Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 254


FIERCE and prolonged has been the debate as to the original birthplace of Arthurian legend, authorities of the first rank, the 'Senior Wranglers' of the study, as Nutt has called them, hotly advancing the several claims of Wales, England, Scotland, and Brittany. In this place it would be neither fitting nor necessary to traverse the whole ground of argument, and we must content ourselves with the examination of Brittany's claim to the invention of Arthurian story--and this we will do briefly, passing on to some of the tales which relate the deeds of the King or his knights on Breton soil.

Confining ourselves, then, to the proof of the existence of a body of Arthurian legend in Brittany, we are, perhaps, a little alarmed at the outset to find that our manuscript sources are scanty. "It had to be acknowledged," says Professor Saintsbury, "that Brittany could supply no ancient texts whatever, and hardly any ancient traditions." 1 But are either of these conditions essential to a belief in the Breton origin of Arthurian romance?

The two great hypotheses regarding Arthurian origins have been dubbed the 'Continental' and the 'Insular' theories. The first has as its leading protagonist Professor Wendelin Förster of Bonn, who believes that the immigrant Britons brought the Arthur legend with them to Brittany and that the Normans of Normandy received it from their descendants and gave it wider territorial scope. The second school, headed by the brilliant M. Gaston Paris, believes that it originated in Wales.

p. 255

If we consider the first theory, then, we can readily see that ancient lexis are not essential to its acceptance. In any case the entire body of Arthurian texts prior to the twelfth century is so small as to be almost negligible. The statement that "hardly any ancient traditions" of the Arthurian legend exist in Brittany is an extraordinary one. In view of the circumstances that in extended passages of Arthurian story the scene is laid in Brittany (as in the Merlin and Vivien incident and the episode of Yseult of the White Hand in the story of Tristrem), that Geoffrey of Monmouth speaks of "the Breton book" from which he took his matter, and that Marie de France states that her tales are drawn from old Breton sources, not to admit the possible existence of a body of Arthurian tradition in Brittany appears capricious. Thomas's Sir Tristrem is professedly based on the poem of the Breton Bréri, and there is no reason why Brittany, drawing sap and fibre as it did from Britain, should not have produced Arthurian stories of its own.

On the whole, however, that seems to represent the sum of its pretensions as a main source of Arthurian romance. The Arthurian story seems to be indigenous to British soil, and if we trace the origin of certain episodes to Brittany we may safely connect these with the early British immigrants to the peninsula. This is not to say, however, that Brittany did not influence Norman appreciation of the Arthurian saga. But that it did so more than did Wales is unlikely, in view of documentary evidence. Both Wales and Brittany, then, supplied matter which the Norman and French poets shaped into verse, and if Brittany was' not the birthplace of the legend it was, in truth, one of its cradle-domains.

p. 256

The Sword of Arthur

Let us collect, then, Arthurian incidents which take place in Brittany. First, Arthur's finding of the marvellous sword Excalibur would seem to happen there, as Vivien, or Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, was undoubtedly a fairy of Breton origin who does not appear in British myth.

For the manner in which Arthur acquired the renowned Excalibur, or Caliburn, the Morte d’Arthur is the authority. The King had broken his sword in two pieces in a combat with Sir Pellinore of Wales, and had been saved by Merlin, who threw Sir Pellinore into an enchanted sleep.

"And so Merlin and Arthur departed, and as they rode along King Arthur said, 'I have no sword.' 'No force,' 1 said Merlin; 'here is a sword that shall be yours, an I may.' So they rode till they came to a lake, which was a fair water and a broad; and in the midst of the lake King Arthur was aware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in the hand. 'Lo,' said Merlin unto the King, 'yonder is the sword that I spoke of.' With that they saw a damsel going upon the lake. 'What damsel is that?' said the King. 'That is the Lady of the Lake,' said Merlin; 'and within that lake is a rock, and therein is as fair a place as any on earth, and richly beseen; and this damsel will come to you anon, and then speak fair to her that she will give you that sword.' Therewith came the damsel to King Arthur and saluted him, and he her again. 'Damsel,' said the King, 'what sword is that which the arm holdeth yonder above the water? I would it were


Click to enlarge



p. 257

mine, for I have no sword.' 'Sir King,' said the damsel of the lake, 'that sword is mine, and if ye will give me a gift when I ask it you, ye shall have it.' 'By my faith,' said King Arthur, 'I will give you any gift that you will ask or desire.' 'Well,' said the damsel, 'go into yonder barge, and row yourself unto the sword, and take it and the scabbard with you; and I will ask my gift when I see my time.' So King Arthur and Merlin alighted, tied their horses to two trees, and so they went into the barge. And when they came to the sword that the hand held, King Arthur took it up by the handles, and took it with him, and the arm and the hand went under the water; and so came to the land and rode forth. King Arthur looked upon the sword, and liked it passing Well. 'Whether liketh you better,' said Merlin, 'the sword or the scabbard?' 'Me liketh better the sword,' said King Arthur. 'Ye are more unwise,' said Merlin, 'for the scabbard is worth ten of the sword; for while ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard alway with you.'"

Sir Lancelot du Lac, son of King Ban of Benwik, was stolen and brought up by the Lady of the Lake, from whose enchanted realm he took his name. But he does not appear at all in true Celtic legend, and is a mere Norman new-comer.

Tristrem and Ysonde

Following the Arthurian 'chronology' as set forth in the Morte d’Arthur, we reach the great episode of Sir Tristrem of Lyonesse, a legendary country off the coast of Cornwall. This most romantic yet most human tale must be accounted one of the world's supreme love

p. 258

stories. It has inspired some of our greatest poets, and moved Richard Wagner to the composition of a splendid opera.

One of the first to bring this literary treasure to public notice was Sir Walter Scott, who felt a strong chord vibrate in his romantic soul when perusing that version of the tale of which Thomas of Ercildoune is the reputed author. Taking this as the best and most ancient version of Tristrem, we may detail its circumstances as follows:

The Duke Morgan and Roland Rise, Lord of Ermonie, two Cymric chieftains, had long been at feud, and at length the smouldering embers of enmity burst into open flame. In the contest that ensued the doughty Roland prevailed, but he was a generous foe, and granted a seven years' truce to his defeated adversary. Some time after this event Roland journeyed into Cornwall to the Court of Mark, where he carried off the honours in a tourney. But he was to win a more precious prize in the love of the fair Princess Blancheflour, sister of King Mark, who grew to adore him passionately.

Meanwhile Duke Morgan took foul advantage of the absence of Roland, and invaded his land. Rohand, a trusty vassal of Roland, repaired to Cornwall, where he sought out his master and told him of Morgan's broken faith. Then Roland told Blancheflour of his plight, how that he must return to his own realm, and she, fearing her brother Mark, because she had given her love to Roland without the King's knowledge, resolved to fly with her lover. The pair left Cornwall hurriedly, and, reaching one of Roland's castles, were wed there. Roland, however, had soon to don his armour, for news was brought to him that Duke Morgan was coming

p. 259

against him with a great army. A fierce battle ensued, in which Roland at first had the advantage, but the Duke, being reinforced, pressed him hotly, and in the end Roland was defeated and slain. Blancheflour received news of her lord's death immediately before the birth of her son, and, sore stricken by the woeful news, she named him Tristrem, or 'Child of Sorrow.' Then, recommending him to the care of Rohand, to whom she gave a ring which had belonged to King Mark, her brother, to prove Tristrem's relationship to that prince, she expired, to the intense grief of all her attendants. To secure the safety of his ward, Rohand passed him off as his own child, inverting the form of his name to 'Tremtris.' Duke Morgan now ruled over the land of Ermonie, and Rohand had perforce to pay him a constrained homage.

When he arrived at a fitting age Tristrem was duly instructed in all knightly games and exercises by his foster-father, and grew apace in strength and skill. Once a Norwegian vessel arrived upon the coast of Ermonie laden with a freight of hawks and treasure (hawks at that period were often worth their weight in gold). The captain challenged anyone to a game of chess with him for a stake of twenty shillings, and Rohand and his sons, with Tristrem, went on board to play with him. Tristrem moved so skilfully that he overcame the captain, and won from him, in many games, six hawks and the sum of a hundred pounds. While the games were proceeding Rohand went on shore, leaving Tristrem in the care of his preceptor, and the false captain, to avoid paying what he had lost, forced the preceptor to go on shore alone and put to sea with the young noble.

p. 260

The ship had no sooner sailed away than a furious gale arose, and as it continued for some days the mariners became convinced that the tempest was due to the injustice of their captain, and being in sore dread, they paid Tristrem his winnings and set him ashore. Dressed in a robe of 'blihand brown' (blue-brown), Tristrem found himself alone on a rocky beach. First he knelt and requested Divine protection, after which he ate some food which had been left him by the Norwegians, and started to journey through a forest, in which he encountered two palmers, who told him that he was in Cornwall. He offered these men gold to guide him to the Court of the king of the country, which they willingly undertook to do. On their way the travellers fell in with a hunting party of nobles, and Tristrem was shocked to see the awkward manner in which the huntsmen cut up some stags they had slain. He could not restrain his feeling, and disputed with the nobles upon the laws of venerie. Then he proceeded to skin a buck for their instruction, like a right good forester, and ended by blowing the mort or death-token on a horn.

Tristrem as Forester

The nobles who beheld his skill were amazed, and speedily carried the news to King Mark, who was highly interested. Tristrem was brought to his presence and told his story, but Mark did not recognize that he was speaking to his own nephew. The King's favourable impression was confirmed by Tristrem's skill in playing the harp, and soon the youth had endeared himself to the heart of the King, and was firmly settled at the Court.

Meanwhile Rohand, distracted by the loss of his foster-son, searched for him from one land to another without

p. 261

even renewing his tattered garments. At last he encountered one of the palmers who had guided Tristrem to the Court of King Mark, and learned of the great honour accorded to his ward. At Rohand's request the palmer took him to Mark's hall; but when Rohand arrived thither his tattered and forlorn appearance aroused the contempt of the porter and usher and they refused him entrance. Upon bestowing liberal largess, however, he was at length brought to Tristrem, who presented him to King Mark as his father, acquainting him at the same time with the cause of their separation. When Rohand had been refreshed by a bath, and richly attired by order of King Mark, the whole Court marvelled at his majestic appearance.

Rohand, seated by King Mark's side at the banquet, imparted to him the secret of Tristrem's birth, and in proof showed him the ring given him by Blancheflour, whereupon Mark at once joyfully recognized Tristrem as his nephew. Rohand further told of the tragic fate of Tristrem's parents through the treachery of Duke Morgan, and Tristrem, fired by the tale of wrong, vowed to return at once to Ermonie to avenge his father's death.

Tristrem Returns to Ermonie

Although applauding his pious intention, Mark attempted to dissuade his nephew from such an enterprise of peril, until, seeing that Tristrem would not be gainsaid, the King conferred upon him the honour of knighthood, and furnished him with a thousand men-at-arms. Thus equipped, Tristrem set sail for Ermonie, and, safely arrived in that kingdom, he garrisoned Rohand's castle with his Cornish forces.

p. 262

He had no intention of remaining inactive, however, and once his men were cared for, be repaired to the Court of the usurper, Duke Morgan, accompanied by fifteen knights, each bearing a boar's head as a gift. But Rohand, apprehending rashness on the part of his foster-son, took the precaution of following with the Cornish men-at-arms and his own vassals.

When Tristrem arrived the Duke was at the feast-board, and he demanded Tristrem's name and business. Tristrem boldly declared himself, and at the end of an angry parley the Duke struck him a sore blow. A moment later swords were flashing, and it might have gone ill with Tristrem had not Rohand with his men come up in the nick of time. In the end Duke Morgan was slain and his followers routed. Having now recovered his paternal domains Sir Tristrem conferred them upon Rohand, to be held of himself as liege lord, and having done so he took leave of his foster-father and returned to Cornwall.

The Combat with Moraunt

On arriving at the palace of Mark, Tristrem found the Court in dismay, because, of a demand for tribute made by the King of England. Moraunt, the Irish ambassador to England, was charged with the duty of claiming the tribute, which was no less than three hundred pounds of gold, as many of coined silver, as many of tin, and a levy every fourth year of three hundred Cornish children. Mark protested bitterly, and Tristrem urged him to bid defiance to the English, swearing that he would himself defend the freedom of Cornwall. His aid was reluctantly accepted by the Grand Council, and he delivered to Moraunt a declaration that no tribute was

p. 263

due. Moraunt retorted by giving Tristrem the lie, and the champions exchanged defiance. They sailed in separate boats to a small island to decide the issue in single combat, and when they had landed Tristrem turned his boat adrift, saying sternly that one vessel would suffice to take back the victor. The champions mounted their steeds at the outset, but after the first encounter Tristrem, leaping lightly from the saddle, engaged his adversary on foot. The Knight of Ermonie was desperately wounded in the thigh, but, rallying all his strength, he cleft Moraunt to the chine, and, his sword splintering, a piece of the blade remained in the wound.

Tristrem now returned to the mainland, where so great was the joy over his return that he was appointed heir to Cornwall and successor to Mark the Good. But his wound, having been inflicted by a poisoned blade, grew more grievous day by day. No leech might cure it, and the evil odour arising from the gangrene drove every one from his presence save his faithful servitor Gouvernayl.

Fytte The Second

Fytte (or Part) the Second commences by telling how Tristrem, forsaken by all, begged King Mark for a ship that he might leave the land of Cornwall. Mark reluctantly granted his request, and the luckless Tristrem embarked with Gouvernayl, his one attendant, and his harp as his only solace. He steered for Caerleon, and remained nine weeks at sea, but meeting contrary winds he was driven out of his course, and at length came to the Irish coast, where he sought the haven of Dublin.

p. 264

On arriving there he feigned that he had been wounded by pirates, and learning that he was in Ireland, and recollecting that Moraunt, whom he had slain, was the brother to the Queen of that land, he thought it wise to assume once more the name of Tremtris.

Soon his fame as a minstrel reached the ears of the Queen of Ireland, a lady deeply versed in the art of healing. She was, indeed, "the best Couthe of Medicine" 1 Tristrem had seen, and in order to heal his wound she applied to it "a plaster kene." Later she invited him to the Court, where his skill in chess and games astonished every one. So interested in him did the royal lady become at last that she undertook to cure him, and effected her object by means of a medicated bath and other medieval remedies. Then, on account of his fame as a minstrel, he was given the task of instructing the Princess Ysonde--as the name 'Yseult' is written in this particular, version.

This princess was much attached to minstrelsy and poetry, and under the tuition of Tristrem she rapidly advanced in these arts, until at length she had no equal in Ireland save her preceptor. And now Tristrem, his health restored, and having, completed Ysonde's instruction, felt a strong desire to return to the Court of King Mark. His request to be allowed to depart was most unwillingly granted by the Queen, who at the leave-taking loaded him with gifts. With the faithful Gouvernayl he arrived safely in Cornwall, where Mark received him joyfully. When the King inquired curiously how his wound had been cured, Tristrem told him of the great kindness of the Irish Queen, and praised Ysonde so

p. 265

highly that the ardour of his uncle was aroused and he requested Tristrem to procure him the hand of the damsel in marriage. He assured Tristrem that no marriage he, the King, might contract would annul the arrangement whereby Tristrem was to succeed to the throne of Cornwall. The nobles were opposed to the King's desires, which but strengthened Tristrem in his resolve to undertake the embassage, for he thought that otherwise it might appear that he desired the King to remain unmarried.

The Marriage Embassy

With a retinue of fifteen knights Tristrem sailed to Dublin in a ship richly laden with g rifts. Arrived at the Irish capital, he sent magnificent presents to the King, Queen, and Princess, but did not announce the nature of his errand. Hardly had his messengers departed than he was informed that the people of Dublin were panic-stricken at the approach of a terrible dragon. This monster had so affrighted the neighbourhood that the hand of the Princess had been offered to anyone who would slay it. Tristrem dared his knights to attack the dragon, but one and all declined, so he himself rode out to give it battle. At the first shock his lance broke on the monster's impenetrable hide, his horse was slain, and he was forced to continue the fight on foot. At length, despite its fiery breath, he succeeded in slaying the dragon, and cut out its tongue as a trophy. But this exuded a subtle poison which deprived him of his senses.

Thus overcome, Tristrem was discovered by the King's steward, who cut off the dragon's head and returned with it to Court to demand the hand of Ysonde. But

p. 266

the Queen and her daughter were dubious of the man's story, and upon visiting the place where the dragon had been slain, they came upon Tristrem himself. Their ministrations revived him, and he showed them the dragon's tongue as proof that he had slain the dread beast. He described himself as a merchant, and Ysonde, who did not at first recognize him, expressed her regret that he was not a knight. The Queen now caused him to be conveyed to the palace, where he was refreshed by a bath, and the false steward was cast into prison. Meanwhile the suspicions of the Princess had been aroused, and the belief grew that this 'merchant' who had slain the dragon was none other than Tremtris, her old instructor. In searching for evidence to confirm this conjecture she examined his sword, from which, she found, a piece had been broken. Now, she possessed a fragment of a sword-blade which had been taken out of the skull of Moraunt, her uncle, and she discovered that this fragment fitted into the broken place in Tristrem's sword, wherefore she concluded that the weapon must have been that which slew the Irish ambassador. She reproached Tristrem, and in her passion rushed upon him with his own sword. At this instant her mother returned, and upon learning the identity of Tristrem she was about to assist Ysonde to slay him in his bath when the King arrived and saved him from the infuriated women. Tristrem defended himself as having killed Moraunt in fair fight, and, smiling upon Ysonde, he told her that she had had many opportunities of slaying him while he was her preceptor Tremtris. He then proceeded to make known the object of his embassy. He engaged that his uncle, King Mark, should marry Ysonde, and it

p. 267

was agreed that she should be sent under his escort to Cornwall.

It is clear that the Queen's knowledge of medicine was accompanied by an acquaintance with the black art, for on the eve of her daughter's departure she entrusted to Brengwain, a lady of Ysonde's suite, a powerful philtre or love potion, with directions that Mark and his bride should partake of it on the night of their marriage. While at sea the party met with contrary winds, and the mariners were forced to take to their oars. Tristrem exerted himself in rowing, and Ysonde, remarking that he seemed much fatigued, called for drink to refresh him. Brengwain, by a fateful error, presented the cup which held the love potion. Both Tristrem and Ysonde unwittingly partook of this, and a favourite dog, Hodain,

That many a forest day of fiery mirth
Had plied his craft before them,

licked the cup. The consequence of this mistake was, of course, the awakening of a consuming passion each for the other in Tristrem and Ysonde. A fortnight later the ship arrived at Cornwall. Ysonde was duly wed to King Mark, but her passion for Tristrem moved her to induce her attendent Brengwain to take her place on the first night of her nuptials.

Afterward, terrified lest Brengwain should disclose the secret in her possession, Ysonde hired two ruffians to dispatch her. But the damsel's entreaties softened the hearts of the assassins and they spared her life. Subsequently Ysonde repented of her action and Brengwain was reinstated in full favour.

p. 268

The Minstrel's Boon

An Irish earl, a former admirer of Ysonde, arrived one day at the Court of Cornwall disguised as a minstrel and bearing a harp of curious workmanship, the appearance of which excited the curiosity of King Mark, who requested him to perform upon it. The visitor demanded that the King should first promise to grant him a boon, and the King having pledged his royal word, the minstrel sang to the harp a lay in which he claimed Ysonde as the promised gift. 1 Mark, having pledged his honour, had no alternative but to become forsworn or to deliver his wife to the harper, and he reluctantly complied with the minstrel's demand. Tristrem, who had been away hunting, returned immediately after the adventurous earl had departed with his fair prize. He upbraided the King for his extravagant sense of honour, and, snatching up his rote, or harp, hastened to the seashore, where Ysonde had already embarked. There he sat down and played, and the sound so deeply affected Ysonde that she became seriously ill, so that the earl was induced to return with her to land. Ysonde pretended that Tristrem's music was necessary to her recovery, and the earl, to whom Tristrem was unknown, offered to take him in his train to Ireland. The earl had dismounted from the horse he was riding and was preparing to return on board, when Tristrem sprang into the saddle, and, seizing Ysonde's horse by the bridle, plunged into the forest. Here the lovers remained for a week, after which Tristrem restored Ysonde to her husband.


Click to enlarge



p. 269

Not unnaturally suspicion was aroused regarding the, relations between Tristrem and Ysonde. Meriadok, a knight of Cornwall, and an intimate friend of Tristrem, was perhaps the most suspicious of all, and one snowy evening he traced his friend to Ysonde's bower, to which Tristrem gained entrance by a sliding panel. In this a piece of Tristrem's green kirtle was left, and Meriadok bore the fragment to the King, to whom he unfolded his suspicions. To test the truth of these Mark pretended that he was going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and asked his wife to whose care she would wish to be committed. Ysonde at first named Tristrem, but on the advice of Brengwain resumed the subject later and feigned a mortal hatred for her lover, which she ascribed to the scandal she had suffered on his account. The fears of the simple Mark were thus lulled to sleep; but those of Meriadok were by no means laid at rest. On his advice Mark definitely separated the lovers, confining Ysonde to a bower and sending Tristrem to a neighbouring city. But Tristrem succeeded in communicating with Ysonde by means of leafy twigs thrown into the river which ran through her garden, and they continued to meet. Their interviews were, however, discovered by the aid of a dwarf who concealed himself in a tree. One night Mark took the dwarf's place, but the lovers were made aware of his presence by his shadow and pretended to be quarrelling, Tristrem saying that Ysonde had supplanted him in the King's affections. Mark's suspicions were thus soothed for the time being. On another occasion Tristrem was not so fortunate, and, being discovered, was forced to flee the country.

p. 270

The Ordeal by Fire

Mark now resolved to test his wife's innocence by the dread ordeal by fire, and he journeyed with his Court to Westminster, where the trial was to take place. Tristrem, disguised as a peasant, joined the retinue, and when the party arrived in the Thames he carried Ysonde from the ship to the shore. When the moment for the ordeal came the Queen protested her innocence, saying that no man had ever laid hands upon her save the King and the peasant who had carried her from the ship. Mark, satisfied by her evident sincerity, refused to proceed further with the trial, and Ysonde thus escaped the awful test.

Tristrem then betook him to Wales, and the fame of his prowess in that land came at length to Cornwall, so that at last his uncle grew heavy at heart for his absence and desired sight of him. Once more he returned, but his fatal passion for Ysonde was not abated, and became at length so grievous to the good King that he banished both of the lovers from his sight. The two fled to a forest, and there dwelt in a cavern, subsisting upon venison, the spoil of Tristrem's bow. One day, weary with the chase, Tristrem lay down to rest by the 'side of the sleeping Ysonde, placing his drawn sword between them. Mark, passing that way, espied them, and from the naked sword inferring their innocence, became reconciled to them once more. But again suspicion fell upon them, and again Tristrem was forced to flee.

Tristrem in Brittany

After many adventures in Spain Tristrem arrived in Brittany, where he aided the Duke of that country with

p. 271

his sword. The Duke's daughter, known as Ysonde of the White Hand, hearing him sing one night a song of the beauty of Ysonde, thought that Tristrem was in love with her. The Duke therefore offered Tristrem his daughter's hand, and, in despair of seeing Ysonde of Ireland again, he accepted the honour. But on the wedding-day the first Ysonde's ring dropped from his finger as if reproaching him with infidelity, and in deep remorse he vowed that Ysonde of Brittany should be his wife in name only.

Now the Duke of Brittany bestowed on Tristrem a fair demesne divided by an arm of the sea from the land of a powerful and savage giant named Beliagog, and he warned his son-in-law not to incur the resentment of this dangerous neighbour. But one day Tristrem's hounds strayed into the forest land of Beliagog, and their master, following them, was confronted by the wrathful owner. A long and cruel combat ensued, and at last Tristrem lopped off one of the giant's feet. Thereupon the monster craved mercy, which was granted on the condition that he should. build a hall in honour of Ysonde of Ireland and her maiden, Brengwain. This hall was duly raised, and upon its walls was portrayed to the life the whole history of Tristrem, with pictures of Ysonde of Ireland, Brengwain, Mark, and other characters in the tale. Tristrem, the Duke, Ysonde of Brittany, and Ganhardin, her brother, were riding to see this marvel when Ysonde confessed to Ganhardin that Tristrem did not regard her as his wife. Ganhardin, angered, questioned Tristrem, who concealed nothing from him and recounted to him the story of his love for the Queen of Cornwall. Ganhardin was deeply interested, and on beholding the picture of Brengwain

p. 272

in the newly erected hall he fell violently in love with her.

The Forest Lovers

Tristrem now returned to Cornwall with Ganhardin, an& encountered Ysonde the Queen and the fair Brengwain. But one Canados, the King's Constable, discovered them and carried the ladies back to Court. Ganhardin made the best of his way home to Brittany, but Tristrem remained in Cornwall, disguised as a beggar.

Our story now tells of a great tournament at the Cornish Court, and how Ganhardin hied him from Brittany and rejoined Tristrem. The two entered the lists and took up the challenge of Meriadok and Canados. Tristrem, tilting at his old enemy, wounded him desperately. The issue of the combat between Canados and Ganhardin hung in the balance when Tristrem, charging at the Constable, overthrew and slew him. Then, fired with the lust of conquest, Tristrem bore down upon his foes and exacted a heavy toll of lives. So great was the scathe done that day that Tristrem and Ganhardin were forced once more to fly to Brittany, where in an adventure Tristrem received an arrow in his old wound.

The French Manuscript

At this point the Auchinleck MS., from which this account is taken, breaks off, and the story is concluded, in language similar to that of the original, by Sir Walter Scott, who got his materials from an old French version of the tale.

We read that Tristrem suffered sorely from his wound, in which, as before, gangrene set in. Aware that none

p. 273

but Ysonde of Ireland could cure him, the stricken knight called Ganhardin to his side and urged him to go with all speed to Cornwall and tell the Queen of his mortal extremity. He entrusted him with his ring, and finally requested the Breton knight to take with him two sails, one white and the other black, the first to be hoisted upon his return should Ysonde accompany him back to Brittany, the sable sail to be raised should his embassy fail of success. Now Ysonde of Brittany overheard all that was said, her jealous fears were confirmed, and she resolved to be revenged upon her husband.

Ganhardin voyaged quickly to Cornwall, and arrived at the Court of King Mark disguised as a merchant. In order to speed his mission he presented rich gifts to the King, and also a cup to Ysonde, into which he dropped Tristrem's ring. This token procured him a private audience with the Queen, and when she learned the deadly peril of her lover, Ysonde hastily disguised herself and fled to the ship with Ganhardin. In due course the vessel arrived off the coast of Brittany, carrying the white sail which was to signify to Tristrem that Ysonde was hastening to his aid. But Ysonde of Brittany was watching, and perceiving from the signal that her rival was on board she hurried to her husband's couch. Tristrem begged her to tell him the colour of the sail, and in the madness of jealousy Ysonde said that it was black, upon which, believing himself forsaken by his old love, the knight sank back and expired.

Tristrem had scarce breathed his last when Ysonde entered the castle. At the gate an old man was mourning Tristrem's death, and hearing the ominous words which he uttered she hastened to the chamber

p. 274

where the corpse of him she had loved so well was lying. With a moan she cast herself upon the body, covering the dead face with kisses and pleading upon the silent lips to speak. Realizing at last that the spirit had indeed quitted its mortal tenement, she raised herself to her feet and stood for a moment gazing wildly into the fixed and glassy eyes; then with a great cry she fell forward upon the breast of her lover and was united with him in death.

Other versions of the story, with all the wealth of circumstance dear to the writer of romance, tell of the grievous mourning made at the death of the lovers, whom no fault of their own had doomed to the tyranny of a mutual passion, and it is recounted that even King Mark, wronged and shamed as he was, was unable to repress his grief at their pitiful end.

Despite the clumsiness of much of its machinery, despite its tiresome repetitions and its minor blemishes, this tale of a grand passion must ever remain one of the world's priceless literary possessions. "Dull must he be of soul" who, even in these days when folk no longer expire from an excess of the tender passion, can fail to be moved by the sad fate of the fair Queen and of her gallant minstrel-knight.

Swiche lovers als thei
Never schal be moe.

And so they take their place with Hero and Leander, with Abélard and Héloïse, with Romeo and Juliet.

It would be unfitting here to tell how mythology has claimed the story of Tristrem and Ysonde and has attempted to show in what manner the circumstances of their lives and adventures have been adapted to the

p. 275

old world-wide myth of the progress of the sun from dawn to darkness. 1 The evidence seems very complete, and the theory is probably well founded. The circumstances of the great epic of the sun-god fits most hero-tales. And it is well to recollect that even if romance-makers seized upon the plot of the old myth they did so unconscious of its mythic significance, and probably because it may have been employed in the heroic literature of "Rome la grant."

The Giant of Mont-Saint-Michel

It was when he arrived in Brittany to ward off the projected invasion of England by the Roman Emperor Lucius that King Arthur encountered and slew a giant of "marvellous bigness" at St Michael's Mount, near Pontorson. This monster, who had come from Spain, had made his lair on the summit of the rocky island, whither he had carried off the Lady Helena, niece of Duke Hoel of Brittany. Many were the knights who surrounded the giant's fastness, but none might come at him, for when they attacked him be would sink their ships by hurling mighty boulders upon them, while those who succeeded in swimming to the island were slain by him ere they could get a proper footing. But Arthur, undismayed by what he had heard, waited until nightfall; then, when all were asleep, with Kay the seneschal and Bedivere the butler, he started on his way to the Mount.

As the three approached the rugged height they beheld a fire blazing brightly on its summit, and saw also that upon a lesser eminence in the sea some distance away a smaller fire was burning. Bedivere was dispatched

p. 276

in a boat to discover who had lit the fire on the smaller island. Having landed there, he found an old woman lamenting loudly.

"Good mother," said he, "wherefore do you mourn? What has befallen you in this place that you weep so sorely?"

"Ah, young sir," replied the dame, drying her tears, "get thee back from this place, I beseech thee, for as thou livest the monster who inhabits yonder mount will rend thee limb from limb and sup on thy flesh. But yesterday I was the nurse of the fair Helena, niece to Duke Hoel, who lies buried here by me."

"Alas! then, the lady is no more?" cried Bedivere, in distress.

"So it is," replied the old woman, weeping more bitterly than ever, "for when that accursed giant did seize upon her terror did so overcome her that her spirit took flight. But tarry not on this dread spot, noble youth, for if her fierce slayer should encounter thee he will put thee to a shameful death, and afterward devour thee as is his wont with all those whom he kills."

Bedivere comforted the old woman as best he might, and, returning to Arthur, told him what he had heard. Now on hearing of the damsel's death great anger took hold upon the King, so that he resolved to search out the giant forthwith and slay or be slain by him. Desiring Kay and Bedivere to follow, he dismounted and commenced to climb St Michael's Mount, closely attended by his companions.

On reaching the summit a gruesome spectacle awaited them. The great fire that they had seen in the distance was blazing fiercely, and bending over it was the giant, his cruel and contorted features besmeared with the


Click to enlarge



p. 277

blood of swine, portions of which he was toasting on spits. Startled at the sight of the knights, the monster rushed to where his club lay. This purpose Arthur deemed he might prevent, and, covering himself with his shield, he ran at him while yet he fumbled for the weapon. But with all his agility he was too late, for the giant seized the mighty sapling and, whirling it in the air, brought it down on the King's shield with such force that the sound of the stroke echoed afar. Nothing daunted, Arthur dealt a trenchant stroke with Excalibur, and gave the giant a cut on the forehead which made the blood gush forth over his eyes so as nearly to blind him. But shrewd as was the blow, the giant had warded his forehead with his club in such wise that he had not received a deadly wound, and, watching his chance with great cunning, he rushed in within the sweep of Arthur's sword, gripped him round the middle, and forced him to the ground.

Iron indeed would have been the grasp which could have held a knight so doughty as Arthur. Slipping from the monster's clutches, the King hacked at his adversary now in one place, now in another, till at length he smote the giant so mightily that Excalibur was buried deep in his brain-pan. The giant fell like an oak torn up by the roots in the fury of the winds. Rushing up as he crashed to the earth, Sir Bedivere struck off the hideous head, grinning in death, to be a show to those in the tents below.

"But let them behold it in silence and without laughter," the King charged Sir Bedivere, "for never since I slew the giant Ritho upon Mount Eryri have I encountered so mighty an adversary."

And so they returned to their tents with daybreak.

p. 278

A Doubting Thomas

It is strange to think that Brittany, one of the cradles of Arthurian legend, could have produced a disbeliever in that legend so early as the year of grace 1113. It is on record that some monks from Brittany, journeyed to England in that year, and were shown by the men of Devon "the chair and the oven of that King Arthur renowned in the stories of the Britons." They passed on to Cornwall, and when, in the church, at Bodmin, one of their servants dared to question the statement of a certain Cornishman that Arthur still lived, he received such a buffet for his temerity that a small riot ensued. 1 Does not this seem to be evidence that the legend was more whole-heartedly believed in in the Celtic parts of England, and was therefore more exclusively native to those parts than to Continental Brittany? The Cornish allegiance to the memory of Arthur seems to have left little to be desired.

Arthur and the Dragon

The manner in which Arthur slew a dragon at the Lieue de Grève, and at the same time made the acquaintance of St Efflam of Ireland, is told by Albert le Grand,, monk of Morlaix. Arthur had been sojourning at the Court of Hoel, Duke of Armorica, and, having freed his own land of dragons and other monsters, was engaged in hunting down the great beasts with which Armorica abounded. But the monster which infested the Lieue de Grève was no ordinary dragon. Indeed,

p. 279

he was the most cunning saurian in Europe, and was wont to retire backward into the great cavern in which he lived so that when traced to it those who tracked him would believe that he had just quitted it.

In this manner he succeeded in deceiving Arthur and his knights, who for days lingered in the vicinity of his cave in the hope of encountering him. One day as they stood on the seashore waiting for the dragon a sail hove in sight, and soon a large coracle made of wicker-work covered with skins appeared. The vessel grounded and its occupants leapt ashore, headed by a young man of princely mien, who advanced toward Arthur and saluted him courteously.

"Fair sir," he said, "to what shore have I come? I am Efflam, the King's son, of Ireland. The winds have driven us out of our course, and full long have we laboured in the sea."

Now when Arthur heard the young man's name be embraced him heartily.

"Welcome, cousin," he said. "You are in the land of Brittany. I am Arthur of Britain, and I rejoice at this meeting, since it may chance from it that I can serve you."

Then Efflam told Arthur the reason of his voyaging. He had been, wed to the Princess Enora, daughter of a petty king of Britain, but on his wedding night a strong impulse had come upon him to leave all and make his penitence within some lonely wood, where he could be at peace from the world.. Rising from beside his sleeping wife, he stole away, and rousing several trusty servitors he set sail from his native shores. Soon his frail craft was caught in a tempest, and after many days driven ashore as had been seen.

p. 280

Arthur marvelled at the impulse which had prompted Efflam to seek retirement, and was about to express his surprise when the youth startled him by telling him that as his vessel had approached the shore he and his men had caught sight of the dragon entering his cave. At these words Arthur armed himself without delay with his sword Excalibur and his lance Ron, and, followed by his knights and by Efflam, drew near the cavern. As he came before the entrance the dragon issued forth, roaring in so terrible a manner that all but the King were daunted and drew back. The creature's appearance was fearsome in the extreme. He had one red eye in the centre of his forehead, his shoulders were covered with green scales like plates of mail, his long, powerful tail was black and twisted, and his vast mouth was furnished with tusks like those of a wild boar.

Grim and great was the combat. For three days did it rage, man and beast struggling through the long hours for the mastery which neither seemed able to obtain. At the end of that time the dragon retired for a space into his lair, and Arthur, worn out and well-nigh broken by the long-drawn strife, threw himself down beside Efflam in a state of exhaustion.

"A draught of water, fair cousin," he cried in a choking voice. "I perish with thirst."

But no water was to be found in that place save that of the salt sea which lapped the sands of Grève. Efflam, however, was possessed of a faith that could overcome all difficulties. Kneeling, he engaged in earnest prayer, and, arising, struck the hard rock three times with his rod. "Our blessed Lord will send us water," he exclaimed, and no sooner had he spoken than from the

p. 281

stone a fountain of pure crystal water gushed and bubbled.

With a cry of ecstasy Arthur placed his lips to the stream and quaffed the much-needed refreshment. His vigour restored, he was about to return to the dragon's cavern to renew the combat when he was restrained by Efflam.

"Cousin," said he of Ireland, "you have tried what can be done by force; now let us see what can be achieved by prayer."

Arthur, marvelling and humbled, sat near the young man as he prayed. All night he was busied in devotions, and at sunrise he arose and walked boldly to the mouth of the cavern.

"Thou spawn of Satan," he cried, "in the name of God I charge thee to come forth!"

A noise as of a thousand serpents hissing in unison followed this challenge, and from out his lair trailed the great length of the dragon, howling and vomiting fire and blood. Mounting to the summit of a neighbouring rock, he vented a final bellow and then cast himself into the sea. The blue water was disturbed as by a maelstrom; then all was peace again.

So perished the dragon of the Lieue de Grève, and so was proved the superiority of prayer over human strength and valour. St Efflam and his men settled on the spot as hermits, and were miraculously fed by angels. Efflam's wife, Enora, was borne to him by angels in that place, only to die when she had joined him. And when they came to tell Efflam that his new-found lady was no more and was lying cold in the cell he had provided for her, their news fell on deaf cars, for he too had passed away. He is buried in Plestin Church, and

p. 282

his effigy, standing triumphant above an open-mouthed dragon, graces one of its many niches.

The Isle of Avalon

The Bretons believe that an island off Trégastel, on the coast of the department of Côtes-du-Nord, is the fabled Isle of Avalon to which King Arthur, sore-wounded after his last battle, was borne to be healed of his hurts. With straining eyes the fisherman watches the mist-wrapped islet, and, peering through the evening haze, cheats himself into the belief that giant forms are moving upon its shores and that spectral shapes flit across its sands--that the dark hours bring back the activities of the attendant knights and enchantresses of the mighty hero of Celtdom, who, refreshed by his long repose, will one day return to the world of men and right the great wrongs which afflict humanity.


254:1 The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, p. 135.

256:1 No matter.

264:1 I.e. had the best knowledge of medicine. Couthe, from A.S. cunnan to know.

267:1 Swinburne, Tristram of Lyonesse.

268:1 This incident is common in Celtic romance, and seems to have been widely used in nearly all medieval literatures.

275:1 See Rev. Sir G. W. Cox, Introduction to Mythology, p. 326 ff.

278:1 See Zimmer, Zeitschrift für Französische Sprache und Literatur, xii, pp. 106 ff.

Next: Chapter XI: The Breton Lays of Marie De France