Six Degrees: From Horace to Sir Gawain
Onward we go with this week’s installment of Six Degrees of Kool Books, our madcap literary trail, bouncing along the backs of fictional characters from one book to the next. For the full list of all the books, as well as details about what the rules are for writing your own posts in this series, be sure to visit the Six Degrees main page.
Last week, Jenelle introduced us to a series I’d never even heard of, The Ranger’s Apprentice. That’s one of the wonderful things about the Six Degrees series. You never know what is coming around the bend and you will certainly be exposed to knew and unexpected literary vistas and have your reading horizons broadened. This was definitely as series that piqued my interest. I love Robin Hood so anything with rangers, archers, or castles will warrant a second look with me.
One of the characters she mentioned, Horace, was described as, “Tall, broad-shouldered, naturally skilled with a sword, and a bit obnoxious.” His temperament initially leads him to conflict with the main character, but “eventually they grow to respect each other’s strengths and become very close friends.”
This reminded me of Sir Gawain, from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Like Horace, he is a warrior of exceptional prowess and also a bit of a hot head. He ends up butting heads with other knights on more than one occasion, though he is quite loyal to his liege, perhaps the most famous fictional king in all of English literature King Arthur.
Most English readers have at least a passing familiarity with Arthur and his loyal knights of the round table and know Arthur as the beloved king who is both just and brave, the model of all things regal and chivalrous. What they might not know or at least recall is that he also had a terrible blind spot to the infidelity of his queen, Guinevere. Though Guinevere appears outwardly virtuous, urging knights to defend the honor of other ladies of the court, she is capricious and vain when it comes to the man she is having an affair with. Apparently she can cheat on Arthur, but when Lancelot cheats on her she can’t handle it and goes off on him. Lancelot is somewhat of a tragic figure. Like Guinevere, he seems outwardly noble. In fact he is Arthur’s best knight when it comes to skill in battle and feats of arms. Arthur affords him every honor and privilege possible and he enjoys the esteem and reverence of almost every other knight in the realm, but this just isn’t enough for Lancelot. His betrayal of Arthur heralds the end of Camelot and the once unshakable unity of the knights of the round table.
There are too many other knights to recount them all, but one of the most notable is certainly Galahad, Lancelot’s son. He is everything his father might have been. He is brave and skilled in battle, but also virtuous when not wearing a suit of armor. Born to complete the fulfillment of a prophecy, through his great devotion to Christ he is presented as performing several miracles and healings. Portrayed as the quintessential Christian knight, he is a man of prayer as well as the sword.
Guiding the affairs of his king as both counsellor and magician is the legendary Merlin. Though widely regarded in literature as the wizard from perhaps which all others after him are measured against, Merlin performs surprisingly little magic throughout Mallory’s tale, at least not of the outwardly, showy kind. But his ability to see the future and work behind the scenes means that his hand is behind many of the important events which transpire in the kingdom.
The last character I’ll mention is the one who proves to be Arthur’s foil and that is his illegitimate son Mordred. Though at first he does not appear to embrace his evil destiny, Merlin prophesies that the knight will eventually prove to be Arthur’s undoing. Mordred subsequently plays a part in the killing of another knight along with Sir Gawain and his brothers and also in exposing Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. He later claims that Arthur has been killed in battle and attempts to assume the throne in his father’s absence. Clearly this man is after one thing and one thing alone: Arthur’s throne. He eventually brings his desire to its ultimate fulfillment by killing his father on the field of battle.
I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of one of the most well-known stories in all of English literature. Even if you haven’t read Le Morte D’Arthur there are countless versions of this tale that have been told in books and film so I think it was inevitable that it should make an appearance on this list. For many of us, myself included, this is the story that defines what knighthood and castles and chivalry are all about. The only surprise perhaps is that it took this long before it made an appearance on the Six Degrees list.
Stop by next week to see how the list grows!