Thomas Bulfinch > The Age of Fable > Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry > VIII. Launcelot of the Lake
Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867).  Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry.  1913.

King Arthur and His Knights
VIII.  Launcelot of the Lake
KING BAN, of Brittany, the faithful ally of Arthur was attacked by his enemy Claudas, and after a long war saw himself reduced to the possession of a single fortress, where he was besieged by his enemy. In this extremity he determined to solicit the assistance of Arthur, and escaped in a dark night, with his wife Helen and his infant son Launcelot, leaving his castle in the hands of his seneschal, who immediately surrendered the place to Claudas. The flames of his burning citadel reached the eyes of the unfortunate monarch during his flight and he expired with grief. The wretched Helen, leaving her child on the brink of a lake, flew to receive the last sighs of her husband, and on returning perceived the little Launcelot in the arms of a nymph, who, on the approach of the queen, threw herself into the lake with the child. This nymph was Viviane, mistress of the enchanter Merlin, better known by the name of the Lady of the Lake. Launcelot received his appellation from having been educated at the court of this enchantress, whose palace was situated in the midst, not of a real, but, like the appearance which deceives the African traveller, of an imaginary lake, whose deluding resemblance served as a barrier to her residence. Here she dwelt not alone, but in the midst of a numerous retinue, and a splendid court of knights and damsels.   1
  The queen, after her double loss, retired to a convent, where she was joined by the widow of Bohort, for this good king had died of grief on hearing of the death of his brother Ban. His two sons, Lionel and Bohort, were rescued by a faithful knight, and arrived in the shape of greyhounds at the palace of the lake, where, having resumed their natural form, they were educated along with their cousin Launcelot.   2
  The fairy, when her pupil had attained the age of eighteen, conveyed him to the court of Arthur for the purpose of demanding his admission to the honor of knighthood; and at the first appearance of the youthful candidate the graces of his person, which were not inferior to his courage and skill in arms, made an instantaneous and indelible impression on the heart of Guenever, while her charms inspired him with an equally ardent and constant passion. The mutual attachment of these lovers exerted, from that time forth, an influence over the whole history of Arthur. For the sake of Guenever, Launcelot achieved the conquest of Northumberland, defeated Gallehaut, King of the Marches, who afterwards became his most faithful friend and ally, exposed himself in numberless encounters, and brought hosts of prisoners to the feet of his sovereign.   3

AFTER King Arthur was come from Rome into England all the knights of the Table Round resorted unto him and made him many justs and tournaments. And in especial Sir Launcelot of the Lake in all tournaments and justs and deeds of arms, both for life and death, passed all other knights, and was never overcome, except it were by treason or enchantment; and he increased marvellously in worship, wherefore Queen Guenever had him in great favor, above all other knights. And for certain he loved the queen again above all other ladies; and for her he did many deeds of arms, and saved her from peril, through his noble chivalry. Thus Sir Launcelot rested him long with play and game, and then he thought to prove himself in strange adventures; so he bade his nephew, Sir Lionel, to make him ready,—“for we two will seek adventures.” So they mounted on their horses, armed at all sights, and rode into a forest, and so into a deep plain. And the weather was hot about noon, and Sir Launcelot had great desire to sleep. Then Sir Lionel espied a great apple-tree that stood by a hedge, and he said: “Brother, yonder is a fair shadow—there may we rest us and our horses.” “It is well said,” replied Sir Launcelot. So they there alighted, and Sir Launcelot laid him down, and his helm under his head, and soon was asleep passing fast. And Sir Lionel waked while he slept. And presently there came three knights riding as fast as ever they might ride, and there followed them but one knight. And Sir Lionel thought he never saw so great a knight before. So within a while this great knight overtook one of those knights, and smote him so that he fell to the earth. Then he rode to the second knight and smote him, and so he did to the third knight. Then he alighted down and bound all the three knights fast with their own bridles. When Sir Lionel saw him do thus, he thought to assay him, and made him ready silently, not to awake Sir Launcelot, and rode after the strong knight, and bade him turn. And the other smote Sir Lionel so hard that horse and man fell to the earth; and then he alighted down and bound Sir Lionel, and threw him across his own horse; and so he served them all four, and rode with them away to his own castle. And when he came there he put them in a deep prison, in which were many more knights in great distress.
  Now while Sir Launcelot lay under the apple-tree sleeping, there came by him four queens of great estate. And that the heat should not grieve them, there rode four knights about them, and bare a cloth of green silk on four spears, betwixt them and the sun. And the queens rode on four white mules.   5
  Thus as they rode they heard by them a great horse grimly neigh. Then they were aware of a sleeping knight, that lay all armed under an apple-tree; and as the queens looked on his face, they knew it was Sir Launcelot. Then they began to strive for that knight, and each one said she would have him for her love. “We will not strive,” said Morgane le Fay, that was King Arthur’s sister, “for I will put an enchantment upon him, that he shall not wake for six hours, and we will take him away to my castle; and then when he is surely within my hold, I will take the enchantment from him, and then let him choose which of us he will have for his love.” So the enchantment was cast upon Sir Launcelot. And then they laid him upon his shield, and bare him so on horseback between two knights, and brought him unto the castle and laid him in a chamber, and at night they sent him his supper.   6
  And on the morning came early those four queens, richly dight, and bade him good morning, and he them again. “Sir knight,” they said, “thou must understand thou art our prisoner; and we know thee well, that thou art Sir Launcelot of the Lake, King Ban’s son, and that thou art the noblest knight living. And we know well that there can no lady have thy love but one, and that is Queen Guenever; and now thou shalt lose her for ever, and she thee; and therefore it behooveth thee now to choose one of us. I am the Queen Morgane le Fay, and here is the Queen of North Wales, and the Queen of Eastland, and the Queen of the Isles. Now choose one of us which thou wilt have, for if thou choose not, in this prison thou shalt die.” “This is a hard case,” said Sir Launcelot, “that either I must die, or else choose one of you; yet had I liever to die in this prison with worship, than to have one of you for my paramour, for ye be false enchantresses.” “Well,” said the queens, “is this your answer, that ye will refuse us.” “Yea, on my life it is,” said Sir Launcelot. Then they departed, making great sorrow.   7
  Then at noon came a damsel unto him with his dinner, and asked him, “What cheer?” “Truly, fair damsel,” said Sir Launcelot, “never so ill.” “Sir,” said she, “if you will be ruled by me, I will help you out of this distress. If ye will promise me to help my father on Tuesday next, who hath made a tournament betwixt him and the king of North Wales; for last Tuesday my father lost the field.” “Fair maiden,” said Sir Launcelot, “tell me what is your father’s name, and then will I give you an answer.” “Sir knight,” she said, “my father is King Bagdemagus.” “I know him well,” said Sir Launcelot, “for a noble king and a good knight; and, by the faith of my body, I will be ready to do your father and you service at that day.”   8
  So she departed, and came on the next morning early and found him ready, and brought him out of twelve locks, and brought him to his own horse, and lightly he saddled him, and so rode forth.   9
  And on the Tuesday next he came to a little wood where the tournament should be. And there were scaffolds and holds, that lords and ladies might look on, and give the prize. Then came into the field the king of North Wales, with eightscore helms, and King Badgemagus came with fourscore helms. And then they couched their spears, and came together with a great dash, and there were overthrown at the first encounter twelve of King Bagdemagus’s party and six of the king of North Wales’s party, and King Bagdemagus’s party had the worse.  10
  With that came Sir Launcelot of the Lake, and thrust in with his spear in the thickest of the press; and he smote down five knights ere he held his hand; and he smote down the king of North Wales, and he brake his thigh in that fall. And then the knights of the king of North Wales would just no more; and so the gree was given to King Bagdemagus.  11
  And Sir Launcelot rode forth with King Bagdemagus unto his castle; and there he had passing good cheer, both with the king and with his daughter. And on the morn he took his leave, and told the king he would go and seek his brother, Sir Lionel, that went from him when he slept. So he departed, and by adventure he came to the same forest where he was taken sleeping. And in the highway he met a damsel riding on a white palfrey, and they saluted each other. “Fair damsel,” said Sir Launcelot, “know ye in this country any adventures?” “Sir knight,” said the damsel, “here are adventures near at hand, if thou durst pursue them.” “Why should I not prove adventures?” said Sir Launcelot, “since for that cause came I hither.” “Sir,” said she, “hereby dwelleth a knight that will not be overmatched for any man I know, except thou overmatch him. His name is Sir Turquine, and, as I understand, he is a deadly enemy of King Arthur, and he has in his prison good knights of Arthur’s court, threescore and more, that he hath won with his own hands.” “Damsel,” said Launcelot, “I pray you bring me unto this knight.” So she told him, “Hereby, within this mile, is his castle, and by it on the left hand is a ford for horses to drink of, and over that ford there groweth a fair tree, and on that tree hang many shields that good knights wielded aforetime, that are now prisoners; and on the tree hangeth a basin of copper and latten, and if thou strike upon that basin thou shalt hear tidings.” And Sir Launcelot departed, and rode as the damsel had shown him, and shortly he came to the ford, and the tree where hung the shields and the basin. And among the shields he saw Sir Lionel’s and Sir Hector’s shields, besides many others of knights that he knew.  12
  Then Sir Launcelot struck on the basin with the butt of his spear; and long he did so, but he saw no man. And at length he was ware of a great knight that drove a horse before him, and across the horse there lay an armed knight bounden. And as they came near, Sir Launcelot thought he should know the captive knight. Then Sir Launcelot saw that it was Sir Gaheris, Sir Gawain’s brother, a knight of the Table Round. “Now, fair knight,” said Sir Launcelot, “put that wounded knight off the horse, and let him rest awhile, and let us two prove our strength. For, as it is told me, thou hast done great despite and shame unto knights of the Round Table, therefore now defend thee.” “If thou be of the Table Round,” said Sir Turquine, “I defy thee and all thy fellowship.” “That is overmuch said,” said Sir Launcelot.  13
  Then they put their spears in the rests, and came together with their horses as fast as they might run. And each smote the other in the middle of their shields, so that their horses fell under them, and the knights were both staggered; and as soon as they could clear their horses they drew out their swords and came together eagerly, and each gave the other many strong strokes, for neither shield nor harness might withstand their strokes. So within a while both had grimly wounds, and bled grievously. Then at the last they were breathless both, and stood leaning upon their swords. “Now, fellow,” said Sir Turquine, “thou art the stoutest man that ever I met with, and best breathed; and so be it thou be not the knight that I hate above all other knights, the knight that slew my brother, Sir Carados, I will gladly accord with thee; and for thy love I will deliver all the prisoners that I have.”  14
  “What knight is he that thou hatest so above others?” “Truly,” said Sir Turquine, “his name is Sir Launcelot of the Lake.” “I am Sir Launcelot of the Lake, King Ban’s son of Benwick, and very knight of the Table Round; and now I defy thee do thy best.” “Ah!” said Sir Turquine, “Launcelot, thou art to me the most welcome that ever was knight; for we shall never part till the one of us be dead.” And then they hurtled together like two wild bulls, rashing and lashing with their swords and shields, so that sometimes they fell, as it were, headlong. Thus they fought two hours and more, till the ground where they fought was all bepurpled with blood.  15
  Then at the last Sir Turquine waxed sore faint, and gave somewhat aback, and bare his shield full low for weariness. That spied Sir Launcelot, and leapt then upon him fiercely as a lion, and took him by the beaver of his helmet, and drew him down on his knees. And he raised off his helm, and smote his neck in sunder.  16
  And Sir Gaheris, when he saw Sir Turquine slain, said, “Fair lord, I pray you tell me your name, for this day I say ye are the best knight in the world, for ye have slain this day in my sight the mightiest man and the best knight except you that ever I saw.” “Sir, my name is Sir Launcelot du Lac, that ought to help you of right for King Arthur’s sake, and in especial for Sir Gawain’s sake, your own dear brother. Now I pray you, that ye go into yonder castle, and set free all the prisoners ye find there, for I am sure ye shall find there many knights of the Table Round, and especially my brother Sir Lionel. I pray you greet them all from me, and tell them I bid them take there such stuff as they find; and tell my brother to go unto the court and abide me there, for by the feast of Pentecost I think to be there; but at this time I may not stop, for I have adventures on hand.” So he departed, and Sir Gaheris rode into the castle, and took the keys from the porter, and hastily opened the prison door and let out all the prisoners. There was Sir Kay, Sir Brandeles, and Sir Galynde, Sir Bryan, and Sir Alyduke, Sir Hector de Marys, and Sir Lionel, and many more. And when they saw Sir Gaheris they all thanked him, for they thought, because he was wounded, that he had slain Sir Turquine. “Not so,” said Sir Gaheris; “it was Sir Launcelot that slew him, right worshipfully; I saw it with mine eyes.”  17
  Sir Launcelot rode till at nightfall he came to a fair castle, and therein he found an old gentlewoman, who lodged him with good-will, and there he had good cheer for him and his horse. And when time was, his host brought him to a fair chamber over the gate to his bed. Then Sir Launcelot unarmed him, and set his harness by him, and went to bed, and anon he fell asleep. And soon after, there came one on horseback and knocked at the gate in great haste; and when Sir Launcelot heard this, he arose and looked out of the window, and saw by the moonlight three knights riding after that one man, and all three lashed on him with their swords, and that one knight turned on them knightly again and defended himself. “Truly,” said Sir Launcelot, “yonder one knight will I help, for it is shame to see three knights on one.” Then he took his harness and went out at the window by a sheet down to the four knights; and he said aloud, “Turn you knights unto me, and leave your fighting with that knight.” Then the knights left Sir Kay, for it was he they were upon, and turned unto Sir Launcelot, and struck many great strokes at Sir Launcelot, and assailed him on every side. Then Sir Kay addressed him to help Sir Launcelot, but he said, “Nay, sir, I will none of your help; let me alone with them.” So Sir Kay suffered him to do his will, and stood one side. And within six strokes Sir Launcelot had stricken them down.  18
  Then they all cried, “Sir knight, we yield us unto you.” “As to that,” said Sir Launcelot, “I will not take your yielding unto me. If so be ye will yield you unto Sir Kay the Seneschal, I will save your lives, but else not.” “Fair knight,” then they said, “we will do as thou commandest us.” “Then shall ye,” said Sir Launcelot, “on Whitsunday next, go unto the court of King Arthur, and there shall ye yield you unto Queen Guenever, and say that Sir Kay sent you thither to be her prisoners.” “Sir,” they said, “it shall be done, by the faith of our bodies;” and then they swore, every knight upon his sword. And so Sir Launcelot suffered them to depart.  19
  On the morn Sir Launcelot rose early and left Sir Kay sleeping; and Sir Launcelot took Sir Kay’s armor, and his shield, and armed him, and went to the stable and took his horse, and so he departed. Then soon after arose Sir Kay, and missed Sir Launcelot. And then he espied that he had taken his armor and his horse. “Now, by my faith, I know well,” said Sir Kay, “that he will grieve some of King Arthur’s knights, for they will deem that it is I, and will be bold to meet him. But by cause of his armor I am sure I shall ride in peace.” Then Sir Kay thanked his host and departed.  20
  Sir Launcelot rode in a deep forest, and there he saw four knights, under an oak, and they were of Arthur’s court. There was Sir Sagramour le Desirus, and Hector de Marys, and Sir Gawain, and Sir Uwaine. As they spied Sir Launcelot they judged by his arms it had been Sir Kay. “Now, by my faith,” said Sir Sagramour, “I will prove Sir Kay’s might;” and got his spear in his hand, and came towards Sir Launcelot. Therewith Sir Launcelot couched his spear against him, and smote Sir Sagramour so sore that horse and man fell both to the earth. Then said Sir Hector, “Now shall ye see what I may do with him.” But he fared worse than Sir Sagramour, for Sir Launcelot’s spear went through his shoulder and bare him from his horse to the ground. “By my faith,” said Sir Uwaine, “yonder is a strong knight, and I fear he hath slain Sir Kay, and taken his armor.” And therewith Sir Uwaine took his spear in hand, and rode toward Sir Launcelot; and Sir Launcelot met him on the plain and gave him such a buffet that he was staggered, and wist not where he was. “Now see I well,” said Sir Gawain, “that I must encounter with that knight.” Then he adjusted his shield, and took a good spear in his hand, and Sir Launcelot knew him well. Then they let run their horses with all their mights, and each knight smote the other in the middle of his shield. But Sir Gawain’s spear broke, and Sir Launcelot charged so sore upon him that his horse fell over backward. Then Sir Launcelot passed by smiling with himself, and he said, “Good luck be with him that made this spear, for never came a better into my hand.” Then the four knights went each to the other and comforted one another. “What say ye to this adventure,” said Sir Gawain, “that one spear hath felled us all four?” “I dare lay my head it is Sir Launcelot,” said Sir Hector; “I know it by his riding.”  21
  And Sir Launcelot rode through many strange countries, till by fortune he came to a fair castle; and as he passed beyond the castle he thought he heard two bells ring. And then he perceived how a falcon came flying over his head, toward a high elm; and she had long lunys 1  about her feet, and she flew unto the elm to take her perch, and the lunys got entangled in the bough; and when she would have taken her flight, she hung by the legs fast, and Sir Launcelot saw how she hung, and beheld the fair falcon entangled, and he was sorry for her. Then came a lady out of the castle and cried aloud, “O Launcelot, Launcelot, as thou art the flower of all knights, help me to get my hawk; for if my hawk be lost, my lord will slay me, he is so hasty.” “What is your lord’s name?” said Sir Launcelot. “His name is Sir Phelot, a knight that belongeth to the king of North Wales.” “Well, fair lady, since ye know my name, and require me of knighthood to help you, I will do what I may to get your hawk; and yet in truth I am an ill climber, and the tree is passing high, and few boughs to help me.” And therewith Sir Launcelot alighted and tied his horse to the tree, and prayed the lady to unarm him. And when he was unarmed, he put off his jerkin, and with might and force he clomb up to the falcon, and tied the lunys to a rotten bough, and threw the hawk down with it; and the lady got the hawk in her hand. Then suddenly there came out of the castle her husband, all armed, and with his naked sword in his hand, and said, “O Knight Launcelot, now have I got thee as I would,” and stood at the boll of the tree to slay him. “Ah, lady!” said Sir Launcelot, “why have ye betrayed me?” “She hath done,” said Sir Phelot, “but as I commanded her; and therefore there is none other way but thine hour is come, and thou must die.” “That were shame unto thee,” said Sir Launcelot; “thou an armed knight to slay a naked man by treason.” “Thou gettest none other grace,” said Sir Phelot, “and therefore help thyself if thou canst.” “Alas!” said Sir Launcelot, “that ever a knight should die weaponless!” And therewith he turned his eyes upward and downward; and over his head he saw a big bough leafless, and he brake it off from the trunk. And then he came lower, and watched how his own horse stood; and suddenly he leapt on the further side of his horse from the knight. Then Sir Phelot lashed at him eagerly, meaning to have slain him. But Sir Launcelot put away the stroke, with the big bough, and smote Sir Phelot therewith on the side of the head, so that he fell down in a swoon to the ground. Then Sir Launcelot took his sword out of his hand and struck his head from the body. Then said the lady, “Alas! why hast thou slain my husband?” “I am not the cause,” said Sir Launcelot, “for with falsehood ye would have slain me, and now it is fallen on yourselves.” Thereupon Sir Launcelot got all his armor, and put it upon him hastily, for fear of more resort, for the knight’s castle was so nigh. And as soon as he might, he took his horse and departed, and thanked God he had escaped that adventure.  22
  And two days before the feast of Pentecost, Sir Launcelot came home; and the king and all the court were passing glad of his coming. And when Sir Gawain, Sir Uwaine, Sir Sagramour, and Sir Hector de Marys saw Sir Launcelot in Sir Kay’s armor then they wist well it was he that smote them down, all with one spear. Then there was laughing and merriment among them; and from time to time came all the knights that Sir Turquine had prisoners, and they all honored and worshipped Sir Launcelot. Then Sir Gaheris said, “I saw all the battle from the beginning to the end,” and he told King Arthur all how it was. Then Sir Kay told the king how Sir Launcelot had rescued him, and how he “made the knights yield to me, and not to him.” And there they were, all three, and confirmed it all. “And, by my faith,” said Sir Kay, “because Sir Launcelot took my harness and left me his, I rode in peace, and no man would have to do with me.”  23
  And so at that time Sir Launcelot had the greatest name of any knight of the world, and most was he honored of high and low.  24

Note 1.  Lunys, the string with which the falcon is held. [back]

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