Friday 20 November 2015

Sir Kay -- A Misunderstood Knight?

In my search for Arthur, I discovered a universal truth - most of it is made up. But hey, the stories are fascinating and timeless. Take a moment to think how old these stores are...they have stood the test of time for hundreds of years. Why is that? I think we need Arthur and his knights. They teach us so much in their stories. Chivalry, honour, equality, loyalty and faith, above everything else faith -  faith and belief in something better. Arthur tried to make something better than what had gone before. He shook things up - maybe he was more than a little radical.

Isn't there an old saying about truth being stranger than fiction? Maybe there is something in that.

Today we are going to look at Sir Kay. He may not be as well known as Lancelot or Gawain, but his story is worth telling. 

Sir Kay is one of the earliest recorded Knights of the Round Table -- and there is a great deal of literature in the form of stories and poems, about him -- there is certainly too much to talk about in one blog. But I shall do my best to give you some idea as to who Kay was....

In order to understand Kay's beginnings we need to head across the border to Wales, and look at some ancient Welsh folklore.  In particular a tale called Culhwch and Olwen.

In the poem Culhwch (Kay?) is cursed by his evil step-mother (what is it with evil step-mothers?) The curse means that Culhwch will fall in love with the giants daughter -- I guess it wasn't the done thing to love a giant?! Culhwch ask's his powerful cousin, Arthur, to help him. Arthur agrees -- for who is he to stand in the way of true love? -- and they all go on a quest until they find her. Luckily for Culhwch, Olwen falls in love with him as well, but they cannot marry unless her father agrees to the match.

Her father, Ysbaddaden's is not impressed, because if Olwen marries, he dies. So he issues Culhwch with around forty impossible challenges. My favourite of which is that Culhwch has to cut Ysbaddadens's hair and beard -- which isn't as easy as it sounds.

But that is not a problem. Culhwch is extraordinarily strong, he can also hold his breath under water for nine days and nine nights and he can also go without sleep for the same amount of time -- although I am not sure why he would want to do this?! Arthur, Gawain, and a fair few others, help Culhwch with these impossible challenges. In the end Culhwch is able to cut Ysbaddaden's hair and he shaves his beard to the bone and Ysbaddaden dies.

And they all live happily ever after....

Then we head to the 10th Century and look at a poem called Pa Gur.  This time the poem is all about Cai (Kay). Have a read....and see what you think.

Prince of the plunder,
The unrelenting warrior to his enemy;
Heavy was he in his vengeance;
Terrible was his fighting.
When he would drink from a horn,
He would drink as much as four;
When into battle he came
He slew as would a hundred.
Unless God should accomplish it,
Cei's death would be unattainable.
Worthy Cei and Llachau
Used to fight battles,
Before the pain of livid spears [ended the conflict].
On the top of Ystarfingun
Cei slew nine witches.
Worthy Cei went to Ynys Mon
To destroy lions.
Little protection did his shield offer
Against Palug's Cat 
(In case you were wondering Palug's cat was a terrifying man eating cat in Welsh folklore.)

Kay comes across in Welsh literature as having a fiery temper, who could drink any man under the table! He wasn't a man that you would want to cross. However, his loyalty to Arthur is unquestionable.

In later works, Geoffrey of Monmouth, makes Kay the count of Anjou and King Arthur's steward, which kind of stuck from there on in.

After that, things took a turn for the worse for out worthy knight. Chr├ętien de Troyes, the late 12th Century French poet, turns Kay into a troublemaker, with little honour -- a complete contrast to Lancelot or Gawain -- perhaps that is why he did it. Kay enrages Perceval  so much that Perceval ends up breaking his shoulder. Kay is not chivalrous, he hits women rather than protect them, and comes across as a traitor.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German poet, agrees with de Troyes, but he argues that Kay acted like this to keep order. Umm...I am not convinced by his excuse for Kay's behaviour!

We then head into modern literature. Now, I could list all the movies that he has been portrayed in, but I think that could become just ever so slightly tedious. But the general theme in most of these films is that he is a hot-headed idiot. But, his loyalty to Arthur is always unquestionable.

Isn't it strange how stories become twisted and changed. If Sir Kay really did exist, I very much doubt he was anything like he is portrayed in literature. But then again - who knows. To quote Hartley (who is one of my favourite authors, ) 'The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.'

Mary xx


  1. Kay isn’t Culhwch. And there’s no evidence that supports that he is. Further, in various medieval romances, including of the marriage of Culhwch and Olwen, Kay abandoned Arthur, and was sometimes depicted as cruel, namely the high history of the holy grail. While some scholars, believe that Culhwch usurped Arthur, and that it was originally meant to tell how Arthur married Guinevere. Since Guinevere herself was the daughter of a giant in the welsh surviving Arthurian fragments, while the poem is largely about Arthur and his war band, and how they helped out Culhwch.

    1. Noticeably, the poem also seems to be a conflation of possible now lost welsh tales of Arthur, that were alluded in some fragments. For instance, in the spoils of Annwn/underworld, it talks about Arthur going to the underworld to obtain a cauldron, and rescuing Mabon.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx