Sir Palomides the Saracen was the most notable of King Astlabor’s three sons, the others being Sirs Safere and Segwirades, both of whom seem to have officialized their conversion to Christianity considerably before their brother.
Malory introduces Palomides in Ireland at the time when Tristram, disguised as Tramtrist, was there to be healed by La Beale Isoud. Palomides was already in love with Isoud, even “in will to be christened for her sake”, and much in favor with her parents.
Isoud favored Tristram, and persuaded him to fight in rivalry to Palomides at the tournament for the Lady of the Launds. A tried and proven Palomides rode with a black shield and unhorsed, among others, many Round Table knights, including Gawaine, Kay, Sagramore, and Griflet.
Palomides might well have won the tournament but for Tristram, who defeated him and rather ungraciously, as it seems, made him swear under threat of death to forsake Isoud and to refrain from wearing armor and bearing arms for a year and a day.
Then for despite and anger Sir Palamides cut off his harness, and threw [it] away.
After the wedding of Mark and Isoud, Palomides appeared in Cornwall. (His excuse may have been to visit his brother, if Segwarides, Astlabor’s son, is to be identified with the Segwardies of Mark’s court.) The year being up, Palomides was back in armor, and he came in time to rescue Dame Bragwaine from a tree where two envious ladies had bound her.
Isoud, delighted at the safe restoration of her favorite handmaid, promised to grant Palomides a boon, providing it was not evil. He asked that she ride away with him as if adventuring, and Mark, hearing the whole story, agreed, planning to send Tristram to rescue her. Tristram being out hunting and not immediately available, Mark’s knight Lambegus went after Palomides, who gave him a fall. During the fray, Isoud escaped and found refuge in the tower of one Sir Adtherp. Tristram came and fought furiously with Palomides before the tower, until Isoud begged Tristram to spare Palomides, lest he die unbaptized. She sent Palomides, sorely chagrined, to the court of King Arthur, rubbing in Tristram’s victory over her heart by charging his rival to deliver Guenevere the message that “there be within this land but four lovers” – Lancelot and Guenevere, Tristram and Isoud.
Perhaps it was during this sojourn at Arthur’s court that Palomides became a companion of the Round Table. He appears briefly in the tale of La Cote Male Taile, whom he encountered by chance while both were out adventuring. La Cote considered his unhorsing at the hands of Palomides no disgrace. Palomides may have been in pursuit of the Questing Beast when he met La Cote; he appears in this quest only a few chapters later, when Tristram and Lamorak meet him (Tristram being en route back to Cornwall from Brittany, where he has left his wife Isoud la Blanche Mains to return to his first Isoud).
Palomides’ adoption of the Questing Beast is curious in light of Pellinore’s old statement that this beast could never be achieved except by himself or by his next of kin; it has led at least one commentator (Keith Banes) to assume, on apparently no other grounds than this, that the Saracen Palomides was somehow next of kin to the Welsh descendant of Nascien, Pellinore. Some degree of distant cousinship is possible, dating back to some relative of Nascien’s who refused to be converted by Joseph and Josephe, choosing to remain behind and father or mother a line of Saracens; I think it more likely that Palomides took on an apparently impossible quest in the effort to prove himself worthy of baptism. (Might his failure to achieve the Questing Beast have led to the vow he made sometime between his sojourn in Ireland and the Surluse tournament, not to be baptized until he had done seven true battles for Jesu’ sake?) At any rate, he was so hot in the quest of the beast that he unhorsed both Tristram and Lamorak with one spear without stopping to give them swordplay, whereat Tristram, much annoyed, told Lamorak to relay the message that he – Tristram – wanted a rematch at the same well where they had just encountered.
Tristram and Palomides next encountered each other at the tournament of the Castle of Maidens, where Palomides used a black horse and a black-covered shield. Between Tristram’s participation in the tournament and Lancelot’s, Palomides won less honor than he had hoped. At the end of the second day’s fighting, Tristram found Palomides alone in the forest in a near-suicidal rage and forcibly prevented him from harming himself, without, however, letting him know who it was that held him.
Alas, said Sir Palomides, I may never win worship where Sir Tristram is ... and if he be away for the most part I have the gree, unless that Sir Launcelot be there or Sir Lamorak ... I would fight with [Tristram], said Sir Palomides, and ease my heart upon him; and yet, to say thee sooth, Sir Tristram is the gentlest knight in the world living.
Still hiding his identity, Tristram persuaded Palomides to accept lodging in his pavilion that night. After the tournament, Palomides remained so angry with Tristram for doing him out of the honors that he followed him and lost his horse in a river. Tristram, learning of this, had his rival brought to the castle of Sir Darras (Damas), where he was staying with Sir Dinadan. Unfortunately, Sir Darras learned that Tristram was blamed for slaying three of his sons at the tournament and put Tristram, Dinadan, and Palomides all three into prison, where Tristram fell sick.
At first, still spurred by the old rivalry, Palomides spoke harshly to Tristram. “But when Sir Palomides saw the falling of sickness of Sir Tristram, then was he heavy for him, and comforted him in all the best wise he could.” Finally, learning Tristram’s identity, Darras set them free and nursed Tristram back to health.
After parting when they left Darras’ castle, Tristram next met Palomides by chance in time to rescue him from Breuse Sans Pitie and nine of his knights. Palomides agreed to fight Tristram in a fortnight, when his wounds were healed, beside the tomb of Lanceor and Colombe in the meadow by Camelot. When the day came, however, Palomides was in some other lord’s prison (we know little of the circumstances this time) and Tristram fought Lancelot instead, by mistake; the battle ended in a draw, after which Lancelot brought Tristram to court, where he was installed in Sir Marhaus’ old seat at the Round Table.
Palomides, meanwhile, getting out of prison, returned to the pursuit of the Questing Beast. We know little of his adventures during this period, but once he rescued King Mark by striking down Brandiles (Brandelis), the two Ywaines, Ozana, Agravaine, and Griflet in rapid succession [in this scene, asked his identity through a squire, Palomides claimed to be
a knight-errant as they [who ask] are ... and no knight of King Arthur's court,
but this may simply have been a ploy to preserve his anonymity; all the participants were being very coy with their names].
Shortly thereafter, he passed his mother’s manor and, too hot on the Beast’s trail to stop, sent her greetings and a request for food and drink. (Perhaps the entire family, or at least the (widowed?) mother and her three sons, had all come to Britain together, she settling somewhere in the southwest?) Palomides also met Lamorak outside Morgan’s castle, bearing an anonymous red shield as he fought off her knights. Palomides courteously offered to help him; Lamorak took this as an insult and insisted on proving his lack of weariness by fighting Palomides. Palomides (who had a temper of his own) responded in kind, and at the end of the battle, when they learned each other’s identity, they swore everlasting friendship, promising to love each other better than any other men except their respective brothers Safere and Tor. (I find no hard evidence in this scene, however, for the theory that Palomides was closely related to Pellinore, for he does not seem to recognize Lamorak as a cousin.)
Palomides next appears at the Surluse tournament, where he won much more honor than at the Castle of Maidens. In addition to the regular tournament fighting, he championed two damsels. The first “loved Sir Palomides as paramour, but the book saith she was of his kin”, and she appealed for justice against one Sir Goneries (Gonereys) “that withheld her all her lands.” She seems to have been responsible for actually getting Palomides to the site of the tournament, for he was resting in a hermitage from his pursuit of the Questing Beast, and she sought him out when no other knight present would take her quarrel. He made short work of Goneries.
The second damsel was King Bandes’ daughter, who “heard tell that Palomides did much for damosels’ sake” and enlisted him to rid her of Sir Corsabrin’s unwelcome attentions. The stink that rose from Corsabrin’s unchristened body put Guenevere and Duke Galeholt in mind that Palomides, still officially a Saracen, was in danger of a similarly unhallowed end, and they begged him to be baptized.
Sir, said Palomides, I will that ye all know that into this land I came to be christened, and in my heart I am christened ... But I have made such an avow that I may not be christened till I have done seven true battles for Jesu's sake, ... and I trust God will take mine intent, for I mean truly.
Palomides also successfully defended himself against a charge of treason brought by Goneries’ brother Sir Archade. The tournament lasted seven days, and Palomides won third place, after Lancelot and Lamorak.
Tristram and Palomides next met when Tristram and La Beale Isoud were living in Joyous Garde and the Questing Beast led the Saracen to the surrounding woods. As Palomides remarked, “I found never no knight in my questing of this glasting beast, but an he would joust I never refused him.” But since Tristram neither identified himself nnor requested a joust, ad since several other knights of the Round Table and Breuse Sans Pitie also showed up in the area at this time for a general mix-and-match melee, Isoud’s two lovers did not fight each other. They jousted shortly thereafter when they met by chance, without recognizing each other, on the way to Lonazep (Leverzep) tournament. This time Palomides, learning who had just given him a fall, appears to have made a sincere effort to bury his enmity:
I pray you Sir Tristram, forgive me all mine evil will, and if I live I shall do you service above all other knights ... I wot not what aileth me, for meseemeth that ye are a good knight, and none other knight that named himself a good knight should not hate you ...
On the way to Lonazep, they found the body of King Hermance, and Palomides proved his worthy by taking on himself the dead man’s written request that he be avenged and his kingdom set again to rights; Tristram judged that his own primary obligation was to be at the tournament. Palomides cleared up the troubles at Hermance’s Red City, so winning the people’s love and gratitude that they offered him a third of their goods if he would stay with them; nevertheless, he departed and rejoined Tristram in time for the Lonazep tournament.
At first they escorted Isoud jointly and fought on the same side in the lists, but Palomides’ old jealousy reasserted itself – on the first day, though he won the honors, it was not without a moment of shame when, in his overagerness, he slew Lancelot’s horse.
On the second day he found Arthur ogling Isoud and (not recogizing the King) angrily struck him down; the Saracen then went over to the opposite party, Lancelot’s, and changed his armor, all in an effort to fight Tristram down and perhaps do him serious mischief while feigning not to recognize him. Rebuked that evening by Isoud (who had seen all) and Tristram, Arthur and Lancelot, he wept all night after the party had separated. On the last day, beaten out of the prize again by Tristram and Lancelot, Palomides raged in the woods until the kings of Wales and Scotland found him and brought him under som sort of control. Then he stood outside Tristram’s tent in the dark taunting and threatening Tristram for a time before he departed with the kings, mourning his new rift with Isoud and Tristram.
Refusing to remain with the friendly kings, Palomides found Sir Epinogris wounded. After they exchanged complaints in love, Palomides rescued and restored Epinogris’ lady. In the course of this adventure, he met his brother Safere. Traveling together, they were soon captured by the men of a lord whom Palomides had slain in the fighting at Lonazep. They tried the brothers, freed Safere, and condemned Palomides, who prepared himself to meet a shameful death nobly. As he was led past Joyous Garde to Pelownes Castle for execution, both Tristram and Lancelot came to his rescue, Lancelot getting there first.
Then Palomides lived a while in Joyous Garde, secretly tormented by the daily sight of Isoud and her love for Tristram. At last one day he went into the woods alone and made a long poem of love for Isoud. Tristram happened by and was so angered at hearing his rival sing his lady’s praises that he might have killed Palomides had the Saracen not been unarmed. Once again they set a day to fight – a fortnight thence in the meadow under Joyous Garde (Palomides needed the time to recover from his lovesick weakness), but this time Tristram was wounded in a hunting accident and failed to appear. Palomides departed with Tristram’s promise to come seeking him when he was whole again. Tristram won great fame that summer seeking Palomides, but failed to find him.
The end of the long rivalry did not come until shortly before the adventures of the Grail. That year, riding to the great Pentecost feast at Camelot, Tristram, unarmed but for spear and sword, met Palomides in full armor and attacked him, to the Saracen’s perplexity, who could neither leave the battle without shame nor return the blows of an unarmored man without shame. At length he calmed Tristram’s rage with courteous words and they were about to part peaceably when Tristram decided to give Palomides the last of the seven great battles he had vowed to do in Jesu’s name before being baptized.
Tristram borrowed the armor of Sir Galleron of Galway, another Round Table knight whom Palomides had jousted down just before meeting Tristram and whose response to his defeat was,
Alas ... pity that so good a knight ... should be unchristened.
So Palomides and Tristram at last fought their longpostponed fight, hacking valiantly for more than two hours until Tristram struck Palomides’ sword from his hand. They then were reconciled, and Tristram and Galleron rode with Palomides to the Suffragan of Carlisle, who baptized him while they stood his godfathers, after which all three knights rode on to Camelot.
Rather surprisingly, we hear nothing of Palomides during the Grail Adventures; Malory next mentions him as one of the guests at Guenevere’s small dinner party when Sir Patrise was poisoned. The former Saracen ended in Lancelot’s faction, presumably helped rescue Guenevere from the stake, and accompanied Lancelot into exile, where he was made Duke of the Provence.
Except in matters touching Isoud and Tristram, which were apt to drive him out of self-control, Palomides seems to have been one of the best and most courteous knights, honorable, a reliable champion, and an excellent fighter. T.H. White refers to him as “black”, almost certainly using the British meaning, which includes all non-white races; I see no objection to a black Palomides in the U.S. sense.
John Erskine’s novel Tristram and Isolde, Restoring Palamede [which probably should have been titled “Palamede and Brangain”, but no doubt they thought that would sell fewer copies] gives a different but especially endearing picture of this knight.
Charles the Great’s closest circle of knights were called this as well. They were called this while they lived within the palace.
Guenevere’s Poisoned Apple | The Legend of King Arthur