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The Age of Chivalry, or Legends of King Arthur



“-Sir Percivale,
Whom Arthur and his knighthood called the Pure.”

THE father and two elder brothers of Perceval had fallen in battle or tournaments, and hence, as the last hope of his family, his mother retired with him into a solitary region, where he was brought up in total ignorance of arms and chivalry. He was allowed no weapon but “a lyttel Scots spere,” which was the only thing of all “her lordes faire gere” that his mother carried to the wood with her. In the use of this he became so skilful that he could kill with it not only the animals of the chase for her table, but even birds on the wing. At length, however, Perceval was roused to a desire of military renown by seeing in the forest five knights who were in complete armor. He said to his mother, “Mother, what are those yonder?” “They are angels, my son,” said she. “By my faith, I will go and become an angel with them.” And Perceval went to the road and met them. “Tell me, good lad,” said one of them, “sawest thou a knight pass this way either to–day or yesterday?” “I know not,” said he, “what a knight is.” “Such an one as I am,” said the knight. “If thou wilt tell me what I ask thee, I will tell thee what thou askest me.” “Gladly will I do so,” said Sir Owain, for that was the knight’s name. “What is this?” demanded Perceval, touching the saddle. “It is a saddle,” said Owain. Then he asked about all the accoutrements which he saw upon the men and the horses, and about the arms, and what they were for, and how they were used. And Sir Owain showed him all those things fully. And Perceval in return gave him such information as he had.

Then Perceval returned to his mother, and said to her, “Mother, those were not angels, but honorable knights.” Then his mother swooned away. And Perceval went to the place where they kept the horses that carried firewood and provisions for the castle, and he took a bony, piebald horse, which seemed to him the strongest of them. And he pressed a pack into the form of a saddle, and with twisted twigs he imitated the trappings which he had seen upon the horses. When he came again to his mother the countess had recovered from her swoon. “My son,” said she, “desirest thou to ride forth?” “Yes, with thy leave,” said he. “Go forward then,” she said, “to the court of Arthur, where there are the best and the noblest and the most bountiful of men, and tell him thou art Perceval, the son of Pelenore, and ask of him to bestow knighthood on thee. And whenever thou seest a church, repeat there thy paternoster; and if thou see meat and drink, and hast need of them, thou mayest take them. If thou hear an outcry of one in distress, proceed toward it, especially if it be the cry of a woman, and render her what service thou canst. If thou see a fair jewel, win it, for thus shalt thou acquire fame; yet freely give it to another, for thus thou shalt obtain praise. If thou see a fair woman, pay court to her, for thus thou wilt obtain love.”

After this discourse Perceval mounted the horse, and, taking a number of sharp–pointed sticks in his hand, he rode forth. And he rode far in the woody wilderness without food or drink. At last he came to an opening in the wood, where he saw a tent, and as he thought it might be a church he said his pater–noster to it. And he went toward it; and the door of the tent was open. And Perceval dismounted and entered the tent. In the tent he found a maiden sitting, with a golden frontlet on her forehead and a gold ring on her hand. And Perceval said, “Maiden, I salute you, for my mother told me whenever I met a lady I must respectfully salute her.” Perceiving in one corner of the tent some food, two flasks full of wine, and some boar’s flesh roasted, he said, “My mother told me, whenever I saw meat and drink to take it.” And he ate greedily, for he was very hungry. “Sir, thou hadst best go quickly from here, for fear that my friends should come, and evil should befall you.” But Perceval said, “My mother told me wheresoever I saw a fair jewel to take it,” and he took the gold ring from her finger, and put it on his own; and he gave the maiden his own ring in exchange for hers; then he mounted his horse and rode away.

Perceval journeyed on till he arrived at Arthur’s court. And it so happened that just at that time an uncourteous knight had offered Queen Guenever a gross insult. For when her page was serving the queen with a golden goblet, this knight struck the arm of the page and dashed the wine in the queen’s face and over her stomacher. Then he said, “If any have boldness to avenge this insult to Guenever, let him follow me to the meadow.” So the knight took his horse and rode to the meadow, carrying away the golden goblet. And all the household hung down their heads, and no one offered to follow the knight to take vengeance upon him. For it seemed to them that no one would have ventured on so daring an outrage unless he possessed such powers, through magic or charms, that none could be able to punish him. Just then, behold, Perceval entered the hall upon the bony, piebald horse, with his uncouth trappings. In the centre of the hall stood Kay the seneschal. “Tell me, tall man,” said Perceval, “is that Arthur yonder?” “What wouldst thou with Arthur?” asked Kay. “My mother told me to go to Arthur and receive knighthood from him.” “By my faith,” said he, “thou art all too meanly equipped with horse and with arms.” Then all the household began to jeer and laugh at him. But there was a certain damsel who had been a whole year at Arthur’s court, and had never been known to smile. And the king’s fool[16] had said that this damsel would not smile till she had seen him who would be the flower of chivalry. Now this damsel came up to Perceval and told him, smiling, that, if he lived, he would be one of the bravest and best of knights. “Truly,” said Kay, “thou art ill taught to remain a year at Arthur’s court, with choice of society, and smile on no one, and now before the face of Arthur and all his knights to call such a man as this the flower of knighthood;” and he gave her a box on the ear, that she fell senseless to the ground. Then said Kay to Perceval, “Go after the knight who went hence to the meadow, overthrow him and recover the golden goblet, and possess thyself of his horse and arms, and thou shalt have knighthood.” “I will do so, tall man,” said Perceval. So he turned his horse’s head toward the meadow. And when he came there, the knight was riding up and down, proud of his strength and valor and noble mien. “Tell me,” said the knight, “didst thou see any one coming after me from the court?” “The tall man that was there,” said Perceval, “told me to come and overthrow thee, and to take from thee the goblet and thy horse and armor for myself.” “Silence!” said the knight; “go back to the court, and tell Arthur either to come himself, or to send some other to fight with me; and unless he do so quickly, I will not wait for him.” “By my faith,” said Perceval, “choose thou whether it shall be willingly or unwillingly, for I will have the horse and the arms and the goblet.” Upon this the knight ran at him furiously, and struck him a violent blow with the shaft of his spear, between the neck and the shoulder. “Ha, ha, lad!” said Perceval, “my mother’s servants were not used to play with me in this wise; so thus will I play with thee.” And he threw at him one of his sharp–pointed sticks, and it struck him in the eye, and came out at the back of his head, so that he fell down lifeless.

[16] A fool was a common appendage of the courts of those days when this romance was written. A fool was the ornament held in next estimation to a dwarf. He wore a white dress with a yellow bonnet, and carried a bell or bawble in his hand. Though called a fool, his words were often weighed and remembered as if there were a sort of oracular meaning in them.

But at the court of Arthur, Sir Owain said to Kay, “Verily, thou wert ill advised when thou didst send that madman after the knight. For one of two things must befall him. He must either be overthrown or slain. If he is overthrown by the knight, he will be counted by him to be an honorable person of the court, and an eternal disgrace will it be to Arthur and his warriors. And if he is slain, the disgrace will be the same, and moreover his sin will be upon him; therefore will I go to see what has befallen him.” So Sir Owain went to the meadow, and he found Perceval dragging the man about. “What art thou doing thus?” said Sir Owain. “This iron coat,” said Perceval, “will never come from off him; not by my efforts, at any rate.” And Sir Owain unfastened his armor and his clothes. “Here, my good soul,” said he, “is a horse and armor better than thine. Take them joyfully, and come with me to Arthur to receive the order of knighthood, for thou dost merit it.” And Owain helped Perceval to put it on, and taught him how to put his foot in the stirrup, and use the spur; for Perceval had never used stirrup nor spur, but rode without saddle, and urged on his horse with a stick. Then Owain would have had him return to the court to receive the praise that was his due; but Perceval said, “I will not come to the court till I have encountered the tall man that is there, to revenge the injury he did to the maiden. But take thou the goblet to Queen Guenever, and tell King Arthur that, wherever I am, I will be his vassal, and will do him what profit and service I can.” And Sir Owain went back to the court, and related all these things to Arthur and Guenever, and to all the household.

And Perceval rode forward. And as he proceeded, behold a knight met him. “Whence comest thou?” said the knight. “I come from Arthur’s court,” said Perceval. “Art thou one of his men?” asked he. “Yes, by my faith,” he answered. “A good service, truly, is that of Arthur.” “Wherefore sayest thou so?” said Perceval. “I will tell thee,” said he. “I have always been Arthur’s enemy, and all such of his men as I have ever encountered I have slain.” And without further parlance they fought, and it was not long before Perceval brought him to the ground, over his horse’s crupper. Then the knight besought his mercy. “Mercy thou shalt have,” said Perceval, “if thou wilt make oath to me that thou wilt go to Arthur’s court and tell him that it was I that overthrew thee, for the honor of his service; and say that I will never come to the court until I have avenged the insult offered to the maiden. The knight pledged him faith of this, and proceeded to the court of Arthur and said as he had promised, and conveyed the threat to Sir Kay.

And Perceval rode forward. And within that week he encountered sixteen knights, and overthrew them all shamefully. And they all went to Arthur’s court, taking with them the same message which the first knight had conveyed from Perceval, and the same threat which he had sent to Sir Kay. And thereupon Sir Kay was reproved by Arthur; and Sir Kay was greatly grieved thereat.

And Perceval rode forward. And he came to a lake, on the side of which was a fair castle, and on the border of the lake he saw a hoary–headed man sitting upon a velvet cushion, and his attendants were fishing in the lake. When the hoary–headed man beheld Perceval approaching, he arose and went into the castle. Perceval rode to the castle, and the door was open, and he entered the hall. And the hoary–headed man received Perceval courteously, and asked him to sit by him on the cushion. When it was time, the tables were set, and they went to meat. And when they had finished their meat, the hoary–headed man asked Perceval if he knew how to fight with the sword. “I know not,” said Perceval, “but were I to be taught, doubtless I should.” “Whoever can play well with the cudgel and shield will also be able to fight with a sword.” And the man had two sons; the one had yellow hair and the other auburn. “Arise, youths,” said the old man, “and play with the cudgel and the shield.” And so did they. “Tell me, my son,” said the man, “which of the youths thinkest thou plays best?” “I think,” said Perceval, “that the yellow–haired youth could draw blood if he chose.” “Arise thou, then, and take the cudgel and the shield from the hand of the youth with the auburn hair, and draw blood from the yellow–haired youth if thou canst.” So Perceval arose, and he lifted up his arm, and struck him such a mighty blow that he cut his forehead open from one side to the other. “Ah, my life,” said the old man, “come, now, and sit down, for thou wilt become the best fighter with the sword of any in this island; and I am thy uncle, thy mother’s brother; I am called King Pecheur.[17] Thou shalt remain with me a space, in order to learn the manners and customs of different countries, and courtesy and noble bearing. And this do thou remember: if thou seest aught to cause thy wonder, ask not the meaning of it; if no one has the courtesy to inform thee. the reproach will not fall upon thee, but upon me that am thy teacher.” While Perceval and his uncle discoursed together, Perceval beheld two youths enter the hall, bearing a golden cup and a spear of mighty size, with blood dropping from its point to the ground. And when all the company saw this, they began to weep and lament. But for all that, the man did not break off his discourse with Perceval. And as he did not tell him the meaning of what he saw, he forbore to ask him concerning it. Now the cup that Perceval saw was the Sangreal, and the spear the sacred spear; and afterwards King Pecheur removed with those sacred relics into a far country.

[17] The word means both fisher and sinner.

One evening Perceval entered a valley, and came to a hermit’s cell; and the hermit welcomed him gladly, and there he spent the night. And in the morning he arose, and when he went forth, behold! a shower of snow had fallen in the night, and a hawk had killed a wild–fowl in front of the cell. And the noise of the horse had scared the hawk away, and a raven alighted on the bird. And Perceval stood and compared the blackness of the raven and the whiteness of the snow and the redness of the blood to the hair of the lady that best he loved, which was blacker than jet, and to her skin, which was whiter than the snow, and to the two red spots upon her cheeks, which were redder than the blood upon the snow.

Now Arthur and his household were in search of Perceval, and by chance they came that way. “Know ye,” said Arthur, “who is the knight with the long spear that stands by the brook up yonder?” “Lord,” said one of them, “I will go and learn who he is.” So the youth came to the place where Perceval was, and asked him what he did thus, and who he was. But Perceval was so intent upon his thought that he gave him no answer. Then the youth thrust at Perceval with his lance; and Perceval turned upon him and struck him to the ground. And when the youth returned to the king, and told how rudely he had been treated, Sir Kay said, “I will go myself.” And when he greeted Perceval, and got no answer, he spoke to him rudely and angrily. And Perceval thrust at him with his lance, and cast him down so that he broke his arm and his shoulder–blade. And while he lay thus stunned, his horse returned back at a wild and prancing pace.

Then said Sir Gawain, surnamed the Golden–Tongued, because he was the most courteous knight in Arthur’s court: “It is not fitting that any should disturb an honorable knight from his thought unadvisedly; for either he is pondering some damage that he has sustained, or he is thinking of the lady he best loves. If it seem well to thee, lord, I will go and see if this knight has changed from his thought, and if he has, I will ask him courteously to come and visit thee.”

And Perceval was resting on the shaft of his spear, pondering the same thought, and Sir Gawain came to him, and said, “If I thought it would be as agreeable to thee as it would be to me, I would converse with thee. I have also a message from Arthur unto thee, to pray thee to come and visit him. And two men have been before on this errand.” “That is true,” said Perceval, “and uncourteously they came. They attacked me, and I was annoyed thereat.” Then he told him the thought that occupied his mind, and Gawain said, “This was not an ungentle thought, and I should marvel if it were pleasant for thee to be drawn from it.” Then said Perceval, “Tell me, is Sir Kay in Arthur’s court?” “He is,” said Gawain; “and truly he is the knight who fought with thee last.” “Verily,” said Perceval, “I am not sorry to have thus avenged the insult to the smiling maiden.” Then Perceval told him his name, and said, “Who art thou?” And he replied, “I am Gawain.” “I am right glad to meet thee,” said Perceval, “for I have everywhere heard of thy prowess and uprightness; and I solicit thy fellowship.” “Thou shalt have it, by my faith; and grant me thine,” said he. “Gladly will I do so,” answered Perceval.

So they went together to Arthur, and saluted him. “Behold, lord,” said Gawain, “him whom thou hast sought so long.” “Welcome unto thee, chieftain,” said Arthur. And hereupon there came the queen and her handmaidens, and Perceval saluted them. And they were rejoiced to see him, and bade him welcome. And Arthur did him great honor and respect, and they returned toward Caerleon.

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