The Knightliness of Sir Beaumains

So the “Five Favorite Arthurian Tales” wasn’t as popular as I hoped.  But I enjoyed writing it, and one of the things I said I’d do was write on “The Tale of Sir Beaumains.”  So let’s talk about Beaumains, and how he’s really unusual in terms of Camelot stories. Like I said in the earlier post, “Tale of Sir Beaumains” doesn’t appear in any of the earlier Welsh or French versions of the stories, and it’s generally thought that my university prof was pretty sure that Malory wrote it himself.

Beaumains is actually Gareth, Gawain’s brother and Arthur’s nephew, meaning he’s actually quite a bigshot in Camelot, but when Arthur asks him what he wants, Gareth says he just wants to work in the kitchen. Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster brother, makes fun of him because Kay’s an ass, and everyone calls Gareth ‘Beaumains,” or “White Hands,” a way of mocking how clean his hands are, and possibly also implying a lack of masculinity, as white skin was the feminine ideal.

I recall hearing that amongst the Greeks, this was because a woman with pale skin clearly didn’t leave the house much.

One day a lady shows up to Camelot asking Arthur to send a knight to help her mistress from this super-bad knight called the Red Knight of the Red Launds. Sir Gawain recognizes the name as one of the most dangerous knights alive. Business as usual, except the lady refuses to tell them who her mistress, the lady they’ll be helping, actually is. So Arthur says “I’m not going to send one of my knights if you can’t tell me who they’re even going to be helping,” and the lady says “Not telling,” and it looks like everyone is going to go away unhappy.

Except Beaumains speaks up and says “Hey, uncle Arthur, let me take this one.” Turns out he’s got a horse, a set of armor, and a dwarf (everybody just had dwarves to carry around their armor, I don’t know why) and he’s just been waiting for something like this. Arthur, who always was confused about why Gareth was working in the kitchen to begin with, promptly agrees and gives him the quest. The lady, Lynette, is incensed as all get-out that they’re sending a kitchen boy to deal with her Very Important Problem, and rides off in a huff without even waiting for Beaumains. But Beaumains follows her anyway

Kay, again, is an ass, so he decides to head out to ambush Beaumains so Kay can steal the quest.  Except Beaumains beats him up, because Kay is basically the Mr. Worf of Camelot, and is constantly getting beat up to show that the newcomer is better than the most useless knight in Camelot (Kay does get a moment in the second portion of the book where he fights off seven knights from attacking Arthur, but apparently he went soft). Then Lancelot challenges Beaumains, because Arthur asked him to do that and make sure that the kid can actually handle the quest. Lancelot finds out that holy cow, this kitchen boy is actually pretty good. Beaumains tells him that he’s actually Gareth, brother of Gawain. I’m not sure why this is news? Maybe Arthur was the only one who knew who Beaumains was. Anyways Lancelot knights Beaumains as “Sir Gareth” and sends him on his way.

Beaumains meets first two knights at a river. Lady Lynette tells them that this guy with her is a wimp, and if they beat him up, she’ll go with them instead. Except Beaumains beats both of them up. “Lucky shot,” says Lady Linet, and goes on her way.

What follows is basically a boss rush. Beaumains meets a Black Knight, kills him and takes his armor. Then a Green Knight (no, not that Green Knight). Then a Blue Knight. Then an Indigo Knight. All these knights are related, oddly enough, and each one is like “Oh hey, Black Knight, bro!” and Lynette, because she this whole time is being terrible to Beaumains, tells them, “Oh yeah, this guy killed your brother and he’s just the worst, you should kill him too.” And Beaumains beats them up and says he’ll kill them unless Lynette asks him nicely not to. Which she does, so he lets them go, after making them swear fealty to him.

My parents had a King Arthur book that followed Le Morte Darthur pretty closely and featured a lot of these illustrations by Arthur Rackham, so they’re what I see when I read these stories.

So finally Beaumains arrives in the Red Launds, where the Red Knight of the Red Launds is besieging the castle of the mysterious lady. Here’s where Lynette finally comes clean. Lady Lyonesse, the woman under seige, is her sister, and she’s just been being terrible to Beaumains this whole time as a way of testing him to make sure he’s ready to take on the Red Knight. Maybe verbal abuse is a way of testing strength and fighting ability. Or maybe Lynette wanted to see if he was a patient man who wasn’t going to slap around her sister. She also tells him not to challenge the Red Knight until the afternoon, since the Red Knight has this thing where he gets stronger and stronger until noon.

“Nuts to that,” says Beaumains, “I’m not going to use cheats.  I’m going to face this guy at full strength even if he kills me.”

(Okay, technically he says: “Ah fie for shame, fair damosel, say ye never so more to me; for, an he were as good a knight as ever was, I shall never fail him in his most might, for either I will win worship worshipfully, or die knightly in the field.”)

Dang, knightly honor was just something else. You know there’s a real-life historical event where a commander agreed to give up his better position just so he and his could men could fight their enemies fairly? I mean, they were slaughtered, but it made a great story.

Anyway, Beaumains fights the Red Knight, first on horseback, then on foot, and Beaumains almost loses, till he sees Lady Lyonesse, and falls in love so entirely he just utterly destroys the Red Knight. Then the Red Knight begs for his life, to which Beaumains says “Dude, I passed like sixty knights you hanged on the way here, you’re a jerk, I’m going to kill you.”

“Well you see,” says Red Knight, “My old girlfriend made me do it.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” says Beaumains, and lets him go after getting the Red Knight to swear loyalty.

“Hey, who hasn’t done crazy stuff for love, amiright?”

Beaumains turns toward the castle, all ready to go inside and meet the super-beautiful lady from the battlements who inspired him to win.  Nope. Lady Lyonesse tells him to come back later, she’s washing her hair.  For a year.

Beaumains is understandably ticked off by being put off for like a year, but Red Knight consoles him by telling him to come over to his place and have dinner.  Sure, they were trying to kill each other a few hours ago, but Red Knight swore loyalty to him, and you gotta love a guy who’ll besiege a castle and hang sixty knights all for his old girlfriend. So Beaumains, accompanied by Lynette, heads over.

Now we get a POV change.  Turns out Lady Lyonesse was totally into that knight Beaumains who was laying into the jerk knight who’s been besieging her for years, but, after all, she barely knows him, and you really ought to know more about a guy than how good he is at beating people up.  So she turned him away, but she intends to figure out more about this guy that she basically promised to marry, so she disguises herself and heads out to the Red Knight’s castle to be announced as Totally Different Lady.

The romance of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Abridged from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur by Alfred W. Pollard. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Published 1920 by Macmillan in New York.

Now Beaumains never really got a super-good look at the lady  on the battlements (though apparently enough to fall in love and be super motivated to fight), so when this Totally-Different Lady shows up at the castle, he falls in love with her. And he figures, hey, technically I guess Lady Lyonesse and I are not yet in a relationship / sort of on a break, so how about I fool around with this Totally Different Lady?

This would probably cause some problems, except Lady Lyonesse has fallen in love with him, too, and is totally down for a midnight rendezvous for some hanky-panky.

Problem. Her sister, Lynette, is not letting these two frisky kids ruin things before their wedding night.  Her sister will be dressed in white at her wedding, or Lynette will know the reason why.  Lynette gets a knight friend of hers to patrol the halls and make sure Beaumains doesn’t get anywhere near Lyonesse’s room.

Beaumains, of course, beats up this knight. And chops him up into little pieces. You don’t get between a knight and his midnight rendezvous.  Except you sort of do, because it takes him too long so he has to go back to his room.  Ah well. Maybe tomorrow.

Lady Lynette stitches up all the chopped bits of her patrol knight and sets him to monitor the hallways again.  Apparently Lynette is some sort of necromancer/mad scientist? I’m not sure why this didn’t come up before or why she couldn’t use this to help her sister before. Anyway, this routine goes on for about a week until finally Lyonesse gives up and admits who she is so she and Beaumains  can just get married and stop getting blocked by her sister and the franken-knight.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s in some serious trouble. His half-sister, Morgause, has shown up, demanding to know what they’ve been doing with her son Gareth and why he is not one of the top most honored people in court right now.  Arthur tries to explain that Gareth literally volunteered for the lowest position in the court, but then things get really awkward when the Blue Knight shows up.  And then the Green Knight. And the Indigo Knight. And the Red Knight.  All of them explain that Gareth smacked them up something glorious and made them swear loyalty to him (and by extension Arthur). So it’s becoming evident to everyone that the guy they’ve had working in the kitchen for the past couple years is actually a huge badass, and everyone who ever made fun of him and called him “Beaumains” is feeling pretty stupid right now.

As the grand finale, of course, “Beaumains” comes back to court, armed with a new fiefdom, several knights (and their vassals) under his command, and a smoking hot wife who has a necromancer sister apparently. In the usual way, Malory says that Lady Lionesse, like every other lady in Le Morte D’Arthur, is “the most beautiful lady,” and notes that people aren’t sure who’s more beautiful, her or Queen Gwenevere. And so Gareth’s story ends happily, at least until Lancelot accidentally kills him in the Camelot Civil War and gains Gawain’s intense hatred.

In fairness to Lancelot, he has a lot going on.

Analysis

It’s interesting to see Malory’s addition.  As a hedge knight himself, he naturally had his own opinions on knighthood and questing (Malory fought during the War of the Roses on both sides and was imprisoned and escaped several times.) It’s also interesting because the story is a pretty clear coming-of-age story, though in fairness a lot of ancient stories are; even Arthur’s own origin story could be considered “coming of age” in a way.

The first aspect that makes the story stand out is Gareth’s initial humility.  Knights who disguise themselves on arriving at a castle are nothing new, but generally it’s only their identity that’s hidden—they’re still knights.  But Gareth deliberately asks for a low station and patiently endures the abuse it earns him. It’s also interesting that he’s mocked as being somewhat girly for his career choice.  There’s a surprising amount of egalitarianism here—a kitchen boy could be a badass knight in disguise, and shouldn’t be considered girly just because he doesn’t jump at every adventure.

Then there’s the colorized knights.  They’re not named, they’re described, which is exactly the opposite of nearly every other story in Le Morte D’Arthur (the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not part of the collection). It’s like a game of Castle Crashers.

Maybe it’s some sort of prequel.

One wonders about the distinction—maybe names were more popular among courtly poets and courtly listeners, but colors made better sense to someone who’d actually had to fight staring through a small slit in a helmet.  Or maybe colors are more similar to a fairy-tale style of writing that Malory is emulating.

Then there’s the way women function in the story, which is not exactly complimentary, but has a lot more personality than their presentation in other stories. Lyoness is no damsel in the tower, or at least is not one that lets the first knight right in. And she sort of has a point, even–she doesn’t actually avoid Gareth, she just tests to see if he’ll do as she asks. Lynette, too, may be a lot less pleasant than most damsels, but she’s also a lot more active, with thoughts and feelings of her own.  At least supposedly, her abuse serves a purpose. (Interesting, that Malory considers putting up with nagging women also part of a knight’s duty, unless Lynette is preparing him for marriage with Lyonesse.)

I’ve mentioned before how the story is oddly romantic—Gareth knows nothing about the woman’s wealth or station or beauty before he takes the quest, and she insists on getting to know him before hitching up—but it’s also interesting how the romantic fantasy involves secret midnight trysts—and those trysts being stymied. Courtly Love rules  (which may not have been anything more than a literary convention, or not even that) held that love was better when it was secret, and also better when it was hard to win. Malory’s writing allows for adultery-but-not-really, where the knight thinks he’s sort-of cheating on his fiancé but, surprise, it’s actually just premarital sex.  Or not, even, because the family members are insisting on them waiting for their wedding night.  Given the nature of Lancelot and Guenevere in the story, it’s doubtful Malory is adding in this stipulation to better appeal to a prudish English mindset; it seems to be something that he genuinely thinks improves the story, either because of knightly virtues or because it’s more romantic.

If, as in many knightly stories, the protagonist is meant to be the pinnacle of knightliness, what can we assume Malory thinks knightliness to be? Someone who doesn’t hide their name, but doesn’t rely on family favoritism for assignments, who isn’t afraid to take “low” jobs and doesn’t take notice of insults. Someone who takes jobs no one else wants, where the only surety is that it will be dangerous—and who doesn’t do so simply because they’re super-into the pleasant lady who’s asking. Indeed, there’s implicit criticism of knights who just do whatever their girlfriends ask, as the Red Knight does. He’s a knight not afraid of killing, dedicated to fighting his opponents at their best and not resorting to “strategies” to out-think his opponents, but who also shows mercy (maybe also one who’s good at getting women to obey, given how he’s always getting the woman to ask for their lives).

Also one who’s willing to cheat on his fiancé. Apparently. But also, apparently, who actually doesn’t, so at least there’s that.

But what about the tale as a coming-of-age story? See, what I find interesting about this is that there’s no sort of identity crisis going on. Most coming-of-age stories today involve the young man being conflicted about where their place in society is supposed to be, and finally settling on a place where they fit in. Older coming of age stories, like Beowulf and Beaumains, involve no internal debate at all. You could argue, maybe, that Beaumains asking to serve in the kitchen indicates an internal reluctance to join in the knightly occupation he’s clearly been prepared for, but it really seems just to be a way of waiting for the right opportunity to prove himself (again, like Beowulf). Maybe there was just less internal debate in the days when you might die tomorrow, or when occupations were more limited. Medieval stories in general don’t get a lot into introspection and identity crises.

Beaumains is really quite an accessible story that, apart from the attempted cheating, would work surprisingly well as a modern story, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into what the man who compiled the legends of King Arthur considered true knightliness to consist of.  In a way, it’s a pity Malory didn’t write any more.


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