Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Best Knight in the World

Hi, Round Table. Nice to see you here.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Michel Gantelet
Just the sight of it makes me happy. The equality of it all! The enlightenment! The awareness that being the best is less important than doing your best... except actually, not at all.

Despite the ideals of the Round Table, the legends forget about all that in short order. The King Arthur stories are crammed with applicants for the job of Best Knight Ever. Either Camelot was full of inferiority complexes, or the Round Table wasn't doing its job of promoting equality.

We begin with our starter kit, the knights who rallied behind Arthur back when he was a teenage sprog with a talent for freeing stuck swords. (Spoiler alert: none of these guys are The Best Knight in the World.) This quarrelsome lot provides the need for a Round Table in the first place; they won't shut up until assured that they're all equal to each other. The question of who's best is finally moot when Guinevere brings the Table with her dowry.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, John Howe
Along comes Gawain. Young, brave, impulsive, and nephew to the king. Maybe not so much stronger than more experienced knights, but was anyone else volunteering to get his head cut off by the Green Knight, or to marry the queen of ugly so he could save his king's life? Didn't think so. When Gawain comes back from the Green Chapel, pretty much everyone agrees that he deserves an extra portion of respect and honor.

So... he's the best, right?

Hold your horses, ladies and gentlemen and especially ladies.

Sir Lancelot, Melissa A. Benson
Lancelot wants a word. Lancelot is
easily the strongest of the
bunch. He could unhorse every knight at court twice and still have time for breakfast. He comes prepackaged with his own hype - a king's son, raised by the Lady of the Lake, his coming foretold by Merlin - and unlike many a Next Big Thing, lives up to and beyond it. He's a strong, sensitive stud who's so famous that he has to ride incognito in tournaments so he won't win by default.

So... he's the best, right?

Yeah, right. The name Guinevere mean anything to you?

The Temptation of Sir Percival,
Arthur Hacker
Besides, eventually Percival shows up, full of youthful naivete (also known as purity) and more good intentions than even he knows what to do with. Percival's a magnet for quests that only The Best Knight Ever can achieve, and mostly he achieves them. He never falls prey to sinful love, remaining either virginal or true to his first love for his whole life. Not to mention that in early versions of the Grail Quest, Percival is the knight who accomplishes it.

So... he's the best, right?

Sir Galahad, George Frederic Watts
And then there's Galahad. The only impure thing ever to happen to Galahad was the whole "conceived out of wedlock" business. There's a reason that his name is synonymous with "perfect knight." He surpasses his father's strength, young as he is. Few knights on the Grail Quest didn't need their butts saved by Galahad's intervention. The Siege Perilous was created for him alone. He gets a reprise of Arthur's sword-in-the-stone miracle within minutes of his arrival at Camelot. And he achieves the Grail, while even Percival has to sit on his slightly less pure hands and watch.

So... he's the best, right?

Oh, who even knows anymore? It seems like every time a new knight pops up on the scene, he's hailed as Today's Best Knight. Tristan gets this treatment once he tears himself away from Isolde and comes to Camelot. Bors gets it out of nowhere when Malory has to explain why a knight we've barely met is worthy to see the Grail. Gareth gets it briefly, after defeating four knights and Linette's taunting. And King Arthur gets the reverse version, with his personal reputation as a fighter taking distant second place to his law-giving fame.

Jousting Knights, c. 1445
It's a strange conundrum that a company famous for their equality should be so hung up on superiority. Because they are. They ooh and aah over each New Best Knight. Galahad only has to sit down for Bors to turn into Mr. Ollivander and declare that they all expect great things from him. Anyone who manages to unhorse one of the Big Four practically has a party thrown in their honor.

Could it be that the knights are just glad to see a dominating presence proved human? Sure. Obviously those guys are part of the legend; Mordred wouldn't have had supporters without them. And maybe that's the point. Even at the height of its glory, Camelot is only human. The knights want one person to be better than another. No one wants to say that Kay is as good as Lancelot. What they want to say is that they're better than Kay. Or Lionel, or Bedivere, or whoever they want to surpass. On one hand, it's proactive goal-setting; on the other hand, it turns one of the greatest ideals of the story into a vessel for lip service. And given that Camelot falls through human failing, I like the idea that that failing was there all along.


  1. Ah but how would any of them improve as knights if one didn't surpass another in any aspect of their knighthood? If you can't have friendly competition then you all just become lazy lay-abouts.

    1. I honestly think that's one of the reasons everyone got their knickers in a twist about Lancelot. "Everything was fine until you showed up and started beating us ALL." Which is when it gets less friendly and more destroying-the-kingdom. Fun times.