The Lady of the
And who am I, I ask myself, to write
Arthurian romance--though Tennyson,
Like me, was not a Medieval knight,
At least he was a proper Englishman,
While I am hopelessly American.
For years I've raised objections such as these,
And I'm still poor, so I'll do what I please.
Besides, nobody else is bothered by
Such scruples; Mary Stewart makes a hash
Of Arthur, and a mint besides, and I
Could name six-dozen more. It's mostly trash,
But sells; I'd settle for just half the cash
That T.E. White, or possibly E.B.--
I can't remember for the life of me,
Which one is which--has made. Besides they kill
The magic; novel structure was designed
For other purposes; you'd might as well
Read Classic Comic versions. I'm inclined
To think such books are for the sort who find
A world tour exciting only if
Their Shangra La comes with a Burger Chef.
This tale, to change the subject, is not new,
For I, like Medieval poets, claim
An ancient book as source--a claim quite true
For once, the Mabinogion, by name,
And with it also Chretien's Yvain--
A tale not known as well as it would be
Had it been boiled down by Malory,
Then pasteurized by Tennyson, although
I really did not choose it with that thought,
For archetypal tales by telling grow,
And those who'd make them from whole cloth ought To be hung by their heels at least, and shot.
But why this tale?--I simply heard the voice
That chooses themes for me: there was no choice.
Though now I'm getting some small sense of why I'm
Telling this to you, I think I'll hold
The exposition for a later time;
I wouldn't want the story to get cold.
So now, recall that Cynon had just told
Of his defeat. Now Guenevere, the Queen,
Arose and joined them silently, unseen.
Her needlework discarded--all those flowers
Dropping in folds of heavy fabric down,
Falling in rainbow brilliance--such a shower
As by Persephone in flight was strewn
Before the hooves of Dis' team--bright ruin,
And emblem of herself; as those bright blooms
That mad Ophelia scattered 'round the rooms
Of Elsinore. Then Owain said, bemused,
"It would be well if someone sought that vale."
And Kay, "Oh yes, brave Owain, we are used
To talk; if words were deeds, we all would quail
Before your might." "Ah, Kay, you never fail
To find insulting words," said Guenevere,
"Though Owain is as brave as any here,
As you well know." "Yes, so he is," said Kay.
"I'm sure if he had been in Cynon's place
He would have fought as well, but should I say
He had done better, adding the disgrace
Of flinging Cynon's weakness in his face?"
Then Arthur woke, and asked if he had kept
The company from table while he slept.
"Not long," Kay answered. Then the horn was heard That called the court to wash, and after, they
To table went, And Owain, not a word
Would speak, but mused as one that was the prey
Of secret thoughts. And, as the court all lay
Abed that evening, Owain could not rest,
But rose, compelled by Cynon's tale, and dressed.
And when he saw the first grey light of dawn,
He armed himself and set out for the bounds
Of earth, where barren mountains, still and wan,
Set borders to the known. And there he found
An ill-marked trail that winding led him down
Into a valley where a river wide
Ran sparkling, with a pathway by its side.
And all was beautiful as Paradise--
The singing birds of iridescent hue,
The colored stones as bright and clear as ice,
The golden pears, red apples, plums as blue
As ocean's depths, or sky--a world new,
Untouched by taint or time, and there below,
The speckled trout--lithe, graceful, slow.
And so he traveled on until he came
At last to that high castle by the sea.
And everything he found was just the same
As Cynon had described. There he could see
The golden youths still at their archery,
With ivory bows, still shooting ivory shafts
At knives with golden blades and ivory hafts.
And with them was the man, still in his prime,
Still dressed in golden silk, just as before,
Though it had been full seven summers' time
Since Cynon had first come to that strange shore. That lord spoke first, as graciously, or more
Than he had done with Cynon then, and all
A guest could ask he found in that rich hall.
He saw those maidens sewing silk brocade,
And all seemed fairer far than he'd been told,
And when they saw him, they arose and made
Themselves his servants--modest, yet as bold
As need be. The plates, the knives were gold;
The food was of the best, but seemed to be
Still better for the hospitality.
And midway through that meal the lord inquired
Of Owain's quest, and when he'd heard the knight, He gently smiled, and for a time demurred,
But spoke at last, less willing than polite.
They slept, but Owain rose with dawn's thin light
To find his horse prepared. Soon he had made
His way from there into the black man's glade.
And large as he had heard the black man was,
He found him larger still, yet asked the way
In fearless tones. And with no small abuse,
The giant told him what direction lay
His quest. Then Owain with no more delay
Touched spur to flank, and did not rest until
He'd found that tree and fountain in the vale.
And Owain filled the silver bowl and threw
It's contents on the slab. There was a peal
Of thunder, then as black as midnight grew
The sky, and rain poured down, and he could feel
The hailstones beat against his coat of steel.
And then the sky turned blue, and he could see
That not a leaf remained upon that tree.
And then the birds alighted on that tree,
And sang, and just as Owain was lost quite
In rapture at their song, there suddenly
Appeared, hard galloping, lance set for fight,
A warrior, horse and arms as black as night.
And neither spoke, but at the other rushed,
As savagely as gamecocks billed and flushed,
And set down on the line, nor showed they will
Or gameness less than any well-bred cock.
The meet; both lances shatter, and they fill
The air around with splinters from the shock.
A second pair of lances too they broke,
Then drew their swords, and fought as savagely
As each had found his mortal enemy.
Both shields they hack apart, and then they shred
The meshes of their hauberks, and make fly
The sundered links, and full upon the head
They strike, and dent and knock their helms awry,
Till Owain, standing in his stirrups high,
Two-handed slices down with all his strength,
And splits the Black Knights helm down its full length,
And cleaves through scalp and skull into the brain.
The Black Knight, sensing then a fatal blow,
Now turns and flees, half-fainting with the pain.
And Owan follows fast, and yet too slow
To reach him with his sword. I do not know
Why Owain, who knew neither ill nor good
Of the Black Knight should wish so for his blood,
But Chretien claims it was because of Kay,
Who, if there were no proof of victory,
Would loudly jeer at Owain's tale, and say,
"All men are bold when none is by to see."
Perhaps he's right, although this seems to me,
Assuming knights were much as you and I am,
Too cold a reason for so hot a time.
Imagine now a moonless winter night,
With clouds low-hanging, drizzling rain, the trees
Around you dimly gold by carbide light,
Dark vaulted all above. There is a breeze
So slight you do not feel it, though you see
Its presence in the lantern's trembling flame,
And smell it with the pungent scent of game.
You hear a yelp, and utter silence, then
The baying of a pack of running hounds,
And every prickling hair lifts from the skin,
And soul leaps out, and glides across the ground,
A phantom dog awakened by that sound,
And needing blood to quench that steaming blood
That hisses through the body's own dark wood.
In other words, it was the chase that drew
Him after, not some conscious end at all.
And now he sees a shining city through
The trees, but though he gains, he cannot draw
Up with the knight until they reach the wall.
There is a high and narrow gate, not wide
Enough for two to enter side by side.
And hardly is the Black Knight in before
An iron portcullus drops. And yet so near
Is Owain that, although he makes the door,
The falling spikes cut through his horse's rear,
And leave a bloody half without, and shear
The rowels from his sharp spurs. And now he found,
When he had risen, and had looked around,
That he was trapped between the inner gate,
And that behind. Beyond, he saw a street,
And stately houses roofed with colored slate.
He heard loud cries, the sound of running feet,
And little doubted that he soon would meet
A hostile force, so scorning useless fear,
He drew, prepared to sell his body dear.
Though little good a sword, if those within
Should come with bows, and shoot him through the bars.
It happened otherwise; instead of men,
A slender maiden comes. She first inquires
What he does there, and then if he desires
Release. "Yes, truly, Maiden, though I see
No way within my power which that may be."
"Nor mine," she said, and laughed. "And yet I know Another way." Then reaching through the grate,
"Here is my ring; take it, and wear it so
The stone is hidden in your hand. Then wait
Till those who seek you come to raise the gate,
For then, unseen, you may pass safely through'
The stone, as long as hidden, will hide you.
"And I will wait for you beside the well.
Once free, come to me there and place a hand
Upon my shoulder; that way I can tell
That you have come . . . but quick--you understand?"
She left him then, but just as she had planned,
It happened; those who came prepared to fight
Discovered a dead horse, but found no knight.
They fell to wrangling then, and Owain slipped
Away, and found the maiden waiting near
The well, as she had said. And when he gripped
Her shoulder, she first started like a deer,
And rolled her dark eyes back. She rubbed her ear,
As though fly-stung, and walking then before,
She led the knight to her high chamber door.
Here seems a place to end the second part,
And really, I could use the rest. To write
Narration straight is not an easy art,
And this is my first try . . . Oh well, I might
Have done a thing or two, but nothing quite
This grand, and you may kick my ass for me
If I try this again in poetry.
And so if I begin discursively,
Be patient for a page or two; I'll get
Back to the story long before Part III
Is ended. And besides, now that we've met
That strange and darkly charming maid, Lunette,
You know that something's in the works--perchance
That other meaning of the word, "Romance."
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