The Fair Unknown
A common Celtic theme that was popular with the medieval Romance writers, particularly those writing Arthurian romances.
The protagonist is often a boy raised away from civilization, sometimes by his mother or sometimes by a foster family, who has little or no knowledge of his father and no social graces. The boy goes off to court, is quickly knighted, but then must prove his worth in a series of adventures before being fully accepted. Among those adventures is the "Daring Kiss", wherein he transforms a maiden under enchantment from a serpent to her true form.
The figure often specifically called the "Fair Unknown" is usually the son or close relative (in the case of Sir Gareth) of Sir Gawain.
The Core "Fair Unknown" Texts
- Le Bel Inconnu: (ca. 1185-1190) Guinglain--who it is learned is Gawain's son--liberates the princess Esmeree, daughter of the king of Wales, from an enchantment wherein she's been turned into a serpent. To do this, he defeats a bridge keeper and his avenging family, two giants, a hunter, a sorceress, and two enchanters (Haught). He then marries Esmeree.
- Lybeaus Desconus: (late 14th C.) Essentially an abridged, English version of Le Bel Inconnu; however, unlike that text, the narrator tells us Gyngalyn is Gawain's son--he never learns this himself.
- Wigalois: (ca. 1200-1210) a German version of Le Bel Inconnu, but which puts more emphasis on the relationship between Wigalois and his father Gawain.
- Carduino: (ca. 1370) an Italian romance, the openning holds similarities to Le Conte du Graal--like Perceval, Carduino's father is killed, and his mother elects to raise him in the wilderness, away from the influence of knighthood. Like Perceval, he sees knights, and not knowing what they are, he follows them and finds his way to Arthur's court. Though his uncouthness initially makes him an outcast, he is redeemed by his adventure freeing Beatrice, who like Esmeree is enchanted in the form of a serpent.
- Le Conte du Graal: (ca. 1180-1191) Chretien's romance and its continuations exhibits several traits in common with the main Fair Unknown texts: Perceval's parentage is unknown to the outside world, he is raised away from society, portrayed as brash and lacking in social graces, and demands knighthood upon entering Arthur's court. Perceval doesn't even know his own name until told it by a woman who identifies herself as his sister.
In the First Continuation (ca. 1200), we are given an account of the Fair Unknown's conception by Gawain upon a maiden; later, the boy is sent by his mother to stop a fight between his father and his uncle Bran. In a later episode, he meets his father again when they fight at a ford; however, unlike the tragic Irish story Aided Óenfir Aífe, Gawain learns that this is his son, and takes him to Arthur's court to have him knighted. It's interesting that his uncle is named Bran, as Brân the Blessed is the uncle of Pryderi, who is also a version of the Fair Unknown.
In the Second Continuation (ca. 1200), Perceval jousts with the Fair Unknown who, upon learning Perceval's identity, identifies himself as Gawain's son and surrendurs.
- Peredur: Welsh version of Le Conte du Graal and the First Continuation, which also contains many native elements.
- Sir Perceval of Galles: a Middle-English version of Chretien's Graal.
- Prose non-cyclical Lancelot: like the Fair Unknown, the titular hero is stolen from his mother while an infant, and amongst horses. He is raised by the Lady of the Lake, and is unaware of his name or parentage. He grows at four times the normal rate (like Pryderi).
- Lanzelet: while taking its inspiration from the above text, Lanzelet also incorporates the loathly lady and daring kiss motif, and puts a good deal of emphasis on the secrecy surrounding Lancelot's origins while raised by the Lady of the Lake.
- La Cotte Mal Taillee: an episode from the Prose Tristan; here, the boy is named Brunor, and he hides his parentage, is abused by Kay, and goes on to marry a woman who originally thought him beneath her station. It likely formed the inspiration for Malory's Tale of Sir Gareth.
- Laoidh an Amadain Mhoir: known in both Ireland and Scotland, its hero is a fool wearing a goatskin who was raised in seclusion away from civilization.
- Aided Óenfir Aífe: Connlae is Cuchulain's son, but Cuchulain is not aware of this; they meet and do battle, with Cuchulain slaying the stranger. However, once he sees his own ring, given to Connlae by his mother, Cuchulain recognizes his son. That Connlae is the name of Cuchulain's son draws the story further into the confused tangles of the Fair Unknown myth, as Connlae was also the name of the son of Conn, who disappears into the Otherworld. John Carey connects Connlae to Pryderi and his disapperance into the Otherworld in the Mabinogi. Pryderi, as seen above, is likely closely related to both Mabon and Perceval, and thus the Fair Unknown.
- Le Morte d'Arthur: The Tale of Sir Gareth: though Malory incoporates the Brunor (Brewnor) story in his book on Tristan, he also devotes a separate book to Sir Gareth, who comes to Arthur's court in disguise so that his brothers--Gawain and the rest--do not recognize him. He runs off into an adventure
Pryderi, Mabon, and Y Mabinogi
Pryderi may have been the original focal point of Y Mabinogi, and there are several connections between Mabon and Pryderi. The most obvious is that both were stolen from their mothers as infants. Unlike Mabon, Pryderi is later found and returned to Rhiannon after four years. However, there is a second imprisonment of Pryderi in the Mabinogi, when he touches an enchanted bowl. Here he has to be rescued from the enemies of his mother Rhiannon by his step-father Manawyddan. It could be that the second episode is a double for the first.
Connections between the Fair Unknown and Pryderi/Mabon include the raising away from family, the ambiguity of the father's identity, the ambiguity of his own identity, and an uncle named Bran. Other elements, like the loathly lady and daring kiss are not readily evident, though the former appears in the Perceval stories, and John Carey has demonstrated in Ireland and the Grail the close relationship between Pryderi and Perceval.
One interesting element is Mabon's name--derriving from the god Maponos, it literally means "Divine Son". He has no real "name", only a title--much like the Fair Unknown and his various reflexes, who begin life with no name or a hidden name. This odd element, while creating an example of rare meritocracy in knighthood, may ultimately come from the circumstances surrounding the name of Mabon.
Mabon appears in La Bel Inconnu and its English counterpart Libeaus Disconu, as one of the pair of prisoner-magicians, Maboun and Eurayn. Helaine Newstead connected Eurayn (as well as other figures) to Bran, though Eurayn may also be Owain, who, is (in a sense) Mabon's brother. However, there's enough evidence tying Mabon and Pryderi, and Pryderi and Perceval, and Perceval and the Fair Unknown, that it is reasonable to see Pryderi--and ultimately Mabon--as the possible origin for the Fair Unknown.
Haught, Leah. "The Fair Unknown: A Bibliographic Essay" TEAMS: Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. 12/10/07.
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Mary Jones © 2009