Apologia Pro Caius: The Modalities of Kay within the Arthurian Canon
Kai (Cei or Cai). Caius. Keu. Kay. The name has undergone transformation as much as the character. Kay’s long history in the Arthurian legend reaches back almost to its origins. The first evidence of Kai comes from the tales the bards told in Wales of Arthur and his men, and as other authors at different times took up the Arthurian legend, Kai slowly modulated to the Kay most know now. This paper will look at Kay as he appeared in some early Welsh stories, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and John Steinbeck, from the medieval to the modern. It will follow him in his evolution, from hero to coward.
Early Welsh Literature: Kai in a World of Heroes
Like the heroes of Homer, in the early Welsh stories Arthur and his band of followers are men of deeds. The stories survive in manuscripts written down during a period from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Nevertheless they are almost certainly much older. Evidence suggests that some of these achieved approximately their current form as far back as the 9th century (Green). Moreover, no doubt most of these circulated prior to that period within the Welsh oral culture, repeated from generation to generation, passing down folklore and quasi-historical events.
The prose tale Kilhwch and Olwen, found in the White Book of Rhydderch (ms. c. 1300-25), presents the most complete portrait of Kai as a cunning and mighty warrior, the foremost of Arthur’s men. When Kilhwch requests his boon he says to Arthur, “I crave of thee then, that thou obtain for me Olwen.” He then requests it of Arthur’s men, and he mentions first among these Kai. Indeed, Kai takes the lead in this quest. After messengers have searched for a year and not found Olwen, Kilhwch becomes peevish. He says that he will leave Arthur and bear away his honor with him. Kai rises to the challenge and says, “Go with us, and we will not part until thou dost either confess that the maiden exists not in the world, or until we obtain her.” Kai would save the honor...