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Character Name Variants: Cei, Cai, Caius, Kaye, KeiBackground Essay Author: John H. Chandler
One of the most frequently represented characters in Arthurian literature, Kay has never starred in his own romance. He is not a heroic figure: constantly presented as a hot-tempered, sharp-tongued fellow, he is generally abusive to those whom he perceives as weaker than himself. In romances, Kay is tolerated by the rest of the Round Table because his loyalty is never in question, and he is generally portrayed as Arthur’s foster-brother, giving him a familial connection to the king and prominence in Arthur’s esteem. But he is almost always disliked, despite his early heroic appearances.

Kay has not always been an unpleasant figure. His origins in Welsh literature portray him as Arthur’s equal, a heroic figure whose deeds border on the super-heroic. For example, in Culwch and Olwen, Kay can hold his breath for nine days and nine nights, and he defeats a giant through trickery, cutting his head off in one blow. His loyalty to Arthur is clear in these early tales, even when he questions Arthur’s leadership, and this loyalty is probably the sole trait that has remained with the character to the present. Linda M. Gowans describes his early character as "mocking, savage and a terrifying opponent in battle" (Cei and the Arthurian Tradition, 8) -- all positive qualities for a character in early medieval literature. Indeed, he is one of Arthur’s most capable and loyal companions in Culwch and Olwen, as well as in many early, Celtic poems, where he is often paired with Bedwyr (later Bedevere) and Gwalchmai (later Gawain).

In the chronicle tradition, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain and the Alliterative...

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