19 SEPTEMBER 2019
SERIES · I EPISODE · VIII
I heard tell of a venturous knight, who kept a hidden country, both day and night; and he that over that river should ride, strange adventures should abide.
As I heard told, the keeper of this realm is no man, and yet is the greatest knight in any land. They call him Sir Greysteel. They say no man of woman born can make him yield one man to one. His name will make any mortal tremble. For they say that more then a hundred knights have fallen to his blade...
Our version of the tale of Greysteel is based upon a romance poem popular in 16th century Scotland. It may have originated there or earlier in the north of England - the most recent research is said to favour a Scottish origin. The Greysteel ballad was performed before James V and James VI of Scotland, and there are numerous references to it in historical sources and literature. The nickname of ‘Graysteil’ was given to various Scottish noblemen in the sixteenth, seventeenth and even the twentieth century.
The story centres on the knightly friends Sir Eger and Sir Gryme. Sir Eger is defeated by the supernatural strength and might of Greysteel, the lord of a realm called the Forbidden Country, losing him the respect of the Lady Wynglaine, whom he is trying to win over. Sir Gryme rides in place of Sir Gryme, and overcomes him with the help of a magical sword bestowed by Eger’s aunt. Greysteel’s initial invincibility, his description as a night with red hands and riding a red horse, suggests that he is intended to be an elfin knight. The motif of removing the supernatural Knight’s hand as proof of victory is repeated in other tales of Elfin knights. Sir Eger and Sir Gryme may have been based upon the characters of Ywain and Gawaine from Arthurian romance legends.
In our telling, the 'Forbidden Country' becomes another name for the mysterious and a-temporal realms inhabited by the denizens of the fey, and identified with 'Avalon' and the 'Fortunate Isle'. However, some identify the site of Greysteel's land and fortress with Loch Ragnag in Scotland.
IN FOLK SONG
Elements of the Greysteel narrative are mirrored in the folk ballads Sir Cawline and Sir Colvin, where the protagonist must travel to an Elfin Hill, defeat an Elfin knight, and return with his hand in order to win the courtship of the King’s daughter. Greysteel itself was performed as a romantic ballad, and was sung by two fiddlers to James IV at Lecropt in1498 who were 'paid 9 shillings for their performance’. The tune for Graysteil was preserved in transcriptions from the lute-music book of Robert Gordon of Straloch (1580-1661). You can hear the original medieval poem set to music on Spotify, but the delivery is not very clear.
'Eger and Grime: an early English romance' Edited from Bishop Percy's folio MS., about 1650 A. D. by John W. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall (Published 1897)
'Early Metrical Tales: Including the History of Sir Egeir, Sir Gryme, and Sir Gray-Stiell' by David Liang (Published 1826)
'The Epic Romance of Graystiel' on The National: The Newspaper that Supports An Independant Scotland