There is a particular transgender trope in terms of early life experiences: Step 1) realize, very early on, that you are a man trapped in a woman’s body; Step 2) try to [insert male-specific experience], get in trouble for it, with an authority figure telling you, “girls don’t do that”; Step 3) repeat Step 2 indefinitely; Step 4) have almost exclusively male friends and pick up on their mannerisms – I could go on ad nauseam (if I haven’t already). These deceptively simple signifiers help many (I’m sure), but confuse some; those of us who don’t realize what we’re going through, or know the words to express that something is very, very wrong. I never realized I could even say, “I am a boy, not a girl,” so I resigned myself to living inside my own mind.
Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be a knight. I spent hours reading about heraldry and trebuchets, jousting techniques and types of armor. And I relished the stories of Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot and Guinevere, Galahad and the Holy Grail. But as much as Gawain’s prowess and Lancelot’s schemes became a fascination, no story thrilled me as much as that of Sir Gareth , who suffered much ridicule at the hands of other knights (namely, Sir Kay) when he refused to reveal his true identity.
As a kid, I never questioned my fascination with identity, with disguises and dramatic reveals. What started with Sir Gareth continued with Batman and Spiderman, Zorro and the Dread Pirate Roberts, even Parent Trap and Alanna (of the Tamora Pierce variety). Beyond those secret identities, I also loved stories of transformation: the Redwall nothings who became mighty warriors; Link (from the Zelda video games), who, though ridiculed by his peers, morphed into the savior of his world; Taran (of Prydain), who began as a pig-keeper and became a king. Any myth or tale involving masks and secret identities, or intense transformations and realizations, became a favorite of mine, to be read, memorized and internalized. I dreamed of finally taking off that disguise and revealing my true self to the world.
In Le Morte d’Arthur, Gareth arrives at King Arthur’s court and asks merely for clothing and food for a year, a task which Arthur impresses upon Sir Kay. Kay scoffs at Gareth’s lack of a name and enlists the young man in kitchen duty, remarking, “I dare undertake he is a villain born, and never will make a man, for an he had come of gentlemen, he would have asked of you horse and armour, but such as he is, so he asketh. And sithen he hath no name, I shall give him a name that shall be Beaumains, that is Fair-hands.” Gareth – Gawain’s brother and a man of noble lineage – suffered indignity upon dignity at Kay’s (not to mention Lynette) behest without rising to a single provocation.
Many scholars have remarked on the incoherence of Gareth’s story when taken with the rest of Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory never even explains why Sir Gareth wanted his identity to remain a secret. But I always came back to the story of the “Kitchen Knight.” Something about his secrets and his quests resonated with me. I dressed up as a knight for Halloween, knowing in my mind that I was not Lancelot du Lake, Sir Gawain or even Mordred, but Sir Gareth. I buzzed with excitement time and again during the revelation of his true identity. Presenting himself as a nobody, an unknown variable, a mere kitchen drudge, “Beaumains” earned the heart of the damsel and the valor of a knight.
1 – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, (1485), book 7, http://www.arthurian-legend.com/le-morte-darthur/le-morte-darthur-7.php Malory, book 7, Chapter 1.
“From Beaumains to Gareth” by growingupgareth.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at growingupgareth.wordpress.com.