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.