Hold the Door Open (song)

This song, which draws heavily on the Arthurian legend, is a parable on inclusion. It was first performed for the final round of Queen & Crown’s Bardic Championships in February 2020, where I was selected as Queen’s Bard. (The video below is from an online concert the following April, but has the correct lyrics.)

Between the length and the topical nature (it is not about modern politics, though their impact on the SCA, and geek subcultures in general, is definitely relevant), this song takes some risks. I’m grateful to the many friends who lent their eyes, ears, support, and lived experience to the development of this piece, including a number I met through the SCA Inclusion, Diversity, & Equity group on Facebook.)


Hold the Door Open © 2020 words and music by Eric Schrager

(Opening)

Will you harken a while, for I must speak of Gareth:
My brother, my teacher, my friend;
Of the youngest and best of the four brothers Orkney, [1]
But all stories come to an end. [2]

He inquired once, “Gawain, will you do me a service?[3]
My friend here needs somewhere to stay.”
It was Brangwin, the handmaid of Princess Isolde; [4]
I had heard she’d been stolen away. [5]

“Please, Gawain, keep her safe from all eyes, I implore you.”
I said, “Gareth, what’s this affair?
For what business should knights keep young women in hiding—”
He cut off my words with a glare. [6]

“Are we chivalry’s legends? Read closely the tale, [7]
In the margins it shows if we thrive or we fail. [8]
Dear Gawain, eldest brother I prize and adore,
You will learn that as knights we owe more… [9]

“What might we hold, if we hold the door open? [10]
What could we have, if a haven we make? [11]
If we stand in need, and we hold the door open, [12]
The might of our Table won’t break.
The might of our Table won’t break.” [13]

(Brangwin)

Brangwin[14] said, “My Isolde is in love with a young man, [15]
But she was to marry a king.
So her mother contrived to ensure this alliance,
And she took me under her wing. [16]

“I would pour her a drink that would change Isolde’s passion,
Make her husband king in her eyes. [17]
I refused to do wrong to a lady’s consent— [18]
Then she seized me, ignoring my cries.

“A cold night in the woods might bring me to my senses,
So I was left bound to a tree. [19]
Palamedes the Saracen came to my aid;
He believed me, and he set me free. [20]

“Will you keep Gareth’s promise that I won’t be caught?” [21]
“Lady Brangwin, forgive me, I’d given no thought—” [22]
“Sir Gawain, women all, be we servants or wives,
Should have sovereignty over our lives… [23]

“What might we hold, if we hold the door open?
What could we choose, with a choice freely ours?
If we stand in trust, and we hold the door open,
Our kingdom might shine like the stars.
Our kingdom might shine like the stars.”

(Palamedes)

So I left her and sought after Sir Palamedes, [24]
Who, each man he faced he’d unseat;
But no matter his valor, each tournament day
Would the Saracen end in defeat. [25]

“Palamedes,” I asked him when we were alone,
“Have you been holding back from your best?”
He said, “One of my color outshining these knights?
Sir Gawain, that’s a risk I’ll not test. [26]

“Many say that I’m pining for Princess Isolde,
But it’s Brangwin who’s captured my heart;
She accepts me in fullness and gave me her word
That my faith would not keep us apart.” [27]

I said, “Good Palamedes, a fool have I been!
For your chivalry’s not in your faith or your skin.” [28]
When he held Brangwin close on the day they were wed, [29]
I remember the words that he said…

“What might we hold, if we hold the door open?
What is it worth, if we value each soul?
If we stand in truth, and we hold the door open,
Our kingdom might truly be whole.
Our kingdom might truly be whole.” [30]

(Gareth)

You recall, Gareth first came to Camelot nameless,
And served in the kitchen a year. [31]
You discovered his virtues, and you gave him knighthood, [32]
But there’s more I need you to hear.

A few days before Yule, I approached him in private
And said, “There’s a kinship I sense: [33]
I could swear you were Gwyneth, my sweet darling sister—
What mean you behind this pretense?” [34]

“O Gawain, hear me please, that is my name no longer, 
For lady nor lord strikes me true.
But it’s knighthood that calls me: if you keep my secret,
Then I’ll be a brother to you.” [35]

Thus, at Pentecost next, our young knight won acclaim, [36]
For a place at the Table Round bore Gareth’s name. [37]
Oh, we Orkneys, we kept this conspiracy fast, [38]
But he idolized you to the last… [39]

What might we hold, if we hold the door open?
What could we dream, if we dreamed it for all?
If we stand in pride, and we hold the door open, [40]
Our fellowship, how could it fall?
Our fellowship, how could it fall? [41]

(Mordred)

Some months back, Gareth said, “Keep your eye upon Mordred:
He’s stirring up fear and dissent.” [42]
I responded, “What mean you? He is our half-brother.
How can you malign his intent?” [43]

“Brangwin told me, Gawain, that he laid hands upon her,
And when she declared she was wed, [44]
Mordred hinted this place knew its share of adultery,
A queen might be caught in her bed. [45]

“Have you heard how he whispers that Saracen blood
Is a blight with no place in our court?” [46]
“Gareth, Mordred is kin, and the son of King Arthur,
I’ve seen nothing like you report.” [47]

“You must heed me, Gawain! There are those who speak fair,
But their words they are venom, their questions a snare.
They will rise up by fostering division and hate,
Don’t you see what’s at risk if we wait?… [48]

“Who must we hold, if we hold the door open?
Who of our kind, is unkind at the core?
If we stand alert, and we hold the door open,
There are some we must show the door.
There are some we must show the door.” [49]

(Gawain)

We arrive, Lancelot, at the end of our story, [50]
For Gareth, he died at your hand.
When you saved Guinevere, you saw not who her guard was, [51]
Precisely as Mordred had planned. [52]

With his death, I fell prey to my grief and my fury
And Arthur, I pledged him to war.
Though I knew you loved Gareth as dearly as I did,
I could not forgive anymore. [53]

I helped Camelot fall as I sought you in combat,
And this wound may cost me my life. [54]
Palamedes at last gives the counsel I needed:
My brother sought justice, not strife. [55]

So I ask, Lancelot, will you pledge Gareth’s creed?
Will you welcome the lost, and defend those in need?
Will you pass on this mission, until your last breath,
So our brother-knight lives beyond death?… [56]

What might we hold, if we hold the door open?
How could we live, if we lived what we learned?
If we stand in love, and we hold the door open,
Could we see our kingdom returned?…

What might we hold, if we hold the door open?
How could the cost not be worth the reward? [57]
If we stand in hope, and we hold the door open,
There may come a day it’s restored.
There may come a day it’s restored. [58]


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Notes


Sources:

  • My primary source is Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), specifically Keith Baines’ 1962 modern English rendition. I draw chiefly from the following sections of the epic: “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” (Book IV), “The Book of Sir Tristram of Lyoness” (Book V), and “The Death of Arthur” (Book VIII).
  • My interest in Gawain, Gareth, and the Orkney brothers began with T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), which I read in high school, and was my first real exposure to a retelling of the Arthur myth (apart from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and Lerner and Lowe’s musical Camelot, both of which were loosely adapted from White’s novel).
  • Research, primarily online, on the evolution of the “Matter of Britain”, the King Arthur story cycle, throughout the Medieval period, through tertiary sources. I particularly examined the contrasts between the French versions of the stories (including The Vulgate Cycle, the Prose Tristan, the Post-Vulgate Cycle), and the Welsh poems. I examined the ways in which the characters, events, and underlying themes and values of the stories were altered depending on the time period, region, and audience of the various writers.
  • For the named characters included in this song, I have adopted the spellings and pronunciations most recognizable to a modern audience, or else ones that would be easiest to read and scan for lyrics.

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Origins of the song:

I have long supported the principles of inclusion, equity, and diversity in the SCA. In the last few years, however, the rise of nativist, patriarchal, regressive movements in American and international politics has affected families, social groups, and organizations more broadly, and it has shown up some troubling ways in the Society. This has given rise to greater awareness around inclusion and equity, but also the importance of speaking up and providing safety and protection for marginalized people, including (but not limited to) women, people of color, and LGBTIA people. In November of 2018 I posted on Facebook:

If you have a perspective on the SCA’s inclusiveness—you’ve seen it in action, you’ve seen it fall short, you have a vision of how it could be better—I’m interested in a PM or email correspondence with you. Fair warning: this could result in a song, and the intent is to uplift and inspire rather than to shame.

Yours in service,
Drake

I received quite a few responses. It became clear that this was an ambitious undertaking, and the piece would require time and a lot of input from people in the affected communities. I resolved to sit with it and let the idea ripen.

My former Laurel, Mistress Zsof of the Midrealm, spoke with me about “bardic mission” a few months later in 2019. She said hers was to “be a voice for the voiceless”. I replied that mine was to “hold the door open”. What I meant by this was, having found joy and success as a bard in the SCA, I considered it my mission to pay it forward and help others to discover and explore the Bardic Arts in particular. Even as we were having this discussion, Zsof and I were also talking about finding new mentors for me who were closer to my home in the East Kingdom.

I realized on reflection that “hold the door open” could be generalized to be about privilege, and the opportunity for those with privilege to welcome and encourage those who had less. Perhaps I had found the working title and hook for my “inclusion piece”. My search for new mentors, meanwhile, had led me to Master Toki Skáldagörvir of Æthelmearc and Master Peregrine the Illuminator of the East. I brought up this idea in my conversations with each of them. They were both intrigued, and as we continued the conversations that would lead to them jointly claiming me as their student, they both offered their support to the endeavor.

During and after Pennsic, I made a few passes at a chorus, envisioning a song that would explain the importance of “holding the door open” for people who are not always the primary focus of the SCA’s vision. It was slow going, because it became obvious very quickly that a political lecture in song form was unlikely to achieve what I was after. The risk was a piece that would be tedious and off-putting. And a friend of mine, when I mentioned the idea, said that the difficulty was that it sounded like I needed to write five songs to express the complicated things going through my mind–grief over the loss of ideals, a call to battle on behalf of justice, sharing the perspectives of marginalized people, and so on. I put it back in the drawer and began my preparations for the Royal Bardic competition the following winter.

In the fall of 2019, I decided to try writing two new pieces, in the hopes that one or both of them could be performed at the Bardic competition. I wanted one of them to be the inclusion piece, and started quietly messaging people in my extended circles who had lived experience as members of marginalized groups in the SCA, or who had experience of sex and gender power imbalances, to see if they would be willing to provide feedback on the song when I had a draft ready. I got enough responses that to feel comfortable proceeding, knowing I would get authentic perspectives to validate that the resulting piece satisfied those I wanted to represent.

Around November, I began to pull together ideas and characters for a narrative piece based on the Arthur legend. I had read through most of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur a year earlier to prepare “Take a Chance on Me, Pendragon Edition”, the last of my ABBA fiks, so I was more familiar with the characters and events, as well as some of the evolution of these stories during the medieval period. I had long been fascinated with some of the secondary characters in the saga, particularly Gawain and Gareth, the oldest and youngest of Arthur’s nephews the Orkneys, from T. H. White’s portrayal of them in The Once and Future King. These two characters are not necessarily well known to modern audiences only familiar with movies about Arthur from the last few years, but they’re actually pivotal to the fall of Camelot in the medieval stories. I spoke of the idea with Toki and Peregrine, and they were intrigued to see where it would take me.

Lairde Tegwen ferch Cydifor (mka Morgan Leander Blake) is a bard highly engaged in social justice (which was how we had gotten introduced). As a non-binary person, they were also one of my prospective reviewers for the piece. As I started to envision the shape of the piece and some of the twists I had thought of for it, I reached out to Tegwen and bounced my ideas off them for a sanity check. They were excited and supportive, and they continued to be a helpful sounding board for me throughout the process. They particularly liked the ideas I had for Gareth.

In December, traveling down to Florida for holiday break, I brought my copy of Morte d’Arthur with me. It turned out that two of my key characters, Brangwin and Palamedes, were supporting characters in “The Book of Tristram of Lyoness”, which was the one section of Malory I had not made it through the previous year–it is long, and repetitive, and gets very “inside-baseball” for my tastes. But understanding the Tristan and Isolde story, and how Brangwin and Palamedes connected to it, was important, so I waded my way through the thing, and I found myself in Florida with a completed first draft.

The process of stitching the draft together had me really worried I had gone down a rabbit-hole and wasted a lot of time and energy. The draft was six verses of 20 lines each, and an extra 4 four the final refrain (and my refrains repeated the last line each time). It had written a nine minute song, two and a half minutes longer than “Tam Lin of the Elves”, my longest piece to date (which itself was an attempt to retell and condense a 10 to 12 minute ballad).

On the one hand, I believed this had the makings of a piece of spun-gold minstrelsy to it. I had done what even Peregrine had doubted I would be able to do: Turned this entire mini-epic I envisioned into a coherent song, and yes, the hook still resolved on “Hold the Door Open”. The refrain was sweeping, the emotions were rich, and it didn’t feel repetitive to me.

On the other hand, what good was a message song that ran nine minutes? Who was going to want to listen to it? Who on earth was going to want to learn it, much less sing it? I was going to have a hard time learning this. And, indeed, when I first sang it through for my wife Jessa, she was not impressed. Too many character names, it was really hard for her to follow. I needed to streamline it, and drop some of the details aimed at Malory readers, so that it would be easier to follow for a more general audience.

One of my friends suggested I needed to cut a verse. Maybe my favorite verse. If that was what it took (and I checked with Tegwen, who I knew would love this section of the song, and while they liked it, they said to serve the song, even if I had to kill my darlings), I could…I guess. In the meantime, I worked on making the transitions cleaner.

I ran it by Peregrine, who is an amazing listener and editor. He had really helpful suggestions about making the flow work better, but didn’t want me to cut anything. “It’s too good.” I breathed a sigh of relief, because that was my own take. I worked and whittled at it (much of that process is incorporated in the annotations below), sought and incorporated feedback from friends in the impacted communities, who were universally encouraging and happy with the choice to create it. In the end, Jessa agreed I had made the story flow clearly so she could follow it.

This song may never be a huge crowd-pleaser, and there will be many venues where I can’t perform it because of its length. It is going to make some people uncomfortable. It is probably going to make me some enemies, and convince some people that I am, perhaps, more trouble to have around them than I’m worth.

Nevertheless, this was the piece that my heart cried out for me to create, and I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who helped me bring it to life.

In addition to the people I mentioned above, I want to thank the following people who listened and helped, in no particular order: Agnes Marie de Calais, Isaac Ibn Kiran, Juliana la Badele, Silence de Cherbourg, Aibhilin inghean Daibhidh, Juliana Bird, Macrina Archangela Paladini, Petrona De Manciano, Cedar the Barefoot, Giata Magdelena Alberti, Skjaldadís Bragadóttir, Luca Spadini, Owen Alun, Samson Muskovich, Davius Saint Jacques, Savan Gupta, Maude Louisiana d’Orleans, Sitt al-Gharb ha-nigret Khazariyya (Raven), Andreas Blacwode, Olalla Tristana, Eleanor Fabic, Röskva of Carolingia, Iselda de Narbonne, and Melodia Beaupel.


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Annotations:


[1] King Lot and his wife Morgause, King Arthur’s half-sister (in some versions his aunt), rule the Orkney Islands in the Northern Isles of Scotland. They have four sons who are featured in Le Morte d’Arthur and many other Arthurian stories. From oldest to youngest: Gawain, Aggravain, Gaheris, and Gareth. Morgause later bears a son, Mordred, to Arthur (who will be discussed later). While their home is set in Scotland, the characters were given Welsh names by the Welsh poets who were happy to popularize these knights from the British outer islands.

The Orkneys, Arthur’s nephews, are characterized as a clan unto themselves, even as knights of the Round Table. They are shown to value loyalty within their family above all else, and often act at odds with the chivalric code expected of Arthur’s knights.

The chief exception to this is Gareth, the youngest, who first appears in the First Continuation of Perceval, the story of the Grail (Old French, 13th Century), fighting alongside the well-established Gawain. He consistently embodies the chivalric virtues and always conducts himself admirably. His reputation is unsullied by his brothers’ more violent and occasionally barbaric behavior, which he is constantly attempting to prevent or dissuade, or else condemning. Gareth is the only Orkney brother to merit his own tale in Le Morte d’Arthur, “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” (original to Malory), which provides the inspiration for verse four of this piece.

This song, from its inception, centered around the relationship between Gawain and Gareth, who I imagine to be roughly 15 years younger than Gawain. Their relationship, and Gawain’s native Orkey clannishness, will be the catalyst for the death of the Round Table (as we shall explore when we discuss the final verse).

In the interest of streamlining the piece and minimizing the distractions to listeners not deeply immersed in Arthur lore, Aggravain (who falls in with Mordred later and proves the most vicious of Lot’s sons) and Gaheris (who is generally closer to Gareth and relatively virtuous, but less distinctive—he and Gareth probably originated from the same character, Guerrehet, in the French prose cycle) get no direct mentions in the song.


[2] The first foreshadowed hint at Gareth’s fate, which will be revealed in the final verse.


[3] With this line, we reveal our narrator as Gawain, the oldest of the Orkney brothers, and one of the best-known “secondary” characters from the Matter of Britain. (I would argue the primary characters are Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, and Mordred, all of whom appear in virtually any modern retelling of the story, particularly on film, as each of them plays a crucial role in the rise or fall of the Round Table and the Arthurian court.)

Gawain actually is actually the most widely portrayed character in the Arthur tales from the Middle Ages. He is the hero of the highly popular “Gawain and the Green Knight” (which I learned, as I was finalizing this song, had been filmed in a new adaptation, but does not figure in this piece.)

Gawain is in many ways an Everyman knight, valorized heavily by the Welsh poets seeking to emphasize the virtues of British knighthood, portrayed as increasingly problematic and villainous by the French writers who found him a useful contrast to the virtues of their local hero Lancelot. Malory brings these various influences into his Gawain, a knight who strives to be honorable and loyal, but is constantly stymied by his short temper, his clan loyalty, and his inflexibility around understanding other points of view. T.H. White, who gave me my first look at the character, drew on Malory, but made him even crustier.


[4] Queen Isolde, wife of King Mark (and, famously, lover of Tristan) is called “Princess Isolde” in this song both for scansion, and to avoid confusion with Queen Guinevere of Camelot, who will be referenced indirectly as “a queen” in the fifth verse. (Like Isolde, Guinevere is in love with someone outside her marriage—and indeed, in Malory, the queens’ plights are frequently compared by many members of the court, with great sympathy).

I wanted very much to refer to Brangwin as “Princess Isolde’s lady-in-waiting”, but that phrasing required the stress to fall as “Prin-cess Isolde,” and aside from just being bad scansion, it makes the whole line hard to understand. I changed it to “the servant of Princess Isolde,” which scanned properly, but flattened Brangwin’s introduction, and more importantly, I felt, de-sexed her, which is not trivial when her whole verse will be about issues of sex. When I came to “the handmaid of Princess Isolde,” I was thrilled. Of course, at a time when Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its current television adaptation are very present in popular culture, the term “handmaid” has taken on an unfortunate connotation of sex-slavery—but given the nuances of Brangwin’s full story (some of which doesn’t make it into the song), if anything those connotations serve the theme rather than detract from it.


[5] Brangwin and Isolde’s story will be discussed in detail in the next verse. Introducing them here, in the first verse, accomplishes a few things: It establishes Gareth as taking action to protect and champion outsiders and the voiceless; it sets up contrast and conflict between Gareth and Gawain, so that Gareth has a concrete reason to teach Gawain about the importance of inclusion and enroll him in his personal mission; and it establishes Brangwin’s context here so that she can dive straight into narrating her story in the next verse without taking up space with a preamble.


[6] Gawain stumbles, as people of privilege inevitably do, in learning how to properly be allies. Here, he unconsciously alludes to Gareth’s origins (which are explored in verse four). This bothers Gareth less because Gawain may risk divulging a confidence, than because it suggests Gawain has not fully accepted Gareth’s identity as much as he claims. The hope is that this bit of foreshadowing provides layers of discovery and enjoyment on a re-listen. (If you missed it, now you know.)


[7] In setting up the next line, Gareth gets to be a little “meta” here, much in the manner of T.H. White’s Merlyn, dropping references to future readers and retellers that Merlyn (and White) knew about but Arthur could not. Both Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot played Merlyn’s prophetic abilities for comedy. In the posthumously published Book of Merlyn (1977), White took it even further, including this delicious exchange between Arthur and Merlyn on page 13:

“Who are these readers?”

“The readers of the book.”

“What book?”

“The book we are in.”

“Are we in a book?”

“We had better attend to the job,” said Merlyn hastily.


[8] I could not be dissuaded from setting up the “In the margins” line, which I particularly like.

In the literal sense, Gareth is being metatextual, as discussed in the note above: he is evoking the commentary that readers or scholars add in the margins of a book. This commentary often reflects how the characters and themes are understood in a later context, which of course is highly relevant to a Scadian bard retelling this set of stories, with inherent critique both of medieval knighthood, but of our 21st century Society’s attempts to recreate it.

The next meaning of “margin” is the none-too-subtle political level. Gareth is trying to raise Gawain’s consciousness about marginalized people that, in Gareth’s judgment, are not being adequately seen or served by the Table’s chivalric code.

Finally, action of this song takes place between secondary characters who are at the “margins” of the Camelot story to most modern audiences, much as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes place in the margins of the action of Hamlet (or Xander Harris’s adventures in “The Zeppo” take place in the margins of an apparent “apocalypse” in Season Three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The well-known tragic story of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and Mordred is unfolding in parallel to the events of the song, but none of these major characters ever speak in this piece (though one is spoken about, and another is being spoken to). By the end of the song, Gareth’s and Gawain’s quest will collide with (and be overrun by) the fall of Camelot, in which they play a pivotal role, and which, Gawain suggests, might perhaps have been avoided had others embraced Gareth’s values.


[9] Clarifying and highlighting the relationship, and the age difference, between Gareth and Gawain. The suggestion is that Gawain is older and more set in his ways, and will struggle with, but eventually grasp and embrace, Gareth’s younger and more expansive idealism.

The characters in this piece are primarily Arthur’s knights, and often speak of their ideals as extensions of knighthood and chivalry. But understand, as a story for the SCA, the lessons here are not exclusively, or even primarily, for members of our martial orders. These ideals are foundational to the Society, and apply to everyone (though certainly, recognized Peers are expected to grapple with our ideals at a higher level than most).


[10] The phrase “hold the door open” has its origins in a “bardic mission” statement I made in conversation with my former Laurel, Mistress Zsof. This is discussed in more detail in the “Origins of the song” notes on this page.


[11] One challenge with a bardic song is what to do with the chorus. I have learned over the years the value of a straightforward, repeating chorus, which gives Scadian audiences the chance to join in and participate, which they really love to do.

The problem with a repeating chorus, especially with a longer piece (and this song, by its nature, was clearly going to be longer), is that it can stop the song’s momentum, and limit your ability to expand on the themes. For this song, I went back to my earlier practice of a “working refrain”, with a repeated hook and structural repetition in the lyrics, but changes in lines from one refrain to the next.

One element I decided to use in the second line of each refrain is wordplay between the first and second parts of the line. The wordplay here is between “have” and “haven”, which was a word that had stayed in my mind from earlier attempts at the song. Providing a safe haven for marginalized people and outsiders where they are free from bullying and abuse is a critical part of achieving inclusion and equity.


[12] The next repeated element to create cohesion across the refrains is a parallel line structure: “If we stand in x, and we hold the door open…” Like the second line, this allows us to shine a light on a thematic word that is important to the part of the story that has just been told. “Stand in need,” here, means being ready to help people with less privilege even when it may come at some cost to ourselves. That to me is a sign of truly walking the talk and not hiding behind one’s privilege. It’s hard, especially because very often, we can’t expect credit for our actions, since many of those who need our help may also want the dignity of keeping that help in confidence.


[13] We close the refrain with a repeated line whose language ties our social justice themes back to the Arthurian context in which they’re being framed. It gives singer and audience some space to breathe and lets the emotional resonance of the refrain linger a moment, before we shift our focus to the next chapter of the story. Here, “The might of our Table won’t break” also clarifies to audiences who might not be familiar with these characters, that these are indeed knights of King Arthur’s Round Table who are speaking.


[14] Brangwin’s name is variously spelled as Brangaine, Brangaene, Brangwane, Branwin, etc. I focused on the pronunciation that would be easiest to sing and scan, and the spelling that would make that pronunciation obvious.

Brangwin appears in the song as a viewpoint character to represent issues of women’s equity, consent, and agency. There are no shortage of women who lack agency in the Arthur stories. The challenge in choosing the right character was about finding one whose ability to overcome these challenges (whether in the original story, or in this song’s retelling) wasn’t overly tied to class status and power (Guinevere, Isolde, or Gawain and Gareth’s mother Morgause), magic (Morgan le Fey or the Lady of the Lake), characters too much in the center of the myth such as Arthur or Lancelot (Elaine of of Corbenic, Elaine of Astolat) or the Orkneys themselves (Lynette, Lyonesse, Dame Ragnelle). The want was a character who presented Gareth and Gawain the opportunity to help as allies, not by extending their own power and privilege to her directly. At the same time, a connection between this character and a character selected for the next verse (which would focus on race) might provide a segue between the two verses, which would streamline a song that desperately needed narrative flow.

As we’ll discuss in the next verse, Palamedes was the obvious (nearly the only) choice as a significant character of color, so a female character whose story intersected with his would be nearly ideal. When I discovered the episode of Palamedes rescuing Brangwin in the woods, it quickly became clear that she would be a fantastic choice.


[15] Isolde (or Iseult) gets name-checked three times in the song, though she is not actually a character in our narrative (we never see her directly in a scene): In verse one, to identify who Brangwin is; here in verse two, to explain the nature of Brangwin’s troubles; and in the next verse, when Palamedes mentions the common belief that he is in love with Isolde. Interestingly, Isolde’s infamous lover Tristan (or “Tristram” as Malory calls him) is never mentioned by name. In truth, Brangwin and Palamedes are defined in the Arthur cycle primarily by their placement in the story of Tristan and Isolde. Brangwin is Isolde’s servant and her regular emissary throughout “The Book of Sir Tristram of Lyoness”, while Palamedes is Tristan’s constant foil and would-be rival.

In the first draft, Brangwin declared that “My Isolde is in love with Tristan”, but as I edited the song, it became vital to remove every unnecessary character name from the piece. Particularly for listeners less conversant with all the nuances of these legends, I wanted to minimize confusion, given the large cast of named characters we were already dealing with. While I had had the idea of holding Tristan and Isolde up as the privileged pair to contrast with Palamedes and Brangwin, simplicity and clarity were more important. Isolde is an unavoidable driving force behind Brangwin’s story, and needs to be mentioned; Tristan is not, and is better off omitted.


[16] “Princess” Isolde of Ireland’s mother (who in the stories has the same name as her daughter) complicates this verse by having yet a third character involved in the action (to say nothing of King Mark of Cornwall, Isolde’s husband-to-be, whose name, like Tristan’s, was scrubbed during the editing process to streamline the story and reduce confusion). Isolde the Elder gets to be the villain of this verse as the architect of Isolde the Younger’s loveless marriage. The story as told here highlights the way in which patriarchy turns women against one another, as the mother is complicit in the oppression of her daughter, and in turn her daughter’s servant, whose rights and needs are not even a consideration.


[17] In pretty much every version of the Tristan and Isolde story, their love is either kindled or strengthened by a love potion that was intended to bind Isolde to King Mark and ensure the success of their marriage, but doesn’t go as planned. In some versions, Isolde herself learns of its nature and gives it to Tristan rather than her intended, but in many, including Malory, Brangwin is the agent, entrusted with doctored wine to give Isolde and Mark on the wedding night. Isolde and Tristan instead discover and drink it on their sea voyage to Cornwall (in some versions, to Brangwin’s horror, demonstrating that she did know its contents). This of course absolves them of responsibility for their adulterous actions (but see next note).


[18] In adapting this story for the themes I sought to illustrate, the love potion takes on new relevance. We live in a time when accepting a drink at a party is considered highly dangerous, because of the risk it has been laced with drugs that can cause blackouts and make the drinker an easy target for sexual assault. In our version of the story, Brangwin takes agency and shows her character by defying Isolde the Elder, because she is unwilling to participate in robbing Isolde the Younger of her right to freely choose her romantic and sexual partner. She will not give a woman (or anyone) a doctored drink, making it clear that this is a violation of autonomy.


[19] In the early poetic versions of the Tristan and Isolde story, Brangwin’s role in Isolde’s marriage to King Mark goes even further than innocent courier for the love potion. An English retelling drawn from early medieval sources captures this next episode, and its treatment of Brangwin, with stark clarity (boldface is mine):

All the while Tristan and Isolde reveled in their intimacy, as was good and proper. However, their joy was not without concern. Isolde was King Mark’s promised bride, and she was no longer a virgin. What could be done?

There is no need to make a long story of it. In short, Brangaene was asked to be a substitute bride for the wedding night, and she knew not how to refuse. Yes, King Mark married Princess Isolde with great pomp and ceremony, but under cover of darkness and disguise, it was fair Brangaene whom he took to bed that first night. Isolde was of gold. Brangaene was of brass. King Mark was satisfied with brass.

“Handmaid”, indeed. Afterwards, in many versions, Isolde grows concerned that Brangwin will betray this secret, and orders her servants to kill Brangwin. They are unwilling, and instead leave her out in the woods tied to a tree. Isolde repents and apologize when she finds Brangwin alive.

By the time of the Prose Tristan, the marriage night substitution has been taken out of the narrative, and the servants, inexplicably jealous of Brangwin’s favored status in the household, decide to tie her to the tree overnight themselves. (Isolde’s privileged status, and importance as a character, continually moves storytellers to cast her in a more favorable light.)

In the end, I also found this episode both too disturbing and too complicated to include in the song. I make the mother, Isolde the Elder, responsible for tying Brangwin to the tree, as punishment and threat for Brangwin’s refusal to pour the love potion. Conflating these episodes in this way avoids expanding the focus on Isolde, and allows us to skip over sexual coercion that would be entirely too inflammatory for this piece, and has less modern relevance.

Nevertheless, notice how Brangwin is constantly the pawn of the higher-born Isolde’s struggle to love the man she wishes to, and the lack of concern with her well-being because of her lower status.


[20] Palamedes (who will be discussed more in the next verse) is the one who rescues Brangwin from the tree beginning in the Prose Tristan, which is his first known appearance in the Arthur cycle (and in which time the original reason for Brangwin’s binding has been excised). The two will constantly cross paths in the narrative because of their associations with Isolde and Tristan, but this is the only significant encounter between them in the original story. As I mentioned earlier, it provides a segue to introduce the protagonist of the next verse, and a bonding point for these two characters. Brangwin indicates that Palamedes “believed” her, meaning he accepted her version of what had happened, and supported her choice.


[21] There is no space in this dense second verse to feature Gareth prominently, which is why his connection to Brangwin as a friend in need was established in the previous verse, but Brangwin quickly ties him back to the action here, as the agent of her escape from Isolde the Elder’s wrath. Gawain is being challenged to become a participant in protecting Brangwin’s freedom, which will begin to take Gawain out of his status quo comfort zone.


[22] Gawain saying he’d “given no thought” to the plight of women in this time and place, is a statement about how men often fail to appreciate the struggles women face, and a sideways glance at Gawain’s highly variable characterization around of his treatment of women. Gawain’s original reputation was one of courtesy, and he was nicknamed “the Maidens’ Knight”, a champion of women (as well as the disenfranchised). Over time, the French writers of the Vulgate, Prose Lancelot, and Post-Vulgate cycles increasingly coarsened Gawain as a character, to provide a contrast to the superiority of the French Lancelot. Ultimately, he is portrayed as a rapacious womanizer and accomplished and casual rapist. The net result is that, in versions after the Post-Vulgate (such as Malory), Gawain is generally presented as a conflicted and relatively complex character, striving to the right thing and act out of principle, but constantly failing. This version of Gawain is a solid foundation for the narrator of our song, and we could choose to interpret that his conversation with Brangwin is a turning point toward significant improvement in how he treats women (see next note).


[23] This is an Easter Egg of sorts for serious Gawain scholars. “Sovereignty” is the key word in a Gawain tale, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, which we cannot directly address in the space of this song. The story, a variation on the medieval “loathly lady” trope, appears in slightly different form in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Canterbury Tales, which involves an unnamed knight in Arthur’s court (who came to be identified with Gawain).

In all the versions, one of Arthur’s knights must marry an ugly hag, and answer a riddle: “What is it women most want?” The knight accepts the unpleasant charge, and learns that the answer is “sovereignty”, meaning full autonomy to make her own decisions. On the wedding night, The knight learns that his wife is not necessarily bound to be hideous, but he must make a choice between two unsatisfying options of how she will present physically (in “Ragnelle”, she can be beautiful at night only, when he can enjoy her, or during the day only, when others will see them together; in “Wife of Bath”, would he rather she beautiful and unfaithful to him, or ugly and loyal and virtuous?). The knight ultimately tells his bride that he leaves the choice to her. By giving her power over her own fate, “sovereignty”, he proves himself worthy and wise, and her curse is broken. She can be beautiful and loyal to him permanently: by showing her respect, both of them achieve the best of all outcomes.

The line in the song here suggests that Brangwin unknowingly has provided Gawain with the answer to the riddle, which will eventually allow Gawain to break Dame Ragnell’s curse and enjoy a happy marriage to a woman both beautiful and virtuous.


[24] Sir Palamedes the Saracen first appears in the 13th-century Old French Prose Tristan. (I originally spelled and pronounced it “Palomides”, which was listed as an alternate spelling, but discovered as I was compiling these annotations that it was T. H. White who introduced that spelling in the 20th century, so I have changed to the spelling that was used in period, even though I pronounced it with the long “I” at Q&C Bardic Champions. Live by Wikipedia, die by Wikipedia.) “Saracen” was a medieval European term for Arabs, specifically Muslims (though if we extrapolate Palamedes back to where the Round Table is imagined to be historically, the 6th or 7th century C.E., he would pre-date Mohammed and therefore could not have been a Muslim). The term is now obsolete, but what is clear about Palamedes in every version of the story he appears in, from his first moment on the page to the last: He is the quintessential outsider in Camelot, for he is neither white nor a Christian. As the primary foil for Tristan and (hopeless) rival for Isolde’s love, Palamedes gets quite a lot of action in Malory. Crucially, as mentioned earlier, he is given the task of rescuing Brangwin from her bondage in the woods, which allows me to tie (sorry) their stories and verses together. Robert Graves (author of I, Claudius), in his introduction to the 1962 Keith Baines translation of Morte d’Arthur, refers to Palamedes as one of only two fully fleshed out characters in Malory, and we’ll explore the reasons for that below.


[25] Throughout Malory, especially in “The Book of Sir Tristram of Lyoness” where most of Palamedes’ story takes place, the knights are constantly in an alpha-dog scramble of jousting tourneys and ranking one another–indeed, all the characters are constantly ranking the Top Two or Top Three Knights in Arthur’s court. They are, invariably, Lancelot and Tristan (not necessarily in that order), and sometimes someone else, who is invariably not Palamedes. There is a running commentary about what a pity it is that Palamedes, who is such a fearsome knight, excellent jouster, and powerful athlete, would surely be one of the top-ranked knights–if only

If only what? The implied answer generally is, if only he were Christian (more about that in a later note). But the unspoken truth seems clear to me as a modern reader: if only he were white. If only he were one of us. There is always a reason Palamedes’ performance never quite measures up to the European or Anglo-Saxon knights, but it never seems to be that he isn’t actually good enough with his saddle or his lance. The medieval European writers, including Malory, were just never going to let a Saracen win.

Palamedes, as this goes on, grows increasingly frustrated that he has been set up to forever be the foil, the opponent, never the victor. He rescues maidens, is generous and virtuous–nothing changes. He goes out as a side quest and conquers a kingdom, becomes the savior of a people–comes back to Britain, no dice. Though the words Malory puts in his mouth are self-reproofs, asking why he can never fully be worthy, you can just see him staring up from the page at Malory, like Bugs Bunny staring from the animation cel at Elmer Fudd, knowing he is at the artists’ mercy, but basically demanding to know “What gives? What did I ever do to you? What sort of thrill do you get out of torturing me like this? Doesn’t it ever get boring for you? Maybe let me get one win, just for variety?” It’s part of what makes Palamedes a more interesting character than most of the other knights.

But again, these stories are being told to flatter the home readers, just as the Welsh writers built Gawain up and the French writers took him down. One thing all of these white medieval writers have in common is a shared understanding: European knights never be beaten by a Saracen. It’s simply not done.


[26] The Palamedes of our telling is no fool. He is a man of color navigating a white space, medieval Europe and Britain, and he understands the implicit constraints, the risk to his welcome (if not his well-being) if shows up the home team. European writers, and the Arthurian court, will of course assume that Palamedes is as caught up in their petty one-upmanship as everyone else, but Gawain has, with Gareth’s help, started paying attention to these hidden dynamics, and quietly and tactfully asks Palamedes if indeed he is choosing not to give these meaningless battles the full force of his abilities. Palamedes acknowledges that Gawain suspects rightly, and that the Saracen knows he has to keep a rein on his words and actions when operating in this space as an outsider. (Shakespeare’s Othello, of course, will famously forget that he is an outsider and subject to jealousy, and Iago will teach him the cost of such insufferable presumption the hard way.)


[27] The primary motivation given Palamedes in the story is his love affair with Isolde, which drives his rivalry with Tristan, and literally drives him to madness at one point. (An otherwise fearsome knight losing his sanity because of his one and only weakness, the love of a woman who can never truly belong to him, was a common motif. It was no particular badge of shame for Palamedes here, in fact it was almost a right of passage for a passionate knight: Lancelot and Tristan each go through at least one bout of it.) Indeed, at times Palamedes begins to repair his reputation, engage in admirably knightly adventures, and rise in his esteem ranking, only to then stumble the next time he comes across or is reminded of Isolde, at which point he regresses to childish misery and jealousy.

A man of color who cannot be trusted because of his yearning for a white woman is the sort of stereotype that, in our experience, seems to come more often than not from fearful white imaginations, as an excuse for stigmatization and violence against the perpetual exotic outsider. In our story, Palamedes exposes his supposed infatuation with Isolde as the idle rumor that it is.

A cultured, educated man of stature in his home country, Palamedes understands the European world he is navigating. If he is going to give his heart to someone, it will be someone, like himself, who is overlooked and underestimated, someone who recognizes and appreciates someone’s full value. Someone like Brangwin, an honest, virtuous, hard-working and loyal woman.

Isolde is not for him; she has made it clear she will only marry a Christian, and largely plays the role society expects of her. (When she chooses to rebel, as in her affair with Tristan, she is content to let the weight of her choices fall on Brangwin rather than bear them herself).

Palamedes hears the refrain of “when are you going to accept Christianity?” everywhere that he goes. His answer, that he cannot wait to do it but has set himself a set of tasks he wishes to complete first, is, once again, a story the powerful in-group likes to tell itself: that non-believers will eagerly assimilate to the dominant and obviously superior culture. Indeed, was what Malory’s audience, and especially the Church, wanted to see, so he, like the writers before and after him, obliged.

But whatever faith Palamedes practiced (which presumably was not Islam, living as he did before Mohammed), it would presumably have been as precious to him as anyone else’s faith is to them. Someone who would take him and love him as he is, the way Brangwin does, would surely deserve to be rescued from her plight at the hands of Isolde’s mother, and handed off to a faithful friend like Gareth who could get her to safety.


[28] Gawain is beginning to understand Palamedes’ perspective, and realizes that he has, like the rest of the court, undervalued Palamedes significantly, as well as the challenges he faces in this foreign culture. It is a critical step in Gawain’s growth as a person and an ally, particular since it happens in without Gareth there to prod him.


[29] My teacher Peregrine encouraged me to put a button on this verse, the halfway point of the song, by showing Palamedes and Brangwin get married, safely out of Isolde the Elder’s clutches. Part of the reason was that, in contexts where time was at a premium and I simply could not reasonably offer or perform a nine-minute song, I would have the option of presenting the first half of the larger work in a way that completes the arc begun in the first verse.

Pairing Palamedes and Brangwin romantically and marrying them to one another is not, of course, strictly necessary. But in the confines of a song, falling in love and getting married is a trope, a shortcut, that signals to the listener that a character is not merely support, or a plot device, or comic relief, but the protagonist of their own story, and deserves a socially-sanctioned event like starting a family of their own. It is a conventional, hetero-normative shortcut, however I think it serves these this not-entirely-conventional characters in the space provided. (And of course, we are going to explore a very different viewpoint and a very different choice of hero’s journey as a counterpoint in the next verse.)


[30] In the first draft, Gawain gets to sing this chorus, which demonstrates how much he has grown and learned. As I was nearing the final draft, I began to think about how I might want to approach recording this song, and realized that an early idea, of having diverse voices sing it, now made sense in its current form. There are four speaking characters, and the opportunity here would be to voice cast each part: Myself as Gawain, and performers whose experiences and voices are representative of the Gareth, Brangwin, and Palamedes, for the other three. It would give this very long piece variety, allow for harmonies or counterpoints between voices on the refrains, and just filled me with artistic anticipation.

…Until I pondered that Palamedes had very few spoken lines in the piece as of that draft. Brangwin gets an entire verse and refrain (with one line of interjection from Gawain). Gareth gets parts of three verses in dialog with Gawain, and two refrains. Gawain narrates, so he ultimately gets more lines than anyone else, and as of that point three refrains. Palamedes had six lines, less than half of his verse, and no refrains. I had written it that way just because that was how the story was breaking…but what kind of equity and representation was it if the one character of color was almost never heard from?

I didn’t want to rewrite the verses themselves; this story was tight, clean, and flowing as clearly across all the changes and viewpoints as I could get it. But Gawain was going to get two more refrains to show his growth and learning from his mistakes, including the final repeated refrain. Palamedes deserved to be heard singing the refrain for his own verse. So I tweaked the lines leading up to the chorus so that Gawain makes it clear that Palamedes is speaking these words on their wedding day. If it isn’t perfect balance, it is much better balance than before.


[31] The events of this verse are derived from “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” (Book IV of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur). Intriguingly, this short chapter was not a retelling like the rest of the book but an original contribution by Malory. Gareth, the youngest of the Orkneys (Mordred, Arthur’s son by Morgause, is not an Orkney), comes to court incognito, refuses to give his name, but asks to be able to serve in the kitchen for the term of one year before he will reveal his identity and lineage.

He is put under the charge of Arthur’s cousin Sir Kay, characterized always by his unbecoming petty tyranny over those he outranks (as he had done with Arthur before he pulled the sword from the stone). Kay mockingly notes Gareth’s lovely hands, unmarked by the hard work that surely should be a commoner’s lot, and nicknames the boy “Beaumains”, (French for fair hands). Beaumains ignores his taunts, and rapidly demonstrates his work ethic, his humility, and his courage, leading many in the court to suspect that the boy must be of noble lineage (which of course he is). Malory holds Gareth up as the exemplar, not of Christian piety like Galadad or Perceval, nor of power and force (though he does display impressive martial prowess) like Lancelot or Gawain, but of the Round Table ideals: modesty, generosity, gentleness, and service to others. In Gareth’s tale, we get to see one shining example of a knight earning his good name, keeping the vows he makes, being continually chivalrous in word and deed, because his goodness comes from his youthful, joyous heart.

The motif of knights disguising themselves so that they show their prowess and virtues rather than having them presumed is repeated endlessly in the Arthur stories, and Morte d’Arthur will see this device play out again and again. Partly because of its brevity, and partly because of Gareth’s winning, boyish idealism, the Beaumains chapter is to me one of the best renderings of this trope. (And of course it gave me space to drop the twist we’ll get to in a moment.)

In the first draft, I didn’t name Gareth at the start of this verse, wanting to maintain maximal surprise. But that required me to clumsily explain that we were now jumping back in time, which made no sense to the audience, and the more important surprise I was building up to risked not landing if the listener wasn’t following along. “You recall, Gareth first came to Camelot nameless”, ties the audience in to the transition, because they already are invested in Gareth. The coming twist will still pack a punch. Clarity is critical in storytelling, especially under the demands of musical meter.


[32] The coming reveal, in the final verse, that Gawain has not been speaking to a general audience, but specifically to Gareth’s long-time mentor Lancelot, was disorienting for listeners in the early drafts of the song. Master Peregrine pointed out to me that I needed to plant seeds for that revelation earlier in the piece, so that the surprise would not take them out of the climax of the story. (In the first draft, I packed entirely too many surprises into the song, including the one in the previous note. The challenge with telling a complex story in song form is that it places substantial cognitive demands on a first-time listener, piecing together the characters and plot in real time. As I revised the piece, I focused heavily on providing clear transitions from one verse to the next, so the song feels a little less like an anthology and more like chapters in a longer story.)

Having just wrapped up the romance between Brangwin and Palamedes at the end of verse three, it made sense to begin the second half of the song, which focuses primarily on the Orkney brothers (and their half-brother Mordred), by alerting listeners that Gawain is fact addressing an individual knight. I didn’t want to completely spoil this reveal, before we get to his role in our narrative, by naming Lancelot here. So instead, I make it clear to the audience that this knight is someone Gawain is very familiar with, and who was close to Gareth. People who know their Arthur lore will probably enjoy knowing the answer to the mystery at this point, but less versed listeners should still be intrigued, setting up an “Aha!” moment, rather than a “Say what?” moment, when we start the final verse.


[33] Gawain never guesses Gareth’s identity in Malory, but instinctively feels closeness to him, as if they were related. Gawain’s confusion about this is raised more than once in Gareth’s tale, before Gareth reveals to Gawain that he is his brother. (Of course, in the next line, we learn that it’s a little more complicated in this version.)


[34] This moment, the reveal that Sir Gareth was originally christened “Gwyneth” and raised in Orkney as a girl, is my favorite moment in the piece. This notion, when it came to me, showed me that this ridiculously ambitious idea of using the Arthur legend for a song about inclusion just might work, and I could make the thing my own.

I had known from the first conception of the piece as an Arthur retelling that the heart of the tale would be between Gawain and Gareth, and that Gareth was going to illuminate the importance of inclusion of those at the margins for his older brother. My plan was to have three verses serve as parables for outsiders: the plight of women under patriarchy, the plight of people of color in a white space, and representation from the LGBTQIA community. I had already identified Palamedes the Saracen as the obvious choice for a person of color, and I knew finding a woman suffering under the patriarchy was just going to be a matter of sifting through the many examples until I found the right one. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for my LGBTQIA example, but I suspected that someone trans or non-binary, a knight who had been assigned female identity at birth (AFAB), was the best option. Certainly, between Shakespeare’s comic heroines like Rosalind and Viola, and the historical example of Joan of Arc (who was demonized for daring, as a woman, to take a man’s role by wearing armor and leading armies in battle), this was not an unfamiliar trope in period. I just had no idea where I would find the right character, because I didn’t want to invent new characters for this piece.

I was reviewing the Wikipedia page for Gareth in late November when I stumbled on it. (Yes, I know. Wikipedia is not a source. But like any encyclopedia, it serves as a useful starting point to find facts, ideas, characters, literature, or events, which can then be traced to specific sources. Which is why I keep linking to it in these notes.) The “Modern versions” section had this fascinating tidbit: “In the mobile game Fate Grand Order, Gareth is depicted as a female knight, while keeping much of the legend’s original family traits and story.”

In that moment, it was obvious. Gareth is the knight everyone loves for his sweetness, his gentleness, his generosity. The picture I have of Gareth is ever smooth-cheeked, boyish, delicate, next to the alpha aggression of Gawain and most of the knights striving at the top of the heap. And yet we love Gareth more for it, for not being competitive, for being able to resist the vengeful anger his brothers show later in the story. Casting Gareth as a female knight for a video game is an obvious choice, because you don’t have to really change Gareth for it to work.

Gareth is my non-binary knight. It’s been under my nose the whole time. Gareth’s time as Beaumains was his attempt to prove to himself that he could be accepted in Arthur’s court as a man, before he claimed the name that he knew belonged to him, but which no one had ever called him growing up. And that information should come out after we have explored the other marginalized characters, to give deeper context to his chivalry and compassion. Because part of the twist is that Gawain figured it out, and chose to support Gareth in this new identity. Gawain has been engaged in Gareth’s mission longer than even Gawain really understood.

I needed a name for the assigned birth identity, one that would be head-smackingly obvious had been converted to Gareth. Welsh, like Gareth. “Gwyneth” was also a no-brainer.

(I’ll always remember when I got this idea, because later that night was when HBO’s Watchmen series aired Episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being”, and wowed all of us with a reveal an unexpected identity for a character we had always assumed was something else. I remember being relieved that I’d had found my twist before I saw this episode, because I would hate to have stolen it from them.)

When it came time to start writing out the verses, this was the verse I wrote first, because it was the moment that resonated for me the strongest. Later, when I realized I had a six-verse, nine-minute first draft, I struggled with what to do. Nine minutes is a lot to ask of an audience, and would this message be lost if the piece was too long to hold an audience’s attention? At the suggestion of a fellow bard, I thought hard about cutting a verse, and the obvious choice was this one. The song works without it. The idea came to me well after I’d started preparing the piece. And yet…there is killing your darlings, and there is tearing your heart out.

Ultimately, Peregrine counseled me. “Obviously, we know there are ways to make this song shorter than it is now. Cut the length of the verses. Take something out. But you know what? No. It’s too good. Polish the story, but don’t cut anything.” (The actual words might have been a little more colorful.) The relief I felt was palpable.


[35] Gareth is non-binary (“lady nor lord strikes me true”), but chooses to present as male in the binary world of medieval Britain. As a story choice, this felt like a fair way to include the plight of non-binary and trans folks in the tale, without getting lost in a dissertation on gender identify. (The point of presenting this story as an Arthurian retelling was to show rather than tell as much as possible.)

Gareth’s character has been fairly established, so this is new context to his mission to include and empower marginalized. He is privileged, but he is also living an assumed identity. It feels true for him, and frees him from the confining role assigned to women in this world. His ultimate mission is to pay those advantages forward by extending them to others, and to enroll Gawain (who has never questioned his privileges of class, gender, or race) to leverage his privilege in that mission as well.

One last note about the process of writing these lyrics: In the first draft, this stanza opened with “They replied, ‘O Gawain, that is my name no longer…'” Gawain’s choice of a singular pronoun in this spot was a puzzle for me–should he reflect the understanding Gawain had back at that moment and refer to “Gwyneth” as “she”? Should he stick to “he”, the pronoun he uses for Gareth everywhere else in the song? I thought singular “they” would be a good compromise, reflecting his understanding that Gareth is non-binary. Ultimately, choosing a pronoun at that moment was going to pull listeners out of the story, whichever I chose. So I changed the line, taking out the attribution, and dodged the problem. (Serve the story, serve the listener, and respect the characters.)


[36] Gareth’s quest in the “The Book of Sir Gareth of Orkney” began on Pentecost, and was completed one year later. (This signaled his aspiration to knighthood, since it suggested he planned to take the Pentecostal Oath of chivalry which Arthur demanded of all his knights.) In keeping with the focus on medieval festival days, I set Gawain’s earlier conversation with Gareth “a few days before Yule” to give a sense of when in the year it fell (mid-December, a little more than halfway through the year in question).


[37] The Round Table in Malory is magical, and reveals the name of new members of the Arthur’s Order, in letters of gold, when it is ready to show a worthy member belongs at that particular seat. The Easter Egg here is, that when name “Sir Gareth of Orkney” appears in letters of gold, the Table itself is validating Gareth’s chosen identity.


[38] The Orkneys, famously clannish, would have kept Gareth’s secret from the court if Gawain backed Gareth’s choice. Mordred would not have been in on this, as he was not raised in Orkney, but it is possible Aggravain would have revealed it to him as he fell ever more under Mordred’s sway. I decided not to explore this, as it complicated the story unnecessarily, and focusing on Gareth’s risk of exposure distracts from his mission to help other marginalized people in this time and place. Gawain implies in the final verse, however, that Mordred manipulates events to bring about Gareth’s death.


[39] A note of accusation from Gawain to our unseen listener (Lancelot), to keep the intrigue in play before the reveal at the beginning of the final verse.


[40] The third line of each refrain features a thematic word tied to that story. The secrecy of Gareth’s story notwithstanding, what better thematic word could Gawain use here but “pride”? His pride in Gareth is obvious, and acknowledging LGBTQIA people and all the richness they bring to our community is a moral imperative here.


[41] In the repeat of the line, “Our fellowship, how could it fall?” it stops being a rhetorical question, as Gawain realizes that the rest of his story will provide the answer to that question (and he knows he bears a weight of responsibility).


[42] Mordred first appears in early Welsh accounts of Arthur purporting to be histories, composed between 960 and 970 C.E. By the 12th century, he is established as a traitor (and nephew) to Arthur who usurps his throne. Ultimately, he evolves into his illegitimate son (born of unwitting incest with his aunt or his sister) in most accounts.

Mordred shows up in modern versions of the story, such as Lerner and Lowe’s musical Camelot, generally as a sneering cartoon villain, delighting in the destruction of his father and all he holds dear. Many accounts suggest that his mother poisoned him against Arthur from childhood, raising him to be a weapon of revenge (1980’s Excalibur and our very own Heather Dale’s ever-popular “Mordred’s Lullaby” are great examples of this).

Whatever his motives, the Mordred of Morte d’Arthur serves as the antithesis of the chivalric ideal: hateful, deceitful, conniving, power-hungry, and always choosing his own self-interest at the expense of others. He is clever and insightful in the manner of a sociopath, able to read the situation and others’ motivations, and turn them to his advantage because he feels nothing for others and suffers no pangs of conscience. He knows, like everyone except Arthur, of Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, and recognizes that this is the weak point that will allow him to press advantage.

In our piece, Mordred, serves as the antithesis here of Gareth’s chivalric ideals: covetous of his privilege and hostile to marginalized and their interests. Anyone he cannot control by manipulating social norms and the existing hierarchy is a threat to be neutralized. He will quickly exploit the power structure to threaten the characters we have come to care about.

Mordred represents a particular kind of toxic person that is very real in our Society. Most of these I have not met personally, but I have seen their comments online, and seen the impact they have had on others, and on the reputation of the Society. These bad actors are drawn to power, and have on a few recent occasions sat thrones, bringing their kingdoms, and our entire organization, into disrepute. As we shall see, they are often hard for the people in positions of power to detect, and the voices of the marginalized can only help protect us all from them if we listen to them.


[43] Gawain, though striving to be an active ally and embody the ideals he has learned from Gareth, still has a blind spot to the danger from bad actors who have established credentials–in this case, blood ties. Mordred recognizes that, with the exception of Gareth, his half-brothers, the Orkneys, are vulnerable due to their tribalism and family loyalties, and will use them to manipulate the clan and divide Camelot, creating an opening for his power grab.


[44] Mordred is a “missing stair”–a problematic individual that others, particularly their targets, learn to avoid, because they are dangerous to confront or difficult to remove from a community. The challenge with keeping quiet, of course, is that it fails to protect others, and whispered advice to “step around the missing stair” only protects one or two people while not addressing the real problem.

Brangwin is once again menaced sexually, now as a married woman, but even that cannot protect her from Mordred’s entitlement, or the power granted to him by his privileged status. Mordred is described in the source stories as driven by lust around women while showing them no courtesy or respect.

Gareth is trying, as an ally, to amplify Brangwin’s concerns, but he needs help. Without Gawain’s assistance, it will be difficult or impossible to deal with the threat Mordred represents (and, there is always the possibility that if Gareth tries to confront Mordred without backup, Mordred will reveal that he has learned of Gareth’s hidden identity and will use it to discredit Gareth).


[45] We begin weaving the events of our song’s narrative around the tragic fall of Camelot in the backdrop. Mordred, of course, will be the one who reveals Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot to King Arthur, not out of any sense of virtue, but to divide the court and weaken Arthur, so he, Mordred, can usurp the throne.


[46] Mordred, an aspiring demagogue, feeds resentment by targeting marginalized people, and “othering” them as scapegoats. This is entirely in keeping with his character but does not show up in the source tales, because they were written by authors whose white and Christian privilege was a virtue rather than a vice. In the 21st-century SCA, however, highly placed Peers, including Royals, have done tremendous damage to the Society by trolling minorities, privately and through coded dog-whistles in public statements. Calling out this sort of behavior by some of our most powerful members is one of the bigger risks taken in this song, but it is essential if we wish to have a future that lives up to our ideals.


[47] The problem with bad actors and “missing stairs” is that they know how to navigate and manipulate systems of power. They choose their words and their targets carefully most of the time, and shroud themselves with virtue around people who have the power to constrain or remove them from a community where they are operating.


[48] Gareth tries to open Gawain’s eyes to the rot that Mordred represents, and the damage he is already doing to their Order. This is probably the most nakedly “political” passage in the song, and it is not subtle. My focus, I repeat, is not on the current political situation in the United States or the world, but rather the corrosive effect these views are having on our community in the SCA. Those who claim that “modern politics” are outside the purview of the Society are generally those who are protected by their privilege from the impact on our members.


[49] The “paradox of tolerance”: tolerance cannot be extended to people who practice and promote intolerance. Trying to create an environment that is accepting of both wolves and sheep only keeps the “wolves” (perpetrators) safe, while leaving the “sheep” (targets) exposed. A community that wishes to keep marginalized people safe must be prepared to expel bad actors. This is a place where many geek subcultures, who think of themselves as havens for the marginalized (geeks in general) break down, because long time members of “good standing” are given priority over the people they target, until the targets, feeling unsafe, are compelled to leave.


[50] At last, Gawain identifies by name the knight to whom he has been speaking (for those who had not yet guessed). The context and intention of this conversation reveal themselves throughout the verse.


[51] Lancelot’s accidental slaying of Gareth (and his brother Gaheris) is the true turning point of the Arthurian tragedy. Though Gareth is not important enough to appear in most modern tellings of the story, and the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere is held as the fracture point, in Malory, and many versions of the story before and after (including T. H. White), this is the Rubicon moment. Gareth has been set up as a character almost impossible not to admire, virtuous to a fault but never condescending or shrilly pious. (Even in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which constantly mocks the superstitions and outmoded “chivalry” of Camelot, our cynical protagonist Hank Morgan cannot help but adore Sir Gareth, or “Garry” has he nicknames him, and is shocked and horrified when he is killed, knowing that this will mean civil war). Gareth is the tale’s sacrificial lamb, and his death triggers an emotional spiral in Gawain that will make war inevitable, as the next stanza will demonstrate.


[52] We are barreling toward the conclusion of this piece, and need to keep Gawain and Gareth’s story in the foreground, even as we allude to the tragedy that is befalling the kingdom at the edge of our frame. To maintain that balance, we make one last reference to Mordred as the architect of events, suggesting here that he orchestrated Gareth’s death as part of his greater plan to usurp the throne (and perhaps because he had learned of Gareth’s birth identity, or simply to put a stop to Gareth’s championing of those at the margins).

In most versions, Mordred never really occupies center stage, and the focus of Camelot’s end generally treats him as something of an afterthought. He is less a character than he is a plot device, an instrument of divine tragedy, born of deception not unlike his father Arthur (and further, Mordred is the product of incest). For our purposes, he encapsulates nicely malevolent nihilism and selfish protection of privilege, and the harm they cause. But it is time to take our leave of him here.


[53] Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, allows his grief over Gareth, and the Orkney values of family loyalty first, to come before his mission as a knight. He refuses to allow Arthur and Lancelot to reconcile after the bloodbath of Guinevere’s rescue, and divides the Round Table permanently by demanding that Arthur pursue vengeance for him. The resulting war is Gawain’s doing as much as anyone’s, and in our song, as in Malory, he knows it.

Is the relationship between Gareth and Gawain, their bond, and the tragedy of Gareth’s loss enhanced by our additions to the story? By Gawain’s protection of Gareth’s secret, by the complexities of how he remembers Gareth from childhood, by Gareth’s greater mission that Gawain continually struggled to adopt as his own? I hope so, and I feel that extra weight when I perform the piece.


[54] My original plan for the ending, was that Gawain would encounter Lancelot some time during the events of Camelot’s fall, have him at his mercy, and tell him Gareth’s story before sparing his life, with the request that Lancelot adopt this mission so the two of them could work in the years that remained to each of them to spread Gareth’s message. But as I dug through the final book of Malory, I realized that the more poignant way to close the story was to incorporate this conversation into the final encounter that is already included in Malory.

Gawain ultimately calls Lancelot out in single combat, and comes off the worse, either receiving or reopening a deadly wound in differing versions. The prospect and clarity of imminent death frees Gawain from his bitterness and rage, and he repents his quest for vengeance and the harm it has done to the realm. He begs Lancelot’s forgiveness.

I leave it a tiny bit ambiguous (“this wound may cost me my life”) so as not to ruin the forward-looking focus of the final refrains, but the likelihood of death gives Gawain’s final words to Lancelot far greater gravitas and passion. (Yes, sometimes the best way to retell a medieval story is just to retell it.)


[55] I give Palamedes one last bow, and a chance to shine as the friend and counselor who helps Gawain remember Gareth’s life and mission and return to his senses. In Malory, Palamedes developed a strong friendship with Lancelot, and chose to stay with him at Joyous Gard during the civil war, so it makes sense of the Saracen to appear at this juncture. (In some versions of the story, Gawain is forced to kill Palamedes for killing King Mark, and I considered having Gawain choose not to fulfill that obigation…but it didn’t fit anywhere and didn’t really serve this song.)


[56] Gawain is given the chance to enroll Lancelot, the greatest of Arthur’s knights, in a mission that Gareth taught him was greater in scope than Arthur’s conception of chivalry. The work of promoting inclusion and equity is challenging and unending, but it is vital and must continue. Gawain’s failures to live up to Gareth’s example may not be forgiven by relating Gareth’s story to Lancelot and passing the mission to him, but it is what Gawain can do with the strength that remains to him.


[57] We do not check our privilege because we are required to be ashamed of it. We examine our privilege because it is unearned, and privileges we enjoy should be enjoyed by all. Sometimes the choice to walk in the world mindful of our privileges and our impacts will cost us something, and we will be forced to choose between what lifts others up and what keeps our own privilege safe. The rewards for those choices may show up as the gratitude of others, but sometimes it will have to be enough that we know we acted mindfully, courteously…in a word, with chivalry.


[58] It can be painful to look at our Society through the eyes of those with less privilege than we enjoy, and see something less beautiful and welcoming than we had imagined it to be (even as we understand that different people’s privileges intersect with others and there is no universal scale of greater or lesser). The choice we have is to attack the messengers, usually marginalized people who need allies, or open our hearts and strive to do better, to bring our Society closer in line with the dream we had held for it.


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