Of Quests and Kings

Twelve months ago, I thought 2020 was getting its worst out of the way in January, because my country was on fire. This did not feel like optimism at the time. It’s been a long game of Apocalypse Bingo, everyone, how are you all doing? I truly hope that December has been kinder to you and that 2021 brings much less awful surprises for all of us.

In 2020 I committed to researching and writing twelve posts about different Arthurian legends and planned out work on a range of fiction projects. As it turns out, I picked the wrong year both for time-sensitive creative endeavours AND for getting sick every few weeks. I have to admit, this is making me a little anxious about making plans for 2021!

There were times it was very hard to keep up with Year of the Quest, but it was also one of the things that held the year together for me and made sense of months when linear time seemed to stop existing. It kept me writing, racking up just over 39 000 words, and allowed me to explore some of the more obscure stories of Arthurian legend, as well as rediscover the more famous ones. To recap the full list:

As I have said before, I am not an academic – I’m a storyteller, and one of the things that interested me was figuring out how these stories could fit together. They come from wildly disparate times, authors, countries and cultural contexts, which makes it all the more surprising and delightful to find continuity and consistent, if complex, characters. Gawain is a good example. The noble, self-sacrificing knight from The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle is very clearly the same man from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the same is true of the Gawain from Lancelot, who is widely trusted, admired and beloved. He is courtly and protective of women, quick to defend his uncle and friends, but capable of blunt speech where necessary. He is a more playful, flirtatious figure from Yvain and Perceval, but shows the same loyalty and sense of chivalry. Gawain has a temper and is capable of hot-headed decisions that he will later very much regret, but this is also the man who fought on behalf of a hurt, angry child to give her justice, the man who married for no other reason than to save his uncle’s life and then gave his cursed stranger of a wife control over her own life for the first time in a long time. He is a wonderful character.

Guinevere’s personality and motivations vary much more widely across these stories, which is hardly surprising. The goal posts for heroism in mythic women are changeable indeed. Still, setting aside the interpretation of Guinevere in Sir Launfal, where she was clearly positioned as the villain, there are certain traits that crop up in different versions. The queen is the standard of beauty for Arthur’s court, and it seems agreed that hers is a high standard, because whenever a story feels the need to emphasise for us how pretty a girl is, we’re told she outshines Guinevere. The queen herself, though, rarely seems to feel the need to compete with other women. In Geraint son of Erbin, she affectionately welcomes Enid to court and treats her like a little sister. When Gawain marries Ragnelle, Guinevere’s first concern is for her nephew, for whom she generally seems to have an uncomplicated familial love. Once his happiness is assured she is quick to publicly offer Ragnelle her praise and promises her lifelong friendship.

Guinevere is good friends with Gawain and Geraint/ Erec, but her relationships with other men tend to be pricklier. In Lancelot, she is loving towards Lancelot but also exacting and quite unforgiving, and little more than dutiful towards Arthur. There is a more united front with the king in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle, but Guinevere is very much a background character in both. I wonder what she would have said women desire most? In King Arthur and King Cornwall, she mocks Arthur and cheats on him with another king. She is bitingly sarcastic towards Kay in Yvain, refusing to tolerate his bullying behaviour, and Geraint son of Erbin, The Boy and the Mantle and Perceval all show her fury when she is insulted.

Guinevere’s infidelity is one continuity; her big heart and hot temper are another. She is an amazing, complicated woman.

And what about Arthur himself? He’s set up a powerful warrior king in How Culhwch Won Olwen, but not a particularly honourable one. He is an affectionate, somewhat homoerotic friend to the protagonist of The Lay of the Were-Wolf and is shown to miss the company of his knights in Perceval, but he’s prone to falling into danger and being dug out of trouble by other people (by Gawain, usually, sometimes Lancelot). He allows Guinevere to be carried off in Lancelot and does not seem to take the insult to her seriously in Geraint son of Erbin. Wine is thrown over her in Perceval and he appears to have done…nothing about it. In The Boy and the Mantle, nearly all the women of the court are humiliated by the boy and his magical, infidelity-detector cloak (which, notably, none of the men are asked to wear!) and Arthur is just fine with this. In most of these stories he is very much the king of a chess game, the most vital piece on the board in that the stories would have no focal point without him, but incredibly limited in his capacity for action.

There is a very well-known version of Arthurian legend I did not explore this year. Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory was what renewed my interest in Arthurian legend when I read it several years ago, but it is very long and would take a long time to work through.

So that’s what I’m doing next year! For Year of the King, I will be posting weekly instalments for Patreon subscribers and monthly roundups for my main blog. Patreon subscribers will be getting extra content as I continue the Dreamline book club and record readings of Andrew Lang fairy tales. I have always sort of put Andrew Lang in the mental box of ‘Not Ruth Manning-Sanders’, as they wrote retellings of quite a few of the same stories, but that’s not a particularly fair way to look at it so in 2021 I’ll be giving more of his work a go.

Best wishes for a safer, healthier, happier 2021 for all of us.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Redefinition of Headstrong

Trigger warning: references to sexual harassment

This is the twelfth and final post in the Year of the Quest. As we come to the end of a year that feels at least three years long, it’s time for merriment, feasting and…decapitation? This version of ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ comes from a 1995 collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations called Sir Gawain, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, published by HarperCollins. It begins dramatically and a little unexpectedly with the fall of Troy and the foundation of a nation of warriors by Felix Brutus in Britain. Of all the hero kings of old, Arthur is held up in honour.

The king is holding court at Camelot for Christmas, celebrating with fifteen days of jousting, feasting and dancing. The New Year gifts are handed out, amidst much laughter and playful banter, but Arthur will not eat until he hears of a marvel or interesting adventure, or until a challenger enters seeking an opponent. Arthur is described here as young and boyish, unable to keep still for long, while Guinevere is a bright, grey-eyed beauty presiding over the court. This is a very different royal couple from the weary, sorrowful king and queen from Perceval.

Guinevere is seated between two of her husband’s nephews, Agravain on one side and Gawain on the other. When the food has been laid out to a fanfare of drums and trumpets, an enormous knight rides into the hall. Everything he wears, all of it well-made from expensive fabrics, is green; his hair is green; his skin is green. Even his horse is green. This man has an AESTHETIC. He comes without armour or shield, carrying a bundle of holly in one hand and an axe in the other, razor sharp and made of green steel. He is a fascinating sight to the gathered court, and a rather alarming one. Arthur, however, welcomes the Green Knight to his hall and asks what he wishes by coming here.

The Green Knight announces that he carries holly to show that he comes in peace, for he could have come fully armed if it was a real fight he was after. He regards Arthur’s knights as mere boys, not competition. What he wants is a Yuletide contest, a game really. If any man in the court will trade a blow for a blow, the Green Knight will gift him the axe he carries. To make it even easier, the Green Knight will stand still to take the challenger’s blow and the challenger will then have a year and a day before they must withstand his own.

Nobody wants to do this. I applaud their common sense.

The Green Knight looks around in disdain. He mocks the knights of the court, dismissing their achievements because they will not play his strange little game. Arthur angrily declares that he will take on the Knight himself. Gawain suddenly speaks up, asking to deliver the blow himself. He frames it as an honour that he can only ask because of his familial relationship with the king. Arthur permits it and Gawain comes to take the axe in hand.

The Green Knight is quite pleased with this. He asks for Gawain’s name, and then makes one further stricture: that Gawain is to seek him out at the end of the year and a day. Gawain swings the axe and chops his head off his shoulders.

Hm. Do you think, possibly, he may regret doing that?

The headless Knight does not fall to the ground, as dead bodies usually do. Instead he strides forward, grabs hold of his head and leaps up on his horse, even as the wound on his neck bleeds profusely. The severed head opens its eyes and orders Gawain to find the Green Chapel come the next New Year’s morning, so that he can receive a matching blow.

Arthur treats the whole thing as if it really was a game. He urges Guinevere to see it this way too, which indicates – though her actual reaction is not described – that she is not amused at all. Gawain hangs up the axe on the wall and sits with the king and queen to continue feasting as if nothing worries him at all. But as the new year turns, Gawain’s mood darkens. At All Hallows he reminds his uncle of the agreement he made with the Green Knight and takes leave on his horse Gringolet. The symbol on his shield is the pentangle, also known as the Endless Knot, because all the lines link together; on the inside of the shield is painted Mary, mother of Christ. Both are symbolic of his values as a knight. The court bid goodbye to him with no expectation of his return and grieve his inevitable death.

Gawain rides away from his idea of civilisation, out into wilder lands, asking whoever he happens upon if they know the way to the Green Chapel. Nobody does. Gawain must constantly battle to keep moving, fighting bears and boars and wolves, which you might expect in wild country, but also wood-trolls and ogres. The weather itself is against him, this being a bitter winter. On Christmas Eve he prays to Mary to guide him to lodging and as he rides through a deep forest, he comes to a castle surrounded by a moat. Gawain calls out to the porter, sending a message to the lord of the castle, and his request for lodging is promptly granted. He is welcomed by a throng of servants, attending to his every need. The lord of the castle, a big bearded man, is very courteous, inviting Gawain to treat his home as his own. When Gawain has been changed from his armour to comfortable robes, he is brought water to wash in and served an excellent meal. The lord of the castle and his people seem delighted to be entertaining one of Arthur’s knights.

When the meal is over, everyone goes to chapel for evensong, including the lord’s wife. She is very beautiful, and walks hand-in-hand with a very old woman half-hidden under layers of cloth. Gawain greets both ladies politely and sits by the fire with them, waiting on them with great gallantry.

Christmas Day brings feasting and dancing. The elderly lady sits beside the lord of the castle, which leaves his wife beside Gawain, who appreciates this seating arrangement. After three days of celebration, the lord’s other guests depart and he thanks Gawain for staying with him, considering it an honour. Gawain explains that a very important task brought him there and asks if the lord knows the way to the Green Chapel. The lord seems quite amused. He says that he does know but will not direct Gawain there until New Year’s Day, urging him to stay and adding that the place Gawain seeks is very close indeed. Gawain is more than happy to stick around, with such friendly company.

Furthermore, the lord asks if, while he goes hunting, Gawain would keep his wife company. The lord offers an agreement: whatever he wins in the woods will be Gawain’s, if Gawain gives him whatever he wins inside the castle. Gawain agrees to this, perhaps without thinking it all the way through, because it is a strange bargain. Also, his last bargain did not work out so great.

The lord of the castle and his fellow huntsmen are gone early the next morning, off to kill things in the woods. This is described in far too much detail and makes me dislike everyone involved quite a lot. Gawain, meanwhile, has slept in. When he wakes, it is because his door has been eased open. He opens his eyes and sees the lady of the castle slipping into his room. She sits on the edge of his bed to watch him, thinking he is still asleep. After some internal debate, he ‘wakes’ and she immediately jokes about tying him to the bed. “You shall work on me your will, and well I am pleased,” Gawain replies, because of course he does, “for I submit immediately, and for mercy I cry.” The lady decides to hold him to that, refusing to let him out of bed then propositioning him for sex. “I have here wholly in my hand what all desire, by grace,” she says. Gawain delicately tries to remind her that she does in fact have a husband, but it is past mid morning before she gets up to leave. She teases her captive knight that if he really was ‘Sir Gawain the gracious’ he could hardly let her go without a kiss and Gawain agrees, allowing her to take him in her arms and kiss him.

When the lord of the castle returns, he gives Gawain all the venison from the hunt, and Gawain takes him by the neck to kiss him. He does refuse to explain where he got that kiss, but it does not take a genius to figure it out. This radiates bisexual disaster vibes.

The lord of the castle is content with the kiss anyway. That’s lucky, because when he returns from the next day’s hunt, he gets another in trade for a huge boar. The lady of the castle is a very persistent woman. Gawain, in response, is light, laughing and modest, refusing to accept her many compliments, but as she continues to subtly flirt even in front of her husband, he grows increasingly uncomfortable. He is also anxious to leave, for his appointment with the Green Knight is very near now but he still has no idea where to look for him. The lord tells him to stay for one more day and go to the Green Chapel on the first day of the new year.

The pattern holds. The lord of the castle goes out early and kills some poor defenceless fox, and Gawain gets cornered by his wife. She comes into Gawain’s room topless and kisses him awake, bringing him out of bad dreams about the Green Chapel. He realises she is determined to sleep with him and has to decide what to do about it. He doesn’t like telling her no – I gather this is not considered chivalrous – but it would be worse to betray his host, so he turns away from her. She doesn’t take the refusal gracefully. She demands to know if he has a lover, to explain away his disinterest. He answers honestly, saying that he does not. She takes another kiss, and as a goodbye gift, she gives him her girdle. It has a special power: if you wear it, no stroke of any weapon can harm you. Her only condition is that he does not tell her husband. With one last kiss, she leaves.

When the lord of the castle returns from the hunt, Gawain greets him with three kisses ‘as long and deliciously as he could lay them upon him’. OKAY. They feast together with music and laughter and Gawain bids a fond farewell to his host and the ladies of the house, with thanks to all their people. The morning dawns very cold and misty, and the road Gawain must take is a wild one. The guide sent with him actively urges him to turn around and take another road, maybe to another country, because the monstrous knight who waits for him delights in violence and Gawain will surely die there. Gawain, of course, thinks more of honour than of survival, and continues on his way when his guide disappears. He rides into a very unprepossessing valley and sees no chapel there, only a mound green with grass amidst all the snow. It is hollow inside, an old cavern. Gawain thinks it looks demonic.

As he considers the mound, he hears a grinding of rock and the Green Knight appears above Gawain’s head, sharpening a new axe. The latest in weapon fashion from Denmark, no less! Obviously, it is green. The Green Knight greets Gawain and Gawain responds with chilly courtesy. He takes off his helm and bares his neck, and the Green Knight swings his axe. Gawain flinches, very slightly, and is mocked for it. The Green Knight is very quick to point out that he let Gawain chop his head off and didn’t make a fuss about that. I mean, he obviously reattached it, which SOME PEOPLE might consider cheating, but clearly he has never heard the phrase ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ and feels he has the high ground.

Gawain holds himself stone still. The Green Knight swings again but the blade stops, no more than nicking Gawain’s skin. Blood drips onto the ground. Gawain hastily snatches up his helm and leaps some distance from the other knight. He makes it clear that if the Green Knight goes after him again, Gawain will answer every blow with one of his own.

The Green Knight is pleased with him. Gawain honoured his word and came to meet him; he also passed three more trials without knowing it, returning the lady’s kisses to her husband – who is, in fact, the Green Knight. It was the Knight who sent the lady to Gawain in the first place, to test his moral fibre. The only reason he cut Gawain at all was because Gawain failed to give the girdle along with the kisses. Gawain, thoroughly ashamed, flings the girdle from him.

When the Green Knight, in great good humour, urges Gawain to return to his house and make friends with his wife, Gawain passionately lists Biblical women who made fools of men, bitterly reflecting on his own foolishness. He does agree to keep the girdle, not so much as a gesture of friendship as a token to remind him of his mistake so that he does not fail such tests again. Then he asks the Green Knight who he really is.

His name is Bertilak de Hautdesert. He was enchanted by Morgan le Fay, who learned such magic from her lover Merlin. I am utterly delighted to know that she’s now calling herself Morgan the Goddess. It was at her command that the Green Knight went to Camelot, to test Arthur’s knights and frighten Guinevere, with a hope of maybe even killing the queen with the shock of seeing a severed head talk. The ancient lady at the Green Knight’s house was Morgan herself, in disguise. The Green Knight asks Gawain to come back again, to see his aunt.

Gawain nopes out. He kisses the Green Knight one last time, which is a gesture of friendship, and rides for Arthur’s court. King and queen welcome him home joyfully and ask about his strange quest. Gawain tells them everything, revealing the scar at the back of his neck and the girdle that is symbolic of his perceived moral failure. He plans to wear it forever. Arthur soothes him and the rest of the knights decide to wear baldrics of green out of love of Gawain. Morgan might be Gawain’s aunt, but he has the love of family in King Arthur’s court.

This is a fascinatingly twisty, enigmatic story. If anyone knows any good picture book versions, please send me your recommendations, because I would love to see what visuals illustrators have created for this one! Gawain tends to be characterised as a womaniser, but his behaviour varies a lot depending on the versions you read and in this one, he seems to be more worried about hurting the lady’s feelings than really resisting desire for her. He is fine with kissing both lady and knight, and also seems fine with a little dirty talk about bondage, but he does not like being deceived and he definitely does not like to feel he has failed to hold up his own standards. No wonder he didn’t want to spend more time with Morgan. I believe that Gawain and Arthur may have won the award for weirdest family Christmas.

I hope you are very happy, healthy and safe through the holiday season, and that 2021 brings much, much nicer surprises for all of us.

Perceval: At This Point, I’m Afraid To Ask

Trigger warning: references to sexual assault and suicidal ideation

Welcome to the penultimate post in Year of the Quest! And what a year it has been. Having been sick through November and into December, this is coming to you very late and, I’m afraid, full of wrath.

Perceval, or Percival, is a knight of the Round Table first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval: The Story of the Grail. He is the original hero of the Grail quest, later replaced by the Saviour figure of Galahad. Perceval begins with a nameless boy (Perceval. Look, we all know it’s Perceval, I just can’t SAY so yet) who lives with his mother in such isolation that the first time he sees a knight, he believes he’s looking at a devil. Then he gets a bit closer, sees all that shiny armour and changes his mind – the knights must be angels, and their leader must be God himself. The boy hurls himself to the ground to pray as hard as he can.

The leader of the knights ends up having to explain he is not a deity, which was probably not a conversation he was expecting to have. He is seeking a group believed to have passed this way and quickly grows impatient with the boy’s eager questions. The other knights make some really rude asides about the Welsh, but their leader reins in his impatience and repeats himself patiently, answering the boy’s eager questions in between.Eventually the boy directs them to his mother’s field workers, sure they would have seen a large party passing through. The field workers are panicked. They are not afraid of the knights; they are afraid of the boy’s mother, who is dead set against her son becoming a knight and has deliberately kept him from all knowledge of them. She has also never given her son a name: he is known as son, brother and master, all words that describe a relationship as opposed to a person. This is interestingly reminiscent of Arianrhod from Welsh mythology, whose refusal to name her son is part of a curse upon him.

When the boy returns home, his mother tells him she nearly died of grief in his absence. This seems a really abnormal response to an adult, or close to adult, child’s day spent outside of the family home. The boy starts gushing about knights and his mother collapses completely. Then the whole story comes out. The boy’s father was a knight famed for his merit, and his mother came from a proud family of knights herself, but after the father was wounded in the thigh all his power and success trickled away. The boy’s mother bemoans the death of Uther Pendragon, claiming all sorts of injustices happened in his absence, including her husband’s decline into poverty. Their two elder sons went to two different courts: the first to the King of Escavalon and the second to King Ban of Gomeret. Both were killed shortly after being knighted. The father died, overcome by his grief, leaving behind a widow and toddler to get by as best they can.

It’s a very sad story that explains a lot about the co-dependence in this mother-son relationship, but the boy stopped listening a while ago. He announces his immediate intention to go to the king and have himself made a knight. He doesn’t really understand the whole process but that is NOT going to stop him. His mother tries to keep him from leaving but he is sword-struck and will not listen to her very fair point that he’s had no training and will make a fool of himself. She manages to corral his limited attention span for a few pieces of advice. If he ever encounters a lady in distress, he has to help her, but he must be careful not to annoy her. Even if she allows him a kiss, to ask for more will cost her and the boy should keep from such intrigues. “But if she has a ring on her finger or a purse on her girdle and, out of love or at your request, she should give you that,” the mother says, very pragmatically, “then I’ll be happy and content.” The boy should not take a companion without having that man’s name, the better to keep worthy company, and he should go to church to pray for his honour and success. She then has to explain what a church is, complete with anti-Semitism, because it would hardly do to allow her innocent son out into the world without a bit of bigotry to build upon.

She collapses again as he departs, ‘lying in a faint just as though she had dropped dead’. He glances back and sees this happen but doesn’t stop for a minute, choosing not to apply that ‘kindness to ladies’ rule to his own mother. This is not a great beginning.

It gets a lot worse from there. In the second day of travel, he comes upon a pavilion topped with a golden eagle and determines this must be a church, so he goes to worship, believing that God can and will rustle up some breakfast for him. When he enters the pavilion, however, he finds a beautiful girl asleep there. She wakes suddenly and is rightly alarmed by a strange man in her personal space. The boy lives up to those fears by announcing his intention to kiss her ‘because my mother told me to’. NO SHE DIDN’T. What she SAID was to be careful not to annoy any ladies he met, and guess what? Forcing kisses on unwilling women is a hell of a lot worse than annoying. The boy pins the girl to the bed and kisses her seven times in a row while she does all she can to get free. He also steals a fine ring off her finger by brute force.

As he gets up, he remarks that kissing this girl is pleasanter than kissing his mother’s chambermaids as ‘there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!’ and at this point I’m not sure I want to read any more because this guy is just the worst. It’s clear that the women of his mother’s household are well rid of him.

He breakfasts on the lady’s food, urging her to eat with him even as she weeps. When he finally leaves, the lady’s lover returns from the woods. She tells him first about the boy stealing their food, which her lover dismisses as insignificant; then she tells him about the loss of the ring, and about the kisses that she rejected. He is intensely jealous and swears to punish her – FOR BEING SEXUALLY ASSAULTED, OH MY GOD, WHERE IS LANCELOT WHEN YOU NEED HIM – by refusing to care for her horse or allow her to change her clothes until the boy is dead.

The boy, meanwhile, is headed for Carlisle, to see King Arthur. The king and his army have recently defeated King Rion of the Isles and his friends have dispersed, leaving the king somewhat lonely. As the boy approaches the castle by the sea, he sees a knight wearing crimson armour ride out holding a golden cup, and the boy decides to ask for this armour specifically because why should he care if something already belongs to another person? Morals are for other people. He is so focused on his own feelings that he tells the knight of his plan and the knight urges him to go and ask ‘this good-for-nothing king’ to give up his lands or to send someone to defend them. He holds up the cup and claims to have stolen it from under the king’s very eyes.

The boy, as usual, isn’t really listening. He cheerfully passes into the great hall, where he demands to know which one of men there is the king. Arthur is lost in his own thoughts and doesn’t notice the boy at first, which may explain how his cup got stolen so easily; when he does notice the stranger in front of him, he greets the boy politely and explains the situation that is weighing on his mind. His queen was in the hall offering comfort to wounded knights when Arthur’s ‘worst’ enemy, the Red Knight from the Forest of Quinqueroi, spilled wine all over her and she was thrown into an almost suicidal rage at the insult. Arthur puts that temporarily aside to look after his guest, promising to make him a knight, which shows incredibly low standards. The boy is blunt and rude, demanding the red armour of the knight he saw.

Sir Kay, seated nearby as one of the wounded, doesn’t like his tone and encourages him to go and seize the Red Knight’s armour with sarcasm that soars over the boy’s head like a bird. The king agrees that the boy is foolish, but thinks maybe he can come good with training and doesn’t like to hear him mocked. A maiden who has not laughed in more than six years happens to overhear the boy and laughs then, saying that she is ‘convinced that in the whole world there will not be, nor has there been, nor will anyone hear of any knight better than you’. She also has low standards! A court fool has claimed that this girl wouldn’t laugh until she saw the knight above all other knights and is now in the position of unpopular prophet. Kay is so enraged that he knocks the poor girl over and kicks the fool into the fire. What is wrong with the men in this story? Arthur, DO SOMETHING.

The boy goes straight to the waiting Red Knight and commands him to take his armour off because King Arthur told him to. Arthur did notsay that, but that hardly matters, since the knight isn’t going to do it either way. He strikes the boy hard across the shoulders. The boy responds by throwing a javelin through his eye. He then tries to figure out how to take off all the armour. One of the knights in the hall, Sir Yvonet, had hurried out of the hall in his wake and witnessed the boy’s victory. He helps him with the armour. The boy gifts him his own horse, claiming the Red Knight’s mount instead, and tells Yvonet to pass a message to the maiden in Arthur’s hall. He promises that he’ll avenge Kay’s insult to her. Oh, right, nowhe cares what women want.

Yvonet duly conveys the message as he returns the cup to Arthur. The king is furious with Kay, blaming him for the loss of a good knight, since an untrained boy in full armour does not have a good life expectancy.

Only, this boy has the luck of the protagonist. He comes across a nobleman named Gornemant of Gohort and tells him the story of how he became a knight. Gornemant sees an opportunity, much as Arthur did, to play the role of Trusted Mentor and is quicker to take it. Consider this the movie montage where the mediocre male protagonist levels up to unparalleled expertise. Gornemant teaches the boy how to handle his horse, his weapons and a variety of social situations, with gems of wisdom such as have mercy on defeated foes, help those in distress, and don’t talk too much – especially don’t admit that you only do things because your mother said so.

Once trained, the boy decides to return home and see how his mother is doing. Took him long enough. He rides through an inhospitable landscape and comes to a fortress by the sea, accessible only by a narrow bridge and a locked gate. He is reluctantly admitted and sees the fortress is largely abandoned. The few people there look half-starved. When he walks into the great hall, he is met by two old men and one very beautiful young woman, who as it turns out is Gornemant’s niece. Bearing in mind his mentor’s advice, the boy watches his tongue and barely speaks, and as his hostess is equally quiet, things get awkward. The ice breaker comes when she arrives at his bedside during the night and cries over him in half-naked torment until he wakes up.

The cause for her grief, he is told, is that the fortress has been under attack from the knight Engygeron for so long that most of its knights have been killed or captured, and the young woman, whose name is Blancheflor, plans to kill herself before the fortress falls. The boy comforts her clumsily and they lie together through the night, mouth to mouth. You know, as you do. In the morning, he offers to fight her enemy if she will be his love.

Engygeron is odious as expected, claiming the fortress as if it is already his. The boy reacts with violent, victorious rage but when Engygeron, defeated, begs for his life, the boy remembers Gornemant’s lessons and pauses. He wants to put the decision in his lover’s hands but that’s as good as killing the knight himself. Then he thinks of sending Engygeron to Gornemant but the knight points out that is the same as killing him too. Sucks to make so many enemies! So the boy ends up sending him to Arthur’s court, to the girl whom Kay struck, to tell her that he doesn’t plan on dying until he has made Kay pay.

So that’s that, except that Engygeron was merely a seneschal and his master, Clamadeu, still wants that fortress. He hears of the boy’s victory but believes that the starving knights will fold easily during a siege. He sends twenty men ahead with the rest of his army coming behind. The boy goes out to fight alone and takes on all twenty men at once in a staggering victory. When the army arrives soon after, the knights of the fortress close the gate, sealing themselves off. Clamadeu gives it three days until they surrender. What he’s forgotten is that the fortress is right beside the sea, which means a merchant ship can and does arrive with enough provisions to draw this siege out indefinitely. With Plan A a definite failure, Clamadeu challenges the boy to single combat. Everyone tries to talk the boy out of it, which goes about as well as you might expect.

It is a long and ugly fight but by the end, the boy is sending another vanquished knight to Arthur’s court to keep up his long-distance harassment of Kay. All Clamadeu’s prisoners are released and the man himself goes to Arthur’s court at Dinasdaron in Wales. Clamadeu is kept on at Arthur’s court, which does not really seem like justice at all after destroying so many people’s lives. It’s very clear that this is not a story about justice, though!

The boy, meanwhile, having saved the fortress and won the heart of Blancheflor, sets off again to find his mother. Instead he comes to a wild river and a boat anchored in it where two men are fishing. They direct him to a fissure in a rock, which leads into a valley. The boy sees a tower in the wilderness and approaches it. Inside the tower a greying man lies upon a couch, unable to stand. He is a courteous host, to an almost uncomfortable point. A young man brings a sword into the hall and half-draws it to show the fine steel; the lord of the tower gifts the sword to our unnamed knight, describing it as destined for him. As the two of them continue talking, a youth bearing a white lance walks through the hall. A drop of blood falls from the tip of the lance. The boy would like to know what that’s about, but remembers Gornemant’s advice and does not ask any questions, even when two more youths walk through the hall, each carrying a golden candlestick inlaid with black enamel, lit and glowing. A beautiful girl walks with them, carrying a golden grail. Behind her is a girl holding a silver carving dish. This procession passes without any comment from the boy.

An excellent meal is laid out and the boy eats from the silver dish. The grail is passed before him once more but he does not ask who drinks from it. The lord of the tower goes to his own rooms to sleep and the boy goes to bed himself. When he wakes he is entirely alone. All doors are locked. Thinking that the youths he saw during the meal might have gone out to hunt in the woods, he rides to the drawbridge and it begins to close while he is still on it; he owes his life to the speed and strength of his horse, which leaps to safety. The boy is, of course, very angry, but nobody answers his outrage.

He rides off and finds a weeping girl not far from the castle. She is holding her dead lover but when the boy tries to ask her what happened, she is completely distracted from her grief. She wants to know where the boy lodged, to look so fresh and well-fed in this wild place, when he describes his host, she makes a series of acrobatic leaps to correct conclusions. The boy was guest to the Fisher King. As the title implies, the lord of the tower is in fact a king, struck through both thighs with a javelin and left with an injury that curtails the usual royal activities. He can still sit in a boat, however, and this beloved pastime has given him the nickname of Fisher King. The girl holds an impromptu inquisition, demanding every detail of the night so she can tell the boy how badly he screwed up. She asks who he is.

And for the first time, he has an answer. He tells her that he is Perceval the Welshman. Where did that name come from? I don’t know! He doesn’t know!

The girl tells him he’s WRONG, he is Perceval the WRETCHED, because if he had only questioned the peculiar ritual of the Grail it would have healed the Fisher King. She hurls another bomb: his mother has died of grief, as she did threaten she would. The girl knows these things because she is Perceval’s cousin, raised in his mother’s household.

Perceval experiences a moment of sorrow, followed by a pragmatic rethink of his travel plans. He invites his cousin to ditch her dead lover to come with him and get vengeance. She refuses to go anywhere until her love has been buried. She also warns Perceval that the sword given to him by the Fisher King will shatter when he needs it most and can only be repaired with great difficulty if taken to the smith Trebuchet.

Perceval does not stick around to help his cousin. He ditches her and rides on. Soon he sees a badly mistreated horse on the verge of starvation and a girl who has met with equal cruelty, her skin lacerated and barely covered by clothes that are falling apart. She prays aloud for deliverance from the man who inflicts this suffering upon her. When Perceval greets her, she warns him that the Haughty Knight of the Heath will surely attack him if he sees Perceval talking to her. Sure enough, the Haughty Knight rides up to deliver a practiced monologue. He tells the story of how he left his lover alone in a tent, where a Welsh boy came and kissed her – and the Haughty Knight is convinced they did more than kiss. He has nothing to say that does not reek to high heaven of victim blaming. He concludes by saying that he refused to allow proper care to the girl or her horse until he had killed the man who slept with her.

Perceval recognises his own role in this story and gives his side of things, exonerating the girl, NOT that she needs exonerating. The two men fight, Perceval wins, the other knight begs for mercy and Perceval orders him to have mercy on the poor girl first. The knight has the GALL to claim that hurting the girl hurt him too. Perceval then tells him to take the girl to rest and heal, then travel with her to Arthur’s court, where he is to confess all his sins to the king and queen, as well as all her ladies. The knight is also given a message for the maiden Kay struck, that Perceval still intends to avenge her.

The pair duly travel to Arthur and the knight tells his story to the court. And you know what? After hearing about how this girl was tortured at the altar of her lover’s rabid jealousy, the knight is freed and the king drops the subject entirely, turning to Gawain to talk about Perceval’s skills. Arthur is so fired up to find Perceval that he packs up court to go look for him in person.

They promptly run directly into one another. Perceval, out seeking adventure, happens to see three drops of blood on snow and is transfixed by the resemblance to his lover’s…face…? While he moons over this imaginary comparison, Sir Sagremor the Impetuous rides out to order him into the presence of the king. This does not go well for Sagremor. Kay stands watching with the king and when he mocks Sagremor’s failure, the king drily sends him out to try his luck. This does not go well for Kay either. His arm is broken and his collarbone is dislocated, and so the maiden and fool are avenged.

Gawain defends Perceval, saying that Sagremor and Kay should not have disturbed his deep thoughts. Kay responds viciously, claiming that Gawain could leave off his armour and go out in silk, and still bring back the stranger knight. Well, Gawain does not go unarmed, but he approaches with significantly more charm, greeting Perceval politely. Perceval has heard of Gawain and immediately asks to be besties. Gawain dresses him in his own clothes and brings him before the king, who makes a fuss over him. Perceval also manages to charm the queen, and greets the maiden Kay struck as if they are old friends, which to be fair, multiple prisoners later, I guess they are.

Obviously Kay is not keen on Perceval, but he’s a great hit with the rest of the court – probably at least in part because Kay dislikes him so much. During their celebrations, a woman approaches on a mule. She is described as having skin blacker than iron, which totally feels racist in context, alongside eyes small as a rat’s and teeth yellow as egg-yolk. She has come to scold Perceval because he did not ask the necessary questions of the Fisher King. This king now will not be healed, and cannot rule effectively, and this will have knock on effects through his lands so that many suffer.

Perceval has a laundry list of character flaws and I am fully on board with random women coming into his life to tell him off, but communication is a two way street and magical ritual is not an excuse to skip out on that.

The woman with yellow teeth proceeds to lay challenges before the court, directing them to a castle where they can test their skill at the joust and a siege where a lady is in need of help. Gawain immediately proclaims his intent to help the lady; Sir Gifflet means to test himself at the castle. Perceval declares that he will not rest in the same lodging two nights in a row until he has answers to the riddles of the grail. Many other knights decide to join him in this quest.

It is the beginning of the end, but nobody knows that yet.

As fifty knights attempt to arm up and leave at once, a knight named Guigambresil storms onstage, accusing Gawain of killing his lord without an appropriate challenge, an act Guigambresil describes as treasonous. Gawain’s brother Agravain, known as the Arrogant, immediately leaps to his defence, offering to fight this battle for him. Gawain insists on proving his innocence himself, by which he obviously means fighting it with brute force and whoever wins will be declared right. Guigambresil says he will prove Gawain guilty of treason in front of the King of Escavalon before the end of forty days. He also feels the need to make sure everyone is aware of the King of Escavalon’s unbelievable good looks. I am certain Gawain does not care about this, but thanks anyway, I guess.

Gawain sets off in Guigambresil’s wake. He encounters a party of knights who are headed toward a tournament, the two side being Meliant of Liz and Tibaut of Tintagel. Gawain is puzzled, since Meliant was brought up in Tibaut’s household, but Meliant is trying to win the affections of the elder of Tibaut’s daughters, a somewhat exacting young lady who ordered him to win this tournament if he wants her love. Tibaut is concerned about Meliant’s intentions and has locked himself in the fortress, second guessing if he even wants his people to participate. Tintagel happens to be on Gawain’s own route so he stops to watch the tournament, though he does not fight himself, not wishing to risk capture or injury with a more important combat looming in his near future.

The elder of Tibaut’s daughters is excited to see her lover’s success on the field. Her little sister notes that she can see a better knight, referring to Gawain, and gets slapped across the face for having the wrong opinion. The ladies watching the tournament decided amongst themselves that Gawain can’t really be a knight at all, only pretending to be given unearned honour, which offends the listening Gawain very much.

The culture that created the need for Gawain to prove his innocence through strength of arms, courtesy of a totally inadequate judicial system and poor relationships between neighbouring states, is also responsible for Tibaut’s daughter and her vengeful desire for Tibaut to seize Gawain, on no other grounds than he wasn’t fighting in the tournament and she personally considers this to be dodgy. She gets support, too! The indecisive Tibaut goes to Gawain’s lodgings but on meeting indignant resistance from Gawain’s host, Sir Garin, drops his daughter’s idea like a hot coal and makes friends with Gawain instead. While they are talking, Tibaut’s younger daughter appears and attaches herself to Gawain’s leg. It’s unclear how old she is; probably preteen? She asks Gawain to give her justice. Tibaut tells Gawain to ignore her, dismissing her complaint entirely; Gawain, however, insists on hearing her out. When she tells him about how her sister hit her in the face and asks him to fight for her in the tournament, he puts aside his own plans and agrees to take on her cause. This is one of the most delightful scenes I have ever read in any Arthurian legend. Did you notice how this story has now become the Gawain Show? It’s a relief, isn’t it?

Gawain goes into battle the next day carrying the little girl’s sleeve as a token, and takes out Meliant with practically no effort. He sends the child Meliant’s horse, and she gleefully recounts to her angry older sister how she saw Meliant flat on his back ‘flailing his legs in the air’. I can see why Gawain was so charmed by her. The other ladies have to intervene to prevent the quarrel turning into a physical fight. When Gawain leaves the field, the little girl rushes to thank him and Gawain promises to come to her if she ever needs him.

Gawain’s next adventure occurs when he attempts to pursue a white hind and his horse loses a shoe. Master, horse and companion, this being Yvonet, travel until they reach a castle. A handsome young man invites Gawain to stay with him, and he has a handsome sister who is very happy to entertain Gawain while her brother is absent. By entertain I mean make out with. Who can blame her? I’ll tell you who: everyone, because the town is full of people who HATE Gawain. Remember that king Gawain killed? This girl is his daughter, and this is his town. When they are caught kissing, the girl faints away, then comes to with a fully formed plan. They are going to close down the castle for a siege and Gawain is going to defend it single-handed. I can see what he likes about this girl too. She has all necessary armour and weaponry save for a shield, so he takes up a chessboard to use instead. We find out here that Gawain is carrying Excalibur, traditionally Arthur’s sword, and there is ZERO explanation as to why that might be. It does improve his chances of surviving this situation.

And he needs all the tricks he can get, because a mob is gathering outside. The girl yells down at them that Gawain is her brother’s guest and they should all be ashamed of themselves. She is exactlyGawain’s type. When the mob hacks down the door anyway, she flings the very heavy chess pieces at them and her rage is impressive enough to force some of the crowd to retreat. While the rest of them are milling impotently outside, Guigambresil rides up and orders the attackers to back down. They refuse to obey him, so he fetches the young man – who as it turns out, is the very attractive king he talked about before – and the mob disperses in his presence. It turns out it’s fine to go around killing people if you tell them why you’re doing it first, but allowing your angry peasants to murder them while they are guests in your home is a big social faux pas. The king did not mean for this to happen and feels bad that it did. He seems much more chill about his father’s death than Guigambresil, as does his sister.

The combat between Gawain and Guigambresil is delayed for one year. Gawain is instructed to find and bring a lance that bleeds and can never be wiped clean, and in so doing clear his name. Nobody believes he can do it. Even Gawain does not appear confident, which is not like him.

With that reference to the ritual of the Grail, we return to Perceval, who has not set foot in a church for five years but has kept busy sending a steady stream of prisoners back to Arthur. Eventually he encounters a procession of ladies in hair shirts who are atoning for their misdeeds and in this unexpected way, learns that it is Good Friday. One of the knights accompanying the ladies gives Perceval a crash course on Christian spirituality, with a vicious extra kick of anti-Semitism. Much struck, Perceval goes to a nearby holy man, fearing that he has offended God. He blurts out the story of the Fisher King. The holy man, it turns out, is Perceval’s uncle and the Fisher King’s brother. He declares that Perceval’s leaving home caused his mother’s death and she has apparently personally interceded with God to keep Perceval safe thus far, which honestly would explain a lot. The Fisher King is son to an extremely religious king who lives upon a single wafer brought to him within the Grail, and has survived in this way for twelve years. The holy man prescribes Perceval a heavy diet of church services to improve the condition of his soul and Perceval begins with two days spent in the holy man’s hermitage.

We now go back to Gawain. He comes across a girl weeping beneath an oak tree, with a badly wounded knight lying before her. The knight warns Gawain to go no further because they are on the border of Galloway and anyone who crosses that border does not return. Gawain feels it would be cowardly to do anything but ride straight into danger. He promises to watch out for the girl when he comes back this way, assuming he does come back.

He reaches a city by the sea called Orqueneseles, rides straight into the castle there and finds a beautiful lady in a courtyard. She accuses Gawain of coming to carry her off, which he admits he was thinking about – for goodness SAKE, Gawain – and she tells him that if he fetches her palfrey, she will go with him willingly. Another alarming crowd awaits him when he goes for the palfrey, crying out that the maiden is very bad news, that she has had many men beheaded, and that Gawain should turn back. He doesn’t.

The girl orders him to neither speak of her nor touch her, but swears to follow him until something dreadful befalls him. She seems quite sure it will. She even criticises Gawain’s hands when he hands her her cloak, telling him he is not clean enough to touch her. Gawain goes quiet. He leads Bad News back to the girl he left under the oak tree, and with his own excellent medical knowledge, heals the wounded knight. The wounded man asks for the use of a horse and they both look up to see a red-haired squire with a villainously twisty moustache approaching on a very sad-looking horse. The squire wishes Gawain only misfortune when approached and Gawain impetuously slaps him. The squire angrily tells him he will lose that arm.

Gawain helps the girl up on her own palfrey, and while he’s busy with that, the wounded knight leaps onto Gawain’s own horse, prancing about maniacally. Gawain laughs at him in bewilderment. The knight, in response, says he would like to rip Gawain’s heart out of his chest. With a little prompting, Gawain recognise him as Greoras, who raped a young woman in King Arthur’s lands. Gawain punished him by forcing him to eat with the dogs for a month, hands tied behind him. Greoras gets his own back now by stealing the horse and riding off after his lover. I am now really worried about her safety. Bad News laughs maliciously at Gawain’s predicament.

He is forced to ride the squire’s horse and listen to the maiden’s constant stream of insults, though he does retort that no lady over the age of ten should talk like that. They ride together to a deep river, across which stands a heavily fortified castle on a cliff. This castle is residence to a great many ladies. Bad News climbs into a boat and goads Gawain to follow; but then he turns around and sees a knight approaching on HIS horse. He fights the knight and retrieves his property. In doing so, he loses Bad News, who vanishes. Promptly a ferryman appears, claiming that Gawain’s horse is rightfully his. This assertion is backed by the entire fortress of watching ladies. Gawain trades him the fallen knight instead.

The ferryman plays host to them both, and is a good host too. He tells Gawain that the castle belongs to a queen, her daughter and granddaughter, and that the place is protected by powerful magic. It is a place where squires come to learn, and disinherited ladies come to live in safety, and orphan girls are adopted. Everyone is waiting for a knight to come and return the ladies their lands, find husbands for the ladies, knight the squires and put an end to the wars that make orphans. The ferryman thinks this is never going to happen. Gawain is determined to visit the queen.

Inside the great hall, they meet a man with a prosthetic silver-plated leg bound with gold and set with stones. He is busy whittling a stick of ash and does not speak as the visitors pass. They carry on through luxuriously decorated rooms, the most impressive of which contains an ornate bed. Gawain decides to lie down on it, against the ferryman’s firm advice. Immediately arrows fly from all directions. No sooner has Gawain struggled upright, shocked an injured, than a lion leaps into the room. Sadly he kills it – unlike his cousin, he’s not up for befriending wild animals. This act earns him the praise of the entire fortress. He is hailed as the one everyone has waited for. They kneel to him and bring a robe from the queen, who is concerned that Gawain will grow chilly after his extertion. Gawain is quite content to be the centre of all this praise until the ferryman points out that now he will not be allowed to leave. Then Gawain is visibly Very Not Happy.

The queen herself comes to meet him and explain he is now basically her heir. She is charmingly gossipy, asking many questions about the sons of King Lot and King Urien, and how Arthur himself is doing, and how Guinevere is as well. Gawain is full of affection and praise for all of them. Talking to the queen puts Gawain in a much better mood. He also likes her granddaughter Clarissant, who is very attentive to him. The next morning, the queen comes to see him again and finds him at a window, observing Bad News below. With interesting savagery, the queen says she would be quite happy to see that girl go to hell. Gawain wants to see her anyway. He goes out and fights the knight she was talking to, winning easily and dumping his captive on the ferryman.

This knight was the maiden’s lover. She claims that for love of her he crossed the river at a deep ford and challenges Gawain to do the same, clearly hoping to drown him, but his horse Gringalet is the real hero and gets him safely across. On the other side of the river he finds a knight called Guiromelant. This knight claims to have been Bad News’ sweetheart too, by virtue of having killed her firstlover and pressing his attentions on her instead. Astonishingly, she did not warm to him and picked the knight Gawain just defeated.

Guiromelant reveals that the queen of the castle is none other than Ygerne (Igraine), Arthur’s mother, Gawain’s grandmother. Her daughter is Gawain’s own mother. They were not actually dead, as seems to have been widely accepted, they just noped off and left their kids to sort out their own problems for once. Guiromelant claims to love Gawain’s previously unknown little sister Clarissant and is confident of her love in return, but wants to kill Gawain because Gawain’s father killed his and Gawain killed his cousin too. Look, personally I like Gawain a lot, but he makes so many enemies. When he reveals his identity, Guiromelant challenges Gawain to a duel in seven days time. Gawain accepts and makes the leap back across the river, being the daredevil showoff that he is.

Bad News reacts very differently to him now. She asks for his forgiveness and explains that she looks down upon knights so much because of Guiromelant. He killed her sweetheart then wasted everyone’s time trying to win her over until she escaped him by allying herself with the knight Gawain met. The maiden has been feral with grief, lashing out in some half-formed suicidal impulse. Gawain gently urges her to come to the castle with him and she does. She is greeted with every courtesy, as this is Gawain’s wish, then vanishes from the narrative. I hope she gets some therapy and channels all that violent energy into something more constructive.

Gawain’s next order of business is to sit his sister down and relate his conversation with Guiromelant. Is it a surprise that the bitter knight was seriously overstating their relationship – they have never even been on the same side of the river and basically he pressured Clarissant until she agreed to be his sweetheart. She certainly does not share his hate for Gawain, another man she does not believe she has ever actually met. The queen and her daughter watch the pair conversing, speculating happily that Gawain would make a good husband to their beloved Clarissant, without realising what the actual relationship is.

Gawain sends a squire to Arthur’s court in Orkney, which is about two days of travel away. He arranges for the combat to take place in front of the king and in front of Igraine as well. The squire duly goes to court, where Arthur is in a state of great distress, having had no word from his nephew.

Here Chrétien’s account ends. It is perhaps fitting that the story of the Grail, that quest so many knights failed to achieve, is itself an unfinished manuscript. This is not quite the end, however. Other authors added to Chrétien’s work. I am going to summarise these as succinctly as possible. In the First Continuation, the big family reunion takes place but Clarrisant marries Guiromelant for whatever unfathomable reason and Gawain, understandably irritated, stomps back to his quest. This is also a wash – he ends up at the Grail castle, where we encounter a sword that can only be repaired by the knight who heals the Fisher King, and Gawain is not that knight. There’s also a whole side story about a knight called Caradoc which frankly I have neither the time nor energy for, and one of Gawain’s brothers – Gareth, or more likely Gaheris – who avenges himself on a dwarf knight and sails back to court in a swan boat.

In the Second Continuation, Perceval finally makes his way back to the Fisher King and mends the sword, though it retains a slight crack. This is to indicate while he may be good, he is not good enough. In the Third Continuation, the Fisher King dies and Perceval inherits his throne. He handles this for seven years then throws it all in to be a hermit in the forest. He dies soon after. In the Fourth continuation, Tristan shows up for some reason, because we didn’t have enough top billing names in this story already!

Percevalis a strange story. For one thing, it bounces between protagonists, setting Perceval up as a hero then dropping him like a hot coal to chase after Gawain. The story is of course incomplete so it is difficult to guess at the full narrative structure, but Gawain’s sections do feel more dynamic. For another, the entire set up of the story is inherently judgemental and Perceval suffers narrative consequences for neglecting his religion but gets away with sexually assaulting and robbing a woman who is then tortured by her savagely jealous lover, and both men get away with the barest slap on the wrist, which is just deeply disturbing. The contrast between Perceval and Gawain in this area is NOT flattering to Perceval. And there are too many grudges! I cannot keep track of why everybody wants to kill Gawain! Their names are practically identical anyway.

But you know what? Perceval gives us a castle ruled by Igraine and Morgause, who are having an AWESOME retirement away from their impossible family, and that is good for the soul.

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.

Continue reading

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.