Black Knights, Green Knights, Knights of Color All A-Round: Race and the Round Table

 

“AND BY HIM PALOMIDES, HELMET OFF HE FOUGHT”, Florence Harrison, 1914. From the Robbins Library Camelot Project.

If you enjoy this post, you may also wish to partake of its sequel, “The Bowl, the Ram and the Folded Map.”

Since it seems like some sad internet people are mad that a man of color is going to play a role in a modern adaptation of the King Arthur mythos, I thought I would drop some classical-education truthbombs about the 5-ish Known Men Of Color in King Arthur.

First off, six percent of the Knights of the Round Table were men of color. Granted, that’s only three out of 49 men, but the entire expanded United States Congress is hovering around 13% people of color and only has one black Senator.  See the man in Figure One? He’s Sir Palamedes the Saracen, and he’s pretty colorful. See this guy?

HE’S GREEN.

These are their stories. Click to read more.

So the Saracen Brothers were Sir Palamedes the Saracen (also spelled Pallamedes or Palomides) and his brothers Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides. They were Saracen (Arabic) princes, the sons of King Esclabor of Babylon, an area near modern Baghdad.  (Technically, Arthur’s legend predates Islam, so descriptions of the brothers as Muslims are incorrect; they were added to make the stories seem more spicy and multicultural.) It’s not that they’re later additions or ‘token’ characters, since Palamedes and his brothers are described in Tristram and Isolde as well as Le Morte d’Arthur, two of the largest pieces of the Arthurian canon.

They are serious and important knights. They shouldn’t be overlooked.

(Sidenote for non-literature-nerds: The legends of King Arthur are pretty diverse, and they were written down/made up at various times by various different writers, who all wrote down different versions and did different things with their favorite characters. It’s pretty much all fanfiction, and there is no single piece you can point to as the True Story of King Arthur. It is a very fractured and enjoyable canon, and since it’s all made up anyway, why not play along? But if a character is in both Tristram and Morte then they’re pretty solidly placed as a canonical character, and since all sources agree that the Saracen brothers were natives of the Middle East, it’s about as true as Arthur ever gets. Oh, and you may know Tristram and Iseult as Tristan and Isolde. They have a movie and a famous romance.)

Anyway! Sir Palamedes was “A Saracen knight whose nobility and prowess were almost unsurpassed.” He falls madly in love with Iseult and makes a fool of himself over her, but she points out that his love, while flattering, creates no obligation on her part and has nothing to do with her own feelings; she chooses Tristram instead. Like an asshole, he tries kidnapping her, for some reason thinking that this will change her mind; but it doesn’t stick. During his long-standing rivalry with Tristan, which is excruciatingly boring, Palamedes pursues The Questing Beast, the most excellent creature in the world:

ISN’T SHE PERFECT?! This is the best beast ever and like 1000x better for your life than kidnapping sad ladies. But unlike King Pellinore, the previous Quester of the Beast, Palamedes manages to kill it.

Alternatively, in TH White’s “Once and Future King” series, he cheers the Beast up out of a depression by dressing up as another Beast and flirting with her, and their quest is more like a game of lovesick Tag. The series, made famous by Disney’s adaptation of “The Sword in the Stone,” does play fast and loose with the canon, but it’s notably the most modern adaptation to acknowledge Palamedes. In White’s “The Witch in the Wood,” published in 1939, Palamedes is described as black-as-in-African, and he gets a lot of great lines:

And then the magic barge whoa-ed, just where the currachs[1] were usually drawn up. Three knights got out, and it could be seen that the third was a black man. He was a learned paynim[2] or saracen,[3] called Sir Palomides.

“Happy landing,” said Sir Palomides, “by golly!”

 

[...]

“We dressed up,” bawled Sir Palomides miserably, “As a sort of Beast ourselves, respected sir, and she saw us coming into the castle. There are signs, ahem, of ardent affection. Now this creature will not go away, because she believes her mate to be inside, and it is a great unsafety to lower the drawbridge.”

“You had better explain to her. Stand on the battlements and explain the mistake. After all,” [Merlyn] the magician said, “She is a magic beast”…

But the explanation was a failure – she looked at them as if she thought they were lying…

“The Beast will not believe us. What are we to do?”

[Merlyn] frowned. “Psycho-analyse her,” he said eventually.

[...]

“And now,” added Sir Palomides bitterly, “It is going to rain. Come to think of it, nearly always does rain in these parts.”

You and me both, Palomides. Also, people who think that Tolkien can totally be excused from racism because of his time: I raise my eyebrow at you. Tolkien and White were contemporaries, and it’s recorded that Tolkien had read Sword in the Stone. White’s Merlyn and Wart were also cited inspirations for the characters of Dumbledore and Harry Potter, and Rowling hardly had any people of color in her novels. Would it have been so very difficult to fit them in? It’s really not that there were no characters of color in medieval times or fantasy settings; it’s that these authors choose not to use them.

As for Palamedes’ brothers, they’re not as interesting, but they certainly existed. Sir Segwarides was unlucky with damsels; actually, he was the Worst at Damsels. Sir Safir was just unlucky in general. Palamedes and Safir sided with Lancelot during his big break with King Arthur, and they helped save Guinevere from being burned at the stake. Segwarides remained loyal to Arthur and was killed while trying to burn Guinevere.
Palamedes and his brothers are always described as Saracens, are portrayed variously as black or brown men, and are not textually described as lesser/Other because of their skin color. Interestingly, in Arthur’s time, race as we know it didn’t exist; Western Racism is a very modern, very colonialistic concept. Arthur’s Britain would have been fairly multicultural, as the Roman Empire included Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and brought many people of varying ethnic backgrounds into Britain. There were inarguably wealthy men and women of color living in Europe from Roman times onward and throughout the Middle Ages. We’ve all heard of the Lady of York, right?

Meanwhile, characters in these stories aren’t really visually described unless they have superlative characteristics, such as mysterious all-black armor or remarkably long golden hair. Many knights were described as dark in hair and features. Instead of placing a large flashing sign in the middle of a saga going “THIS PERSON IS TOTALLY A PERSON OF COLOR YOU GUYS, WE REALLY HOPE YOU WILL TAKE THIS INTO ACCOUNT IN FUTURE ADAPTATIONS” the narrative might well have said “Sir Bors, who was dark” and moved on, assuming that readers or listeners would interpret it the way the narrator meant.

Not all of the knights in the Arthurian sagas actually belonged to the Round Table. Sir Morien was a black man added to the written canon in the 1200s – around the same time as Galahad. The son of a Knight of the Round Table and an African noblewoman, Morien has his very own saga (It’s called Morien.) He decides to visit England alone in the hopes of finding his father, via the quirky but unproductive method of beating up every knight he comes across until they told him where his father was/were actually his father all along. As a teenager, he held his own against the disguised Sir Lancelot in hand-to-hand combat for so long that Sir Gawain begged them to stop fighting, as he couldn’t bear to see such good knights kill each other for stupid reasons. This sort of thing happened a lot. I think it’s because everyone was very lonely in Fictional England and their armor made it hard to hug it out.

Image

Sir Morien is described as wearing North African armor, though most images of him are in European gear, possibly because the artists found Moorish armor too hard to draw. Interestingly, the narrative makes a large point of describing his skin color, possibly because it was thought to be unusual and dramatic, especially as he seems to match his own shield and armor. He also contrasts with his very well-kept teeth.

Here are some quotes from the translated saga of Morien:

He was all black, even as I tell ye: his head, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth. His shield and his armour were even those of a Moor, and black as a raven…

Had they not heard him call upon God no man had dared face him, deeming that he was the devil or one of his fellows out of hell, for that his steed was so great, and he was taller even than Sir Lancelot, and black withal, as I said afore…

When the Moor heard these words he laughed with heart and mouth (his teeth were white as chalk, otherwise was he altogether black)…

Morien’s saga ends when he finds his father (Sir Agrovale of the Round Table) and convinces him to return to Africa and marry Morien’s mother, thus making an honest woman of her and a legitimate son of Morien. Sir Agrovale goes “OH, hey, yeah, I completely forgot I was going to do that! Sorry, son!” and they get married and Sir Morien can therefore legally inherit his mother’s kingdom and gets to be a king yay.

Image
This statue of a knight is usually attributed to Sir Morien.

There is even a knight of extremely unusual color. Even the newest Arthurian scholar has probably heard of the Ballad of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Right? COME ON, guys, you must have heard of the Green Knight.

He was called the Green Knight because he had green skin and hair.

The Green Knight basically shows up at Camelot at Christmas one day and storms into the middle of the feast and he’s all “WHO WANTS TO CUT MY HEAD OFF WITH MY AXE?!” like a troll suddenly entering a conversation. Or the Grinch Who Didn’t Understand Christmas.

And everyone is all “Errrrm, hahaha, who are you, and also, no.”

And Green Knight’s all like “COME AT ME BROS, Y’ALL ARE COWARDS, CUT OFF MY DAMN HEAD.”

So Sir Gawain gets so mad at this that he jumps up and straight-up cuts the knight’s green head off.

Then the Green Knight picks up his own damn head, sticks it back on his shoulders, and goes “Right, mate, now you have to come to my house for Christmas dinner next year, and I’ll cut your head off.”

Then after that? Shit gets weird. Read it sometime, it’s cultural!

Future adaptations decided to describe the Green Knight as a non-green person who was simply wearing all green, possibly because green-skinned regenerating knights who grow new heads were a little bit too weird. Presumably in a way that noble African knights who totally beat Sir Lancelot in combat were not.

CONCLUSIONS:

  • Three major Knights of the Round Table were canonically men of color, which doesn’t raise any eyebrows in the narrative.
  • Nobody finds it TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE AND INACCURATE that Morien exists. In fact, after Sir Lancelot battles Sir Morien, he’s full of praise for his strength and prowess. (Although he also adds, “Stop punching strangers in the face as a greeting, it’s not really the most logical way to find your dad.”)
  • A knight with green skin shows up and everybody deals.
  • In the fictional England in the fictional time where we set the fictional King Arthur story, we shouldn’t get upset about people of color existing, because they existed in England in real-time in reality-land.
  • In Arthur’s time, skin color was not used to separate people – they preferred to war for religion, land ownership and random squabbles – and so characters in his legends may well have been dark or non-white, and it was never considered necessary to describe them.
  • THIS IS A CANON WHERE GREEN GUYS CUT OFF THEIR OWN HEADS AND PEOPLE SLEEP WITH THEIR SISTERS AND THERE IS A GODDAMN GODLIKE WIZARD AND A SEMI-NAKED LADY IN A POND DISTRIBUTING SWORDS AS A METHOD OF GOVERNMENT. THIS. IS. FANTASY. THERE IS NO REASON WHY FANTASY SHOULD AUTOMATICALLY EQUAL WHITE PEOPLE EXCEPT FOR THE PART WHERE FANTASY ONLY EVER HAS WHITE PEOPLE IN IT.
  • ETA October 16: As Myrin points out in the comments below, there is even a canonical mixed-race knight who is spotted. From Myrin:

The first two books (it consists of sixteen) are about Parzival’s father, Gahmuret (I imagine him like that, btw, because fitting description is fitting). He is good friends with the Caliph of Bagdad, fights for him and travels a lot serving him. On one of his travels he fights for a heathen town and subsequently falls in love with their queen, Belakane, whom he marries. As you say, it’s actually really unusual in these stories to write of people’s colour but here it is often mentioned that she’s a Moor. That doesn’t, however, make her ugly or anything (though she fears Gahmuret will think that way), in fact she’s described just as every other woman in this kind of story is described – as the most beautiful one the hero has ever seen. They later have a son (let’s ignore here that Gahmuret secretly leaves her because he wants to go on adventures and writes her a letter where he tells her it’s because of them having a different faith, mpf), Feirefîz, Parzival’s older half brother.

And that Feirefîz is spotted. Yes, spotted. Chequered. Plaid. However you might want to call it. He does have white and black skin and hair (and it’s very clear that he’s not just of a lighter brown as it would be normal, he literally has two colours).
Does that prevent him from being one of the strongest, noblest and most impressive men of his time? Certainly not. And people actually find him pretty cool and when they describe his skin and hair they don’t do so in a condescending way but in an admiring one.

I love this. Feirefiz’s spotted nature may be metaphorical; Palamedes is often depicted with a black-and-white checkered shield, a reference to his namesake (The Greek mythogical figure Pallamedes supposedly invented the chessboard) and to the dualities in his nature (a Saracen living in England, a man who believes in Jesus but has not committed to Christianity, etc.) Feirefiz might also have been meant as a man of color with vitiligo. This skin condition causes depigmentation of areas of the skin and occurs across all ethnicities. Here’s a strikingly lovely woman with the condition:

Woman from “The Coiffure Project.” I recognize her from  pictures on Tumblr, but I don’t remember her name – please let me know if you do!

Seriously, everyone: canonical knights of color in Arthur’s England! This has been a Missing Piece of Your Classical Education.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] currach: an ancient kind of Irish kayak made with animal skins.

[2] payim: a pagan, or a non-Christian, especially a Muslim.

[3] saracen: literally “a foreigner,” used to describe people from Arabia or Syria, especially Muslims. (Adorably, “saracen stones,” corrupted to “sarsen stones,” are what English people call certain rocks that are in the middle of a field for no apparent reason. In case you were wondering, yes, my brain is an attic.)

 

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39 thoughts on “Black Knights, Green Knights, Knights of Color All A-Round: Race and the Round Table

  1. Oh Elodie, you do not know how much this is my thing! I major in Germanistik (I think “German studies” is the English term? I never quite got that) with my specialty being Mediävistik (Older German language and literature) and I’m reading Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach right now! Well, okay, not right now while I’m writing to you but I’ve got the copies lying next to me on my table and I plan to finish the story after turning my computer off later. I love coincidences like that!

    One of the three big “genres“ in medieval German literature are the Artusromane (Arthurian Stories/Books) which also shows what you said in your article: There is no such thing as “canon” when it comes to these stories (I mean, English folk tales written down by French writers [Chrétien de Troyes, I’m looking at you!] and then translated and interpreted and changed by German writers [Hartmann von Aue and the aforementioned Wolfram would be the most important ones] => no one canon).

    Also a big YES to how it’s surprisingly unimportant in these stories what colour someone is (religion, though, is a different thing, although there are quite a few “heathen” personalities [includes both Jews and Muslims or those doing sorcery who apparently don’t have a religion at all] who are distinctly called “heathens” but really aren’t that different from the Christian people).

    I’ll be going with Parzival here since that is freshly in my brain so everything that follows naturally cannot be applied to all Arthurian Stories but many themes are really similar – also note that the names are probably all different from how they are in English but I’ll just stick with them.

    The first two books (it consists of sixteen) are about Parzival’s father, Gahmuret (I imagine him like that, btw, because fitting description is fitting). He is good friends with the Caliph of Bagdad, fights for him and travels a lot serving him. On one of his travels he fights for a heathen town and subsequently falls in love with their queen, Belakane, whom he marries. As you say, it’s actually really unusual in these stories to write of people’s colour but here it is often mentioned that she’s a Moor. That doesn’t, however, make her ugly or anything (though she fears Gahmuret will think that way), in fact she’s described just as every other woman in this kind of story is described – as the most beautiful one the hero has ever seen. They later have a son (let’s ignore here that Gahmuret secretly leaves her because he wants to go on adventures and writes her a letter where he tells her it’s because of them having a different faith, mpf), Feirefîz, Parzival’s older half brother.

    And that Feirefîz is spotted. Yes, spotted. Chequered. Plaid. However you might want to call it. He does have white and black skin and hair (and it’s very clear that he’s not just of a lighter brown as it would be normal, he literally has two colours).
    Does that prevent him from being one of the strongest, noblest and most impressive men of his time? Certainly not. And people actually find him pretty cool and when they describe his skin and hair they don’t do so in a condescending way but in an admiring one.

    So, yeah. I guess I just wanted to add the spotted Feirefîz to your green knight because colour variety and awesomeness and all.
    Sorry for rambling (again! >__<), but that’s exactly my topic and I could talk about it all day, so thanks for writing about it!

    • Ohhh my goodness I love coincidences like this… and I LOVE the spotted knight! Since I can only read in English, I miss out on all the best primary sources for this kind of literature! I’m going to add this to the original post.

      YOU ARE SO BRILLIANT! THANK YOU

      • Oh my god, I’m a bit embarrassed (in a good way). The brilliant Elodie telling me that I’m brilliant. That’s a bit much, I’m seriously blushing right now.
        Thank you for including my poorly worded comment to your article and I’m always happy to add something should the topic ever come up again (as I said, I could talk about this for days and be very content afterwards). <3

  2. Awesome and educational! This was totally missing from my English degree, which basically did nothing but discuss Arthurian legends.

    But I thought Rowling did have quite a lot of people of colour in Harry Potter; Kingsley Shacklebolt; Padma and Parvati Patil; Angelina Johnson; Lee Jordan; Cho Chang; Blaise Zabini; and, according to the Internet, Dean Thomas in the US edition. That’s seven/eight, not too bad perhaps? At the time I remember thinking Rowling was being relatively enlightened compared to the usual fantasy whitewash.

    • Thank you!

      Oh my god, can I be really boring and talk about Harry Potter, because I love Harry Potter and talking about Harry Potter and you’re kind of holding still and haven’t told me to stop? Rowling isn’t completely awful, but 73 years out from “The Sword in the Stone” and I can only remember one good line from her characters of color: Kingsley Shacklebolt’s “Say what you want about Dumbledore, but he’s got style.” While she definitely placed POC in her text, they were low-stakes characters who never threatened the placement of the main characters. There are no Marauders of Color, no teachers, no parents, no fatherly figures, no close friends, no heroes or founders or ghosts or other historical figures. The story is about little British white kids and it’s expressly for little British white kids; the fact that the rest of the world enjoys it does not change the fact that Rowling’s Wizarding Britain is status quo. It’s like how she says that “Fat people are not automatically stupid or bad! Body positivity YAY!” and everyone’s like “WOW JK YOU ARE SO PROGRESSIVE!” and yet all of the fat people in her books are stupid or bad, except maybe Slughorn; the only slightly-chubby Good Guy is Neville, who is generally held in contempt. So it’s not so much progressiveness as Moving Slightly Forward From 1939.

      The Patil twins exist to be girly and therefore lesser than Hermione; Ron and Harry date them briefly but ignore them. In the text their femininity is conflated with frivolousness and inferiority, although to be fair, they’re the only people in Hogwarts who actively practice a culture other than Idealized Englishe (I think they wear saris at the Yule Ball.) Likewise, Cho Chang is a colorful stop on the way, but only as an interlude to teach Harry how to kiss before he goes on to Ginny; likewise, Ginny dates Dean Thomas before graduating to Harry. Some critics complain that the main characters date minor POC before moving on in favor of More Perfect White Partners, and at the end of the series no POC was good enough to marry into the charmed circle of main characters.

      Lee Jordan is just A Voice; Angelina is Just A Quidditch Player, admittedly a beautiful one who marries George Weasley. Interestingly, Dean and Angelina were supposed to be automatically taken as black in the UK – Dean’s love of a certain football team and descriptions of his hair were supposed to heavily imply that he is black to a British audience. In the US version Dean was explicitly described as black because it was assumed that the Yanks wouldn’t pick up on the references. I’m pretty sure the exact same thing happened when translating Angelina, because I remember several mentions in the text of her being totally black. So score one for reading comp in the UK!

      Blaise Zabini is another low-stakes character; he spent years in fanfiction as a white girl, because Rowling didn’t describe him as male and black for several books. Sarah Rees Brennan did a nice line in White-Female-Sexy-Blaise back when she was writing fanfiction!

      It’s kind of like how, after the last book had been published and there were no stakes, she outs Dumbledore as gay. Like, okay, Jo, here is half a cookie for trying, but it doesn’t make any actual difference and that’s exactly how you intended it. It’s not written in the books, so when that interview gets snowed under and the trivia forgotten, it will never matter. It would have been pleasant to see that the witches and wizards who casually reproduce with non-human species are also allowed to practice same-sex love; but she didn’t give Madame Rosmerta a busty bar-wench girlfriend, even though it would have changed nothing. Dumbledore’s gayness will never help or comfort a queer child.

      So in conclusion, no, Rowling’s not terrible, but I’m not going to give her cookies for basically noticing that Britain contains Asian people, Black people and Indian people. I mean, it’s not that hard to notice; I’ve been here for about a year and I’m like “Hey! There are also Middle Eastern people here too!” At the moment, I’m creepily staring at some people of color over the top of my monitor! There are more than eight of them in my lab!

      In conclusion, Miss Piggy, of course, you are totally right, and you are really good at your Harry Potter! But I raise my eyebrow at Rowling all the same. THIS IS MY BLOG AND I LIKE TO TALK ABOUT HARRY POTTER

      • The whole “Do you want a cookie…?” meme is often unkind and generally poor strategy. Many of the people who want cookies for doing what looks like a marginal job /ought to/ get cookies because they have either improved themselves or are pushing their social circle forward. Saying “Do you want a cookie (for doing what I think you should have been doing from the very beginning)?” carries the implication “… and what you’re doing isn’t worth much.” Sure, self improvement should be its own reward, but if it incurs contemptuous dismissal it often will be abandoned. If we want to reach out to people who are not at the cutting edge we shouldn’t be cutting them down.

        • Oh, bless. This is the funniest thing I’ve seen all day!

          Basically, I appreciate that you’d like people to be nice to each other, but I have no interest in you, Dave, coming onto my blog and bothering me with three pages from Derailing for Dummies. (If You Won’t Educate Me How Can I Learn! If You Cared About These Matters You’d Be Willing To Educate Me! You’re Being Hostile!) You don’t get to lecture me about being nice, Dave. Like, at Captain Awkward you probably could, but this is my personal goddamn blog. I hope you realize this. I am trying to be really really nice about it.

          I’m sorry. You’re new here, Dave B-Z. You’re new and I like that about you. But no. No, I really do not care; I am 100% sure that if I do not give JK Rowling my cookies, SHE WILL NOT FUCKING STARVE. SHE IS JK ROWLING. THE LACK OF ONE COOKIE WILL NOT BREAK HER LITTLE HEART. SHE IS AN ENTIRE MEDIA EMPIRE. So in this case, I am not exactly marginalizing her by denying her credit for acknowledging minorities? (Because she’s a media empire.) Sometimes, phrases can be used to exclude or be unkind (I engage with “mansplain” here) but… well, Dave my dear, “we” are not reaching out to any “people on the edge.” I’m on my blog talking to my friends. When I say that it would be nice if good old JK had given Cho an actual meaningful Asian name , rather than nonsense syllables? I’m saying that it isn’t that much labor for a multimillionaire author of one of the most widely-read series of all time to do a little more work than naming a character the equivalent of “Lalala Sally” or “Featherington-Smythe Gaga.”

          CAPTCHA does better character-naming than that! I could Google that, or crack open a baby name book or a phone directory; I could name a character after a Chinese female friend; I could stand up in my workplace and shout “WHAT ARE SOME NICE NAMES FOR A BRITISH FEMALE CHARACTER OF CHINESE (?) DESCENT” and have several British female people of Chinese descent give me a list of answers. JK made up syllables. Even her most devoted fans realize this. When I say that she doesn’t get cookies, I’m coming from a place where “that shit doesn’t get you cookies because with fifteen seconds of labor I could give an Asian character an actual Asian name, and also, JK has £560 million with which to buy her very own cookies, she doesn’t need my approval.” DAVID TENNANT, MAKE THIS POINT FOR ME. WELL DONE TENNANT. Sadly, I’m not yet at the stage of life where I can pet and coddle billionaires into recognizing their privileges and doing my bidding by making books better for everybody! If so, you would know, because I would be reclining on a throne made out of ponies and cake, stroking my miniature leopard as I reshape the coastline of Norway into a lovely evocation of my silhouette.

          Sure, self improvement should be its own reward, but if it incurs contemptuous dismissal it often will be abandoned.

          LOOK GUYS, I AM CAPABLE OF STEERING THE LIVES OF ALL. INSTEAD OF A DARK LORD YOU SHALL HAVE A QUEEN, GLORIOUS AND TERRIBLE, BEAUTIFUL AS THE MOTHERFUCKING DAWN. ALL SHALL ASK ME FOR SELF-IMPROVEMENT TIPS AND DESPAIR.

          What you’re saying is that you don’t like my comment on my blog because it wasn’t nice enough. Nice is not currency here. Compassion, generosity, humility, humor, criticism and analysis are currency at elodieunderglass-dot-wordpress-com, but your hand-wringing is not. Neither are White Male Tears, although I do not deliberately cultivate them, I am told they make a delicious drink with a flavorful bouquet.

          In the interest of clarifying, I am not particularly impressed by JK Rowling (though I do like Harry Potter, as evidenced by an entire comment DEALING WITH THAT) and the use of “cookies” does not undermine the points I made in my post. Perhaps you’d like the new Testostify! post?

          This, however, was a hilarious teaching moment. Thank you for this. NOW WHO THE FUCK LINKED TO MY BLOG? DON’T YOU KNOW I HATE THAT? DON’T DO THAT. GO AWAY. ” alt=”wait what no” />

          • Oh man. =/
            I’m not entirely sure if I want to tip my toe in this debate but if I may…
            Being black british and not having come across children’s fantasy books with a black protagonist as a kid, or with black characters full stop, I can’t help but listen curiously when this topic comes up.

            It seems to me that many people insist JKR is being diverse (then they will mention the characters misspiggy did above) while ignoring the fact that many fit racial stereotypes. On the other hand, many people will discard the few characters of colour in the story as non-important to the story (in other words, the same technique film directors use to make sure a cast isn’t “too white” – just there for show) while ignoring that maybe, in this world, it was a closer-to-accurate representation. It is weird that there are a few ethnic minority kids at the school and pretty much nowhere else in the magical world. Iono, maybe JKR could explain that.

            It’s a complex issue. Say you met an eastern-asian british man – he might be called Akito or he might be called James, it’s also not a given that in real life he would have a name from either culture or behave in a way expected of a member of that ethnic group. But maybe literature kind of expects these things. But then in the case of HP, it’s hard to tell if they tried to go for a natural, ethnic-diversity-is-normal approach, or if the characters were just poorly described and portrayed. It’s interesting to hear varying opinions on this though it makes me head spin.

            Well, I think both sides have valid arguments. Maybe it just comes down to character development. Anyway, I’m going away now. I spoke too much.

            That Tennant gif had me rolling. ROLLING!
            Oh and back to the main point… great post. I love reading about the knights of the round table.

    • Also, please, Tolkien’s not Racist. Firstly, the location of the story in Middle-Earth would cause ratification (though as you indicate, by no means necessarily a total absence) of non-whites (yeah, and because all white people are the same race haha No). Secondly, the basis of Middle-Earth is linguistic, and Tolkien based the majority of his story off of European language. Thirdly, of course, there is the good ol’ “shame on you Nazis” letter. Fourthly, he does have many (non-white) peoples in his stories, and I doubt Ghan-Buri-Ghan was presented in a condescending way (the opposite, actually); also, in the Silmarillion there are “Swarthy Men” (Bor and his Sons) whose people are wiped out cause in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (they were betrayed like everyone else). And if you consider the general history of Europe and the Islamic invasion(s) it’s rather …historical, to cast them as the enemies of more Western people. And anyway there’s too much of a Song of Roland element to some of the description in the battle for Minas Tirith to say he degrades in a racist way the martial virtue of Eastern peoples.

      Okay please pardon the Tolkien Nerdfest going on here. But as a half-Japanese person I’m saying that I found nothing racist in Tolkien, or at least anything offensive to me (although this may be due to purely geographical reasons).

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  5. Well, it’s true that the Green Knight is green but only because of an enchantment of disguise. Still, I love this article. I will forever link it for the next “omg but Lancelot/Guinevere/insertnamehere can’t be of colour!”
    And I’ve completely forgot about Feirefîz!
    Just here to say I loved your article and thank you for writing it :DD
    (fangirlish extra: Palamedes! <3)

    • Ah, what a lovely name you have!

      The Green Knight is really only brought in for the humor; I think it’s amusing that folks who get all het up about POC playing Arthurian characters haven’t even read the works that they’re a fan of. Thus,

      Future adaptations decided to describe the Green Knight as a non-green person who was simply wearing all green, possibly because green-skinned regenerating knights who grow new heads were a little bit too weird. Presumably in a way that noble African knights who totally beat Sir Lancelot in combat were not.

      Since I’m not a humanities scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I didn’t even know about Feirefiz myself until Commenter Myrin wrote in! So I learned a lot from this article as well.

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  8. A late reply: I well remember how pleasantly surprised I was on encountering Feirefiz when I read Wolfram von Eschenbach a few years back. Definitely my favourite character in that story.

    I suspect, however, that his “piebald” skin was neither meant to be metaphorical nor to evoke any particular skin condition, but that it was just a consequence of Wolfram von Eschenbach not having a clue what a bi-racial person would look like.

    His intentions were good in creating the character, but take the way Feirefiz’s religion is depicted: The guy is stated to be a Muslim, but in the actual text he’s described as a polytheistic heathen who repeatedly invoked deities like Jupiter and Hera. Again, his religion is depicted sympathetically and very non-judgementally. But it’s a strong indication that the author didn’t do (or have the opportunity to do) much research into foreign cultures or peoples.

    • I suspect, however, that his “piebald” skin was neither meant to be metaphorical nor to evoke any particular skin condition, but that it was just a consequence of Wolfram von Eschenbach not having a clue what a bi-racial person would look like.

      I have to admit I half suspect that, too. However, I remember reading an essay that talked about how Feirefîz was supposed to mirror Parzival (who is explicitly described as especially fair numerous times), but then again, that would probably have been portrayed even better had he been completely black. Hm.

      Having said this, the fact that Wolfram knew that a bi-racial person would be neither dark black nor light white but a mixture of both makes me think that he had some idea about what mixed-race people look like. This is totally me just thinking out loud, I have no idea if there are any studies about that.

      About the religion thing: I’m pretty sure I read another essay that says that 1. it becomes pretty clear when delving really deeply into it that Wolfram was widely read/very educated/knew a lot so it can be assumed that he had knowledge of actual Islam and 2. the mix between Muslim and polytheism was supposed to be a joke (there are quite a few jokes in Parzival if you look for them). I COULD BE MAKING THIS UP but when I read your comment it immediately rang a bell and I can’t imagine I’m capable of fabricating such a theory from scratch in five seconds without actually ever having read something along the lines. Also Muslims = always described as “heathens”. Everyone who isn’t Christian is a heathen. But that’s just terminology.

      I don’t have access to the essays I mention right at the moment but I can look deeper into the subjects again.

      • If you can find more info on Wolfram’s knowledge of Islam, I’d be very interested to hear it. It always struck me as very odd that someone that learned could be -that- ignorant of how people thought and worshipped a few hundred miles south of where he lived, but I chalked my surprise up to underestimating the scarcity of information back in the 1100s. I’m not sure of the joke interpretation though… admittedly I read the book a while ago and in a modern translation, but I don’t recall Feirefiz’ religion being played for laughs.

        On a somewhat related note, something I read a while ago is that a bit after Wolfram’s time people in Germany started to depict saint Maurice (an Egyptian) as a black man, where previously he had been depicted as white. Presumably this happened because German crusaders came into contact with and were supported by Christian Africans from the kingdom of Makuria. This started in the 1240s, though, after Wolfram’s death. Perhaps he just missed the period of increased contact with Africans in Germany.

        • Oh, I didn’t mean that his religion was played for laughs, exactly. At least not in a way a modern reader would interpret it.
          The more I thought about it after reading your comment the more I remembered how the essay (which I still can’t find; it isn’t on my computer as I thought it would be) argued that the whole religion thing lead up to that rather weird scene towards the ending where Feirefîz falls in love with Repanse de Schoye on the spot and they all like him and then they eat together and everyone but him can see the Grail. And then he’s like “Hey, what can I do to marry that beautiful maiden and also see that Grail thing you guys are talking about?” and they tell him he has to be baptised. And then he gets baptised which immediately makes him a Christian (and lets him see the Grail and marry Repanse) and it really is a quite comical situation that in general leads you to believe that for all his “Hera” exclamations before he’s somewhat indifferent towards religion.
          Again, I’m re-constructing this in my head without any sources at the moment so I really can’t say if that even makes sense.

          I hadn’t known the St. Maurice thing, how very interesting! I’m not sure at the moment in which Arthurian story he’s even featured (I haven’t come across him yet) but I know of him in general. Do you happen to still know where you read that, I’d love to read up on it!

          • I didn’t mean to say saint Maurice is in the Arthurian legend, sorry. He’s not, as far as I know. I just found it very interesting to realise they started to depict him as Nubian/Black around/just after von Eschenbach’s time. It says something about the world he was writing in, I think, and suggests his positive depiction of Feirefiz wasn’t unique. (In fact, I suspect that to contemporaries his positive depiction of an “infidel” would have been more surprising than the fact that he was writing about a black man.)

            The book which made the crusading connection was Basil Davidson’s “The story of Africa,” which I’m afraid is a somewhat dated source, but I think it still holds up.

            One more point of relevance to the author of this article: while looking this stuff up, I just found that the statue she describes as “usually being attributed to sir Morien” is actually the oldest statue of Saint Maurice as a black man, from the Magdenburg Cathedral in 1240. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Magdeburg

            Anyway, back to the story. I recall the scene with Feirefiz’ conversion. At the time I interpreted it as being perfectly earnest and not funny as such. It recalls the tales of missionaries in earlier times impressing pagans with miracles, causing the pagans to convert to Christianity on the spot. Sure, it strikes us as weird to abandon a long-held belief system as quickly as that, but to a medieval person it might be the logical response to being confronted with a “higher” truth like Christianity. Plus, historically polytheists usually didn’t think it strange to start worshipping a foreign god alongside their own if that god seemed like a good one.

            Still, on the whole Feirefiz indeed didn’t strike me as a very religious or spiritual person, no. In fact, part of why I liked him was that he didn’t have any of Perzival’s angst or moral struggles but simply got on with what he reckoned he should do in his own optimistic and efficient way. He handled his conversion to Christianity in just the same way as he did everything else. So I think you’re right he didn’t give that much weight to his “Jupiter and Hera” religion.

          • MedievalPOC did a lovely piece on that statue. It’s back-attributed to Saint Maurice because there was a large roundup of black iconography that was collected and collectively called “depictions of Saint Maurice.” Maurice, of course, comes from the word “Moor.”

            So lots of depictions of dark-skinned characters – black Josephs, Othellos, black saints, King Balthazars, portraits – could now be explained away with the convenient label of That One Moorish Guy Who Was Named “That Moorish Guy.” A lot of important pieces have lost their history this way. Unfortunately it’s slightly problematic to call any and all depictions of black men as “saint Maurice” even if that’s how they’re labeled in museums. If you stick this statue of a black guy in the Magdeburg church and say you’re collecting Maurice memorabilia, then everyone assumes that it’s meant to be Saint Maurice. It’s like if I claimed I had a historically significant My Little Pony collection, but when you come to examine it, you find that among the genuine Hasbro toy ponies, there are some Breyer horses and china horses and stuffed slippers shape like donkeys and a music box with a pony on it and a baby horse skeleton and this really random mix of vaguely equine things. And you’re like “but some of these are not historically significant OR My Little Ponies” and then I reply, “yes they are – they’re mine, and they’re little, and they’re ponies. QED.”

            And then art historians promote my collection as the best example of a Small Horse Hoard, and when they find other people’s horse-shaped objects they say “oh, clearly that’s an Elodie’s Little Pony, bring it here and put it with the others.”

            Actually there’s nothing wrong with that….

            The only things we know about that statue is that his origin, creator and meaning are unknown and that he lacks some iconography that would identify him as the saint- no halo, no banner(although the weapon he was meant to hold might have had a banner) no cross or Christian memorabilia (although his paint might have come off) and no gesture. The man looks like a plain military knight.

            So it’s what a biologist would call a “nomen dubien” – name unknown – which would be filed into a “dustbin” phylogeny; unknown until proven guilty.

            And finally it’s a vaguely correct timing to illustrate Morien so I feel no problem in saying it’s what he might have looked like!

            Great conversation

        • My pet theory is that Black!st.Maurice and Morien were based on the same historical person. Both of their names just mean “the black guy,” they originated in Germany, Maurice has famously shadowy origins, they’re from about the same time, they share one piece of iconography (armor) and depictions of black men in art are always assumed to be of the same guy anyway. I picture a gigantic knight just wandering around taverns in Germany, inspiring songs, stories and saints around him as everyone scrambles to retroactively moralize what’s happening here.

          “A huge black knight just came into church, bit the pulpit in half, drank the font, prayed for a bit and then went outside and started punching a bear. What should we do?”

          “Oh that’s just Sir Black Guy.”

          “He’s punched the bear to death.”

          “SAINT Black Guy. My favorite saint.”

          “Why is this happening? Who is he? What’s going on?”

          “It’s a message from God.”

          “What does it mean?”

          “It means: make and then abandon The Cult of Saint Black Guy. Let’s make and find decorations for the cult.”

          “Who will we use for models for the art?”

          “Ehhh… Sir Black Guy! Come over here and pose for a sculpture, will you?”

  9. Huh. I did not know that.

    If I gave it any critical thought at all it would be “Statue of knight in church = probably military saint.” And “Church dedicated to saint Maurice = probably saint Maurice.” But there not being any saintly attributes rather puts the kibosh on that…

    Though uh, to pick a nit, you said the statue is “usually attributed to sir Morien,” not “What he might have looked like.” Google + my books really seem to suggest it’s usually attributed to Maurice, wrong though that may be. I mean, this is the picture they use on Maurice’s wikipedia page. Hence my confusion.

    Anyway, unfortunately this also rather puts paid to the Davidson’s story I referred to about the changing depiction of saint Maurice around 1240, since he was rather using this statue as one of his main points of proof. Though it’d still apply as a more general appearance of more black figures in European art around that time.

    Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a link to that article, would you? I tried googling it but all I found was a link to that blog saying they intended to write the article, not the article itself.

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  17. I didn’t expect to be anywhere near as enthralls by this topic as I was!!! This is great! You mentioned a couple of points that made me reflect on the many different ways social tension can be created, which had made me consider new things for the fantasy book I’m writing:

    “In Arthur’s time, skin color was not used to separate people – they preferred to war for religion, land ownership and random squabbles – and so characters in his legends may well have been dark or non-white, and it was never considered necessary to describe them.”

    Interesting point. This was such an insight and I’m so eager to find out more about this. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Wow. I ended up here just researching what colors the various knights WORE – like the colors of their armor and shields and crests and so forth, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a cool post by random wiki-walking before. Very nicely done.

    • Wow, thank you very much! You’re very kind.

      The only canonical colors I know of are what I’ve put in this post (Palamedes = checkered shield, Morien = black armor, and later research into Feirefiz suggested that his heraldic animal was an ichneumon or mongoose) so I wish you the best of luck in your quest!

  19. That pic is of my fb friend Sembene McFarland. She is very cool. Sharing your post on fb because historical interpretations of race are as much a preoccupation of mine as the Middle Ages. Thanks.

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