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?
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 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 or saracen, 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.
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.
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.
- 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:
Seriously, everyone: canonical knights of color in Arthur’s England! This has been a Missing Piece of Your Classical Education.
 currach: an ancient kind of Irish kayak made with animal skins.
 payim: a pagan, or a non-Christian, especially a Muslim.
 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.)