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The Forgotten Round Table: Sir Pellinor

First in a series? in which I do a bit of a deep dive into some lesser-known corners of Malory’s oeuvre.

Pellinor is a great example of a canon character who goes ignored by modern audiences–largely, one suspects, because he’s both a terrible person and an unimportant one. Those are things that make him fascinating to me, though, because his existence implies so much about the world of the stories that we never get to see. I use characters like this as a jumping-off point for speculation that fleshes out my own version of that world. He’s utterly useless in himself, but a point of origin for a whole ton of other elements.

Pellinor shows up very early in Le Morte D’Arthur. Arthur has finished his first round of wars. Pellinor is hanging about doing the “anyone who wants to pass here has to fight me” thing, and fights Arthur, whose sword gets broken, resulting in the gift of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. After their fight, Pellinor becomes one of Arthur’s knights, and later on kills King Lot in a battle. This is important, because Lot’s oldest son Gawaine later kills Pellinor, and the feud between the two families continues straight through almost to the end of the (very long) book.

The most important thing Pellinor does for the story is have kids. He has five sons: Tor, Aglovale, Lamorak, Dornar, and Percival. Tor is another of the early knights, having been born out of wedlock after Pellinor happened across an unfortunate milkmaid; kings can get away with that. Aglovale and Dornar don’t get mentioned much. Lamorak is another of the top-tier fighters; he appears as a supporting character in Tristram’s story, mostly in the context of the feud with Lot’s family. He is eventually killed in the course of that (after having an affair with Lot’s widow, according to Malory–May/September romance, I suppose? It’s this kind of thing that makes the timeline such a headache for me). Percival makes it to the end of the Grail quest and hangs out with Galahad there until his own death, so he’s kind of a big deal. There are also a couple of daughters: Elaine (nearly all of the women in this book are named Elaine), who dies before Pellinor even finds out she exists, and another who is never named, but whom Percival meets during the Grail quest.

Other than that, we know almost nothing about Pellinor. He is described as a king, but king of what is never stated. Malory tells us that he was known as the Knight with the Strange Beast, but what the beast was or what was so strange about it, or whether it was real or a family device or what? Never said. And then at some point, Gawaine shows up and does the, “Hey asshole, remember that time you killed my dad?” thing, which happens offscreen (boo), and that’s it for Pellinor.

I think one of the reasons I find this all fascinating is because of how counter it runs to the popular narrative about anything Arthurian. Pellinor is far from an idealized figure; he’s a straight-up rapist with three canonical out of wedlock kids. He starts ambiguously, fighting against Arthur, later on kills one of Arthur’s most important enemies in the early days of the kingdom, and then he just falls out of the story. He encapsulates for me many of the differences between the early stories and the characters who appear in them, and the second generation of knights and their own tales. Pellinor and Percival occupy very different story-worlds–the war- and magic-heavy quests of the early stories, the way those stories are full of things referenced but never explained, vs the more orderly and contained narratives in the later books, with their focus on civil society and religion–but those worlds remain connected.

I am similarly intrigued by the fact that there is an honest-to-God blood feud running in the background of the entire story, and frustrated that there isn’t more about it in the text, because come on this stuff is great?! The idea that there were at least two camps among the Round Table denizens who hated each other’s guts from day one is writer catnip, but there’s relatively little detail given about it. Pellinor is one of the first to get a seat when the Table becomes a thing. Gawaine has been a knight for all of six hours at that point, is already planning to kill him, and then holds off for ten years. What was going on that whole time? It’s like detecting planets from their shadows; there’s obviously much more story here, but it’s not directly visible. This kind of thing is everywhere in Malory, so there might be more posts like this one.

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