Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris




Guenever and the Round Table

And now we have to tell the story of how King Arthur got his fair wife Guenever, and how the Round Table was brought to England's realm.

After the defeat of the eleven kings, Arthur had rescued King Leodegrance of Cameliard from King Ryons, and put the latter with all his host to flight. And at the court of Leodegrance he saw his charming daughter Guenever, whom he ever after loved.

So it fell upon a time that Arthur said to Merlin,—

"My barons give me no peace, but day by day insist that I shall take a wife. But whether I marry or not, I shall take no step without your counsel and advice."

"Your barons counsel well," said Merlin. "A man of your bounty and nobleness should not be without a wife. Is there any one woman that you love beyond others?"

"Yes, by my faith there is," said Arthur. "I love Guenever, the daughter of King Leodegrance, of Cameliard, he who has in his house the Round Table, which you have told me he had of my father King Uther. This damsel is the loveliest lady that I know, or could ever hope to find."

"Of her beauty and fairness no man can question," said Merlin. "If your heart were not set, I could find you a damsel of beauty and goodness that would please you as well. But where a man's heart is fixed there will he turn against the counsel of wise and foolish alike."

"You speak the truth," said Arthur.

Covertly, however, Merlin warned the king that Guenever would bring trouble to his court and his heart, and counselled him to weigh well what he thought to do. But Arthur's love was warm, and the wise man's counsel, as he had said, fell like water on a stone. Thereupon Merlin went to Cameliard and told King Leodegrance of Arthur's wish.

"This is to me," said Leodegrance, "the best tidings that any man living could bring; that a monarch of such prowess and nobleness should ask to wed my daughter. Cheerfully will I give her, and I would give lands in dowry with her, but of that he has enough already. Yet I can send him a gift that will please him far more than lands or treasure, no less a gift than the Table Round, which Uther Pendragon gave me, and around which may be seated a hundred and fifty knights. As for myself, I have but a hundred knights worthy to sit at the table, but these I will send to Arthur, who must complete the tale himself."

And so, with Guenever, and the Round Table, and the hundred knights, Merlin set out for London, where Arthur then was, and whither the noble cavalcade rode in royal procession through the land.

When King Arthur heard of their coming his heart was filled with joy, and he said to those around him,—

"This fair lady is very welcome to me, for I have loved her long. And these knights with the Round Table please me more than if the greatest riches had been sent, for I value worth and prowess far above wealth and honors."

He ordered the marriage and coronation to be prepared for in royal pomp, but with no needless delay.

"And, Merlin," he said, "I pray you to go and seek me out fifty knights of the highest honor and valor, to complete the tale of my Round Table Knights."

Merlin went, and in a short time brought twenty-eight knights whom he deemed worthy of that high honor, but no more could he find.

Then the Archbishop of Canterbury was brought, and he blessed the seats of the Round Table with great worship and ceremony, and placed the twenty-eight knights in their chairs. When this was done Merlin said,—

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris

KING ARTHUR'S FAIR LOVE


"Fair sirs, you must all rise and come to King Arthur and do him homage. For henceforth you are his chosen knights, and must so declare. And know you well, that great shall be the future honor and fame of all who worthily occupy these seats."

At this request the knights arose, and did homage to the king. And when they had risen from their seats there appeared in each in letters of gold the name of him who had sat therein. But two seats were wanting from the full tale.

"What is the reason of this?" asked Arthur. "Why are there two seats lacking?"

"Sir," answered Merlin, "no man shall occupy those places but the most worshipful of knights. And in the Seat Perilous, which adjoins them, no man shall sit but one, and if any one unworthy of this honor shall be so hardy as to attempt it, he shall be destroyed. He that shall sit there shall have no fellow."

Anon came young Gawaine, the son of King Lot, a squire of handsome mien, who asked of the king a gift.

"Ask, and I shall grant it," answered the king.

"I ask that you make me knight on the day you wed fair Guenever."

"That shall I do willingly," said Arthur, "and with what worship I may, since you are my nephew, my sister's son."

[Here it is proper to say that Arthur had three sisters, the daughters of Queen Igraine and her first husband, the Duke of Tintagil. One of these, Margawse, had married King Lot, and had four sons, all of whom became valiant knights; Elaine, the second, had married King Neutres of Garlot; the third sister, Morgan le Fay, had been put to school, where she became learned in the art of necromancy; of the fourth the chronicles fail to speak.]

Hardly had Gawaine spoken when there came riding into the court a poor man, who brought with him a fair-faced youth, of eighteen years of age, riding upon a lean mare.

"Sir, will you grant me a gift?" the old man asked of the king. "I was told that you would at the time of your marriage grant any gift that was asked for in reason."

"That is true," said the king. "What would you have?"

"Jesu save you, most gracious king. I ask nothing more than that you make my son a knight."

"It is a great thing you ask," said the king. "Who are you, and what claim has your son to this high honor?"

"I am but a cowherd, great sir, and am the father of thirteen sons. But this one is unlike all the rest. He will do no labor, and cares for nothing but warlike sports, and seeing knights and battles. And day and night he craves for knighthood."

"What is thy name?" the king asked the young man.

"Sir, my name is Tor."

The king looked at him closely. He was of handsome face, and was very well made and strong of limb and body.

"Where is the sword with which this youth shall be made knight?" asked the king.

"It is here," said Tor.

"Then draw it from the scabbard, and require me to make you a knight."

At these words the youth sprang lightly and gladly from his mare, drew the sword, and kneeled before the king, asking him in earnest tones to make him a Knight of the Round Table.

"A knight I will make you," answered the king. "But the Round Table is not for untried youth."

Thereupon he smote him upon the neck with the sword, and said,—

"Be you a good knight, and I pray God you may be so. If you prove of prowess and worth I promise you shall in good time have a seat at the Round Table."

"Now, Merlin," said Arthur, "tell me whether this Tor will be a good knight or not."

"He should be so," answered Merlin, "for he comes of kingly blood. The cowherd here is no more his father than I, but he is the son of the good knight, King Pellinore, whose prowess you have much reason to know."

By good hap King Pellinore himself came next morning to the court, and was glad to find what honor had been done his son, whom he gladly acknowledged as his.

Then Merlin took Pellinore by the hand and led him to the seat next the Seat Perilous.

"This is your place at the Round Table," he said. "There is none here so worthy as yourself to sit therein."

At a later hour of that eventful day, in the city of London, and at the Church of Saint Stephen, King Arthur was wedded unto Dame Guenever, with the highest pomp and ceremony, and before as noble an assemblage of knights and ladies as the land held.

Afterwards a high feast was made, and as the knights sat, each in his appointed place, at the Round Table, Merlin came to them and bade them sit still.

"For you shall see a strange and marvellous happening," he said.

Hardly had he spoken before there came running a white hart into the hall, closely followed by a white brachet [small scenting dog], while thirty couple of black hounds in full cry came after, and chased the hart round the feasting boards and then round the Round Table.

As they ran the brachet caught the hart by the haunch, and bit out a piece, whereupon the wounded animal made a great leap over a table, and through a window, with such force as to overthrow a knight. Through the window the hounds followed, in full cry.

The fallen knight quickly rose, took up the brachet in his arms, and left the hall. Seeking his horse, he rode away, carrying the brachet with him. But hardly had he gone when a lady came riding into the hall on a white palfrey, and crying aloud to King Arthur,—

"Sir, suffer not yonder knight to do me this wrong. The brachet that he has taken away is mine."

She had but ceased speaking when an armed knight rode up on a great horse, and took her away by force, though she bitterly cried and called for aid.

"This affair must not be taken lightly," said Merlin to the king. "The honor of your court requires that you shall redress all wrongs, and here, at your marriage feast, have great wrongs been done."

"What do you advise?" asked the king. "I shall be governed by your counsel."

"Then," answered Merlin, "call Sir Gawaine, for he must bring again the white hart. Also call Sir Tor, for to him must be assigned the adventure of the knight and the brachet. As for the lady and the knight, King Pellinore must bring them, or slay the knight if he will not come."

Thereupon they were all three called, and they armed and rode forth on the errands assigned them. Many and strange were the adventures of these valiant knights, but we have matter of more moment to tell, and so cannot relate their valorous deeds. We can but say that Gawaine brought back the head of the hart, and little honor with it, for by an evil accident he killed a lady, and barely escaped with life from her champions.

Sir Tor had better fortune, for he brought the brachet alive, and won much honor from his deeds.

King Pellinore was also successful in his quest, for he brought back the lady in safety, after having fought with and slain her kidnapper. This lady's name was Nimue, and of her we shall have many strange things to tell hereafter.

Thus ended the three quests which followed the marriage of King Arthur and Guenever the fair. Afterwards the king established his knights, giving lands to those who were poor, and enjoining all against outrage, and in favor of mercy and gentleness. He also bade them to succor all ladies in distress, and never to engage in a wrongful quarrel, or to strive for worldly goods.

Unto this were sworn all the Knights of the Round Table, old and young. And it was ordained that they should renew their oaths every year at the high feast of Pentecost, that their obligations might never be forgotten, and the honor and renown of the glorious fellowship of the Round Table never decline.

In this manner began, that illustrious career of the Knights of the Round Table, which was destined to shed the greatest glory on Arthur's reign, and to fill the whole world with its fame. Valorous as were the knights who first composed that noble order of chivalry, it was afterwards to include such world-renowned warriors as Lancelot du Lake, Tristram de Lyonesse, and others of little less prowess, the story of whose noble exploits and thrilling adventures was destined to be told by bards and sung by minstrels till all time should ring with the tale, and men of honor in far future days be stirred to emulation of these worthy knights of old.