Andrew Lang's King Arthur - Tales of the Round Table

THE FAIR MAID OF ASTOLAT

   Soon after this it befell that the damsel of the lake, called by some Nimue and by others Vivien, wedded Sir Pelleas, and came to the Court of King Arthur. And when she heard the talk of the death of Sir Patrise and how the Queen had been accused of it, she found out by means of her magic that the tale was false, and told it openly that the Queen was innocent and that it was Sir Pinel who had poisoned the apple. Then he fled into his own country, where none might lay hands on him. So Sir Patrise was buried in the Church of Westminster, and on his tomb was written, 'Here lieth Sir Patrise of Ireland, slain by Sir Pinel le Savage, that empoisoned apples to have slain Sir Gawaine, and by misfortune Sir Patrise ate one of those apples and then suddenly he burst.' Also there was put upon the tomb that Queen Guenevere was accused of the death of Sir Patrise by Sir Mador de la Porte, and how Sir Lancelot fought with him and overcame him in battle. All this was written on the tomb.
   And daily Sir Mador prayed to have the Queen's grace once more, and by means of Sir Lancelot he was forgiven. It was now the middle of the summer, and King Arthur proclaimed that in fifteen days a great tourney should be held at Camelot, which is now called Winchester, and many Knights and Kings made ready to do themselves honour. But the Queen said she would stay behind, for she was sick, and did not care for the noise and bustle of a tourney. "It grieves me you should say that," said the King, "for you will not have seen so noble a company gathered together this seven years past, save at the Whitsuntide when Galahad departed from the Court."
   "Truly," answered the Queen, "the sight will be grand. Nevertheless you must hold me excused, for I cannot be there."
   Sir Lancelot likewise declared that his wounds were not healed and that he could not bear himself in a tourney as he was wont to do. At this the King was wroth, that he might not have either his Queen or his best Knight with him, and he departed towards Winchester and by the way lodged in a town now called Guildford, but then Astolat. And when the King had set forth, the Queen sent for Sir Lancelot, and told him he was to blame for having excused himself from going with the King, who set such store by his company; and Sir Lancelot said he would be ruled by her, and would ride forth next morning on his way to Winchester; "but I should have you know," said he, "that at the tourney I shall be against the King and his Knights."
   "You must do as you please," replied the Queen, "but if you will be ruled by my counsel, you will fight on his side."
   "Madam," said Sir Lancelot, "I pray you not to be displeased with me. I will take the adventure as it comes," and early next morning he rode away till at eventide he reached Astolat. He went through the town till he stopped before the house of an old Baron, Sir Bernard of Astolat, and as he dismounted from his horse, the King spied him from the gardens of the castle. "It is well," he said smiling to the Knights that were beside him, "I see one man who will play his part in the jousts, and I will undertake that he will do marvels."
   "Who is that?" asked they all. "You must wait to know that," replied the King, and went into the castle. Meantime Sir Lancelot had entered his lodging, and the old Baron bade him welcome, but he knew not it was Sir Lancelot. "Fair Sir," said Sir Lancelot, "I pray you lend me, if you can, a shield with a device which no man knows, for mine they know well."
   "Sir," answered Sir Bernard, "you shall have your wish, for you seem one of the goodliest Knights in the world. And, Sir, I have two sons, both but lately knighted, Sir Tirre who was wounded on the day of his knighthood, and his shield you shall have. My youngest son, Sir Lavaine, shall ride with you, if you will have his company, to the jousts. For my heart is much drawn to you, and tell me, I beseech you, what name I shall call you by."
   "You must hold me excused as to that, just now," said Sir Lancelot, "but if I speed well at the jousts, I will come again and tell you. But let me have Sir Lavaine with me, and lend me, as you have offered, his brother's shield." "This shall be done," replied Sir Bernard.
   Besides these two sons, Sir Bernard had a daughter whom everyone called The Fair Maid of Astolat, though her real name was Elaine le Blanc. And when she looked on Sir Lancelot, her love went forth to him and she could never take it back, and in the end it killed her. As soon as her father told her that Sir Lancelot was going to the tourney she besought him to wear her token in the jousts, but he was not willing. "Fair damsel," he said, "if I did that, I should have done more for your love than ever I did for lady or damsel." But then he remembered that he was to go disguised to the tourney, and because he had before never worn any manner of token of any damsel, he bethought him that, if he should take one of hers, none would know him. So he said to her, "Fair damsel, I will wear your token on my helmet, if you will show me what it is."
   "Sir," she answered, "it is a red sleeve, embroidered in great pearls," and she brought it to him. "Never have I done so much for any damsel," said he, and gave his own shield into her keeping, till he came again. Sir Arthur had waited three days in Astolat for some Knights who were long on the road, and when they had arrived they all set forth, and were followed by Sir Lancelot and Sir Lavaine, both with white shields, and Sir Lancelot bore besides the red sleeve that was a token. Now Camelot was filled with a great number of Kings and Lords and Knights, but Sir Lavaine found means to lodge both himself and Sir Lancelot secretly with a rich burgess, and no man knew who they were or whence they came. And there they stayed till the day of the tourney. At earliest dawn the trumpets blew, and King Arthur took his seat upon a high scaffold, so that he might see who had done best; but he would not suffer Sir Gawaine to go from his side, for Sir Gawaine never won the prize when Sir Lancelot was in the field, and as King Arthur knew, Sir Lancelot oftentimes disguised himself.
   Then the Knights formed into two parties and Sir Lancelot made him ready, and fastened the red sleeve upon his helmet, and he and Sir Lavaine rode into a little wood that lay behind the Knights who should fight against those of the Round Table. "Sir," said Sir Lancelot, "yonder is a company of good Knights and they hold together as boars that are vexed with dogs."
   "That is truth," said Sir Lavaine.
   "Now," said Sir Lancelot, "if you will help me a little, you shall see King Arthur's side, which is winning, driven back as fast as they came."
   "Spare not, Sir," answered Sir Lavaine, "for I shall do what I may." So they rode into the thickest of the press, and smote so hard both with spear and sword that the Knights of the Round Table fell back. "O mercy!" cried Sir Gawaine, "what Knight is that yonder who does such marvellous deeds?"
   "I know well who it is," said King Arthur, "but I will not tell you yet."
   "Sir," answered Sir Gawaine, "I should say it was Sir Lancelot by the blows he deals and the manner that he rides, but it cannot be he, for this man has a red sleeve upon his helmet, and Sir Lancelot has never borne the token of any lady."



   "Let him be," said Sir Arthur, "you will find out his name, and see him do greater deeds yet, before he departs." And the Knights that were fighting against the King's party took heart again, for before they feared they would be beaten. But when Sir Bors saw this, he called unto him the Knights that were of kin to Sir Lancelot, and they banded together to make a great charge, and threw Sir Lancelot's horse to the ground, and by misfortune the spear of Sir Bors broke, and its head was left in Sir Lancelot's side. When Sir Lavaine saw that, he unhorsed the King of Scots, and brought his horse to Sir Lancelot, and helped him mount thereon and gave him a spear, with which Sir Lancelot smote Sir Bors to the earth and Sir Ector de Maris, the foster-father of King Arthur, and buffeted sorely the Knights that were with them. Afterward he hurled himself into the thick mêlée of them all, and did the most wonderful deeds that ever were heard of. And Sir Lavaine likewise did well that day, for he smote down full two Knights of the Round Table. "Mercy," again cried Sir Gawaine to Arthur, "I marvel what Knight that is with the red sleeve."
   "That you shall know soon," said King Arthur, and commanded that the trumpets should be blown, and declared that the prize belonged to the Knight with the white shield, who bare the red sleeve, for he had unhorsed more than thirty Knights. And the Kings and Lords who were of his party came round him and thanked him for the help he had given them, by which means the honours of the day had been theirs.
   "Fair Lords," said Sir Lancelot, "if I have deserved thanks, I have paid for them sorely, for I shall hardly escape with my life, therefore I pray you let me depart, for my hurt is grievous." Then he groaned piteously, and galloped from them to a wood's side, followed by Sir Lavaine. "Oh help me, Sir Lavaine,'" said he, "to get this spear's head out of my side, for it is killing me." But Sir Lavaine feared to touch it, lest Sir Lancelot should bleed to death. "I charge you," said Sir Lancelot, "if you love me draw out the head," so Sir Lavaine drew it out. And Sir Lancelot gave a great shriek, and a marvellous grisly groan, and his blood flowed out so fast, that he fell into a. swoon. "Oh what shall I do?" cried Sir Lavaine, and he loosed Sir Lancelot's helm and coat of mail, and turned him so that the wind might blow on him, but for full half an hour he lay as if he had been dead. And at last Sir Lancelot opened his eyes, and said, "O Lavaine, help me on my horse, for two miles from this place there lives a hermit who once was a Knight of the Round Table, and he can heal my wounds." Then Sir Lavaine, with much ado, helped him on his horse, and brought him bleeding to the hermit. The hermit looked at him as he rode up, leaning piteously on his saddle-bow, and he thought that he should know him, but could not tell who he was for the paleness of his face, till he saw by a wound on his cheek that it was Sir Lancelot.
   "You cannot hide your name from me," said the hermit, "for you are the noblest Knight in the world, and well I know you to be Sir Lancelot."
   "Since you know me, Sir," said he, "help me for God's sake, and for death or life put me out of this pain."
   "Fear nothing," answered the hermit, "your pain will soon be gone," and he called his servants to take the armour off the Knight, and laid him in bed. After that he dressed the wound, and gave him good wine to drink, and Sir Lancelot slept and awoke free of his pain. So we will leave him to be healed of his wound, under the care of the hermit, and go back to King Arthur.
   Now it was the custom in those days that after a tourney was finished, a great feast should be held at which both parties were assembled, so King Arthur sent to ask the King of Northgalis, where was the Knight with the red sleeve, who had fought on his side. "Bring him before me," he said, "that he may have the prize he has won, which is his right." Then answered the King with the hundred Knights, "we fear the Knight must have been sore hurt, and that neither you nor we are ever like to see him again, which is grievous to think of."
   "Alas!" said King Arthur, "is he then so badly wounded? What is his name?"
   "Truly," said they all, "we know not his name, nor whence he came, nor whither he went."
   "As for me," answered King Arthur, "these tidings are the worst that I have heard these seven years, for I would give all the lands I hold that no harm had befallen this Knight."
   "Do you know him?" asked they all.
   "Whether I know him or not," said King Arthur, "I shall not tell you, but may Heaven send me good news of him." "Amen," answered they.
   "By my head," said Sir Gawaine, "if this good Knight is really wounded unto death, it is a great evil for all this land, for he is one of the noblest that ever I saw for handling a sword or spear. And if he may be found, I shall find him, for I am sure he is not far from this town," so he took his squire with him, and they rode all round Camelot, six or seven miles on every side, but nothing could they hear of him. And he returned heavily to the Court of King Arthur.
   Two days after the King and all his company set out for London, and by the way, it happened to Sir Gawaine to lodge with Sir Bernard at Astolat. And when he was in his chamber, Sir Bernard and his daughter Elaine came unto Sir Gawaine, to ask him tidings of the Court, and who did best in the tourney at Winchester.
   "Truly," said Sir Gawaine, "there were two Knights that bare white shields, but one of them had a red sleeve upon his helm, and he was one of the best Knights that ever I saw joust in the field, for I dare say he smote down forty Knights of the Table Round."
   "Now blessed be God," said the Maid of Astolat, "that that Knight sped so well, for he is the man in the world that I loved first, and he will also be the last that ever I shall love."
   "Fair maid," asked Sir Gawaine, "is that Knight your love?"
   "Certainly he is my love," said she.
   "Then you know his name?" asked Sir Gawaine.
   "Nay, truly," answered the damsel, "I know neither his name, nor whence he cometh, but I love him for all that."
   "How did you meet him first?" asked Sir Gawaine. At that she told him the whole story, and how her brother went with Sir Lancelot to do him service, and lent him the white shield of her brother Sir Tirre and left his own shield with her. "Why did he do that?" asked Sir Gawaine.
   "For this cause," said the damsel, "his shield was too well known among many noble Knights."
   "Ah, fair damsel," said Sir Gawaine, "I beg of you to let me have a sight of that shield."
   "Sir," answered she, "it is in my chamber covered with a case, and if you will come with me, you shall see it."
   "Not so," said Sir Bernard, and sent his squire for it. And when Sir Gawaine took off the case and beheld the shield, and saw the arms, he knew it to be Sir Lancelot's. "Ah mercy," cried he, "my heart is heavier than ever it was before!"
   "Why?" asked Elaine.
   "I have great cause," answered Sir Gawaine. "Is that Knight who owns this shield your love?"
   "Yes, truly," said she; "I would I were his love."
   "You are right, fair damsel," replied Gawaine, "for if you love him, you love the most honourable Knight in the world. I have known him for four-and-twenty years, and never did I or any other Knight see him wear a token of either lady or damsel at a tournament. Therefore, damsel, he has paid you great honour. But I fear that I may never behold him again upon earth, and that is grievous to think of."
   "Alas!" she said, "how may this be? Is he slain?"
   "I did not say that," replied Sir Gawaine, "but he is sorely wounded, and is more likely to be dead than alive. And, maiden, by this shield I know that he is Sir Lancelot."
   "How can this be?" said the Maid of Astolat, "and what was his hurt?"
   "Truly," answered Sir Gawaine, "it was the man that loved him best who hurt him so, and I am sure that if that man knew that it was Sir Lancelot whom he had wounded, he would think it was the darkest deed that ever he did."
   "Now, dear father," said Elaine, "give me leave to ride and to seek him, for I shall go out of my mind unless I find him and my brother."
   "Do as you will," answered her father, "for I am grieved to hear of the hurt of that noble Knight." So the damsel made ready.
   On the morn Sir Gawaine came to King Arthur and told him how he had found the shield in the keeping of the Maid of Astolat. "All that I knew beforehand," said the King, "and that was why I would not suffer you to tight at the tourney, for I had espied him when he entered his lodging the night before. But this is the first time that ever I heard of his bearing the token of some lady, and much I marvel at it."
   "By my head," answered Sir Gawaine, "the Fair Maiden of Astolat loves him wondrous well. What it all means, or what will be the end, I cannot say, but she has ridden after him to seek him." So the King and his company came to London, and everyone in the Court knew that it was Sir Lancelot who had jousted the best.
   And when the tidings came to Sir Bors, his heart grew heavy, and also the hearts of his kinsmen. But when the Queen heard that Sir Lancelot bore the red sleeve of the Fair Maid of Astolat, she was nearly mad with wrath, and summoned Sir Bors before her in haste.
   "Ah, Sir Bors,'" she cried when he was come, "have the tidings reached you that Sir Lancelot has been a false Knight to me?"
   "Madam," answered Sir Bors, "I pray you say not so, for I cannot hear such language of him."
   "Why, is he not false and a traitor when, after swearing that for right or wrong he would be my Knight and mine only, he bore the red sleeve upon his helm at the great jousts at Camelot?"
   "Madam," said Sir Bors, "I grieve bitterly as to that sleeve-bearing, but I think he did it that none of his kin should know him. For no man before that had seen him bear the token of any lady, be she what she may."
   "Fie on him!" said the Queen, "I myself heard Sir Gawaine tell my lord Arthur of the great love that is between the Fair Maiden of Astolat and him."
   "Madam," answered Sir Bors, "I cannot hinder Sir Gawaine from saying what he pleases, but as for Sir Lancelot, I am sure that he loves no one lady or maiden better than another. And therefore I will hasten to seek him wherever he be."
   Meanwhile fair Elaine came to Winchester to find Sir Lancelot, who lay in peril of his life in the hermit's dwelling. And when she was riding hither and thither, not knowing where she should turn, she fell on her brother Sir Lavaine, who was exercising his horse. "How doth my lord Sir Lancelot?" asked she.
   "Who told you, sister, that my lord's name was Sir Lancelot?" answered Sir Lavaine.
   "Sir Gawaine, who came to my father's house to rest after the tourney, knew him by his shield," said she, and they rode on till they reached the hermitage, and Sir Lavaine brought her to Sir Lancelot. And when she saw him so pale, and in such a plight, she fell to the earth in a swoon, but by-and-bye she opened her eyes and said, "My lord Sir Lancelot, what has brought you to this?" and swooned again. When she came to herself and stood up, Sir Lancelot prayed her to be of good cheer, for if she had come to comfort him she was right welcome, and that his wound would soon heal. "But I marvel," said he, "how you know my name." Then the maiden told him how Sir Gawaine had been at Astolat and had seen his shield.
   "Alas!" sighed Sir Lancelot, "it grieves me that my name is known, for trouble will come of it." For he knew full well that Sir Gawaine would tell Queen Guenevere, and that she would be wroth. And Elaine stayed and tended him, and Sir Lancelot begged Sir Lavaine to ride to Winchester and ask if Sir Bors was there, and said that he should know him by token of a wound which Sir Bors had on his forehead. "For well I am sure," said Sir Lancelot, "that Sir Bors will seek me, as he is the same good Knight that hurt me."
   Therefore as Sir Lancelot commanded, Sir Lavaine rode to Winchester and inquired if Sir Bors had been seen there, so that when he entered the town Sir Lavaine readily found him. Sir Bors was overjoyed to hear good tidings of Sir Lancelot, and they rode back together to the hermitage. At the sight of Sir Lancelot lying in his bed, pale and thin, Sir Bors' heart gave way, and he wept long without speaking. "Oh, my lord Sir Lancelot," he said at last, "God send you hasty recovery; great is my shame for having wounded you thus, you who are the noblest Knight in the world. I wonder that my arm would lift itself against you, and I ask your mercy."
   "Fair cousin," answered Sir Lancelot, "such words please me not at all, for it is the fault of my pride which would overcome you all, that I lie here to-day. We will not speak of it any more, for what is done cannot be undone, but let us find a cure so that I may soon be whole." Then Sir Bors leaned upon his bed, and told him how the Queen was filled with anger against him, because he wore the red sleeve at the jousts.
   "I am sorrowful at what you tell me," replied Sir Lancelot, "for all I did was to hinder my being known."
   "That I said to excuse you," answered Sir Bors, though it was all in vain. "But is this damsel that is so busy about you the Fair Maid of Astolat?'"
   "She it is, and she will not go from me!"
   "Why should she go from you?" asked Sir Bors.
   "She is a passing fair damsel, and of gentle breeding, and I would that you could love her, for it is easy to see by her bearing that she loves you entirely."
   "It grieves me to hear that," said Sir Lancelot.
   After this they talked of other things, till in a few days Sir Lancelot's wounds were whole again. When Sir Lancelot felt his strength return, Sir Bors made him ready, and departed for the Court of King Arthur, and told them how he had left Sir Lancelot. And there was on All Hallows a great tournament, and Sir Bors won the prize for the unhorsing of twenty Knights, and Sir Gareth did great deeds also, but vanished suddenly from the field, and no man knew where he had gone. After the tourney was over, Sir Bors rode to the hermitage to see. Sir Lancelot, whom he found walking on his feet, and on the next morning they bade farewell to the hermit, taking with them Elaine le Blanc. They went first to Astolat, where they were well lodged in the house of Sir Bernard, but when the morrow came, and Sir Lancelot would have departed from them, Elaine called to her father and to her brothers Sir Tirre and Sir Lavaine, and thus she said:
   "My lord Sir Lancelot, fair Knight, leave me not, I pray you, but have mercy upon me, and suffer me not to die of love of thee."
   "What do you wish me to do?" asked Sir Lancelot.
   "I would have you for my husband," answered she. "Fair damsel, I thank you," said Sir Lancelot, "but truly I shall never have a wife. But in token and thanks of all your good will towards me, gladly will I give a thousand pounds yearly when you set your heart upon some other Knight."
   "Of such gifts I will have none," answered Elaine, "and I would have you know, Sir Lancelot, that if you refuse to wed me, my good days are done."
   "Fair damsel," said Sir Lancelot, "I cannot do the thing that you ask."
   At these words she fell down in a swoon, and her maids bore her to her chamber, where she made bitter sorrow. Sir Lancelot thought it would be well for him to depart before she came to her senses again, and he asked Sir Lavaine what he would do.
   "What should I do?" asked Sir Lavaine, "but follow you if you will have me." Then Sir Bernard came and said to Sir Lancelot, "I see well that my daughter Elaine will die for your sake."
   "I cannot marry her," answered Sir Lancelot, "and it grieves me sorely, for she is a good maiden, fair and gentle."
   "Father," said Sir Lavaine, "she is as pure and good as Sir Lancelot has said, and she is like me, for since first I saw him I can never leave him." And after that they bade the old man farewell and came unto Winchester, where the King and all the Knights of the Round Table made great joy of him, save only Sir Agrawaine and Sir Mordred. But the Queen was angry and would not speak to him, though be tried by all means to make her. Now when the Fair Maid of Astolat knew he was gone, she would neither eat nor sleep, but cried after Sir Lancelot all the day long. And when she had spent ten days in this manner, she grew so weak that they thought her soul must quit this world, and the priest came to her, and bade her dwell Do more on earthly things. She would not listen to him, but cried ever after Sir Lancelot, and how she had loved none other, no, nor ever would, and that her love would be her death. Then she called her father, Sir Bernard, and her brother, Sir Tirre, and begged her brother to write her a letter as she should tell him, and her father that he would have her watched till she was dead. "And while my body is warm," said she, "let this letter be put in my right hand, and my hand bound fast with the letter until I be cold, and let me be dressed in my richest clothes and be lain on a fair bed, and driven in a chariot to the Thames. There let me be put on a barge, and a dumb man with me, to steer the barge, which shall be covered over with black samite. Thus, father, I beseech you, let it be done." And her father promised her faithfully that so it should be done to her when she was dead. Next day she died, and her body was lain on the bed, and placed in a chariot, and driven to the Thames, where the man awaited her with the barge. When she was put on board, he steered the barge to Westminster and rowed a great while to and fro, before any espied it. At last King Arthur and Queen Guenevere withdrew into a window to speak together, and espied the black barge, and wondered greatly what it meant. The King summoned Sir Kay, and bade him take Sir Brandiles and Sir Agrawaine, and find out who was lying there, and they ran down to the river side, and came and told the King. "That fair corpse will I see," returned the King, and he took the Queen's hand and led her thither. Then he ordered the barge to be made fast, and he entered it, and the Queen likewise, and certain Knights with them. And there he saw a fair woman on a rich bed, and her clothing was of cloth of gold, and she lay smiling. While they looked, all being silent, the Queen spied a letter in her right hand, and pointed it out to the King, who took it saying, "Now I am sure this letter will tell us what she was, and why she came hither." So leaving the barge in charge of a trusty man, they went into the King's chamber, followed by many Knights, for the King would have the letter read openly. He then broke the seal himself, and bade a clerk read it, and this was what it said:



   "Most noble Knight Sir Lancelot, I was your lover, whom men called the Fair Maid of Astolat: therefore unto all ladies I make my moan; yet pray for my soul, and bury me. This is my last request. Pray for my soul, Sir Lancelot, as thou art peerless."
   This was all the letter, and the King and Queen and all the Knights wept when they heard it.
   "Let Sir Lancelot be sent for," presently said the King, and when Sir Lancelot came the letter was read to him also.
   "My lord Arthur," said he, after he had heard it all, "I am right grieved at the death of this damsel. God knows I was not, of my own will, guilty of her death, and that I will call on her brother, Sir Lavaine, to witness. She was both fair and good, and much was I beholden to her, but she loved me out of measure."
   "You might have been a little gentle with her," answered the Queen, "and have found some way to save her life."
   "Madam," said Sir Lancelot, "she would have nothing but my love, and that I could not give her, though I offered her a thousand pounds yearly if she should set her heart on any other Knight. For, Madam, I love not to be forced to love; love must arise of itself, and not by command."
   "That is truth," replied the King, "love is free in himself, and never will be bounden; for where he is bounden he looseth himself. But, Sir Lancelot, be it your care to see that the damsel is buried as is fitting."