A tragically unknown tale of Arthur's Britain

The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis - Clemence Housman

I was sitting on the fence about whether or not to give this book three or four stars. It’s not an unalloyed “4” but neither is it a mere “3.” In the end, evidently, I went with four stars. It’s one of the better Arthurian-themed books I’ve read and there are some scenes in it that will stick with me for a while (more about that in the spoiler-laden thoughts below).


I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the Matter of Britain, who wants to read about a fully developed character torn between the basest and highest impulses of human nature, and who also wants to do it while reveling in the archaic style of Malory or de Troyes. [The writing style imitates that of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as it is ostensibly written by a friend or follower of his, and it leaves no prisoners. There are passages from the book where I’m still not quite sure what happened though later context usually makes things evident.[1] It can be off-putting, and was for the first few chapters but as with my experiences reading Marlon James and Sandra Newman, persistence pays off and you’ll be well rewarded.]


The following thoughts contain significant spoilage:


The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis recounts the exploits of one of Arthur’s more obscure knights, the oldest legitimate son of King Pellinore. He is burdened with the same base passions his father had in his youth, and always comes second-best behind his brothers Tor, Lamorak and Percivale (of Grail fame). Yet he is also capable of great good, as was Pellinore, and is burdened with a conscience that tortures him. Aglovale is also incapable of compassion, which leads him to commit the cruelest murders and rapes when he indulges his passions. Yet, it serves him ill too when he acts responsibly, as people find his judgment overly harsh and uncompromising. He reminds me of Angelo from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Both men are accounted just and honest – excessively so – but neither understands that those traits must be balanced with mercy. And both are sorely tempted and fall.


Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary,
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live;
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire her to speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper. Ever till now,
When men were fond, I smiled, and wond’red how. (Act II, scene ii)


Oh, heavens,
Why does my blood thus muster to my heart,
Making both it unable for itself,
And dispossessing all my other parts
Of necessary fitness?
So play the foolish throngs with one that swounds,
Come all to help him, and so stop the air
By which he should revive; and even so
The general, subject to a well-wished king,
Quit their own part, and in obsequious fondness
Crowd to his presence, where their untaught love
Must needs appear offense.

Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite,
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will,
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To ling’ring sufferance. Answer me tomorrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true. (Act II, scene iv)


And in Aglovale’s case:


Sir, this I know: the Devil forsakes his servants never. Him I served, and I cannot get free. For ever he bids me break chastity, and ever he bids me resent humiliation; and as I do not, night and day, flesh and spirit must burn at his fires, for he is my master. Ah God, ah God, I get no ease! Lo, in Percivale how chastity and humility grow like flowers that are sweet to the sun. Lo, in me the same fume like scutch, and my own brothers let me know of evil odour. (p. 81)


Aglovale spends many years striving to be good – moving between periods of upright behavior and deeds most foul, and the harshest atonements. In one of the most intense episodes, Agravaine and Gaheris, sons of King Lot, ambush Aglovale, crippling his left hand and disfiguring his face.[2] They then tie a rock around his neck and throw him in a bog to drown. A peasant rescues the poor knight and puts him up in a mill. That night, Aglovale spies from a window his would-be murderers floundering in the marsh. This is the culmination of his internal struggle but not his suffering: Does he ignore the plight of Agravaine and Gaheris, leaving them to die, or save them? He chooses the latter (though manages to carry it off without revealing his identity), and from that moment on begins a painful process of becoming the knight whom he’s aspired to be. Even so, he cannot escape the consequences of his past: When he comes to Camelot, where Arthur is accustomed to call upon his knights to report on what they’ve done, the King does not do so in Aglovale’s case, and the man realizes that it’s because Arthur would not believe a word he said:


Said Arthur, grave and firm, “Let that alone. I have no mind to hear what Sir Aglovale has a mind to tell.


Aglovale, startled, sat up rigid, and stared against the King full and hard, agape and breathless. For the moment he had no other thought than that Arthur was privy to his nephews’ villainy, and purposed to cover it.


But before the face of Arthur so dishonouring a suspicion could not stand. The face of Arthur, sombre to sadness, altered before his eyes, hardened, darkened, overawed the insolent affront of his gaze with an access of majestic severity.


Suddenly Aglovale understood: Arthur held him an approved liar worth no credence. (p. 194)


In the penultimate scene, it’s Aglovale’s role to go before Arthur and lay bare the canker that’s festered at the heart of the King’s court since the beginning of his reign, and which threatens to destroy everything he’s sought to accomplish – the hypocrisy of knightly honor and the lies that have hidden secrets too long buried:


Yet for thirty years immunity had been his, while hatred turned another way and spent itself. And now the blood bond was so firm, and the blood feud so spent, that well might Arthur come to think pardon might yet be to him without punishment in this world. Aglovale de Galis knew better: though he had made up his account to all appearance upon earth, the laws he had broken were the laws of God given to man, and sooner or later the hand of God would bring him to exact account. For the mercy of God He writes softly in the dark of each heart; but His justice He writes plain before man. (p. 274)


It’s the Matter of Britain so the end is inevitably tragic. Aglovale’s sense of justice and truth compel him to stand with Arthur, and so he dies at Launcelot’s hands when that warrior rescues Guenever from the stake. An ending made more tragic in that Launcelot was one of the few knights who recognized Aglovale’s worth and envied him the strength that allowed him to confront his demons and misdeeds and face the censure of his fellows.


Clemence Housman has created a tremendous character in Aglovale de Galis, and I would strongly recommend this book.


[1] Case in point: There’s a scene early in the book where Gaheris accuses Aglovale of crimes, and Aglovale makes the cardinal mistake of freely admitting to them before the whole Court. What he should have done was call out Gaheris to a joust (or “just,” as Housman spells it) and prove himself in combat. Disgusted, Gaheris refuses to fight him, and Aglovale winds up fighting the one knight who had stood up for him, Griflet. I’m still not quite sure why the code of chivalry required this.


[2] The reader needs to know that there is a blood feud between the sons of Lot and those of Pellinore because the latter killed the former in battle. Though Gareth is a knight beyond reproach, his brothers are not, having foully murdered both Pellinore and Aglovale’s other brother Durnor, also in ambush.