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Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI.
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.
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.
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 become his most faithful friend and
ally, exposed himself in numberless encounters, and brought hosts of
prisoners to the feet of his sovereign.
After King Arthur was come from Rome into England all the knights of
the Table Round resorted unto him, and made him many jousts and
tournaments. And in especial Sir Launcelot of the Lake, in all
tournaments and jousts 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.
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 hint in a chamber, and at night they sent him
his supper.
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 that 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 forever, 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
have 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.
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 the 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."
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.
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 Bagdemagus
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.
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 joust no more; and so the gree was given to King
Bagdemagus.
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 be 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 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 three score 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
basin. And among the shields he saw Sir Lionel's and Sir Hector's
shield, besides many others of knights that he knew.
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.
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 Caradoc, I will
gladly accord with thee; and for thy love I will deliver all the
prisoners that I have."
"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.
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 rased
off his helm, and smote his neck in sunder.
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."
Sir Launcelot rode till at nightfall he came to a fair castle, and
therein he found an old gentlewoman, who lodged him with goodwill, 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.
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.
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 be
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.
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 toward 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 rode away
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."
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*
about her feet, and she flew unto the elm to take her perch, and the
lunys got entangled in a 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 a 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.

* Lunys, the string with which the falcon is held.

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."
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.

Thomas Bulfinch