“HARKEN TO ME”
MIDDLE ENGLISH ROMANCES IN TRANSLATION
Ywain and Gawain
Almyghti God that made mankyn,
He schilde his servandes out of syn,
And mayntene tham with might and mayne
That herkens Ywayne and Gawayne.
Thai war knightes of the Tabyl Rownde;
Tharfore listens a lytel stownde.
Arthure, the Kyng of Yngland,
That wan al Wales with his hand,
And al Scotland, als sayes the buke,
And mani mo, if men wil luke—
Of al knightes he bare the pryse,
In werld was none so war ne wise.
Trew he was in alkyn thing,
Als it byfel to swilk a kyng.
Ywayne and Gawayne (1-14)
Almighty God who made mankind, shield His servants from sin and maintain them with strength who hear Ywain and Gawain. They were knights of the Round Table, so listen a little while. Arthure, King of England, who won all of Wales and Scotland as the book says, and many more if men will look, bore the prize of all knights. There was no one in the world so wise; he was true in all things, as befits such a king.
Arthure held a feast on Whitsunday at Cardiff in Wales, and after dinner the assembly of lords and ladies, knights and maidens was gay, and they amused each other with the pleasure of their company. They spoke courteously of deeds of arms and hunting, and of good knights who lived before and how they might be known by the bravery of their deeds wherever they went, for they were unrelenting in battle and earned great honor. They told how there was more truth between them than is now seen among men, for truth and love are lost, and men practice another craft. They use words to make things seem true and stable, but it is a fable; there is no truth in their tales. I will stop speaking of this and begin telling of Arthure and his courteous company, the flower of chivalry, who won such renown with their spears that their fame spread all over the world.
After dinner the king and queen went to their chamber to sleep; everyone noticed, for they had never seen them do this on high days. When the two were asleep, knights soon came to guard the door: Sir Dedine, 1 Sir Sagramor, Sir Gawain, Sir Kay, Sir Ywain, and mighty Colgrevance, who told his fellows of an adventure and battle he had been in, and the queen heard his tale. She opened the chamber door and suddenly sat down among them before anyone saw her. But Colgrevance quickly rose up, which made Sir Kay, who had a sharp, boastful tongue, envious.
“Well, Colgrevance,” said Sir Kay, “you always have been light on your feet! You suppose that now you will be considered the most gracious of us all. The queen shall understand that none of us are so ignorant, though you rose and we sat still, that we did it for ill or would not have risen had we seen her.”
“Sir Kay,” said the queen, “I know that well, and it would be good if you left off such words and not despise your fellows.”
“Madam,” he replied, “by God’s doom, we did not know of your coming, and if we were not courteous, do not take it as disrespect. But ask now this nobleman to tell the tale he began.”
“By God, your quarreling bothers me no more than a fly’s bite,” Colgrevance told Sir Kay. “You have often spitefully resented better men than I. In my opinion, it is full seemly for a badger to stink among men. And so it fares with you, Sir Kay; you have always been wicked of words, so this time there is no more to say. But about the story that I began—.” Sir Kay interrupted him and quickly said to the queen:
“Madam, if you had not been here, we would have heard a marvelous tale. So that we may have our pleasure, we pray you to command him to tell his story.”
Colgrevance replied, “My lady is so discreet that she will not force me to tell that which distresses me; she is not of such wicked will.”
But Sir Kay said sharply, “Madame, this whole company together asks you heartily to have Colgrevance tell his tale so that we may hear what befell, if not on account of our request, then for the faith you owe to the king.”
“Sir Colgrevance,” said the queen, “I pray you take no offense at Sir Kay’s carping; he has always been wicked of speech, and no one may chastise him. Therefore I pray that you not let his words stop you, and tell me and your fellows all your tale and how it happened, I pray and bid you for my love.”
“I am loathe to do so, Madam, but I will fulfil your commandment so that I don’t anger you. If you will listen to me with understanding hearts and ears, I will tell you tidings such as you have never heard in any king’s realm. But words fare as does the wind unless men bind them in their heart; words, when truly taken, pass the ears and enter the heart, where there is the treasure of each man’s speech. So listen to my tale; I will tell you no trifles or lies to make you laugh, but exactly what I saw.
“At this time six years ago I rode alone, as you shall hear, well armed to seek adventures. In a forest I found a path, thick with thorns, briars and whin. I rode nearly all day with great difficulty and then came into a plain where I saw a broad stronghold and rode quickly to it. I saw the walls and the dyke, which pleased me heartily. A knight, who was lord and keeper of the place, stood on the drawbridge with a falcon on his hand. We greeted each other politely, and the gracious knight took my stirrup and told me to dismount, which I did, and we soon went into the hall. The good man thanked God many times, and the way that brought me there and the adventures I sought.
“Thus we entered, God reward him, and he led my steed. When we were in that fair, worthily wrought palace, I saw no one. There was a board hanging before us, made of neither iron, wood, nor any material I know of, and a mallet beside it. The knight struck the board with the mallet three times, and a company of fair, courteous men appeared, who led my horse to the stable. A maiden came to me, the most beautiful I have ever seen. She took me by the hand, unlaced my armor, and led me into a chamber where she clad me in a fine purple cloak lined with ermine. We were alone, and she served me graciously with faultless manners and true speech, soft and reliable in her expression. I would have lived with that sweet person if I could.
“When it was time for supper, that lovely lady led me to the hall, where we were served well and made wondrously at ease. The lady sat before me and courteously prepared my food, which lacked neither pies nor roasts. After supper, my host said he could not remember the day a knight had stayed with him or sought any adventures. So he asked me if I would come again, and I said I would gladly if I could; it would have been shameful to refuse.
“I had a good sleep that night, and my steed was well rested. I prepared to leave at daybreak, took leave of my host, and left to find adventures. I soon found a fair forest but thought it bad luck, for there were many wild leopards, lions, bears, bulls and boars that roared ruefully. I turned away and soon saw a man sitting on a mound holding a mace; he was a loathly creature, the foulest ever seen. I made my way towards him and saw that his head was as great as that of a horse or ox, and his hair hung down to his belt. As I continued to look at him, I saw that his forehead was broader than the span of two large hands, and his ears like an elephant’s. The giant man had a wide, flat face and a nose like a cat’s; his brows were like little bushes and his teeth like boar tusks. He had a huge bulge on his back, and his chin was attached to his chest. He rested on his club, and was dressed in curious clothing, made neither of wool or linen.
“He stood up when he saw me, and I asked if he wanted to fight, for I was willing. But he stood as still as a beast, so I thought he had no wits or reason to enable him to speak. I boldly asked him, ‘What are you, friend?’ and he answered, ‘I am a man!’ I said, ‘I have never seen such a one,’ and he asked me, ‘What are you?’ I replied, ‘Such as you see. What do you do here alone?’ He told me, ‘I tend each of these beasts.’ I said, ‘This is a marvel to me, for I have never heard of any but you in wilderness or forest who kept wild beasts unless they were bound fast.’ He said, ‘None of them are so bold as to pass out of my sight day or night.’ I asked, ‘How so? Explain your skill,’ which he gladly did:
“’There is no beast in this forest that dares not to stand still when I come to him. And when I seize him with my strong fingers, I make him cry in such a manner that when all the beasts hear him, they come to me and fall at my feet to beg mercy in their way. But understand, I am the only man alive who can go among them without being torn apart. They are under my control and come when I call them; I am master of them all.’
“He then asked what kind of man I was, and I told him ‘I am a knight seeking adventures to test my body. I pray for your advice in directing me to some wonder in that land.’
“He replied, ‘I can tell no wonders, but there is a well close by. Go there and do as I say; follow this path and you will soon meet some marvels, but you will not pass through easily. There is a well under the fairest tree ever to grow in this country, near a beautiful chapel. A gold basin hangs by the well on a chain, and a stone stands by the well. Take the basin quickly and cast water on the stone with your hand, and soon you will see new tidings. A storm and tempest will rise all about, east and west. You will hear thunder blasting, sleet and rain will come that will be difficult to withstand, and lightning will flash. You will barely know yourself, and if you pass through without coming to grief, you will have the best luck of any knight who has come there to show his might.’
“I took my leave and rode until midday, when I reached my destination. I saw the chapel and the tree, the most beautiful that ever grew since God was born. It was so thick with leaves that no rain could come through, and it stayed green all winter. I found the basin as the gamekeeper had told me, and the well of cold water. The stone was of the richest emerald I’ve ever seen, and the four rubies on which it stood shone their light across the land. The beautiful sight made me joyful and lighthearted.
“I took the basin and poured water on the stone. The weather grew black and the thunder cracked; I could barely stand against the hail and rain storms, and the loud winds were the strongest that ever came from cloud. I was pelted with snow and sleet, so that I could hardly stand, and the lightning in my face was so hot I expected to be burned. I was so confounded by that weather that I believed I would soon be dead, and certainly if it had lasted long, I would never have passed through there. But by Christ’s grace the storm ceased in a moment and the fair weather returned, which made me very happy, for the best comfort follows discomfort.
“Then I saw a cheering sight; every bird that flies alighted on the tree, so that neither bough nor leaf could be seen. They sang so happily that the woods rang with their merry melody, such that no man has ever heard unless he has been there. When that glad sound ended, I soon heard another noise, like nine or ten horsemen. Soon I saw a knight in rich armor, and I took up my shield and spear. He hurried up to me and sharply asked why I had insulted him by disturbing his rest with storms in his own forest. ‘You shall pay for it,’ he said and came at me eagerly. He said I had done him great harm for no reason, which may never be amended, and therefore to defend myself. I quickly smote his shield, and my shaft broke out into the field. Then, with his strength he threw me out of my saddle the length of my spear. I knew that he was much larger than I and could bring my death. Next to his steed, mine was but a foal. I was so stunned that I lay on the ground; he would speak no word to me but took my steed and went his way. Dejected and confused, I sat there as he hastily left with my mount. He went the same way he had come, but I dared not follow him for fear of further injury and, by God, I still don’t know where he went.
“Then I thought how I had promised my host, the noble knight, and his lovely lady to return if I might. I left all of my armor behind as I would not have been able to go along otherwise. When I arrived, the knight and lady were very glad to see me and greeted me as they had the night before. Soon they knew where I had been and said that they had never seen a knight go that way and come home again. And so I spent that time in this way and found the follies I had sought.”
“Surely,” said Sir Ywain, “you are my cousin and we should love each other truly as brothers. You are a fool for not having told me of this amazing adventure sooner, for I would have avenged you of that knight immediately and still will, if I may. Sir Kay spoke to them with smarting, condescending words:
“It’s easy to see that it is after dinner! There is many a boast in a pot of wine. Arm yourself quickly, Sir Ywain, and to insure your return, pad your saddle well and seat yourself firmly. Display your banner when you go, and I advise you to take leave of every friend before you depart. And if tonight you are bothered by any creature in your sleep or frightened by any dreams, turn back—and say I bade you do so!”
The queen, with mild manner, said to Sir Kay: “Are you mad? What devil within you causes your ceaseless foul insults to your fellows? Surely, Sir Kay, you are not gracious! By Christ, if your tongue were mine, I would accuse it of treason, and so might you with good reason. Your tongue does you great dishonor and is therefore a traitor.”
Sir Ywain, who always returned rude speech with politeness, courteously and quickly told the queen that he was not bothered: “Madam, there should be no strife. He may well insult strangers who is so ungracious to his fellows. Men say that whoever quarrels back starts the fight, which I will not do. Let him speak his mind; his words don’t upset me.”
As they were talking, the king came out of the chamber, and all the barons there quickly stood up. He told them to be seated, and he sat by the queen, who told him all she knew of Colgrevance’s adventure. As soon as he heard the tale, he swore by his crown and by the soul of his father, Uther Pendragon, that he would see that sight within a fortnight on St John the Baptist’s day, and invited all who wished to see the marvel to accompany him.
Word spread throughout the court, and everyone from page to knight and squire was excited except Sir Ywain, who wanted to go alone. He was greatly disappointed, as he expected that the king would grant the battle to Sir Kay or Sir Gawain, whoever asked first. He decided to go alone before the king’s company regardless of the consequences, and take the grace that God would send. He planned to be well on his way before the passing of the third day, and to try to find the narrow path where thornbushes and briars hindered the way, and also the castle of which Colgrevance told, with its knight and maiden. He would then seek the forest, the son of Cain’s kin and his wild beasts, the tree and birds, the chapel, basin and stone. He would tell no one until he knew how it went.
Ywain went to his lodgings and found his men there. He told a squire, “Go quickly and saddle my riding horse and my steed, and take my best armor with you. I will ride out at the yonder gate and wait for you outside of town. Come to me quickly, for I must make a journey. You are to say nothing; if you see any men, let no one know my secret. If any man asks you anything, loyally conceal what you know.”
“Sir,” said the squire, “I shall fulfill your bidding with full good will. You may ride freely, for you will not be discovered on account of me.”
Sir Ywain then left, intent on avenging his cousin with all his might. Once outside the town, he dismounted from his horse, donned his armor and mounted his steed, all of which had been prepared and brought by the squire as instructed. He rode forth until it neared nightfall, passing many high mountains in the wilderness and many plains until he came to the hazardous path that would lead him to the well and tree. He saw the castle at last and was sheltered there for the night; he was treated with more courtesy and honor and found much greater comfort than Colgrevance had reported.
In the morning he went down the road and soon met the gamekeeper who would tell him the way, and he marveled many times that nature had made such a foul creature. Then he rode at a good pace to the well and dismounted, and soon took the basin and cast water on the stone. Without fail came wind, thunder, rain and hail. When it ceased, he saw the birds alight upon the tree and sing gaily just as they had done before.
Soon he saw a knight with a stern expression coming toward him as fast as a bird in flight. They hated each other on sight and began to battle; soon their shields and lances were shattered, but they remained seated. They drew out their swords and hewed each other’s shields to pieces, which flew out into the field. Their helms were struck with such anger that sparks flew. Both gave good blows and showed their might, so that blood running out of their bodies could be seen through their chain mail. They exchanged such strokes that the fight could not last long, with broken helms and hauberks; neither would dismount, which made the battle praiseworthy. Finally Sir Ywain proved his prowess with a blow that split his opponent’s helm and brainpan.
The knight knew he was near death and thought it best to flee, so he rode away with all his strength, followed fast by Sir Ywain, but he could not be overtaken. Sir Ywain would have taken him dead or alive and followed him with determination to the city, where he saw no living man. When they came to the castle gate, he followed the knight; there were two inner gates, each of which had a portcullis2 wrought of iron and steel and ground sharply at the tips. As Sir Ywain entered, his horse’s foot touched a hidden trap and the portcullis dropped as he passed through; it hit just between Sir Ywain and his rear saddlebow, shearing the spurs of his heels and slicing through his saddle and steed. But more trouble was to come, as the other portcullis fell shut in front of him and trapped him. Though his horse had been cut in two and he had lost his spurs, he was lucky to have passed through otherwise unharmed! Caught between the two gates, through which the other knight had passed, Sir Ywain moaned and mourned greatly. As he was stuck in that space, he heard a door open behind him and saw a maiden come out, shutting the door after her. She spoke to him graciously:
“Sir, by St Michael, this is poor lodging! Your life is in danger, for you have slain my lord. My lady and everyone in his company is sorrowful; you have many foes here, set on your destruction. You cannot escape from this stronghold, so they know they may not fail to slay you in battle.”
Sir Ywain said, “So help me God, for all their might they shall not kill me or lay hands upon me.”
The maiden, named Lunet, replied, “Certainly not, if I can help it. Although you are severely beset here, I don’t believe you are completely afraid. And, sir, I owe you honor and service, for once when I was young and more naïve than a damsel should be, I was sent to give a message to the king. From the time I arrived at court, no knight was gracious enough to notice me except you; may God reward you. You did me great honor, and now I will repay you.
“I know you are Sir Ywain, son of King Urien. You may trust me and if you take my advice, no man will harm you. I shall lend you my ring, but you must return it at my request; when you are out of distress, give it back to me. As the bark protects the tree, so shall my ring do for you. No harm will come to you when you hold the stone in your hand, for it has such power that no man will see you.”
You can be sure that Sir Ywain was well pleased with her words. She led him through the door and had him sit on her bed, which was covered with a quilt, the richest he had ever seen. She said that should he want anything he would be well served, and he asked for food. She left and soon returned with roasted capon, bread on a clean cloth, and a pot of rich wine. He ate with good cheer, for he had been very hungry. After his meal, he heard a loud noise in the castle; they looked everywhere to slay him in revenge, even before the corpse had been buried.
The maiden told him, “They are now seeking to slay you, but whoever comes or goes, have no fear or move from this place. They will look for you in here, but stay still on this bed and pay them no heed. But when they bear the body to the church for burial, you will hear a sorry cry and a doleful din, and they will seek you here again. But don’t worry, they will not find you no matter how hard they look; they will be as the blind, unable to see you. I must go now, but don’t be afraid, for I will help you even if it brings me trouble.”
When she came to the gate she found many well-armed men eager to take and slay Sir Ywain. They found half his steed between the gates but not the knight. There was no door or window through which he might have gone, so he should still have been there. Otherwise he knew witchcraft or necromancy, or had wings with which to fly. They hastily went to the maiden’s hall and searched all the rooms, which Sir Ywain watched as he sat on the bed. They struck all about except the bed, with blows so hard that many of their weapons broke. Greatly disappointed that they could not avenge their lord, they left with dreary faces and went to the bier. A lady, white as milk followed, nearly mad with woe. She wrung her hands until they bled, pulled out her fair hair, wept, and often fell down in a swoon. The holy water and cross were borne before the procession, followed by many a mother’s son. Before the body rode a knight on a strong steed; his armor, spear and shield were well arrayed.3
Sir Ywain heard the lady’s cry, for no one might have more sorrow than she when their lord went to his grave. Priests and monks solemnly performed the service. As Lunet stood in the crowd, she thought of Sir Ywain and went to him quickly. She asked how he was and expected that he had been afraid, and he told her he had never been so abashed. He said, “My friend, is there some way that I might briefly look out some hole or window, for I have a great desire to see the lady,” and she opened a secret gate from which he could watch. He saw the lady Alundyne and heard her loud cries to God almighty:
“Pardon him for his sins, for there was never, nor will there be, such a fine knight; there is no one so courteous or gracious in all the world. God grant him grace to live in heaven with His own Son, for there is no one alive so generous or doughty of deeds.” When she had made her speech, she swooned many times.
Now we will leave the lady and speak of Sir Ywain. Love, that is so powerful, had sorely wounded him. Wherever he went, she who was his foe had his heart, which was set where he dare not be seen. But he lived in longing and hope. Everyone at the interment went home and left the lady alone with her lady-in-waiting and some others who were dear to her. Pale from sorrow, she began her mourning anew; concentrating on his soul, she opened a gold psalter and started to read the psalms and paid no attention to any man. Sir Ywain then feared he could not succeed since he was to blame for having slain the lady’s lord, and he could think of no way to win her love.
The lady was quite lovely, with eyes as clear as crystal; no man alive could describe her beauty. For Sir Ywain to set his love in a place where he was hated to the death was against reason, but he said if he could not have her as his wife, he would rather lose his life. As he sat in thought, the maiden came and asked how he had been since she last left him. She could see from his pale, wan appearance what ailed him and said, “I know that your heart is set, and certainly I will do all I can to help you out of prison and bring you to your reward.”
“Damsel,” replied Sir Ywain, “I will not steal out of this place but will leave openly in daylight in men’s sight, regardless of what happens to me.” She assured him, “Sir, you will go with honor, for you shall have good succor. But you will be safe here a awhile until I return.” She was aware of his intentions and went right to her lady, to whom she was confidante, attendant and counselor and could speak freely, as you will hear.
She said, “Madam, I am amazed at your constant sorrow. For God’s sake, let go of your mourning and think about King Arthure’s coming. Don’t you remember the letter Damsel Savage sent you? Who will now defend you, your land, and all else, since you won’t stop weeping? You have no knight in the country who will face King Arthure and his host, and if he is not opposed, your lands will certainly be lost.” The lady fully understood the maiden’s counsel, but she sent her away and told her not to speak to her in this way, as her heart was breaking with woe. The maiden left unperturbed and told the lady, “It is often women’s will to blame those who speak sense.” Then the lady reflected that the maiden had not spoken wrongly, and she sat long in thought.
The maiden returned and resumed her speech: “Madam, you are acting like a child and will soon destroy yourself. Chastise your heart, for it is a great shame for such a lady to weep and make such cries. Remember your great nobility. Do you believe that the flower of chivalry died and was buried with your lord? God forbid! There are others as good and better.”
“By heaven, you are lying!” said the lady. “Let’s see if you can tell me where there is a man as doughty as my husband.”
“Yes, if you assure me that you will love me no less.” The lady promised that she would not become angry at anything the maiden said, so Lunet proceeded: “Then I shall tell you a secret, which only we two will know. If two knights are on the field with spear and shield and one slays the other, which is the better?” The lady answered, “He who wins the battle.” “Certainly,” continued the maiden. “The knight that lives was more powerful than your lord, who was slain. Your lord fled, and the other chased him here into his own stronghold, which tells of his boldness.” The lady said, “Talking of him to me is an insult. You speak neither truth nor right. Quickly, out of my sight!” “Speaking to me in this way is not what you promised,” said the maiden as she left and hastily returned to Sir Ywain’s chamber.
The lady thought all night about having no knight to repel Arthure and his company, and began to feel ashamed: “I blame Lunet wrongly, and now she believes I will never love her again as I always have. I will love her strongly, for what she told me was for my own good.” The maiden came back the next morning and found the lady drearily hanging her head. Lunet repeated all she said before, and the lady apologized for having mistreated her and wished to make amends: “I would now like to hear about that knight. I know I was wrong and will now do as you advise. Tell me, is he of noble kin?”
“Madam,” said Lunet, “I dare say that there is no more noble man alive. You will find him the most gracious man ever born.”
The lady asked his name, and the maiden told her he was Sir Ywain, King Urien’s son, which pleased the lady. She told Lunet, “Have him here in my sight by the third night from now or sooner, if possible. I sorely long to see him; bring him tonight, if you can.”
The maiden replied, “I cannot, for his home is more than a day’s journey away. But I have a speedy page who will run directly there and bring him by tomorrow night.”
The lady said, “Tell him to hurry as fast as he can; he will be well rewarded with advancement for his service if he does this errand quickly and returns by tomorrow night.”
“Madam,” said Lunet, “I promise to have him here before the third night. In the meantime, send for your council and ask them how you shall defend your well, land, castle and tower against King Arthure, for there is not one of them who will dare to undertake the battle. Tell them it is necessary for you to take a lord to do what they will not. You need a noble knight who will defend your right. But swear that you will not act without their approval, which will please them and they will thank you many times.”
The lady said, “By God Almighty I shall consult with them tonight. I think you linger here too long; quickly send forth your messenger.” She was well pleased and did as her maiden directed, sending for her council immediately.
Lunet started preparations quickly. She had Sir Ywain bathed and dressed in fine, furred scarlet decorated with gold wire, and a rich girdle of precious stones, and gave him instructions for his meeting with the lady. When he was ready, the maiden told her lady that the messenger had arrived, and the lady asked the maiden to bring the knight to her privately so no one else would know. Lunet rushed to Sir Ywain and told him, “Sir, my lady knows you are here. When you come before her, be sure to be bold and take heed of what I have told you.” She took him by the hand and led him into the chamber before the lady, who was well pleased with his arrival. But Sir Ywain was afraid when he entered the room, the floor and bed of which were covered with gold cloths. She found him flawless but did not speak, and he drew away in dread. The maiden laughed and said, “A knight who has such a lady in sight and cannot express himself earns displeasure. Come forth, sir, my lady will not smite you! Truly, she loves you well. Pray to her for mercy (and so shall I for your sake) and forgiveness for slaying Salados the Red, who was her lord.”
Sir Ywain knelt before the lady: “Madam, I yield myself ever to your will; I will not flee.” The lady answered, “No, why should you? It would do me little good to kill you now. Since you have come to me willingly and asked for mercy, I forgive you. Sit down and tell me why you are being submissive.”
“Madam,” he said, “at one glance my heart belonged to you. Since I first saw you, I have loved you with all my might, and I will never love anyone else. For your love I am ready to live or die.”
“Do you dare to undertake making peace in my land and maintaining my rights against King Arthure and his knights?”
“I will, against any man alive.”
“Sir, then we are at one.” She had already taken counsel with her barons, so she hastily went to the hall where they all gathered to hold their parliament and assent to her marriage. She said, “Sirs, with one accord, since we need a lord to lead and guard my lands, give me your judgment soon.” “Madam,” they said, “we all shall assent to your will.” She returned to Sir Ywain and told him, “Sir, by God I will have no other lord. It would not be right to reject a king’s son and noble knight.”
Thus the maiden had accomplished her plan to bring Sir Ywain out of danger. The lady led Sir Ywain into the hall, and all the barons rose and said, “This knight shall wed the lady.” They said to each other that Sir Ywain was the fairest man they had seen and was fit to be an emperor, and that the wedding should take place that night. The lady sat at the dais and commanded silence so that her steward could speak before they left.
“Sirs,” said the steward, “war is growing in these lands; King Arthure is ready to be here within a fortnight with his company to win this country if they can. They know that our lord is dead and that we have no one to protect our lands. Since women may not battle, there must be a governor. Therefore my lady needs to be wedded quickly, and she will take no lord without your approval.” The lords were pleased with this speech and assented to the lady’s taking a lord at her will. The lady then addressed them regarding Sir Ywain:
“How does this knight please you? He has proffered himself to my honor and service in all ways. To tell the truth I’ve never seen him before today, but I have been told he is the son of King Urien. He comes of high rank and is doughty, wary, wise and courteous. He yearns to marry me, although he might rightfully have better.” With one voice the barons approved of Sir Ywain, but urged her to wed that day. So they went to the church, and Ywain married the rich lady Alundyne, the daughter of the Duke of Landuit, in the barons’ presence. Otherwise her lands would have been destroyed. The rich baronage made much mirth that day, with feasts befitting the occasion. The death of their lord who had been so gracious was forgotten, and the new lord was proclaimed worth three of the former and loved much more.
The wedding celebration continued until King Arthure came to the well with all of his knights; no one stayed behind. Sir Kay said, “Where is he who boasted he would avenge his cousin? I knew his words were in vain. He bragged before the queen; now he is nowhere to be seen. So much for his proud words; he doesn’t dare face the knight he boasted he would fight.”
“Mercy, sir, for God’s sake!” said Gawain. “You can be sure we will hear of Sir Ywain today, unless he is dead or being held. And I’ve never in any company heard him speak ill of you.” Sir Kay agreed to keep silent.
The king cast water on the stone, and the storm soon arose with wicked weather as was told before. It blew so hard with sleet and rain that the king and his men expected to be slain. Sir Ywain hastily dressed himself in his gear with a noble shield and strong spear. When he was well armored he mounted a steed he thought was as light as a bird in flight. He rapidly went to the well and when they saw him, Sir Kay immediately asked for the battle, which Arthure granted.
Sir Ywain approached them and Sir Kay sprang onto his horse. Sir Ywain was very glad when Sir Kay came against him, but Kay didn’t know who his opponent was. Sir Ywain thought he would now get revenge for Kay’s sharp words. They rode fiercely at each other with sharp spears, and Sir Ywain unhorsed Sir Kay so that his helm dug into the earth a foot deep. But Sir Ywain would do Kay no more disgrace and dismounted. He took Sir Kay’s steed and courteously presented it to the king. Everyone was happy to see Kay brought to such shame, and they said to each other that Kay’s scorn to all men was well repaid.
Sir Ywain then said to Arthure, “Sir King, I give you this steed, for he may help you in your need; and it would be a great trespass to withhold what is yours.” The king asked, “Who are you? I don’t know you unless I see you unarmed or hear your name.” When he heard “Lord, I am Ywain!” he was elated. Sir Kay, who had said Sir Ywain had stolen away, was a sorry man as he lay on the ground. The king and his men were glad for Sir Ywain’s victory, and Sir Gawain was happiest of all for Sir Ywain’s welfare, as he loved him above all others at court. The king asked Sir Ywain how this had come about, and the knight told him the full story of his battle at the well, his marriage, and the help he had received from the maiden.
“Sir King,” said Sir Ywain, “it would do me great honor if you and your pleasant company would grant me the grace of coming with me to the property I have won and see my castle and tower.” Arthure agreed to stay a fortnight and Sir Ywain thanked him many times. The knights were pleased to go with Sir Ywain, who sent a squire ahead to warn the lady of their arrival. When she heard this, no words can describe half her pleasure.
The gracious lady quickly commanded all her men to dress themselves in their best array to receive the king that day; she went outside the town with many barons clad in purple and ermine with belts of fine gold. Wearing rich clothing and riding noble steeds, they hailed the king and all his company with full courtesy. There was much joy, with cloths spread on the street, damsels dancing to trumpets and pipes, and song and minstrelsy ringing throughout the castle and city. The lady created much merriment and was prepared with valuable gifts, and she was surrounded by a large throng of people who cried, “Welcome King Arthure. In all this world you bear the flower, king of all kings. Blessed be he who brings you here.” The lady went to the king to hold his stirrup as he dismounted, but when he saw her, the two met with much mirth and she welcomed him a thousand times over, as well as Sir Gawain. The king admired her loveliness and embraced her in front of many, to their joy.
There were so many maidens that each knight had a partner, and the lady went among them and arranged amusements. Thus the king and his knights dwelt in the castle for eight days and nights. Ywain entertained them with all kinds of games, and hunting in the many parks and woods in the fair country that he had gained with his wife. He also asked the king to thank the maiden who had helped him win his success. It came time for the king to go home, and all the while they had been there, Sir Gawain had tried to convince Sir Ywain to go with them:
“Sir, if you lie at home, you will earn blame. The knight who abandons his chivalry to stay in bed with the lady he has wed loses respect. When a knight is secure, that is the time to win praise. You are fixed well enough to seek tournaments in every country and increase your honor; we can go together and I will be at your banner. And chivalry makes a knight’s lady love him all the better. Though I must say that if I had so fair a lover as yours, I might forego chivalry and be idle with her at home; but a fool who knows little may well counsel another man.”
Sir Gawain kept at him so long that Sir Ywain agreed to ask his lady for permission to go, though he was loathe to grieve her. He went to see her, but she didn’t know why he had come. He took her in his arms and began his entreaty:
“My sweet love, my wife, my joy, my comfort, I have a request that will do us both honor,” and she agreed to fulfill all his commandments. “Dame, I pray that I might go with the king and my companions to attend deeds of arms for a while, for men will joke about me if I stay at home.” The lady did not want to upset him, so she agreed:
“Sir, I give you leave for a term I shall set. I grant you a year but, as you love me, you must return on this day in a twelvemonth no matter what. If you don’t, you will lose my love forever. Mark it well; this is the eve of St John, and I warn you before you leave to return in twelve months.”
He said, “I shall not fail to keep the day you have set, and if I could, I would visit you often. But a man who travels in diverse lands may sometimes have great distress, through imprisonment or sickness. Therefore I ask that you accept these two exceptions.”
The lady said, “I grant all you ask, and I will lend you my ring which is dear to me. You will not be in danger while you have it and think of me. I shall tell you of the stone’s virtue: you will not be held in prison even if you have many foes, and sickness will not take you. Nor will you lose any blood in battle while you have the ring and think of me. While you are true in love, you will always be victorious. I would never lend it to any knight before, and I give it to you now out of great love. Care for it well, for my sake.”
Sir Ywain thanked her and hurriedly prepared his armor and other gear, stalwart steeds, shield and spear, and also a squire, knave and swain, which pleased Sir Gawain. Sir Ywain mounted his steed and took his leave, which many mourned. The lady took leave of the king and his company, old and young, and with tears trickling down her cheeks, she asked Sir Ywain to keep the day set for his return.
The knights went to jousts and tournaments, and both Sir Ywain and Gawain won the prize far and near. At that time the king stayed at Chester and the knights joined him there, amusing themselves and riding about royally. All that year there were deeds of arms, and they won honor everywhere they went and became greatly renowned, especially Sir Ywain. They led this life until St John’s day was past, when they hurried home to the king and held great feasts with all the company. Then Sir Ywain realized he had forgotten his lover:
“I have broken her commandment; I will certainly now be destroyed. The term she set is past. How can this ever be amended?” He could hardly keep from weeping, when a damsel rode in on her horse and eagerly alighted without help from knave or knight. She let her cloak fall, went quickly into the hall, and addressed the king:
“May God protect you. My lady greets you well, and also the good Sir Gawain and all your knights, except Sir Ywain, that false traitor. He has betrayed my lady, but she is aware of his guile, though she did not expect it. His great boast that he loved her most was treason and treachery, and he shall pay dearly. He does not deserve to be called a knight. My lady believed he would always hold her heart and keep it safe and sound, but he has brought her grief and broken the term she set for him, St John’s Day, which is now forever gone. Certainly a man who so soon forgot his wife, who loved him more than her life, was never born of king’s blood.” She then spoke to Sir Ywain:
“You are an untrue traitor, a faithless newcomer. Give me my lady’s ring!” With a stern look, she took the ring from his finger, and as soon as she had it she took leave of the king, leapt upon her horse and left. She was accompanied by neither knave nor groom, and no one knew where she went.
When Sir Ywain heard this, he was stricken with sorrow and nothing could stop his mourning, which nearly drove him mad. He had come to nothing and knew he had caused his own destruction: “Alas that I was born. I have lost my love on account of my own folly. I will die from this grief!” An evil took him and he grew mad from his woe; he went into the forest, walking about like a wild beast. No one knew where he went, and although his men searched everywhere, he could not be found.
One day Ywain met a man in the woods who had a bow and broad arrows, which Sir Ywain took from him. Every day he shot a beast and won good meat without losing his arrows. He lived there a long while on roots and raw venison; he drank the warm blood, which did him much good. He came upon a little hermitage, and when the hermit saw a naked man bearing a bow, he thought him mad and fearfully locked his gate and ran inside. But out of charity, he set out bread and water for Ywain, who soon ran to the food. The bread was made of barley with the chaff,4 and although he had never had it before, he ate all he was given and drank the water. Even a madman will come where someone has done him good, and so did Ywain. He returned every day and brought venison, which he laid at the hermit’s gate, then ate and drank and went his way. As soon as he left, the hermit took the meat, flayed and cooked it, and added it to Ywain’s meal. He took the skins to town and sold them to buy better bread. Thus Sir Ywain lived for many years, and you shall hear what he did next.
As Ywain slept naked under a tree, a lady and her two ladies-in-waiting rode by. One of the maidens saw the knight and went to see him. She looked carefully and thought she had seen him before in many places, and when she saw a scar on his face, she recognized Sir Ywain. She said, “Alas, how can it be that such a noble knight has come to this? It is a great sorrow that he should now be so ugly to look upon.” She tenderly wept for him and told her lady, “Madam, we have found Sir Ywain, the best knight in the world. Alas that he is beset of such woe; he must have been placed in some sorrow, and therefore gone mad. Madam, if he were healthy and well in spirit, he would defend you against your foes who are causing you such harm, and your sorrow would be ended.”
“If this is Sir Ywain and he doesn’t flee,” said the lady, “through God’s help I hope we shall restore his wit. I wish we were at home, for I have a valuable ointment there that Morgan the Wise gave me, which he told me could cure madness.” They were only a half mile away from home, and when they arrived the lady gave the box of ointment to the maiden and told her, “This ointment is very dear to me. Be sure to use it sparingly, and after you have anointed the knight bring what is left back to me quickly.” The maiden hastily gathered together shoes, stockings, a shirt, breeches, a rich robe and silk belt, and a good horse and rode back to where Sir Ywain lay. He was still asleep, and she bravely went to him and anointed his head and entire body with the ointment. Against her lady’s orders, she used it all and thought it well spent. She left the clothing next to him so that he could be dressed before he saw her.
The maiden kept watch over him from a distance, and when he awoke he looked around sorrily and said, “Lady St Mary, what trouble has befallen me that I am now here naked? Has anyone been here? I believe someone has seen me in my sorrow!” He was also puzzled as to how the clothing had been brought. Although he was too weak to stand, he managed to get dressed; he was weary and needed to meet some man who might bring relief. The maiden leapt on her horse and rode by him, pretending that she didn’t know he was there. He cried out when he saw her, and she stopped and looked about. He called, “I am here!” She quickly rode over to him and asked what he wanted.
“Lady, I would appreciate your help, for I am in great trouble and have no idea what happened. For charity’s sake, I pray that you will lend me the horse you are leading, which is already saddled, and direct me to some town. I don’t know what brought me into such woe, nor where to go.”
She graciously answered, “Sir, if you will come with me, I will gladly ease you until you are recovered.” She helped him onto the horse and soon they came to a bridge; she threw the ointment box into the water and hurried home. When they arrived at the castle, the maiden went to her lady, who asked about the ointment. “Madam, the box is lost, and I nearly was also.” In reply to the lady’s request for an explanation, she said, “To tell the truth, in the middle of the bridge my horse stumbled and fell, and the box went into the water. Had I not caught my horse’s mane, I would have followed and drowned.”
“Now I am ruined,” said the lady. “That ointment was the greatest treasure I ever had, and I greatly regret its loss. But better than losing you both.” She told the maiden to go to the knight and take good care of him, which she did; she had him bathed and gave him good food and drink until he regained his strength, then supplied him with armor and a strong steed.
One day, the rich earl Sir Alers came with knights, sergeants and squires to attack the castle. Sir Ywain took up his armor, gathered his supporters and met the earl in the field. Soon he hit one of Sir Alers’ men on the shield so that both knight and steed fell dead. Soon another, a third and a fourth were felled; with every stroke Sir Ywain slew a man. He lost some of his men, but for each one the earl lost ten. The earl’s company fled from Sir Ywain’s side of the field, but Sir Ywain heartened his men so well that even the most cowardly were brave.
The lady watched the battle and said, “There is a noble knight, eager and very strong. One so doughty and courteous deserves praise.” The maiden said, “Surely you may consider your ointment well spent. See how he advances and how many he strikes. Look how he fares among his foes! He slays all he hits. Were there two others like him, I expect their foes would flee, and we would see the earl overcome immediately. Madam, may it be God’s will that he wed you and be our lord.”
The earl’s men were dying fast, so he thought it best to flee, and men might have been amused to see Sir Ywain and his companions chasing the earl’s company, of which no more than ten were eventually left alive. The earl fled for dread, and Sir Ywain overtook him at a nearby castle and prevented his entry. When he saw he could not win, the earl yielded to Sir Ywain and promised to go with him that night to surrender to the lady, ask for her grace, and make amends for his misdeeds.
The earl then removed all his armor and gave his helm, shield and sword to Sir Ywain, who took him to the lady’s castle. When they saw them coming, everyone there was joyful that the earl had been taken, and they went out to meet them. Sir Ywain greeted the lady and delivered the earl as her prisoner, with the advice to allow him to make amends. The earl swore on the book that he would restore everything he had taken and rebuild both tower and town he had destroyed, and to be her friend evermore. He paid homage to her and secured his promise with guarantors, the best lords of all that land.
Sir Ywain prepared to go and took his leave of the lady, which distressed her. She asked him, “Sir, if it is your will, I pray that you stay here, and I will give into your hands my own body and all my lands,” but her beseeching did no good. He refused and asked for only his armor and steed as rewards, which she granted and repeated her invitation, but it was useless. He left, and the lady and her maidens wept.
Now you shall hear how Ywain rode through a forest, with a heavy heart and sad face, and heard a most hideous cry. He went to the noise the fastest way possible and saw that a dragon had assailed a wild lion, and was dragging him by the tail and casting fire upon him. The lion had little strength left to fight the dragon, so Sir Ywain prepared to help him. Holding his shield in front of his face to protect it from the dragon’s fire, he struck the dragon through from cheek to navel and sundered its throat, but the head still hung on the lion’s tail. Sir Ywain cut the tail in two, and the dragon’s head fell off, still attached where it had taken its biting hold.
He was ready to battle the lion if it attacked him, but instead of fighting the lion sat fawning on the ground, raised up his front paws, and thanked the knight as best he could without being able to speak. He was so appreciative that he lay down low and licked the knight’s feet. Sir Ywain pitied the lion and began to ride on his way; the lion meekly followed by his side in the forest all day and never would be parted from the knight, for good or ill.5
As they went through the forest the lion became very hungry and gestured to his lord that he would go to get his prey; he wouldn’t go without leave, so that his master wouldn’t worry. He went the distance of an arrow’s flight and soon found and slew a barren doe. He bit her throat in two and drank the hot blood, then threw the deer over his neck as though it was a meal sack and took it to Sir Ywain. Since it was near nightfall, Sir Ywain decided to ride no farther and built a lodge of boughs. He had flint and stone and soon made a fire of dry moss and wood. The lion had dismembered the doe, and Sir Ywain soon made a spit and roasted some meat for their supper, though the lion would not eat until his master had enough. Though there was no salt, bread or wine, they were happy with what they had. The lion, who had grown very hungry, eagerly ate raw flesh and bones. Sir Ywain laid his head on his shield, and the lion watched over him and his steed all night.
After remaining there for a fortnight, one day Sir Ywain came upon the well, chapel and tree and fell into a swoon when he looked upon the stone. When he fell, his sword became unsheathed and the pommel stuck in the ground. The point went onto his throat through his armor and nicked his neck. When the lion saw the blood, he ran about as though he were mad and let out a horrid roar that might have terrified many folk. He believed that his master was dead, and it was pitiful to hear the sorrow he made in his way. He took the sword between his feet and set it up by a stone; he would have killed himself, I assure you, but just then Sir Ywain arose and as soon as the lion saw him stand, he joyfully licked his master’s feet and hands.
Sir Ywain said often, “Alas, of all men I am the most unfortunate. My love set me a certain day, which I broke. How shall I live with such sorrow, seeing this chapel, well, tree and stone? My good days and joy are now all gone and I am not worthy to be seen. If this wild beast was ready to kill himself for my love, then certainly by more right I should slay myself for such a person that I have lost through my folly. I rue the day that I was born!”
As Sir Ywain made his moan, someone in the chapel heard him through a crevice in the wall and spoke sadly, “Who mourns here?” Sir Ywain replied, “I was once a man. Tell me who you are before I leave.” The voice replied, “I am the sorriest person that ever lived.”
“No,” he said, “by St Martin, there is no sorrow to match mine, nor no person so confounded. I was a man, now I am none. Once I was a noble knight of great might, with knights in my company, plenty of riches and a lordship, all of which I lost through my foolishness. My greatest sorrow is losing a lady who was dear to me.”
“Mine is a much worse case,” the other said, “for tomorrow I must bear my judgment as my foes will devise.” Sir Ywain asked her the reason, and she told him, “I will tell you, if you will listen. I was a proud maiden with a lady who lives nearby. Men have accused me of treason and put me here in prison. I have no one to defend me, so I must be burned tomorrow.” He asked how it would be if she could find a knight to fight her enemies, but she said, “Sir there are but two knights in this land who would help me out of my trouble. One is gone and I don’t know where, and the other is living with the king and doesn’t know about my distress. One is called Sir Gawain, and the other Sir Ywain, the son of King Urien. It is because of him that I shall be put to death tomorrow, right here in this place.”
“Truly, I have seen him,” exclaimed Sir Ywain. ”I am he! And you will not be punished for my guilt. If I’m not mistaken, you are Lunet, who helped me; I would be dead if not for you. Therefore tell me who accuses you of treason and why!”
“They say my lady loved me especially and did as I advised, so they hate me to the death. The steward says I have done great treason to my lady. His two brothers said it also, and I knew they spoke falsely. Like a fool, I recklessly said I would find a knight to maintain my right and fight all three of them, and thus we agreed. I was granted forty days respite, so I went to the king’s court but found no comfort or solace from knight, knave or swain.” Sir Ywain asked where Gawain was, who was always true and loyal and never failed a damsel. Lunet explained, “He was not in court, for a knight led the queen away, which made the king quite grim. Sir Gawain followed the knight and certainly will not come home until he brings the queen back. Therefore I am doomed to die.”6
He said, “As I am a true knight, I will be ready to fight all three of them tomorrow, for love of you, my dear friend. I shall fight with all my might, but if anyone asks my name, you must not reveal it.”
“Sir,” she said, “truly, I shall not. I pray to God Almighty that you are not overcome. Since you will amend my mourning, I take the grace that God will send.” Sir Ywain promised to avenge her and rode into the forest with his lion. He shortly found a fair castle, with four porters at the gate. They let down the drawbridge but fled on account of the lion, and told Sir Ywain the beast could not enter. The knight told them, “I shall not be parted from my lion; I love him as well as myself, and we either come in together or leave.”
But with that he met the lord, who greeted him gladly with many knights, squires, and fair ladies. Although they were joyful to see him, they had sorrow in their hearts. He was led to a chamber, unarmed, and clad in gay, expensive clothing, but he often saw them sad and sometimes weeping and moaning. They feigned cheer for Sir Ywain’s sake, and he wondered that they made both joy and sorrow. He asked the lord the reason and was told, “Our joy is because you are here, and our sorrow is for deeds that will be done tomorrow. A giant named Harpin of the Mountain lives nearby, and because of that proud devil we live in great pain. He has robbed my lands, so that all I have left is this castle. I had six knights as sons; I saw him slay two of them, and the other four will be killed tomorrow. He has them in prison, for no other reason than my refusal to allow him to marry my daughter, the fairest child alive. In his wrath he has sworn an oath to win her and give her to his kitchen lads and lowliest foot-knave unless I find a knight to fight him tomorrow, and I have no one to send. Is it any wonder I have such woe?”
Sir Ywain listened well and when he had heard everything he said, “I am surprised you haven’t sought counsel at the king’s nearby castle, for surely in all this world there is no knight in his company who would not be glad to test his strength against a giant, champion or knight.”
The lord explained, “Sir, I sent to the king’s court for Sir Gawain, for he would gladly help me; he would not delay for love nor fear if he knew of my need, for his sister is my wife, and he loves her as his life. But they said that a knight has led the queen away and Sir Gawain has gone seeking her and has not returned.”
Sir Ywain sighed and said, “Sir, I will undertake this battle with the giant for Gawain’s sake, on the condition that we may fight early in the morning; I can stay no later, for I have a deed that must be done tomorrow by noon.” The knight prayed that God would aid him, and everyone in the hall fell on their knees before Sir Ywain. A beautiful maiden entered with her mother, and both were sad and mournful. The knight told them, “Truly, God has sent us good succor; this knight, of his grace, will fight the giant,” and they also knelt at his feet and thanked him sweetly.
“God forbid,” said Sir Ywain, “that the sister of Sir Gawain or any of his kin should kneel before me!” He raised them up and told them to be of cheer and to pray that he could avenge them, and that their foe would come before he had to leave. His thought was on the damsel he had left in the chapel.
Everyone in the castle was comforted by their guest, whom they thought of great renown on account of his lion. When it was time to rest, the lady brought him to his bed but was afraid of the lion, and no one dared go near the chamber when both guests were inside. In the morning the lady and fair maiden went to Ywain’s chamber and opened the door. Sir Ywain first went to church and heard the service of the day. He then told the knight he could stay no longer, as he had to be elsewhere. The knight became quite distressed and asked Sir Ywain, “Sir, for love of Gawain stay a little while and help us before you leave. I will give you half my lands, with town and tower, if you will aid us.”
Sir Ywain said, “God forbid I should take any reward,” and it was grievous to see their sorrow. He pitied them and thought his heart would break in three, for he was fearful for the maiden in the chapel. If she were put to death, he would have no choice than to either kill himself or return to the woods in madness. At that moment a groom came and announced the giant’s arrival:
“He is bringing your sons before him, naked as they were born.” They were clad in wretched rags and bound fast. The giant was large and tall and carried a strong iron pole with which he beat them bitterly, and it was a great pity to hear them cry. A dwarf was on their other side, who constantly beat them with a scourge with ten cords as though he was mad, so that blood burst out with every blow. When they reached the walls, the giant cried loudly:
“If you want your sons back healthy, deliver that damsel to me. I will give her as a prize to one of the foulest scullions who ever ate bread. He will take her maidenhead so that no one will lie with her except naked and louse-ridden rascals.” When the lord heard this, he acted like a madman out of woe. Courteous Sir Ywain told the knight he would fight the giant:
“This giant is fierce and bold and his words are cruel. I shall deliver your daughter or else be dead shortly, for surely it would be ill fortune for such a noble creature to be defouled by a thrall.” Soon he was armed, and the ladies gladly helped him lace his armor. He leapt on his steed, and they prayed that God would grant him the grace to slay the foul giant. The drawbridges were let down and he rode forth with his lion; he left many a mourning man in the castle who prayed heartily on their knees for the knight. The giant’s pole was great and long, and he was large and strong, and his only armor was a bull’s hide. Sir Ywain rode onto the plain and the giant came forward and spoke to him:
“What devil made you so bold to come here out of your stronghold? Whoever sent you loves you little and wishes to be avenged.” Sir Ywain struck him in the breast with his spear so hard that it went through the bull’s skin and brought forth blood. The giant stumbled from the blow and swung at Sir Ywain. He hit Sir Ywain’s shield with such force that his pole was bent, and it was a marvel that the shield lasted. The giant was so strong and powerful that he never took any weapon other than his pole into battle. Sir Ywain left his spear and struck the giant with his sword, and the giant returned the blows until Sir Ywain soon slumped over his saddlebow.
When the lion saw this, he thought that his master was hurt and quickly rushed at the giant. He tore his skin and flesh from throat to buttocks, so that men might see his ribs, which were bare to the bone. The giant aimed at the lion often but was unable to strike him as the lion leapt away from the blows. By then Ywain recovered his strength and repaid the giant full well. He smote away his left cheek and pulled his shoulder so that the giant’s pole and hand fell down on the ground. Then he struck the giant in the heart, who fell to the earth as though he were a heavy tree.
There was much mirth in the castle, and the gates were opened wide; the lord, followed by many a joyful man, ran to Sir Ywain, as did the lady and daughter. The four brothers were extremely happy to be brought out of misery. The lord knew it would do no good to ask Sir Ywain to stay but strongly beseeched him to come again and visit a while after his deed was done. Sir Ywain declined and they were sad, but pleased with the way things had gone.
Sir Ywain went to the chapel the shortest way possible, and when he arrived he found Lunet dressed only in her smock, bound and ready to be cast into a roaring fire. Hastily he prayed to God to save the sweet person from shame: “If there are many mighty foes, I will not withdraw on account of cowardice, for both God and right are with me and will help me fight. And so will my lion; therefore we are four against those three.”
Sir Ywain rode in and cried, “Wait, false men. It seems you are mad to spill this innocent blood and won’t, if I can stop you.” His lion made way for him, and Sir Ywain saw the maiden standing naked with her hands bound behind her back. He sighed often and barely kept his seat, but they exchanged no looks that they knew each other. She was surrounded with sorrow and pity, and the weeping of other ladies there, who said, “Lord, what is our guilt? Our joy and comfort shall be destroyed! Who now shall speak for us?“
Lunet knelt before the priest to confess her sins. Sir Ywain went to her, took her hand, and she stood up. He asked where her foes were, and she told him, “Sir, they are over there awaiting my death. They have judged me wrongly. You nearly arrived too late, and I pray that God will reward you for helping me in this time of need.” The steward heard them and rushed over and said:
“You are lying, false woman; you are taken for your treason. She has betrayed her lady, sir, and so she will you. Therefore, I advise you to go back the way you came; you follow feeble advice if you die for her.”
Sir Ywain said to the steward, “Whoever is afraid, I advise him to flee. Today I have been where I had full satisfaction, yet I shall not fail to do battle here.” The steward insisted that the lion not enter the battle and that
Sir Ywain fight the three men alone, as agreed. Sir Ywain answered, “I crave no help from my lion, who is my only footman. If he wishes to harm you, I advise you to protect yourself.”
The steward said, “You must control your lion so that he does no harm here or else go your way, for you may not defend the lady unless you fight all three of us. Both men and I know that she betrayed her lady. She shall have the reward of a traitor and be burned in this fire.”
Sir Ywain knew the truth and told him, “No! God forbid. I intend to avenge her as best I can.” At his bidding, the lion lay down with his tail between his legs and watched. The three rode towards Sir Ywain and he met them; he lost no time, for one of his blows was worth three of theirs. He struck the steward on the shield and knocked him down flat in the field, but he rose up and attacked Sir Ywain with fast strokes. The lion would no longer lie there but went to help his master, and at that sight the ladies prayed continuously for the knight.
The lion rushed in and charged at the steward. Beginning at the shoulder blade, the lion tore clothing and flesh down to the knee with his paw, so that the guts could be seen. The steward fell to the ground, torn apart to the death, but no one mourned. Now it was two against two. Sir Ywain did all he could to chastise the lion, but no matter what he said, the lion thought his help pleased his master and would not lie down. They gave him many wide wounds on every side, and when Sir Ywain saw his lion bleed, he feared his woe would drive him mad. He fought so grievously that no one could endure his blows and down went both mount and man. They yielded to Sir Ywain, which pleased the folk, and reparation was soon made when Sir Ywain cast them both in the fire, saying: “Whoever judges wrongly shall receive the same.”
Thus he helped the young maiden and then made peace between her and the rich lady. The folk offered Sir Ywain their service in all ways, and no one but Lunet knew that he was already their lord. Alundyne invited him to remain with them while his wounds healed, but he cared only about his injured lion and said, “Madam, I certainly may not stay.” She said, “Sir, since you will leave, tell us your name,” and he replied, “by St Simon I am called the Knight with the Lion.” She said, “We have never seen you before or heard about you,” and he explained, “I am not widely known in this land.” She asked him to live with them, though had she known who he was she would rather he left. For both their sakes, he therefore did not reveal his identity and told her, “I may not stay any longer. Good day, and I pray to Christ, heaven’s king, that He grant you a good life and, through His grace, turn your trouble into much joy.” She replied, “God grant that it be so.” To himself he said “You are the lock and key to all my happiness and sorrow.”
As he departed mourning, only Lunet knew who he was; he asked her to keep his secret, and she did. She accompanied him on his way, and he said, ”My good friend, I pray that you tell no one who has been your champion, and also that you do all you can to make my lady friends with me. Since you two are now reconciled, help bring us together.” “Certainly, sir,” she said, “I will do so gladly. And for what you have done for me today, may God give you reward, as He well may.”
Sir Ywain took his leave and was greatly worried about his lion, who could go no farther due to his injuries. The knight pulled grass from the field and made a couch on his shield upon which he laid the lion. He rode through forest and over hills until he came to a castle. He called and soon the porter opened the gates and welcomed him. As he entered he was met by folk who helped him, for which he was grateful. They gently laid down the shield and lion, led the steed to the stable, and unlaced Sir Ywain’s armor. The lord, lady and their sons and daughters were pleased that he was there, and after greeting him they had him taken to a chamber with a richly prepared bed, and laid his lion near him. His every need was served, and two of the lord’s daughters who were skilled in leechcraft tended both knight and lion, who stayed until they were healed and then went their way.
Meanwhile, a great lord in that land died, leaving two daughters as heirs. As soon as he had been buried, the elder sister went to court to find a knight who would win all the land for her. The younger sister saw she would only keep her rightful portion through battle, so she wanted to go to court for counsel. The elder sister arrived at court first and asked Sir Gawain for his help, to which he agreed, “but only if it is kept private. If you make any boast about me, you will lose all my help.” The younger sister came the next day and went to Sir Gawain, but he told her he could not help her. As she wept and wrung her hands, news came about a knight with a lion who had slain a wicked giant.
The knight Sir Ywain had saved was at the court along with his wife, who was Gawain’s sister, and their sons, and they had brought the dwarf with them. They told Sir Gawain how the Knight with the Lion delivered the sons out of prison and nobly undertook the battle for Sir Gawain’s sake, but Gawain didn’t know who he was. The younger maiden asked the king for a grace period of forty days according to law, for she knew there was no man who would fight Sir Gawain and she thought to find the knight of whom they spoke.
The king granted her the respite and she took leave of him and all the baronage and started her journey. She searched day and night, through castle and town, for the Knight with the Lion who helps all who need him. No one throughout the land had heard news of him or knew where he was. She became so sorrowful that she took ill but kept going and came to the castle where Sir Ywain had been cured of his sickness. She was well known there and as welcome as family, greeted with joy and made glad. She told her situation to the lord and was given help right away.
As she lay there in healing care, a maiden took up her search and came to the castle where Ywain had wedded Alundyne. They told her how the Knight with the Lion had slain three knights of rank all at once, but no one knew where he went. They told her, “The only one who can tell you is the maiden for whose sake he came here and undertook the battle. We believe she can inform you—she is over in that church and we advise you to go there,” which she hastily did.
She found Lunet, and after they greeted each other she asked the maiden if she could tell her anything. Lunet graciously answered that she would saddle her horse and accompany her. As they rode, Lunet told her how she had been taken and held, wickedly accused by traitors, and would have been burned had God not sent her the Knight with the Lion, who released her from prison. She brought the maiden to the plain where she had parted from Sir Ywain and said, “I can tell you no more except that this is where he left me. I don’t know which way he went, but he was sorely wounded. May God who suffered wounds for us, grant that we see him healthy and sound. I may stay no longer, but may Christ who harried hell grant you success in your errand,” and with that she hurried home.
The maiden soon came to the castle where Sir Ywain had been healed and found the lord with a great company of knights and ladies at the gate. She hailed them politely and asked if they knew where she might find a knight with a lion. The lord said he had just left, pointed to his steed’s hoof prints and told her to follow them. She spurred her horse and rode as fast as she could until she saw him and his lion. She hurried so fast that she finally overtook him. She called him with a glad heart, and after he graciously returned her greeting, she said:
“Sir, I have widely sought you, not for myself but for a highly regarded damsel, held to be both reasonable and wise. Men who would take her inheritance do her a great outrage, and she trusts no one but God and you, for your great goodness. Through your help she hopes to win all her right. She says no living knight may help her half as well as you; great words of your deed will spread if you win her heritage. She became gravely ill from worry so that she couldn’t travel any more, and I’ve sought you everywhere. Therefore, I would like your answer as to whether you will come with me or prefer to stay here.”
“The knight who lies idle often wins little esteem,” he replied, “so I shall take my own advice. I will gladly go wherever you lead me and heartily help you in your need. Since you have sought me so far, I certainly won’t fail you.” Thus they went forth until they reached a castle named The Castle of Heavy Sorrow. Sir Ywain thought it best to stay overnight, for the sun was setting. But all the men they met looked at them in wonder and said, “You wretched, unhappy man! Why will you take lodging here? You will not pass through without harm.” Sir Ywain immediately replied, “Truly, you are discourteous; you should not speak so rudely to a stranger unless you know his reasons.” They said, “You’ll find out tomorrow before noon.”
Sir Ywain ignored them and he, his lion and the maiden went to the castle. The porter welcomed them at the gate with a similar warning, but they still entered without speaking to him. They found a well-prepared hall, and a fair place enclosed within a fence. Sir Ywain looked through the stakes and saw many maidens weaving silk and gold wire. But they were dressed in poor, torn clothing and were weeping. Their lean faces were dirty and their smocks black. They suffered hunger, thirst and cold, and all wept constantly. When Ywain saw this, he went back to the gates, but they were locked fast. The porter blocked their way and said, “Sir, you must go back. You may want to leave, but you must remain until tomorrow, which will bring you great sorrow, for you are among foes here.”
“I have been so before and passed through well, as I shall here,” replied Sir Ywain. “But, friend, will you tell me about the maidens who are working all this rich ware?” The porter refused and told him to look elsewhere, so Sir Ywain found a hidden gate through which he entered and spoke to the maidens: “May God, as He suffered sore wounds, send you recovery from your distress so that you may find cheer.” “Sir,” they said, “may God make it so.” He said, “Tell me your trouble and I shall amend it if I can.”
One of them answered, “Before you leave us, we shall tell you the truth of who we are and why we are here. Sir, we are all from Maidenland. Our king passed through many countries seeking adventures to test his prowess. He lodged here once, which was the beginning of our woe, for two champions live here who men say are demons born of a woman and a ram. They have done great harm to many knights who stay here overnight and then must fight both of them at once, as do you. Alas that you took your lodgings here.
“Our king was fourteen years old and in command of himself when he was to fight the champions, but he had no strength against both of them. When he saw he would be slain, he knew no better scheme to save his life than to make a pledge to yield thirty maidens a year as tribute, all of whom should be the fairest of his land and of high rank. This must continue as long as the fiends live, or until they are taken in battle or slain. Then we would be free, but it is useless to speak of it, for there is no one in the world who may avenge us.
“We work silver, silk and gold, the richest on earth, and we are never better clad or given half our fill of bread. The best workers earn only four pennies a week, which is little for clothes and food. Each of us might win forty shillings a week, but unless we work harder we are sorely beaten. It doesn’t help to tell our tale, for there is no cure for our suffering. Our greatest sorrow since we began is seeing many doughty dukes, earls and barons slain by the champions, who you must fight tomorrow.”
Sir Ywain said, “God shall strengthen me in every deed against the devils and all their terror, and may He deliver you from your foes.” With these words, he left and went into the hall, where no one greeted him. His steed and the maiden’s horse were hastily taken and fed well in the expectation that they would not be returned. Sir Ywain passed through the hall, leading the maiden, into an orchard where he found a knight sitting on a gold cloth under a tree. A lady and maiden sat with him, and the young girl read them a romance (though I don’t know what it was about). The knight was lord of the place and the girl, who was fifteen years old and gracious, good and fair, was his heir.
They arose as soon as they saw Sir Ywain, and the knight took him by the hand, greeted him merrily, and welcomed him. The girl willingly unarmed Sir Ywain and brought him finely wrought clothing of rich, soft material, as well as shoes, hose and other gear. She served him and his bright maiden with all her might. Soon they went to a supper of the best food and drink, then to rest. At daybreak Sir Ywain and the damsel arose and went to a chapel to hear mass, after which Sir Ywain prepared to leave and thanked his host profusely. The lord said, “Don’t be offended, but you may not leave. Since the old days there has been an unlucky law that must be observed by friend or foe. Whether it is wrong or right, you must take up shield and spear against two men-at-arms of great strength. If you overcome them in battle, you shall have all these lands, my daughter in marriage, and also all my heritage.” Sir Ywain declined the offer, saying that a king or emperor might wed the maiden with honor. The lord said, “No knight shall come here without fighting the two champions, and so shall you, for it is the known traditional custom.”
“Since I must,” replied Sir Ywain, “the best that I may do is put myself boldly in their hands and take the grace God sends.” The champions were soon brought forth, and Sir Ywain said, “By Christ, you seem to be the devil’s sons, for I have never seen such champions.” Each carried a great, round shield and a strong, long club to which were attached many thongs of hide. Their bodies were well armored but their heads were bare. When the lion saw them, he knew they would fight with his master and he was anxious to help him. He stared at them fiercely and beat his tail on the ground, and the champions felt menaced and told Sir Ywain to remove the lion or concede defeat. Sir Ywain said, “That would do me dishonor.” They said, “Then take your beast away so that we can play together.” Sir Ywain replied, “Sirs, if you are aghast, take the beast and bind him fast.” They said, “He shall be bound or slain, for you shall have no help from him. You must fight us alone, which is customary and right.” Then Sir Ywain asked one of them, “Where do you wish to have the beast placed?” “He shall be locked in a chamber.”
Sir Ywain locked the lion in a chamber, which made the champions feel bold. Sir Ywain put on his armor, mounted his noble steed, and boldly rode toward them. The maiden was quite afraid and prayed to God for his victory. They struck him with their clubs on his shield so that it fell into pieces, and it was a wonder that any man could bear the strokes he took. He was in need of help, for he had never been in such a fight, but ever manly he returned their blows and, as the book tells, he gave double of those he took.
The lion was greatly sad, always thinking of how Sir Ywain helped him and now he could not help the knight unless he could break out of the chamber. He could hear the battle but could find no way to escape. At last he came to the threshold and quickly cast up the earth as fast as four men could have with spades, and he soon made a huge hole. Meanwhile Sir Ywain was in great pain and afraid, as well he should have been, for neither of the champions were wounded. They could protect themselves so well that blows did them no harm; there was no weapon that could get a sliver out of their shields. Ywain was at a loss and expected to die; the damsel mourned, as she thought he would be slain and her help would be gone. But Sir Ywain continued to fight, and assistance came quickly.
The lion was free and would soon avenge his master! He ran in fiercely, and then it was too late for them to pray for peace. He rushed at one fiend and pulled him down to the ground. The maiden was overjoyed, and everyone in the place was glad and said that the champion would never rise whole. His fellow tried with all his might to pick him up, and as he stooped over Sir Ywain struck his neckbone asunder so that his head rolled in the sand. Thus Ywain had the upper hand. He dismounted and went to where the lion was lying on the other champion. The lion saw his master coming and wanted a part of the revenge, so he tore off the demon’s right shoulder, taking both arm and club with it. The champion spoke to Sir Ywain as well as he could:
“Sir Knight, as you are noble, I pray for mercy which, by reason, should be given to one who asks for it meekly. Therefore, grant me mercy.”
Sir Ywain said, “I will grant it if you will say that you have been overcome.” The wounded man admitted defeat and surrendered to Sir Ywain, who agreed to do him no further harm, to protect him from the lion, and to grant him the peace within his power. Then all the folk came, as well as the lord and lady, who embraced him and offered him lordship and marriage to their daughter, which Sir Ywain refused:
“Since you give her to me now, I return her to you, free of me forever. Sir, take no insult, for I may not take a wife until my obligations are better fulfilled. But I ask one thing: that all these prisoners be freed. God has granted me the fortune to deliver them.” The lord agreed immediately and again advised him to take his daughter, but Sir Ywain again declined: “Sir, she is so courteous, gracious and worthy of praise that there is no king, emperor or man of honor in the world who might not marry her, and so would I happily if I could. But as you see, I have a maiden here who I must follow wherever she leads me. Therefore, I bid you farewell.”
“You won’t leave so easily!” threatened the lord. Since you will not do as I say, you will stay here in my prison.”
Sir Ywain replied, “If I lie there all my life, I shall never marry her, for I must go with this maiden until we come to her destination.” The lord saw it was useless to argue further so he gave him leave, but he would have preferred that he stayed.
Sir Ywain then took all the prisoners, who came before him nearly naked and woebegone. He stayed at the gate until they all passed through in pairs playing games among themselves. They could not have made more joy if God had come from heaven on high and lighted among them than they made to Sir Ywain. Folk from the town came before him, blessed the time he was born and praised his prowess, which was equal to none. They escorted him out of the town with a full procession. The maidens then took their leave, full of mirth. They prayed for Sir Ywain’s success and safety, and he in turn prayed for theirs. Thus they went their way, and we will tell no more of them.
Sir Ywain and the maiden traveled for a week. The maiden knew the way well to the castle where the sick maiden lay, so they arrived quickly. When they came to the gate, she led Sir Ywain in. The maiden was still ill, but when she heard that her messenger had returned and brought the knight, she was so happy that she felt recovered. She was sure she would receive her inheritance from her sister, and she graciously greeted and thanked the knight. Everyone in the castle welcomed him with merry cheer and gave him every kind of comfort, including a good night’s rest.
At dawn they rode fast to the town where the king was staying. The elder sister was there ready to keep her day; she trusted that no knight would challenge Sir Gawain or could withstand him in battle. Sir Gawain stayed in another town for a week so that he was not seen, and planned to arrive on the appointed day in the guise of an armed adventure-seeking knight so that no one would see his face. He wore someone else’s coat of arms so that he wouldn’t be recognized at court.
Sir Ywain and the younger sister lodged in town, and he kept out of sight so that no one would give him away. They arrived just in time; a day later and the maiden would have lost her land forever. They rested there that night and in the morning Sir Ywain prepared himself; they went out of town, leaving the lion asleep so that the knight would come to court unknown. Around prime, Sir Gawain hurried to the field, well armed with spear and shield. No one knew him except the maiden for whom he was fighting. The elder sister came to court to ask for the king’s judgment:
“I have come with my knight, ready to defend my right. This is the day that was set, and since my sister is not here, give judgement and let us go our way. She has searched everywhere but found no one that dares undertake the battle to seize my right from me, so she will not come. Now I have won my land without knights’ blows; despite my sister’s attempt, she has lost all her part. All is mine to sell and give, and she shall live as a wretch always. Therefore, Sir King, give your judgment and let us go.” The king, who knew she was in the wrong, advised her to be patient:
”Maiden, the court, while sitting, is the justice and you must await its judgment. Your sister may come in time, for it is little past prime.” Just then they saw the younger sister and her knight riding over a hill. (They had stolen away from the lion, who lay on Sir Ywain’s bed.) The elder sister was unhappy and the king withheld his judgment, for he was sure the younger sister, whom he knew well, had the right and would come with a knight. He laughed when he saw her, glad to see her in such good health. She entered the court and after greeting the king, his knights and all his company, she said:
“Sir, I have brought with me an unknown knight who will undertake battle for my sake. He has deeds to do elsewhere but has put them off to help me; may God reward him.” To her sister she said, “For God’s sake, give me my right without strife and let no man be slain.” But the elder sister refused:
“You have no right, for all is mine and I will have it, despite you. You can preach all day but carry nothing away.”
The younger girl replied, “Sister, you are courteous and it is sad to see that such knights as these risk their lives for us. Therefore, will you give me something from your property on which I may live?”
The sister answered, “Whoever is afraid, I advise them to flee. You’ll get nothing unless you win it through battle.” The younger sister thus asked God for grace, for herself and for the knight who was risking his life for her out of charity.
The two knights came before the king, and a large crowd gathered. Every man who could walk wanted to see the sight of two unknown knights fighting each other. Nor did the king know who they were, for they would not show their faces. If either had seen the other, there would have been great love between them, but now they were foes. It was a great wonder that true love and great envy might be in a man at once. The knights each threw down the gauntlet on behalf of his maiden, and well-armed they rode forth into the field.
The steeds were eager and the knights started the battle furiously, exchanging strong blows. Had they once spoken to each other, no spear would have been broken, but as it was they wished to slay each other. They drew their swords and swung them so that their shields were shattered and their helms split. Both were sorely wounded on the back and breast; men saw the blood run out in many places. Their richly bejeweled gear was covered with blood, their helms battered, shields shattered on the ground, hauberks torn, and they were wroth. They rested a little while by mutual agreement, but before long one attacked the other. Men had never seen a harder or longer fight, and barons, knights, squires and knaves said the deed that day was beyond any reward. The two knights heard these words and were more resolute to continue.
Knights tried to reconcile the sisters, but the elder was merciless, and the younger put her right in the king’s grace. The king, queen and all who saw the battle sided with the younger maiden. Everyone beseeched the king to divide the lands evenly or a least give the younger sister a portion and asked him to separate the two knights: “Certainly it would be a great sin for either of them to slay the other, for there are no such two in the world; when other knights should cease, these will not assent to peace.” No one had ever seen two knights so evenly matched and stalwart, or could decide who should have the prize; that honor was dearly bought. Both Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain had great wonder about their opponent.
The fight lasted from midmorning to night, and both knights were exhausted and sore; they had lost so much blood it was amazing that they still stood. When they could no longer fight due to darkness, they agreed to rest. But before they left the field, the two would see both joy and pity. No one might recognize Gawain by his voice, for he was hoarse and spoke low, and he was weak from the strokes he had received. And Sir Ywain was very weary, but he spoke hastily:
“Sir, since the light fails, I doubt that anyone would blame us if we part, for of all the places I have been, I have never met a man who could deliver his strokes so well; you have given me so many that my shield is torn apart.”
“Sir,” replied Sir Gawain, “certainly you are not as weary as I, and if we fought any longer I don’t believe I could harm you. You owe me no debt, for I received as many blows as I set.” Sir Ywain asked his name, and he replied, “I am called Gawain, son of King Lot.” Sir Ywain was aghast; he cast away his sword and acted as though he might go mad. He leapt off his steed and said, “This is a foul misfortune caused by lack of identification. Ah, sir, had I seen you there would have been no battle. I would have yielded defeat to you immediately.”
Sir Gawain asked who he was. “I am Ywain, who loves you more than any living man for the many deeds you have done for me and the courtesy you have shown me. Therefore, in this battle I will do you the honor of granting that you have overcome me and taken me by strength.”
“You shall not do so,” Sir Gawain replied courteously. “This honor shall not be mine but certainty ought to be yours. I give it to you without delay and concede defeat.” As the book says, soon they both dismounted, embraced, and kissed each other many times. They stood together happily until the king came riding up and wanted to hear who they were and how they had been reconciled so soon after they had angrily tried to harm each other. Either would have killed the other but were now dear friends.
“Sir King, we fought here on account of ignorance and ill fortune,” explained Gawain. “I am Gawain, your nephew, and fought Sir Ywain just now. When we were nearly exhausted, we asked each others’ name and as soon as we found them out, we ceased. But truly, had we fought longer, I know I would have been thrown to the ground by his prowess and strength and been slain.”
“Sir, you know yourself this is not so,” Sir Ywain argued. “Without fail, I was overcome.” Gawain insisted it was he who lost; thus neither would claim victory. The king and his company had both joy and great pity; Arthure was well pleased that the two friends were together.
The king said, “Welcome home, Sir Ywain!” for it had been a long time since the knight had been seen there. “Now the great love between you is seen. I advise you both to assent to my judgment, and I will make such a good ending that you will both be considered gracious.” Both knights agreed, if the maidens would also do so. The king had two knights bring the maidens before him, and he told them his thought:
“My gracious maidens, your debate has gone so far that judgment must be made.” The elder sister prayed for protection, but Arthure said that the laws of the land must prevail: “Your sister shall have her right, for your knight was overcome in the battle.” He said this to frighten her since he knew she would not part with the lands otherwise, and she said, “Sir, since it has gone this way now, I must fulfill your commandment, whether I wish to or not.” He explained to her the terms of the settlement: “I have known that your desire was wrong, so now I will divide your lands and you will have only your own share, which is half.” She answered angrily, “I find it a great outrage to give her half of my heritage!” The king said, “To ease your aggravation, I shall place her in legal possession of her land, which she shall hold from you in fealty. She shall love you as her lady, and you will show your courtesy by loving her accordingly as your tenant.”7 I understand that this was the first partition of land in England, and the king decreed that in honor of the battle that all future sisters should divide lands between themselves.
The king told Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain to remove their armor, and as they spoke the lion broke out of the chamber where he had been left sleeping. As the knights unlaced their gear, he came running there; he had searched everywhere for his master and was overjoyed to find him. When the folk saw the lion they began to run to town out of fear, but Sir Ywain called them back again:
“Lords, I assure you that I will protect you from the beast, who will do you no harm. Believe me, we are friends and good fellows; he is mine and I am his. I wouldn’t give him up for any treasure.”
When they heard this, everyone said, “This is the greatly renowned Knight of the Lion who slew the giant; he is doughty of deeds!” Then Sir Gawain immediately said, “I am greatly shamed. I beg your mercy, Sir Ywain, for having trespassed against you, who helped my sister in her need! I have now evilly repaid you. You risked your life for love of me, and my sister told me that you said we had been friends and good companions for many days, but I didn’t know who it was. I have since given it much thought; yet for all I can do, I have been unable to find anyone who could tell me of the Knight with the Lion.”
When the knights’ armor was unlaced, all the folk saw the lion lick his master’s hands and feet to relieve his suffering, and they marveled at the lion’s mirth. The knights were brought to rest, and the king had some of the best surgeons ever seen come to heal them. As soon as they were healthy, Sir Ywain hurried to leave, for he had no rest day or night on account of the love in his heart. If he could not get the grace of his lady, he would go mad or die.
He secretly left the court and all his friends and rode right to the well. His lion went with him always and would not be parted from him. He cast water on the stone and the storm arose immediately. The thunder blasted, and he thought the great forest and all about the well would sink into hell. The lady was very afraid, for all the castle walls quaked so fast that men might think all would sink into the earth. Never in middle-earth8 were castle folk so afraid. But Lunet knew who it was, and she said to her lady:
“Now we are hard beset, and I don’t know what we should do. You have no knight who will go to the well and fight the assailant, and if there is no battle or no knight to defend you, your reputation will be lost forever.” The lady said she would rather be dead and asked for Lunet’s advice. The maiden said, “Madam, I will gladly counsel you if it will bring help, but in this case someone wiser is needed.” Then she deceitfully suggested, “Madam, perhaps some of your knights may come home this very day and defend you from this shame.”
“Oh!” she said, “don’t speak of my company, for I know well I have no knight to defend me. Therefore you must be my counselor; I will do whatever you say.”
Lunet said, “Madam, if we had that knight who is so courteous and honorable and has slain the great giant and also the three knights, you might trust in him. But I know that there has been strife between him and his lady for many days, and I have heard him say that he would remain with no lady unless she would make an oath to use her power, day and night, to bring him together with his love.”
The lady answered quickly, “I will do so with full good will, and pledge to use all my power.” Lunet said, “Madam, don’t be angry, but I need an oath from you so that I may be certain.” The lady said, “I will do that gladly.” Lunet took rich relics, a missal and chalice, and the lady knelt and laid her hand on the book, while Lunet, greatly pleased, administered the oath:
“Madam, you shall swear here to do all in your power, day and night, in every way without hesitation to reconcile the Knight with the Lion and his lady of great renown so that no fault may be found with you,” and the lady swore to it. Lunet was satisfied and had her lady kiss the book.
Lunet then mounted her horse and rode quickly to the well by the shortest way she knew. Sir Ywain sat under the thorn tree with his lion lying in front of him, by which she recognized the knight. She dismounted, and he laughed as soon as he saw her. Theirs was a happy meeting with fair greetings exchanged, and she gave him good news:
“I thank God to have found you so soon, and I bring you tidings. Either my lady will forswear an oath she has made on relics and books, or you two will be made friends.” Sir Ywain was wonderfully glad with this news and he thanked her many times for her goodness. She thanked him much more for the deeds he had done before, so both were in each others’ debt and their efforts well spent. He asked if she had told the lady his name, and Lunet said “No, then I would be blameworthy. She will not learn it from me until you have kissed and are reconciled.”
Then they rode to the town, and the good lion ran with them. When they entered the castle gate, they spoke to no one. The lady was lighthearted when she heard her damsel had returned with the lion and the knight, for more than anything else she wanted to know about him. Sir Ywain knelt when he met the lady, and Lunet told her, “Take up the knight, Madam, and according to our covenant, make peace with him quickly, before he leaves.” The lady had the knight arise and said:
“Sir, in every way I will take pains in all things to bring about the reconciliation between you and your lady.”
“Madam, you are right,” said Lunet, “for only you have that power. You shall now hear the truth: this is my lord, Sir Ywain. May God send you such love that it will last all your lives.” The lady stepped back and stood silent for a long time, then spoke:
“How is this, damsel? You, who should be loyal to me, make me love one who has caused me woe, whether I wish to do so or not. I must either be forsworn or love him, although I would rather we were separated. But whether it turns out for good or ill, I shall fulfill my pledge.” Sir Ywain was well pleased to hear this and said:
“Madam, I have done wrong and paid dearly for it, as I should have. Truly, it was great folly to stay away past my term day, but I shall never, through God’s grace, do more wrong. And the man who craves mercy shall have it, by God’s law.” She agreed to make peace, and Sir Ywain took her in his arms and kissed her often; he had never been so happy.
Now Sir Ywain’s sorrows are ended, and he and his wife loved each other loyally all their lives. And true Lunet, the gracious maiden, was honored by young and old and lived as she liked. She had mastery over all things after the lord and lady and was honored everywhere. Thus the Knight with the Lion became Sir Ywain once more and regained his lordship. He and his wife lived in joy and bliss, as did Lunet and the lion, until death took them.
I have heard no more about them, neither in romance nor in told tale. But Jesus Christ, in His great grace, grant us a place in heaven if He wills it. Amen, amen, for charity.
Ywain and Gawain is thus ended. God grant us all His dear blessing. Amen.
Ywain and Gawain was chosen for inclusion in this collection for several reasons. First, by now readers hopefully will be familiar enough with romance to tackle one of this length. Secondly, that familiarity should enable the reader to recognize themes and values expressed in previous works. Ywain and Gawain appears to be the quintessential romance, with its magic fountains, potions and rings, dueling and questing knights, damsels in distress, chivalry galore, giants, beasts and wildmen. But it also presents virtually every topic raised in our other readings: trouthe and oathkeeping, loyalty, proper use of prowess, generosity, charity, poverty, loss and renewal of identity, forgiveness and reconciliation, oppression, and justice. Since most of these issues have been discussed previously, there would seem to be little to say, but there are a few bits of background that will help fill in cultural blanks for the modern reader, starting with stewards.
We have seen a number of stewards, from evil in Havelok, to exemplary in Sir Amadace, to corrupt in King Edward and the Shepherd. It seems there is hardly a medieval romance without at least one steward. They are usually one-dimensional, and their appearances are often brief but of narrative importance as both plot device and reflection of the fictional culture and characters that surround them, which may resonate with the poet’s culture.
Historically, stewards were very powerful and carried great responsibilities. On the estate, the steward directed the management of land, crop and livestock productivity and manorial finances, and might oversee village judicial proceedings. In the courtly setting, in addition to the administrative steward, there was the household steward in charge of domestic affairs and perhaps others with various duties. The king had a high steward, constable and marshal, all hereditary positions held by earls. Some high stewards considered the title honorary, while others were involved in political affairs, although their responsibilities and benefits were not always clearly defined. One of the most famous is Thomas of Lancaster, steward under Edward II. Dissenting factions seem endemic to British politics, and Thomas’s complex and divisive struggles with the court and parliament led to civil war and his execution.
In Ywain and Gawain we see internal court politics in action, as Lunet nearly loses her life due to the steward’s envy over her influence with Alundyne. After the happy denouement when all are reunited, Lunet has honor and mastery, in effect de facto stewardship. While the ending is a romance fiction, much in the poem is courtly reality: favoritism, shifting loyalties, competition for power and position, and self-serving interests. Although Lunet’s and Alundyne’s motives for replacing the dead lord are not mercenary, they are harshly pragmatic, performed for the land’s (and the lady’s) welfare, as is Alundyne’s marriage, which has a contractual aspect emphasized by the Ywain and Gawain-poet. As in his source, Chrétien’s Yvain, the bargain is struck quickly between Alundyne and Ywain, but in Yvain, the lady’s love for the knight is expressed prior to the wedding, while in the redaction no mention is made of her love until they are married and he requests his leave of absence. In Ywain and Gawain, the marriage is arranged much like a business transaction. She needs a protector, and acquisitiveness lurks underneath Ywain’s sworn love for her. The gaining of property and title through marriage was prized, especially by landless knights; as Ywain invites Arthure to stay for a visit, his pride centers more on his “purchace” (“acquired property”; 1368), his castle and tower, than on his wife.
In the preceding readings, land ownership has focused on aristocratic males. This is seen in Ywain and Gawain as well, with extension into women’s property and inheritance rights. The topic is a bit of a soggy bog into which we’d best not sink, but rather look at a few major points relevant to situations in Ywain and Gawain.9
The first situation is the death of Alundyne’s husband, Salados the Red. There are apparently no children or other heirs, and Alundyne is a widow landholder. In English common law at the time, if the deceased lord held land directly from the king, the widow’s remarriage was under monarchical control, which was often used to political advantage. Marriage to other landowning widows of substance required consent of the king; to fail to obtain the king’s blessing risked royal censure (Bothwell 1121). Landholdings by widows could vary greatly, such as that of Alice de Bryene, whose annual income in the late 1420s was £182 per annum, compared to Margaret of Brotherton’s of over £2,839 in 1394-95 (Jewell 122). Obviously, such women were sought after, since upon marriage the use of the land passed to the husband, as seen in Ywain and Gawain. (In Havelok this is the hook with which Godrich plans to retain England; Goldeboru’s lands could not pass to Havelok because of his apparent low status.)
In the case of inheritance, as with the Black Thorn sisters, 10 under the rule of primogeniture the eldest son inherited. If there was no son and only one daughter, she was sole heiress rather than collateral males; if there was more than one daughter, they inherited equally (partition). Under-age heirs and heiresses became wards of the overlord and were frequently betrothed, again for political and/or dynastic purposes (Jewell 122). Spring surveys women’s inheritance rights between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries and observes a decline in female inheritance; as English property laws changed, “the history of the heiress is of a great downward slide . . . she came to succeed as seldom as possible” (280). So in all, the Black Thorn sisters made out well.
Ywain and Gawain is a translation of Yvain, ou le Chevalier au Lion by Chrétien de Troyes, though there are enough changes to qualify as redaction. In one view, all Middle English translations of other texts are “adaptation, or literary manipulation” (Djordjeviç 11) since some change is almost always involved. Some, like Lay le Freine, are more faithful to the presumed original despite some adaptations, as illustrated earlier. On the other hand, when a poet “translates” a work and makes significant additions or deletions (e.g. Ywain and Gawain’s 4,034 lines compared to Yvain’s 6,818), and/or recasts characterization, thematic focus, didacticism, and/or other elements even if the original story line is retained, it passes into appropriation or redaction. The poet’s motives are often mysterious to the modern critic and may have been unconscious or deliberate, based on authorial ability, stylistic taste, intended audience, patronage, personal beliefs or agendas, cultural impulses, and other factors. Ywain and Gawain is such a case, and a few selected comparisons must suffice here, presented to demonstrate the process and spirit of appropriation.
Chrétien is well known for his (occasionally tedious) psychologizing; much of his poem is devoted to inner dialog, which was apparently attractive to his twelfth-century audience but not the fourteenth-century translator, who pared it down considerably. Chrétien’s focus is often on the anatomy of love, but his insights into human nature are found elsewhere. For example, in the maiden’s conversation with the lady about remarriage to protect her lands, the lack of an appropriate defender among the lords is expressed quite differently in the redaction:
que certes une chanberiere
ne valent tuit, bien le savez,
li chevalier que vos avez:
ja par celui qui mialz se prise
n’en iert escuz ne lance prise.
De gent malveise avez vos mout,
mes ja n’i avra si estout
qui sor cheval monter en ost (Yvain 1632-1639)
tant les quenuis je a malvés
que, por autrui chargier le fes
dom il seroient tuit chargié,
vos an vanront trestuit au pié,
et si vos an mercïeront
que fors de grant peor seront.
Car qui peor a de son onbre,
si’l puet, volentiers se desconbre
d’ancontre de lance ou de dart,
que c’est malvés jex a coart. (Yvain 1861-70)
As you well know, those knights of yours are not together worth a single chambermaid. Neither shield nor lance will be taken up even by the one with the highest opinion of himself. You’ve plenty of good-for-nothing people, but none of them will be so bold as to dare mount a horse. I know them all to be so base that, in order to load on to someone else the burden that would be too heavy for them, they’ll have got out of a very difficult situation. For anyone who is afraid of his shadow will gladly avoid, if he can, any meeting with lance and spear: that’s a poor game for a coward!11
The maiden’s tone and description of the lords’ martial inadequacies is greatly simplified by the Ywain and Gawain-poet:
Ye ne have na knyght in this cuntré
That durst right now his body bede
For-do a doghty dede,
Ne for-to bide the mekil boste
Of King Arthurgh and of his oste (952-56)
Towhils efter yowre kownsayl send
And ask tham wha sal yow defend
Yowre well, yowre land, kastle and towre,
Ogayns the nobil King Arthure—
For thare es nane of tham ilkane
That dar the batel undertane. (1079-84)
You have no knight in this country that dares offer himself to do a doughty deed nor to withstand the great threat of King Arthure and his host. Send for your council and ask them who will defend your well, land, castle and tower against noble King Arthure, for there is not one among them who dares to undertake the battle.
The situation is the same, but the characterization of the maiden and her attitude is considerably altered.
The appropriation process also reflects cultural values that distinguish the two poems. A subtle emphasis on property ownership and acquisition is added by the English poet. In Yvain, the passing of lands to the hero from his wife is mentioned once, rather pragmatically, as “la terre veoir / que mes sire Yvains ot conquise / en la dame que il ot prise” (“the land that had come into my lord Yvain’s possession through the lady he had married”; 2472-74). This is retained simply in Ywain and Gawain as the land “that Ywayne with his wife had tane” (“that Ywain had taken with his wife”; 1448).
But the redactor precedes this with another, stronger reference not found in his source. In the Old French text, after the battle at the fountain, Yvain extends an invitation:
Et aprés ce le roi pria
que il et tuit si chevalier
venissent a lui herbergier,
qu'enor et joie li feroient,
quant a lui herbergié seroient. (2304-08)
After this [Yvain] invited the king and all his knights to come and lodge with him, since they would do him very great honor by staying with him.
However, Ywain asks Arthure to “wend with me to my purchace, / And se my kastel and my towre” (“come with me to the property I have acquired and see my castle and my tower”; 1368-69). The knight already feels full ownership of his recently won property, which he pridefully wishes to show the king. He is now the lord of a great land and well pleased with his matrimonial bargain. After he has lost all, he recounts his status, power, retinue, riches and domain in his lamentation, and although his lady is his “maste sorow” (“greatest sorrow”; 2123), she comes last in the inventory, whereas she, as his joy, is his only concern in Yvain. The overall impression in Ywain and Gawain is one of acquisitiveness, perhaps a reflection of a negative aspect of the poet’s culture.
At the other end of the economic spectrum is the hermit, seen providing food to Ywain. The Ywain and Gawain-poet made little change to this episode except for a few deletions, such as Chrétien’s lengthy description of the bread, both rough and improved, and a philosophical tidbit about hunger. Of slightly more importance, though not essential, is the mention of the hermit’s clearing of his ground, his prayer to God that the madman would not return after his first appearance, and three descriptions of the hermit as a “good man,” which the Ywain and Gawain-poet probably thought was self-evident.
The modern vision of “hermit” may need some realignment to the medieval perspective. Eremetical life in which individuals removed themselves from society to lead a contemplative, ascetic existence flourished from its beginnings in the late third and fourth centuries with the “desert fathers” like St Paul of Thebes and St Anthony. Hermits were usually motivated by religious goals, and some formed communities; the Augustinian Canons began as a group of hermits. However, most led solitary, austere lives, and many were consulted for their spiritual wisdom. Many, like Ywain’s hermit, lived in woods or other remote places away from corruptive influences and led very simple material lives, renouncing worldly goods and espousing poverty. Some were laymen, like Godric of Finchale (1065-1170), who began as a merchant and, after many pilgrimages, retreated into the woods near Durham. He eventually formed a close relationship with the monks of Durham, but scenes from his life story, told and retold in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, are reminiscent of Ywain’s hermit, living in a hut and speaking to passersby over his garden fence.
Hermits were generally respected until the fourteenth century, when the equivalent of the “false beggar” built their hermitages along main roads and exchanged their wisdom and sanctity for donations and joined worldly life. These “false hermits” were attacked by social critics. One of the most well known to moderns, William Langland, included false hermits in his harsh attack in Piers Plowman on all who damaged society and the poor. Following is an excerpt from a lengthy passage on hermits, true and false:
Ac ermytes that inhabiten by the heye weye
And in borwes among brewesteres, and beggen in churches—
Al that holy ermytes hatede and despisede,
As rychesses and reuerences and ryche menne almesse,
Thise lollares, lache-draweres, lewede ermytes
Coueyten the contrarye, for as coterelles they libbeth.
For hit ben but boyes, bollares at the ale,
Noyther of lynage ne of lettrure, ne lyf-holy as ermytes
That wonede whilom in wodes with beres and lyons.
Summe hadde lyflode of his lynage and of no lyf elles
And summe lyuede by here lettrure and labour of here handes
And somme hadde foreynes to frendes that hem fode sente
And briddes brouhte somme bred that they by lyuede.
Althey holy ermytes were of heye kynne,
Forsoken lond and lordschipe and alle lykynges of body.
(Piers Plowman C IX 188-202)
Hermits who live by the highway and in towns among ale wives and beg in churches covet all that holy hermits hate and despise: worldly goods, and rich men’s alms and reverence. These idlers, latch-picks and ignorant hermits live as though they were cottagers.12 They are but layabouts and drunkards, neither of lineage, learning, nor holy life of hermits who once lived in woods with bears and lions. Some had living from their family and nothing else, some lived by their learning and the labor of their hands, some had strangers for friends who sent them food, and some lived by bread brought to them by birds. Although holy hermits were of high kin, they forsook land and lordship and all bodily comforts.
Despite Langland’s hyperbole and idealization, he depicts a realistic problem. False hermits were swept into the marginalized group of vagabonds and false beggars who not only took away from the truly needy but obscured and contaminated legitimate beggars, the unemployed, and others deserving of charitable support. Ecclesiastical and governmental actions against false hermits were generally unsuccessful.
Though little is told about the hermit in Ywain and Gawain, it is clear from his location, meager diet, lack of money and, foremost, his charity towards Ywain, that he is a “true” hermit. And it is at the hermit’s hut where Ywain takes his first step towards identity renewal and grateful reciprocity.
The text used for this translation is Ywain and Gawain in Middle English Romances. Ed. Stephen H.A. Shepherd. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995. The dating of Ywain and Gawain is problematic; here it is considered a product of the last half of the fourteenth century. It survives in British Library MS Cotton Galba E. ix.
“Dedine” (“Dedyne” in the original text) is translatedfrom Dodiniaus” in Chretién’s Ywain
by Shepherd, who suggests the character may be Dodinel, a knight of the Round Table, who also appears in Malory’s Morte Darthur
2 A heavy, strong grating that slides up and down vertically in grooves.
3 Shepherd suggests that this knight may reflect a custom of heading a funeral procession with an effigy of the dead man, or bearing of his arms and armor (96 n.6).
4 Barley bread was rough and coarse, eaten by the lower classes. Upper classes ate finer, often white bread.
5 Some Middle English words and expressions cannot be captured. One such is “for wele ne for wa” (2015), a standard phrase in many Middle English works, and its poetic turn is lost in translation.
6 In Yvain, the source text, the knight, a foreigner, was abetted by Sir Kay.
7 A tenant was one who held land in tenure from a lord, often with some obligations. Ultimately all land was held in tenure from the king.
8 Tolkien readers may be surprised to see middle-earth in a fourteenth-century poem, but the word for the earth or world has a long history: middelerd in Middle English and middangeard in Anglo-Saxon. It is but one of many words, concepts and values transmitted to moderns from the cultural hoard treasured by Tolkien the medievalist and linguist.
9 This discussion omits complex conditions, such as entailment and jointure, since they are extremely complicated and not pertinent to the present material.
10 The sisters’ name comes from Yvain and is one of several omitted in Ywain and Gawain.
11 Translations of Yvain are by D.D.R. Owen, Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1987).
12 Cottagers were at the low socioeconomc level of the peasantry and labored to eke out their living by working any land they might have in addition to service on manorial lands, and/or hire out as laborers. Elsewhere in the poem, Langland includes them with those legitimately deserving of alms, which the false hermits are here feigning (Piers Plowman C IX 97).
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