Thursday, June 23, 2022

He Laughed in Mordred's Face

 Dagonet, Arthur's Fool 
by Muriel St. Clare Byrne

Dagonet, Arthur's fool,
He shocked and crashed with the rest,
But they gave him his coup-de-grace,
 When Arthur fought in the West. 

 Dagonet, Arthur's fool,
 They smashed him, body and soul,
And they shoved him under a bush,
 To die like a rat in a hole. 

 His poor little queer fool's body
 Was twisted awry with pain:--
Dagonet, Arthur's fool,
 Left to die in the rain. 

 He writhed and groaned in his torment,
 But none heard his shameful cry:--
Dagonet, Arthur's fool,
 Whom they left alone to die. 

 Mordred hated the fool,
 And he passed the place where he lay,
"Ah-ha! my pleasant fool,
 We'll see if you'll jest to-day!" 

 "We've silenced your bitter tongue,
 We've stopped your quirks and pride!"
And Mordred, who ne'er forgot,
 He kicked the fool aside.

Mordred was ever vile, 
He scorned each knightly rule,
He swung a crashing blow
 Right on the mouth of the fool. 

 He lifted his bleeding head,
 Dazed for a moment's space;
Then Dagonet, Arthur's fool,
 He laughed in Mordred's face.

Sir Dagonet is an interesting character. He only shows up occasionally, but he has been a consistent favorite through the centuries as a kind of comic relief. In the earliest works, he seems to have been thought of as just a foolish and cowardly knight, but over the centuries this morphed into a different conception, culminating in that of Malory, who gives the most perfect version of the character. In Malory's account, Sir Dagonet is King Arthur's court jester who, because of his services, has been knighted. So rather than a foolish knight, he is a knightly fool.

An underappreciated aspect of Malory's depiction of Arthurian knighthood is that most of the knights are relatively young -- many of them start out as teenagers -- and Malory regularly shows them playing practical jokes on each other in the way young men in close association often would. This seems to be a reason for Malory's spin on Sir Dagonet -- one reason the other knights love him is that they occasionally use him to play jokes on each other, the most famous and memorable being when they pretend Sir Dagonet is Sir Lancelot and have him challenge King Mark of Cornwall, who flees as the court jester chases him because he thinks he's being attacked by the greatest knight in Britain, and the knights, laughing, follow him to make sure that King Mark doesn't kill Sir Dagonet when he finds out that he's not actually Sir Lancelot. But there are others, like when Sir Lancelot allows Sir Dagonet to "capture" him, or (more mean-spirited, as is often the case with older Sir Kay) when Sir Kay assigns Sir Dagonet to joust with La Cote Male Taille so that the latter's first jousting victory won't be anything to boast about.

Byrne was a close friend of Dorothy Sayers and was best known in her day for her scholarship on Tudor England and for being the governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

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