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...


  1. Interesting post, David. Cei/Kay certainly is full of contradictions in the stories. Two additional issues with him from Welsh legends is that he died in battle with Arthur's son, Llacheu, which has led to some interpretations that he killed Arthur's son. There is also a dialogue between Arthur and Guinevere, where she is sort of mocking Arthur and saying Kay is better than him, which has led to some theories that he may have been her lover in the stories before Lancelot. (I mention both of these topics in my book King Arthur's Children.) I look forward to reading your story about Kay if that's what you're hinting at, but first I have to find time to read your next novel about Arthur's grandson.

    1. Thanks Tyler. I'm (vaguely) aware of several possible deaths for Cei/Kay in the stories, but had forgotten that in one version he dies fighting Llacheu. No doubt there are many aspects to the development of his character I have omitted to mention :)

  2. There are so many stories, so many name spellings, so much to choose from when penning a new Arthurian tale. Kay/Cei/Cai (for Caius) is a character in my "Camelot & Vine," and I tried to use the stories gently to make him human.

    1. True, Petrea, and the characters change so much over time as well. Cei/Kay does at least keep the slightly nasty side to his character throughout.

  3. I enjoyed the Sir Kay in your story The Red Knight very much David, I thought him very believable and human. I am here looking for more of your writing in fact, I ate up all your stories in that book. I'm pleased to see there are more Arthurian tales.

    1. Thanks Fiona! The Red Knight was a bit of an experiment. 'King's Knight' is the first in a series of longer tales devoted to Kay :)