Lancelot, the Wondrous Damsel

The Knights of the Round Table aren’t all serious chivalry—there are a few pranksters in the lot. Sir Dinadan is noted by the other characters to be a joker. In “The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones,” Sir Dinadan fights disguised in a tournament. He faces the High Prince Galehault, but when he sees that he cannot beat him, he begs Galehault to leave him and fight someone else. When another knight tells Galehault that he just let Dinadan go, Galehault exclaims “I am hevy that he is so ascaped fro me, for with his mokkis and his japys (mockery and jesting) now shall I never have done with hym.” [1] Galehault doesn’t catch up with Dinadan that day, but Dinadan’s past taunts make him want to get even.

Later on, Galehault asks Lancelot to please kick Dinadan’s ass for him, the text describing Dinadan as a “scoffer and a japer.” [2] Lancelot lays the smackdown on him, so everyone makes fun of Dinadan that night at dinner. Dinadan finds an opportunity for revenge. He notices at a later meal that Galehault is unhappy because he’s been served fish (Galehault hates fish). Dinadan finds a fish with an enormous head, serves it to him, then tells Galehault that he must be a wolf because wolves also hate fish. Galehault thinks this is pretty funny. [3] Lancelot must be enjoying the pranks—Galehault doesn’t request an additional shaming, but Lancelot decides one is in order.

I’ve been building up to this part. This is the funny part.

Galehault doesn’t want to fight Lancelot since he’s already had his ass handed to him once, so he begs Lancelot to judge the tournament so that they won’t have to face each other.

So Sir Dynadan departed and toke his horse, and mette with many knyghtes and ded passingly well; and as he was departed, Sir Launcelot disgysed hymselff and put uppon his armour a maydyns garmente fresshely attyred.

Than Sir Launcelot made Sir Galyhodyn to lede hym thorow the raunge—and all men had wondir what damesell was that. And so as Sir Dynadan cam into the raunge, Sir Launcelot, that was in the damsels aray, gate Sir Galyhodyns spere and ran unto Sir Dynadan. And allwayes he loked up there as Sir Launcelot was—and than he sawe one sytte in the stede of Sir Launcelot armed—but whan Sir Dynadan saw a maner of a damesell, he dradde perellys lest hit sholde be Sir Launcelot disgysed. But Sir Launcelot cam on hym so faste that he smote Sir Dynadan over his horse croupe—and anone grete coystrons gate Sir Dynadan, and into the foreyste there besyde; and there they dispoyled hym unto his sherte and put uppon hym a womans garmente, and so brought hym into fylde. And so they blew unto lodgyng, and every knyght wente and unarmed them.

And than was Sir Dynadan brought in amonge them all; and whan Quene Gwenyver sawe Sir Dynadan i-brought in so amonge them all, than she lowghe, that she fell downe—and so dede all that there was. [4]

So Sir Dinadan departed and took his horse, and met with many knights and did very well; and when he departed, Sir Lancelot disguised himself and put over his armor a maiden’s garment freshly attired.

Then Sir Lancelot made Sir Galyhodyn lead him through the range—and all men wondered what damsel that was. And so as Sir Dinadan came into the range, Sir Lancelot, who was in damsel’s clothes, took Sir Galyhodyn’s spear and ran to Sir Dinadan. And always Sir Dinadan looked up to where Sir Lancelot was supposed to be—and then he saw someone sitting there armed like Sir Lancelot—but when Sir Dinadan saw some kind of damsel, he dreaded peril lest it should be Sir Lancelot disguised. But Sir Lancelot came to him so fast that he smote Sir Dinadan over his horse’s rear—and at once a great rabble [5] took Sir Dinadan, and into the forest nearby they undressed him to his shirt and put upon him a woman’s garment, and so brought him into the field. And so they blew the signal to return to lodgings, and every knight went and unarmed himself.

And then Sir Dinadan was brought in among them all; and when Queen Guinevere saw Sir Dinadan brought among them in such a manner, she laughed so hard that she fell down—and so did all who were there.

Some scholarship has been written on the humor of emasculation in this passage. I think much of it is trying too hard because it overlooks the primary factor: most men look really funny in women’s clothing. This isn’t an experiment in gender roles. It’s low comedy.

sherlockWe can tell that this probably wasn’t intended to be an experiment in gender roles because Lancelot isn’t trying to look like a woman. These are manly men with muscles and testosterone and probably permastubble. He probably looks as feminine as Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes in A Game of Shadows. Lancelot also puts the dress on over his armor, and this is post-voluminous-robe period—young women’s dresses were form-fitting. He must have made a really ugly woman because Dinadan isn’t fooled for a moment.

I do wonder how he found a dress big enough to fit over the armor at such short notice.

  1. Malory, Thomas, “The Fyrste and the Seconde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones,” Le Morte Darthur, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) 39.
  2. Ibid., 396.
  3. Ibid., 398.
  4. Ibid., 399.
  5. I had a hard time translating “coystron.” The only reference I could find guessed that it might mean “a drunken fellow,” so I’ve extrapolated “rabble” from context. Curiously, this word is not glossed in the text.


Lancelot, the Wondrous Damsel — 2 Comments

  1. >I do wonder how he found a dress big enough to fit over the armor at such short notice.

    Robbed the closet of an overweight woman? Or whatever they used to store clothes in, given that I don’t think they had invented closets yet.

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