Disguise in literature and legend
'The number of examples seem almost endless,' said Quintin. 'Just take a look at Sir Thomas Malory's book about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Written in the fifteenth century and printed by Caxton. I defy anyone to list all of the episodes where a knight assumes a disguise.'
'This program has had a good go,' replied Miranda.
'But it was constrained to include only a small number between stops,' said Quintin.
'Well, I think it makes the point, nonetheless. Knights in Malory's epic are disguising themselves all the time, wearing armour that identifies them as another knight, pretending to be someone else…'
'And all to what point?'
'Come on! Are you serious?' asked Miranda. 'Isn't it obvious? Just look where it all comes from. Go back to Chrétien de Troyes' Arthurian romances from the twelfth century. The Knight of the Cart for example. Lancelot and Gawain go off to rescue Queen Guinevere who has been taken to a land whose only access lies across a sword bridge and an underwater bridge. Could it be any plainer? Accessible only by a sword stroke or by drowning. Lancelot rescues her. But he cannot return because he now finds himself imprisoned. It is 'the kingdom from which no foreigner returns'. An afterlife from which no Christian man returns. But he is allowed to return for a tournament, as long as he takes on a disguise. For we are none of us strangers there really, I suppose. And that's where it all begins.
'Except that at broadly the same time,' she continued, 'in the second half of the twelfth century, an Anglo-Norman gentleman named Hue de Roteland is composing a story about a knight who fights as a white knight, a red knight and then a black knight, before pretending to be a foolish knight and then the very knight whom he has just defeated in battle. And in another of Chrétien de Troyes' tales, Sir Yvain is restored from destitution by a magic ointment only to become the Knight of the Lion whom even his wife and his best friend can no longer recognise. And a few decades later, Sir Lancelot is back, changing his appearance more times than a… well, I don't know what.'
'Than Odin,' suggested Quintin.
'More times than Odin?
'Yes. The Norse god Odin. Or Manannan. The Irish god Manannan. He used to go around in disguise. One story has him walking around in leaking shoes 'full of puddle water' from castle to castle, fortress to fortress, and at other times he would appear as a warrior. He would meet people crossing the sea on the way to the Land of Youth. Like Odin, he was a go-between, between this world and the next, a shape changer. A conveyer of souls like the Roman god Mercury, whom Julius Caesar identified as the principal Gaullish god.
'Well, there you are then,' said Miranda. 'That's where it all comes from. Lancelot takes on almost the same role as Manannan, or the Norse god Odin, in that early romance that sees him change his shield and his identity more times than I don't know what, while rescuing knights who are imprisoned in a Dolorous Castle. Sir Gawain even finds Lancelot's grave in this 'dolorous' castle; the grave of the White Knight. And by the end of the story, the White Knight, alias Lancelot, alive and well again, has assumed the identity of Galehot, the Lord of the Outer Isles.
'But at least he doesn't have to squeeze into a deerskin and pretend to be a deer,' said Quintin.
Miranda laughed. 'Or live as a werewolf,' she agreed.