|“Gray Hound”, 17th century. Public Domain|
For our final post in this series, we are going to take a look at a few of the critters associated with Arthurian legend. We have to remember that at the time these stories were written the forests were a lot bigger than later, full of animals, and hunting was a part of getting meat for the tables of the aristocracy. Hunting is definitely a part of Arthurian tales, because a hunt is likely to be the beginning of a knightly adventure. Some of these animals are real, others fictional like the Questing Beast(although... can we really imagine this as a fantastical version of a giraffe?). There are even a few dragons around, though not as many as you might think when you hear the word “Camelot”. And those which are there are mostly, though not entirely, symbolic, or part of a dream.
We’ll start with the boar. Boar hunting was a dangerous sport. T.H White has a detailed description of it in The Sword In The Stone.
Let’s check out some Arthurian boars.
- A boar is the second beast hunted by Bertilak in Gawain And The Green Knight. There has been a suggestion that the order of animals hunted by the hero’s jolly host symbolises the gradual downgrading of Gawain’s encounters with Bertilak’s wife. A deer is a noble beast. It’s followed by a boar, then down to a fox, which you can’t even eat.
- Lancelot sees a boar being hunted, late in Malory’s Morte. One of the hunters stops his hunt and leaves a horse tied up. Lancelot steals it to chase the animal himself, gets badly wounded, because the beast is vicious, and goes mad, not letting himself be treated, probably suffering infection. He ends up in King Pelles’ garden, where he is found by Elaine, who recognises him as the knight who once saved her.
- In Culhwch and Olwen, the hunting of TrwchTrwyth, the boar with the scissors and comb between his ears, is a huge event. Even Arthur participates as they chase it out of the country and across the Channel.
Next, there is
- It’s a part of Arthur’s name. Uther used it because of a comet he saw, shaped like one. (Geoffrey of Monmouth)There are also fighting dragons in Geoffrey, when Vortigern’s tower keeps toppling, symbolising Britons vs Saxons.
- In the Morte, Arthur dreams of a dragon fighting a boar. His dream is interpreted as himawan the dragon fighting enemies and winning.
- Lancelot fights a dragon that pops out of a mysterious tomb, after rescuing Elaine of Corebenic from a boiling tub of water. He goes to the Grail castle with her father and a dove flies in with a censer, after which the table is full of food and he gets a view of the Grail. Well,it is the Grail castle...
|Royal arms of England, Creative Commons|
Remember, there was a royal menagerie in the Tower of London when the Arthurian stories were written. King Henry III was presented with three leopards(or possibly lions) in the mid 13th century and started his own private zoo.
There are lots of big cats in Arthurian literature.
- The leopard/libbard is a symbol in Malory. When Lancelot kills that dragon he reads the prophecy of a “libbard of king’s blood who shall engender a lion.” Obviously it refers to him fathering Galahad.
- Cath Palug is a giant cat, maybe a lion, which was killing warriors on the Isle of Anglesey in early Welsh poems. It was finally killed by Arthur’s Companion Cei. So much for Sir Kay the Coward!
- Chretien’s Yvain is the Knight of the Lion; he helps a lion being menaced by a snake, and it helps him in return.
Deer of various kinds are usually big and white so that whoever is having the adventure simply must follow and ends up not actually catching it, but it leads him into an adventure. That happens several times in Malory.
Doves usually flutter in carrying a gold censer, connected with the Holy Grail. Knowing pigeons as I do, can’t help imagining the critter as flying over Lancelot or whoever and pooping in his eye... oh, please, please, dove, do your business!
Damsels coming to Camelot to plead for help are usually accompanied by a dog of one kind or another.
The brachet is a type of hunting dog, female, that hunts by scent.
|Greyhound. Creative Commons|
They also tend to have greyhounds with them. In these days we think of them as racing dogs, but they appear in Malory as hunting dogs. Actually, there is even a milkmaid with a greyhound, the mother of Sir Tor. She was raped by King Pellinore, who helped himself as well to her greyhound as a souvenir. She later married a cowherd and Tor comes to Camelot asking to be knighted(which he is, once Merlin announces who his father is).
Dogs in Arthurian literature are usually valued as hunting animals. When the Questing Beast is described as making a noise like thirty couple of hounds questing, the readers would have known what that would sound like.
Arthur traditionally has a hound of his own, Cabal. There is one theory that it’s the Latin word for “horse” and refers to Arthur’s horse, but the beast is mostly shown as a dog. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword At Sunset, he is definitely a dog. Two dogs, actually. The first is an old dog he has had since childhood. After Cabal dies, it’s a while before Artos can bring himself to have another. Then he wins a wonderful dog from its Saxon master, who has died in battle. The loyal hound is persuaded away from his dead master’s side and becomes Artos’s loyal hound, also called Cabal. Both dogs are beloved pets, but also accompany Artos into battle.
There are coursers and palfreys in Arthurian literature. The courser is a knight’s horse, the palfrey for civilians, including women. In Malory, when Arthur has defeated Accolon - the man who used his own sword against him - he tells Damas, for whom he had been forced to fight, that, among other things, he is going to ride a palfrey from now on. No more knightly coursers for him!
Knights do tend to steal each other’s horses, though, if they want to chase a Questing Beast or a boar or a white hart or whatever and are short of a horse. In fact, King Pellinore steals Arthur’s horse to go after Glatisant. Arthur has just been given a fresh horse after his last one died, so now has to get yet another horse!
But the early version of Arthur rides a bay mare called Llamrei.
Sutcliff’s hero has two horses in the course of the novel. He likes to ride white horses, and when his first war horse dies, he is replaced by a beautiful beast called Cygnus, from Artos’s own herds. Cygnus was chosen as a foal.
Gawain’s horse is a dapple grey called Gringolet, and in Gawain And The Green Knight, he is described in loving detail, as is his expensive gear.
|Gawain and Gringolet. Public Domain|
And there, I think we will finish this year’s series of A to Z posts, apart from my concluding thoughts.
I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!