows of a much finer table, but she’s not telling him where it might be found. “You shall never gett more of me,” is her final word. Arthur vows he will not sleep until he’s seen that table. Evidently the breakdown of their marriage has reached the point where they are getting passive aggressive (emphasis on aggressive) about interior decorating.

Arthur summons four knights to accompany him on his quest: Gawain, Marramiles, Tristeram (Tristan) and Bredbettle, the Green Knight.  Off they go together, searching far and wide. For, let me emphasise this, a table. A really nice table. At length, nearing their own lands again, they come to a large castle and Arthur bribes the very well-dressed porter with a ring to give him the inside scoop on the castle’s owner. The porter is proud of King Cornwall – ‘there is none soe rich as hee; neither in christendome, nor yet in heathendom’ – and his description piques Arthur’s curiosity. He hands over another ring and sends the porter to ask for a night’s lodging on his behalf.

The company of knights are permitted entry. Based on some remarks they make, King Cornwall guesses where they have come from and asks if they have heard of King Arthur. The man himself answers, not inaccurately, that he has in fact met Arthur.

Cornwall reminisces about how some time back, he hooked up with Arthur’s very beautiful wife and had an equally beautiful daughter with her. Arthur, teeth probably gritted, acknowledges the girl’s beauty. Cornwall goes on to boast of the other very fine things in his castle, all of which he is certain are better than Arthur’s. He is not an incautious man, however. When he dismisses the companions to bed, he takes the precaution of hiding the ‘Burlow Beanie’ – a seven-headed household spirit – in the room, to eavesdrop.

Arthur is in a bit of a state. This is, after all, the man who went on a quest over A TABLE. He swears his enmity toward King Cornwall. Gawain thinks this is a bad idea but signs up anyway, which sums up everything you need to know about him as a person. When Arthur bristles at his perception of Gawain’s cowardliness (because not wanting to pick a fight is as bad as fleeing from one, in Arthur’s view) Gawain retaliates with his own vow, to steal away King Cornwall’s daughter, whom I hope is significantly older than the math of the story makes her sound.

Burlow Beanie betrays himself with an unguarded movement and the knights go on the attack. Bredbeddle plunges into battle with the spirit, but one by one each of his weapons are broken until all that he has left is a text from the Bible. With this scripture, he overcomes Burlow Beanie and returns to the other knights. Burlow Beanie obeys Bredbeddle’s every order, magically producing anything the knights require: horse, horn, powder for the horn, a sword. Bredbeddle hands the sword to Arthur and tells him to go cut off Cornwall’s head with it while he lies in bed.

Yeah, I am feeling that honour and chivalry.

No more of the story remains. It seems likely that Arthur’s knights gained the upper hand, maybe even gained a superior table! But do we care about that? Really, guys, did you consider IKEA?

Somehow, things get worse in ‘The Boy and the Mantle’.

In the month of May, when the court is gathered at Carlisle, a beautifully dressed child comes to greet the king and queen and offers a cloak as a gift to Guinevere. There is, however, a caveat to the gift – it will not fit a woman who has ‘once done amisse’. A wary Guinevere dons the mantle and it promptly shrivels away. She flings it down furiously, cursing the weaver who made it and whoever sent it to the court. “I had rather be in a wood, under a green tree,” she snarls, “than in King Arthur’s court, shamed for to bee.” She’s far from alone in that sentiment. The same thing happens to the wife of every knight present. Only the wife of Sir Craddocke manages to wear the garment without mishap. When it starts to wrinkle around her, she confesses aloud to kissing her husband once before their marriage and the lie detector mantle settles down.

The strange child is not done with his judgemental errand, however. He brings the head of a boar before the knights and claims that no cuckold can carve it. Only Craddocke has any success applying his knife to it. Last of all, the boy produces a red-gold horn and declares that no cuckold can drink from it. Why anyone would take this test after the previous unwelcome discoveries everyone has made about their marriages, I cannot possibly guess, but they do, which means most of the knights at court end up with tell-tale splashes all over their clothes. Once again, it’s Craddocke with his perfect relationship who is able to pass the test and drink from the horn.

The message I am getting from this story – undoubtedly not the one that would have been seen by the original audience – is that practically every woman in Arthur’s court is unhappy in her marriage and not one of the knights have sat down for a good long think about why that might be. Could it possibly be because their husbands are busy running about the country chasing down fancy tables? This is pure speculation on my part.

I’ll also note that in Le Morte d’Arthur, it is Morgan le Fay sending these sort of messages to Arthur’s court. I have decided to fully headcanon that the child in this ballad is one of her people, sent to cause trouble for her brother and his knights. As usual, however, they made quite a lot of trouble for themselves on their own. They simply had not realised it yet.

And that, my friends, is how kingdoms fall.

Yvain, Part 2: Lions and Knights and Ladies, Oh My!

In our previous adventures with Yvain, son of Morgan le Fay, he wrecked a forest, killed a knight, married the knight’s widow, royally screwed up his relationship with her, abandoned himself to despair in the wilderness, then got better. He’s a walking talking car crash. Where to next?

He’s back in a forest, which is a landscape that historically does not bode well for Yvain. This time he sees a lion under attack from a flame-breathing serpent, and decides to intervene on behalf of the lion, in doing so making himself a brand new bestie. Knight and lion travel onward, hunting and camping together, until they come to the spring and slab where Yvain began his adventures. He passes out from the emotion of the moment, landing on his sword; it cuts through his hauberk and nicks his neck. The lion, seeing the blood, believe Yvain to be dead and goes into a frenzy of grief that is reminiscent of Laudine’s ferocious mourning. The lion is suicidal with grief for Yvain; meanwhile, Yvain is suicidal over losing Laudine, and is lamenting over his mistakes aloud.

There is a chapel nearby, and a woman happens to be locked up inside it, with a front row seat to this psychological rollercoaster. When she greets Yvain, he asks who she is, and she calls herself ‘the most miserable person alive’, an answer which enrages him. Doesn’t she know only HE is allowed to be miserable? He proceeds to mansplain grief to her. She points out that he can go wherever he wants to deal with his feelings, while she is trapped inside the chapel, due to be burned tomorrow on a charge of treason. You might think this would give her an edge in the Unhappiness Olympics, but no, Yvain says that she is luckier than himself because she can yet be saved. The woman tells him that there only two men who love her enough to come to her rescue: Gawain and Yvain himself.

This is when Yvain connects the dots and realises he’s talking to Lunete.

Turns out Laudine held a grudge about Lunete’s match-making, and her seneschal took the opportunity to rid himself of Lunete and her clever schemes for good. With the court against her, Lunete declared that she would be defended in combat by one knight against three. She thought Gawain would come to her aid, but hey, do you remember how Meleagant captured Guinevere? And Gawain went after her? Yeah, so he’s busy chasing a lovesick Lancelot at the moment and has no idea Lunete’s even in trouble. Lunete has a pretty low opinion of Arthur after that screw-up, incidentally. Upon hearing her story, Yvain is fired up in her defence, dismissing Lunete’s concerns about the danger of the duel. He only requires her to keep his identity secret.

He goes to find himself proper lodgings and goes to a nearby castle. The people in the castle politely ask if maybe he could leave the lion outside? He flatly refuses. The people in the castle are torn between an unsettling joy at Yvain’s presence and loud unexplained wailing that makes Yvain himself look emotionally stable. This volatility is eventually explained – a giant named Harpin of the Mountain has demanded that the lord of the castle hand over his daughter. Harpin has been pillaging the lord’s lands, has killed two of his sons and is going to kill the other four tomorrow unless some challenger manages to defeat him. He doesn’t even want the lord’s daughter for himself, he intends to toss her to his servants for their amusement. The lord was hoping to appeal to Gawain – who is his brother-in-law! In this version, Gawain has a sister, I like that – but of course Gawain is currently out of reach, so all the problems he’d usually be travelling about resolving are turning into fatal crises.

Yvain explains his scheduling conflict. As long as the giant shows up before noon, he’s cool to fight, but he can’t risk abandoning Lunete. And of course, the giant does not show up the next morning! Yvain is leaving people in the lurch no matter what, and none of it is his fault, but the lord’s terrified daughter is literally begging him for her life in the name of her uncle. So Yvain delays. The giant at last appears, driving knights before him with a stake while a servant flogs them. He shouts to the lord of the castle to send out his daughter, to be raped by the giant’s followers. I am SO GLAD for the narrative inevitability of his coming to a nasty end.

Yvain and his lion ride out, and knight and giant hack at each other viciously. With the lion providing vital distraction, Yvain seizes his chance to run the giant through. GOOD ON YOU, YVAIN.  When the grateful family ask who they have to praise for their salvation, Yvain calls himself the Knight with the Lion. He doesn’t stop to rest from the battle, he has another appointment to keep, and he’s cut the timing about as close as he can – the pyre is lit when he arrives, Lunete tied up beside it. Yvain is distracted by the presence of Laudine, but also hears her ladies talking amongst themselves of how Lunete’s influence protected them, and sees Lunete herself on her knees, facing execution, and that sharpens his focus. The seneschal and his brothers are the knights set against Yvain and he gives them a chance to withdraw their accusations. The seneschal refuses, but insists Yvain fight alone, without the lion, even as the seneschal’s brother prepare for the fight.

Yvain is not messing around. He knocks the seneschal unconscious and keeps the other two at bay, and things look good for him for a little while – but then the seneschal recovers enough to rejoin the fight and the battle turns against Yvain. This is when the lion decides, screw these human rules! It lunges into the fray, ignoring Yvain’s commands. The knights turn on the lion; seeing his pet under attack, Yvain finds the strength to overcome all three and they are forced to surrender.

Lunete is acquitted. Laudine has the defeated trio burned on the pyre instead, which is – wow, her version of justice is brutal – and reconciles with her handmaiden, then presses Lunete’s unnamed defender to stay and rest. He refuses, saying he cannot stay until his mistress forgives him, and instead of giving his real name, calls himself the Knight with the Lion again. He departs, carrying his injured lion. He takes lodging in the first house he comes to, which is fortunately home to sisters who are skilled at healing. They care for Yvain and his lion until both are well enough to leave.

While Yvain is recovering, the lord of Noire Espine is dying. After his death, the elder of his two daughters claims his full estate, leaving her sister completely without inheritance. The younger sister determines she will get help from Arthur’s court so the elder hastens to get there first and manages to convince Gawain to take up her cause. Yeah, he’s back now! He asks her to keep their arrangement a secret, or he will not fight for her. When the sister arrives at court and asks for his support, he gently turns her away, so she goes direct to the king. He’s sympathetic to her plight. He allows her forty days to find a champion to take on the matter, which – look, sending random men to hack at each other with pointy sticks is no way to establish legal precedents. Having failed to recruit Gawain, the younger sister seeks out the Knight with the Lion, who has a reputation for defending desperate women.

The sister and her network of friends search far and wide. A maiden who has taken up her cause travels into bad weather and takes lodging at the castle of the family Yvain saved. They direct her to the road Yvain took and she hears the story of how he just defeated three knights. The maiden asks Lunete if she knows where Yvain can be found, and Lunete sends her as far as she can. Coming to the house where Yvain is resting, the maiden is told he literally just left, and she gallops in pursuit. At last she comes upon her quarry. She explains her quest to him, and he accepts her friend’s cause.

On their way back to where the disinherited sister is staying, they enter the fortified town of Pesme Avanture, where everyone seems determined to drive them away. Yvain calls them depraved, but an elderly lady explains to him that the castle of Pesme Avanture is no lodging place for honourable people and it will turn out badly for Yvain if he goes there. So obviously he goes there. Knights are like cats, naturally contrary.

The woman was 100% right though. The castle is a sweatshop. Hundreds of girls are trapped in the great hall, filthy and half-starved even as they sew with the finest fabrics. When a horrified Yvain demands to know what all this means, one of the captives tells him the whole sorry story. The castle is under the control of two brothers, half-human and half-goblin, who met the eighteen-year-old King of the Isle of Maidens in battle and the king lost. In order to save his life, the king swore to send thirty girls to serve the brothers for each year of their lives, or until they were defeated in combat. The girls are forced to sew constantly to make their masters rich, and watch in despair as their would-be champions die one after another. This sure reads as a very pointed criticism of exploitative employment, good on you Chrétien.

As Yvain ventures further into the castle, he finds a beautiful garden and a scene of familial bliss that is rendered obscene by its context. A lord is seated with his lady, listening to their beautiful teenage daughter read aloud. All three welcome Yvain and his companions, showing them every courtesy, but in the morning the lord confesses that he is forced to keep to the brothers’ ‘custom’ and will not allow Yvain to leave – not that Yvain has the least intention of leaving. If Yvain loses the coming battle, he dies. If he wins, he will have the lord’s daughter as his wife. Neither appeals to him.

He rides forth to face the brothers, who are described as ‘hideous and black’. Once again it is unclear if this is racism or intended as an indicator of their supernatural origins, but my money would be on option C, that it’s a combination of both. The brothers, for all their power, refuse to fight with the lion on the field, and Yvain locks the poor beast up before beginning the battle. This is a mistake! He is hard-pressed and beginning to fail when the lion busts out to defend him and the battle is won, with one brother killed and the other very seriously wounded, begging for mercy.

The lord of the castle, who I firmly believe was benefiting from the entire arrangement, proclaims himself delighted by Yvain’s victory and offers up his daughter. Yvain is all, thanks but no thanks, I will take the three hundred prisoners please. The lord is very offended, but Yvain stands firm and the girls are all set free to go where they wish. Maybe they will overthrow their rubbish monarch; I bet Lunete would have a few ideas on how to go about that. Yvain and the maiden, who has been floating about in a state of narrative limbo during the time in the castle, head off to find the disinherited sister and deal with her problems.

The elder sister is already feeling triumphant. Not only has she signed up Gawain to fight for her – though in disguise, which implies he knows her cause is dodgy and is doing this anyway – her sister’s champion has yet to even show up. Arthur has taken an active dislike to her by this point and Guinevere is squarely on the younger sister’s side. When the younger sister does arrive, she seeks reconciliation once again and is denied. Yvain and Gawain do not recognise one another as they face off, smashing into each other without a word. The battle goes on for hours with no sign of either gaining the upper hand. As night falls, the combatants are forced to rest. Both knights are wary and wondering, no longer wanting this fight. Yvain is the first to speak, so hoarse that at first Gawain doesn’t recognise his voice; once they finally know one another, the battle is well and truly over. Yvain is determined to surrender to Gawain. Gawain is determined to surrender to Yvain. They take their conflicting stories to Arthur, who seizes the opportunity to actually make a decision. He commands that the elder sister hand over a fair share of her father’s inheritance to her sister, and when she proves reluctant, he threatens to accept Gawain’s word on his defeat. It’s amazing how quickly the elder sister changes her mind after that.

Yvain and Gawain catch up on recent adventures, with Gawain learning of how Yvain defended his sister and her family. Both knights are in poor shape after their long battle and need some time to recover. The lion comes running to Yvain through the crowd and Yvain cannot understand why other people are being so weird about his charming pet.  

Yvain then takes all his character development as a defender of women and chucks it all in the air like CONFETTI because as soon as he’s recovered he returns to the spring, hell-bent on raising storms until Laudine takes him back. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YVAIN?  

Laudine’s town is on the verge of falling apart. She’s panicked, turning as usual to Lunete for advice. Lunete suggests she send for the Knight with the Lion, but warns that he will only come to their aid if Laudine vows to help the knight’s cause with his lady. Laudine, unaware that she’s the lady in question, gives her word and Lunete rides out to the spring, where Yvain greets her fondly. Lunete leads him back to Laudine and Yvain falls at her feet. Laudine feels trapped, as well she might! Tellingly, she describes Yvain as ‘a man who neither loves nor respects me’. Yvain does what he can to change her mind on this point, promising to never again wrong her in any way, and he’s allowed back into her life. This seems more like a starting point for true reconciliation than a happy ending – but Lunete is happy, and that undoubtedly means everything went as she planned it.

When I read legends like this I like to try and knit them together into one cohesive story, even when they are clearly a dozen alternate universes in a trenchcoat, and Yvain is a GIFT on that score. I love that Meleagant’s actions have knock-on effects on other people’s lives outside of the immediate circle of Arthur’s court, because of COURSE they do! I love that Yvain is healed by his mother’s ointment, though neither of them ever seem to learn about that; it is a beautiful complexity that a woman who sends so much venom into the world also created something that could heal, and by whatever strange roads, it made its way to her own son. Also, we can all agree that the Orkney brothers have a thing for women who are smarter and meaner than they are, right? The Gawain who immediately clicks with Lunete feels like the same man who fell for Ragnelle. The Guinevere who cuts down Kay’s bullying feels like the same woman who welcomed Enid to court with open arms. And the Yvain who is so desperate to prove himself, who takes Lunete’s magic and manipulation in stride, he feels like Morgan le Fay’s son.

I bet she would love the lion.

Yvain, Part 1: Vandalism, Murder and Other Romantic Ice-breakers

This one is not only running late, it’s a two-parter. Sorry everyone! I’m afraid my grasp on linear time isn’t what it was – emotionally, I’m still back in mid-July. This version of ‘Yvain: The Knight with the Lion’ comes from Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by D.D.R. Owen. Yvain is the son of notorious sorceress queen Morgan le Fay and the comparatively forgettable King Urien of Gorre, as well as nephew to King Arthur, cousin to Gawain and grandson to Igraine. I’m afraid I’m going to do what I always do and start off by talking about Arthurian ladies instead. According to Welsh mythology, Yvain/Owain married a woman named Penarwan, who was sister to Iseult, and both women were members of a very exclusive group called the Three Faithless Wives of Britain. It kind of sounds like a medieval rock band, don’t you think? Guinevere, incidentally, is described in the Welsh Triads as being more faithless than any of the three Faithless Wives, which I feel makes her lead singer.

This story is not about Penarwan. She does not even feature. Sorry again! It is instead about Yvain living up to all the drama llama potential that comes with being related to any of Igraine’s kids.

At the feast of Pentecost, Arthur leaves the celebrations early and is ‘detained by the queen’ – which sounds like a euphemism for sex – and accidentally falls asleep, which means he doesn’t return to his own party. Guinevere does not sleep. Instead she invites herself into a conversation that is taking place between the knights Dodinel, Sagremor, Gawain, Kay, our boy Yvain and a knight named Calogrenant, who is related to Yvain. I shall summarise Calogrenant’s role in this story as being as very hot and very unwise, because he has broken the tradition of telling ego-boosting stories about himself and is instead sharing an anecdote about personal failure. In front of KAY, of all people. Kay’s role in this story appears to be causing problems on purpose.

Nobody hears Guinevere approach except Calogrenant himself, who jumps up respectfully, and even this perfectly normal gesture ticks Kay off. “By God, Calogrenant, I see you’re very gallant and sprightly now, and indeed I’m delighted ou are the most courtly of us; and I know very well you think so, you’re so completely devoid of sense,” he sneers. “Really, Kay, I do believe you’d burst if you couldn’t empty yourself of the venom you are full of,” Guinevere remarks coolly. “You’re tiresome and churlish to insult your companions.” She sounds like a woman who has spent too much time in Kay’s general vicinity. Also, I love her. Guinevere’s character in both de Troyes and Malory comes across as a generous-hearted but prickly woman who does not suffer fools and that trait is in full force here as she shuts Kay down and asks Calogrenant to continue his tale.

Calogrenant comments with delightfully sardonic grace that Kay makes such a habit of insulting greater men than himself that it’s almost a backhanded compliment, but is understandably reluctant to say anything more. Guinevere insists on hearing the whole story, slapping Kay down again whenever he interjects.

So, seven years ago, Calogrenant was out on a quest when he ended up in the forest of Broceliande and stopped for the night at a wooden tower, where he was welcomed by a courtly vavasour and his beautiful, intellectual daughter. As he continued his travels the next day, he encountered a group of fighting bulls and a very large dark-skinned man apparently supervising them, holding a club. Calogrenant decided to man was very ugly and mentally classified him as a ‘creature’. This would not appear to be a hundred percent based on racism – the man is described as being an improbable seventeen feet tall, with an owl’s eyes and a boar’s teeth among other unusual physical features, and is wearing the bloody hides of two recently killed bulls – but it is a bad start and the man’s silent assessment of Calogrenant leads the knight to think he’s intellectually incapable of a conversation instead of, I don’t know, being disinterested or cautious or not inclined to chat to strangers. Calogrenant decides a reasonable opening remark to be, “Pray tell me if you are a good creature or not!” To which his new acquaintance replies, “I’m a man!” Calogrenant suspiciously asks what kind of man. “Such as you see; I’m never any different,” the man with the club replies, which is exactly the answer that question deserved so good on him.  

He explains that he looks after the animals of the wood and keeps them in this place, a task Calogrenant openly doubts anyone could do despite the fact there’s somebody standing right in front of him doing it. The man with the club then asks who Calogrenant is and what he’s looking for in the wood. Calogrenant announces that he is looking for an adventure to test his abilities. The man with the club tells him to follow a track past a spring that is ice cold but looks to be boiling, in the shade of a tree that keeps its leaves throughout the year. There is a slab beside the tree. If water from the spring is poured on the slab, it will cause a dreadful storm that will drive all the animals from the wood.

Calogrenant thinks this sounds like a great adventure. I think it sounds like ecological vandalism.

He finds the spring and the tree. Hanging from its branches is a golden basin; the slab, meanwhile, is made from solid emerald, so it’s clear what has been attracting adventurers to this spot. Calogrenant pours water onto the slab and gets the forewarned storm: a horrifying burst of lightning, rain, snow and hail descending all at once. As it passes, Calogrenant looks up to find the pine tree covered in birds, singing like a choir. He is also accosted by a very loud and angry knight, who shouts that Calogrenant has driven him from his home with this godawful weather (I am paraphrasing) and that he’s going to pay for it. He beats Calogrenant hollow in the ensuing duel and departs with his horse, leaving Calogrenant to walk dispiritedly back to his host in the wooden tower. The vavasour cheerfully tells him that this happens to everyone who attempts this particular adventure.

Listening to this story, Yvain is fired up with the desire to avenge his cousin’s shame – read here, repeat the same mistakes and somehow produce a different result. Unfortunately for him, Arthur wakes up at this point and when Guinevere repeats the story to him, the king is so fascinated he wants to go and see the spring for himself, which means the entire court all want to go too. Realising that his chance at glory is likely to be taken by another knight, like Gawain (or worse, Kay) Yvain sneaks off to make his attempt first. He finds the wooden tower; he finds the track, he summons the storm and fights the enraged knight. It is a brutal fight. Igraine’s grandsons are good in an ugly fight, though, and Yvain gets the upper hand, bringing his sword down in a violent blow to the head that sends his panicked opponent fleeing back to the castle from whence he came. Yvain is hot on his heels, driven by the echoes of Kay’s mockery in his memory, not realising that the gate to the great hall is booby-trapped. He’s leaning well forward on his horse, which is the only reason he’s not chopped in half by the falling portcullis like the poor animal beneath him.

He is, however, trapped.

Luckily for him, he is discovered by a sympathetic and strategic young woman who immediately recognises him as Urien’s son and who does all the quick thinking required for surviving this situation. She produces a magic ring that will make him invisible to his enemies, and that’s good, because the other knight has died of his wounds and everyone else in the castle is out for BLOOD. They find the mangled remains of his horse and begin to hunt through the great hall. Yvain silently endures a beating as they try to flush out their enemy. Worse, the knight’s corpse is laid out in the hall and it’s still bleeding – which is not evidence that the knight is still alive, by the way, it apparently means that his killer is present in the room, which kicks off another frenzied search. Standing amidst this madness is the knight’s widow, a woman who is so beautiful that Yvain is distracted from his own mortal peril by concern at the sight of her wild, self-destructive grief.  

When the corpse is taken away for burial, Yvain watches from a window. These are his thoughts: that he has no proof of defeating the knight to throw in Kay’s face, and he has no shot with the beautiful widow who is currently tearing at her hair in wild misery. Yvain is more optimistic on that second point though, comforting himself with the thought that women are changeable so who even knows what the widow might do next?

Let’s pretend we can kick him in the shins through the page shall we? His own mother would.

The young woman who saved his life returns to check on him, clocks his lovestruck state and all but rolls her eyes. “Now let’s say no more about all that,” she says briskly and offers to lead him to safety. Yvain resists; he wants to leave when the streets are busy, which is so counter-intuitive that I don’t even know what to say. The young woman comes up with a new strategy. She goes to the widow, with whom she is in high favour, and essentially tells her cheer up, onward and upward, if one husband dies just get a new one. The widow doesn’t believe she could meet with a better knight than the man she just buried. Our Machiavellian girl points out that King Arthur himself is due to visit the spring himself soon enough (how DOES she know about that?) and who is going to defend the castle then, with its lord suddenly dead? It is the widow’s duty to find a replacement ASAP! “For indeed, as you well know,” the young woman says, “those knights of yours are not together worth a single chambermaid.”

Why has this girl not been given a NAME? She’s twice as interesting as Yvain already.

The widow dismisses her angrily but cannot stop thinking about the truth in her argument. The young woman returns, completely ignoring her mistress’s command, to rebuke her once again for wallowing in grief instead of getting on with her life. “Do you suppose that all noble qualities died with your husband?” the girl demands. “There are a hundred as good and a hundred better men still living throughout the world…When two knights have come together in armed combat and one has defeated the other, which do you think the more worthy? For my part, I give the honour to the victor.” The widow is of course furious with her, but after a night brooding over her duty to protect the spring, she has a list of questions about Yvain’s rank and lineage. She’s also concerned that it may look, well, kind of bad for a widow to be marrying the man who killed her husband.

No need to worry, her frankly terrifying handmaiden has this in hand already. On her orders, the widow calls her knights together and asks who will defend the spring – the answer being, nobody, which will force them to give their approval when the widow announces her intentions to marry again. The girl tells the widow that she is sending to Arthur’s court for Yvain when she has him hidden away in the castle, being fitted for a handsome new outfit; meanwhile she tells Yvain that he has been discovered and must throw himself on the mercy of the hard-hearted widow. “I’m very willing to be in her prison!” Yvain declares eagerly. When brought into the presence of the lady in question, he is completely tongue-tied. After some prodding, he falls to his knees before the widow and surrenders completely to her will. The widow, after some consideration, informs him that she will not put him to death, and that they are ‘reconciled’. Reconciled here means, engaged, and they are married the same day.

It is at this point we are told the name of the widow. She is Laudine of Landuc, daughter of the Duke Laudunet.  

While Yvain is tripping into a relationship with an entire aeroplane’s worth of baggage, Arthur’s knights are continuing with their plan to visit the spring. Kay is loudly declaring Yvain to be a coward in his absence and Gawain is desperate for him to just shut up, which appears to be a very common sentiment. When Arthur summons the storm, it is Yvain who rides out to defend his lady’s castle, and is is Kay who goes forth to fight him.

Of course, no one recognises Yvain, despite multiple members of his own family being present. He knocks Kay clean out of the saddle and presents the horse, a symbol of his victory, to Arthur, along with his name. Arthur and Gawain are delighted by his adventures and the entire company go to lodge with Yvain, who sends word to his lady so that she can unroll the silk banners and carpets ahead of the king’s arrival. She’s very pleased at Yvain’s success.

We don’t care about that. You know why? Because Little Miss Puppet-Master finally has a name, Lunete. She strikes up a friendship with Gawain straight away, bonding over her schemes to save Yvain, which Gawain finds hilarious. De Troyes describes them as ‘the sun’ (Gawain) and ‘the moon’ (Lunete). Gawain pledges himself to Lunete’s service, while many of his friends are busy falling haplessly for the charming and elegant Laudine.

When the royal company prepare to depart a week later, Gawain urges Yvain to come with them so that he can maintain his reputation in combat – though Gawain freely admits that he’d be unlikely to follow his own advice, in Yvain’s shoes. Still, Yvain asks his lady’s leave to go. She consents, if he swears to return within the year. Should he be late, it’s all over.

I feel like that’s actually really reasonable? She literally just married the man. Yvain doesn’t want to stay that long away from her, but forsees problems with her limitation – being captured or injured is an occupational hazard that may unexpectedly delay him. Laudine has an answer for that. She presents Yvain with a ring. “No true, loyal lover can be held prisoner or lose any blood or suffer any harm provided that he wears and cherishes it and bears his love in mind,” she tells him. The newlyweds part with kisses, tears and promises.

Throughout the following year, Yvain does a solid job building up his reputation, but completely FAILS as a husband because he completely forgets to return in time. To drive home the point, Laudine sends a handmaiden to present greetings to Arthur and Gawain, and not to Yvain, ‘the disloyal traitor, liar and deceiver’. “Do you know how lovers behave?” the handmaiden asks icily. “They keep account of the time and season.” Laudine has sent instruction that Yvain is to return her ring and never return to her lands.

Does Yvain take it well? Ha, no, of course he doesn’t! He rips up his clothes and runs off into the wilderness to live on raw meat. This is a time-honoured way for knights to deal with their problems. He encounters a hermit who feeds him like a stray with offerings of bread. After some time, a group  of ladies passing through the forest come across him while he’s sleeping and are startled to recognise him as a lost prince. One of them applies an ointment created by Morgan le Fay herself, which is intended to clear the mind, and thoughtfully provides an appropriate set of clothes as well. Once Yvain is dressed and stumbling along in a state of bewilderment, she pretends to see him for the first time and leads him to the castle of her mistress. She also tosses the empty box of ointment in the river so her mistress will not realise she used every drop of it. I am here for all the scheming handmaidens in this story!

Yvain slowly recovers. One day the villainous Count Alier attacks the castle and Yvain charges out to meet him, driving the marauders away and taking the count as his captive. The swooning residents of the castle compare him to a lion. The lady of the castle wants him as her husband. Yvain refuses her offers and takes off alone.

Can he make peace with Laudine? Will he take more bad advice from Gawain? Most importantly, what is Lunete up to? Find out in Part 2: Lions and Knights and Ladies, Oh My!

Sir Launfal: This is Why We Don’t Kiss and Tell

As we trundle steadily downhill through the second half of 2020, it’s time to tap into the gossip mill of Camelot. For this story I will be referring Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury’s translation of ‘Sir Launfal’, written by Thomas Chestre in the late 14th century, but will be comparing it to Marie de France’s ‘Lanval’ from the late 12th century because the differences (and similarities) are intriguing. And infuriating! I’ll preface this one with another reminder: I’m a Guinevere girl, and I am not even trying to be objective.

‘Sir Launfal’ opens in what we are told are the days of the ‘mighty Arthur’ and reinforces the sense of a martial heyday with a roll call of famous knights, including Lancelot and Arthur’s nephews Gawain, Gaheris and Agravaine. Launfal is listed among this impressive company. Though young, he’s made a name for himself with the chivalric tradition of gift-giving, and his generosity wins him the position of steward at Arthur’s court. I wonder if this pre-Sir Kay, or if Kay simply does not exist in this version of the Arthurian extended universe? When ‘Sir Launfal’ starts, Arthur is single, but ten years into Launfal’s stewardship Merlin arranges a marriage between Arthur and the princess of Ireland, ‘Gwennere’ – this, obviously, being Guinevere, though I’ve not heard of her heralding from Ireland before, or Merlin wanting anything to do with her either.

Guinevere already has a reputation for being unfaithful. Given that Arthur is presumably her first husband, those rumours seem quite dodgy to me, but Launfal takes against her from the start and he is not the only one. Whatever other character faults Guinevere may possess, she’s no fool; she knows who her enemies are. After her wedding, when she’s distributing gifts to the court, Launfal gets nothing. Interestingly, in ‘Lanval’ the one who deliberately overlooks Launfal is Arthur himself, and the occasion of gift-giving has nothing to do with a wedding.

If Chestre’s Launfal has fallen afoul of the new queen, you might think the political approach would be to make nice with her, but Launfal has taken deep offence and decides he can no longer tolerate life at court. He asks the king’s permission to leave court so that he can bury his father – so far, perfectly reasonable – and is not only granted that permission, he’s sent on his way with valuable gifts – very nice, thanks Arthur, no reason to think anyone’s nose is out of joint here. Sir Huwe and Jon, referred to as nephews of the king, travel with him. It’s suggested Chestre may have been referring to Gawain and Yvain here. So what exactly is Launfal’s plan? Well, he retreats to his hometown of Caerleon and takes up residence in the mayor’s orchard, where he lives off the money Arthur gave him until it’s practically all spent and he’s in such a state of poverty that neither he nor his companions have any clothes left fit to wear. This is a particular mark of shame for Launfal, because it was his responsibility to provide clothing for Huwe and Jon and a year later they’re still in the outfits they wore to leave court. Launfal is desperate for none of his friends to know how bad his situation is, so it’s unclear to me how he expects things to ever improve from here. All this because he couldn’t fake amity with his king’s new wife? This is what I’d call cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Launfal sends Huwe and Jon back to court with a frankly transparent cover story that they were out hunting and that’s how their clothes were ruined. Arthur swallows this with his usual lack of perception and cheerfully accepts Huwe and Jon’s assurances that Launfal is doing just great. Guinevere, who is still holding a grudge, also takes the knights at their word but is much less happy about it. What did Launfal say to or about her?

At the next big feast, when everyone of any importance is off to court – including Caerleon’s mayor – Launfal plays the role of Cinderella, with nothing to wear to the ball, too shabby to even go to church. The mayor’s kind daughter invites him to eat with her but Launfal is too ashamed of his appearance to accept. Instead he asks for the loan of a horse and rides out into the forest. It’s a hot day and after some time he lies down to rest in the shade of a tree.

To his astonishment, he is approached by two beautiful and exquisitely dressed young women, carrying a basin and towel respectively. Presumably they have been bathing at the nearest river. Launfal greets them bewilderedly and they tell him that they have been sent by their mistress Tryamour, who wishes to see him. All concerns about his wardrobe are put aside in favour of following the handmaidens to a luxurious pavilion, where Tryamour – daughter of King Olyroun of the Otherworld – is waiting, exposing a considerable amount of very lovely skin and literally lying on a bed like she’s been taking tips from the front covers of bodice-rippers. There’s coming on strong and then there’s Tryamour, greeting Launfal as if he’s already her sweetheart. I completely respect her gung-ho attitude, but would like to politely point out that if Launfal is into sexually confident women, maybe he should chill out on slut-shaming the queen. Unsurprisingly, he does not see things my way. He promptly pledges himself to Tryamour’s service and she rewards him with three gifts, in the time-honoured tradition of mysterious otherworldly lovers. Launfal is given Tryamour’s horse, Blaunchard, and the services of an invisible servant named Gyfre. Most usefully of all, Tryamour gives him a purse of gold that will not empty no matter how much he gives away. Launfal is even permitted to use her coat-of-arms, the symbol of three ermines. Tryamour’s only condition is complete secrecy: he must not mention her existence to another person.

Yeah, that’s going to go well, isn’t it?

They eat an excellent meal together and then spend the rest of night having sex. In the morning Tryamour gives Launfal one more promise, that she will come to him in secret any time he calls to her. They exchange parting kisses and Launfal returns to Caerleon, where he is promptly followed by a parade of pack-horses carrying all kinds of valuables. The town, having accustomed itself to Launfal’s poverty, is agog at his renewed fortune. The mayor, recognising that he has not supported Launfal during the young knight’s time of poverty, tries to rewrite history with himself as Launfal’s friend. Launfal is having none of it, pointing out that the mayor never asked him over for a meal while Launfal was living in his orchard (though his daughter did, so how about a thank you to her?)

Launfal’s first priority: dress UP. Next priority: become a one-man charitable organisation, winning over Caerleon with his generosity towards the poor. Thirdly: re-establish his martial reputation by winning the local tournament and defeating the giant Sir Valentyne in battle. He then fights his way through the dead Valentyne’s supporters. All of this hue and cry draws Arthur’s attention. The king asks for Launfal to take up his old post of steward and Launfal make a triumphant return to court. Guinevere watches him dancing amidst her ladies and the other knights, and decides to seduce him. The first chance she gets, she tells him that she has loved him these last seven years, and clearly expects he’ll tumble straight into her bed. When he shows himself uninterested, Guinevere spits out that he must love no woman. It’s worth noting here that in ‘Lanval’, Guinevere outright accuses Launfal of being gay in an attempt to utterly ruin him. Under such circumstances, it’s unsurprising that in both versions, Launfal’s defensive response is to declare his love for a woman he describes as far more beautiful than the queen.

Guinevere doesn’t appreciate the insult. Sick with fury, she goes to Arthur with a confusing story of how Launfal propositioned her then boasted of having a mistress queenlier than herself. Arthur wants to send Launfal to be hung and drawn. Launfal calls to Tryamour, but of course he has betrayed their agreement and she doesn’t come. Gyfre has vanished with Blaunchard; the bottomless purse of gold is empty. Launfal is on his own. All he can do is repeat his story, that the queen tried to seduce him and that he rebuffed her. The court leans towards his side, but no one is willing to actually oppose the thwarted queen or the incensed king. Launfal is told that his life will be spared if, and only if, he can produce his beautiful mistress within a year and a fortnight and show her to the court. Guinevere goes one step further and declares that if this woman exists, may her own eyes be blinded.

Well, the allotted time passes, and there’s no sign of Tryamour. At the last minute, however, a procession of radiant maidens ride into court. Gawain calls to Launfal to tell him that his mistress is on her way and sure enough, there’s Tryamour, fashionably late and dressed in royal purple with a crown on her head. The court compares Guinevere to Tryamour and agree emphatically with Launfal’s original statement. Even Arthur acknowledges it. Tryamour holds Guinevere viciously to her word, stepping close to breathe upon her eyes, and blinds her.

This does not happen in ‘Lanval’.

Tryamour then departs, Launfal swinging up on Blaunchard behind her. In Chestre’s version they go to Olyroun, while in Marie de France’s they go to Avalon. Either way, Launfal never returns to Arthur’s court. Once a year, on a certain day, Launfal reappears and a knight who finds him may challenge him to joust – but he belongs to Tryamour now, and to the Otherworld.

I managed to get through all of that without rage-shrieking like a pterodactyl, for which I deserve due respect.

Chestre was clearly drawing on the very old tradition of Guinevere as the faithless wife. After all, heavens forbid the male heroes of myth and legend ever have to take responsibility for their own actions when a woman is in the vicinity to take the blame. Undoubtedly Chestre’s original audience would have had much greater sympathy with the character of Launfal than I do. Launfal is the one who, at the beginning of the story, chooses to leave court instead of trying to repair the relationship with Guinevere, and he does literally nothing to try and improve his situation. If a fairy princess had not taken a fancy to him, what was he going to do? I do feel for him in the second half of the story. Launfal was put in a horrible position when turning down the queen’s attempt at seduction, though his eagerness to insult the woman he hates leads him to betray the woman he loves.

Guinevere’s behaviour in ‘Sir Launfal’ is remarkably similar to Tryamour’s – both women are confident to approach men they find attractive, and quick to exact vengeance when they feel themselves wronged – but Guinevere is demonised, a predatory figure, while Tryamour, secure in her role as Fairest of Them All, rides off into the sunset unquestioned. I do like Tryamour, just to be clear! I love that the story ends with her sweeping her lover off his feet in a dramatic rescue. The penultimate line of ‘Lanval’ actually describes Launfal as being ‘ravished by his lady to an island’, which is a delightful turnabout of the usual roles! I just wish that the whole thing wasn’t dependent on turning Guinevere into a pantomime villain, her character apparently existing purely to torment the virtuous Launfal.

The queen’s blinding at the end of ‘Sir Launfal’ also puts me uncomfortably in mind of the wife in ‘The Lay of the Were-Wolf’, whose nose was bitten off as punishment for her betrayal of her husband. It is a brutal, simplistic version of morality. Give me the complex, consistent characterisation from Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory any day. Their Guinevere was always more than her pretty face, and her life was more than a glorified beauty pageant.

Source: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/laskaya-and-salisbury-middle-english-breton-lays-sir-launfal, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11417/11417-h/11417-h.htm#VI

The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Tell You What I Want, What I Really Really Want

Arthurian legend has a vast and varied dramatis personae, but one of the reliably featured core cast in Round Table shenanigans is Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, son of King Lot of Orkney and Queen Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister. Gawain’s previous appearance in Year of the Quest was in Chretien de Troyes’ Lancelot, where he was an advisor to Arthur, a friend to Guinevere and Lancelot, a knight of the realm known for his honour and strength and a much needed voice of reason. He was also literally drowning in the background while Lancelot agonised over Honour and Forbidden Love. This time, he is centre stage, sharing the limelight with one of my favourite Arthurian characters ever: Ragnelle.

For this month’s story, I am referring to ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle’ from Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, edited by Thomas Hahn. It kicks off by telling us all about Arthur’s riches and chivalry, before following him on a hunt in the Ingleswod. He sees a remarkable stag and orders his knights to remain behind as he stalks the beast himself. There’s some praise for Arthur’s skill as a woodsman, culminating in his killing of the stag. While he’s standing there alone with the dead animal, presumably proud of himself, a strange knight approaches. Strange as in Arthur does not know him, also strange as in murderous. He claims himself to be the victim of royal nepotism, cheated of lands that were given instead to Gawain. His name is Gromer Somer Joure and he’s in the mood to kill a king.

Arthur assures him that this is not a good idea; the dishonour of it would follow the knight and ruin his life too. Being unarmed, Arthur cannot fight his way out of this, so he offers to grant Gromer Somer Joure whatever favour he requires to let Arthur leave the wood alive. Gromer Somer Joure dismisses gold and land, despite JUST complaining about losing his land, and demands that Arthur return to meet in this place at the end of twelve months, with the answer to a riddle: what do women love best? Arthur must swear to come alone, and he reluctantly does so.

Arthur is understandably troubled upon his return to Carlylle. His knights observe the change in him with silent concern until Gawain decides to bite the bullet and ask what’s going on. Arthur has to be coaxed a little, his honour requiring that he does not betray Sir Would-be-Regicide, but Gawain is persuasive and Arthur soon spills the story. He is assuming that he will die within the year – it has apparently not occurred to him that the riddle is answerable. Or that he could show up armed to the teeth and win in combat. Or literally anything but passively riding to his death. Honour, you know.

No such gloom descends on Gawain. He immediately takes charge, riding off one way and sending Arthur another to start canvassing women’s opinions on what it is they love best. Unfortunately, the ladies of the kingdom are not obliging enough to be a hivemind. Some women want lovely clothes the most, others want to hear sweet words (ah, the days before the love languages test), yet others are into a ‘lusty man’. Gawain gets enough different answers to write a literal book of them by the time he returns to Carlylle. Arthur has had the same experience. In despair, with only a month to go before he must meet Gromer Somer Joure, Arthur goes to the wood in the vague hope of inspiration or luck or something.

What he gets is a lady.

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Geraint son of Erbin: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

So, how is everyone holding up through the latest turns of the dystopian rollercoaster that is 2020? I thought March was a wild ride, but June has been something else. Black lives matter. Trans lives matter. To everyone who is out there right now fighting to overcome institutional injustice and defend human rights in the face of bewildering systemic violence – you are the real knights.

On a brighter note, and in honour of Pride Month, I would like you all to know that I’ve just discovered there’s a queer romance based on ‘The Lay of the Were-Wolf’! I have not yet read Bisclavret by K.L. Noone but obviously I must now.

Sadly there are no werewolves in this month’s legend. ‘Geraint son of Erbin’ is from the Welsh story cycle The Mabinogion. The version I am referring to the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Sioned Davies. I feel it’s necessary to add a disclaimer, in case I have cunningly managed to fool anyone: I am neither an Arthurian scholar nor in any way objective. I freely admit that there are some Arthurian characters whom I cannot put up with under any circumstances, including Uther (boo hiss), Elaine of Corbenic and Geraint son of Erbin, known as Erec in the Chrétien de Troyes version. Geraint gives me ‘Patient Griselda’ flashbacks, a Perrault fairy tale I strongly advise against seeking out. Technically, this month’s story is all about Geraint, and my patience may wear a little thin at certain points. Fortunately, Guinevere is in it too.

The story begins at Caerllion ar Wysg, where Arthur has made it his habit to hold court for the great feasts of the calendar over the past seven years. His court is of such a size that it takes thirteen churches to hold Mass for them all. One Whitsuntide, a forester named Madog son of Twrgadarn come to tell Arthur about a stag he has seen, pure white and so majestic that Madog felt only the king himself could decide what to do with it. “I shall do the most appropriate thing,” Arthur announces, “and go and hunt it tomorrow at dawn.” Because the only logical thing to do when you see a beautiful living creature is, apparently, to kill it in the company of all your closest friends, Arthur sends out word among the court and rules that whoever catches the stag has the right to take its head.

Gwenhwyfar (Queen Guinevere) asks if she can observe the hunt and Arthur agrees, but when he rises the next morning she is still sleeping and he leaves her there. By the time the queen wakes, there are only two suitable horses left in the stable. She sets off with one companion, but soon another late riser catches up to them: Geraint son of Erbin, described as ‘enormous in size, a young, auburn-haired, bare-legged, noble squire’. Geraint and Gwenhwyfar bond over their delicately expressed irritation at being left behind. They stop at the edge of the forest, where they can overhear the horns and the baying hounds. As they are talking, they notice the approach of a large horse, ridden by a dwarf holding a whip. Riding behind the dwarf are an elegantly dressed woman and a big man in armour. Curious as to whom they might be, Gwenhwyfar sends her maiden to make inquiries.

The dwarf refuses to answer the maiden’s questions, which is fair enough – it seems he’s been instructed to maintain his employer’s mystique – but when the maiden goes to approach the unknown knight directly, the dwarf hits her across the face with his whip. She returns to the queen with a bloody face. Geraint, indignant, rides over to the dwarf himself, and receives the exact same treatment. Geraint’s hand goes to his sword, but even in his anger he recognises that it’s unwise to challenge the unknown knight when he is in full armour and Geraint is not. The queen approves of Geraint’s caution when he returns to her. “Lady, I shall go after him again, with your permission,” Geraint says, “and he will come eventually to a place that is inhabited, where I shall find armour.”

Go, then, but do not go too close to him until you get good armour,” Gwenhwyfar tells him. “And I shall worry a great deal about you, until I get news of you.” I love her so much. With his queen’s blessing, Geraint pursues the knight away from Caerllion and across a plain, towards a walled town. Everyone appears to know and respect the knight, but Geraint has no friends here and no idea how to get hold of armour. If it seems strange to you that he needs to borrow armour in order to have a civil conversation – yep, it’s strange! This is what toxic masculinity and extreme class divisions will do to a person’s rational thinking. I’m afraid we just have to go with it at this point.

The knight and the lady disappear into a fortress at the far end of the town, where they are welcomed. Geraint, meanwhile, decides his best bet is a hall just outside of town that has definitely seen better days. An elderly couple wearing clothes that were once rich and are now threadbare welcome Geraint into their home, where he meets their very beautiful daughter. She takes care of Geraint’s horse herself, as they have no groom to do it, and goes into town to buy the best food that she can for their guest. When it is time to eat, she serves everyone. While she is doing all of this, her father regales Geraint with the story of how he lost the town and his fortune. Long story short, he was the wicked uncle in a fairy tale – Earl Ynywl stole his nephew’s kingdom to add to his own lands, then the boy grew up and took everything away from him.

The young earl is holding a contest in the town. Knights seeking to compete must bring the lady they love most – a lone knight is automatically disqualified – and they are all jousting for the prize of a sparrowhawk. For two years running, the knight Geraint pursued has won the bird, and if he wins this time then it will be his for good and he’ll have earned the title of the Knight of the Sparrowhawk. All Geraint cares about is answering the insult to his queen and her maiden, and he can’t do that because there’s no lady love at his side to grant him entry to this competition. So Geraint asks if he can borrow some armour, and Ynywl’s daughter as well. The old man agrees. The girl is not consulted.

Geraint and the haughty knight break three lances on each other and are still well-matched. Ynywl gives Geraint the lance he held when he was knighted, long ago, as a kind of good luck charm, while the dwarf gives his knight a fresh lance and a little pep talk. The pep talk is not effective; this time Geraint manages to break the knight’s shield and send him to the ground. Hastily dismounting himself, Geraint presses his advantage as they fight it out on foot. Thinking of the insult to Gwenhwyfar, Geraint summons up a massive blow to his enemy’s head and the other knight drops to his knees, asking to be spared. He finally gives his name, Edern son of Nudd. Geraint sends him to make his apologies to Gwenhwyfar in person, accompanied by his lady and the dwarf.

The home town crowd are not on Geraint’s side, but the young earl offers lodging in his fortress just the same. Geraint firmly refuses, returning to the tumbledown hall for a bath. When he emerges, he finds the young earl making strategic amends to his dispossessed uncle, including new clothes. Geraint forbids the old man’s daughter – who is apparently now his fiancée – to wear anything but her old linen mantle until the two of them reach Arthur’s court, so that Gwenhwyfar can dress her as the queen sees fit. He also declares that Ynywl’s lands should be returned to him. The young earl hands over the town and castle to Ynywl, and Ynywl hands over his daughter to Geraint.

She still has not been given a word of dialogue.

Arthur, meanwhile, has hunted the stag and brought it down himself with the aid of his favourite dog Cafall, which means it’s his job to decide who ought to have its head. This is an unexpectedly contentious decision – everyone is debating like they have rights over the prize already. Gwenhwyfar advises her husband not to give away the stag’s head until Geraint returns, and Arthur agrees. The next day Gwenhwyfar notices an unhappy little party approaching and recognises the knight in his broken armour. “That is the knight Geraint went after,” she says, “and I think it likely that he is not coming of his own free will. And if Geraint caught up with him then he had avenged at least the insult to the maiden.” No one messes with Gwenhwyfar’s girls.

Edern explains that he has come from the town of Caerdydd, sent under ‘warrior-like compulsion’ to make amends for the insult to the queen’s maiden. Arthur recognises Edern and offers the queen’s mercy before she actually grants it herself. “Whatever mercy you wish I will show him, lord,” she says, “since it is as great a disgrace to you, lord, for me to be insulted as for you yourself.” When your wife calls you lord twice in one sentence, it’s time to rethink! Arthur sends Edern to have his wounds treated, and promises that once he is well the noblemen of the realm will judge him for his crime. “I am happy with that,” Gwenhwyfar agrees.

Morgan Tud, chief of physicians at Arthur’s court, is sent to treat Edern, and Edern’s lady is placed in the care of the queen. On the second day after the hunt, Geraint arrives in person with his bride-to-be, and Gwenhwyfar brings together all the ladies of the court to welcome her champion home. Let it never be said that woman cannot send a message. “You have had a purposeful, profitable, successful, and praiseworthy expedition,” she tells Geraint. “And may God repay you for getting justice for me in such a brave manner.” Are you listening, Arthur? Geraint introduces Gwenhwyfar to Ynywl’s daughter, and the queen dresses her in her own clothes, fit for a wedding and the ensuing celebrations. It is only once she’s married that we learn the girl’s name: Enid.

Gwenhwyfar suggests that the stag’s head be given to Enid in recognition of friendship, and Arthur agrees. Enid’s star rises rapidly at court while Geraint wins renown in tournaments, and for a few years all is well in their marriage.

Then Geraint’s father Erbin sends word to Caerllion ar Wysg that he is growing old and weak, and it is time for Geraint to come home, if Arthur is willing to allow it. Turns out that Arthur and Geraint are cousins, which may explain Gwenhyfar’s fond familiarity and the young earl’s conciliatory gestures. Arthur is reluctant to lose Geraint from his court but generously tells him to ask whichever knights he likes to be his escort. “What murmuring do I hear between you?” Gwenhwyfar asks. She is sad to lose Enid, but immediately practical. “I too must think of escorts and provisions for my lady,” she says, and goes off to see to it.

Of all people, Geraint chooses Edern to join his company, and Gwenhwyfar grants Edern her forgiveness. Geraint is welcomed in Erbin’s court, as is Enid, with a banquet and entertainments in their honour. The following days see Geraint taking on the responsibilities of a future king, accepting the homage of his noblemen then riding the boundaries of the kingdom. Geraint builds his reputation in his father’s lands with his skill at tournaments, which is also a great way to add to the wealth of his court. Once he’s well-established his name and beaten everyone worth beating, he spends more time at court, mostly in his wife’s bedroom. He spends so much with Enid, in fact, that the court starts making a joke of it, and that joke comes to the ears of his father, who then has the NERVE to ask Enid if she’s ‘encouraging him to abandon his household and company’. Playing piggy-in-the-middle with everyone’s expectations, Enid becomes very anxious and there’s no Gwenhwyfar here to advise her.

One morning Enid sits looking at her husband, lying asleep beside her, and starts to cry. “Woe is me, if it is on my account that these arms and chest are losing the fame and prowess they once possessed,” the poor girl sighs. Geraint wakes in time to hear her, somersaults to conclusions and decides that Enid is having an affair. He calls a squire to ready two horses. “Get up and get dressed,” he orders his wife rudely, “and set to it that your horse is prepared, and bring with you the worst dress that you own, to go riding.” He then goes to tell his elderly father to watch over the kingdom while he goes on a ‘quest’. I would call it a tantrum, especially when he commands Enid to ride well ahead of him and not turn back or speak to him for any reason unless he speaks to her first. LANCELOT WOULD NEVER.

Just to make everything that bit worse, Geraint picks a notoriously wild road. As they approach the edge of a forest, Enid sees four knights ride from the treeline and hears them plotting to attack. “I would prefer to die at Geraint’s hands than anyone else’s,” she decides, “and although he may kill me, I will tell him for fear of seeing him die in a hideous way.” I cannot overstate how completely Geraint has failed as a knight and a husband that this thought has even CROSSED HIS WIFE’S MIND. When she warns Geraint of the robbers ahead, he reacts angrily, as if she is insulting his prowess.

He then kills all the knights, strips their armour and ties it onto the saddles of their horses. Enid is instructed to drive the horses in front of her, and reminded not to speak unless spoken to, like she is a disobedient child on a frightening road trip. Before long Enid notices another group of robbers watching from a distance and talking amongst themselves about how they will take horses, armour and herself, all possessions to be claimed from Geraint.

Enid warns him again. He calls her tiresome and lunges into battle with the other knights. Soon he’s adding three horses to the little herd Enid is supposed to manage. They ride across open land and come to another forest, where five knights look at the seven riderless horses and still come to the conclusion that Geraint is going to be a pushover. Enid dutifully alerts her husband and he described as giving ‘an angry, sarcastic, horrible, hateful laugh’. “I hear you going against everything I told you not to do,” he tells her, “but you may yet live to regret it.”

It took FOUR ADJECTIVES to describe the awfulness of his LAUGH. That is when you know that you have failed as a human being.

Anyway, obviously he kills all the knights, bringing it to a tally of twelve dead robbers, which means twelve horses trotting ahead of them on this interminable ride. Poor Enid is really struggling to manage them all. As they enter the forest, Geraint decides it is time to stop for the night and orders Enid to keep watch; so he sleeps and she stays up, though she must be exhausted too. They ride on the next morning in the same manner as the day before, with Enid fighting to control the horses at the front and Geraint sulking behind. They clear the forest and ride alongside meadows full of hay, with reapers hard at work mowing it. A boy bearing food and water for the workers in the field greets Geraint and offers to give him the meal instead. Geraint is quick to agree. Knight and lady eat, and when the boy would have gone to fetch a new meal for the reapers, Geraint instead sends him into the nearby town to arrange lodgings. As a reward, the boy is allowed to pick a horse and armour from the twelve. It’s a generous payment! Sucks to be a reaper, though.

The local earl wants to invite Geraint to stay with him, but Geraint is typically obstinate and settles in the arranged lodgings. He sends Enid away from him and drinks himself to sleep. Before long the local earl arrives to pay his respects and is immediately struck by two things – firstly, Enid is gorgeous, and secondly, Geraint seems completely disinterested in her. The earl slides over seductively, murmuring his sympathies about having to travel with a man like Geraint and asking Enid to come live with him instead. She refuses. “You are making a mistake,” the earl responds. “If I kill that man, I will have you for as long as I want, and when I want you no longer I will turn you away. But if you do this for me of your own free will, there will be an unbroken, everlasting agreement between us as long as we live.”

Why are all the men in this story SO TERRIBLE?

Enid decides to encourage him. “Lest I be accused of great infidelity, come here tomorrow,” she says, “and carry me off as if I knew nothing about it.” The earl goes away very pleased with himself, and Enid goes to bed without a word to Geraint, but at midnight she’s up and assembling his armour. Then she wakes him and tells him to dress. Typically ungrateful, he nevertheless gets up and starts getting ready to leave. He bestows the remaining eleven horses and all their armour on his host as a thank you, and perhaps in recognition of the awkward situation to follow, when the earl arrives in full force to seize a woman who is no longer there.

The earl is soon in pursuit, with a company of eighty knights. Enid watches in panic as a haze of dust obscures the road behind her, heralding an imminent attack. The first knight to ride through the haze is hastily dispatched; something about the road, or more probably the narrative, means the knights have to ride out one at a time and Geraint takes them down one by one, until there is only the earl himself left to fight. He is thrown down like the rest and when he begs for mercy, Geraint releases him and rides away with Enid.

They come to a beautiful valley and a prosperous walled town. A knight riding the same road warns Geraint against crossing the river towards the town, as the resident lord Y Brenin Bychan has a tradition of fighting any knight who enters his lands. Clearly that is just catnip to Geraint. He, too, is desperate to fight absolutely anyone he meets. Y Brenin Bychan is a very small man on a very big horse, and a formidable knight. Geraint is put on the back foot by his opponent’s agility and strength, but finally manages to land a dreadful blow to the top of his head and Y Brenan Bychan is forced to beg for his life. “You shall have mercy – though your behaviour was rude and you were overbearing – on condition,” Geraint declares, “that you become my companion, and do not disagree with me a second time, and if you hear that I am in distress, you will intervene.”

Note how not disagreeing with Geraint becomes a stipulation for survival around him? I suspect in this context, ‘disagreement’ means ‘duel’ but still, I consider it a red flag. In his first act of friendship, Y Brenan Bychan offers Geraint his hospitality, a good call given his injuries, but Geraint wants to continue on. Y Brenan Bychan notices how miserable Enid looks and presses his point, warning of the danger inherent in travelling in this state. Geraint refuses to listen and makes his blood-stained way towards yet another forest, because statistically speaking only good things happen are likely to happen there!

Geraint has to stop and rest. While he’s catching his breath in the shade, he hears hunting horns and is approached by Arthur’s steward. Geraint recognises him; Cai does not recognise Geraint and tries to bring him to Arthur, first by persuasion and then by force. This is another of those occasions when adult men are incapable of having anything resembling a normal conversation and hit each other with sharp pieces of metal instead. Cai gets the worst of it and goes to get Gwalchmai, who also fights Geraint when he refuses to come and talk to Arthur, but recognises him afterwards and sends a secret summons to bring Arthur to Geraint. You know what Arthur is good at? Bullying his knights into getting medical attention. “Oh! Enid,” Arthur says, “what sort of journey is this?” “I do not know, lord,” she answers helplessly, “except that I must travel any road he travels.” Geraint is immediately hustled off into the care of Arthur’s physicians and Enid finally gets a break, welcomed by Gwenhwyfar and her ladies.

Geraint is obliged to stay for nearly a month. “It is not you I will believe on that subject, but the physicians who tended you,” is Arthur’s stance, and it’s only when Morgan Tud gives his approval that Geraint is allowed to go on his way, with Enid towed along for the ride. No one has been able to get Geraint to explain what on earth he’s trying to achieve.

As the pair of them ride on, they hear a piercing scream and Geraint goes to investigate. He finds a dead knight and a young woman in wedding clothes distraught beside him. She tells Geraint that her husband was murdered by a gang of three giants. Geraint sends her to Enid and goes after the giants, LITERAL giants armed with clubs. Geraint them down with the element of speed and surprise, and at the cost of reopening all his injuries. He returns to the two very anxious women but collapses in the road. Enid starts to scream and is heard by the Earl Limwris, who has the dead knight buried and Geraint brought to his court to see if he’ll live.

While Geraint is laid out on a table, covered in blood and unmoving, Earl Limwris approaches Enid and tells her to change clothes. “I am telling you that there is no need for you to be sad,” he says, “whatever the fate of the knight over there, whether he lives or dies. I have a good earldom; you shall have it in your possession, together with me. And now be happy and contented.”

This roadtrip is the ACTUAL WORST, and so are all the earls.

Enid is neither happy nor contented. She refuses to eat or drink until her husband is awake to do both himself. “Well and good,” the earl snarls. “I am no better being kind towards you than being unkind.” He hits her across the face and Enid screams, which acts like an electric shock on Geraint – he bolts upright, snatches up his sword and splits open the earl’s head. Everyone runs away from this knight apparently returned from the dead, and Geraint looks at Enid, realising in a shocking moment of clarity that she has been right ALL ALONG. She leads him to where his horse has been stabled and the two of them ride away together. Towards nightfall they hear the galloping hooves of an approaching knight and Geraint goes to conceal Enid in the hedgerows, but she calls out a reproach to their pursuer and the knight reveals himself to be Y Brenin Bychan, riding to the rescue as he promised and to hand-deliver an ‘I told you so’ because well, he did tell Geraint so. He asks them to come with him to his brother-in-law’s lands nearby and for once Geraint doesn’t slap aside the helping hand. They stay for over a month while Geraint recovers and his armour is mended.

After Geraint has healed, Y Brenin Bychan joins them and they ride on a little way further. Reaching a fork in the road, a passing traveller warns them against the lower way – it will take them to a hedge of mist and ‘enchanted games’. Guess which road Geraint chooses. It is the policy of Earl Owain, the local landowner, that all travellers of noble birth must stay with him instead of getting lodgings in the town so they all go to his court for a very hospitable dinner. Geraint mopes because he has not been able to play the game; to oblige him, Owain leads him to hedge, which is impossibly tall and alarming as you might expect. All along its length are stakes and impaled upon every spike is the head of a man who has, presumably, failed to win the game. There are only two empty stakes left.

Y Brenan Bychan doesn’t like that only one knight is allowed to compete at a time, but Geraint is true to form and plunges into the mist, emerging in an orchard, in front of silk pavilion where a young woman sits across from an empty chair. She warns Geraint not to take it for its owner will take that badly. Geraint says he doesn’t care, because apparently he has not had enough fighting yet and is eager for someone else to hit with his sword. While he is sitting there as confrontationally as possible, the owner of the chair rides up and they fight. Geraint manages to overcome the knight and commands him to get rid of the game, hedge of mist and all. Geraint is instructed to blow a horn hanging in an apple tree, and as soon as he does, the mist disappears. Enid is reunited with her absurdly fighty husband, Geraint decides to go home and rule, and his reputation (which was what all this nonsense was about) is restored.

What. A. Mess.

This story could be renamed Toxic Masculinity and Lack of Communication. Geraint assumes his wife is cheating on him with no evidence whatsoever, and instead of trying to talk to her about why she was upset, he tows her around the most dangerous parts of the countryside like a resentful child with a toy. Even at the end, when Geraint decides he was wrong about Enid, there is neither apology nor explanation for his behaviour. Arthur and Y Brenan Bychan are both obviously concerned about his belligerent behaviour, looking out for Enid and trying to talk Geraint out his murderous meandering road trip, but though they act as voices of reason within the narrative, Geraint continues to do whatever he wants right up until the end, when it earns him an entirely undeserved happy ending.

But when I read Arthurian stories, it is rarely the men I am very interested in. After so long of thinking in terms of the Round Table as a boy’s club, it’s the ladies of Camelot that hold my attention. This story is a fascinating outsider look at Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere, completely separate from her own relationship drama. She is protective of her ladies, holding a grudge against the knight who allowed injury to her handmaiden and acting like an affectionate older sister when she welcomes Enid to court; she is also every inch the queen, recognising her worth and her rights, and bestowing her approval like a gift where she feels it has been earned. Her unyielding personality is an interesting contrast to Enid, who is introduced as an obedient daughter holding her household together in the wake of her father’s ruinous politics. After her marriage to Geraint she becomes a belle in Arthur’s court – sponsored by Guinevere and supported by Geraint’s glory, yes, but popular in her own right. She is then separated from all her friends and taken to Geraint’s lands, where she is placed in the position of placeholder queen with minimal experience and very limited authority. She is blamed for the choices Geraint makes, and blames herself too; she does not question his capricious behaviour in any way, but for all her sweet meek exterior, she is made of strong stuff. She is on high alert throughout their quest, acting as an unwanted but necessary scout, and uses her charm and cunning to get Geraint out of trouble. She deserves so much better.

But the story ends with Geraint recognising that Enid was right. Of course, accepting this fact doesn’t change his behaviour in any particularly meaningful way, but given the way that women are frequently positioned as villains or morally questionable femme fatales within Arthurian narratives, I will take Enid’s role as heroine as a victory. She’s sugar and spice and all things capable. I think she’ll make a great queen.

The Lay of the Were-Wolf: In the Forest, No One Can Hear You Shapeshift

I think it is crucial that everyone in the world knows that Camelot has its own werewolf. I myself was unaware of this fact for too long and that’s just not acceptable.

The Lay of the Were-Wolf’, also known as ‘Bisclavaret’, was originally written in French by Marie de France in the 12th century. In medieval literature, a ‘lay’ or ‘lai’ refers a short romance written in octosyllabic verse. It’s delightful to find a female voice among all the men associated with Arthurian legend! I was undecided whether to cover this one or an alternate version of the same story, ‘Melion’, a Breton lay by an anonymous author, but an analysis I was reading described ‘Melion’ as ‘woman-hating’, so we’re going with the female author and hoping for the best. I am using a translation by Eugene Mason from French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France, published in 2004 as a Project Gutenberg ebook. It’s available here.

Amongst the tales I tell you once again,’ Marie de France begins, ‘I would not forget the Lay of the Were-Wolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land. Bisclavaret he is named in Brittany; whilst the Norman calls him Garwal. It is a certain thing, and within the knowledge of all, that many a christened man has suffered this change, and ran wild in woods, as a Were-Wolf.’ She goes on to explain what an evil, ravening monster a werewolf is. This is in direct contrast to the subsequent paragraph, which introduces us to a handsome and respectable baron, a favourite of King Arthur, who is married to an equally attractive member of society. The lady’s only concern is that for three days of every week her husband vanishes without explanation. That’s a lot of married life he’s missing out on and no one in the household appears to be in his confidence. Eventually the lady approaches her husband with a sweet, timid speech about how much she loves him and how much she worries about these strange absences. As well she might.

The baron is very reluctant to tell her his secret, sure that no good can come of it, but he loves his wife and eventually gives way. He regularly turns into a wolf. Surprise! “Within this wood, a little from the path, there is a hidden way,” he tells her, “and at the end thereof an ancient chapel, where oftentimes I have bewailed my lot. Near by is a great hollow stone, concealed by a bush, and there is the secret place where I hide my raiment, till I would return to my own home.” It is unclear whether this transformation is something voluntary or not; certainly it does not appear related to the moon in any way. Either way, it’s not a fun part of Bisclavaret’s life. The key to transforming back into a man seems to be dressing again in his own clothes.

His wife retains admirable composure under stress but really she is not taking the news at all well. About as badly as she can, in fact; she immediately starts planning how to get rid of Bisclavaret. She remembers a knight who tried to win her (married) favour, and who she had no use for until now. She writes to him and arranges a meeting, where she explains the full situation. The knight can claim her as his own…if her husband is not around to get in the way. The next time Bisclavaret disappears into the woods, he does not come back. His family and friends look for him, in vain, and the lady keeps her end of the bargain by marrying her co-conspirator.

Over a year later, King Arthur happens to be hunting in the wood. His hounds go after the wolf, until he’s bloody and defeated, about to be killed. To Arthur’s astonishment, the wolf runs to him as if pleading for mercy. Arthur calls off the hunt and returns to court with the wolf at his heels like a devoted dog. All the courtiers are warned to treat him well and he sleeps in Arthur’s own chambers at night. In fact the wolf becomes something of a mascot, very popular at court.

Arthur holds a banquet for his lords and among the guests is the knight who married Bisclavaret’s ‘widow’. The wolf recognises him instantly and lunges at him, for once like a wild animal. Arthur calls him off, but the knight is eyed with suspicion by the entire court, who take their wolf’s side and think the knight must have done something to earn that kind of hostility from everyone’s lupine bestie. As soon as possible, the knight escapes court and the wolf’s accusing growls.

When Arthur returns to the wood where he found his wolf, preparing for another hunt, he receives a visitor: none of than Bisclavaret’s ex, hoping to win favour with the king by bringing gifts. No sooner does the wolf see her than he goes on the attack, managing to bite off the lady’s nose before he’s driven back.

No matter how popular, you can’t let the king’s pet go around disfiguring ladies of the realm. That vengeance would probably have been it for the wolf if one of the king’s councillors had not remembered Bisclavaret’s disappearance. He advises the king look into the matter. By which I mean, Arthur locks up the knight and lady and has them both tortured until the lady confesses. Got to say, there is not a lot of chivalry happening anywhere in this story! It’s all very grimdark.

Learning about the trick of Bisclavaret’s clothes, Arthur lays them out before his wolf, who…does exactly nothing. The councillor tells Arthur that he’s humiliating Bisclavaret and should let him transform in privacy, which is actually a surprisingly decent point. Arthur takes the wolf to his own chambers and after an uncertain time waiting, returns to find a human man curled up asleep in his bed. Arthur greets his friend with a lot of kissing and heaps him with gifts as a thank you for being alive and human. As for the knight and lady, Arthur banishes them from the realm and they are not seen again.

One of the differences in Melion is that the werewolf lord starts off single and will only marry a woman who has never loved anyone but himself. His wife declares she must eat the flesh of a specific stag and in order to catch it, Melion transforms himself into wolf shape using a magic ring. He ends up drawing all the wrong conclusions from his choices (that women are terrible and men should not trust their wives; hardly an original sentiment). He is also quite keen to turn his ex into a werewolf, in an eye for an eye approach, but Arthur talks him out of it and he ends up just telling her to go to hell. I feel that her position as the King of Ireland’s daughter may have played a role in that act of clemency. There is a third Arthurian werewolf lay, Biclarel, also anonymous, also with a big downer on women. It begins with an admonition: ‘He is very foolish who marries/ A fickle wench:/ It is just not worth it for him to suffer/ And to expose himself to all that shame/ With great risk to soul and body/ From which he will never be free;/ And he who understood women’s hearts well/ Would never be in such peril.’ The real lycanthropy, you see, was the women we married along the way.

Bisclavaret puts me in mind of the water spirit Melusine from European folklore. There is a legend in which Melusine is a wife with a secret monstrous side who requires one day of privacy every week to be herself. Her husband cannot resist spying on her, and in doing so loses her. Notably, no one’s nose is removed in the process. The werewolf knight does have every right to his grievance, of course, being abandoned in the forest in the shape of an animal is a fairly horrendous way for a relationship to end, but I do find it interesting how completely unsympathetic all of these stories – and all of the characters in these stories – are to the wives. While I’m sure the king felt very secure in his relationship with his devoted wolf, he might feel differently were he married to him. This is not what Bisclavaret’s wife signed up for, and she has a very limited range of options to get out of a relationship she no longer wants. It’s the Bluebeard Clause: if you wait for him to reveal the room full of dead girls, it’s probably too late. That spiel about marriage being a risky proposition at the beginning of Biclarel applies to both parties, not just the werewolf knight. Trust has to go both ways, and in each version of this story, it goes neither.

You know what? I really want to know how Guinevere would have handled all this.

Sources: French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France – translated by Eugene Mason (Project Gutenberg, 2004), Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werwolf Lays – translated and edited by Amanda Hopkins (University of Liverpool, 2005)

Lancelot, Part Two: On His Way to Get Rescued by Your Girl

Trigger warning: reference to suicide

We pick up in Chrétien de Troyes’ ‘Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart’ where we left off last week, with the knight I am calling Wild Card finally arriving at the notorious Sword Bridge. It is an actual sword and guarded by lions. Wild Card’s companions think that maybe it would be a good idea not to cross a bridge like that. Wild Card thinks otherwise. Onward or die! Leaving the other knights in tears behind him, he takes the armour off his hands and legs and begins to crawl across the bridge, clinging on to its sharp edges. When he reaches the other side he looks up, expecting to see the lions – but his foster-mother’s enchanted ring reveals that it was all an illusion.

His situation is bad enough without having to fight wild animals. The bridge has sliced up his hands and legs, and ahead of him is the impressive bulk of a great fortress: the keep of King Bademagu. The king himself is said to a great reputation for honour and loyalty; how this matches up with the whole ‘imprison every foreign traveller’ policy is unclear to me. His son Meleagant, meanwhile, has ‘a heart of wood, quite devoid of gentleness and pity’. Both men are now aware of Wild Card’s approach. Bademagu urges his son to make peace and return Queen Guinevere while there is still a chance at reconciliation. “Perhaps,” Meleagant says sardonically, “you want me to join my hands and feet in homage as his vassal and hold my land from him? So help me God, I’d rather become his vassal than give the queen up to him!” Bademagu warns Meleagant that he will not back him, that any action Meleagant takes against Wild Card will be his choice and his alone. “You be as moral a man as you like,” Meleagant retorts, “but let me be cruel.”

Bademagu goes down to meet Wild Card, who leaves off cleaning his injuries and stands up as if he has no injuries at all. Bademagu praises his courage and offers his hospitality while Wild Card recovers. The queen, Wild Card is assured, is quite safe and kept locked away from all men of the keep, including a very angry Meleagant. Wild Card refuses to put off the fight with Meleagant for longer than a day, insisting that he’s good to go any time, what bleeding wounds? Once he has been shown to a room and attended by Bademagu’s surgeon, the king goes to Meleagant to try and reason with him again. It is an effort doomed to failure; Meleagant is eager to fight.

The combat takes place the next day in front of the keep, with a large audience of Meleagant’s prisoners and Bademagu’s subjects together. Bademagu tries one last time to prevent the fight, and when that comes to no good, he goes up to the window where Guinevere herself is positioned to watch the fighting. The two knights smash into one another. They are well-matched, each inflicting heavy damage. Wild Card is already injured – soon the battle begins to take its toll on him. A young woman standing in the audience does some quiet equations about what it will take for Wild Card to win, and then goes to Guinevere to ask for Wild Card’s name. “Lancelot of the Lake,” the queen tells her, and the girl immediately yells out the window, “Lancelot! Turn around and see whose attention is fixed on you!”

Maybe not the BEST strategy when our boy is fighting for his life, but it does the trick – when Lancelot sees Guinevere there at the window, he is filled with fire and drives Meleagant back so ferociously that Bademagu asks the queen’s permission to intervene. “If I nursed a mortal hatred against your son, whom I certainly don’t love,” Guinevere replies, “nevertheless you have served me so well that, since this is your pleasure, I’m quite happy for him to desist.” Lancelot overhears her words and immediately lowers his weapon. Meleagant lashes out furiously in his humiliation and Bademagu has to send in his own people to restrain him. Meleagant refuses to acknowledge that he has lost the combat. The only way he will agree to give over the queen is if Lancelot agrees to fight him again within the year. Guinevere consents, which means Lancelot does too.

The deal is done – the queen is free, which means every single one of her people are freed with her. Lancelot is feted as a saviour, everyone wants to cheer for him, to be close to him, to touch him. All he wants to do is get to Guinevere.

The feeling is not mutual. Guinevere refuses to look at him, or talk to him, to everyone’s bewilderment. Even the injured Kay, who I think we can all agree is a bit awful and whose own first reaction to seeing Lancelot is essentially ‘how dare you win when I couldn’t!’, comes up blank when Lancelot despairingly asks what he’s done wrong.

Lancelot, bless him, buckles up to go find Gawain, who should have shown up by now and has not. Of the many newly freed captives, some decide to go with Lancelot and some decide to stay with the queen. Meanwhile, Meleagant still has a lot of popular support throughout the kingdom. They liked being an isolationist state! What happens now that people can just…arrive…and leave, as they PLEASE? They ambush Lancelot and his people, who are entirely unprepared for combat after their peace-making with Bademagu.

Greatly exaggerated word reaches Guinevere that Lancelot has fallen to rebels. She manages a speech for the benefit of her people before retreating to have a breakdown. She is so overcome by the dreadful memories of turning Lancelot away that she tries to strangle herself. In true Shakespearean fashion, a rumour spreads that the queen is in fact dead and Lancelot hears it. Now it’s his turn to attempt suicide, and he nearly succeeds. The only thing that rouses him from his miasma of despair is learning that actually, the queen is alive! Guinevere is informed that Lancelot is likewise still breathing and on his way towards her and everyone calms down for A GODDAMN MINUTE.

Bademagu greets Lancelot’s captors with outrage and Lancelot, being Lancelot, takes it upon himself to bring about a round of forgiveness. Then he gets his take two reunion with the queen, who hurries out to meet him, glowing with happiness. They talk non-stop about everything under the sun and Lancelot gets up the courage to ask about why she was unhappy with him in the first place. “Were you not then ashamed and afraid of the cart?” Guinevere inquires. “You showed great reluctance to climb in when you hesitated for the space of two steps.” How could she POSSIBLY KNOW? Where is she getting her information? Lancelot, who doesn’t bother himself with questions about his queen’s spy network, acknowledges her point as totally valid and promises to never to do it again.

That night they meet again for a secret rendevous. Lancelot goes to the queen’s window, which is barred with iron, and reaches through to hold her hand. He claims that the bars couldn’t keep him from her, if only she would give him permission – our boy is all about full informed consent, thanks very much – and when Guinevere gives her approval, he BENDS THE IRON BARS out of the way. In the process he cuts his finger, but is so ecstatic about finally being alone with his love that he doesn’t even notice. They have life-affirming sex throughout the night. Chretien’s delicate commentary is that ‘the supreme and most exquisite of their joys was that which the tale conceals and leaves untold’, which is why generations have been writing myth fanfic about these two.

Lancelot departs the next morning, straightening the bars behind him, but unknowingly leaves the queen’s sheets stained with blood. The first person to enter the queen’s room that day is, in the most unfortunate and creepy turn of events, none other than Meleagant, who promptly puts two and two together and comes up with eleven. He accuses Guinevere of sleeping with the injured Kay. Guinevere, with great dignity, insists she had a nosebleed during the night. Menstruation would probably have been a better excuse, more likely to embarrass Meleagant into silence, but the poor woman is having to think on her feet. Meleagant, refusing to take Guinevere’s word, runs to his father to bemoan Kay having access to the queen’s body when he doesn’t. If only Lancelot had thrown him off a cliff. Oh well.

Kay is shocked at the accusations, as well he might be. He tries to challenge Meleagant to combat to clear his name, but Bademagu scotches that, pointing out Kay is in no state to fight. Probably in no state for athletic sex either, in that case! Guinevere declares that she already has a knight to fight for her honour and at this moment Lancelot enters like the beautiful drama llama that he is. “There is no need for you to plead in your defence,” he says passionately, “so long as I am present…No one, so help me God, who has known Kay the seneschal has ever suspected him of such an act.”

Lancelot and Meleagant both swear to their different versions of events. Lancelot adds an extra touch. “No matter whom it may displease or vex, if today I may be enabled by the sufficient aid of God and these relics here to get the better of Meleagant,” he vows, “then I shall never have mercy on him.” The two knights go at it with bloodthirsty eagerness, but Bademagu once again intervenes. He reminds them that a combat has already been arranged, for Meleagant to face Lancelot at Arthur’s court in a year’s time. Lancelot follows his queen’s lead and accepts the delay.

He turns his attention back to finding Gawain. On the way to the underwater bridge, they meet a dwarf on horseback who convinces Lancelot to follow him, alone, to an undisclosed location. Lancelot is of course captured again. His companions, after waiting in vain for him to reappear, continue to the underwater bridge to hunt for Gawain. They find Gawain in the deep water, on the verge of drowning. Lancelot’s people haul him from the water and he hacks up half the river, barely getting his breath back before spilling out anxious questions about the queen. Gawain’s rescuers immediately tell him how the dwarf led Lancelot away into who knows what danger. This message is then relayed to Guinevere. While she’s deeply relieved to see Gawain safe and sound, she’s filled with dread for what has become of Lancelot.

Bademagu is hit pretty hard too. It’s hard to be a just and honourable king when your houseguests keep getting abducted and your son is a treacherous misogynistic excuse for a knight. He sends messengers throughout the kingdom to seek out Lancelot. Gawain and Kay are about to set out to search as well when a boy arrives with a letter, seemingly from Lancelot, stating that he has returned to Arthur’s court. The queen is uplifted; Bademagu is relieved. The two part on excellent terms. It is not until Guinevere is reunited with her husband, who assumes that Gawain came to her rescue, that anyone realises that Lancelot’s letter was a forgery.

Arthur’s happy; he’s got his queen back. Guinevere is on an emotional rollercoaster and probably contemplating locking Lancelot in a tower herself, just to keep consistent tabs on him.

While the queen was absent, two of her gentlewomenthe Lady of Noauz and the Lady of Pomelegloi – decided to becomes medieval Bachelorettes by throwing a tournament with their hands in marriage promised to the victors. Word of the competition spreads and reaches Meleagant. It also reaches the ears of Lancelot,who is being held prisoner in a quite civilised household whose mistress is keeping a weather eye on his emotional wellbeing. She notices how dejected he seems and he tells her that he longs to be at that tournament. She would happily let him go if not for, you know, the whole Meleagant situation. “My lady,” Lancelot says eagerly, “if you’re frightened that I wouldn’t return to my captivity with you immediately after the contest, I’ll take an oath that I shall never break.” Oh, honey. Really? Are you really doing this?

The lady of the household has an entirely understandable crush on Lancelot and a very shrewd recognition of his martyrdom to honour. She arms him with her husband’s gear and sends him forth to Noauz, where the only people who recognise him are an adoring herald and the keen-eyed queen. She sends word to Lancelot to ‘do his worst’; he humiliates himself on the field for her. She then instructs him, via her messenger girl, to ‘do the very best he can’; he conquers the field at her word. Guinevere, watching on, is amused to hear the admiring murmurs of her ladies. Thanks to Lancelot, not one of the women attending the tournament will pick a husband, but none of them have a hope of claiming him either. Guinevere owns Lancelot body and soul and she knows it.

His honour, however, is a force equal to his heart. After the tournament he returns faithfully to captivity. Meleagant finds out about what happened and decides he needs to arrange a closer confinement. He has a tower constructed on an isolated island and walls Lancelot up inside it. After that, he is so satisfied with himself that he parades before Arthur’s court, gloating about Lancelot’s absence. Guinevere leans towards her husband. “Do you know, sir,” she remarks coolly, “who this man is? It’s Meleagant, who abducted me when I was being escorted by Kay the seneschal, on whom he inflicted a good deal of shame and injury.” I love her. I love her so much. Gawain leaps up in Lancelot’s defence. “Please God, he’ll be found before the year is out,” he says, “unless he’s dead or a prisoner. Then, if he doesn’t come, grant me the duel, and I shall fight it.”

Meleagant then takes his obnoxious self to Bath, like this is a Regency novel and he’s the wicked rake of the family, to crash his father’s birthday celebrations. He gloats about securing a match against Gawain, since Lancelot has vanished. Bademagu scolds him for his arrogance. “A curse on anyone who will ever believe that the courteous Lancelot, who is honoured by all but you, has fled through fear of you! But perhaps he’s in his grave or shut away in some prison.”

Now, Bademagu has a daughter as well, and she’s listening in on this conversation. She is convinced that Lancelot is being held captive and she’s damn well going to do something about it. She rides off at once to seek word of his whereabouts.

She is as persistent a champion as Lancelot could hope for. She has searched high and low across many lands when, after so long without success, she happens to see a lone tower in the distance. Instinct tells her that she’s finally found what she was looking for. She walks around the tower, noting the lack of doors and the single window. As she stands there, she hears a man’s voice lamenting above. Meleagant’s sister calls up to Lancelot. She explains that she was the woman who directed him to the Sword Bridge – and she was the woman who asked for the knight’s head, and got it. That was the favour that Lancelot owed her. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was also the woman who called out Lancelot’s name during the first combat against Meleagant. “Never fear, my friend,” she calls, “that you’ll not be freed from here all right!” She produces a pickaxe and sends it up to Lancelot, who hacks around the window until it is large enough to let him through.

His long imprisonment has left him greatly weakened. Meleagant’s sister mounts him up on her mule and leads him to a bolthole of hers, where she nurses him back to full health. He showers her in words of affection and gratitude, but inevitably asks leave to return to Arthur’s court. On the way, Lancelot’s one-track mind fixes on Meleagant.

Meleagant, meanwhile, is demanding that Gawain fight him, in the light of Lancelot’s continued absence. Gawain has just armed himself when, to his intense relief, he sees Lancelot ride up. The entire court is overjoyed. Arthur asks Lancelot where on earth he’s been all this time and Lancelot unleashes the whole story. “I wish to pay his due at once, without delay,” he says furiously. “He’s come to ask for it and shall have it.” Gawain offers to fight in his stead, since he’s already fully armed, but Lancelot won’t hear of it. This is personal.

Meleagant can’t believe what he’s seeing. Still, he’s committed to combat now. Arthur chooses a scenic location for the battle and his court gather around to watch. So ferocious is the enmity between the combatants that even their horses are out for blood. Lancelot is a force of nature, pushing through Meleagant’s defences and hacking off his arm. Meleagant is driven into such a state of pain and rage that he runs straight at Lancelot to try and wrestle him. Lancelot then swings a killing stroke, cutting off Meleagant’s head at a blow.

And not before time.

Everything from Lancelot’s imprisonment in the tower to his victory over Meleagant was completed by a second author, Godefroi de Leigni, which might explain the abruptness of the ending. I would have liked a check in with Guinevere, but instead the story concludes with the celebrations of Arthur and his court.

Still, many thanks to Godefroi for Meleagant’s unstoppable sister. I don’t understand why she was not given a name, being such a significant character, but I’ll never be over the gender-swapped Rapunzel scene where she becomes Lancelot’s axe-wielding saviour. That’s what I’m here for: Lancelot being the indignant beam of light that he is, and the powerhouse women around him making all the decisions.

Messing with the ladies of Camelot does not tend to end well for anyone.

Humanity for Beginners: Chapter Eleven

Humanity for Beginners

by Faith Mudge

Chapter Eleven

It was Damien and Eben who dealt with the mess. Trust only went so far; they stayed behind locked doors while the wolves roamed outside, protecting their territory. Come dawn, there was a tranquilized boy lying naked in the middle of the drive and four women in an equal state of undress to track down. Eben went around with blankets while Damien located the pack’s transport, abandoned nearby down the road, and hauled their trespasser into the back of the car. The other boy was already there, flinching back with hands raised.

“I told him he should get going,” Damien reported later, once Gloria was in a more human state and had scrubbed her teeth three times in a row. “They had the keys, and wherever their bastard alpha went to lick his wounds, he’d have a hard time catching up on foot.”

“Did the kid listen?” Gloria asked.

Damien shrugged. “I hope so. Left him to it.”

The kitchen went quiet after that. They were all grouped around the table, Lissa and Louisa with their arms around each other, Eben sitting with his hands locked around a cup of coffee and his gazed fixed downward. A box of cereal sat in the middle of the table, a stop-gap until Nadine felt like making breakfast. She was leaning her head against Gloria’s side, a small smile playing around her mouth. While Gloria was feeling vaguely appalled at herself, it was clear Nadine had enjoyed the evening enormously.

“Do you think he’ll come back this time?” Lissa asked. “The alpha?”

Nadine snorted. “Hardly an alpha any more. A jumped-up cub whose friends have seen he’s an idiot, more like. No, he won’t be coming back any time soon. Anyone from a pack would smell the defeat on him.”

“There’s a primal truth for you,” Damien said, with immense satisfaction.

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Humanity for Beginners: Chapter Ten

Humanity for Beginners

by Faith Mudge

Chapter Ten

Because it seemed no week could go smoothly any more, Graham Seymour made a reappearance the next day. Not in person, since Gloria gathered that it took only the most serious crisis to induce that level of parental involvement, but he demanded a Skype session that his son and daughter duly sat through in the privacy of Louisa’s room. Lissa prowled unhappily outside, hugging Wellington against her chest.

He doesn’t like me, she said.

Of course, he does, Gloria said. I just don’t think he wants to be hugged right now.

I mean Louisa’s dad. Lissa turned big, sad eyes on Gloria. I don’t know what to do. How to look like a good girlfriend, how to be a good girlfriend. Louisa can do so much better. She’s so pretty and so clever, she can do all sorts of things. She can play piano, did you know?

I didn’t know that.

I can’t do useful things, Lissa muttered. She’ll be getting a degree, and I’ll be weighing her down. I should just… I shouldn’t do that to her.

Lissa. Gloria gently pried Wellington out of her arms, putting the relieved cat on the ground. I don’t know how to be a good girlfriend either. It’s not like you get a manual. This is something you work out as you go along. And take it from me, sweetheart, dating really isn’t a decision you make alone. Make absolutely sure you and Louisa are on the same page before you try and be self-sacrificing. Do you actually want to go to London?

Lissa was biting her thumbnail, a habit Gloria hadn’t seen in months.

I don’t know, she said. I want to be with Louisa. But I can’t. I’ve done this before. It’s bad. They pay for things, and I’m in the way, and it’s like being in a cage―

Gloria had a feeling Lissa was talking about her time in foster care, but she didn’t know much about Lissa’s dating history either. She put a hand on Lissa’s shoulder and squeezed gently. Gentleness did not usually come as easily so close to full moon, but Lissa brought out all Gloria’s protective instincts.

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