Howard Pyle's The
Champions of the Round Table
How Sir Tristram was made knight by the King of Cornwall, and how he fought a
battle with a famous champion.
Now first of all it is to be here said that at that time there was great
trouble come to King Mark of Cornwall (who, as aforesaid, was uncle to Sir
Tristram) and the trouble was this:
The King of Cornwall and the King of Ireland had great debate concerning an
island that lay in the sea betwixt Cornwall and Ireland. For though that island was held by
Cornwall, yet the King of Ireland laid claim to it and demanded that the King of
Cornwall should pay him truage for the same. This King Mark refused to do, and
there was great contention betwixt Cornwall and Ireland, so that each country
made ready for war.
But the King of Ireland said: "Let there not be war betwixt Ireland and
Cornwall concerning this disagreement, but let us settle this affair in some
other way. Let us each choose a champion and let those two champions decide the
rights of this case by a combat at arms. For so the truth shall be made
Now you are to know that at that time the knights of Cornwall were held in
great disregard by all courts of chivalry; for there was not in those days any
knight of repute in all the court of Cornwall. Wherefore King Mark knew not
where he should find him a champion to meet that challenge from the King of
Ireland. Yet he must needs meet it, for he was ashamed to refuse such a
challenge as that, and so to acknowledge that Cornwall had no knight-champion to
defend it. So he said it should be as the King of Ireland would have it, and
that if the King of Ireland would choose a champion, he also would do the
Thereupon the King of Ireland chose for his champion Sir Marhaus of Ireland,
who was one of the greatest knights in the world. For in the Book of King Arthur
(which I wrote aforetime) you may there read in the story of
Sir Pellias how great and puissant a champion Sir Marhaus was, and how he
overthrew Sir Gawaine and others with the greatest ease. Wherefore at that time
he was believed by many to be the greatest knight in the world (it being
before the days of Sir Launcelot of the Lake), and even in the days of
Sir Launcelot it was doubted whether he or Sir Launcelot were the greater
So King Mark could not find any knight in Cornwall to stand against, Sir
Marhaus. Nor could he easily find any knight outside of Cornwall to do battle
with him. For Sir Marhaus, being a knight of the Round Table, no other knight of
the Round Table would fight against him--and there were no other knights so
great as that famous brotherhood of the Table Round.
Accordingly, King Mark knew not where to turn to find him a champion to do
battle in his behalf.
In this strait, King Mark sent a letter by a messenger to
Lyonesse, asking if
there was any knight at Lyonesse who would stand his champion against Sir
Marhaus, and he offered great reward if such a champion would undertake his
cause against Ireland.
Now when young Tristram heard this letter of his uncle King Mark, he
straightway went to his father and said: "Sire, some whiles ago you desired that I should become a
knight. Now I would that you would let me go to Cornwall upon this occasion. For
when I come there I will beseech my uncle King Mark to make me a knight, and
then I will go out against Sir Marhaus. For I have a great mind to undertake
this adventure in behalf of King Mark, and to stand his champion against Sir
Marhaus. For though Sir Marhaus is so great a knight and so famous a hero, yet
if I should have the good fortune to overcome him in battle, there would,
certes, be great glory to our house through my knighthood."
Then King Meliadus looked upon Tristram and loved him very dearly, and he
said: "Tristram, thou hast assuredly a very great heart to undertake this
adventure, which no one else will essay. So I bid thee go, in God's name, if so
be thy heart bids thee to go. For maybe God will lend the strength necessary to
carry this adventure through to a successful issue."
So that very day Tristram departed from Lyonesse for Cornwall, taking with
him only Gouvernail as his companion. So, by ship, he reached Cornwall, and the
castle of Tintagel, where King Mark was then holding court.
And it was at the sloping of the afternoon when he so came, and at that time
King Mark was sitting in hall with many of his knights and lords about him. And
the King was brooding in great trouble of spirit. Unto him came an attendant,
saying: "Lord, there are two strangers who stand without, and crave to be
admitted to your presence. One of them hath great dignity and sobriety of demeanor, and the other, who is a youth, is of
so noble and stately an appearance that I do not believe his like is to be found
in the entire world."
To this the King said, "Show them in."
So those two were immediately admitted into the hall and came and stood
before King Mark; and the one of them was Gouvernail and the other was young
Tristram. So Tristram stood forth before Gouvernail and Gouvernail bore the harp of
Tristram, and the harp was of gold and shone most brightly and beautifully. Then
King Mark looked upon Tristram, and marvelled at his size and beauty; for
Tristram stood above any man in that place, so that he looked like a hero
amongst them. His brow was as white as milk and his lips were red like to coral
and his hair was as red as gold and as plentiful as the mane of a young lion,
and his neck was thick and sturdy and straight like to a round pillar of
white-stone, and he was clad in garments of blue silk embroidered very cunningly
with threads of gold and set with a countless multitude of gems of divers
colors. So because of all this he glistened with a singular radiance of richness
So King Mark marvelled at the haughtiness of Tristram's appearance, and he
felt his heart drawn toward Tristram with love and admiration. Then, after a
little, he spoke, saying: "Fair youth, who are you, and whence come you, and
what is it you would have of me?"
"Lord," said Tristram, "my name is Tristram, and I come from the country of
Lyonesse, where your own sister was one time Queen. Touching the purpose of my
coming hither, it is this: having heard that you are in need of a champion to
contend for your rights against the champion of Ireland, I come hither to say
that if you will make me a knight with your own hand, I will take it upon me to
stand your champion and to meet Sir Marhaus of Ireland upon your behalf."
Then King Mark was filled with wonder at the courage of
Tristram, and he
said: "Fair youth, are you not aware that Sir Marhaus of Ireland is a knight
well set in years and of such great and accredited deeds of arms that it is
supposed that, excepting Sir Launcelot of the Lake, there is not his peer in any
court of chivalry in all of the world? How then can you, who are altogether new
to the use of arms, hope to stand against so renowned a champion as he?"
"Lord," quoth Tristram, "I am well aware of what sort of knight Sir Marhaus
is, and I am very well aware of the great danger of this undertaking. Yet if one
who covets knighthood shall fear to face a danger, what virtue would there then be in the chivalry of knighthood? So,
put my trust in God, His mercies, and I have great hope that He will lend me
both courage and strength in my time of need."
Then King Mark began to take great joy, for he said to himself: "Maybe this
youth shall indeed bring me forth in safety out of these dangers that menace my
honor." So he said: "Tristram, I do believe that you will stand a very excellent
chance of success in this undertaking, wherefore it shall be as you desire; I
will make you a knight, and besides that I will fit you with armor and
accoutrements in all ways becoming to the estate of a knight-royal. Likewise I
will provide you a Flemish horse of the best strain, so that you shall be both
furnished and horsed as well as any knight in the world hath ever been."
So that night Tristram watched his armor in the chapel of the castle, and the
next day he was made knight with all the circumstances appertaining to a ceremony of
such solemnity as that. And upon the afternoon of the day upon which he was thus
made knight, King Mark purveyed a ship in all ways befitting the occasion, and
in the ship Tristram and Gouvernail set sail for that island where Sir Marhaus
was known to be abiding at that time.
Now upon the second day of their voyaging and about the middle of the day
they came to a land which they knew must be the place which they were seeking,
and there the sailors made a safe harbor. As soon as they were at anchor a
gangway was set from the ship to the shore and Sir Tristram and Gouvernail drave
their horses across the gangway and so to the dry land.
Thereafter they rode forward for a considerable distance, until about the
first slanting of the afternoon they perceived in the distance three very fair
ships drawn up close to the shore. And then they were aware of a knight, clad in
full armor and seated upon a noble horse under the shadow of those ships, and
they wist that that must be he whom Sir Tristram sought.
Then Gouvernail spake to Sir Tristram, saying: "Sir, that knight resting
yonder beneath the shelter of the ships must be Sir Marhaus."
"Yea," said Sir Tristram, "that is assuredly he." So he gazed very steadily
at the knight for a long while, and by and by he said: "Gouvernail, yonder seems to me to be a very
great and haughty knight for a knight so young as I am to have to do with in his
first battle; yet if God will lend me His strong aid in this affair, I shall
assuredly win me great credit at his hands." Then after another short while he
said: "Now go, Gouvernail, and leave me alone in this affair, for I do not choose for anyone to be by when I have to do with yonder
knight. For either I shall overcome him in this combat or else I will lay down
my life at this place. For the case is thus, Gouvernail; if Sir Marhaus should
overcome me and if I should yield me to him as vanquished, then mine uncle must
pay truage to the King of Ireland for the land of Cornwall; but if I died
without yielding me to mine enemy, then he must yet do battle with another
champion at another time, if my uncle the King can find such an one to do battle
in his behalf. So I am determined either to win this battle or to die
Now when Gouvernail heard this, he fell a-weeping in great measure; and he
cried out: "Sir, let not this battle be of that sort!" To him Sir Tristram said
very steadfastly: "Say no more, Gouvernail, but go as I bid thee." Whereupon
Gouvernail turned and went away, as he was bidden to do, weeping very bitterly
as he went.
Now by this Sir Marhaus had caught sight of Sir Tristram where he stood in
that field, and so presently he came riding thitherward to meet Sir Tristram.
When he had come nigh, Sir Marhaus said: "Who art thou, Sir Knight?" Unto these
Sir Tristram made reply: "Sir, I am Sir Tristram of Lyonesse, son of King
Meliadus of that land, and nephew of King Mark of Cornwall. I am come to do
battle upon behalf of the King of Cornwall, to release him from the demands of
truage made by the King of Ireland." Quoth Sir Marhaus: "Messire, are you a
knight of approval and of battles?" "Nay," said Sir Tristram, "I have only been
created knight these three days."
"Alas!" said Sir Marhaus, "I am very sorry for thee and for thy noble courage
that hath brought thee hither to this place. Thou art not fit to have to do with
me, for I am one who hath fought in more than twice twenty battles, each one of
which was, I believe, greater than this is like to be. Also I have matched me
with the very best knights in the world, and have never yet been overcome. So I
advise thee, because of thy extreme youth, to return to King Mark and bid him
send me another champion in thy stead, who shall be better seasoned than thou
"Sir," said Sir Tristram, "I give thee gramercy for thy advice. But I may
tell thee that I was made knight for no other purpose than to do battle with
thee; so I may not return without having fulfilled mine adventure. Moreover,
because of thy great renown and thy courage and prowess, I feel all the more
desirous to have to do with thee; for if I should die at thy hand, then there
will be no shame to me, but if I should win this battle from thee, then I shall
have very great renown in the courts of chivalry."
"Well," said Sir Marhaus, "it is not likely that thou shalt die at my hand.
For because of thy youth I will not have it that this battle shall be so
desperate as that." "Say not so," said Sir Tristram, "for either I shall die at
thy hand, or else I shall overcome thee in this battle, for I make my vow to God
that I will not yield myself to thee so long as there is life within my
"Alas!" said Sir Marhaus, "that is certes a great pity. But as thou hast
foreordained it, so it must needs be." Therewith he saluted Sir Tristram and
drew rein and rode aside to a little distance where he straightway made ready
for that battle. Nor was Sir Tristram behind him in making preparation, albeit
he was filled with doubts as to the outcome of that undertaking.
Then when they were in all ways prepared, each gave shout and drave spurs
into his horse and rushed toward the other with such fury that it was terrible to behold. And each
smote the other with his spear in the centre of his shield, and in that
encounter Sir Marhaus smote through Sir Tristram's shield and gave Sir Tristram
a great wound in his side. Then Sir Tristram felt the blood gush out of that
wound in such abundance that it filled his iron boots, so that they were sodden
therewith, and he thought he had got his death-wound. But in spite of that
grievous bitter stroke, he held his seat and was not overthrown. Then so soon as
he had recovered himself he voided his horse and drew his sword and set his
shield before him; and when Sir Marhaus saw his preparations, he likewise voided
his horse and made ready for battle upon foot. So straightway they came together
with terrible fury, lashing at each other with such fearful strength and evil
will that it was dreadful to behold. And each gave the other many grievous
strokes, so that whole pieces of armor were hewn off from their bodies; and each
gave the other many deep wounds, so that that part of the armor that still hung
to them became red as though it were painted with red. Likewise the ground was
all besprinkled red where they stood, yet neither gave any thought to quitting
that battle in which they were engaged.
Now for a while Sir Tristram feared because of the wound which he had at
first received that he would die in that battle, but by and by he perceived that
he was stouter than Sir Marhaus and better winded; wherefore great hope came to
him and uplifted him with redoubled strength. Then presently Sir Marhaus fell
back a little and when Sir Tristram perceived that he ran in upon him and smote
him several times, such direful strokes that Sir Marhaus could not holdup his
shield against that assault. Then Sir Tristram perceived that Sir Marhaus was no
longer able to bold up his shield, and therewith he smote him a great blow with his sword upon the helmet, So
direful was that blow that the sword of Sir Tristram pierced very deep through
the helm of Sir Marhaus and into the brain-pan. And Sir Tristram's
sword stuck fast in the helm and the brain-pan of Sir Marhaus so that Sir
Tristram could not pull it out again. Then Sir Marhaus, half a-swoon, fell down
upon his knees, and therewith a part of the edge of the blade brake off from Sir
Tristram's sword, and remained in the wound that he had given to Sir Marhaus.
Then Sir Marhaus was aware that he had got his death-wound, wherefore a
certain strength came to him so that he rose to his feet staggering like a
drunken man. And at first he began going about in a circle and crying most dolorously. Then as
he wist all that had happed he threw away his sword and his shield, and made
away from that place, staggering and stumbling like one who had gone blind; for
he was all bewildered with that mortal wound, and wist not very well what he was
doing or whither he was going. Then Sir Tristram would have made after him to
stop him, but he could not do so because he himself was so sorely wounded and so
weak from the loss of blood. Yet he called after Sir Marhaus: "Stay, stay, Sir
Knight! Let us finish this battle now we are about it!" But to this Sir Marhaus
made no answer, but went on down to his ships, staggering and stumbling like a
blind man as aforesaid, for the sore wound which he had received still lent him
a false strength of body so that he was able to go his way. Then those who were
aboard the ships, beholding him thus coming staggering toward them, came down
and met him and lifted him up and bore him away to his own ship. Thereafter, as
soon as might be they hoisted sail and lifted anchor and took their way from
Then by and by came Gouvernail and several others of Sir Tristram's party to
where Sir Tristram was; and there they found him leaning upon his sword and
groaning very sorely because of the great wound in his side. So presently they
perceived that he could not walk, wherefore they lifted him up upon his own
shield and bore him thence to that ship that had brought him thither.
And when they had come to the ship they laid him down upon a couch and
stripped him of his armor to search his wounds. Then they beheld what a great
wound it was that Sir Marhaus had given him in the side, and they lifted up their voices in sorrow, for they all believed that he
So they set sail, and in two days brought him back to King Mark, where
he sat at Tintagel in Cornwall. And when King Mark saw how pale and wan and
weak Sir Tristram was, he wept and grieved very sorely for sorrow of that sight, for he too thought
that Sir Tristram was certainly about to die.
But Sir Tristram smiled upon King Mark, and he said: "Lord, have I done well
for thy sake?" And King Mark said, "Yea," and fell to weeping again.
"Then," quoth Tristram, "it is time for me to tell thee who I am who
have saved thy kingdom from the shame
of having to pay truage to Ireland, and that I am thine own sister's son. For my
father is King Meliadus of Lyonesse, and my mother was the Lady Elizabeth, who
was thine own sister till God took her soul to Paradise to dwell there with His
But when King Mark heard this he went forth from that place and into his own
chamber. And when he had come there he fell down upon his knees and cried out
aloud: "Alas, alas, that this should be! Rather, God, would I lose my entire
kingdom than that my sister's son should come to his death in this wise!"
Now it remaineth to say of Sir Marhaus that those who were with him brought
him back to Ireland and that there in a little while he died of the wound that
Sir Tristram had given him upon the head. But ere he died, and whilst they were
dressing that hurt, the Queen of Ireland, who was sister to Sir Marhaus,
discovered the broken piece of the blade still in that grim wound. This she drew
forth and set aside, and hid very carefully, saying to herself: "If ever I meet
that knight to whose sword this piece of blade fitteth, then it will be an evil
day for him."
Thus I have told you all the circumstances of that great battle betwixt Sir
Tristram of Lyonesse and Sir Marhaus of Ireland. And now you shall hear how it
befell Sir Tristram thereafter; so harken to what followeth.