Sir Gareth is known to be the son of King Lot of Orkney and his wife Morgause; his brothers include Gawaine, Mordred, Gaheris, and Agravaine. Mention of Gareth is not made in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain when he explicitly details Lot and his children, saying, “Loth had married Arthur’s sister, who bore him Gawaine and Mordred,” (Wilhelm 71), so it can be assumed that Gareth is a later character. He’s mentioned, with all of his brothers, in The Prose Merlin (Wilhelm 343). Sir Gareth is known as a very noble knight, and Lancelot says of him, “Noble and trew, curteyse and jantill and well condicionde,” (Archibald and Edwards 140). However, it is not until Malory that Gareth is given a fully fleshed out character and adventure.
Malory devotes a considerable section of Le Morte D’Arthur to the adventures of Sir Gareth. There is a good chance that much of Malory’s tale was not drawn from any source, and that much is the author’s invention. If there was a source, it remains unknown (Pearsall). Gareth’s story goes as follows: he arrives at King Arthur’s court, well after his older brother Gawaine is a prominent knight. However, Gareth feels that he must prove himself a knight, rather than receive favor through his blood ties, so he disguises his identity and asks only that he be given food for one year. He is mockingly nicknamed, “Beaumains,” by Sir Kay, because he works in the kitchen and has large hands. After one year, Lady Linet asks Arthur to send a knight to rescue her lady Lyonesse, who is being held captive at the hands of the Red Knight of the Red Launds. “Beaumains” requests of Arthur that he let him have the adventure, and to Linet’s dismay, Arthur agrees. Gareth overcomes many knights along the way (including the Black Knight, the Green Knight, and the Red Knight) on his way to challenging the Red Knight of the Red Launds, and Linet constantly insults him. Gareth bears everything very courteously. He eventually rescues Lyonesse, but she will not have his love until he proves that he is one of the most worthy knights in the world. Gareth does so at a tournament held by Arthur. Lyonesse gives Gareth a ring which will make it so he can’t be recognized or hurt, and he wins the tournament, but at the end his identity is discovered, and he flees. Later on, he meets with Gawaine, and they unknowingly fight each other. However, Linet sees what is happening, stops the fight, then Gawaine calls Arthur, and all is made right. Gareth is now a Knight of the Round Table, and he marries the Lady Lyonesse.
While that is the basic outline of Gareth’s adventures, a few things happened along the quest that are worth mention. Most importantly, he jousts with Sir Lancelot himself, and Lancelot fears that he might lose, and so they make peace. Gareth reveals his identity, and is then knighted by Lancelot, thus forming a bond between the two (Gareth admires no knight as much as Lancelot). He also knocks down his brother Gawaine at the tournament, and Lancelot does not join in the battle because he suspects that the unknown knight is Gareth, and wants Gareth to have the honor of winning the tournament (Malory Book VII).
Gareth does not have a prominent role in the rest of Malory until the very end. When Arthur orders the death of Guenever, he has Gareth and Gaheris standing by, unarmed. Lancelot comes to rescue the queen from burning, and in the process inadvertently kills both brothers. Shortly afterwards, Gawain is told that Lancelot has slain Gareth, and he says, “That may I not believe that ever he slew my brother Sir Gareth; for I dare say my brother Gareth loved him better than me and all his brethren, and the king both. Also I dare say, an Sir Lancelot had desired my brother Sir Gareth with him, he would have been with him against the king and us all, and therefore I may never believe that Sir Lancelot slew my brother.” (Wilhelm 542). Lancelot also says at one point that he would have rather slain one of his kinsmen (Malory 887). In trying to take vengeance on Lancelot for Gareth’s death, Gawaine dies, and the everything is eventually lost.
This story parallels an earlier story in which Balin unwittingly fights his brother, and they both die. Here, though, Lancelot only unknowingly kills Gareth. (Archibald and Edwards 140).
Archibald, Elizabeth and Edwards, A. S. G. A Companion to Malory, Cambridge: E.S. Brewer, 1997
De Boron, Robert. The Prose Merlin. The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. Ed. James J. Wilhelm. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1994. 305-348.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. History of the Kings of Britain. The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. Ed. James J. Wilhelm. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1994. 59-93.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Ed. William Caxton. New York: Modern Library Edition, 1994.
Pearsall, Derek. Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2003.
Wilhelm, James J. The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1994.
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