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: