I’ve set myself the task of finishing Canto V of the Acts of King Arthur, Gawain and the Green Knight before I leave for my parents. I have five sonnets left to write, and I know what has to happen in each of them, and I know how the story has to flow, and I want my cat to come out of hiding more or less on his own before I load him into the cat-carrier. Plus, I want to finish a couple of loads of laundry.
I was planning on being out the door before this, but I feel like Gawain has dragged on long enough, and I want to get it done so I can get started on White Wolf writing. And, because so many have asked me for/about it, here’s…
Percival of WalesPercival was a nobody from Wales,
Who lived with his mom in a woodsman’s shack,
Far from other men, or so say the tales,
And it seems he had a serious lack
Of social grace. Fifteen years he lived there.
Knowing little of life beyond that wood.
His mother kept secrets she did not share:
Prophesy said he might do greater good
If he learned of knights late, So she deprived
Him of company. Then one day a knight
Rode through the woods near where Percival lived,
Garbed in shining mail. Struck dumb at the sight,
Percival thought an angel of the Lord
Had come to earth to give him God’s own Word.
“Hardly,” said the knight, removing his helm.
“My name’s Lancelot, and I serve the king,
riding through his country, up hill and down.
I perform good deeds, and do everything
That establishes justice in the land.
I rescue maidens and fight the king’s foes.
This is the sword I got from Arthur’s hand.
I take good care of it, but the blade shows
Some wear and tear, for I use it a lot,
Since few surrender to the law’s demands.
One day perhaps you’ll come to Camelot,
And get a sword yourself from the king’s hands.
Love justice, be courageous, and live right –
One day you also might become a knight.”
The knight rode off, and Percival ran home,
Declaring “I shall be a knight one day,”
Thus mom saw her guardianship was done,
And the hour she had long kept at bay
Had at last arrived. “Heed my last advice,”
She said to her son, dressing him in hide,
“for being a knight carries a high price,
since men can be cruel, and the world is wide.
Take nothing from woman but what they give;
Keep silence when you don’t know what to speak;
Fight no one for fame, but live and let live;
Keep faith with your god, and protect the meek.
For noble is that noble does, my son –
And by worthy conduct is manhood won.”
But Percival was nearly out the door,
Too eager by far to get on the road.
He didn’t listen to mom any more,
But added a bow and knife to his load,
And left the hovel where long he had stayed.
He roamed the country ‘til he found a tent
Hung with tapestries in a grassy glade.
Ducking inside with uncertain intent,
He found a beautiful lady within,
Asleep on a couch, in a golden gown.
He kissed her lips, unaware of her sin,
And took her ring, bringing his honor down.
He left her before she woke from her sleep,
Proving himself not a knight but a creep.
Then wandering on, still farther afield,
He came to Camelot, king Arthur’s seat.
He saw knights practicing with sword and shiedl,
Mighty in battle and sure on their feet.
Merlin he saw, and Lancelot, and Kay,
Yet he did not approach them, for great fear
Of their high status turned his feet to clay.
He watched at a distance, and came not near,
Till one day, while roaming ‘round the king’s fort,
Percival found the Hall of the Table
Round: Arthur’s council, the kingdom’s beating heart.
Dressed as he was, a groom of the stable,
Percival almost fled away at once –
But the king was there, and the scene was tense.
A knight dressed in red from helmet to boots
Stood in defiance before the Table.
He’d dragged Sir Bors from his chair by the roots
Of his air, and he was more than able
To beat down any knight who dared to rise
And offer battle. He took the king’s cup
And drank the wine, and mocked their deeds as lies,
Derided their knightly virtues and crap.
At last, quite pleased, with the mischief he’d made,
The Red Knight knocked the king’s crown off his head,
And rode unharmed from his Camelot raid.
“Knights can’t behave like that – he should be dead!
Will none of my knights avenge this offence?”
Cried Arthur, “Who will chase him down at once?”
Percival stood, heart pounding in his chest,
And said, before anyone else could speak,
“I will avenge you, I will take this quest.
My mom told me knights should protect the weak,
But the Red Knight is nothing but a knave.
I will go fight him, and so prove my right
To live all my life, and go to my grave,
A man of my word, and an honest knight.”
So saying, he left the hall of the king,
And took Sir Bors’ horse without permission,
Adding that crime to the kiss and the ring,
Thus losing sight of his greater mission.
In full heat and fury, he chased the knight,
Hopeful for glory in the coming fight.
The Red Knight laughed at Percival’s challenge.
“Does Arthur now send boys to do men’s work?
My sword will section you like an orange.
Your pleas for mercy shall be one more perk
In my war against Arthur’s high ideals.
Raise your little knife against my blade,
And let us battle. Let us see who feels
The steel’s cut first, and who’s blood shall be spilled.”
The knight spurred his horse, but Percival drew
Not his knife but his bow, and loosed the string.
The shaft found the Red Knight’s throat, pierced him through,
And killed him at once. With mail’s clashing ring,
The Red Knight fell from his horse to the earth,
And Percival thought he’d proven his worth.
He took the Red Knight’s sword, and wore his mail,
Saying to himself, “Now I look the part!”
And there we might end Sir Percival’s tale
Except that the boy was wounded and hurt,
And he knew it not. His spirit was lost,
So he strayed from the road to Camelot.
He could never have guessed the secret cost
Of his three thefts that ate at him like rot,
Or termites in wood. So he went astray,
And wander in wastes far from any town,
Through forests dark and desolate and gray,
Far from any place he could win renown.
Alone with the memory of his deeds,
He started to grasp what man really needs.
Just when this notion woke up in his heart
He came to a land of towns and good fields,
But empty of people and full of hurt.
The castle walls were hung with many shields
Of Arthur’s knights, missing for many years.
Inside, sleeping, was a lady of grace;
Seeing her, Percival wept sudden tears.
“Please forgive me,” he cried, bowing his face.
“I once took a kiss from you, and this ring,
and since that mistake I have done much wrong.
I wanted to be a knight of the king
But in that fellowship I don’t belong
Unless your pardon I somehow receive,
And by that forgiveness my soul reprieve.”
The lady opened her eyes when he spoke,
And laughed as she took the ring from his hand.
“Many have come to this hall – but I woke
only for you, the true lord of this land.
In years to come, this county and this keep
Will be your domain and your honored hall.”
“Lady,” said Percival, ready to weep,
“This domain of mine is about to fall:
towns stand empty and fallow lie the fields;
not mortal nor livestock dwells in the place.
The castle walls are hung with dead men’s shields,
And it seems that God has hidden his face.”
The Lady said, “All that you say was true,
But my pardon has made this land anew.”
She led him to a window, where he saw
Green fields, wealthy towns, orchards and pastures,
And happy people living by good law.
“Your words and your deeds are proper measures
of how people see you,” the Lady said.
“While you had my kiss and my ring unasked,
your land was empty, and hopeless, and dead.
But now with your virtuous soul unmasked
Your kingdom and your future come alive.
And see — another token of your fate
Enters this hall where one day you will thrive.
Look! The Holy Grail appears at your gate,
The cup of God’s perpetual blessing,
Whose quest may become Arthur’s undoing.”
Percival turned from the window to see
A maiden bearing a silk-covered bowl.
This maid was followed by another three
Carrying a sword, a lance and a roll
Of white cloth that seemed to be a banner.
A pale light issued from the silk-wrapped shape
That the first maid bore in gentle manner,
And Percival felt the hairs on the nape
Of his neck rise. The Lady said, “Behold!
Passing time will bring Arthur to this hall.
You could give him the Grail, if you are bold;
I will tell you how.” But the Grail did call
To Percival. “Look!” he cried, “it departs,
The maidens are taking it to the gates!”
The Lady cried, “Wait, don’t follow just yet!”
But Percival rushed out the castle door,
And the moment he passed that magic gate,
He found himself in the dark woods once more.
A long time he searched, but he never came
Back to the castle or the lady there.
Then he met two knights. “Percival’s my name,
He said when one knight challenged him to dare
His steel and skill against another man.
“I do not fight for honor or renown.
For right and justice, I’ll do what I can.”
But Sir Kay thought he’d chased the Red Knight down,
He charged Percival, who easily won,
But spared Kay’s life when the fight was done.
Kay’s friend showed his face. “I am king Arthur,”
Said he, and Percival went to his knees.
“My king,” he said, “you have many better
men to be your knights, but hear me out, please.
Once the Red Knight took your cup in your hall,
And mocked your warriors to their faces.
I dared to face him, answering your call.
I fought him, and won. In distant places
I have journeyed since then, and learned that men
Are more than soldiers, and less than divine.”
Thus king Arthur dubbed him a knight, and then
Percival did deeds that made his name shine,
Doing justice and mercy all his days,
By following knighthood’s chivalrous ways.
Tristan and Iseult
When Lyonesse fell to Morgan’s foul war
The queen of that land escaped to the wood
With one knight, Rual. She gave him the chore
Of raising her son for she hoped some good
Might come of her grief. Rual taught him chess,
To play the harp, and all chivalrous skill
When his mother died, and to ride a horse
That he could be mighty in strength and will
When time came to avenge his parents’ death,
And take Lyoness back from Morgan’s hand.
His name was Tristan, born of sorrow’s breath,
And strong as a bull, and used to command.
Rual told him nothing of his high birth,
But trained him to be the best knight on earth.
As Tristan grew to youth, a Norse ship came
And the captain lured him on board to play
Twenty-one matches of the kingly game.
Yet while the two played, the ship sailed away
With Tristan on board. The Norse planned to sell
Tristan as a slave. But a dreadful storm
Rose – The sea became a boiling hell
And the sailors feared some magical charm
Protected the youth. They put him ashore
In Cornwall, where noble Mark reigned as king
And soon Tristan came to his uncle’s door,
Intending to beg. Mark saw Tristan’s ring,
And by it knew his sister’s only boy.
Mark greeted his nephew with greatest joy.
Then Mark of Cornwall made preparation
And called his knights to gather in a host.
Tristan led them in a great invasion
To take bright Lyonesse that was lost.
Morgan came out with all his force of knights;
The Usurper met Tristan in battle
And the armies clashed in three dreadful fights –
Neither side was able to prove its mettle
Til Morgan and Trisam met spear-to-spear
Tristan was skillful and strong as a bull
And dodged Morgan’s blows, as swift as a hare.
The men fought three days as the moon waxed full.
Then Morgan fell to Tristan’s keen-edged blade
And Tristan accounted his vengeance paid.
He became King of Lyonesse in May
But Mark stayed his lord: Tristan was his knight,
And promised to serve him every way.
Thus Tristan challenged an Irish king’s right
To exact tribute from Cornwall each year.
King Gurman sent a knight of evil name,
Sir Marhault, and Cornwall’s men lived in fear.
So Tristan challenged him, refusing shame.
They battled on an island in the sea,
And fought like wild bulls the whole day through.
Then Marhault wounded Tristan mightily,
And his blade was tainted with poison brew.
But Tristan hewed his skull from crown to chin,
And a chip of Tristan’s blade burrowed in.
Marhault died, and Isaud, Ireland’s queen,
Kept the chip of steel in a secret place.
She vowed a revenge on Tristan so mean
That Tristan could never dare show his face
In Ireland. But Mahault’s poisoned blade
Had wounded him deep. None could cure that hurt,
So the trip to Ireland Tristan made,
Disguised as a bard, traveling by cart.
He sang so well that Gurman requested
That he play his harp and sing in his hall.
The queen saw how the minstrel’s life wasted,
And so she healed him of the poison’s ill,
Not knowing it was Tristan that she cured,
Or how he watched Ireland’s fairest bird –
For Gurman’s daughter was Iseult the fair,
And Tristan taught her harping every day.
He touched her not while she was in his care,
But once back in Cornwall he chose to say
How beautiful Iseult was to King Mark.
Cornwall wanted peace; Ireland did not,
So the threat of war hung heavy and dark
Over both kingdoms. King Gurman burned hot
For King Mark’s tribute; he would never wed
His girl to Cornwall’s king. Still, Tristan agreed
To go get Iseult for Mark’s wedding bed
Avoiding such strife as makes kingdoms bleed.
All Mark’s nobles consented to the plan,
So Tristan sailed to Ireland again.
A dragon was loose in Ireland’s north.
King Gurman had pledged his fair daughter’s hand
To any good knight of courage and worth
Who killed the huge serpent and freed the land
From its rampages. Tristan sought the beast,
And followed three good knights, trailed by a fourth,
To the dragon’s den. This last man was least
Of Gurman’s house, a coward of less worth
Than the smallest boy. He fled when the wyrm
Clawed his way through the mail of two of his friends,
And burned the third alive with breath of flame.
Tristan came late to save them from these ends,
But he rode to avenge them, even so,
And slew the foul dragon with one fierce blow.
Then Tristan cut off the dragon’s long tongue,
But writhing in death, the wyrm knocked him down.
The coward returned, as poets have sung,
And seeing the beast, thought to win the crown.
He took its head, and raced to Gurman’s throne.
“Blow all the trumpets, and sing of my fame!
The dragon is dead, and Iseult I’ve won!
But Tristan arrived then, and said, “I claim
This coward lies, for though he has the head,
I have its tongue, and my sword is roasted.”
“The matter is tricky,” King Gurman said,
“One speaks truth here, but the other boasted,
Let combat decide the truth of each man’s word,
This knight with the head, or the gold-tongued bard.”
The coward and Tristan both drew their swords,
And the queen saw the place in Tristan’s blade
Where it was chipped, and she spoke magic words,
Prepared to curse him. But Iseult the maid
Put hand on her arm. “Please stay your revenge,
Or I’ll be wife to a cowardly thief.”
As she spoke, Tristan made a might lunge,
And the coward died swiftly, without grief.
Then Tristan told his mission to the king —
Cornwall’s hope for peace, and a wedding day.
When German saw how well-planned was this thing,
He gave his consent. With no great delay,
Sir Tristan prepared his ship to sail home,
And bring Mark’s queen to lands she’d never known.
Wise Isaud made a potion to cause love
To spring up between Mark and her daughter,
And put it in wine. “Pour this wine and serve
It to Mark and my daughter together,”
She told Iseult’s maid. “On their wedding night,
In their own chamber, is the proper time.
Since it will bring constant love and delight
To them that drink, and a dolorous crime
It would be, to part those so united —
And this spell is impossible to break.”
But Iseult’s maid with sickness was blighted;
She spent the whole voyage sea-sick and weak.
Iseult and Tristan found the wine one night,
And drank it down, knowing love at third sight.
They tried to hide love, but King Mark saw clear
And though he wed Iseult, she loved him not,
For life was bitter with Tristan so near
And the potion’s charm could not be un-wrought.
The lovers watched each other from afar,
And never allowed themselves to grow close.
But Mark’s jealousy was a burning white star;
He caught them one day in a private place.
They had only traded this kiss alone
In all the years since they had drunk the wine,
But Tristan chose exile to atone,
And fled King Mark’s court, and fatal design.
He left Cornwall, and never dared return,
Though for Iseult alone did his heart yearn.
He traveled through Britain, doing great deeds;
No knight was ever more widely acclaimed,
And he was famed for upholding the needs
Of weak and poor against the great and named,
Though ever was he mindful of his doom,
To love another man’s wife without rest.
When he came to Camelot, there was room
At the Table Round, for he was the best.
His name wrote itself in gold on a siege,
And he sat each Pentecost with his king.
Arthur he acknowledged as lord and liege,
But oft did he play on his harp and sing
Laments for the missing love of his life,
Iseult the Fair, King Mark of Cornwall’s wife.
Still, knights must marry, and so Tristan did,
A woman named Iseult of the White Hands
Who was kind to him and did as he bid,
And never pressed him with her own demands
Through all their long and respectable years,
Until her husband fell in a tourney
With a wounded head that aroused his fears
Of mortality. “I will go journey
To Iseult in Cornwall, for he can heal
Me just like her mother did, twice before.”
“If you go,” said his wife, “King Mark will seal
your fate; he will not let you come ashore,
Or he’ll let you die. Let me go instead,
And bring Iseult back with salves for your head.”
Tristan had a squire named Kurwenal,
And he took Tristan’s wife over the sea
To King Mark’s great stronghold at Tintagel,
Where Iseult of the White Hands made her plea.
King Mark did not want to let his wife go —
But a woman asked, and he was a knight,
So he could not let his jealousy show
Or reveal that he took perverse delight
In Tristan’s dying. So he feigned illness
‘til Iseult the Fair scolded him to shame,
mocked him for dishonorable coldness.
At her mockery, King Mark became tame.
He gave his consent, and they sailed away,
Both Iseults together, at break of day.
“He always loved you,” White Hands Iseult said.
“But you loved him too,” said Iseult the Fair,
“He loved me, yes — but you were in his bed.
I was the dream, but you were really there.”
With storm-shredded sails, through riptides and reefs
Kurwenal strove to bring his ship to shore.
There, the ladies met with untold griefs,
For Tristan was not alive any more,
But slipped into death before their return.
Broken with ache, they wept a long hour
Ere dying beside him on that sad morn
When fell the finest of knighthood’s flower.
Now a hawthorne tree grows over the grave
That holds both Iseults, and Tristan the brave.
If you read either Tristan and Iseult or Percival of Wales, I ask that you comment on the pieces that you read, so I have some ideas about how to make either or both of them better. Ultimately, both are going to be part of a 15-canto epic poem, at least if I have any say in it, but I want each canto to stand alone as well as be part of the larger piece. So feedback would be very much appreciated.