Origin of the name GRINGOLET.
Etymology of the
Meaning of the baby name GRINGOLET.
Arthurian. Gawain's horse. From French gringolé,
meaning "snake-headed." (A
New French-English General Dictionary, Spiers, 1908).
as he figures in mediaeval romance, is a fascinating subject, though
little is said of him. The bare mention of his name stimulates
curiosity. It suggests that once on a time everybody knew all
about him; and so we, too, want to know what they knew.
Sir Gawain is a great figure in Arthurian
romance. Tennyson's poem gives but a faint idea of his true
character, his magnificence and charm.
"Light was Gawain in
life, and light in death
Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man,"
represents a disparaging view
in comparison with the truer estimate given of him elsewhere. The
fact is that Tennyson took his story from Malory, who drew from sources
in which Gawain was belittled, in order to enhance the character of
Percival. But in the West of England, especially on the marches of
Wales and Cumbria, Gawain was always regarded as the Knight par
excellence of the Arthurian court, and the literature about him is
of great importance. One of the greatest of mediaeval English
poets, one of Chaucer's contemporaries, adorns this tradition; the poem
of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a gem of middle-age
His horse plays no wonderful part, but is always
referred to as "Gawain's Horse, Gringolet." In French
the name is Le Gringolet, with the definite article, as if
everybody knew the story about him; and yet no story is to be
found. Something there is to be discovered, but not in the
If we group all the romances mentioning Gringolet, we
find that the name occurs in the English, "Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight," and a corruption of it in "The Aunters of Arthur at
Tarnwathelan," as Grizel. In German it is Gringuljetan;
in French usually Gringalet, but occasionally Guingalet;
while in Welsh it only occurs in late versions as Keinkalad, and
that rarely. The Welsh romance writers seem to avoid the name,
giving rise to a suggestion that they regarded it as not Welsh. If
it was not Welsh, whence does it come?
One of the most interesting of Northern stories is
that of Wade,
father of Wayland Smith, and son of Wilkin, the hero of Vilkinasaga, in
which we find many stories of Wade added in a late recension. Wade
fascinates us, as Gringolet does, by the fact that so little is known of
him, and that little whets our curiosity. His name occurs in a
series of place-names; in the Traveller's Song we are told that Wade
ruled the Helsings. Chaucer refers to him twice, in one passage
saying that the wife of Bath knew everything about his Boat, and in Troilus
mentioning quite unexpectedly "a tale of Wade." What the
tale was we are not informed. Speght, the old commentator, says as
regards Wade and his boat and his strange exploits, "because the
matter is long and fabulous, I pass it over." One suspects
that he did not know all. Tyrwhitt exclaims against the
omission: "Tantamne rem tam negligenter!" and modern
commentators can only attack Speght for his silence. But evidently
in the fourteenth century Chaucer knew—or pretended to know—the lost
story of Wade and his Boat.
There are many references to the name in Middle
English. Wade is "The Wader," the one who went through
the water, carrying on his shoulders the infant Wayland, as St.
Christopher carried the infant Christ. But what was his boat?
Chaucer's passage about the wife of Bath seems to
indicate that the boat had already been reduced to a slang phrase:
and the name of the boat is preserved for us by Speght in the passage
just quoted, which reads in full, "concerning Wade and his boat
The identity of the names given to Wade's boat and
Gawain's horse cannot be a chance coincidence; the two must originally
have been one. If so, we have in the famous Arthurian romance a
distinct influence from Scandinavia.
The Horse of Gawain represents the necessary change
from the sea character of the Vilkinasaga to the chivalrous character of
the mediaeval romance, the ship was the "horse of ocean" both
in Anglo-Saxon and in Old Norse. This transition is natural and
necessary; we can find further evidence to show that this transition did
In the case of the name Gringolet as applied to the
horse, we have to note that it is sometimes written without the R, and
then usually as Guingalet. Now whenever in old French you
get Gu, that sound comes from Teutonic or Germanic sources, and
represents W. If the form in Gr be the original one, it
points to a Germanic and not a Romance origin. Moreover, in G
words passing from Teutonic to Romance languages, a parasitic R
frequently arose after the G. To take this story of Wade; the
Graelant of Breton legends and French romances is, in all probability,
nothing but Wayland:—Völund—Galant—Gralant, with the same
Now if the true name is Guingalet, we may
assume without much doubt that it represents a Scandinavian or Germanic Wingalet.
As to the name of the boat, we find it again given as
occurring in the North of England in the form Wingalock; so that if the
name of the horse was derived from that of the boat, we have materials
for tracing the origin of the story.
Vilkinasaga is one of the most interesting
versions of the tale of Wade. In it Wilkin appears as a sort of
god or demigod; perhaps Wilkin was not his original name, but adapted
from the Latin Vulcan, for his son Wayland became the great Smith.
In especial Wayland was famous for making boats, and the stories of
father and son must have become confused, as often happens in mythology—for
example, in the case of Anlaf Cuaran. Even their personalities
became mixed in mediaeval tradition. In the Corpus Poeticum
Boreale, Wade is stated to be the son of Wayland, while in Vilkinasaga
Wayland is certainly the son of Wade. So when we know that Wade
carried Wayland over the sea to apprentice him to the dwarfs to learn
the smith's trade, and that Wayland the smith, being lamed in the sinews
of his foot, forged for himself a winged garment, with which he flew
over the sea; or that he made a wonderful boat, a winged vessel, a
marvellous bird; that he was connected with winged maidens,
swan-maidens; we see how "Wade's Boat" came by its name of
Wing-something; and how the name originated not in England, but in
That this was the case is curiously hinted by one old
romance, which tells us that Gawain captured his horse from a Saxon
king. In that passage the horse is called "un gringalet,"
with the indefinite article, as though the name were common and
descriptive. Already among the old Normans the boat had become a
horse, and at this day among the Normans a fool, a gaunt, silly
creature, is called "un gringalet." This is
evidently the source of the well-known proper name, Gringalet, as well
as the slang use of the word.
The second part of the original name is less easy to
discover. In Magnússon's index to Heimskringla are many
names of boats which might suggest the missing word. Ving
is the Danish or Swedish form, from which our "wing" is
derived, a Scandinavian, and not an English word. Vinga-lett
on the analogy of letti-skip, lett-freggr, lett-fetr, might be
suggested, and reference to the termination -lock, found as a variant
(cp. Havelock, in its relation to Hamlet) might be
Of Wade himself we have one curious notice, embedded
in the old Latin sermon, which quotes six lines from the lost twelfth or
thirteenth century poem, "Ita quod dicere possumus cum Wade:—
Summe sende ylves
and summe sende nadderes.
Summe send nikeres
the binnen wacez wunien.
Nister man nenne
bute ildebrand onne";
"we may say with Wade
that [all creatures who fell] became elves or adders or nickors who live
in pools; not one became a man except Hildebrand." This is
the only passage which shows us the story of Hildebrand in English
literature, and bears on the genesis of Thiodrekssaga.
Professor Skeat explains the allusino in the tale of
the Wife of Bath as meaning that widows, with the aid of Wade's Boat,
could flit about from place to place and carry on their
flirtations. But it is more recondite than that, depending on the
transition from mythology to folklore, and thence to folk-speech and
allusive slang. A further hint may be gathered from Chaucer's Troilus;
it was Pandarus who told "a tale of Wade," an amorous story,
parallel to the tale of Graelant,—the
stern Northern mythology of the sea adapted to amorous France.
Gaston Paris, the greatest among students of
mediaeval romance, considered that the name of Gringolet was of Celtic
origin, though unexplained. The fact, however, remains that
Gringolet in its Welsh form is rare; only occurring in a late twelfth or
thirteenth century list of Arthurian horses, and in the strange form
Keinkalad. If it were Welsh in origin it would surely be a more
integral part of the legends; while on the other hand we have seen its
close analogy to the name of Wade's boat, and the reasons for
considering that Gawain's horse was really a form of the boat in
Vilkinasaga, and a loan to British folklore from the Vikings.
After discussion, Mr. Gollancz, replying to Mr.
Collingwood, said that the name of the horse in Grettissaga, "Keingala,"
was not easy to trace, for the story of Grettir, as we have it, is of
late and mixed origin. The wings in pre-Norman sculpture in the
North of England, and other hints of the Wayland myth on the monuments,
certainly show the persistence of the legend, which was the Northern
form of the story of Icarus and Dædalus, a smith story. Why
smiths were always lame, as Miss Hull asked, he could only explain by
saying that it was their nature! As to the parallel transition
from the boat of Mannanan Mac Lir to the magic steed of Ossian, which
brought the Celtic heroes to Paradise, he thought that the Arthurian
legends were of course greatly influenced by Celtic mythology.
Gawain, however, had been unkindly treated by English romancers of the
Southeast; but in Welsh tradition he was "the hawk of the May
morning," "the knight of ladies," "Gawain the
Good," exalted even above Arthur, and all along the Welsh marches
long considered as the noblest figure in the group. As Mr.
Collingwood had pointed out, the name remained popular in Cumbria, and
the legend of Tarn Wadling (near Carlisle) survived the Middle
Ages. To Dr. Pernet the lecturer answered that though "Gringolet"
is now in general use, it is Norman in origin, and thanked him for the
apt analogy of the transition from old German hross to modern
French rosse. Replying to Colonel Hobart, he said that the
intrusive R is common in Icelandic and in some English dialects, it need
present no difficulty. Indeed he sometimes thought that part of
the confusion in the subject came from the blending of the Scandinavian
story with the French and Celtic legends of "Galwain," just as
Wayland and Wade had become interchanged. In answer to Mr.
Norris's suggestion that the last syllable in vinga-lett might be
lid, as in "Sumarlid," Mr. Gollancz did not
think the change phonetically possible, and preferred to leave that part
of the problem still unsolved. (Saga-book of the Viking Club, 1907)
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