Book VII, the Tale of Sir Prettyboy, is another thing all itself; the minimal amount of internet research I’m willing to do suggests that unlike the most of the rest of Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory made up this book, on his own, out of whole cloth. It’s not an adaptation of anything French! I could very easily be wrong about this, but I find it a pleasing notion. The tale of Sir Prettyboy has been reinterpreted many times since then, which is to say, it’s a story from Le Morte D’Arthur. Tennyson used it, for instance, in “the Idylls of the King.”
Now begins the tale of Sir Gareth, called Beaumains, which is French for Sir Prettyboy. We start, of course, with Sir Gawaine screwing around.
It was Pentecost, when all the knights of the Round Table gathered together and swapped strange adventure stories. It was the biggest day on the Arthurian social calendar! By royal decree, the feast could not commence until Arthur had seen, or at least been told of, a satisfactorily crazy strange adventure. Given Arthur’s noted dislike of strange adventures, this strikes me as a little odd. Probably he wanted to concentrate as much strange adventure into a single day as possible, so he could enjoy the rest of the year.
Sir Gawaine fretted, because on this particular Pentecost he didn’t have a good strange adventure story. Of course he feared Arthur wouldn’t be satisfied by anyone else’s strange adventure. Then Arthur would blame Gawaine, and then Gawaine would be stripped of his knighthood and exiled back to the Orkneys. Gawaine is extremely insecure, you guys. It is a character trait that he has. It may be the most sympathetic character trait he has. And so he spent the morning of Pentecost running around Camelot, frantically trying to scare up a strange adventure at the last minute.
And he lucked out, because out the window he saw three guys riding up to Camelot with Peter the dwarf. Peter, on foot, took the horses from the three men when they arrived and dismounted. Gawaine didn’t pay much attention to the men. One of them was about seven feet tall, but big deal, so what, Gawaine could have been that tall, he just didn’t want to. He ran to Arthur to tell him about the strange adventure.
“Sire! Sire!” Gawaine burst in on Arthur in the midst of the king’s obsessive checking and double-checking of the Round Table roster. This was Arthur’s personal Pentecost tradition. Over the course of the year a certain number of knights died or were taken prisoner or retired; Pentecost was when Arthur inventoried them and promoted as many as needed to replenish the Round Table.
“Sire! Uncle Sire!”
“Don’t call me that,” Arthur told him. “You have a strange adventure for me?”
“You bet, sire! Three men, on horses!”
Arthur was unimpressed. “Uh huh.”
“And one of them is really tall!”
“Not really feeling it, Gawaine.”
“And Peter the dwarf acts as their groom!”
Arthur perked up immediately at the mention of Peter. “Oho! Peter’s involved? Why didn’t you say so?” Peter almost always signaled a strange adventure commencing.
SMASH CUT to Arthur’s court, as he welcomed the three men to the big Pentecost feast.
“Two men and a third man who’s seven feet tall!” cried Arthur. “As strange adventures go, that’s… pretty tame, actually. Now I’m worried there’s another shoe that’s going to drop.”
“Sire,” said the tall man. “I… hold on.” The tall man nearly toppled over, but his two aides helped him. “That’s better. Sire.” He leaned, one elbow on a shoulder of each aide.
“You all right there, big guy?”
“Listen, sire, being this tall is harder than it looks. I have a very high center of gravity. But I’m okay! I’m okay.”
“Mmm.” Arthur made the hurry-up signal with his hands. “I’m expecting a strange adventure. Gawaine said Peter was with you?”
“Sire!” The tall man nodded, finally ready to speechify. “I have come! God bless King Arthur, and God bless the Round Table, and all the knights and ladies!”
Everyone applauded, in the way that the studio audience on a talk show would applaud the host saying ‘we’ve got a great audience tonight.’
“I come, sire, to request, nay, to demand, three gifts!”
“Oh really,” said Arthur.
“Most politely and courteously do I demand my three gifts, sire, with great worship and tremendous respect, and I will make my first request/demand now, and the other two at the next Pentecost, in a year’s time.”
“I generally like to condense these strange adventures into a single day,” said Arthur. “But all right. Let’s hear your first demand.”
“Sire, I humbly insist that you provide me with food and lodging and an allowance for the next year.”
“Hmm. Well, on the one hand, that’s going to keep this strange adventure percolating for a year. On the other hand, you’re very tall. So, what the hey, sure. All right. One year, room and board, for… what’s your name, stranger?”
“It’s a secret!”
Arthur shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t really care. Kay! Kay!” Arthur beckoned his brother, the steward of Camelot, to the front. “Take care of this guy, and keep him out of my hair, all right? Fete him with meat and cheese and wine and whatever, like he was a guest. And mutton! There’s always too much mutton.”
Kay was skeptical. “Are you sure this dude isn’t a con artist? He didn’t tell us his name. Normally when knights ask for things it’s weapons and armor and horses and quests and damosels and so on. The pretty boy here just wants to be fed. If I’m going to put him up for a year, I’m going to make him work for it. Hey, Pretty-boy!” Kay snapped his fingers. “C’mon, Prettyboy, we’re gonna go down to the kitchen and I’m going to teach you to peel anachronistic potatoes, capiche?”
Sir Gawaine and Sir Launcelot did not cotton to this. They got on Kay’s case about his mockery of Prettyboy: Gawaine felt that since he authorized Prettyboy’s arrival in Camelot, an attack on Pretty-boy was an attack on him. Launcelot just thought it was unseemly.
“He won’t tell us his real name, and he’s clearly a dandy who’s never worked a day in his life,” countered Kay. “Look at those hands! No calluses at all! So, he’s Prettyboy. Beaumains. I call them like I see them.”
“I’m telling you, this will turn around on you,” said Launcelot. “Remember how you made fun of Sir Breunor?”
“Okay, so, first of all, that hasn’t happened yet because that’s in Book IX and this is Book VII,” said Kay. “Elementary continuity error! Secondly, when that happens, it’ll be totally different! Breunor acted, will act, I mean, like a knight in disguise, demanding to be treated all nice, and he wants weapons and stuff. Prettyboy just wants food and drink and lodging. Am I running a hotel? I am not. He wants to be put up, he has to work for it.”
So Kay put Prettyboy down among the servants and had him eat there. Prettyboy clearly felt he deserved better treatment, but reluctantly he took what’s offered. Launcelot and Gawaine both invited him to come up to their rooms after dinner and get some real knightly stuff, beef and so on, but Prettyboy rebuffed them (super politely)! Because — and Malory just can’t keep a secret you guys — Prettyboy was actually Gawaine’s brother Gareth in disguise!! Oh!! Oh wow!! He was here to prove to himself that he could be a great knight without depending on family connections (cough cough Gawaine cough).
For a full year, Prettyboy worked in the kitchens among the servants, and only got out to watch jousting tournaments. He was only able to watch the jousting because Gawaine and Launcelot paid his admission fees. At some of these jousting tournaments there was intramural caber-tossing and stone-throwing and shot put, and Prettyboy kicked ass at these competitions, which were the only ones he was allowed to compete in. (I’m going to go ahead and call that JOUSTING TOURNAMENT 12!) Kay had a big laugh about it.