The following is a story by Daniel M. Lavery, excerpted from the new anthology, Sword Stone Table, a modern collection of old myths and stories. Daniel M. Lavery is the author of Texts From Jane Eyre and Something That May Shock and Discredit You. He writes a weekly newsletter about literature, humor, and pop culture called The Chatner.
King of the Distant Isles, Galehaut, King also of Norgales; Overlord of the North Marches and Escavalon; Master in Lothian, Gore, the Long Isles, Sorestan; King in Orofoise, Roestoc, Pomitain, the Isle of Servage, the Straight Marches, Stranggore; Duke of Sorelois, Garloth, and twenty more besides. Now in Tintagel, afterward in Joyous Garde; lover of good knights; unhelmeted at last by Sir Lancelot; formerly excellent, currently happy and awaiting burial:
There are too many young men on the earth these days for true friendship to flourish. The flower of knighthood is thereby strangled in the bud, for, without a true friend, the knight can never temper his martial spirit with the cooling breath of love. He charges about from place to place, ever steaming, foundry hot, irritating maidens, stirring up quarrels, distressing shepherds, cluttering the courts, frightening curates, heedless of invitation and mindless of direction. He is a liability to his comrades, a burden to his master, a clod and a pest to his bedmates, and the terror of farmers and livestock alike.
Now the year 1000 was a mutation in time, a warp in the wheel of fortune, and from that cracked year a thousand young men crawled over Christendom and savaged her, bored and voracious after their schismatic birth. So it was that comradeship was introduced to gentle them, the peace and truce of God to restrain them, interdicts and excommunications to quiet them, monks to puzzle them, pilgrimage to weary them, and chivalry to better them. Yet there are so many men, and so few friends among them, that one might search the world twice over without ever encountering him.
The aim of the play of chivalry is twofold. It is perhaps rather truer to say that there is both a known and an unknown aim to chivalry. The first is to keep bored youngsters busy; to teach both boys and horses how to behave, how not to embarrass their mothers at the table; to fill up their afternoons with activity and intrigue that they might end the day tired and ready for honest sleep rather than trouble; to accumulate honor and marks of distinction from kings and ladies, that they might feel themselves trailed about by glory and slow their pace accordingly. The second is to get themselves rid of all honor and glory for the love of a true friend.
Many knights never learn of this aim. They are horse riders and cow-handed, fit only to sire sons and to round out the guest list at court. They can carry a cup across a tiltyard without spilling, say “Pleased to meet you” in French, and die in war. Not for them is the increase of the soul, the swelling up of merit, the augmentation of grace, the tournament in disguise, the leap from the window, the taking hold lightly and in secret of a dearly loved hand, the token worn tight against the chest, the exchange of hair locks, the midnight marriage by a tree-wild monk, the flight in disguise, the trade in clothes, and the setting out across the wasteland. The true knight longs for shame, awaits eagerly the day when he may cast aside his honor and trample it under the pounding of feet as he rushes to his friend. A knight is a humiliation-seeking device, and the point of knighthood is to renounce everything, to give up all, to cast honor and dignity and title aside and tumble headfirst into perfect degradation, perfect friendship, perfect trust, perfect felicity. In this collapse may knighthood, at last, flower. All else is horsemanship and table manners and may as easily be learned from a book (or, for that manner, a well-trained horse) as from a fellow knight. It is better than nothing and nothing else.
Of the first aim of chivalry, and the first class of knighthood, of which the greater bulk of all knighthood in Christendom is part, I will say little. It is because of them we have tournaments and men enough to fill them; that is sufficient. I left home to collect kings; in the tearing apart of kings’ households I might expect to find good knights. Gloier I killed, the son of Loholt, killed him for Sorelois, for her low and sunken bridges, her splendid merry rivers, her rich forests and untrammeled views to the sea. (Then I trammeled them.) Galegantin I sent away smarting. Bagdemagus, Cleolas, Maleginis, valiant men and well-appointed, leading armies blistering with a hundred lances, masters of the islands of tar and gold, Kings Aguissant and Yon—all fell before me and yielded their lands, their swords, their sons to my captains’ mess. I had many friends in those days, either proudly dead or cheerful in defeat, every one of them generous, frank, openhearted, pleased to find me as gracious as handsome, as wealthy as sporting. I knew every good sport from Orkney to Armenia and carried all their helms behind me in my war chest. “Galehaut, welcome; welcome, Galehaut,” the word came. “Knock me down, my darling.”
There are so many men, and so few friends among them, that one might search the world twice over without ever encountering him.
So I knocked everybody down. Men begged me to hit them. Men who had never known what to ask for in their life, men who fell silent at the sight of the Grail maiden and neglected to ask the Fisher King what ailed him, men who could barely mumble along in Mass suddenly found their tongues on my field and chased me out: “Galehaut, best of knights! Galehaut, so courtly in victory! Galehaut the forbearant, the loyal, the hardy, test your hardiness on me—throw me down—dismount me—knock me off—grant me the honor of your fist, Galehaut, fuck me up, Galehaut, fuck me up, Galehaut, I haven’t seen my father in sixteen years but send me home to him wearing your bruises and I can say I was truly a knight. Galehaut, I’m begging you, trample me, make much of me, make a mess of me, just this once lay waste to me and I’ll gladly follow you wherever you go.”
So I knocked everybody down and had their honor added to mine, till I was so heaped with glory it took three days to go a mile. I moved slowly over the earth as I approached Arthur, stopping often to knock and absorb knights inasmuch they begged for absorption. As soon as a man fell before me, weeping in gratitude and joy, I knew two things about him: first, that he was not the true friend I sought, and second, that I had just done away with another rival for the friend I still sought. So I made progress, but also wasted time, as I neared Logres. We fought two wars against each other in Selice, Arthur and I could have swept the Summerlands, could have pushed Tintagel into the channel, would have walked to Rome on my knees, had Arthur fought alone. I carried the cloud of thirty kingdoms behind me; I had the best and most lovestruck knights in the world by my side; I arrived at the field of battle eminently lovable and ready to knock again. Arthur had red hair, a lovely wife, a ready arm, a handful of marsh barons and reed knights, and tenacity. I liked him. I knocked him down. He collapsed very prettily. “Would you consider,” he asked from the ground, “giving me a bit of time to collect myself and my men before trying again?”
“Verily,” I said, “and with a right good will. Shall we meet again at Pentecost, on this same field, under our same banners, and with our best men?”
He nodded—I hoisted him up—he saluted me with the best of manners—departed—I collected the dazed and tumbled-down knights wishing to join my party—a year passed.
The same field. More knights on my side, more knights on his. You may well wonder whether I found the process of friend-seeking tiresome, if I ever wearied going all over the face of the earth and turning over men to see if my friend lay hidden underneath. I did not; friend-finding is painstaking work and cannot be rushed. Moreover, each man I knocked down was one fewer rival against me. On the field was Yvain, who fought brilliantly; Gawain, who fought better still; Arthur, who was a bit of a mess but had a certain undeniable energy to his approach. There was a man whose name I did not know, whose armor and horse were all black. His next horse—the first being cut out from under him—was black, too. Black was the third horse, then the fourth. Around him in a great clatter piled up the helmets and arms of fallen knights, their shields in pieces, their flags tattered, all swooning in turn at his feet.
The number of the Trinity is three and perfect. Lancelot is, and is, and is.
A friend, then. I wondered if I would fall from my horse. “Sir,” I called out, trying to steer my own horse closer to him, feeling for all the world like I was trying to chase down the chit at the end of dinner, “sir, hold a minute. Be not afraid.” “Nor was I, friend,” he called back (friend already!). “Go ahead.”
“Let me tell you what I intend,” I said, jostling my way through the crush until we drew abreast of each other. “I am a king and the son of a king; no one on this field will harm you while I am living. Also, you amaze me.”
“Well,” Lancelot said. “Lovely to meet you, king’s son. You’re, what, six foot two? Six foot three?”
“Six foot five,” I said.
“Six foot five,” he said. “Yeah. Okay. Lead on, then.” So we left the field together, and everyone else fell down around us. “Yon red tent is mine,” I told him. “Would you like me to surrender to Arthur tomorrow? Tonight? How do you take your tea? How can I embarrass myself for you? Everything I have is yours, you know—”
The next year. At the great tournament of Sorelois. We were sitting around—Guinevere, Gawain, Yvain, and myself— talking about the things we would do for Lancelot and the love of Lancelot, if his love happened to be ours. Yvain, who was of a practical cast of mind, spoke first: “I’d give him my best hawk, my best horse, my best armor, and my place in bed.”
“What is your place in bed, Yvain?” Guinevere asked. Merry, not brutal; Yvain laughed and threw a crust of bread at her.
“And what of you, Gawain?” I said. “What would you give him?”
Sir Gawain bethought himself awhile before saying, “If God and the saints would grant it, I’d immediately ask to be refashioned into his maiden true, his good sweetheart, with my own acres and ten manor houses, a writing room full of copyists and clerks, barns of linen; one field for hay, one for beer barley, one for wheat, one for rye, one for oats, one for peas; an abbey full of brewing nuns, an almshouse, and a mill; a fort and a trench; a tin mine; two smiths; a glove maker; a pepper house and a courtroom and a judge; a deer forest and a pig forest; two rivers, nine chalk streams, a wash, three swales; two chapels; a salt flat, a saddler, and the toll profits from seven different bridges. I would be mistress of my own keys and castle, with a keen eye, more lovely than the southern winds in May, hair like heavy ropes of gold, lips like figs, a figure like a prayer drifting up to heaven, the worthiest damsel to ever draw breath, and I’d save all my love, all my riches, all the tributes produced by my land and all the tributes produced by my good, tight body for him, and I’d give him them.” “Sir Gawain,” I said to him, “you have offered much. God grant it you,” and I pledged him until he blushed. His blushes were flashes of robin’s breast in a dark forest. “Pledge him again,” I told the rest of the table, “lift your cups in praise of him, until he grows wine-colored all over; I like it.” I liked Gawain; I held it against no one in court that they should love Lancelot as I did. It seemed to me personally reasonable that they should. Is the Father jealous of the Son? Or of the Holy Spirit that issues forth from both? So we all touch the best knight in Christendom; so we all issue forth.
Queen Guinevere spoke next. “Gawain has offered all a lady can give and quite cut me out. What is left for me to offer? I’d turn into a barn owl,” she said, “and scratch out his eyes and carry them around in my feet and trample all over his sight.” A lovely girl, and worthy of him. He would receive death and dishonor from her; I death and dishonor from him; she would have to find death and dishonor all on her own somewhere, but I didn’t doubt her ability for a moment. “And you, Galehaut? You can’t give him the armies of the Distant Isles again.”
“Turn my honor to shame,” I said, “bury my name in filth and degradation, ride in a cart, dishonor my father and my mother, strike a monk, steal deer, filch livestock out of pasture, burn a house in Easter week, frighten noble ladies and widows during Lent, defile relics and saints’ bones—”
“Piss in a baptismal font, steal Canterbury, yes, yes,” Gawain said dismissively, “collapse into foolishness for him—we get the picture.”
“He offers a great deal, Gawain,” Guinevere said, smiling at me. “It gives me joy to see it.”
“What can I say?” I asked them. “God has not struck me with misfortune yet; I am a man unused to sacrifice. I know how to woo and to give gifts—to dazzle and to intimidate—”
“That’s six foot five, everyone,” Gawain stage-whispered. “But of all the knights in Christendom, I have had the best luck of all and never lost to another man. So I think I do not know well what it means to give much in exchange for love. And then one day my luck ran so strong I received everything I had ever wanted. Now I have nothing left to win and can only lose.”
“Trying to win through an appeal to our sympathy,” said Yvain. “No, it won’t wash, Galehaut; you’re not going to make me pity a tall, well-favored duke who’s lord of thirty kingdoms and best friend to Lancelot besides.”
“Let me add this, then,” I said. “I will not outlive my friend—will not outlive this tournament, for even now I see his flag falter and fear him undone by treachery and false knights, enemies of true friendship. Take me out to Joyous Garde and lay me there; even if he should get up by some miracle, Galehaut will not survive Lancelot touching earth.” So it was I won that day and thereafter died. Lancelot got up again after touching earth, but I was not there to see it—he touched it, and I went into it. To go into ground now or later, now that I had done what I had set out to do, was a matter of supreme indifference to me.
After me, for Lancelot: to ride in the cart, and humiliation, disgrace, talk of treason, of felony, next the contempt and loathing of the crowd, the cloud of shame, the publicly unsatisfying reunion with Guinevere, the tepid reception of former friends, the stink of degradation, all without me to strengthen or console him—oh, how lucky he is, my darling boy, to sink so low for me.
“How, after Long Fighting, Galehaut Was Overcome by Lancelot Yet Was Not Slain and Made Great Speed to Yield to Friendship; Or, Galehaut, the Knight of the Forfeit” by Daniel Lavery excerpted from Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices, edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Vintage. Copyright © 2021 by Daniel Lavery.