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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter III


Legend of King Arthur, and Sir Owain.

How Arthur went to sleep one day
Whilst sitting in his chair;
And how Sir Owain, with great essay,
Subdued a lady fair.

Not only do the legends of Britain teem with records of murder, as being the chiefest delight of our forefathers, but the same spirit runs through the legends and traditions of all other countries whatsoever. We need but to refer to the Neibe-lungen Lay, wherein the manners of our more remote Scandinavian progenitors are duly pictured forth; and here we shall see that the greatest virtue in this world, was to have butchered the greatest number of our fellow creatures, and the greatest bliss in the next, the quaffing the blood of our enemies out of their own skulls.

Asgardia, the paradise of Odin, who himself was styled Oal Fadr, or Val Fadr, the Father of Slaughter in the Runic, and Val-Halla, the Hall of Slaughter, are names indicative of the prevailing turn of men's minds. None were considered worthy to go to Val-Halla except such as died in war or by violence—so ignominious was it considered to die reposedly in bed ; and this same notion appears in some sort to have come down to the Turks and Tartars, who look to a place in the Seventh Heaven. Such puny and despicable wretches as died peaceably at home, were consigned to a place designated Hel, the meothesis of suffering and ease, — a region wherein the dwellers seem to have been oppressed with what we term ennui, not pleasure, and yet not positive suffering; a sort of negative existence, tedious, tiring, and wearisome. But the place of actual torture, the hell, the bottomless pit, the gehenna, this dreadful dungeon of horror, was ycleped Nixleim; and to the excruciating torments of Nixleim the ill-natured were devoted. Hence ill-nature in this world was held the greatest crime of which man could be guilty, and deserving of the greatest punishment which the imagination of man could devise : and hence, also, we learn how highly the possession of good-nature and courteous bearing was rated, even in an age so barbarous. This fact strikes us as the great redeeming point to all the other savage practices of the Teutonic race ; that amidst their extreme degradation, their love of ruthless war, as being the only manly and honourable pastime, and their delight in vengeance, oppression, and indiscriminate slaughter, this quality of good-nature should be considered so highly; or, which is the same thing, that ill-nature should be looked upon as deserving the cruellest retribution which the flames and the demons of their gehenna could inflict.

If these savages could so dearly prize an amiable mind, when the softer qualities were less in demand, how much more shall we, now in an age of civilization, polish, and courtesy, uphold a possession so fair, so sweet, so beauteous to behold?

In the later ages of chivalry, we hear less of this thirst for blind murder, and more of gentle manners. Knights fought then, not so much for the sake of committing slaughter, as for the sake of putting down the despotic and oppressive ; and as it was a great virtue to be bold in the field, so also it was no less a virtue to be courteous in the bower and the hall. Sir Owain is thus commended for his sweetness by the old chroniclers, and Sir Kai is denounced by them for being blunt, cross, rude, and ungentle in speech.

One day King Arthur was sitting in the principal chamber of his palace at Caerlleon, surrounded by several of his noble vassals, together with his queen the Princess Gwenhwyvar, and her handmaidens, some of the company amusing themselves relating stories of great achievements, and others busied about such other pastimes as best consorted with their fancies. The king sat in the centre of the apartment upon a seat of green rushes, over which was spread a covering of flame-coloured satin; and a cushion of red satin supported his elbow. " Flame-colour," or rather yellow-red, as the word melyngoch in the original signifies, was a dye of which the ancients were very fond, as it is frequently mentioned by the troubadours and minstrels of the middle ages, especially when alluding to costly stuffs pertaining to princes and vavasours; and even now-a-days in Wales, amongst the most unsophisticated of the Kymri, this hue tints many of the garments worn by the women. The cushion was an indispensable in every chamber; guests and wayfarers were welcomed and made comfortable by their entertainers by the act of presenting them with cushions to sit or recline on; and the old triplet sets it forth as one of three things that a man could hardly do without, as thus:

"Tri plieth gweddus i wr eu bod yn ei dy,—

"Ei wraig yn ddiwair;
Ei glustog yn ei gadair;
A'i dely yn gywair."

"Three things proper for a man to have in his house,—

"A virtuous wife;
His cushion in his chair;
And his harp in tune."

And as the son of Pendragon sat there, he grew a little drowsy whilst waiting for his dinner, but not forgetting dignity to himself, or politeness to his friends, he spoke thus:—"If I thought you would not disparage me, I would sleep while I wait for my repast; and you can entertain one another with relating tales, and can obtain a flagon of mead and some meat from Kai." Then he leant back and took a nap. The seneschal, or dapifer, Sir-Kai, went to the cellar for mead and a golden goblet, and soon returned, likewise bringing "a handful of skewers upon- which were broiled collops of meat." Having discussed this, and then having modestly contended amongst themselves as to who should not tell the tale, by framing many coy and pretty excuses, Kynon, the son of Clydno, is finally prevailed on, and he relates his strange adventures in the Forest of Breceliande. The hearing of this so stirred up the curiosity and love of adventure in the bosom of Sir Owain, one of the listeners, that he set off the very next day toward the same forest,—a proceeding which led to his marriage with the widowed countess, as we will tell anon.

He journeyed on through a valley, in the midst of which ran a river, until such time as he came to a stately castle at the end of it, where he beheld two youths with yellow hair, clad in garments of yellow satin, and each with a frontlet of gold on his head, and golden clasps upon their insteps. They each bore an ivory bow strung with-the sinews of the stag, "and they were shooting their daggers.' Then he greeted au old man, who introduced him into the castle, where he was disarrayed by four and twenty beauteous damsels, who had been sitting at the window embroidering satin; and in place of his own habiliments, they dressed him in an under vest and a doublet of fine linen, a robe, a surcoat, and a mantle of yellow satin, trimmed with a broad gold band. They placed cushions both beneath and around him; they brought silver bowls for him to wash in, and linen towels to dry himself with, some being white and some green. He feasted sumptuously, waited on by some of the damsels, and then the aged man entered into conversation. Owain told him that he had come that way, bent upon attempting an adventure in which Kynon had previously been foiled and overthrown, namely, that of fighting with the Black Knight who guarded the Fountain. After smiling at his fool-hardiness, the man reluctantly gave him every necessary information, and Owain took his course through the country as directed.

Many strange haps bring him to an open plain, wherein stood a large tree covered with intensely green foliage, beneath which was the fountain; beside the fountain there was a large slab of marble, and on the slab, attached to it by a chain, there stood a bowl of silver. Acting as directed, he took the bowl, and threw a bowlful of water upon the stone; and immediately his ears were greeted with a most terrific peal of thunder, together with a shower of hailstones so violent, that he was fain to lift his shield over himself and his horse's head for safety. The weather then became fair, but every leaf that had been upon the tree was gone. Soon afterwards a flight of birds came and settled upon the branches, and sung a sweeter strain than ever Owain had heard in all his life before, in the midst of which he was suddenly pained by the sound of something like murmuring and complaining. Then appeared a knight on a black horse making hastily towards him, clothcd in black armour and trappings of black velvet, and with a pennon on the head of his spear of the same sable hue. Now, whilst Arthur was sleeping, and Kynon was relating to Gwenhwyvar and the rest, all the particulars of his encounter with this 'defender of the glade, as it occurred to him before the same was undertaken by Owain, he. set forth how that the knight unhorsed him by the fury of his onset, and then when he was overthrown, how he passed the shaft of his black lance through the bridle rein of his horse, riding away with it together with his own, leaving Sir Kynon on the ground, not deigning even to bestow so much notice on him as to imprison him, or despoil him of his arms. He also pleasantly told, how that when he returned discomfitted back by the way he had come, and met the man who had directed him to the Fountain, " it was a marvel that he did not melt down into a liquid pool, through the shame he felt at the man's derision."

Howbeit, Sir Owain either had better luck or better address, for it fared differently with him, and of a truth, it fared ditferently with this foul payniin. Having spurred against each other so vigorously as to break both their lances, they drew their swords and fought blade to blade. "Then Owain," saith the Llyfr Coch o Hergest, " struck the knight a blow through his helmet, head-piece, and visor, and through the skin, and the flesh, and the bone, until it wounded the very brain." Feeling that he had at last received a mortal wound, he incontinently turned his horse's head and fled toward his castle. Owain pursued so close upon him that they both galloped over the drawbridge together, but here the portcullis was let down upon them by the warders with a sudden crash. The knight of the castle sped through the gateway into the court, " and the portcullis," continues the legend, " was let fall upon Owain ; and it struck his horse behind the saddle, and cut him in two, and carried away the rowels of the spurs that were upon Owain's heels." Of a verity this was " coming it close." Owain was now in a cage. "And the portcullis descended to the floor. And the rowels of the spurs and part of the horse were without, and Owain, with the other part of the horse remained between the two gates, and the inner gate was closed, so that Owain could not go thence; and Owain was in a perplexing situation." Perplexing indeed,—and no marvel either.

Whilst here, he could peep through a hole in the gate, and he could see a fair and spacious street with houses on each side; in this street he perceived a beauteous damsel, having yellow curling hair, a frontlet of gold on her forehead, shoes of variegated leather on her feet, and a vesture of yellow silk thrown over her graceful form. She approached the gate, desiring that it might be opened; but the enclosed hero laments his inability to do so, saying that it is no more in his power for him to serve her, than it may be hers to serve him in such a "perplexing situation." Then responded she: — "Truly, it is very sad that thou canst not be released, and every woman ought to succour thee, for I never saw one more faithful in the service of ladies than thou. As a friend thou art the most sincere, and as a lover the most devoted." Upon that she presents him with a ring, telling him to turn the stone inwards and to close his fingers upon it, adding, that as long as he concealed the stone, it would indeed conceal him. Through the efficacy of this gift he evades his enemies, who soon returned to him to take vengeance ; he nvisibly follows his deliverer to a place of safety, where she restores him with a sumptuous feast and courteous entertainment.

Not long after this, the nobleman who owned the castle dies of the wouiids he had received of Owain, and the " Countess of the Fountain," his widow, with whom Owain was desperately smitten as he saw her amidst the mourners of the funeral procession, but not at that time knowing who she was, remained alone in her possessions, unprotected herself, and unable to defend her territory from her rapacious and lawless neighbours. On being so struck with her beauty, Owain asks his companion who she might be? The maiden answers him that she is the Countess of the Fountain, and her mistress. "Verily," said Owain, " she is the woman that I love best." "Verily," said the maiden, "she shall also love thee not a little." Having said this, she determined to pave the. way to her mistress's heart for her guest; thinking, according to the idea of the times, that none could be so fit to defend the lady's acres, and hills, and mansions, as a knight so doughty, and at the same time so full of service. to the softer sex. "Come here and sleep,"' said she, addressing him with this intention ; " and 1 will go and woo for thee." So Owain slept, and the maiden went to the castle.

When she arrived thither, she found her mistress in a woful plight, mourning and wailing in such sort, that she was unahle to endure the sight of any one. Her bower-woman, whose name was Luned, as we are now informed, then saluted her with meet inquiries; but receiving no answer, she craves to know how it is, and what ails her that she cannot speak ? The countess here reproaches Luned that she has not been .near her so long, but has retired herself away even when her affliction most needed consolation and society. The maiden reproves her lady for giving way to a useless grief, since her good lord was gone, and no excess of tears could recall him. The countess declares there is not a man in the whole Vansal world that can compare with her lamented husband; but Luned dissents from her here, hinting that she knows better, and that she knows of some great advantage that might accrue to her mistress. Words, liowbeit, run so high, that the attendant hastily quits the presence of the countess on having delivered these sentiments, and hopes that evil may betide the one who shall make the first advancement towards reconciliation. Yet was the haughty lady's curiosity excited, insomuch that she burned to know what Luned had to say ; and here follows a passage of exquisite nature :—" The countess arose and followed her to the door of the chamber, and began coughing loudly. And when Luned looked back, the countess beckoned to her; and she returned to the countess." These manoeuvres indeed brought about a reconciliation; the lady was content to listen and her bower-woman to woo for Owain in his absence.

"Thou knowest," said Luned, "that except by warfare and arms it is impossible for thee to preserve thy possessions; delay not, therefore, to seek some one who can defend them."

"And how can I do that?" said the countess. "I will tell thee," said Luned; "unless thou canst defend the fountain, thou canst not maintain thy dominions; and no one can defend the fountain, except it be a knight of Arthur's household ; and I will go to Arthur's court, and ill betide me, if I return thence without a warrior who can guard the fountain, as well as, or even better, than he who defended it formerly."

"That will be hard to perform," said the countess. "Go, however, and make proof of that which thou hast promised."

This artful conference being ended, the maid retired ; but in place of going to Arthur's court at Caerlleon, she only hastened back to Owain; she related what had passed, and prepared the knisrht for an interview with her mistress. On the day appointed, Owain arrived himself in a coat, and a surcoat, and a mantle of yellow satin, —a colour in especial esteem M'itli the ancients, as the old romances portray—and upon the last was a broad band of gold lace ; and on his feet he put high shoes of variegated leather, fastened with golden clasps wrought into the form of lions.

"The next day," (after the presentation,) saith the Llyfr Coch, " the countess caused all her subjects to assemble, and showed them that her earldom was left defenceless, and that it could not be protected but with horse and arms, and military skill. ' Therefore,' said she, ' this is what I offer for your choice; either let one of you take me, or give your consent for me to take a husband from elsewhere, to defend my dominions.'"

"So they came to the determination that :.t was better that she should have permission to marry some one from elsewhere ; and thereupon she sent for the bishops and archbishops, to celebrate her nuptials with Owain. And the men of the earldom did Owain homage."

In this narrative, which has been so ably done into English by Lady Guest, and parts of which we have given verbatim to the reader, a characteristic trait of the manners of the times in which it was written is pleasantly set forth. A poor knight, who possessed hardihood and valour, had every chance of fighting his way into the bosom and territories of any rich heiress or widow whatsoever ; for in those days, when " might was right," and the best title-deed was a strong arm, the great solicitude of well-portioned ladies was, to discover a stalwart knight who should preserve their lands from the depredations of their neighbours. Every trivial misunderstanding was settled by the lance and the sword ; and he who unhorsed his adversary, possessed himself of his property. Amongst the many advantages of knighthood, as creditably and valorously borne by men of gentle blood, St. Palaye does not omit this as one by which courage and address may come poor into lists, and retire covered with honour, riches, and the love of the fair sex. For, as a lady's possessions were nothing to her unless she could keep them, and as in the plenitude of chivalry and knight-errantry, it was matter of course for her to love and to marry, and as again, owing to the unsettled and troublous state of the times, the man most deserving of love, was the man most capable of defending the weak or delicate from oppression, so it was natural for her to select, independent of any innate or intrinsic virtue, the greatest muscular strength, valour, perseverance, and hardihood, that could centre in one and the same individual ; indeed, these external qualifications argued and supposed every mental virtue of which the person of a man could be possessed.


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