Lately I’ve been intrigued as I’ve seen a different outlook of the well known Sir Kay. As most people know in most of the most of Arthurian literature Kay is nothing by a boor.
Recently I’ve heard of a poem by Girard of Amiens titled Le Roman d’Escanor. The poem involves two stories one basically of Gawain being accused by Escanor le Beau unjustly and those adventures involved thereafter and the other is with Sir Kay who quite surprisingly is the “romantic lead for once,” with the Lady Andrivete. While the bit with Gawain I’m sure is fun, the fact that for once Kay turns more back to his roots (in a sense) is all the more fascinating.
The basic side to Sir Kay’s story starts out as any story ought to start, that is knights jousting one another in a tournament and one in which Kay is participating. Upon seeing the fair Andrivete Kay decides that he must win, he has after all fallen in love at first sight. This love evidently gets Kay to do so well that he evidently even get’s Andrivete (future Queen of Northumberland) to look at him in a different light. Kay who has remained somewhat mysterious (due in part to changing his weapons and their color), even gets everyone else intrigued in who he is. Well… Kay luck soon runs out and he’s thrown from his horse and badly wounded. Interesting enough Kay ponders if he’s to die for his new love, something his friend Brian tells him he’s doesn’t have to worry about.
At Andrivete’s first face to face meeting with Kay, the knight known for his ill use of his tongue suddenly finds himself too shy to say anything. As Kay seems too timid to say anything Andrivete doesn’t want to risk to declare her love either… (Fun drama stuff). Well Kay get’s called back to Arthur’s side before anything could be done, and much to Kay’s, Andrivete’s, and her father’s (Canor) disappointment. Time passes by and suddenly Andrivete finds herself in trouble because of her uncle. Riding away from her home she eventually comes to Gawain (who as always is courteous). In time this leads to Kay and her meeting up once more and in short order it also brings about their marriage.
Girard’s Kay becomes one who is human and while one can certainly see the other “traditions” of Kay’s personality in this tale it all helps to shape him as something more.
Moving back a little though one can find while Kay has little treatment of the sort that Girard gave him, in the older welsh tales Sir Kay or rather Cai was presented much more preferably. For example in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen Cai is a hero who some extraordinary powers and who has rather remarkable battle skills, again Cai isn’t perfect and has features which would link to later tradition such as “being inhospitable to strangers and stubborn and quick to take offence.”
Sir Cai begins as one of the most important of Arthur’s knights, being able to do feats no normal knight could, but time Sir Cai fades away with most of his good traits and Sir Kay comes onto the scene. Yes, Kay who for the most part is never portrayed in the best of lights. (Although one can argue that he is still one the most loyal knights of Arthur’s). Moreover while Kay almost always is not a knight to be respected in most of the later Arthurian literature, one must still remember his earlier role in the court. Malory does write that in the early wars Kay fought valiantly in the various early wars of his king and proves himself well in combat. A distant echo of Kay used to be.
Even still while Kay may not be the most pleasant of characters, I still ponder if he is still one of the most enjoyable in the latter stories. After all with Kay there isn’t a lack of poetic justice with him, like when Gareth who he mocks since his coming to the court, ends up unhorsing him and taking his gear. Or when Percival breaks his arms for Kay’s ill treatment of the prophesying maiden. While the Kay most of us know might not have the powers of his welsh self, and may not be redeemable as the version (who for once gets the girl), there is just something attractive to Kay. Someone whom we love to hate and root against.
Or a character that we could easily wonder how much we have in ourselves.
– Updated, 12/12/14 to have fuller Bibliographical data.
 If anyone knows of a full English translation of this text please pass on the info. (Or if one is in the works) Linda Gowans translated a few paragraphs in her work Cei and the Arthurian Legend.
 Linda M. Gowans, Cei and the Arthurian legend (Arthurian Studies, 18). Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1988, 119
 Ibid., 119-120.
 Ibid., 120-21.
 Ibid., 121.
 Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford Paperback Reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 453.
 Ibid., 454.