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Sir Kay breaketh his sword at ye Tournament, by Howard Pyle

In Arthurian legend, Sir Kay (Welsh: Cai, Kai, or Kei, or Cei; Latin: Caius; French: Keu; French Romance: Queux; Old French: Kès or Kex) is Sir Ector's son and King Arthur's foster brother and later seneschal, as well as one of the first Knights of the Round Table. In later literature he is known for his acid tongue and bullying, boorish behavior, but in earlier accounts he was one of Arthur's premier warriors. Along with Bedivere, with whom he is frequently associated, Kay is one of the earliest characters associated with Arthur.[1]

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Sir Kay

Kay is ubiquitous in Arthurian literature but he rarely serves as anything but a foil for other characters. Though he manipulates the king to get his way, his loyalty to Arthur is usually unquestioned. In the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Kay's father Ector adopts the infant Arthur after Merlin takes him away from his birth parents, Uther and Igraine. Ector raises him and Kay as brothers, but Arthur's parentage is revealed when he draws the Sword in the Stone at a tournament in London. Arthur, serving as squire to the newly-knighted Kay, loses his foster brother's sword and uses the Sword in the Stone to replace it. Kay shows his characteristic opportunism when he tries to claim it was he that pulled the sword from the stone, making him the true King of the Britons, but he relents and admits it was Arthur. He becomes one of the first Knights of the Round Table and serves his foster-brother throughout his life.

Kay's father is called Ector in later literature, but the Welsh accounts name him as Cynyr Fork-Beard. In Erec and Enide, Chrétien de Troyes mentions he had a son called Gronosis, who was versed in evil, while the Welsh give him a son and daughter named Garanwyn and Celemon. Romance rarely deals with Kay's love life, an exception being Girart d'Amiens' Escanor, which details his love for Andrivete of Northumbria, whom he must defend from her uncle's political machinations before they can marry.

The Welsh Cai

In Welsh literature, where he is called "Cai Hir" ("Kay the Tall"),[citation needed] he is a powerful, hot-tempered champion. He and Bedivere are two of the six knights chosen to accompany Culhwch on his quest in the Mabinogion romance Culhwch and Olwen (another is Gwalchmei, or Gawain), and he displays such feats of heroism as slaying the giant Wrnach, rescuing Mabon son of Modron from his watery prison, and making a dog's leash from the beard of Dillus the Bearded. Superhuman abilities are attributed to Cai in much Welsh literature; the poem Pa Gur mentions he had battled the monstous cat Cath Palug, and the Welsh Triads name him as one of the "Three Enchanter Knights of Britain", claiming he had the ability to grow as tall as a tree. In Culhwch the stubborn Cai has a falling out with Arthur, who writes a song poking fun at his killing of Dillus the Bearded, but elsewhere he is Arthur's loyal companion. In the Life of St. Cadoc (c.1100) he was alongside Arthur and Bedivere in dealing with King Gwynllyw of Gwynllwg's abduction of St. Gwladys from her father's court in Brycheiniog.

In the Welsh Romances (specifically Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain and Peredur son of Efrawg), Cai assumes the same boorish role he takes in the continental romances. However, manuscripts for these romances date to well after Chrétien de Troyes, meaning that Cai as he appears there may owe more to Chrétien's version of the character than to the indigenous Welsh representation.

Kay in later legend

Kay and Bedivere appear in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and aid Arthur in defeating the Giant of Mont Saint Michel. Geoffrey makes Kay the count of Anjou and Arthur's steward, an office he holds in most later literature.

In the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Kay assumes the characteristics he is most associated with today. He retains his hot-headedness and fiery temper from Welsh literature, but he is more or less an incompetent braggart. Chrétien uses him as a scoffer and a troublemaker; a foil for heroic knights like Lancelot, Ywain, or Gawain. He mocks the chivalric courtesy of Sir Calogrenant in Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, and he tricks Arthur into allowing him to try to save Guinevere from Maleagant in Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, which ends in his humiliating defeat. In Perceval, the Story of the Grail, Sir Kay grows angry with Perceval's naïveté and slaps a maiden who says he will become a great knight; Perceval avenges her later when he breaks Kay's shoulder. Wolfram von Eschenbach, who tells the same story in his Parzival, asks his audience not to judge Kay too harshly, as his sharp words actually serve to maintain courtly order.

Scholars have pointed out that Kay's scornful, overly boastful character never makes him a clown, a coward or a traitor, except in the Grail romance Perlesvaus, where he murders Arthur's son Loholt and joins up with the king's enemies. This strange work is an anomaly, however, and Kay's portrayal tends to range from merely cruel and malicious, as in the Roman de Yder or Hartmann von Aue's Iwein to humorously derisive and even endearing, as in Durmart le Gallois and Girart d'Amiens's Escanor.

Oddly, given his ubiquity, Kay's death is not frequently dealt with. In Welsh literature, it is mentioned he was killed by Gwyddawg and avenged by Arthur. In Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, he is killed in the war against the Roman emperor Lucius, while the Vulgate Cycle has him die in France, also in battle against the Romans.

Modern adaptations

Kay is a main character in the first two books of T. H. White's The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone and The Queen of Air and Darkness. His portrayal is based on Malory's account of Arthur's upbringing, but White adds a number of new elements to the story, including one in which the young Kay kills a dangerous griffin with the aid of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. White's Kay is quick-witted and often mean, but always a loving foster brother to Arthur, whom he calls "the Wart". Kay appears in the 1963 Walt Disney Studios film adaptation of The Sword in the Stone, in which his boorishness and cruelty to the young Arthur are played up.

Kay is the main character of Phyllis Ann Karr's 1982 novel The Idylls of the Queen. Expanding on a scene from the classic tales in which a knight is poisoned at Guinevere's feast and the queen is accused of the crime, Karr turns her story into a murder mystery with Kay as the detective attempting to discover the truth.

In Thomas Berger's 1978 Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel, Kay is a somewhat foppish, sharp-tongued gourmand. Relieved to be freed from his bucolic upbringing in Wales, he takes charge of the kitchens at Camelot and yearns to make it a more sophisticated court. Arthur good-naturedly complains that Sir Kay is always serving him rich foods, when the king would rather just have simple meals. Kay supplies occasional comic relief in the book, but ultimately fights and dies with honor in the last battle against Mordred's host.

In the 1970s HTV-series Arthur of the Britons, Kai was portrayed by Michael Gothard. In this version of the legend, he is a Saxon orphan, raised amongst the Celts as a brother to Arthur, by his adoptive father Llud.

Notes

  1. ^ See Rachel Bromwich's discussion in the "Notes on Personal Names", part of her edition of Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, second edition (Cardiff: University of Wales, 1978), pp. 303-307.
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