December 02, 2022

#08-260: Gareth and Lynette

Gareth and Lynette, photograph by Julia Margaret
Cameron (1874) (Metropolitan Museum)

Note: Tennyson's highly readable Idylls of the King is a stirring revisiting of twelve of the tales of King Arthur, from a modern (Victorian) point of view. "Gareth and Lynnette" is one of the best of them.

Get Ready: Have you ever been truly frightened of something (or someone), only to discover that in fact there was nothing at all to fear?

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King is a series of twelve poems about King Arthur and his knights of the "Table Round," completed in 1859.

My favorite of the twelve is "Gareth and Lynette."

Gareth is the youngest son of King Lot and his wife (making Gareth Arthur's nephew). He dreams of becoming a knight like his esteemed brothers Gawain, Agravain and Gaheris (and his half-brother Mordred, who brought down Arthur's kingdom), but his mother wants to keep this "mama's boy" at home. When he keeps insisting on going out to seek adventure, she says he can go to Arthur's court at Camelot if he will disguise himself as a kitchen helper for a year and a day.

To her surprise and disappointment, the boy accepts this humiliation. Though "just" a kitchen hand, he is a good one. So good, in fact, that after a month his mother releases him from his promise. He reveals himself to Arthur, who knights him in secret, and Gareth continues working in the kitchen.

But one day a disagreeable woman named Lynette appears and begs Arthur for Lancelot's help in freeing her sister, Lyonors, from a tower. Gareth volunteers, and Arthur agrees.

But Lynette is angry that she got a kitchen boy instead of the great Sir Lancelot, and runs away from the court. Gareth catches up to her, and as they travel together she heaps abuse on him. He, however, remains courteous and gentle--as a good knight would--through the entire journey.

Now, the tower where Lyonors is being held is surrounded by three loops of a river, and the crossing of each--a bridge, a shallow ford, and another bridge--is guarded by one of three brothers, the Knights of the Morning Star, the Noonday Sun, and the Evening Star.

Gareth bests each of them, though with increasing difficulty. And with each victory, Lynette comes to respect him a little more.

But the fourth brother, the Knight of Death, is described as being most horrible, with "a nightblack horse" and "nightblack arms, With white breast-bone, and barren ribs of Death"--and all crowned with a skull on the helmet. But Gareth mocks him, suggesting he must be pretty weak if he has to try to try to scare challengers with that outfit! When the Knight fails to answer his taunts, Gareth's head "prickled beneath his helm" in fear.

But when they charge, Gareth overthrows the ghastly figure easily! And, removing this "terrifying" knight's helmet, Gareth discovered he was but a fair-faced boy. Gareth was right: the armor was meant to frighten away anyone who had made it past the first three knights, without the scary knight actually having to fight at all.

So Lyonors was saved, and though "he that told the tale in older times"--Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte d'Arthur--says that Gareth married Lyonors, Tennyson suggests that instead Lynette was the bride.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. abuse
  2. courteous
  3. fair-faced
  4. ghastly
  5. a helm
  6. humiliation
  7. idylls
  8. mocks
  9. overthrows
  10. prickled

  1. horrifying
  2. beats; conquers
  3. polite
  4. tingled
  5. embarrassment
  6. insults
  7. helmet
  8. makes fun of
  9. short, pleasant poems
  10. without a beard, like a boy

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 2, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. f; 2. c; 3. j; 4. a; 5. g; 6. e; 7. i; 8. h; 9. b; 10. d