Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Madness of Sir Tristram

Of the visit of Sir Tristram to Brittany, and the healing of his wound, with the great deeds he did there, and how he overthrew the giant knight Nabon le Noire, we shall not further speak. Letters at length came to him from La Belle Isolde, in which she spoke pitifully of tales that had been brought her, saying that he had been false to her, and had married Isolde the White Handed, daughter of King Howell of Brittany.

On receiving these letters, Tristram set out in all haste for Cornwall, bringing with him Kehydius, King Howell's son. On his way there he had many adventures, and rescued King Arthur from an enchantress, who had brought him near to death in the forest perilous. When at length he came to Cornwall he sought the castle of Dinas the seneschal, his warmest friend, and sent him to tell Queen Isolde that he had secretly returned.

At this longed-for news the queen swooned from pure joy. When she recovered and was able to speak, she said, in pitiful accents,—

"Gentle seneschal, I pray you bring him where I may speak with him, or my heart will break."

"Trust me for that," answered Dinas.

Then he and Dame Bragwaine brought Tristram and Kehydius privately to the court, and to a chamber which Isolde had assigned for them. But to tell the joy of the meeting between Tristram and La Belle Isolde we shall not endeavor, for no tongue could tell it, nor heart think it, nor pen write it.

Yet misfortune still pursued these true lovers, and this time it came from friends instead of foes, for the presence of Kehydius in the castle led to the most doleful and melancholy misfortune which the world ever knew. For, as the chronicles make mention, no sooner had Kehydius seen La Belle Isolde, than he became so enamoured of her that his heart might never more be free. And at last, as we are told, he died from pure love of this beautiful queen, but with that we are not here concerned. But privately he wrote her letters which were full of moving tales of his love, and composed love poems to her which no minstrel of those days might surpass.

All these he managed to put into the queen's hands privately, and at length, when she saw how deeply he was enamoured, she was moved by such pity for his hopeless love that, out of the pure kindness of her heart, she unwisely wrote him a letter, seeking to comfort him in his distress.

Sad was it that pity should bring such sorrow and pain to two loving hearts as came from that fatal letter. For on a day when King Mark sat playing chess at a chamber window, it chanced that La Belle Isolde and Kehydius were in the chamber above, where they awaited the coming of Tristram from the turret-room in which he was secretly accommodated. But as ill luck would have it, there fell into Tristram's hands the last letter which Kehydius had written to the queen, and her answer, which was so worded that it seemed as if she returned his love.

These the young lover had carelessly left in Tristram's chamber, where he found them and thoughtlessly began reading them. But not far had he read when his heart sank deep in woe, and then leaped high in anger. He hurried in all haste to the chamber where Isolde and Kehydius were, the letters in his hand.

"Isolde," he cried, pitifully, "what mean these letters,—this which Kehydius has written you, and this, your answer, with its vile tale of love? Alas! is this my repayment for the love I have lavished on you, that you thus treacherously desert me for the viper that I have brought hither?—As for you, Kehydius, you have foully repaid my trust in you and all my services. But bear you well in mind that I shall be amply revenged for your falsehood and treason."

Then he drew his sword with such a fierce and threatening countenance that Isolde swooned out of pure fear; and Kehydius, when he saw him advancing with murder in his face, saw but one chance for life, and leaped out of a bay window immediately over that where King Mark sat playing at chess.

When the king saw the body of a man hurtling down over his head, so close that he almost touched him as he sat at the window, he sprang up in alarm and cried,—

"What the foul fiend is this? Who are you, fellow? and where in the wide world have you come from?"

Kehydius, who had fallen on his feet, answered the king with ready wit.

"My lord, the king," he said, "blame me not, for I fell in my sleep. I was seated in the window above you, and slumbered there, and you see what has come of it."

"The next time you are sleepy, good fellow, hunt a safer couch," laughed the king, and turned again to his chess.

But Tristram was sure that his presence in the castle would now be known to the king, and hastened to arm himself with such armor as he could find, in dread of an assault in force. But as no one came against him, he sent Gouvernail for his horse and spear, and rode in knightly guise openly from the gates of Tintagil.

At the gate it chanced that he met with Gingalin, the son of Gawaine, who had just arrived; and the young knight, being full of ardor, and having a fancy to tilt with a Cornish warrior, put his spear in rest and rode against Tristram, breaking his spear on him.

Tristram had yet no spear, but he drew his sword and put all his grief and anger into the blow he gave the bold young knight. So hard he struck that Gingalin was flung from his saddle, and the sword, slipping down, cut through the horse's neck, leaving the knight with a headless charger.

Then Tristram rode on until he disappeared in the forest. All this was seen by King Mark, who sent a squire to the hurt knight and asked him who he was. When he knew it was Sir Gingalin, he welcomed him, and proffered him another horse, asking what knight it was he had encountered.

"That I know not," said Gingalin, "but he has a mighty wrist, whoever he is. And he sighed and moaned as if some great disaster had happened him. I shall beware of weeping knights hereafter, if they all strike like this."

As Tristram rode on he met Sir Fergus, one of his own knights, but by this time his grief and pain of heart had grown so bitter that he fell from his horse in a swoon, and lay thus for three days and nights.

When at length he came to himself, he sent Fergus, who had remained with him, to the court, to bring him what tidings he might learn. As Fergus rode forward he met a damsel whom Palamides had sent to inquire about Sir Tristram. Fergus told her how he had met him, and that he was almost out of his mind.

"Where shall I find him?" asked the damsel.

"In such a place," explained Fergus, and rode on to the court, where he learned that Queen Isolde was sick in bed, moaning pitifully, though no one knew the source of her pain.

The damsel meanwhile sought Tristram, whom she found in such grief as she had never before seen, and the more she tried to console him the more he moaned and bewailed. At the last he took his horse and rode deeply into the forest, as if he would be away from all human company.

The damsel now sought him diligently, but it was three days before she could find him, in a miserable woodland hut. Here she brought him meat and drink, but he would eat nothing, and seemed as if he wished to starve himself.

A few days afterwards he fled from her again, and on this occasion it chanced that he rode by the castle before which he and Palamides had fought for La Belle Isolde. Here the damsel found him again, moaning dismally, and quite beside himself with grief. In despair what to do, she went to the lady of the castle and told her of the misfortune of the knight.

"It grieves me to learn this," said the lady. "Where is he?"

"Here, near by your castle."

"I am glad he is so near. He shall have meat and drink of the best, and a harp which I have of his, and on which he taught me to play. For in harping he has no peer in the world."

So they took him meat and drink, but had much ado to get him to eat. And during the night his madness so increased that he drove his horse from him, and unlaced his armor and threw it wildly away. For days afterwards he roamed like a wild man about the wilderness; now in a mad frenzy breaking boughs from the trees, and even tearing young trees up by the roots, and now for hours playing on the harp which the lady had given him, while tears flowed in rivulets from his eyes.

Sometimes, again, when the lady knew not where he was, she would sit down in the wood and play upon the harp, which he had left hanging on a bough. Then Tristram would come like a tamed fawn and listen to her, hiding in the bushes; and in the end would come out and take the harp from her hand and play on it himself, in mournful strains that brought the tears to her eyes.

Thus for a quarter of a year the demented lover roamed the forest near the castle. But at length he wandered deeper into the wilderness, and the lady knew not whither he had gone. Finally, his clothes torn into tatters by the thorns, and he fallen away till he was lean as a hound, he fell into the fellowship of herdsmen and shepherds, who gave him daily a share of their food, and made him do servile tasks. And when he did any deed not to their liking they would beat him with rods. In the end, as they looked upon him as witless, they clipped his hair and beard, and made him look like a fool.

To such a vile extremity had love, jealousy, and despair brought the brave knight Tristram de Lyonesse, that from being the fellow of lords and nobles he became the butt of churls and cowherds. About this time it happened that Dagonet, the fool and merry-maker of King Arthur, rode into Cornwall with two squires, and chance brought them to a well in the forest which was much haunted by the demented knight. The weather was hot, and they alighted and stooped to drink at the well, while their horses ran loose. As they bent over the well in their thirst, Tristram suddenly appeared, and, moved by a mad freak, he seized Dagonet and soused him headforemost in the well, and the two squires after him. The dripping victims crawled miserably from the water, amid the mocking laughter of the shepherds, while Tristram ran after the stray horses. These being brought, he forced the fool and the squires to mount, soaked as they were, and ride away.

But after Tristram had departed, Dagonet and the squires returned, and accusing the shepherds of having set that madman on to assail them, they rode upon the keepers of beasts and beat them shrewdly. Tristram, as it chanced, was not so far off but that he saw this ill-treatment of those who had fed him, and he ran back, pulled Dagonet from the saddle, and gave him a stunning fall to the earth. Then he wrested the sword from his hand and with it smote off the head of one of the squires, while the other fled in terror. Tristram followed him, brandishing the sword wildly, and leaping like a madman as he rushed into the forest.

When Dagonet had recovered from his swoon, he rode to King Mark's court, and there told what had happened to him in the wildwood.

"Let all beware," he said, "how they come near that forest well. For it is haunted by a naked madman, and that fool soused me, King Arthur's fool, and had nearly slain me."

"That must be Sir Matto le Breune," said King Mark, "who lost his wit because Sir Gaheris robbed him of his lady."

Meanwhile, Kehydius had been ordered out of Cornwall by Queen Isolde, who blamed him for all that had happened, and with a dolorous heart he obeyed. By chance he met Palamides, to whom the damsel had reported the sad condition of the insane knight, and for days they sought him together, but in vain.

But at Tintagil a foul scheme was laid by Andred, Tristram's cousin and foe, to gain possession of his estates. This villain got a lady to declare that she had nursed Tristram in a fatal illness, that he had died in her care, and had been buried by her near a forest well; and she further said that before his death he had left a request that King Mark would make Andred king of Lyonesse, of which country Tristram now was lord.

On hearing these tidings, King Mark made a great show of grief, weeping and lamenting as if he had lost his best friend in the world. But when the news came to La Belle Isolde, so deep a weight of woe fell upon her that she nearly went out of her mind. So deeply did she grieve, indeed, that she vowed to destroy herself, declaring bitterly that she would not live if Tristram was dead.

So she secretly got a sword and went with it into her garden, where she forced the hilt into a crevice in a plum-tree so that the naked point stood out breast high. Then she kneeled down and prayed piteously: "Sweet Lord Jesus, have pity on me, for I may not live after the death of Sir Tristram. My first love he was, and he shall be my last."

All this had been seen by King Mark, who had followed her privily, and as she rose and was about to cast herself on the sword he came behind and caught her in his arms. Then he tore the sword from the tree, and bore her away, struggling and moaning, to a strong tower, where he set guards upon her, bidding them to watch her closely. After that she lay long sick, and came nigh to the point of death.

Meanwhile, Tristram ran wildly through the forest, with Dagonet's sword in his hand, till he came to a hermitage, where he lay down and slept. While he slumbered, the hermit, who knew of his madness, stole the sword from him and laid meat beside him. Here he remained ten days, and afterwards departed and returned to the herdsmen.

And now another adventure happened. There was in that country a giant named Tauleas, brother to that Taulard whom Sir Marhaus had killed. For fear of Tristram he had for seven years kept close in his castle, daring not to go at large and commit depredations as of old. But now, hearing the rumor that Tristram was dead, he resumed his old evil courses. And one day he came to where the herdsmen were engaged, and seated himself to rest among them. By chance there passed along the road near by a Cornish knight named Sir Dinant, with whom rode a lady.

When the giant saw them coming, he left the herdsmen and hid himself under a tree near a well, deeming that the knight would stop there to drink. This he did, but no sooner had he sought the well than the giant slipped from his covert and leaped upon the horse. Then he rode upon Sir Dinant, took him by the collar, and pulled him before him upon the horse, reaching for his dagger to strike off his head.

At this moment the herdsmen called to Tristram, who had just come from the forest depths: "Help the knight."

"Help him yourselves," said Tristram.

"We dare not," they replied.

Then Tristram ran up and seized the sword of the knight, which had fallen to the ground, and with one broad sweep struck off the head of Tauleas clean from the shoulders. This done he dropped the sword as if he had done but a trifle and went back to the herdsmen.

Shortly after this, Sir Dinant appeared at Tintagil, bearing with him the giant's head, and there told what had happened to him and how he had been rescued.

"Where had you this adventure?" asked the king.

"At the herdsmen's fountain in the forest," said Dinant. "There where so many knights-errant meet. They say this madman haunts that spot."

"He cannot be Matto le Breune, as I fancied," said the king. "It was a man of no small might who made that stroke. I shall seek this wild man myself."

On the next day King Mark, with a following of knights and hunters, rode into the forest, where they continued their course till they came to the well. Lying beside it they saw a gaunt, naked man, with a sword beside him. Who he was they knew not, for madness and exposure had so changed Tristram's face that no one knew it.

By the king's command he was picked up slumbering and covered with mantles, and thus borne in a litter to Tintagil. Here they bathed and washed him, and gave him warm food and gentle care, till his madness passed away and his wits came back to him. But no one knew him, so much had he changed, while all deemed Tristram dead, and had no thought of him.

Word of what had happened came to Isolde where she lay sick, and with a sudden whim she rose from her bed and bade Bragwaine come with her, as she had a fancy to see the forest madman.

Asking where he was, she was told that he was in the garden, resting in an arbor, in a light slumber. Hither they sought him and looked down upon him, knowing him not.

But as they stood there Tristram woke, and when he saw the queen he turned away his head, while tears ran from his eyes. It happened that the queen had with her a little brachet, which Tristram had given her when she first came to Cornwall, and which always remembered and loved its old master.

When this little creature came near the sick man, she leaped upon him and licked his cheeks and hands, and whined about him, showing great joy and excitement.

"The dog is wiser than us all," cried Dame Bragwaine. "She knows her master. They spoke falsely who said he was dead. It is Sir Tristram."

But Isolde fell to the ground in a swoon, and lay there long insensible. When at length she recovered, she said,—

"My dear lord and knight, I thank God deeply that you still live, for the story of your death had nearly caused mine. Your life is in dread danger, for when King Mark knows you he will either banish or destroy you. Therefore I beg you to fly from this court and seek that of King Arthur where you are beloved. This you may trust, that at all times, early and late, my love for you will keep fresh in my heart."

"I pray you leave me, Isolde," answered the knight. "It is not well that you should be seen here. Fear not that I will forget what you have said."

Then the queen departed, but do what she would the brachet would not follow her, but kept with the sick knight. Soon afterwards King Mark visited him, and to his surprise the brachet sat upon the prostrate man and bayed at the king.

"What does this mean?" he asked.

"I can tell you," answered a knight. "That dog was Sir Tristram's before it was the queen's. The brachet is wiser than us all. It knows its master."

"That I cannot believe," said the king. "Tell me your name, my good man."

"My name is Tristram of Lyonesse," answered the knight. "I am in your power. Do with me what you will."

The king looked at him long and strangely, with anger in his eyes.

"Truly," he said, "you had better have died while you were about it. It would have saved me the need of dealing with you as you deserve."

Then he returned to the castle, and called his barons hastily to council, sternly demanding that the penalty of death should be adjudged against the knight. Happily for Tristram, the barons would not consent to this, and proposed instead that the accused knight should be banished.

So in the end the sentence was passed that Tristram should be banished for ten years from the country of Cornwall, not to return under pain of death. To this the knight assented, taking an oath before the king and his barons that he would abide by the decision of the court.

Many barons accompanied him to the ship in which he was to set sail. And as he was going, there arrived at Tintagil a knight of King Arthur's court named Dinadan, who had been sent to seek Sir Tristram and request him to come to Camelot.

On being shown the banished knight, he went to him and told his errand.

"You come in good season," said Tristram, "for to Camelot am I now bound."

"Then I would go with you in fellowship."

"You are right welcome, Sir Dinadan." Then Tristram turned to the others and said,—

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


"Greet King Mark from me, and all my enemies as well, and tell them that I shall come again in my own good time. I am well rewarded for all I have done for him, but revenge has a long life, as he may yet learn."

Then he took ship and put to sea, a banished man. And with him went Dinadan to cheer him in his woe, for, of all the knights of the Round Table, Dinadan was the merriest soul.