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Sir Gareth of Orkney: The Key to Arthur’s Kingdom

Sir Gareth of Orkney: The Key to Arthur’s Kingdom

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"Sir Gareth of Orkney: The Key to Arthur’s Kingdom" by Neil Parrish for John C. Young Scholars Project, 2003
"Sir Gareth of Orkney: The Key to Arthur’s Kingdom" by Neil Parrish for John C. Young Scholars Project, 2003

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Published by: oldenglishblog on Aug 04, 2012
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Sir Gareth of Orkney: The Key to Arthur's Kingdom
by Neil Parrish
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Mark RasmussenDark times had descended on the British Isles at the beginning of the sixth century. Hordes of Saxons flowed into the countryside through the feeble eastern border, spreading carnage and deathto Britons and Romans alike. As the population fled to the western highlands of Cornwall and Walesbefore the ruthless wave of terror, one warrior, Ambrosius Aurelianus, stood stalwart against the tideof barbarism. Gathering refugees, farmers, and warriors to himself, through the power of his exampleand courage he began to meld them into an army, inspiring the once timid Britons to drive the Saxoninvaders back into the sea.The seed had been planted. Out of chaos and treachery a warrior had emerged; the soleRoman survivor of a Saxon raid who overcame barbarism and "made a realm and reign'd" for a periodof 44 years, according to the monk Gildas' account in "On the Downfall and Conquest of Britain,"written in 547 C.E. (Tennyson 35). Each generation began to add pieces to the tale, always wideningits scope and influence. The Latin name Ambrosius Aurelianus was first changed to its Britishequivalent Arthur by the Welshman Nennius in 800, while the name Mordred wasn't added until acentury later with this famed excerpt from The Annals of Cambria: "539 A.D. The Battle of Camlann, inwhich Arthur and Medraut both fell" (Wilhelm 6).The leviathan of chivalric romance and knightly history is first reined in with Arthur at its headin 1138 by Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. The form given to the Arthurianmyth by Geoffrey gives way to Chr6tien de Troyes' celebrated Arthurian Romances in the 12
th
century,as well as the expansive 13
th
century French elaborations in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles. TheFrench renditions provided the raw material which Sir Thomas Malory later synthesized in 1469 withhis work Le Morte Darthur. Since that time Malory's version of the Arthurian tale has become thestandard by which the Arthurian world is understood. It has inspired and influenced countless laterworks, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in KingArthur's Court, and T.H. White's The Sword and the Stone. The same tradition established by Maloryand Geoffrey of Monmouth has continued to the present through Marion Zimmer Bradley's novel TheMists of Avalon to Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the current film projects of both JerryBruckheimer and Stephen Spielberg.The legends and myths surrounding the life of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Tablecomprise without question the most lastingly popular body of stories in the Western literary tradition.In researching my John C. Young project, I have tried to discern the reason for this unparalleledlongevity by following the narrative's development over history. I believe Arthurian legend hasendured so long because of its unique capacity to convey universal ideals. The body of storiesconcerning knighthood and chivalric behavior contains lessons about love, community, coming of age,brotherhood, and the value of family ties. At Arthur's court knights find God, love, and honor enoughto satisfy the urgings of their hearts, while the principles of peace, fellowship and goodness exhibitedthrough their actions reflect the universal hopes and dreams of all civilizations. For these reasons noother body of narrative has yet rivaled the success and fame Arthurian literature has achieved overthe past 1500 years.In my presentation today I will show how the central ideals and values of the King Arthur mythhave been maintained and furthered by Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur. As the focus of mycommentary I have chosen but one figure out of the entire body of Arthurian material - Sir Gareth of 
 
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Orkney, a younger brother of Sir Gawain. Although Gareth is a relatively minor character in theArthurian tradition, I would assert that he represents a defining element of the Arthurian ideal in itspurest form, more than even such better known knights as Lancelot, Arthur, Gawain, and Mordred. InMalory's Morte Darthur, Gareth embodies the commitment to the knightly fellowship as the highestof ethical values, one that is central to the story of the Round Table both in its triumph and in its fall.While Malory is the first to develop Gareth's role in the court as an ethical exemplar, the storyitself is not original to him. Malory distills his depiction of Gawain's noble younger brother from theFrench Vulgate and Post Vulgate Cycles written over two hundred years earlier, between 1215 and1235 A.D. These immense elaborations on early Arthurian themes and characters comprise thousandsof pages, introducing hundreds of new figures and episodes to the legend. The character who formsthe basis for Malory's "Sir Gareth of Orkney" is one Gahariet, the younger brother to Gawainet andAgravain "The Proud," and half-brother to Mordred the "envious and deceitful [who] never loved agood knight since he first bore arms" (Vulgate III 108). Gahariet is often depicted in company with hisbrothers and his father King Lot, as they battle to free the newly founded realm of Saxon invaders.From amidst the entangled rivalries of his family relations, Gareth emerges as the voice of reason,often siding with the noble counsel of his older brother Sir Gawain. In the Vulgate and Post Vulgatecycles Gahariet is unjustly killed by Sir Lancelot while escorting the queen Guinevere to be burned forher treason against Arthur. Upon the foundation of this feudal material, Malory built the structure of his Morte Darthur, whose title pays tribute to the French source.Gareth appears prominently in two portions of Malory's consolidation of the sprawling Frenchmaterial: first, in "The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney," which details Gareth's career from his peculiararrival at court on the shoulders of two peasants to his knighting by Sir Lancelot and marriage toDame Lyones; and second, in "The Death of Arthur," which narrates the revelation of the love affairbetween Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, and the resultant schism and fall of the Round Table. In bothepisodes Gareth emerges as the embodiment of the Arthurian ideal as a figure who places devotion tothe knightly fellowship above allegiance to his family.The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney contains two main elements that highlight Gareth's utterdevotion to the court and establish him as the embodiment of knightly virtue: his insistence onanonymity and his search for a substitute family within the fellowship of the court.Gareth arrives at the court on the feast of Pentecost as a herald of "strange adventures,"because he is carried upon the shoulders of two servants despite being the "goodliest young man andthe fairest that they all ever saw" (Malory 169). Gareth will state neither his name nor his lineage tothe court despite Arthur's insistent questioning, replying simply "Sire, I cannot tell you" (Malory 170).By concealing his family name until he earns the honor already associated with it, Gareth proveshimself eager to establish his own reputation. More important, however, Gareth's anonymity ensuresthat his personal identity be subordinate to his identity as one of Arthur's knights. Gareth's deliberateself-effacement denies the sovereignty of family ties, thus allowing him to search for a new family inthe court without being bound by his name.Gareth's arrival at court and subsequent request of the king demonstrate his humble devotionto the knightly ideal and to the fellowship of Arthur's hall. As is typical of visitors to King Arthur'scourt, Gareth asks a boon of the king, requesting of him three unnamed gifts, only one of which hereveals at the time. Gareth's first request, however, is far from typical for a man clearly "come frommen of worship," as he entreats the king for nothing but "sufficient food and drink for [a] twelve-month" (Malory 170). Arthur is astonished that such a noble man will ask for nothing more thanwhat the king would happily give either "friend" or "foe" (Malory 170). Despite Arthur's counsel,Gareth will ask for no more and places himself humbly under the command of Kay, Arthur'sarrogant seneschal and house manager. Gareth's meager request shows his humble investment inthe court because it places him on an equal level with the least of Arthur's fellowship. This subtle
 
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detail is characteristic of Gareth's entire demeanor, because it shows him to be unpretentious andunselfish in his motives, thus setting him apart from his older brothers Aggravain and Mordred.The conclusion of Gareth's twelve-month of self-imposed servitude occurs on the followingPentecost with the arrival of a secretive damsel, who implores the king for a knight to rescue hernoble sister from the perilous Red Knight of the Red Lands. The woman refuses to reveal either herown name or that of her sister, and as a consequence no knight will take up her cause; none saveone. Gareth rises from amidst the ashes of the kitchen and beseeches Arthur for his final two gifts:"Sire... allow me to have the adventure of this damosel, for it belongeth unto me" and "bid SirLancelot du Lake to make me a knight, for by him I will be made a knight or else by no one" (Malory172). The manner in which Gareth poses his request is significant. In Arthur's world, God is believedto ordain individual knights to fulfill particular quests. By making the damsel's adventure the targetof his destiny Gareth has woven himself into the knightly realm upon the loom of divine intent andfulfillment. In effect, Gareth cleverly proclaims his own prowess by embracing as his duty a task thatno one else would undertake, while at the same time saving face for Arthur and the court byfulfilling the damsel's request.The damsel, whose name we later learn is Lynet, is annoyed and angered by Arthur'sconsent, proclaiming "fie on thee... shall I have no knight but one that is your kitchen knave?"(Malory 172). Nevertheless, Gareth accompanies her, always replying to her scathing insults withthe utmost courtesy and gentility. While in her service Gareth defeats an array of rebel knights,including a band of thieves, a pair of murderers, the Black, Red, Green, and Indigo knights, andfinally The Red Knight of the Red Lands, Sir Ironside. Through his deeds, Gareth proves himself to bea true vassal to the king and the fellowship as a whole by defending and even expanding Arthur'srealm, and by humbly relinquishing whatever he gains to the King and his court. Gareth orders all of the knights he conquers and ladies he frees to present themselves before Arthur and, whenappropriate, to ask forgiveness of the king or any other member of the court whom their malicemay have offended. King Arthur recognizes Gareth's fulfillment of the role of a loyal vassal, stating"I am much beholden to that knight who hath put his body in duty to bring worship to me and mycourt" (Malory 201).Although Gareth's anonymity allows him great freedom in the realm of knightly quests, it isimpossible to maintain that anonymity in the very different world of courtly love. A knight'sprowess and deeds can only take him so far with women in the Arthurian world, and although hishands and actions dictate his relations with men, his name and lineage define his relations withwomen. After his victory over Sir Ironside, Gareth expects to claim the lady of the castle, DameLyones, for his prize. His plan goes awry, however, when she pulls up the drawbridge before he canenter the castle and orders him away for the space of a twelve-month. Dame Lyones' actions aremotivated solely by her ignorance of his lineage, and therefore of his worthiness to marry her. Forthis reason, Dame Lyones devises a plan to kidnap Gareth's dwarf, the one person other than SirLancelot who knows Gareth's identity. She is so concerned about the nobility of Gareth's blood that she exclaims to her brother Sir Gryngamore, "until the time that I know what hisright name is and of what kindred he has come, I shall never be merry at my heart" (Malory 195).The captured dwarf soon soothes Lyones' concern by stating:I fear not greatly to tell his name and of what kin he has come. Wit ye well, he is aking's son and a queen's; his father is named King Lot of Orkney, and his mother issister to King Arthur; he is brother to the good knight Sir Gawain, and his name is SirGareth of Orkney. (Malory 196)

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