Acts of King Arthur, Canto I

Canto I.     The Sword in the Stone (December)

When Uthyr Pendragon ruled all the land,
Some there yet were who fought against his law;

For though he governed well, his mighty hand
Rested hard on men: this was his flaw,
And more — that he wanted all a king’s rights
To seize portions of what a man might own.
King Uthyr was prone to large appetites;
Many grew poor while he sat on the throne.
So, the Cornish turned back from his banner,
And refused his right to lead them in war.
Yet Uthyr took each castle and manor,
And spattered all the malcontents with gore,
Until they fled behind Tintagel’s walls,
The keep where Cornwall’s dukes had raised their halls.

During that siege, King Uthyr spied Ygraine,
The wife of the rebel duke he hated.
Her beauty afflicted Uthyr like pain:
His stomach knotted and his breath bated,
And the duchess was ever in his mind.
He summoned his wizard, Merlin of Wales,
And told the old mage how his heart inclined.
“When I think of her, my strategy fails.
I wish to have her and make her my wife.”
Merlin answered, “For that, the Duke must die,
And Ygraine will bring you nothing but strife.
Your vassals will call the wedding a lie.
Yet your son shall be called the best of kings,
By every poet that ever yet sings.”

Then Merlin by magic caused it to pass
That Uthyr came disguised as Duke Gorlais,
And took his longed-for pleasure from the lass
While his armies put Cornwall in its place.
With revolt ended, and duke lying dead,
Ygraine uncovered Uthyr’s secret plot,
But even so consented to be wed,
And see her girls marry Nantres, and Lot.
Ygraine and Uthyr were happy a year,
But Saxons slew the king and all his court.
Thus, the land came to know both sword and spear,
And every village had its wall and fort.
Without king, the kingdom knew dreadful ills,
As the strong contended with fearsome wills.

Where was Uthyr’s son? Only Merlin knew.
He spirited the child to hiding
Through a secret castle gate known to few,
And in a distant fortress abiding,
The boy was raised as Ector’s foster son
Beneath gray limbs of the Forest Savage.
Arthur grew up both hidden and unknown,
Kind and good, yet of untested courage,
Trained as the squire of Ector’s son Kay.
When Arthur turned twelve, Merlin returned
To tutor the boy for the coming day
When he’d be the king for whom the land yearned.
Arthur would be the kingdom’s finest knight,
Honoring justice, upholding the right.

Yet the kingdom grew tired of waiting,
Since all the dukes and earls were still at war,
And the whole land was given to fighting
With bandits on roads and pirates off-shore.
Fields lay barren, and the vulture’s black claw
Rested on cattle and peasant alike.
No one had any respect for the law,
But fought fiercely to keep what he could take.
Then a stone appeared in a London lych,
And on the stone a mighty anvil stood.
Through both was thrust a sword of patterns rich,
And it shone with a glow both fair and good.
On the forte, inscribed in letters of gold,
Were godly words, and this is what they told:

“He that would rightly king of England be,
shall draw forth from this anvil and this stone
the blade planted in them, and wield it free:
Thus shall the true king come into his own.”
At first few believed the words on the blade,
But both priests and minstrels published the news:
Poacher told game warden in forest glade;
Stable-boy told kitchen-maid in the mews,
And soon it reached the ears of feasting earls,
And barons in their lonely marcher keeps,
And knights burning fields of their rivals’ churls,
And dukes piling stolen gold in heaps.
Thus at Christmastide, all the nobles came
To London, the Crown of England to claim.

Ector came too, with his son and his page,
Hoping that Kay might at last be made knight,
And find the boy Arthur a decent wage
From some duke who’d train him and raise him up right.
They found London full of all sorts of rogues,
From bishops who’d never learned their prayers
To border march lords with thick Scottish brogues
And earls whose titles weren’t rightly theirs.
The dukes had arranged a great tournament
Where the strongest warriors of the realm
Should ride at each other with ill intent,
Until one should all others overwhelm
And prove himself the best with lance and sword.
That one, said the dukes, would be Overlord.

They all knew of the sword stuck in the stone,
And the words inscribed with letters of gold,
Yet not one of them, by cunning or brawn,
Could pull the blade free. Neither young nor old,
Not the highest lord nor the lowest serf,
Not bailiff nor sheriff, not reeve or priest
Could make it budge. Thus a battle on turf
Where the mighty could contend with the least
Seemed the best way, to those already strong
To choose a new king. So they came to town,
Filling every hostel and inn along
The main streets and by-ways, all the way down
To the Thames. Ector rented one small room
To rest from jousting in the winter gloom.

The bishops and dukes chose a level field
Out beyond the city’s old Roman wall,
And the first day echoed with sword on shield,
The tramp of steeds, and many a knight’s fall.
Mud was flung up from the hooves of horses;
Bright polished armor was splattered with gore.
Dukes and earls clashed with their mustered forces,
And London rang with the watching crowd’s roar.
Kay went to battle and proved his mettle,
And many a baron noticed his worth.
Ector smiled at the evening’s kettle,
And trumpeted his happiness and mirth.
“You’ll serve the new king,” he told his son Kay,
“And Arthur will be your squire some day.”

The next day of jousting brought Arthur shame,
For in the tumult he forgot Kay’s sword.
“Without one,” said Kay, “They’ll not know my name,
but as coward who does not keep his word.
No glory for me then, nor work for you.
Go back to the inn, and bring me my blade
Or don’t bother coming back.” Arthur flew
But the pressing crowd against him arrayed
Brought him to the door after all had gone,
And the hostel was shuttered and locked tight.
Neither the boy’s wits nor his youthful brawn
Could force the gate, nor bring Kay’s sword to light.
Thus with urgency, Arthur went to find
Any blade for Kay that might come to his hand.

Then in a churchyard, Arthur found a sword
Well-made, and finely patterned, and not too old,
Placed, he thought, on tomb of some once-great lord—
The same blade inscribed with letters of gold
That Arthur neither knew nor stopped to read.
He simply pulled the sword free from the stone
And moved neither by lust for rank, nor greed,
He went to Kay without it being known
That the sword was loosed, and the king was found.
Yet Kay did notice when he took the blade,
And he said to Ector, “look what I have found.
With this, I could be honored and obeyed.
The sword from the stone lies here in my hand.
If I show it, I’ll be king of the land.”

But Ector was wise, more honest than most,
And he knew his son as deep as men ought.
“The man who drew the sword can make that boast.
How came you by this wonder that God wrought?
Then Kay, knowing his father honored truth,
Told him at once, “Arthur gave me the sword.”
Sir Ector asked, “Arthur, how did a youth
Come by this blade? Give me your solemn word
That no one but you pulled this blade free.”
Arthur said, “Father, I planned to borrow
This just for Kay’s need. You’re frightening me—
I did not steal it, but walk the narrow
Path you and my teacher laid down as right.
In evil-doing, I take no delight.”

The old knight said only, “Put the blade back,”
And once Arthur did this, “Take the sword out.”
Arthur did these with an obvious lack
Of difficulty; yet any amount
Of word or gesture would have relieved his fears.
Ector commanded that Kay do the same,
But Kay could not draw the sword. Arthur’s tears
Stained his tunic to see his brother’s shame,
How the older boy lifted and grunted
To pull the weapon from anvil and stone;
Yet the sword moved— not. Kay almost fainted,
And then Ector proved that Arthur alone
Had the power to pull the weapon free,
And so was King — though none else yet could see.

Sir Ector knelt in the snow to his king,
To the boy he had raised as foster son.
Ector said, “I hope it’s justice you bring —
That, and mercy, for the kingdom has none.
Please make my son, Kay, your steward and friend,
And he shall be true to you, and loyal,
Acting in the world just as you intend:
A guard and right hand to one most royal.”
The three in the churchyard now were observed,
For twilight had come and the eve of Yule.
Arthur, seeing the crowds, became unnerved,
And asked Ector, “Why is it I must rule?
How is it these folk all look to my face,
When I have done nothing worthy of such grace?”

The churchyard filled up with people kneeling,
Men and women of all ranks and station.
Ector said, “Arthur, the land is reeling —
Mighty men have divided the nation.
They fight each other and trample the weak,
Riding roughshod over custom and law.
When you are king, you will defend the meek,
And break the grip of selfishness’s claw.
Merlin the seer brought you to me so young,
In the dark days just after Uthyr died.
Since you drew the sword, you are Uthyr’s son.”
The gathered people cheered, but Arthur cried,
“If I must be king, I will do my best,
to bring peace north and south, and east to west.”

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