I ended up reading Gerald of Wales’s The Journey Through Wales, from the year 1191 while I was in the middle of writing The Flower of Chivalry. I expected the book to be a description of the Wales of the Middle Ages, which it was, but what surprised me was that it is also a collection of wonderful folklore of the time and place. As Geoffery travels from town to town, he also collects the interesting strange stories of each town. And although I didn’t plan it at the beginning, by the end, four stories from the book ended up in The Flower of Chivalry in one way or another.
The novel offers a vision of King Arthur’s childhood, and one of the threads of it is his friendship with Frog, an amphibious creature of the forest that everyone else finds disgusting. In this scene, his father, Sir Ector tells Arthur and his brother Kay the Welsh folklore story that I lifted from The Journey Through Wales as a way of encouraging Arthur to have human friends. His father is, of course, undermined by Arthur’s mother, Nerida.
From then on Arthur was not very shy about going to visit Frog, and would just outright tell his parents, and Kay, that he was headed there when they asked. Sometimes he could see his parents, especially his father, look at him a bit sideways when he said that’s where he was off to, but he decided that he wasn’t going to ask. He could hear it without asking—why didn’t he have human friends? Why didn’t he hang around with his brother and Bedivere?—and he consciously decided that it was something he wouldn’t pursue. Besides, he did hang out with his brother and Bedivere a bit more now. Something about going on his trip and seeing the giant had loosened some interest in his brother to be in his company, but honestly he found the kinds of things he did and explored with Frog far more interesting than the kinds of things Kay and Bedivere wanted to do, like egging bulls into anger and running, or throwing rocks at hornet’s nests.
One night at the dinner table, not too long after, his father had gotten talking about how he had become a knight and had been in battles, and how those other knights, including Pedrawd, had become some of his best, most lasting friends. Then he started telling a story.
“There was once a boy I knew,” he said, examining a bone to find an extra scrap of meat on it, “who was the cousin of a friend of mine, and this was a dreamy lad,” his eyes settled on Arthur for just a moment before he continued, “who was always laying about and wishing he were somewhere else. And one day he was fed up with his family and ran away.” His father nodded slowly.
“He didn’t get much further than the riverbank, and as he lay there crying, these strange little men came to him. And these people were just like humans in every way, only about half our size, and they all wore their hair long, like down to their shoulders,” he gestured with his hand. “And they loved nothing but having fun and suiting their own pleasure, which is what they did all day.”
“What did they eat?” Kay asked.
His father turned to him. “I don’t know. It’s not important to the story.”
Kay shrugged and turned away.
“They invited this boy to come down into their underground lair with them, and he went, and there they had all the gold and jewels you could ever think of, and this whole wonderful secret world that people had never seen or heard of, and all they did was whatever suited them.” His father nodded and sat back. “But they never gave their word because the one thing they hated above all else was lies.” Sir Ector looked at Arthur significantly.
Kay leaned forward on his elbows, staring upward at his father. “Where did they get the jewels?”
His father’s head started over to him, as though surprised. “Um, they took them from people.”
“So they’re thieves,” Kay said.
“No, they,” his father shook his head. “That’s not the point.”
Kay sat back and sighed loudly, eyes rolling under his lids. “What is the point?”
“The point is,” his father continued, glaring slightly, “that the boy loved it down there, loved hanging out with his new friends,” once more his eyes settled for a moment on Arthur, then looked nervously away, “and they told him that he was welcome to stay, but he could never see his family or friends again, and at first that was fine, but after a while he started to miss his mother and wonder why his friends, or these people he thought were his friends, wouldn’t let him go see his family.”
Once more his eyes darted over to Arthur and held for a moment. That’s when the boy started to get the hint that this story was being told for some reason related to him. He folded his hands and started to listen attentively. His mother sat at the other end, obviously familiar with the tale.
“So it went on,” his father continued, “and he lived with them for almost a year, but he missed his mother so badly—”
“Aww,” Nerida uttered.
“—that he started seeing her in secret. And he told her all about the gold and riches and everything that surrounded him, but he felt bad that he couldn’t share it with her. And she was so excited by all of his stories that she wanted to see some of it herself. So one day he took a golden globe and snuck it out and brought it to her. But on the way there he could see the little men following him. Only now,” his father leaned in, and turned to Arthur, then to Kay, then back, “they were these horrible brown hairy scaly nasty little devils. And they overpowered him just as he came to his mother’s house, and they beat him right in front of her.”
“I don’t remember that part,” said Nerida, sitting up.
Ector raised his eyes, held still, then straightened up in his chair. “Which part, dear?”
“Where he gets beaten up in front of his mother.”
Their father cleared his throat quickly. “Perhaps I didn’t tell you that before,” he said.
“Sounds like it was her fault for being so greedy with the gold,” offered Kay.
Nerida nodded and raised her eyebrows.
“So the boy was beaten up,” their father continued, letting his eyes dart to each of them, “badly,” he added, “and he could never find the little people again or the entrance to their kingdom or any of the nice things he had enjoyed for so long.” He then let his gaze rest significantly on Arthur.
The boy sat quietly and returned his father’s gaze. Kay also sat, gaze darting amongst them, and his mother used a spoon to try to pick up a last morsel of meat.
“Well, what about the rest of the story?” she asked.
Carlyle lifted his eyes and sat back in his chair. “That’s it.”
“I thought there was more,” she said. She put the end of the spoon in her mouth and sucked it.
“I think that’s the important part,” Carlyle said.
“Oh, but I thought there’s that last little bit at the end that kind of twists the whole thing a different way.”
Her husband looked at her blankly. He did not move. Then he said, “I can’t say I know which part you’re talking about.”
“Well, how he felt after,” their mother said. She had tilted her dish and was scooping up a last bit of broth.
“I think that’s all,” her husband said. “And it just means,” he nodded significantly, “that you should be careful who you’re friends with, and your friends,” he made a quick dart of his eyes in Arthur’s direction, which both boys clearly saw, “should be, you know,” his open hand dropped on the table, “normal, human people.”
Nerida wasn’t looking. She was fascinated with her bowl. “The version I heard,” she said, and raised her head to look squarely at Arthur, “is that after that boy grew up, he was a fine and successful baron, but whenever anyone would ask him about that time, and his friends the little people, he would start crying uncontrollably because,” she nodded slowly and pressed her lips together, “he was so happy back then, and missed those people so badly.”