Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Mabinogion - The Immortal Sir Kai

I had mentioned before how The Mabinogion’s stories contained a lot of gruesomeness. What I did not have time or space to mention, however, was that as I was reading the book, the majority of that violence seemed to be aimed at one character: Sir Kai.

Now, Sir Kai (also spelled Kay, Cei, or Cay depending on translation and author’s spelling preference) is the foster-brother of King Arthur himself. Anyone who’s read T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (or seen the Disney movie, which is fairly accurate despite lacking the thematic depth of White’s prose) may remember that Arthur, although heir to the crown of England, was raised by rather mediocre knight named Sir Ector and everyone was ignorant of Arthur’s true birthright until he pulled out the sword in the stone. Sir Ector’s own son, Kai, although generally characterized as a bully or boor, is made knight of the Round Table upon his foster-brother’s ascension to the throne.

His role in these stories is usually negative—he serves as the brutish muscle, the hotheaded person picking fights and challenging duels, or mocking the new Camelot arrivals even though they are really diamonds in the rough who will show him up with their superior deeds of valor and questing. However, I’ve always felt sorry for him, and feel he gets a bad rap.

Sir Kai can’t really be a villain. When his dorky adopted brother turned out to be king of all the land, he doesn’t seem to be jealous, but in fact is one of Arthur’s most loyal supporters. Arthur at least seems to trust him, making him not only a member of the elite Round Table, but also seneschal (steward) of Camelot and his second-in-command. On the rare times Arthur is away fighting, Sir Kai is the one in charge.

On top of that, even though Sir Kai may be temperamental and bullying, he certainly gets beaten up enough himself:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Mabinogion - An Easy Quest

Since Sir Owain tends to be a jerk going around in disguise and making all his relatives—including King Arthur himself—put out Missing Persons lists about him, portraits of him on whatever Camelot used for milk cartons, and generally assuming he was dead in the ditch somewhere, a fair amount of The Mabinogion’s Camelot segment is devoted to people going on quests looking for him.

One of my favorite exchanges is the result. King Arthur, now thinking that Owain is dead, has put out a call to his knights to go out into the land and find out Owain’s ultimate fate. Before anyone goes anywhere, though, he puts on a grand tournament…which of course Owain shows up to in disguise.

In a rare instance of poetic justice to Owain—the other one being where a dwarf gives him a good smack—his opponent is also in disguise. It’s Gawain (here called Gwalchmai), which, taking into account their uncle Arthur’s penchant for going incognito as the Black Knight, and also Arthur’s sisters Morgause and Morgan le Fay being enchantresses who regularly change their appearance, makes me think this whole disguise-y thing is a family trait.

But back to my favorite scene. Transcribed below, I’ve added a few footnotes for consideration:

“And the Knight [Owain] gave Gwalchmai a blow that turned his helmet form off his face, so that the Knight knew that it was Gwalchmai.
            “Then Owain said, ‘My lord Gwalchmai, I did not know thee for my cousin, owing to the robe of honour* that enveloped thee; take my sword and my arms.’
            “Said Gwalchmai, “Thou, Owain, art the victor; take thou my sword.”
            “And with that Arthur saw that they were conversing, and advanced towards them.
            “‘My lord Arthur,’ said Gwalchmai, ‘Here is Owain,** who has vanquished me, and will not take my arms.’”
            “‘My lord,’ said Owain, ‘it is he that has vanquished me, and he will not take my sword.’
            “‘Give me your swords,’ said Arthur, ‘and then neither of you has vanquished the other.’***”

*Read: You looked so good I didn’t recognize you. Yet another instance of Owain being a bit of a jerk.

**Wow, The Quest to Find Sir Owain was way easier than initially believed.

***Did King Arthur just break up a fight by saying “Stop fighting over who wins. I win”? Well, he does have both of their swords now, so…yes. Yes, I think it does.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Not Everything Is Open To Interpretation

Reading Is Like a Puzzle
Language is a fun but convoluted thing. For example: emotions are real things that affect our lives, but when it comes to putting what one feels into words (even just words thought rather than spoken aloud or written out), it’s not always easy to thoroughly and accurately describe those feelings.

If we can’t even use words to explain these things to ourselves, it’s no wonder that we have difficulties communicating with each other! Luckily in most cases we can rely not just on words, but also on gesture, inflection, tone of voice, facial expression, to explain what our words mean.

What also helps is if we’re talking to a friend or family member or coworker who knows us, and therefore can fill in the gaps or “autocorrect” any mistakes in speech or writing that we might make. This is why, when at a loss for the right word, we can say to them, “Oh, you know what I mean!” and assume that yes, they do know, or at least can make an educated guess.

So reading, in addition to being symbols made of lines and dots on paper and screen to be deciphered into words, assigns the additional task to the reader of interpreting the words into actual meaning. It’s communication without the safety net of hearing the writer’s voice or seeing their face or gestures. Sometimes the reader has no knowledge of the writer at all, and so can’t interpret sincerity from irony with any real confidence.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Mabinogion - Sir Owain the Jerk Knight

If Sir Gawain is my favorite Knight of the Round Table, his cousin Owain is the opposite. It’s not just that, in later stories, Owain is portrayed as this easy-going nice-guy character who has to deal with his churlish cousin Gawain’s jealousy of his obvious superiority…although that has a lot to do with it, too.

It’s that, much as the storytellers seem to admire Owain, as I’m reading about him I can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a jerk. Especially to ladies.

Here’s a handy list to make my point:
1)  Falls in love and promises to marry lady. Goes off questing instead of marrying her.
2)  Stays at a place hanging out with friends for three years instead of three months. How can you even make that kind of mistake?
3)  After six years he finally gets around to marrying his lady.
4) Outlives his wife so he can conveniently be paired up with all the other maidens he encounters in his stories.
5)  This little line (which I admit is the fault of the author and not Owain, but still conveys the sort of attitude he seems to have):

“…And she was his wife as long as she lived.”

How lovely.

Owain isn’t just a jerk to ladies. He also is super arrogant and melodramatic when it comes to his fellow knights. Upon returning from a quest, he shows up in Camelot just in time for a tournament to determine the greatest knight in the realm.

(Just for the record, King Arthur himself is the greatest fighter among them, but as King he’s not allowed to enter tournaments and instead is relegated to judging them. However, if you’re reading Arthurian legends and a Black Knight shows up, most likely this is King Arthur in disguise.)

Instead of entering the tournament under his own name, Owain thinks it hilarious apparently to show up in strange armor and therefore unrecognizable even to his own relatives. This way he can defeat them, picking them off their horses with his lance one by one, without the risk of them not giving him birthday gifts or sending Christmas cards. It also has the deleterious effect of causing all the knights to hate him and conspire to kill him. It’s usually just by chance that his true identity is revealed before one of his own relatives slays him—Gawain, usually, in an attempt by the storyteller to make Gawain look like a villain for almost murdering poor wonderful Owain.

Although Owain is by no means the only knight to do this in various Arthurian legends, this is usually one of the hallmark scenes in any telling or retelling of his adventures. Hail the conquering hero, who returns incognito to beat up all his friends and relatives!