Thomas Bulfinch > The Age of Fable > Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry > VII. Caradoc Briefbras; or, Caradoc with the Shrunken Arm
Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867).  Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry.  1913.

King Arthur and His Knights
VII.  Caradoc Briefbras; or, Caradoc with the Shrunken Arm
CARADOC was the son of Ysenne, the beautiful niece of Arthur. He was ignorant who his father was, till it was discovered in the following manner: When the youth was of proper years to receive the honors of knighthood, King Arthur held a grand court for the purpose of knighting him. On this occasion a strange knight presented himself, and challenged the knights of Arthur’s court to exchange blow for blow with him. His proposal was this—to lay his neck on a block for any knight to strike, on condition that, if he survived the blow, the knight should submit in turn to the same experiment. Sir Kay, who was usually ready to accept all challenges, pronounced this wholly unreasonable, and declared that he would not accept it for all the wealth in the world. And when the knight offered his sword, with which the operation was to be performed, no person ventured to accept it, till Caradoc, growing angry at the disgrace which was thus incurred by the Round Table, threw aside his mantle and took it. “Do you do this as one of the best knights?” said the stranger. “No,” he replied, “but as one of the most foolish.” The stranger lays his head upon the block, receives a blow which sends it rolling from his shoulders, walks after it, picks it up, replaces it with great success, and says he will return when the court shall be assembled next year, and claim his turn. When the anniversary arrived, both parties were punctual to their engagement. Great entreaties were used by the king and queen, and the whole court, in behalf of Caradoc, but the stranger was inflexible. The young knight laid his head upon the block, and more than once desired him to make an end of the business, and not keep him longer in so disagreeable a state of expectation. At last the stranger strikes him gently with the side of the sword, bids him rise, and reveals to him the fact that he is his father, the enchanter Eliaures, and that he gladly owns him for a son, having proved his courage and fidelity to his word.   1
  But the favor of enchanters is short-lived and uncertain. Eliaures fell under the influence of a wicked woman, who, to satisfy her pique against Caradoc, persuaded the enchanter to fasten on his arm a serpent, which remained there sucking at his flesh and blood, no human skill sufficing either to remove the reptile or alleviate the torments which Caradoc endured.   2
  Caradoc was betrothed to Guimier, sister to his bosom friend, Cador, and daughter to the king of Cornwall. As soon as they were informed of his deplorable condition, they set out for Nantes, where Caradoc’s castle was, that Guimier might attend upon him. When Caradoc heard of their coming, his first emotion was that of joy and love. But soon he began to fear that the sight of his emaciated form, and of his sufferings, would disgust Guimier; and this apprehension became so strong, that he departed secretly from Nantes, and hid himself in a hermitage. He was sought far and near by the knights of Arthur’s court, and Cador made a vow never to desist from the quest till he should have found him. After long wandering, Cador discovered his friend in the hermitage, reduced almost to a skeleton, and apparently near his death. All other means of relief having already been tried in vain, Cador at last prevailed on the enchanter Eliaures to disclose the only method which could avail for his rescue. A maiden must be found, his equal in birth and beauty, and loving him better than herself, so that she would expose herself to the same torment to deliver him. Two vessels were then to be provided, the one filled with sour wine, and the other with milk. Caradoc must enter the first, so that the wine should reach his neck, and the maiden must get into the other, and, exposing her bosom upon the edge of the vessel, invite the serpent to forsake the withered flesh of his victim for this fresh and inviting food. The vessels were to be placed three feet apart, and as the serpent crossed from one to the other, a knight was to cut him in two. If he failed in his blow, Caradoc would indeed be delivered, but it would be only to see his fair champion suffering the same cruel and hopeless torment. The sequel may be easily foreseen. Guimier willingly exposed herself to the perilous adventure, and Cador, with a lucky blow, killed the serpent. The arm in which Caradoc had suffered so long recovered its strength, but not its shape, in consequence of which he was called Caradoc Briefbras, Caradoc of the Shrunken Arm.   3
  Caradoc and Guimier are the hero and heroine of the ballad of the “Boy and the Mantle,” which follows:
“In Carlisle dwelt King Arthur,
  A prince of passing might,
And there maintained his Table Round,
  Beset with many a knight.
“And there he kept his Christmas,
  With mirth and princely cheer,
When lo! a strange and cunning boy
  Before him did appear.
“A kirtle and a mantle
  This boy had him upon,
With brooches, rings, and oucnes,
  Full daintily bedone.
“He had a sash of silk
  About his middle meet;
And thus with seemly curtesie
  He did King Arthur greet:
“‘God speed thee, brave King Arthur.
  Thus feasting in thy bower,
And Guenever, thy goodly queen,
  That fair and peerless flower.
“‘Ye gallant lords and lordlings,
  I wish you all take heed,
Lest what ye deem a blooming rose
  Should prove a cankered weed.’
“Then straightway from his bosom
  A little wand he drew;
And with it eke a mantle,
  Of wondrous shape and hue.
“‘Now have thou here, King Arthur,
  Have this here of me,
And give unto thy comely queen,
  All shapen as you see.
“‘No wife it shall become,
  That once hath been to blame.’
Then every knight in Arthur’s court
  Sly glanced at his dame.
“And first came Lady Guenever,
  The mantle she must try.
This dame she was new-fangled, 1
  And of a roving eye.
“When she had taken the mantle,
  And all with it was clad,
From top to toe it shivered down,
  As though with shears beshred.
“One while it was too long,
  Another while too short,
And wrinkled on her shoulders,
  In most unseemly sort.
“Now green, now red it seemed,
  Then all of sable hue;
‘Beshrew me,’ quoth King Arthur,
  ‘I think thou be’st not true!’
“Down she threw the mantle,
  No longer would she stay;
But, storming like a fury,
  To her chamber flung away.
“She cursed the rascal weaver,
  That had the mantle wrought;
And doubly cursed the froward imp
  Who thither had it brought.
“‘I had rather live in deserts,
  Beneath the greenwood tree,
Than here, base king, among thy grooms
  The sport of them and thee.’
“Sir Kay called forth his lady,
  And bade her to come near:
‘Yet dame, if thou be guilty,
  I pray thee now forbear.’
“This lady, pertly giggling,
  With forward step came on,
And boldly to the little boy
  With fearless face is gone.
“When she had taken the mantle,
  With purpose for to wear,
It shrunk up to her shoulder,
  And left her back all bare.
“Then every merry knight,
  That was in Arthur’s court,
Gibed and laughed and flouted,
  To see that pleasant sport.
“Down she threw the mantle,
  No longer bold or gay,
But, with a face all pale and wan,
  To her chamber slunk away.
“Then forth came an old knight
  A pattering o’er his creed,
And proffered to the little boy
  Five nobles to his meed:
“‘And all the time of Christmas
  Plum-porridge shall be thine,
If thou wilt let my lady fair
  Within the mantle shine.’
“A saint his lady seemed,
  With step demure and slow,
And gravely to the mantle
  With mincing face doth go.
“When she the same had taken
  That was so fine and thin,
It shrivelled all about her,
  And showed her dainty skin.
“Ah! little did her mincing,
  Or his long prayers bestead;
She had no more hung on her
  Than a tassel and a thread.
“Down she threw the mantle,
  With terror and dismay,
And with a face of scarlet
  To her chamber hied away.
“Sir Cradock called his lady,
  And bade her to come near:
‘Come win this mantle, lady,
  And do me credit here:
“‘Come win this mantle, lady,
  For now it shall be thine,
If thou hast never done amiss,
  Since first I made thee mine.’
“The lady, gently blushing,
  With modest grace came on;
And now to try the wondrous charm
  Courageously is gone.
“When she had ta’en the mantle,
  And put it on her back,
About the hem it seemed
  To wrinkle and to crack.
“‘Lie still,’ she cried, ‘O mantle!
  And shame me not for naught;
I’ll freely own whate’er amiss
  Or blameful I have wrought.
“‘Once I kissed Sir Cradock
  Beneath the greenwood tree;
Once I kissed Sir Cradock’s mouth,
  Before he married me.’
“When she had thus her shriven,
  And her worst fault had told,
The mantle soon became her,
  Right comely as it should.
“Most rich and fair of color,
  Like gold it glittering shone,
And much the knights in Arthur’s court
  Admired her every one.”
  The ballad goes on to tell of two more trials of a similar kind, made by means of a boar’s head and a drinking horn, in both of which the result was equally favorable with the first to Sir Cradock and his lady. It then concludes as follows:
        “Thus boar’s head, horn, and mantle
  Were this fair couple’s meed;
And all such constant lovers,
  God send them well to speed.”
Percy’s Reliques.

Note 1.  New-fangled—fond of novelty. [back]


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