Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

Book VI
Tristram of Lyonesse and the Fair Isolde

How Tristram Was Knighted

Sad was the day when the renowned knight, Tristram of Lyonesse, was born, for on that day his mother died, and his father lay in prison through the arts of an enchantress. Therefore he was called Tristram, which signifies one of a sorrowful birth.

It happened that when he was seven years of age his father, King Meliodas, of the country of Lyonesse, married again. His first wife had been Elizabeth, sister of King Mark of Cornwall. He now married the daughter of King Howell of Brittany, a woman who proved of evil soul.

For after the new queen had children of her own she grew to hate the boy who stood between her son and the throne of Lyonesse, and so bitter grew her hatred that in the end she laid a foul plot for his murder. She put poison in a silver cup in the chamber where the young princes were used to play together, with the hope that Tristram when thirsty would drink from that cup. But fate so willed that the queen's own son drank of the poisoned cup, when thirsty from play, and died of it.

This fatal error filled the queen with deep anguish, but it added doubly to her hate, and with murderous intent she again put the poisoned cup into the chamber. But God protected the boy, for this time King Meliodas, being thirsty, saw the envenomed cup of wine, and took it up with purpose to drink. Before he could do so the queen, who was near by, ran hastily forward, snatched the deadly cup from his hand, and threw its contents on the floor.

This hasty act filled the king with suspicion, for the sudden death of his young son had seemed to him like the work of poison. In a burst of passion he caught the guilty woman fiercely by the hand, drew his sword, and swore a mighty oath that he would kill her on the spot, unless she told him what had been in the cup and why it was put there.

At this threat the queen, trembling and weeping with fright, acknowledged that it had been her design to kill Tristram, in order that her son should inherit the kingdom of Lyonesse.

"Thou false traitress and murderess!" cried the king in redoubled passion. "By my royal soul, you shall have the fate you designed for my son. A worse one you shall have, for you shall be burned at the stake as a poisoner."

Then he called a council of his barons, who confirmed this sentence on learning the dark crime of the queen, and by the order of the court a fire of execution was prepared, and the murderess bound to the stake, while fagots were heaped about her drooping form.

The flames were already kindled, and were crawling like deadly serpents through the dry wood, but before they could reach the condemned queen young Tristram kneeled before his father and begged him a boon.

"You shall have it, my son. What would you ask?"

"Grant me the life of the queen. I cannot bear to see her die so terrible a death."

"Ask not that," said the king. "You should hate her who would have poisoned you. I have condemned her more for your sake than my own."

"Yet I beseech you to be merciful to her. I have forgiven her, and pray God to do so. You granted me my boon for God's love, and I hold you to your promise."

"If you will have it so, I cannot withdraw my word," said the king. "I give her to you. Go to the fire and take her, and do with her what you will."

This gladdened the boy's heart, which had been full of horror at the dreadful spectacle, and he hastened to release the victim from the flames.

But after that Meliodas would have nothing to do with her until after years had passed, when Tristram reconciled them with each other. And he sent his son from the court, being afraid the pardoned murderess might devise some new scheme for his destruction. The noble-hearted lad was therefore given as tutor a learned gentleman named Gouvernail, who took him to France, that he might learn the language and be taught the use of arms. There he remained seven years, learning not only the language, but the art of minstrelsy, till he became so skilful that few could equal him in the use of the harp and other instruments of music. And as he grew older he practised much in hunting and hawking, and in time became famous also for his skill in this noble art. He in after-life devised many terms used in hunting, and bugle calls of the chase, so that from him the book of venery, or of hunting and hawking, came to be called the "Book of Sir Tristram."

Thus Tristram grew in accomplishments and nobleness till he attained the age of nineteen years, when he had become a youth of handsome face and powerful form, being large of size and vigorous of limb. The king, his father, had great joy in his promise of lusty manhood, and so had the queen, whose heart had been won to Tristram when he saved her from the flames, and who loved him ever afterwards as much as she had hated him in his childhood. Every one loved him, indeed, for he proved himself a noble and gentle-hearted youth, loyal and kind to all he met, and with a heart free from evil thoughts or selfish desires.

He had learned the use of arms, and knew well how to wield the shield and sword, though as yet he had not sought knighthood by deeds of battle; but events were preparing that would bring him soon from youth to manhood. For it so happened that King Anguish of Ireland sent to King Mark of Cornwall, demanding from him tribute which he said was due, but had not been paid for many years. King Mark sent word back that he owed and would pay no tribute; and that if the King of Ireland wished to prove his claim, he must send a knight who could overcome King Mark's champion.

King Anguish was very angry at this answer, but accepted the challenge, and sent as his champion Sir Marhaus, brother to his wife, that valiant knight who had gone with Gawaine and Uwaine to the country of strange adventures, and had afterwards been made a Knight of the Round Table.

Marhaus accepted the championship, and hastened to Cornwall, where he sent his challenge to King Mark; but the latter had taken no steps to provide himself with a worthy champion. Marhaus thereupon encamped near the castle of Tintagil, whither he daily sent a demand to King Mark either to pay the tribute or to find a knight to fight his battle.

Anxious efforts were now made by the Cornish monarch to find a champion, some of the barons advising him to send to King Arthur's court for Lancelot du Lake. But others dissuaded the king from this, saying that neither Lancelot nor any Knight of the Round Table would fight against their fellow-knight Marhaus. Thus the King of Cornwall was sore put to it to find a champion fit to hold the field against such a knight as Marhaus.

Word of this soon spread over the country and quickly reached the castle of Meliodas, to which young Tristram had long before returned. The heart of the ardent youth filled with anger when he learned that not a knight could be found in all Cornwall able and willing to do battle with the Irish champion.

In fervent haste he sought his father, and asked him what was to be done to save Cornwall from this disgrace.

"I know not," answered the king. "Marhaus is one of the best knights of the Round Table, and there is no knight in this country fit to cope with him."

"I wish heartily that I were a knight," cried Tristram hotly. "If I were, Sir Marhaus should never depart to Ireland and boast that all Cornwall could not furnish a knight ready to break a spear with him. I pray you, dear father, to let me ride to King Mark's court, and beg of him to make me a knight and choose me as his champion."

"Your spirit honors you, my son," said Meliodas. "You have it in you to become an able knight, and I give you full leave to do as your courage prompts you."

Tristram thanked his father warmly for this assent, and, taking horse, rode without delay to the castle of his uncle King Mark. When he reached there he found the king depressed in spirit and the whole court deep in gloom, for it seemed as if no champion could be found, and that the tribute must be paid. Tristram went at once to his uncle and said with modest ardor,—

"Sir, it is a shame and disgrace that Cornwall has no champion. I am but an untried youth, yet, if you will give me the order of knighthood, I stand ready to do battle for you with Sir Marhaus."

"Who are you, and whence come you?" asked the king.

"I come from King Meliodas, who wedded your sister, and I am a gentleman born."

Hope came into the king's eyes when he saw how large and strongly built was his youthful visitor, and marked the spirit of battle in his eyes, but he again demanded his name and place of birth.

"My name is Tristram and I was born in the country of Lyonesse," answered the youth.

"You speak with spirit, and look like the making of a good warrior," said the king. "If you agree to do this battle, I will grant you knighthood."

"It is that, and that alone, brings me here," answered Tristram.

Then the king knighted him, and at once sent word to Sir Marhaus that he had a champion ready to do battle with him to the uttermost.

"That may well be," answered Marhaus, "but I fight not with every springal. Tell King Mark that I shall fight with none but one of royal blood. His champion must be son either of a king or a queen."

This answer King Mark gave to Tristram, and said, gloomily,—

"I fear this rules out your championship."

"Not so," said Tristram. "I came not here to boast, but if I must tell my lineage, you may let him know that I am of as noble blood as he. My father is King Meliodas, and my mother was Elizabeth, your own sister. I am the heir of Lyonesse."

"Is it so?" cried the king, clasping the youth's hands gladly. "Then I bid you warmly welcome, my fair nephew, and I could ask no better nor nobler champion."

He sent word in all haste to Marhaus that a better born man than himself should fight with him, the son of King Meliodas, and his own nephew. And while he waited an answer he took care to find for his nephew the best horse and the finest suit of armor that gold could procure. By the time he was thus provided word came back from Marhaus that he would be glad and blithe to fight with a gentleman of such noble birth. And he requested that the combat should take place in an island near which lay his ships. This being accepted, Tristram was sent thither in a vessel, with his horse and armor, but attended only by his tutor Gouvernail, whom he now made his squire.

On reaching the island Tristram saw on the further shore six ships, but he saw no knight. Then he bade Gouvernail to bring his horse ashore and arm him. This done, he mounted and took his shield, and then said,—

"Where is this knight with whom I have to fight? I see him not."

"Yonder he hovers," answered Gouvernail, "under the shadow of the ships. He waits you on horseback, and fully armed."

"True enough. I see him now. All is well. Do you take the vessel and go back to my uncle Mark, and tell him that if I be slain it will not be through cowardice, and pray him, if I die in fair fight, to see that I be interred honorably; but if I should prove recreant then he shall give me no Christian burial. And come you not near the island, on your life, till you see me overcome or slain, or till I give you the signal of victory."

Then Gouvernail departed, weeping, for his young master had spoken so resolutely that he dared not disobey. Tristram now rode boldly towards Sir Marhaus, who came forward to meet him. Much courteous conversation passed between the two knights, Tristram at the end saying,—

"I trust, Sir Marhaus, to win honor and renown from you, and to deliver Cornwall from tribute forever, and to this end I shall do my best in all valor and honor."

"Fair sir," answered Marhaus, "your spirit pleases me; but as for gaining honor from me, you will lose none if you keep back three strokes beyond my reach, for King Arthur made me not Knight of the Round Table except for good cause."

"That may well be," answered Tristram; "but if I show the white feather in my first battle may I never bear arms again."

Then they put their spears in rest and rode so furiously together that both were hurled to the earth, horse and man alike. But Tristram had the ill fortune to receive a severe wound in the side from the spear of his adversary.

Heedless of this, he drew his sword and met Marhaus boldly and bravely. Then they began a fierce and desperate fight, striking and foining, rushing together in furious onset, and drawing back in cautious heed, while the ring of sword on armor was like that of hammer on anvil. Hours passed in the fight, and the blood flowed freely from the wounds which each had received, yet still they stood boldly up to the combat. But Tristram proved a stronger and better-winded man than Marhaus, and was still fresh when his enemy was growing weary and faint. At the end he threw all his strength into his right arm, and smote Marhaus so mighty a blow on the helm that it cut down through the steel covering and deep into his head, the sword sticking so fast that Tristram could hardly pull it out.

When he did so the edge of the sword was left in the skull, and the wounded knight fell heavily on his knees. But in a minute he rose and, flinging his sword and shield away, fled hastily to his ships.

"Why do you withdraw, Knight of the Round Table?" cried Tristram. "I am but a young knight, but before I would fly from an adversary I would abide to be cut into a thousand pieces."

Marhaus answered only with deep groans of pain and distress.

"Go thy way then, sir knight," said Tristram. "I promise you your sword and shield shall be mine, and I will wear your shield in the sight of King Arthur and all the Round Table, to let them see that Cornwall is not a land of cowards."

While he stood thus, hot with anger, the sails of the ships were spread, and the fleet sailed away, leaving the victor alone on the island. He was deeply wounded and had bled profusely, and when he grew cold from rest could hardly move his limbs. So he seated himself upon a little hillock, while his wounds still bled freely. But Gouvernail, who had kept within sight in the vessel, and had seen the end of the combat, now hastened gladly to the island, where he bound up the young knight's wounds, and then brought him to the main land. Here King Mark and his barons came in procession to meet him, their hearts full of joy and triumph, and the victor was borne in glad procession to the castle of Tintagil. When King Mark saw his deep and perilous wounds he wept heartily, and cried,—

"God help me, I would not for all my lands that my nephew should die!"

But Tristram lay in groaning pain for more than a month, ever in danger of death from the spear-wound he had received from Sir Marhaus. For the spear-head was poisoned, and no leech in the land, with his most healing remedy, could overcome the deadly effect of that venom. The king sent far and wide for skilled doctors, but none could be found whose skill was of any avail. At length there came a learned woman to the court, who told them plainly that the wounded man could never be cured except in the country from which the venom came. He might be helped there, but nowhere else.

When King Mark heard this he had a good vessel prepared, in which Tristram was placed, under charge of Gouvernail, and so set sail for Ireland, though all were strictly warned not to tell who they were or whence they came.

Long before this the fleet of Marhaus had arrived on the Irish coast, and the wounded knight been borne to the king's court, where all was done that could be to save his life, but in vain.

He died soon of his deep wound, and when his head was examined by the surgeons they found therein a piece of Tristram's sword, which had sunk deep into his skull. This piece the queen, his sister, kept, for she was full of revengeful thoughts, and she hoped by its aid to find the man to whom he owed his death.