The Fair Unknown

A common Celtic theme that was popular with the medieval Romance writers, particularly those writing Arthurian romances.

The protagonist is often a boy raised away from civilization, sometimes by his mother or sometimes by a foster family, who has little or no knowledge of his father and no social graces. The boy goes off to court, is quickly knighted, but then must prove his worth in a series of adventures before being fully accepted. Among those adventures is the "Daring Kiss", wherein he transforms a maiden under enchantment from a serpent to her true form.

The figure often specifically called the "Fair Unknown" is usually the son or close relative (in the case of Sir Gareth) of Sir Gawain.

The Core "Fair Unknown" Texts

Perceval Texts:

Lancelot Texts:

Other Texts:

Pryderi, Mabon, and Y Mabinogi
Pryderi may have been the original focal point of Y Mabinogi, and there are several connections between Mabon and Pryderi. The most obvious is that both were stolen from their mothers as infants. Unlike Mabon, Pryderi is later found and returned to Rhiannon after four years. However, there is a second imprisonment of Pryderi in the Mabinogi, when he touches an enchanted bowl. Here he has to be rescued from the enemies of his mother Rhiannon by his step-father Manawyddan. It could be that the second episode is a double for the first.

Connections between the Fair Unknown and Pryderi/Mabon include the raising away from family, the ambiguity of the father's identity, the ambiguity of his own identity, and an uncle named Bran. Other elements, like the loathly lady and daring kiss are not readily evident, though the former appears in the Perceval stories, and John Carey has demonstrated in Ireland and the Grail the close relationship between Pryderi and Perceval.

One interesting element is Mabon's name--derriving from the god Maponos, it literally means "Divine Son". He has no real "name", only a title--much like the Fair Unknown and his various reflexes, who begin life with no name or a hidden name. This odd element, while creating an example of rare meritocracy in knighthood, may ultimately come from the circumstances surrounding the name of Mabon.

Mabon appears in La Bel Inconnu and its English counterpart Libeaus Disconu, as one of the pair of prisoner-magicians, Maboun and Eurayn. Helaine Newstead connected Eurayn (as well as other figures) to Bran, though Eurayn may also be Owain, who, is (in a sense) Mabon's brother. However, there's enough evidence tying Mabon and Pryderi, and Pryderi and Perceval, and Perceval and the Fair Unknown, that it is reasonable to see Pryderi--and ultimately Mabon--as the possible origin for the Fair Unknown.

Haught, Leah. "The Fair Unknown: A Bibliographic Essay" TEAMS: Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. 12/10/07.

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Mary Jones © 2009