Arthur, Arthurian, Bedevere, Bedwyr, Calogrenant, Cei, Gawain, Guinevere, Gwalchmai, Gwenhwyfar, Kay, King Arthur, kingship, Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Le Conte du Graal, Meleagant, Melwas, Perceval, Peredur, Post-Roman, Sub-Roman Britain, Welsh
If you have read much of the Arthurian Corpus you are undoubtedly aware of Sir Kay/Keii/Cei. He is most familiar in the role Malory put him in and Disney made famous, as a foster brother of Arthur. Kay is integral to the story of Arthur’s kingship too, as it was during one of his tournaments that he broke his sword and sent Arthur in search of another. The sword he came upon was the sword of kingship, the sword in the stone, which he effortlessly withdrew. Kay became Arthur’s first knight, and though he always thought himself better than he was, his loyalty to Arthur was unswerving.
Reading more about Kay, you might also know him as Arthur’s seneschal and in the role of a foil. He is generally the character who belittles the new knight or the character who goes first on each adventure only to fail so that the hero can succeed and make his name at Arthur’s court in the process.
What you may not be aware of is that in the oldest tales Cei is the gatekeeper. This was a position in a Celtic king’s court that was very different from a seneschal; it was a position of honor and respect among warriors. The role was not about guarding the entrance to the castle, but about judging the potential value of any man requesting to be one of the king’s warriors. This would have been done by verbal, physical, or even martial tests. And if the warrior was accepted by the gatekeeper he would be welcomed into the war-band.
Hopefully this little insight explains a great deal about the many scenes Cei is found in. He is challenging the new warriors not because he is a bully but because it is his function in Arthur’s court. His role as foil, then, is nothing more than interpretation of this cultural feature by writers unfamiliar with it.
Not so obvious are several other instances. In “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” Cei confronts Meleagant and is humiliated by him during the abduction of Guinovere. During the course of the poem Lancelot will defeat Meleagant and recover the queen. In “Le Conte du Graal” Cei is the knight who stands up to the Black Knight and is quickly dismissed. The Black Knight embarrasses the queen and steals her chalice before Perceval defeats him and recovers the chalice. When the role of Cei is viewed from its origins, the two scenes can be seen as nothing more than variations on a theme. Kay is the stock bully whose failure makes the hero’s eventual success look all the more amazing.
He was so closely associated with that role that it led to the addition of another knight to the Arthurian Corpus, Caelogrenant. Caelogrenant is most notable in “Yvain”, where he plays the Kay role to the eventual hero. It is interesting that the name, when liberally employing Arthurian linguistics, roughly translates to “Cei the Grumbler”. If one considers for a moment the traditional position of the gatekeeper and tries to see that role in action from the perspective of a medieval observer, grumbler would be an apt descriptor for him.
This idea mainly came from a book by Linda Gowans