Le Morte d'Arthur

4. King Arthur's Nephews



Among the knights at King Arthur's court were his nephews, the sons of his sister, Queen Bellicent, and of that King Lot of Orkney, who had joined the league against Arthur in the first years of his reign.

Of each, many tales are told; of Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth to their great renown, but of Sir Mordred to his shame. For Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth were knights of great prowess; but Sir Mordred was a coward and a traitor, envious of other men's fame, and a tale-bearer.

Now Sir Gawain was known as the Ladies' Knight, and this is how he came by the name. It was at Arthur's marriage-feast, when Gawain had just been made knight, that a strange thing befell. There entered the hall a white hart, chased by a hound, and when it had run round the hall, it fled through the doorway again, still followed by the hound. Then, by Merlin's advice, the quest of the hart was given to Gawain as a new-made knight, to follow it and see what adventures it would bring him. So Sir Gawain rode away, taking with him three couples of greyhounds for the pursuit. At the last, the hounds caught the hart, and killed it just as it reached the court-yard of a castle. Then there came forth from the castle a knight, and he was grieved and wroth to see the hart slain, for it was given him by his lady; so, in his anger, he killed two of the hounds. At that moment Sir Gawain entered the court-yard, and an angry man was he when he saw his greyhounds slain. "Sir Knight," said he, "ye would have done better to have taken your vengeance on me rather than on dumb animals which but acted after their kind." "I will be avenged on you also," cried the knight; and the two rushed together, cutting and thrusting that it was wonderful they might so long endure. But at the last the knight grew faint, and crying for mercy, offered to yield to Sir Gawain. "Ye had no mercy on my hounds," said Sir Gawain. "I will make you all the amends in my power," answered the knight. But Sir Gawain would not be turned from his purpose, and unlacing the vanquished knight's helmet, was about to cut off his head, when a lady rushed out from the castle and flung herself on the body of the fallen knight. So it chanced that Sir Gawain's sword descending smote off the lady's head. Then was Sir Gawain grieved and sore ashamed for what he had done, and said to the knight: "I repent for what I have done; and here I give you your life. Go only to Camelot, to King Arthur's court, and tell him ye are sent by the knight who follows the quest of the white hart." "Ye have slain my lady," said the other, "and now I care not what befalls me." So he arose and went to King Arthur's court.

Then Sir Gawain prepared to rest him there for the night; but scarcely had he lain down when there fell upon him four knights, crying: "New-made knight, ye have shamed your knighthood, for a knight without mercy is without honour." Then was Sir Gawain borne to the earth, and would have been slain, but that there came forth from the castle four ladies who besought the knights to spare his life; so they consented and bound him prisoner.

The next morning Sir Gawain was brought again before the knights and their dames; and because he was King Arthur's nephew, the ladies desired that he should be set free, only they required that he should ride again to Camelot, the murdered lady's head hanging from his neck, and her dead body across his saddle-bow; and that when he arrived at the court he should confess his misdeeds.

So Sir Gawain rode sadly back to Camelot, and when he had told his tale, King Arthur was sore displeased. And Queen Guenevere held a court of her ladies to pass sentence on Sir Gawain for his ungentleness. These then decreed that, his life long, he must never refuse to fight for any lady who desired his services, and that ever he should be gentle and courteous and show mercy to all. From that time forth, Sir Gawain never failed in aught that dame or damsel asked of him, and so he won and kept the title of the Ladies' Knight.



Gareth was the youngest of the sons of Lot and Bellicent, and had grown up long after Gawain and Mordred left their home for King Arthur's court; so that when he came before the King, all humbly attired, he was known not even by his own brothers.

King Arthur was keeping Pentecost at Kink Kenadon on the Welsh border and, as his custom was, waited to begin the feast until some adventure should befall. Presently there was seen approaching a youth, who, to the wonderment of all that saw, leaned upon the shoulders of two men, his companions; and yet as he passed up the hall, he seemed a goodly youth, tall and broad-shouldered. When he stood before the King, suddenly he drew himself up, and after due greeting, said: "Sir King, I would ask of you three boons; one to be granted now and two hereafter when I shall require them." And Arthur, looking upon him, was pleased, for his countenance was open and honest. So he made answer; "Fair son, ask of me aught that is honourable and I will grant it." Then the youth said: "For this present, I ask only that ye will give me meat and drink for a year and a day." "Ye might have asked and had a better gift," replied the King; "tell me now your name." "At this time, I may not tell it," said the youth. Now King Arthur trusted every man until he proved himself unworthy, and in this youth he thought he saw one who should do nobly and win renown; so laughing, he bade him keep his own counsel since so he would, and gave him in charge to Sir Kay, the Seneschal.

Now Sir Kay was but harsh to those whom he liked not, and from the first he scorned the young man; "For none," said he, "but a low-born lout would crave meat and drink when he might have asked for a horse and arms." But Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawain took the youth's part. Neither knew him for Gareth of the Orkneys, but both believed him to be a youth of good promise who, for his own reasons, would pass in disguise for a season.

So Gareth lived the year among the kitchen-boys, all the time mocked and scorned by Sir Kay, who called him Fairhands because his hands were white and shapely. But Launcelot and Gawain showed him all courtesy, and failed not to observe how, in all trials of strength, he excelled his comrades, and that he was ever present to witness the feats of the knights in the tournaments.

So the year passed, and again King Arthur was keeping the feast of Pentecost with his knights, when a damsel entered the hall and asked his aid: "For," said she, "my sister is closely besieged in her castle by a strong knight who lays waste all her lands. And since I know that the knights of your court be the most renowned in the world, I have come to crave help of your mightiest." "What is your sister's name, and who is he that oppresses her?" asked the King. "The Red Knight, he is called," replied the damsel. "As for my sister I will not say her name, only that she is a high-born lady and owns broad lands." Then the King frowned and said: "Ye would have aid but will say no name. I may not ask knight of mine to go on such an errand."

Then forth stepped Gareth from among the serving men at the hall end and said: "Sir King, I have eaten of your meat in your kitchen this twelvemonth since, and now I crave my other two boons." "Ask and have," replied the King. "Grant me then the adventure of this damsel, and bid Sir Launcelot ride after me to knight me at my desire, for of him alone would I be made knight." "It shall be so," answered the King. "What!" cried the damsel, "I ask for a knight and ye give me a kitchen-boy. Shame on you, Sir King." And in great wrath she fled from the hall, mounted her palfrey and rode away. Gareth but waited to array himself in the armour which he had kept ever in readiness for the time when he should need it, and mounting his horse, rode after the damsel.

But when Sir Kay knew what had happened, he was wroth, and got to horse to ride after Gareth and bring him back. Even as Gareth overtook the damsel, so did Kay come up with him and cried: "Turn back, Fairhands! What, sir, do ye not know me?" "Yes," answered Gareth, "I know you for the most discourteous knight in Arthur's court." Then Sir Kay rode upon him with his lance, but Gareth turned it aside with his sword and pierced Sir Kay through the side so that he fell to the ground and lay there without motion. So Gareth took Sir Kay's shield and spear and was about to ride away, when seeing Sir Launcelot draw near, he called upon him to joust. At the first encounter, Sir Launcelot unhorsed Gareth, but quickly helped him to his feet. Then, at Gareth's desire, they fought together with swords, and Gareth did knightly till, at length, Sir Launcelot said, laughing: "Why should we fight any longer? Of a truth ye are a stout knight." "If that is indeed your thought, I pray you make me knight," cried Gareth. So Sir Launcelot knighted Gareth, who, bidding him farewell, hastened after the damsel, for she had ridden on again while the two knights talked. When she saw him coming, she cried: "Keep off! ye smell of the kitchen!" "Damsel," said Sir Gareth, "I must follow until I have fulfilled the adventure." "Till ye accomplish the adventure, Turn-spit? Your part in it shall soon be ended." "I can only do my best," answered Sir Gareth.

Now as they rode through the forest, they met with a knight sore beset by six thieves, and him Sir Gareth rescued. The knight then bade Gareth and the damsel rest at his castle, and entertained them right gladly until the morn, when the two rode forth again. Presently, they drew near to a deep river where two knights kept the ford. "How now, kitchen-knave? Will ye fight or escape while ye may?" cried the damsel. "I would fight though there were six instead of two," replied Sir Gareth. Therewith he encountered the one knight in mid-stream and struck him such a blow on the head that he fell, stunned, into the water and was drowned. Then, gaining the land, Gareth cleft in two both helmet and head of the other knight, and turned to the damsel, saying: "Lead on; I follow."

But the damsel mocked him, saying: "What a mischance is this that a kitchen-boy should slay two noble knights! Be not over-proud, Turn-spit. It was but luck, if indeed ye did not attack one knight from behind." "Say what you will, I follow," said Sir Gareth.

So they rode on again, the damsel in front and Sir Gareth behind, till they reached a wide meadow where stood many fair pavilions; and one, the largest, was all of blue, and the men who stood about it were clothed in blue, and bore shields and spears of that colour; and of blue, too, were the trappings of the horses. Then said the damsel: "Yonder is the Blue Knight, the goodliest that ever ye have looked upon, and five hundred knights own him lord." "I will encounter him," said Sir Gareth; "for if he be good knight and true as ye say, he will scarce set on me with all his following; and man to man, I fear him not." "Fie!" said the damsel, "for a dirty knave, ye brag loud. And even if ye overcome him, his might is as nothing to that of the Red Knight who besieges my lady sister. So get ye gone while ye may." "Damsel," said Sir Gareth, "ye are but ungentle so to rebuke me; for, knight or knave, I have done you good service, nor will I leave this quest while life is mine." Then the damsel was ashamed, and, looking curiously at Gareth, she said: "I would gladly know what manner of man ye are. For I heard you call yourself kitchen-knave before Arthur's self, but ye have ever answered patiently though I have chidden you shamefully; and courtesy comes only of gentle blood." Thereat Sir Gareth but laughed, and said: "He is no knight whom a maiden can anger by harsh words."

So talking, they entered the field, and there came to Sir Gareth a messenger from the Blue Knight to ask him if he came in peace or in war. "As your lord pleases," said Sir Gareth. So when the messenger had brought back this word, the Blue Knight mounted his horse, took his spear in his hand, and rode upon Sir Gareth. At their first encounter their lances shivered to pieces, and such was the shock that their horses fell dead. So they rushed on each other with sword and shield, cutting and slashing till the armour was hacked from their bodies; but at last, Sir Gareth smote the Blue Knight to the earth. Then the Blue Knight yielded, and at the damsel's entreaty, Sir Gareth spared his life.

So they were reconciled, and at the request of the Blue Knight, Sir Gareth and the damsel abode that night in his tents. As they sat at table, the Blue Knight said: "Fair damsel, are ye not called Linet?" "Yes," answered she, "and I am taking this noble knight to the relief of my sister, the Lady Liones." "God speed you, Sir," said the Blue Knight, "for he is a stout knight whom ye must meet. Long ago might he have taken the lady, but that he hoped that Sir Launcelot or some other of Arthur's most famous knights, coming to her rescue, might fall beneath his lance. If ye overthrow him, then are ye the peer of Sir Launcelot and Sir Tristram." "Sir Knight," answered Gareth, "I can but strive to bear me worthily as one whom the great Sir Launcelot made knight."

So in the morning they bade farewell to the Blue Knight, who vowed to carry to King Arthur word of all that Gareth had achieved; and they rode on, till, in the evening, they came to a little ruined hermitage where there awaited them a dwarf, sent by the Lady Liones, with all manner of meats and other store. In the morning, the dwarf set out again to bear word to his lady that her rescuer was come. As he drew near the castle, the Red Knight stopped him, demanding whence he came. "Sir," said the dwarf, "I have been with my lady's sister, who brings with her a knight to the rescue of my lady." "It is lost labour," said the Red Knight; "even though she brought Launcelot or Tristram, I hold myself a match for them." "He is none of these," said the dwarf, "but he has overthrown the knights who kept the ford, and the Blue Knight yielded to him." "Let him come," said the Red Knight; "I shall soon make an end of him, and a shameful death shall he have at my hands, as many a better knight has had." So saying, he let the dwarf go.

Presently, there came riding towards the castle Sir Gareth and the damsel Linet, and Gareth marvelled to see hang from the trees some forty knights in goodly armour, their shields reversed beside them. And when he inquired of the damsel, she told him how these were the bodies of brave knights who, coming to the rescue of the Lady Liones, had been overthrown and shamefully done to death by the Red Knight. Then was Gareth shamed and angry, and he vowed to make an end of these evil practices. So at last they drew near to the castle walls, and saw how the plain around was covered with the Red Knight's tents, and the noise was that of a great army. Hard by was a tall sycamore tree, and from it hung a mighty horn, made of an elephant's tusk. Spurring his horse, Gareth rode to it, and blew such a blast that those on the castle walls heard it; the knights came forth from their tents to see who blew so bold a blast, and from a window of the castle the Lady Liones looked forth and waved her hand to her champion. Then, as Sir Gareth made his reverence to the lady, the Red Knight called roughly to him to leave his courtesy and look to himself; "For," said he, "she is mine, and to have her, I have fought many a battle." "It is but vain labour," said Sir Gareth, "since she loves you not. Know, too, Sir Knight, that I have vowed to rescue her from you." "So did many another who now hangs on a tree," replied the Red Knight, "and soon ye shall hang beside them." Then both laid their spears in rest, and spurred their horses. At the first encounter, each smote the other full in the shield, and the girths of the saddles bursting, they were borne to the earth, where they lay for awhile as if dead. But presently they rose, and setting their shields before them, rushed upon each other with their swords, cutting and hacking till the armour lay on the ground in fragments. So they fought till noon and then rested; but soon they renewed the battle, and so furiously they fought, that often they fell to the ground together. Then, when the bells sounded for evensong, the knights rested again a while, unlacing their helms to breathe the evening air. But looking up to the castle windows, Gareth saw the Lady Liones gazing earnestly upon him; then he caught up his helmet, and calling to the Red Knight, bade him make ready for the battle; "And this time," said he, "we will make an end of it." "So be it," said the Red Knight. Then the Red Knight smote Gareth on the hand that his sword flew from his grasp, and with another blow he brought him grovelling to the earth. At the sight of this, Linet cried aloud, and hearing her, Gareth, with a mighty effort, threw off the Red Knight, leaped to his sword and got it again within his hand. Then he pressed the Red Knight harder than ever, and at the last bore him to the earth, and unlacing his helm, made ready to slay him; but the Red Knight cried aloud: "Mercy; I yield." At first, remembering the evil deaths of the forty good knights, Gareth was unwilling to spare him; but the Red Knight besought him to have mercy, telling him how, against his will, he had been bound by a vow to make war on Arthur's knights. So Sir Gareth relented, and bade him set forth at once for Kink Kenadon and entreat the King's pardon for his evil past. And this the Red Knight promised to do.

Then amidst much rejoicing, Sir Gareth was borne into the castle. There his wounds were dressed by the Lady Liones, and there he rested until he recovered his strength. And having won her love, when Gareth returned to Arthur's court, the Lady Liones rode with him, and they two were wed with great pomp in the presence of the whole Fellowship of the Round Table; the King rejoicing much that his nephew had done so valiantly. So Sir Gareth lived happily with Dame Liones, winning fame and the love of all true knights. As for Linet, she came again to Arthur's court and wedded Sir Gareth's younger brother, Sir Gaheris.