References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction (from Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, 1995, taken from the University of Rochester website) by Thomas Hahn, http://www.sfsu.edu/~medieval/romances/wedding_rev.html, http://www.eleusinianm.co.uk/middle-english-literature-retold-in-modern-english/breton-lais/sir-launfal, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin
When I was growing up, I read two books that introduced me to a pair of remarkable women at King Arthur’s court, and I’ve never forgotten them. The first was a picture book called Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (Walker Books Ltd., 1987) by Selina Hastings, vividly illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. The second is The deeds of the nameless knight (Ladybird Books Ltd., 1977) by Desmond Dunkerley and illustrated by Robert Ayton. There is a certain undeniable romance to the imagery of a knight in shining armour, but up close and personal it can be quite a lot more complicated, and these stories are about women who knew that better than anyone.
The ‘loathly lady’ is a folkloric archetype present in several Arthurian stories, but it takes centre stage in a ballad called ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’ (also spelled Ragnelle) that survived to the present day in a 16th century manuscript. In this ballad, King Arthur goes out into Inglewood to hunt with his knights but leaves them behind in the pursuit of a fine hart. He succeeds in catching and killing it, only to be caught and threatened with death himself by the vengeful Sir Gromer-Somer Joure, whose lands were given over to Arthur’s nephew Gawain in what admittedly does sound a lot like nepotism. Unarmed, Arthur tries to negotiate with promises of redress, but Gromer-Somer Joure instead sets him a challenge. Arthur must return to Inglewood in twelve months time with the answer to a riddle: what do women everywhere love best? If Arthur has no solution, he will lose his head.
Gromer-Somer Joure is obviously one of those men who believes women possess a hive-mind. His plan hinges upon Arthur’s cast-iron sense of chivalry; once the challenge is accepted, the king can’t simply show up for the meeting with an ambush of knights to ensure it goes his way. He returns to his court at Carlisle in such a low mood that Gawain insists on knowing what is troubling him. He takes an optimistic view of the bargain Arthur has made. At his suggestion, the two men ride off in different directions to try out the riddle on everyone they meet, and compare notes afterwards. Some people think that what women want most is beautiful clothes, while others claim it is courtship or affection, but Arthur is not satisfied with those answers. He decides to return to Inglewood, in the hope of finding some clue.
I don’t know what he was hoping to find, but what he gets is a woman on a white horse, who gives every appearance of having been waiting for him.
According to the translation of the ballad from Medieval Forum (a translation which is taken from Middle English Romances, edited by Stephen H. A. Shepherd) the lady’s face is “red and covered with snot, her mouth huge, and all her teeth yellow, hanging over her lips. Her bleary eyes were greater than a ball, and her cheeks were as broad as women’s hips. She had a hump on her back, her neck was long and thick, and her hair clotted into a heap. She was made like a barrel, with shoulders a yard wide and hanging breasts that were large enough to be a horse’s load. No tongue can tell of the foulness and ugliness of that lady.” Later she is described as having “two teeth on each side like boar tusks the span of a hand: one went up, the other down. Her wide, foul mouth was covered with grey hairs and her lips lay lumped on her chin; no neck could be seen.”
She may not have beauty, but she has plenty of confidence. She offers Arthur the answer to his riddle in return for the promise that Sir Gawain will be her husband. “I am not wicked!” she assures Arthur, but he is deeply unhappy about the whole business and can make no guarantee beyond appealing to his nephew – and while he trusts Gawain will want to help him, he does not want to foist so unappealing a bride on him. “Sir King,” the woman responds, “though I am foul, even an owl may choose its mate. I’ll say no more. I will meet you here when you have made your decision, or else I believe you are lost.”
“Farewell, lady foul,” Arthur says bitterly as he turns for Carlisle. “Yes, sir,” she retorts, “there is a bird men call an owl, yet I am a lady.” In medieval bestiaries, the owl is the harbinger of death, making this statement less than comforting. She tells him that her name is Dame Ragnell, ‘who has never yet beguiled man’, a statement I shall assume indicates virginity, though it could also be another attempt at reassurance regarding her motives.
If so, it doesn’t help. Arthur returns to Carlisle feeling trapped and borderline suicidal, but when he tells Gawain of the offer, Gawain replies at once that he would wed Ragnell were she ‘a fiend, or as foul as Beelzebub’ in order to save his king. Arthur goes back to Inglewood less than a week later to accept Ragnell’s terms, with phrasing that emphasises the sexual coercion she has demanded (‘you shall have your desire in the bedchamber and in bed’). It’s a reasonable view to take – Gawain’s consent comes under significant duress, after all – but Ragnell is a woman of her word.
“Sir, you will now know, without digression, what women of all degrees want most,” she tells Arthur. “Some men say we desire to be beautiful and that we want to consort with diverse strange men; also we love lust in bed and often wish to wed. Thus men misunderstand women. Another idea they have is that we want to be seen as young and fresh, not old, and that women can be won through flattery and clever ploys. In truth, you act foolishly. The one thing that we desire of men above all else is to have complete sovereignty, so that all is ours. We use our skill to gain mastery over the most fierce, victorious and manly of knights. So go on your way and tell this to the knight, who will be angry and curse the one who taught it to you, for his labour is lost. I assure you that your life is now safe, and remember your promise.”
Arthur goes to meet Sir Gromer, but instead of giving Ragnell’s answer right away, he hands over the massive accumulation of answers collected from around the countryside. If the right one is in there somewhere, Gawain need not marry Ragnell. This hope is in vain. Gromer reaches for his sword and Arthur, despairing, hurls out his last shot. “Here is what all women desire above all things of men…sovereignty, the rule of the manliest men. Then they are happy (so they have taught me) – to rule you, Sir Gromer.”
Burn. Which is literally how Gromer responds. “I hope that she who told you burns in a fire, the old nag,” he snarls, “for she was my sister, Dame Ragnell.” His own rules leave him no choice but to let Arthur go. The king meets Ragnell on his return journey and she reminds him of the marriage he promised her. No small wedding will do, either, and she’s not letting him out of her sight until the vows have been spoken. She enters the court at his side, insisting Gawain be brought to her at once.
The couple are soon betrothed. Looking on, the king and queen and all their court tactlessly bemoan Gawain’s fate. Guinevere tries to talk Ragnell into a quiet, early morning ceremony but Ragnell is set on marrying in the church before everybody and celebrating with a court feast, and her crimson wedding clothes are even finer than the queen’s. She also insists that all the ladies of the surrounding country attend the ceremony. Afterwards, she is seated at the high table and eats enough for six people, using her long nails to tear apart the food. Everyone is shocked at her uncouth manners, but she ploughs on calmly until the end of the meal, when she retires with her new husband to their bedchamber.
Gawain has his back to her when she speaks to him directly for the first time in the ballad. “Since we are married, show me your courtesy in bed,” she says. “…If I were beautiful, you would do differently…But for Arthur’s sake, kiss me at least. I pray you honour my request; show me how you can do.”
He turns around, determined to fulfill his vows, and finds a beautiful woman he doesn’t even recognise sitting on the bed. She lightly mocks his confusion; it is, of course, Ragnell. In this form he kisses her with enthusiasm, but she soon interrupts. “Sir, you must make a choice, as my beauty will not last. You may have me fair at night and foul at day in everyone’s sight, or fair during the day and foul at night. You must choose one or the other; which would you prefer to save your honor?”
Gawain is torn. Unable to decide which course would be best, he leaves it up to her. “Whatever you wish, I put it in your hand,” he tells her. “My body and goods, heart and every part of me is all your own to buy and sell, I vow before God.”
That is the right answer – a) because it’s not his body to make decisions about, and b) because it is the solution to Ragnell’s curse. She was enchanted by her necromancer stepmother to remain hideous until the best knight in England not only married her, but gave her rule over him. Which sounds pretty kinky, actually, especially when they spend the rest of the night ‘mak[ing] much joy’ (a.k.a., having excellent sex) and stay in bed until midday. By that point, Arthur grows concerned enough to come check on them. He fears that Ragnell has devoured his nephew; then Gawain opens the door to reveal Ragnell in her nightdress, red-gold hair falling down to her knees. “This is my wife, Dame Ragnell,” Gawain says smugly, “who once saved your life.” He tells her story, and interestingly it is Guinevere’s relief that is highlighted.
The wedding is celebrated all over again with considerably more gusto. Now that Ragnell has a pretty face, her deeds look good too. Guinevere declares her the most beautiful woman in the hall (a sentiment agreed upon by the queen’s ladies) and swears to love her forever for saving Arthur’s life. Ragnell sweetly promises her obedience to Gawain. As they’ve now promised obedience to each other, I’m not entirely sure how any disagreement in their marriage is going to get resolved, but they make it work. She gives birth to a boy, Gyngolyn, who later becomes a knight of the Round Table like his father, and becomes a fixture at court. Gawain is so besotted he gives up jousting to spend more time with her. Ragnell also convinces Arthur to reconcile with her brother, presumably returning Gromer’s lands.
Sadly, Ragnell lives only five years into her marriage. It’s unclear what she dies of, other than a narrative dead-end. She does not appear in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, though her brother and son both do. Howard Pyle’s adaptation of this story lets her live, but turns Gromer-Somer Joure into a sorcerer acting out of pure spite and Ragnell into a nameless Lady of the Lake, from the same faerie otherworld as Nimue. This version of Ragnell saw Gawain once upon a time and cooked up a plan to compel him into marriage. In this version, the ugliness is a disguise to test Gawain’s strength of character. Without the need to break a curse, her behaviour is alarmingly manipulative and her character a lot less likeable.
Gawain has four brothers, according to Le Morte d’Arthur. The youngest is Gareth. When it is his turn to go to Arthur’s court, he shows up unarmed where the court is in residence at Kynke Kenadonne, with a dwarf in his service and the bold request of three favours from the king without introducing himself or giving Arthur any reason to indulge him. Fortunately, Gareth is a) adorable, and b) good at timing, because Arthur considers no Pentecost feast complete without something strange and wonderful occurring, and Gareth’s demand for a year’s lodging at court fits the bill. Arthur agrees to give Gareth his way and leaves his seneschal Kay to handle the details.
Kay does not approve of Gareth. He sees him as a freeloader and nicknames him ‘Beaumains’, meaning ‘fair-hands’. Gawain doesn’t recognise his brother (exactly how long has it been since the last family reunion?) but takes Gareth’s side anyway. So does Lancelot, because his role in Le Morte d’Arthur is to be everybody’s big brother whether he’s related to them or not. Gareth refuses to accept more than Kay will grant him, however; he sleeps on the floor with the kitchen boys and bides his time.
He accompanies Arthur’s court to Carlion. At the feast of Whitsuntide, a young woman enters the great hall with a challenge for the knights: her sister’s castle is under siege from the Red Knight of the Red Lands and she is in desperate need of a champion. As the woman will give neither her name nor the name of her sister, she gets little interest from the court. Gareth is indignant on her behalf and comes forward to claim the quest. That counts as his second favour from Arthur. His third favour is asking for Lancelot to knight him. Realising she’s getting a kitchen boy when she needs a hero, the young woman storms out. Gareth puts on his own armour and follows her.
Kay follows him, as outraged as the lady, though with significantly pettier cause. He plans to teach Gareth a lesson by unhorsing him. Lancelot, who joins the veritable procession wending its way out of Carlion, watches as Gareth unhorses Kay, takes his shield and spear, and gives over Kay’s horse to the dwarf who accompanies him. Gareth even manages to hold his own against Lancelot in a subsequent joust, well enough that Lancelot would have to exert himself properly in order to win, which he is not willing to do. Assured that his identity will remain a secret, Gareth reveals his real name to Lancelot and is knighted by him.
That doesn’t impress the lady whose quest he has taken. She insults him thoroughly, but he follows her anyway. Gareth’s family is full of very persistent people and he is no exception. He comes upon a knight besieged by six thieves, all of whom Gareth overpowers; the grateful knight invites them to stay the night in his castle and the lady insults her unwanted champion again by refusing to sit beside him. Gareth fights again when challenged by two violent knights at a river crossing, a victory the lady ingeniously passes off as luck. It’s rather harder to ignore Gareth’s skill when he kills Sir Percard of the Black Lands and claims his armour, but the lady can certainly disapprove of his actions. And loudly express her utter exasperation that this boy will not go away.
This is adventurous country, ruled by another large family of brothers. Gareth’s next opponent is Sir Pertolepe of the Green Lands, and Gareth only spares his life when the lady very grudgingly asks for his mercy. In an astonishing display of ‘no hard feelings!’, the defeated knight puts them up for the evening and once again the lady will not sit with Gareth. She warns him that they are soon to travel through the Pass Perilous and he should turn back while he still can. He politely refuses. Gareth is always scrupulously polite with her, and she is always abominably rude. This hot temper leads Malory to call her ‘the savage damsel’.
They come to a tower owned by Sir Perimones, yet another brother of the Black Knight. The lady hopes that this time Gareth will be defeated, but no such luck. She’s once again obliged to ask mercy on behalf of his opponent and makes up for her disappointment by redoubling her efforts to take the gold medal of bad manners off Sir Kay. She leads the way to the city of, yep, ANOTHER BROTHER, this family is vast, where she pokes at Gareth with doubts about his strength. He remains courteous and calm. Suddenly, the lady’s vicious bravado crumbles. She apologises for her jibes. Gareth tells her “all your evil words pleased me”, like the beautifully trained prince that he is.
I shipped these two so hard when I first encountered this story, you have no idea. Alfred Tennyson did too, in his poem Gareth and Lynette.
Gareth fights Sir Persant on general principle. It takes him a little longer to get the upper hand but he wins this battle too and the lady asks for Persant’s life without nudging. Progress! Like the other brothers, Persant offers hospitality in defeat. He also sends his eighteen-year-old daughter to Gareth’s bed to see what kind of a man he’s dealing with, which is just hideously creepy. Gareth wakes up in confusion, asking for his unexpected visitor’s name and marital status. Learning that she did not come to him of her own free will, he is appalled at her father’s behaviour, kisses her kindly and sends her away.
It turns out that Persant, terrible parenting aside, is at least better acquainted with the local nobility than his brothers. He knows the lady travelling with Gareth – her name is Linet, and her sister is Lady Liones of the Castle Dangerous. I’m going to use the alternative spellings of their names, Lyonet and Lyonesse. They have a brother called Gringamore who will not appear until later, and a niece called Laurel who is presumably his daughter. Just so you know, I shall be calling this the Dangerous family, because they kind of are.
Persant is aware that the Castle Dangerous has been under attack for two years, a siege deliberately extended so that the Red Knight can draw in more knights to humiliate and destroy, but is unwilling to extend any help himself. Gareth is horrified to discover the bodies of the Red Knight’s defeated opponents hung in the trees around Lyonesse’s castle, a goad and a warning to all newcomers. Not to mention a reminder to the besieged citizens of exactly how much peril they are in. He proves once more that he is a goddamn prince by sending his servant to alert Lyonesse to the arrival of a new champion and she sends the travellers to a nearby hermitage where they can rest in safety.
Lyonet warns Gareth not to enter into a fight until noon, as the Red Knight only gets stronger over the course of the day. It’s an interestingly similar gift to Gareth’s brother Gawain, who grows stronger through a specific set of hours during the morning. Unafraid, Gareth insists on fighting anyway.
Lyonet points out her sister standing at a window in the castle and even at that distance Gareth is struck by Lyonesse’s beauty. The Red Knight takes objection to his staring, claiming Lyonesse as his lady; Gareth sharply points out that Lyonesse obviously disagrees. The ensuing battle is brutal. It goes on all day, stretching out beyond the point of exhaustion. Gareth takes strength from Lyonesse’s beauty, but it’s Lyonet’s well-timed jab of loud mockery that gives him the energy to win the battle.
Of course, the Red Knight immediately produces a sob story about a girl he once loved whose brother was killed by Gawain or Lancelot (he doesn’t even know which one) and he insists this siege was all about getting revenge for her. Gareth places the decision about his fate in Lyonesse’s hands. The Red Knight, whose real name is Sir Ironside, is permitted to keep his life, but ordered to make amends and to beg forgiveness from the knights he wanted to harm.
With the siege finally ended, Lyonet tends Gareth’s injuries and even Ironside’s, which is very generous of her under the circumstances. Once he’s been cleaned up, Gareth goes to speak to Lyonesse, but she has pulled up her drawbridge. Every bit as prickly as her sister, she will not have him as her own until he’s spent a year proving himself to be a great knight. Hurt and confused, Gareth takes shelter in a cottage in the woods – but worse is still to come. I did say these siblings were Dangerous. Lyonesse sends her brother to kidnap Gareth’s servant so that they can question him and ascertain Gareth’s identity. The servant doesn’t go quietly, waking Gareth, who pursues Gringamore to his castle but not in time to pursue him inside.
The servant is menaced by the Dangerous sisters. He tells them everything they want to know about Gareth’s heritage, and also warns them that Gareth won’t leave until he’s been rescued. Lyonesse instructs her brother to let Gareth in, to placate him with feasting and revelry. Gringamore is supportive of his sister’s love life and happy to let her play out her weird games, including a brief attempt at pretending she’s somebody else. That plan doesn’t even last until the end of the evening; after spending a bit of time with Gareth, Lyonesse realises that he’s a delight and they are betrothed on the spot.
She promises to come to his bed later on, and Lyonet’s sense of propriety is offended. She employs ‘subtle crafts’ – a phrase that here evidently means serious sorcery – to conjure a mannikin knight, sending it to interrupt her sister’s rendevous by stabbing Gareth in the leg. He beheads the knight but passes out from loss of blood. Gringamore is shocked by the incident; Lyonet calmly puts her creature back together and shows no remorse whatsoever. The same thing happens the next time Lyonesse attempts to sleep with her fiance, causing Gareth to reopen the original wound.
Meanwhile, all Gareth’s defeated opponents have shown up at Arthur’s court to swear their loyalty, causing quite a stir. An even bigger stir is raised when Gareth’s mother arrives to find out how her youngest boy is doing. On finding out that her eldest son didn’t recognise his little brother, and that Arthur let Gareth go haring off on a ridiculous quest with a girl who wouldn’t give her name, Morgause is righteously furious. Then she hears Kay’s nickname for Gareth and remarks crisply that her son is ‘fair-handed’ – meaning just and good-hearted – indeed. It’s very awkward for pretty much everyone who is not Morgause.
Arthur does know who the women involved in this quest are now, thanks to the parade of defeated knights. He sends for Lyonesse. Her response is to invite him and his court to a grand tournament at the Castle Dangerous. She provides no explanation for anything at all. Gareth is wild to compete and prove himself. Lyonet displays her unusual skill set once again by healing him with a highly effective salve, and as entrants begin to stream into the Dangerous lands, Lyonesse prepares him for battle.
She owns a ring with two remarkable properties: it can disguise the wearer, and ensures they will lose no blood. I don’t know what use Malory imagined a wealthy lady would have for such a ring, but it sounds like an excellent contraceptive device, and though she’s willing to loan it to her lover for the duration of the tournament, she wants it back afterwards.
Lancelot is among the arriving competitors. Magic ring notwithstanding, he recognises the boy he knighted and chooses not to joust with him, so as not to risk humiliating him in front of his lady. Gareth’s servant is less discreet. Wanting Gareth’s skill to be acknowledged by the rest of the tournament, he suggests Lyonesse’s ring be returned and Gareth hands it over, unthinking. Everyone can now see him as he is. Gareth handles this very maturely by going to hide in the forest.
He’s too tired to make it back to the castle and so takes shelter at the home of a duchess. She lets him in out of loyalty to King Arthur, though her husband does not share the sentiment. Among a number of adventures the next day, including the rescue of no less than thirty widows from a villainous Brown Knight, Gareth encounters and defeats the duke, sending him in penance to Arthur.
Straight afterwards another knight rides up to challenge Gareth. They fight with a surprising amount of ferocity for two people who have literally no idea who each other are. At last Lyonet rides up to them on a mule and orders the fight to a halt; the unknown knight is Gawain. Why is he riding around the countryside, picking fights with random people? Because he’s Gawain, and he is like that. Most of Arthur’s knights are, actually. The two brothers embrace and Lyonet patches Gareth up yet again. Just in time too, because Arthur and Morgause arrive on the scene next. Lyonet leaves them all to have a family reunion while she goes off to update her sister.
Hearing that Gareth wants to marry Lyonesse, Arthur offers his castle at Kynke Kenadonne to host the wedding. The Dangerous sisters are introduced to Gareth’s brothers and apparently Lyonet hits it off well enough with Gaheris that she marries him on Michaelmas Day, the same day Lyonesse marries Gareth. Another of Morgause’s sons, Agravaine, marries Lyonet’s niece Laurel. The only one of Morgause’s sons left unmarried by the end of the day is Mordred.
All the knights Gareth defeated show up at the wedding to offer their well-wishes and a tournament is held to celebrate, but Lyonesse doesn’t want her new husband jousting so she has Arthur disallow all married men from competing.
Ragnell, Lyonet and Lyonesse are all forceful, confident women who have an absolute certainty that they will get what they want. They are not always kind, but they are protective wives and true allies to those who earn their loyalty. It is a delight to me that they all become sisters-in-law, and I am convinced they would be very good friends.
Other wives and girlfriends of the Round Table include:
– Enid, the daughter of Earl Ynywl of Cardiff and wife of Sir Geraint. Her story comes from the Mabinogeon. Geraint pursued a knight who had insulted one of Guinevere’s ladies, and in defeating him, managed to restore the lost fortune of Enid’s father. Geraint took her to the court of King Arthur, where Guinevere welcomed her with open arms, dressed her in her own clothes and generally behaved like Enid was her long lost little sister. When Geraint was obliged to leave court to attend his father’s lands, Guinevere worried over what entourage to send with her favourite. By this point Geraint had made quite a name for himself both in battle and tournaments, and as he grew comfortable in his position, he spent much more time with his wife.
This inspired scorn from his court – shock! horror! A manly man choosing to spend time with his wife, whatever next! – and upon hearing the rumours as an accusation from her father-in-law, Enid wondered what she was supposed to do about it. Geraint heard her voice these concerns aloud and misinterpreted her anxiety as evidence of infidelity. He then dragged her off on a ridiculous quest along the most dangerous roads in his lands, forbidding her to speak to him and risking her actual life in confrontations with armed robbers, two lecherous earls and marauding giants. Enid was an obedient, peaceable woman, but quietly ignored her husband’s extraordinarily unreasonable requirements to save his life over and over again until finally it dawned on him that she was actually brilliant, not to mention obviously faithful, and they went home.
– Guimier, the daughter of the King of Cornwall, sister to Sir Cador and wife to her brother’s best friend, Sir Caradoc. Caradoc’s sorcerous father Eliaures cursed him by affixing an enchanted snake to his arm, the creature sucking his life away until he was down to skin and bone. As his betrothed, Guimier came to tend him, but the only way to heal Caradoc was to risk her own life: she had to lure the snake with the promise of her own fresher blood and hope that her brother killed it before it reached her. Fortunately, he did.
A ballad called ‘The Boy and the Mantle’ shows a glimpse at her married life, when a malicious young boy came to test the virtue of the ladies at Arthur’s court with a magical mantle that only the ‘purest’ of women could safely wear. This, incidentally, was not a ballad written by someone who liked Guinevere. Guimier was safe because her only ‘sin’ was to kiss Caradoc (in the ballad, spelled Cradock) once before they were married, so the mantle fit.
– Tryamour, a faerie princess who married Arthur’s steward, Sir Launfal. This story is the fourteenth century English adaptation of an earlier Breton poem, and it takes a very dim view indeed of Guinevere. She’s said to have a string of lovers straight after her marriage to Arthur, and deliberately slighted Launfal for no apparent reason. Launfal left court to see to his father’s funeral and decided to just stay away, since the atmosphere was so poisonous, but quickly burned through his disposable funds and fell into poverty. A kind female friend lent him a horse, allowing him to retreat for a while into the woods. There he met the blonde, grey-eyed, exceptionally beautiful Dame Tryamour in her rich, ‘eastern’ style pavilion. She greeted him half-naked on a bed, called him her darling, and he fell for her on the spot.
Aware of his difficult straits, she offered him wealth and success in return for a vow of fidelity and his promise that he would not boast about her to anyone. She even gave him her horse Blaunchard, her servant Gyffre, and her standard of three ermines. Launfal happily accepted. They spent the night having great sex and Tryamour assured him that she would come to him whenever he was alone.
He was generous with his newfound fortune, and a tournament was held in his honour, allowing him to display his skill. With the aid of Gyffre and Blaunchard, he defeated even the vicious Sir Valentine. Hearing of Launfal’s impressive deeds, Arthur called him back to court. Being in possession of only the vaguest character and no consistency within this story, Guinevere attempted to seduce him. Launfal was goaded into referencing the superior beauty of his lover; in revenge, Guinevere claimed to Arthur that he tried to seduce her. Launfal defended himself well enough on that charge, but Arthur demanded he produce the beautiful lover of his boast or be executed. His promise having been broken, Launfal’s gifts had all vanished, but Tryamour came to save him regardless. She breathed into Guinevere’s face, blinding her, and took Launfal away with her to live on the island of Olyroun – better known as Avalon.
– Maledisant, a character from Le Morte d’Arthur whose story bears a strong resemblance to that of Lyonet: she came to court carrying a large black shield and a sword, seeking a knight to bear them in her service. Breunor le Noire, nicknamed ‘La Cote Male Taile’ by Kay for his ill-fitting coat, had just earned his place among Arthur’s knights by saving Guinevere from an unexpected lion. When Maledisant disdainfully rejected Kay’s offer of help (which he immediately pretended he didn’t give), Breunor insisted on taking the shield and refused to be put off by her sarcastic remarks about his appearance. He spent half the quest getting defeated by Arthur’s more experienced knights and getting mocked by Maledisant, and then Sir Mordred joined them just to make the situation even more uncomfortable.
They stopped at the Castle Orgulous, where both knights were overcome by superior force and Breunor was shown to safety by a sympathetic lady. Maledisant, assuming him to be dead, called him ‘my foolish knight’ and when he caught up with her and Mordred, she wouldn’t immediately believe that he fought in the castle at all. He proved that he did, and she sulked. Lancelot, hearing of Maledisant’s challenge at court, did his big brother thing again by going after Breunor to be sure he was all right. Mordred quickly departed. Lancelot soon left on his own business as well; Breunor and Maledisant continued on to the Castle Pendragon, where they were captured. Lancelot came back to rescue them because he is pretty much the perfect human. With his victory, he freed thirty knights and forty ladies being held prisoner; even the defeated lord of the castle, Sir Brian, felt less bad about being beaten when he found out his opponent was Lancelot and Maledisant apologised for insulting Arthur’s greatest knight. She even toned down her criticism of Breunor for his sake, and Lancelot nicknamed her the damsel ‘Bienpensant’, meaning ‘right-thinking’ (but also ‘conformist’).
Coming to the border with the land of Surluse, Breunor finally got his chance to shine, defeating Sir Plaine de Force and Sir Plaine de Amours before collapsing in front of their brother Sir Plenorious, who generously conceded that Breunor was already wounded and took him inside his castle to recover. Lancelot overcame Plenorious to soothe Breunor’s pride and defeated three more brothers in the family to boot. He then tried to give the land he won to Breunor, but Breunor would not take it, so Lancelot organised for him to have Castle Pendragon instead. At the next Pentecost feast, both Breunor and Plenorious were made knights of the Round Table and Breunor married Maledisant, who was henceforth known as Beauvivante.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!