If you’re going to read any single book in Malory, this is a good one to go for. It is self-contained, has an actual plot, and includes a ton of tropes that are still in regular circulation today.
One Pentecost a tall young man with remarkably beautiful hands appears at Arthur’s court. Pentecost is a big deal for the Round Table. Everybody who can show up for it does, in order to renew their knightly vow, and Arthur has a particular custom of not sitting down for the meal until someone turns up with a strange story or adventure in the offing. This guy is obviously it; he asks three gifts of the king, one for now and two later. Arthur can recognize a plot point when it walks up to his gate, and agrees to give him whatever he asks. The first request is simply that he be fed for the next year, which is easily done.
The young man is handed over to Sir Kay. Kay suspects that he’s some low-born opportunist and puts him to work in the kitchen, and since the young man refuses to give his name, Kay gives him the nickname Beaumains (“fair hands”). Beaumains maintains a pleasant attitude throughout the year and sleeps in the kitchen without complaint, and finally the next Pentecost rolls around. A damsel named Linet arrives, bearing news of her sister Lyonesse, who is besieged and in dire need of knightly aid.
Now Beaumains asks for his other two favors: one, that he be allowed to take this adventure, and two, that Lancelot knight him, being one of the only two people at court (along with Gawaine) to have been nice to him for the past year. The damsel is furious at having the kitchen boy assigned to her sister’s rescue, and rides off in a huff. Beaumains gets all kitted out to go on his quest, kicks Kay’s ass in parting, and fights Lancelot to a draw — since this is supposed to be for fun, they agree that there’s no sense keeping it up until somebody gets hurt. (I love this kind of detail, because it kind of grounds the whole thing? sure they did a lot of fighting, but there’s no point in being stupid about it). Having thus proven himself, he lets Lancelot in on who he is, as long as he promises not to tell anybody else: Gareth, youngest son of the late King Lot.
[Genealogy recap: Lot was one of Arthur’s main enemies back when he first came on the scene, and was eventually killed in battle by Sir Pellinor. Lot was married to Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister. They had four sons: Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. In some of the stories Morgause is collapsed with Morgan, and is also Mordred’s mother.]
The brand-new Sir Gareth catches up with the huffy damsel. She showers verbal abuse on him throughout the journey, to which he never answers back. He fights a couple of random guys and then a series of knights who are brothers — the Black Knight, the Green Knight, the Red Knight, and the Blue Knight. Here Linet repents of her words and begs Gareth’s pardon, having decided that between his courtesy and his fighting, he must be a gentleman after all. He amiably forgives her, defeats the Blue Knight, aka Sir Persant, and refuses Persant’s daughter’s offer (on her father’s orders) to sleep with him, further proving his noble nature.
We finally reach the main enemy, the Red Knight of the Red Lands (not to be confused with the previous Red Knight in this story). This Red Knight’s shtick is that he kills knights and hangs their bodies from the walls of his castle. This is serious stuff now, and the fight goes on for several chapters until Gareth prevails. At the point of being killed, the Red Knight sues for mercy; he did it all for love of a damsel who claimed that her brother was killed by either Gawaine or Lancelot (cue the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Possible. I kill a lot of people.”). For her sake he takes revenge on all of Arthur’s knights, hoping that one of those two will show up and fight him.
The Red Knight’s people plead for his life, so Gareth relents on the condition that he go to Arthur’s court and beg mercy there. Everyone is very impressed with Gareth — except Lyonesse, the lady whose castle he just relieved, who tells him to go “labor in worship” for a year and maybe then she’ll see him. He is in love with her already and goes away sad, but then she has her brother kidnap Gareth’s dwarf servant in order to find out who he is. Gareth rides to the rescue, more than a little pissed off, but explanations are made, and all is well. Now that she knows his identity they can fall in love, which they immediately do, and get engaged.
Chapter 22 concerns the happy couple-to-be’s repeated attempts to get to the fun part ahead of schedule, and getting cock-blocked by Linet, who is a sorceress, and just because she likes Gareth now isn’t about to let up on him. Medieval literature is a lot funnier than anyone ever told me in high school.
Meanwhile, all of the knights Gareth has defeated make their way with their retinues to Arthur’s court, which was the standard parole condition. So everyone is talking about “Beaumains” when Morgause shows up, wondering what became of her youngest son, whom she sent to court a year or so ago.
Ummmm. About that?
The whole story gets sorted out, including the fact that his brothers didn’t recognize him because they’ve been gone from home for fifteen years. At least Gawaine can say that he was nice to the kid even though he was pretending to be poor and so forth.
The couple now come up with a plan. Lyonesse and her brother will host a tournament, and whoever wins it gets to marry her and also some expensive prizes. The reason for this is not spelled out, but there’s an implication that Gareth is really keen to prove himself to the rest of his high-powered family; no one is to say where Gareth is or what he’s up to before the tournament, and he’ll be participating incognito. Linet heals Gareth of the injuries she inflicted in her efforts to preserve his chastity, Gareth recruits the knights he defeated to be on his team in the tournament, and Lyonesse gives Gareth a magic ring that will help to disguise him and also keep him safe.
On to the tournament. Gareth does splendidly, of course, to the point where Arthur is all, “Lancelot, go fight that guy.” Lancelot comes up with excuses not to, and does not give away Gareth’s secret. Afterward Gareth goes off and has some more fights, and ends up fighting Gawaine until Linet shows up to identify them to each other. (This kind of thing happens a lot.)
Everyone ends up at Arthur’s court, and there is a weird mess of weddings between the two families:
- Gareth marries Lyonesse
- His older brother Gaheris marries Linet, who is never mentioned again, and dammit Sir Thomas how can Gaheris marry an actual sorceress and this NEVER COMES UP?
- The next older one, Agravaine, marries the sisters’ niece, Laurel, who is likewise never mentioned again
How Gawaine escapes a similar marital fate is not explained, and I would like to know. He gets married at some point, presumably, because he has kids by the end, but these details are evidently not important.
There’s a huge celebration, and everyone is happy. The author underlines several times what good friends Gareth and Lancelot are, which is actual foreshadowing and makes things so much worse at the end of the book. Much of the writing craft might still have been under construction when Malory wrote, but they clearly knew about twisting the knife.
I find this to be a truly fun story to read. It is kind of the archetype of the knightly adventure tale–the youthful protagonist out to prove himself, the secret identity, the tests of character, the way those tests end up saying more about everyone around him than Gareth himself, True Love, the uses of magic, the delightful array of enemies. The ending drags a bit, but it is otherwise well-paced. It is far and away the most accessible and modern-feeling of the adventures in the whole collection, right down to a happy ending — which doesn’t last, of course, but if Camelot teaches us anything, it’s that nothing does. And so Sir Gareth per se has been mostly forgotten about.