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Thomas Malory/Pavilions

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More information on Pavilions relevant to Thomas Malory.

Pavilion in the woods

There is a pavilion in the woods, on a level patch of ground possibly by a river. It might be the pavilion which turned up-so-down when Perceval crossed himself, after getting into bed with the naked gentlewoman of great beauty, who proved to be a fiend of hell and at the same time an allegorical figure, later to be explained.

This pavilion might once have been set up at a tournament, with a knight’s shield hung up outside it, so that when the shield is touched with the point of a lance, the knight will come forth fully armed, but for his helm and that same shield, ready to do battle.

When riding, or wandering, at a venture, or at adventures, there is nothing to expect or not to expect. So from the pavilion might come a knight in plate armour, a knight in chain mail, or a damsel in jeans; but probably something of this earth, not a hobgoblin, elf, or extra-terrestrial. These have different habitats or vehicles.

Somewhere in the woods is a pavilion of white fabric, and one does not enquire how it came to be there, or why it is in that particular spot, or how it is supplied, or whether there are floor coverings – though likely enough there are none, as in the pavilion where Perceval lay with the false lady, where he saw his sword lying on the bare earth, so putting him in mind to cross himself. It is enough that it is the beginning of a new adventure for one to whom strange adventures are not amazing. Then in a few moments, the pavilion can be packed or gone, for its owner, too, may be travelling at a venture, on his or her way, with honourable or dishonourable purpose. We do not find out about the servants who put the pavilion in place and may then pack it up, to follow the owner on his travels. They are necessary to the pavilion but add nothing to the story. Although it could be said that they are beneath notice, it would be more reasonable to say that they are assumed to play their part properly and as needed, like the horses on which the knights rely and which the narrator never blames for the knight’s downfall. Nothing of interest will happen to, around, or because of them in the story of the pavilion, though it might in another story. So the occupier of the pavilion, if his path has not come to an end when it crossed that of another character, may go on his way to another event.

Or perhaps it might suit the owner to leave the pavilion in place so that it becomes part of the landscape. That is a different sort of story altogether, because observation can be made of the wild things that show themselves in the course of the day and night. The white fabric becomes subdued, the poles show signs of decay, the ropes become slimy. Time increases vulnerability under the trees. The insects, beetles, reptiles, birds, mammals begin to take it for granted. If the owner has left it and returned, he may find that it has been invaded, possessed by other animals. If he has remained along with it, he can observe the invasion, that of the insects and beetles bold and unfearing, that of the other animals timid but yet intrepid. And if he does not react against them, so the stories tell, he may win their confidence.

When riding at a venture or silent in his pavilion, a knight measures out time not in minutes or hours, but in feasts of the church, generous portions. Of course, this requires him to keep count of days, or else to rely on the people dedicated to the service of the church whom he might happen across; but if he missed an appointment it would be through the ill will of an enemy, or other adverse circumstance, not through inadvertence or fear.

The essence of a pavilion is its temporary nature. It has been said that the sky is the pavilion beneath which we spend out days, and certainly the sky is always there, as long as we are planet-bound, and it is always changing, from serene at one extreme to savage violence at another, but mostly, in most parts of the world, somewhere in between. To protect ourselves from this change we inhabit and use buildings of a more permanent nature, and even try to preserve some of them indefinitely, as a token of continuity. The continuity with the knights errant, who only ever existed the imaginings of the narrators, grows thin, attenuated, as ideals change, become more sophisticated, weaken. The ideal of chivalry altered into that of the gentleman, at once a weakening and an improvement. And since then, what has happened? The phrase “you’re a gentleman” was until a short while ago an expression of unreserved approval, but even that has died out. We have come far from the concept of a knight riding at adventures, to do battle for the right, as might be needed, or simply because battling was what knights did. Yet the sight of the pavilion in the woods may still be evocative.