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.