Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 31 January 2014

The degeneration of Sir Kay

As part of my recent swerve into Arthurian legend, I wanted to post something about one of the most unfairly maligned characters in the story, namely Sir Kay, Arthur's seneschal and foster-brother. 

Anyone familiar with Chr├ętien de Troyes and Malory will know that Kay is a pretty undesirable character: jealous of the prowess of other knights, a buffoon and a braggart and a bully, he is frequently humiliated and beaten up, yet never loses the affection of his King, who seems to regard Kay as indispensable. After one particularly embarrassing episode, in which Kay fails to defend a noble lady, Arthur says to him:

"Seneschal, stay at court as usual, and you may be sure that I have nothing in this world I would not give you without hesitation just to keep you here. "

The hapless Sir Kay fails again
One gets the impression that the medieval writers found Kay's presence something of an irritant. Unlike the other knights, he occupies a unique place in the story, being arguably closer to Arthur than even Queen Guinevere or Sir Lancelot: he is certainly more loyal than either. His deathless loyalty remains intact throughout most versions of the legend, even though his character and ability as a warrior are ruthlessly degraded.

In fact Sir Kay (or Cei in his original form) is one of the oldest of all Arthurian characters. He and Bedwyr (later Sir Bedivere) are the first of Arthur’s named companions in the early Welsh texts and triads. From the beginning, he is a difficult and slightly ambivalent personality, ferocious in battle but inclined to be rude and quarrelsome. His own father, named as Cynyr rather than Sir Ector, prophesies that his son’s heart would be eternally cold, and his nature exceptionally stubborn.

A depiction of Cei in Welsh legend

Cei is also infused with magical powers, as the following extract from Culhwch and Olwen describes:

"Thereupon Kai rose up. Kai had this peculiarity, that his breath lasted nine nights and nine days under water, and he could exist nine nights and nine days without sleep. A wound from Kai's sword no physician could heal. Very subtle was Kai. When it pleased him he could render himself as tall as the highest tree in the forest. And he had another peculiarity,--so great was the heat of his nature, that, when it rained hardest, whatever he carried remained dry for a handbreadth above and a handbreadth below his hand; and when his companions were coldest, it was to them as fuel with which to light their fire."

Unlike his later incarnation, Cei is also a ferocious and terrifying warrior. The tenth century Welsh poem Pa Gur says this of him:

Prince of the plunder,
The unrelenting warrior to his enemy;
Heavy was he in his vengeance;
Terrible was his fighting.
When he would drink from a horn,
He would drink as much as four;
When into battle he came
He slew as would a hundred.
Unless God should accomplish it,
Cei's death would be unattainable.
Worthy Cei and Llachau
Used to fight battles,
Before the pain of livid spears...'

Even at this early stage, however, there is a stubborn and quarrelsome side to Cei. When Arthur makes the mistake of mocking his exploits, Cei explodes with rage and flounces off, declaring that he will have no more to do with Arthur or his court: henceforth: 'Cei had nothing to do with Arthur from then on, not when the latter was waning in strength, or when his men were being killed.' This is a rare instance of Cei showing disloyalty to Arthur, and an early warning of the dark side to his character. 

As the Middle Ages progressed, new characters were introduced into the Arthurian cycle, often at the expense of the old. Many of Arthur's oldest followers were jettisoned entirely in favour of the likes of Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad etc, but Cei (now Sir Kay) remained, albeit in a much-reduced state. His traditional role of the gatekeeper to Arthur's hall is downgraded to 'salver' i.e. a sort of glorified butler, and his chief purpose is to act as a blundering foil for the younger knights, insulting and belittling the likes of Sir Gareth and Sir Percival until they lose patience and give him a thrashing. Thus the mighty British warrior of old was robbed of his dignity and turned into a laughing stock.
Sir Kay annoys the hell out of Sir Percival
Some writers have detected a more subtle meaning behind Kay’s behaviour, and suggested that his bullying was a deliberate tactic to keep order at court. This set me on the road to thinking of Kay as a more clever and subtle character than his latter-day reputation suggests – ‘very subtle was Kai’, as an early Welsh text puts it. The idea that he played the bully to keep Arthur’s knights in line suggests a man who was rather more intelligent than most of them, and perhaps entrusted with political secrets. 

Gradually an idea for a story centred on Sir Kay took shape in my mind, but more on that later...

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The remains of Alfred...or not

I thought I should post something on the latest historical kerfuffle making the news - namely, the discovery by archeologists of a piece of human pelvis which might have belonged to Alfred the Great. The bit of old bone was not found inside a cathedral, where you might expect to find the remains of a dead king, but in a cardboard box in a dusty storeroom in Winchester museum, mixed in with a load of animal bones and random human fragments. 

That's right. We gave Margaret Thatcher a state funeral, with politicians lining up to weep over her gaudy jewelled tomb before firing it into space, but for centuries the greatest of England's kings has languished inside a cardboard box. Or at least a bit of him: the rest of his bones were lost in the 18th century, when Hyde Abbey was torn down to make way for a new prison.
Just put me in here, I'll be fine
I posted quite recently on the subject of digging up the dead, and the ethics of it. Should we really disturb the graves of our ancestors, just because we're curious to know what they looked like? It's not as if the various facial reconstruction techniques are very accurate. If so, then poor old Richard III, who surely had enough to cope with, bore a marked resemblance to Quentin Tarantino.  
Quentin III
In the case of Alfred, archeologists have found a bit of him in a box rather than digging up his grave, so the question of ethics doesn't apply. The whole exercise seems curiously pointless: they can hardly reconstruct his face from a piece of pelvic bone, and it may not be his anyway. The bone has been carbon-dated to between the late ninth-early tenth century, which at least covers the date of his death in 899, but belonged to a man aged between 26 and 45 at death. Alfred was fifty when he died. The other option is that it may have belonged to his son, Edward the Elder, but that's even further out, for Edward died in his mid-fifties. Perhaps the likeliest candidate is Alfred's youngest son, Aethelweard, who died in 922, probably in his forties.  
Whether or not the bone belonged to Alfred, or a member of his family, is unlikely to be top of the agenda in the next few weeks. The official line is that Alfred Has Been Found, for few are likely to be attracted to news stories and TV documentaries devoted to the discovery of a bit of pelvic bone belonging to Aethelweard, a historical nobody with an odd-sounding name. 
We are the King of Wessex, not a 'fun ride'
The team who discovered the bone are said to be 'elated', as well they might be, since more excavation of the Hyde Abbey site will now be greenlighted...and perhaps some of the tourist dollars about to flow into Leicester could be redirected to Hyde. In due course the site may become the home of the Alfred the Great Fun Centre, with Viking longboat-themed rides and fast food outlets selling Alfred-Burghers, plastic horned Viking helmets and Saxon battle-axes for the kids, Alfred the Great cakes (slightly burned), Alfred the Great t-shirts, plastic replica Alfred Jewels...the possibilities are endless, people! 
Now, who else can we exhume and make a fat profit from...? 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Siege of Rome

My third release for this month - if you include the re-release of Book One of Caesar's Sword, is the sequel, CAESAR'S SWORD (II): SIEGE OF ROME. 

Book Two of the series is set shortly after the events of The Red Death, which saw Arthur's grandson, Coel ap Amhar, rise from a lowly slave to a charioteer in The Hippodrome, to a respected soldier in the Roman army led by Flavius Belisarius, the last great general of imperial Rome.

Belisarius has re-conquered the old Roman province of North Africa, and brought the mad King of the Vandals, Gelimer, back to Constantinople as a captive, along with heaps of treasure. Encouraged by this success, the Emperor Justinian has made Belisarius a Consul, and plans to take back Italy and the lost city of Rome. Once the capital and beating heart of the Roman Empire, Rome has for over a century been in the hands of the 'barbarian' Goths and Ostrogoths. Justinian entertains grand dreams of restoring the shattered Western Empire, and ruling over East and West in the manner of his predecessors.

Emperor Justinian I
To this end, he sends Belisarius with an army of twelve thousand men, mostly mercenaries and foederatii troops, to recapture Sicily and the Italian mainland. The Goths are in turmoil, as their kings are murdering each other left and right, and Justinian hopes his golden general can take advantage of the chaos. Before long, however, a new and vigorous Gothic monarch emerges from the ruck, and the Romans find themselves stranded and hideously outnumbered in the middle of hostile territory.

Armed with just his famous grandfather's sword, Caledfwlch, and a heap of fortitude, Coel must fight to defend the walls of Rome and preserve his own life from the ever-growing numbers of deadly enemies and assassins who wish him ill...

Caesar's Sword (II): Siege of Rome

Saturday, 4 January 2014


I'm going to be doing a bit more promotion on here this month than is usual, so bear with me. I have two new books out, one of which is the sequel to Caesar's Sword (I) The Red Death, and the other a compilation of my short stories simply entitled 'Stories'.

The stories are culled from the past five years or so, and many have appeared in various online and print zines, including Abandoned Towers, Heroic & Fantasy Quarterly, Solander, Bewildering Tales, and others. They include a hefty dollop of historical fiction (as you might expect) as well as stabs at fantasy, murder mystery and horror. It ends with an unfinished sequence of tales featuring Hasan al-Asim, a reluctant assassin and sometime prophet.

'Stories' is currently available on Kindle, but a paperback version will be available soon.

Stories on Amazon