High History of the Graal; Perlesvaus
The story saith that King Arthur goeth his way
and Lancelot and Messire Gawain with him, and they had ridden so far one day
that night came on in a forest and they might find no hold. Messire Gawain
marvelled him much that they had ridden the day long without finding neither
hold nor hermitage. Night was come and the sky was dark and the forest full of
gloom. They knew not whitherward to turn to pass the night.
"Lords," saith the King, "Where may we be able to alight to-
"Sir, we know not, for this forest is fight wearisome."
They make the squire climb up a tall tree and tell him to look as far as he may
to try whether he may espy any hold or house where they may lodge. The squire
looketh on all sides, and then telleth them he seeth a fire a long way off as if
it were in a waste house, but that he seeth nought there save the fire and the
"Take good heed," saith Lancelot, "in which quarter it is, so
that you may know well how to lead us thither."
He saith that right eath may he lead them.
With that he cometh down and mounteth again on
his hackney, and they go forward a great pace and ride until they espy the fire
and the hold. They pass on over a bridge of wattles, and find the courtyard all
deserted and the house from within great and high and hideous. But there was a
great fire within whereof the heat might be felt from afar. They alight of their
horses, and the squire draweth them on one side amidst the hall, and the knights
set them beside the fire all armed. The squire seeth a chamber in the house and
entereth thereinto to see if he may find any meat for the horses, but he cometh
forth again the swiftest he may and crieth right sweetly on the Mother of the
Saviour. They ask him what aileth him, and he saith that he hath found the most
treacherous chamber ever he found yet, for he felt there, what with heads and
what with hands, more than two hundred men dead, and saith that never yet felt
he so sore afeared. Lancelot went into the chamber to see whether he spake true,
and felt the men that lay dead, and groped among them from head to head and felt
that there was a great heap of them there, and came back and sate at the fire
all laughing. The King asketh whether the squire had told truth. Lancelot
answereth him yea, and that never yet had he found so many dead men together.
"Methinketh," saith Messire Gawain, "Sith that they are dead we
have nought to fear of them, but God protect us from the living."
While they were talking thus, behold you a
damsel that cometh into the dwelling on foot and all alone, and she cometh
lamenting right grievously.
"Ha, God!" saith she, "How long a penance is this for me, and
when will it come to an end?"
She seeth the knights sitting in the midst of the house. "Fair Lord
God," saith she, "Is he there within through whom I am to escape from
this great dolour?"
The knights hearken to her with great wonderment. They look and see her enter
within the door, and her kirtle was all torn with thorns and briars in the
forest. Her feet were all bleeding for that she was unshod. She had a face of
exceeding great beauty. She carried the half of a dead man, and cast it into the
chamber with the others. She knew Lancelot again so soon as she saw him.
"Ha, God !" saith she, "I am quit of my penance! Sir," saith
she, "Welcome may you be, you and your company!"
Lancelot looketh at her in wonderment. "Damsel," saith he, "Are
you a thing on God's behalf?"
"Certes, Sir," saith she, "Yea! nor be you adread of nought! I am
the Damsel of the Castle of Beards, that was wont to deal with knights so
passing foully as you have seen. You did away the toll that was levied on the
knights that passed by, and you lay in the castle that demanded it of them that
passed through the demesne thereof. But you had me in covenant that so the Holy
Graal should appear unto you, you would come back to me, for otherwise never
should I have been willing to let you go. You returned not, for that you saw not
the Graal. For the shame that I did to knights was this penance laid upon me in
this forest and this manor, to last until such time as you should come. For the
cruelty I did them was sore grievous, for never was knight brought to me but I
made his nose be cut off or his eyes thrust out, and some were there as you saw
that had their feet or their hands stricken off. Now have I paid full dear
thereof since, for needs must I carry into this chamber all the knights that are
slain in this forest, and within this manor must I cast them according to the
custom thereof, alone, without company; and this knight that I carried in but
now hath lain so long in the forest that wild beasts have eaten half of his
body. Now am I quit of this foul penance, thanks to God and to you, save only
that I must go back when it shall be daylight in like manner as I came
"Damsel," saith Lancelot, "Right glad am I that we should have
come to lodge the night here within, for love of you, for I never saw I damsel
that might do so cruel penance."
"Sir," saith she, "You know not yet what it is, but you will know
it ere long this night, both you and your fellows, and the Lord God shield you
from death and from mischief! Every night cometh a rout of knights that are
black and foul and hideous, albeit none knoweth whence they come, and they do
battle right sore the one against other, and the stour endureth of a right long
while; but one knight that came within yonder by chance, the first night I came
hither, in like manner as you have come, made a circle round me with his sword,
and I sate within it as soon as I saw them coming, and so had I no dread of
them, for I had in remembrance the Saviour of the World and His passing sweet
Mother. And you will do the same, and you believe me herein, for these are
Lancelot draweth his sword and maketh a great circle round the house-place, and
they were within.
Thereupon, behold you the knights that come
through the forest with such a rushing as it seemed they would rend it all up by
the roots. Afterward, they enter into the manor and snatch great blazing
firebrands and fling them one at another. They enter into the house battling
together, and are keen to fall upon the knights, but they may not. They hurl the
firebrands at them from afar, but they are holding their shields and their
swords naked. Lancelot maketh semblant as though he would leap towards them, and
sore great cowardize it seemeth him nor to go against them.
"Sir," saith the damsel, "Take heed that you go not forth of the
circle, for you will be in sore jeopardy of death, for well you see what evil
folk be these."
Lancelot was nor minded to hold himself back, but that he would go toward them
sword drawn, and they run upon him on all sides, but he defendeth him stoutly
and smiteth the burning firebrands so that he maketh red-hot charcoal fly, and
thrusreth his sword amidst their faces. King Arthur and Messire Gawain leap up
to help Lancelot and smite upon these evil folk and cut them limb from limb, and
they bellow like fiends so that the whole forest resoundeth thereof. And when
they fell to the ground, they may no longer endure, but become fiends and ashes,
and their bodies and their horses become devils all black in the shape of ravens
that come forth of their bodies. They marvel right sore what this may be, and
say that such hostel is right grievous.
When they had put them all to the worse, they
sate them down again and rested; but scarce were they seated or ever another
rout of yet blacker folk came about them, and they bare spears burning and
flaming, and many of them carried dead knights that they had slain in the
forest, and dropped them in the midst of the house, and then bid the damsel
carry and set them with the others. Howbeit, she answereth that she is quit of
their commandment and service, nor no longer is forced to do nought for them
sith that she hath done her penance. They thrust forward their spears toward the
King and the two knights, as though they were come to avenge their companions;
but they all three leapt up together and attacked them right stoutly. But this
rout was greater and of knights more hideous. They began to press the King and
his knights hard, and they might not put them to the worse as they did the
others. And while they were thus in the thickest of the conflict, they heard the
stroke of a bell sounding, and forthwith the knight fiends departed and hurried
away a great pace.
"Lords," saith the damsel, "Had this sound not been heard, scarce
might you have endured, for yet another huge rout of this folk was coming in
such sort as that none might have withstood them, and this sound have I heard
every night, whereby my life hath been saved."
Josephus telleth us that as at this time was
there no bell neither in Greater Britain nor in Lesser; but folk were called
together by a horn, and in many places there were sheets of steel, and in other
places clappers of wood. King Arthur marvelled him much of this sound, so clear
and sweet was it, and it well seemed him that it came on God's behalf, and right
fain was he to see a bell and so he might. They were the night until the morrow
in the house, as I tell you. The damsel took leave of them and so departed. As
they came forth of the hold, they met three hermits that told them they were
going to search for the bodies that were in this manor so that they might bury
them in a waste chapel that was hard by, for such knights had lain there as that
henceforward the haunting of the evil folk would be stayed in such sort as that
they would have no more power to do hurt to any, wherefore they would set
therewithin a worshipful hermit that should build up the place in holiness for
the service of God. The King was right joyful thereof, and told them that it had
been too perilous. They parted from the hermits and entered into a forest, nor
was there never a day so long as King Arthur was on pilgrimage, so saith the
history, but he heard the sound of one single bell every hour, whereof he was
right glad. He bade Messire Gawain and Lancelot that they should everywhere
conceal his name, and that they should call him not Lord but Comrade. They
yielded him his will, and prayed to Our Lord that he would guide and lead them
to such a castle and such a hostel as that they might be lodged honourably
therein. They rode on until evening drew nigh, and they found a right fair hold
in the forest, whereinto they entered and alighted. The damsel of the hold came
to meet them and made them right great cheer, then made them be disarmed,
afterward bringeth them right rich robes to wear. She looketh at Lancelot and
knoweth him again.
"Sir," saith she, "You had
once, on a day that is past, right great pity of me, and saved me my honour,
whereof am I in great unhappiness. But better love I to suffer misease in honour, than to have plenty and abundance in shame or reproach, for shame
endureth, but sorrow is soon overpassed."
Thereupon behold you the knight of the hold, whither he cometh from shooting in
the forest and maketh carry in full great plenty venison of deer and wild boar.
He alighted to greet the knights, and began to laugh when he saw Lancelot.
"By my head," saith he, "I know you well For you disappointed me
of the thing I best loved in the world, and made me marry this damsel that never
yet had joy of me, nor never shall have."
"Faith, Sir," saith Lancelot, "You will do your pleasure therein,
for she is yours. Truth it is that I made you marry her, for you were fain to do
her a disgrace and a shame in such sort that her kinsfolk would have had shame
"By my head," saith the knight, "the damsel that I loved before
loveth you no better hereof, nay, rather, fain would she procure your vexation
and your hurt and your shame if she may, and great power hath she in this
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "I have sithence spoken to her and she to
me, and so hath she told me her will and her wish."
Thereupon the knight bade the knights take water, and the lady taketh the basins
and presenteth water to the knights.
"Avoid, damsel," saith the King, "Take it away! Never, please
God, shall it befall that we should accept such service from you."
"By my head," saith the knight, "But so must you needs do, for
other than she shall not serve you to-night in this matter, or otherwise shall
you not eat with me this night there within."
Lancelot understandeth that the knight is not
overburdened of courtesy, and he seeth the table garnished of good meat, and
bethinketh him he will not do well to lose such ease, for misease enough had
they the night before. He maketh the King take water of the lady, and the same
service did she for all of them. The knight biddeth them be seated. The King
would have made the lady sit beside him at the table, but the knight said that
there she should not sit. She goeth to sit among the squires as she was wont to
do. The knights are sorry enough thereof, but they durst not gainsay the will of
her lord. When they had eaten, the knight said to Lancelot, "Now may you
see what she hath gained of me by your making me take her perforce, nor never,
so help me God, so long as I live shall she be honoured otherwise by me, for so
have I promised her that I love far more."
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "To my thinking you do ill herein and a
sin, and meseemeth you should have great blame thereof of them that know it, and
may your churlishness be your own, for nought thereof take I to myself."
Lancelot telleth the King and Messire Gawain
that were he not lodged in his hostel, and had him outside of the hold, he would
willingly have set the blood of his body on it but he would have handled him in
such sort as that the lady should be maintained in greater honour, either by
force or by prayer, in like manner as he did when he made him marry her. They
were right well lodged the night and lay in the hold until the morrow, when they
departed thence, and rode right busily on their journeys until they came into a
very different land, scarce inhabited of any folk, and found a little castle in
a combe. They came thitherward and saw that the enclosure of the castle was
fallen down into an abysm, so that none might approach it on that side, but it
had a right fair gateway and a door tall and wide whereby one entered. They
beheld a chapel that was right fair and rich, and below was a great ancient
hall. They saw a priest appear in the midst of the castle, bald and old, that
had come forth of the chapel. They are come thither and alighted, and asked the
priest what the castle was, and he told them that it was the great Tintagel.
"And how is this ground all caved in about the castle?"
"Sir," saith the priest, "I will tell you. Sir," saith he,
"King Uther Pendragon, that was father of King Arthur, held a great court
and summoned all his barons. The King of this castle that then was here was
named Gorlois. He went to the court and took his wife with him, that was named
Ygerne, and she was the fairest dame in any kingdom. King Uther sought
acquaintance of her for her great beauty, and regarded her and honoured her more
than all the others of his court. King Gorlois departed thence and made the
Queen come back to this castle for the dread that he had of King Uther Pendragon. King Uther was very wroth with him, and commanded him to send back
the Queen his wife. King Gorlois said that he would not. Thereupon King Uther
Pendragon defied him, and then laid siege about this castle where the Queen was.
King Gorlois was gone to seek for succour. King Uther Pendragon had Merlin with
him of whom you have heard tell, that was so crafty. He made him be changed into
the semblance of King Gorlois, so that he entered there within by Merlin's art
and lay that night with the Queen, and so begat King Arthur in a great hall that
was next to the enclosure there where this abysm is. And for this sin hath the
ground sunken in on this wise."
He cometh with them toward the chapel that was right fair, and had a right rich
"Lords, in this sepulchre was placed the body of Merlin, but never mought
it be set inside the chapel, wherefore perforce it remained outside. And know of
a very truth that the body lieth not within the sepulchre, for, so soon as it
was set therein, it was taken out and snatched away, either on God's behalf or
the Enemy's, but which we know not."
"Sir," saith King Arthur, "And
what became of King Gorlois?"
"Sir." saith he, "The King slew him on the morrow of the night he
lay with his wife, and so forthwith espoused Queen Ygerne, and in such manner as
I tell you was King Arthur conceived in sin that is now the best King in the
King Arthur hath heard this as concerning his birth that he knew not, and is a
little shamed thereof and confounded on account of Messire Gawain and Lancelot.
He himself marvelleth much thereof, and much it misliketh him that the priest
hath said so much. They lay the night in the hold, and so departed thence on the
morrow when they had heard mass. Lancelot and Messire Gawain, that thought they
knew the forest, found the land so changed and different that they knew not
whither they were become, and such an one as should come into the land that had
been King Fisherman's, and he should come again another time within forty days,
should not find the castle within a year.
Josephus telleth us that the semblances of the
islands changed themselves by reason of the divers adventures that by the
pleasure of God befell therein, and that the quest of adventures would not have
pleased the knights so well and they had not found them so different. For, when
they had entered into a forest or an island where they had found any adventure,
and they came there another time, they found holds and castles and adventures of
another kind, so that their toils and travails might not weary them, and also
for that God would that the land should be conformed to the New Law. And they
were the knights that had more toil and travail in seeking adventures than all
the knights of the world before them, and in holding to that whereof they had
made covenant; nor of no court of no king in the world went forth so many good
knights as went forth from the court of King Arthur, and but that God loved them
so much, never might they have endured such toil and travail as they did from
day to day; for without fait, good knights were they, and good knights not only
to deal hard buffets, but rather in that they were loyal and true, and had faith
in the Saviour of the World and His sweet Mother, and therefore dreaded shame
and loved honour. King Arthur goeth on his way and Messire Gawain and Lancelot
with him, and they pass through many strange countries, and so enter into a
great forest. Lancelot called to remembrance the knight that he had slain in the
Waste City whither behoved him to go, and knew well that the day whereon he
should come was drawing nigh. He told King Arthur as much, and then said, that
and he should go not, he would belie his covenant. They rode until they came to
a cross where the ways forked.
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "Behoveth me go to acquit me of my pledge,
and I go in great adventure and peril of death, nor know I whether I may live at
all thereafter, for I slew the knight, albeit I was right sorry thereof, but or
ever I slew him, I had to swear that I would go set my head in the like jeopardy
as he had set his. Now the day draweth nigh that I must go thither, for I am
unwilling to fail of my covenant, whereof I should be blamed, and, so God grant
me to escape therefrom, I will follow you speedily."
The King embraceth him and kisseth him at parting and Messire Gawain also, and
they pray God preserve his body and his life, and that they may see him again
ere it be long. Lancelot would willingly have sent salute to the Queen had he
durst, for she lay nearer his heart than aught beside, but he would not that the
King nor Messire Gawain should misdeem of the love they might carry to their
kinswoman. The love is so rooted in his heart that he may not leave it, into
what peril soever he may go; rather, he prayeth God every day as sweetly as he
may, that He save the Queen, and that he may deliver his body from this
jeopardy. He hath ridden until that he cometh at the hour of noon into the Waste
City, and findeth the city empty as it was the first time he was there.
In the city wherein Lancelot had arrived were
many waste houses and rich palaces fallen down. He had scarce entered within the
city when he heard a great cry and lamentation of dames and damsels, but he knew
not on which side it was, and they say: "Ha, God, how hath the knight
betrayed us that slew the knight, inasmuch as he returneth not! This day is the
day come that he ought to redeem his pledge! Never again ought any to put trust
in knight, for that he cometh not! The others that came hither before him have
failed us, and so will he also for dread of death; for he smote off the head of
the comeliest knight that was in this kingdom and the best, wherefore ought he
also to have his own smitten off, but good heed taketh he to save it if he
Thus spake the damsels. Lancelot much marvelled where they might be, for nought
could he espy of them, albeit he cometh before the palace, there where he slew
the knight. He alighteth, then maketh fast his horse's reins to a ring that was
fixed in the mounting-stage of marble. Scarce hath he done so, when a knight
alighteth, tall and comely and strong and deliver, and he was clad in a short
close-fitted jerkin of silk, and held the axe in his hand wherewith Lancelot had
smitten off the head of the other knight, and he came sharpening it on a
whetstone to cut the better. Lancelot asketh him, "What will you do with
"By my head," saith the knight, "That shall you know in such sort
as my brother knew when you cut off his head, so I may speed of my
"How?" saith Lancelot, "Will you slay me then?"
"That shall you know," saith he, "or ever you depart hence. Have
you not loyally promised hereof that you would set your head in the same
jeopardy as the knight set his, whom you slew without defence? And no otherwise
may you depart therefrom. Wherefore now come forward without delay and kneel
down and stretch your neck even as my brother did, and so will I smite off your
head, and, if you do nor this of your own good will, you shall soon find one
that shall make you do it perforce, were you twenty knights as good as you are
one. But well I know that you have not come hither for this, but only to fulfil
your pledge, and that you will raise no contention herein."
Lancelot thinketh to die, and is minded to abide by that he hath in covenant
without fail, wherefore he lieth down on the ground as it were on a cross, and
crieth mercy of God. He mindeth him of the Queen, and crieth God of mercy and
saith, "Ha, Lady" saith he, "Never shall I see you more! but,
might I have seen you yet once again before I die, exceeding great comfort had
it been to me, and my soul would have departed from me more at ease. But this,
that never shall I see you more, as now it seemeth me, troubleth me more than
the death whereby behoveth me to die, for die one must when one hath lived long
enough. But faithfully do I promise you that my love shall fail you not yet, and
never shall it be but that my soul shall love you in the other world like as my
body hath loved you in this, if thus the soul may love!"
With that the tears fell from his eyes, nor, never sithence that he was knight,
saith the story, had he wept for nought that had befallen him nor for heaviness
of heart, but this time and one other. He taketh three blades of grass and so
eateth thereof in token of the holy communion, then signeth him of the cross and
blesseth him, riseth up, setteth himself on his knees and stretcheth forth his
neck. The knight lifteth up the axe. Lancelot heareth the blow coming, boweth
his head and the axe misseth him. He saith to him, "Sir Knight, so did not
my brother that you slew; rather, he held his head and neck quite still, and so
behoveth you to do!"
Two damsels appeared at the palace-windows of passing great beauty, and they
knew Lancelot well. So, as the knight was aiming a second blow, one of the
damsels crieth to him, "And you would have my love for evermore, throw down
the axe and cry the knight quit! Otherwise have you lost me for ever!"
The knight forthwith flingeth down the axe and falleth at Lancelot's feet and
crieth mercy of him as of the most loyal knight in the world.
"But you? Have mercy on me, you! and slay me not!" saith Lancelot,
"For it is of you that I ought to pray mercy!"
"Sir," saith the knight, "Of a surety will I not do this! Rather
will I help you to my power to save your life against all men, for all you have
slain my brother."
The damsels come down from the palace and are come to Lancelot.
"Sir," say they to Lancelot,
"Greatly ought we to love you, yea, better than all knights in the world
beside. For we are the two damsels, sisters, that you saw so poor at the Waste
Castle where you lay in our brother's house. You and Messire Gawain and another
knight gave us the treasure and the hold of the robber- knights that you slew;
for this city which is waste and the Waste Castle of my brother would never
again be peopled of folk, nor should we never have had the land again, save a
knight had come hither as loyal as are you. Full a score knights have arrived
here by chance in the same manner as you came, and not one of them but hath
slain a brother or a kinsman and cut off his head as you did to the knight, and
each one promised to return at the day appointed; but all failed of their
covenant, for not one of them durst come to the day; and so you had failed us in
like manner as the others, we should have lost this city without recovery and
the castles that are its appanages."
So the knight and the damsels lead Lancelot
into the palace and then make him be disarmed. They hear presently how the
greatest joy in the world is being made in many parts of the forest, that was
nigh the city.
"Sir," say the damsels, "Now may you hear the joy that is made of
your coming. These are the burgesses and dwellers in the city that already know
Lancelot leaneth at the windows of the hall, and seeth the city peopled of the
fairest folk in the world, and great thronging in the broad streets and the
great palace, and clerks and priests coming in long procession praising God and
blessing Him for that they may now return to their church, and giving benison to
the knight through whom they are free to repair thither. Lancelot was much
honoured throughout the city. The two damsels are at great pains to wait upon
him, and right great worship had he of all them that were therewithin and them
that came thither, both clerks and priests.