Species: One black hauthorne (unearthly Crataegus monogyna / Crataegus laevigata) and one generic thorn (most likely the same species). These bushes are, strangely both used by knights to store their weapons.
Source: ‘Sir Gareth’ one of the tales from Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory.
Date: Le Morte Darthur was probably complete in manuscript form by 1460 CE, and was first published by Caxton in 1485.
Highlights: A significant portion of the plot of ‘Gareth’ is concerned with the main character’s battles with a group of Power Rangers. He defeats a Black Knight, a Green Knight, a Red Knight, a Blue Knight a second Red Knight and a Brown Knight.
Is Gareth seeking perfection through alchemy (Wheeler, 1994)? Is Gareth seeking to fight his way up through the ranks to becoming the golden knight (Tiller, 2007)? Where do the bushes come in? Is this the end of the Power Rangers?
Read on to find out.
GARETH, THE FAIR UNKNOWN
‘Sir Gareth’ is Book VII of the printed edition of Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory. If you like cliché stories of disguised rich people, nobly riding out to prove themselves the chivalricest knights ever to prance around the world, you will love ‘Gareth’.
The story begins with a strange appearance in King Arthur’s court. A young man appears, approaches the king, and demands three boons. Instead of asking for weapons or armour or a horse (like most wannabe-knights do) he just asks to be fed for a year. What a glutton! He also refuses to tell anyone his name.
At this point the story seems to be presenting the young man’s identity as a mystery. This identifies the story as following the Arthurian ‘Fair Unknown’ trope, where an obscure and rustic but beautiful and strong young knight appears and gains favour through strength-of-arms before revealing he also has upper-class parents (Wilson, 1943). Good comparisons are Percival who does similarly in Chrétien de Troyes ‘Perceval’, and Culhwch who does the opposite in ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’.
One of the appeals of this deception is to prove that Gareth’s good fortune does not depend on his lucky birth, but rather his strength and nobility. If this knight can succeed without the benefits of his riches and reputation it means those things are not what define him. From a Marxist-historian perspective, the richer sort around 1500 were in a precarious minority, and their position depended upon consciously exploiting and deceiving the poor (see: Wood, 2006). Stories suggesting that the rich they deserved to be in the positions they were in (=‘self-attribution fallacy’), rather than getting to their positions by luck or birth must have been as tempting to rich readers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as they are for the 1% today. (These stories are still false today as wealth remains generally inherited: Clark & Cummins, 2015).
But it would be wrong to present ‘Gareth’ as a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot. It’s true, Arthur suggests the young man does not even know his own name, and the other knights seem divided about whether the young man has rich parents (in which case he needs to be educated and encouraged) or poor parents (in which case he is a scrounger). However, the fact the young man was brought into court leaning on two well-dressed men (servants? – they quickly disappear) reassures readers that the young man is rich. In fact, the only knight suggesting he is poor is Kay, well known for being contrary and irritable. Gawain and Lancelot, the most important knights, take a special interest in the young man. By the third page, Malory can bear the suspense no more:
But as towchyng Sir Gawayne, he had reson to proffer [offer] him lodgyng, mete, and drynke, for that proffer com of his blodde, for he was nere[r] kyn to hym than he wyste [knew] off… (Shepherd, 2004:179)
Actually, I’m impressed Malory managed to keep it a secret for that long. Most modern editors make the knight’s secret identity the actual title:
The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkeney [oopsie, spoiler alert]
For the first half of the text however, the pretext that we don’t know who Gareth is continues. He is referred to in the text by the nickname Beawmaynes (=beau mains – ‘fayre handys’), a nickname invented by Kay as an insult. The nature of this insult is uncertain. It is possible Kay is suggesting Gareth’s hands are like a child’s and do not bear callouses from experience as a worker or soldier. The trouble is that this is ungrammatical in Parisian French (it should be belles mains) leading Loomis (1939) to suggest this etymology was suggested over time simply as the character’s name evolved and new stories were invented about him (Gauvain > Bauvain > Baumain > Beawmaynes).
This is absolutely how we should imagine Kay and Gareth’s conversation.
The identity of the knight is not a mystery at all to readers, but does create dramatic tension for the characters within the story. After a year of scoffing soup in the kitchen, the young man feels ready to actually start doing some adventuring. Gareth takes a standard “damsel in distress” quest, and goes off to fight a generic baddie, the ‘Red Knight of the Red Lands’. He takes with him the damsel’s sister, Lynet, who spends most of the book bewailing her fate at ending up with someone who is not a knight or of noble birth as her saviour. Since we know the young man is in fact of rich descent, this sets the story up for lots more fun dramatic tension.
GARETH VS. THE POWER RANGERS
Gareth’s adventures are usually seen as the most important part of the story by modern critics. In it, Gareth and Lynet go adventuring and fight a series of knights, many of whom have a colour attached to them. I like to imagine them a little like this:
These knights have attracted several explanations. Vinevar (1929), suggested this part of the story was inspired by the way one of Malory’s childhood heroes, Beauchamp the knight once defeated a Chevaler Rouge (Red Knight) Chivaler Blanke (White Knight) and the knight Colard Fynes in one day. This is a clever explanation but Loomis (1939) suggests this notion has little but romance to suggest it to readers. He instead suggests that the adventures of both Beawmaynes and Beauchamp were both inspired by the popular Arthurian stories of the time.
Wheeler (1994) accepts that the story was probably invented by Malory but suggests there is more going on than has been previously seen. She pointed out that after defeating each, Gareth took their colour as his own. This suggests an alchemical sort of self-improvement, with Gareth moving from his unrefined gold setting off from the kitchen, undergoing nigredo after fighting the black knight, then moving through to more pure colours with green, red and blue, until he becomes the golden knight – the perfect one. At the same time he is not learning but discovering his hidden potential. Tiller (2007) agrees except he suggests the colours were not inspired by alchemy but rather by the hierarchy of heraldic colours. Black is the lowest colour, white is the highest, green has the most black and blue the least (except white). Gareth becomes gold (yellow) by overcoming each colour in turn. A similar kind of incremental build-up in describing knights can be found in ‘Rhonabwy’ as I have previously described (Raye, 2014).
The problem is that Gareth fights not just the black, green, red and blue knights but also many others. Here is a list of the knights he vanquishes in the story:
- Kay, knight of Arthur’s court
- Launcelot, knight of Arthur’s court (fought to a draw)
- Gararde le Breuse, knight/murderer
- Arnolde le Bruse, knight/murderer
- The Black Knight, Perarde
- The Green Knight, Partholype
- The Red Knight, Perymones
- The Blue Knight, Persaunte (Inde=Indigo/Blue)
- The Red Knight of the Red Lands, Ironsyde
- Unnamed (magical?) knight, twice
- Blamour, a knight, at the tournament
- Galyhuddyn, a knight, at the tournament
- Galyhud, a knight, at the tournament
- Dynadan, a knight, at the tournament
- La Kote Male Taylé, a knight, at the tournament
- Sagramoure le Desyrus, a knight, at the tournament
- Dodynas le Saveage, a knight, at the tournament
- Anguyshaunce, a king, at the tournament
- Carados, a king, at the tournament
- Uryens of Gore, a king, at the tournament
- Bagdemagus, a knight-king, at the tournament
- Mellyagauns, a knight, at the tournament
- Galahalte, a knight, at the tournament
- Gawayne, a knight, at the tournament
- Sagramoure, a knight, at the tournament (again?)
- Gawayne, a knight, at the tournament (again)
- Bendelayne, a knight
- The Brown Knight
- De la Rowse, a duke
That’s a long list for a story entirely about alchemical improvement! Gareth fights a second red knight after the blue knight. Tiller (2007) suggests three explanations (i) this knight is not to be taken as among the others, since the earlier knights are all brothers. (ii) By this point in the story Gareth needs a challenge, but he has fought his way to the top. His next natural enemy would be a gold knight, but no gold knight would be a villain like the Red Knight. (iii) This change to the natural order of colours reflects a challenge to the order of society. These explanations are also unsatisfactory: (i) the Red Knight of Red Lands is the natural climax of this part of the story. Lynet explains ‘This Sir Persaunte of Inde [the Blue Knight] is nothyng of myght nor strength unto the knyght that lyeth at the seege aboute my lady’ (Shepherd, 2004:191), meaning that the red knight is less powerful than the blue. (ii & iii) These explanations are tacit admissions that the model is not internally coherent. The explanation of the Brown Knight as a throwaway knight from outside the chivalric system at the end seems equally strained.
Whilst at the tournament, Gareth actually borrows Lyonet’s ring to change the colour of his armour so that he will not be recognised. He flickers between black, green, red and white colours quickly. This would seem to suggest that although each colour has its properties, he is still not too proud a yellow power ranger to morph into green clothes. In fact he actually starts out his adventures dressed in gold, but changes into the green knight’s clothes. The idea that these colours fit into a simple hierarchy, whether alchemical or heraldic, may be overly simplistic.
WAIT, WHERE IS THE NATURE?
The four coloured knight brothers pose an increasing challenge to Gareth, each proving a harder fight than the one before. In a way though, perhaps the colour of their armour is almost coincidental to this. This part of the story can instead be read as a conflict between nature and civilisation.
The Black Knight is the first of the brothers to fight and also the easiest victory for our hero. However, he is not the Black Knight simply because he dresses in black armour. His whole setting is black:
So at the laste they com to a blak launde, and there was a blak hauthorne, and thereon hinge a baner, and on the other syde there hinge a blak shylde, and by hit stoode a blak speare grete and longe, and a grete blak horse covered wythe sylk and a blak stone faste by. (Shepherd, 2004:179)
Everything here is big and black. Tiller (2007) suggests that the imagery here reminds us of death (especially the black memorial stone). I would tend to agree. The white silk caparison is incongruous here, only until we once again take note of the analogue of ‘Rhonabwy’ where white often trims black and the other way around.
The hawthorn tree (Cretaegus sp.) is interesting. Natural hawthorn types are known for having white flowers (Mayflowers). The species is whitethorn in English; draenen wen (‘white thorn’) in Welsh; and sgìtheach/droigheann geal (‘white thorn’) in Gaelic (Milner, 2011:82), to distinguish it from blackthorn; draenen ddu; droigheann dubh (Prunus spinosa; the tree black sloes grow on). Hawthorn is generally in bloom by Whitsunday (Pentecost), the time of the story. Obviously whitethorn has no place in the black lands, so blak hauthorne must be different.
There are two possible resolutions for the blak hauthorne dilemma. (i) The plant could actually be a misnomer for blackthorn, fitting into the black land, or (ii) it could be a hawthorn branch with its colours magically reversed into menacing black. Hawthorns today have eerie connotations in folklore. One modern folklore survey found hawthorn to be the plant species most associated with bad luck (Vickery, 1984). The plant should not be cut for fear of fairies, nor should the blossoms be brought inside, perhaps because they are typically pollinated by flies rather than bees. Solitary hawthorns have often been planted on graves (Watts, 2007:180-183; Milner, 2011:84). Tiller seems to follow this explanation suggesting ‘the black hawthorn is traditionally associated with death and mourning’ (2007). Tiller does not cite a source and I am aware of no other source referring explicitly to black hawthorns. In fact, there is no evidence that hawthorn had these connotations in the medieval period, so perhaps the eeriness here is simply from the inversion of a very white flower (Eberly, 1989). This explanation requires the connotations of the tree in this text to be coincidental to the tree’s later significance as an inauspicious species. This is not altogether satisfactory but there is insufficient evidence to doubt it at present.
This interpretation is made more complicated by the later presence of another thorn tree. Gareth’s next opponent, The Green Knight, also uses a hawthorn for storage:
Therewythall the Grene Knyght rode unto an horne that was greene, and hit hinge uppon a thorne, And there he blew three dedly motis, and anone there cam two damesels and armed hym lightly. And than he toke a grete horse, and a grene shyld, and a grene spere; and than they ran togydyrs with all their myghtes… (Shepherd, 2004:186)
The species of this thorn is not specified, but usually the term thorn by itself refers to the hawthorn. (See: Middle English Dictionary ‘thorn’ sense #2). This is not a sinister, black hawthorn, just an ordinary thorn tree. Just like the Black Knight, the Green Knight retrieves weapons from this bush, but in this case the retrieval is via a horn summoning some assistants.
If the Green Knight is more civilised than the Black Knight, the Red Knight is more civilised still. He does not store any of his equipment in a bush. Fifty shields are hung ‘over the towre gate’ (Shepherd, 2004:189) where the knight lives with his companions. As Tiller (2007) points out, we do not see where the Blue Knight keeps his weapons, but he is actually the lord of a city, and sends messengers before fighting. In this way, Tiller’s idea that each knight seems of increased civility compared to the knight before seems justified, even if it only covers a small number of Gareth’s opponents.
The four knight brothers with their colours in the books do not need to be explained through an alchemical or heraldic lens. In fact ‘Gareth’ can be read more simply as embodying the theme of nature vs civilisation. The four knight all fit on a scale from nature to civilisation. The knights do not get their power from their colour, their colour is just an incidental representation of their character.
The two hawthorn trees in ‘Gareth’ are used in the story to help indicate the progression of nobility of the knights who use them. The first hawthorn is painted in ominous, inverted black, and simply serves as a spear and shield holder. The Black Knight who takes these weapons is eerie and intimidating but simple and brutish.
His brother, the Green Knight, does not keep his arms like this. However he does still keep a horn in his bush which can be used to summon up his arms. This knight is still uncivilised compared to his other brothers, but at least his shield is less likely to be rusty.
The other two main coloured knights live in human settlements and are too civilised to have thorn bushes around at all.
This reading emphasises relative civility as the deciding factor in the order of the knights that Gareth faces (very like the way I interpret ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’). Future researchers could profitably look into whether this factor holds true of other points of commonality between the episodes of the story. It would also be interesting to find out whether hawthorn is used in similar ways in other stories. In particular, the existence of further medieval or early modern references to hawthorn which emphasise the plant’s inauspicious qualities might suggest our modern folklore of the hawthorn as an unlucky plant is older than has previously been argued by, for example, Eberly (1989).
Do you think the hawthorn is black in order to make it seem eerie? Does ‘Gareth’ remind you of a Power Rangers episode as well? Leave a comment below!
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