The poem below is a story from Arthurian romance that exists in two versions. The first is in prose, and is from the Medieval Welsh collection, the Mabinogion; the second, Yvain, is in prose, and is by the Medieval Breton poet, Chretien de Troyes. The Breton French version seems to have been written first, and to have influenced the Welsh story, though the Welsh version seems to have elements that are older, more mythic, and more archetypal than Chretien's version. No doubt there was some version older than either. I could say a great deal more, but my telling provides a good bit of thematic exposition within the text, and so I will say no more here.
My version was originally published in 1986, but the company went out of business just as it was preparing the text. As a result, a quick, cheap version was quickly produced to fulfill the contract, leaving the poem essentially in limbo from then until the present. I have changed and matured since that time, and would handle matters a little differently if I were writing the poem now, but I am not unhappy with it as it is. --Jack Hart
The Lady of the Fountain
The Solar Hero in the Dark World of Women.
Heroic literature--by that I mean
The Iliad or Beowulf, cannot
Exist outside archaic times. Between--
Aeneids at the best, James Bond, a lot
of Conan types, and so I've always thought
A poet, if he does not wish to seem
A fraud or bore, should choose a modern theme.
By modern themes, I mean the things I know,
Not just the latest arty platitude,
And that is really quite a lot, although
I can't read Homer with that attitude;
At times one simply needs some latitude;
Though writing an Arthurian romance
Seems stretching it a little, at first glance.
I beg to differ, though. There never has
Been such a world except within the mind;
It is a land of dream, and aways was,
A mythic past by exiled Celts designed,
And then by Norman chivalry refined,
Then turned to Christian ends, and finally done
To a Victorian turn by Tennyson.
I really think the Idylls of the King,
Once so admired by our forebears, has been
Too much ignored, although it's not a thing
I really warm to very much, but then,
The modern reader likes a little sin.
And as a central theme, mere purity
Is a bit negative, it seems to me.
So Idyllers be warned--this is no tale
To wag old doctrine's dog. This yarn I will
Unravel, marking out the ill-lit trail
Of that dark labyrinth, the mind, until
I find a proper Minotaur to kill,
Or maiden chained--you know--nude, nubile, young--
My anima, or so says Carl Jung.
In other words, King Arthur's court is where,
Grail-castle like, it chooses to be known;
We look away, then back, and it is there.
But sincc this prologue has already grown
Ungodly long, we'll straight to Carleon.
King Arthur, Owain, Cynon, Kay are here,
And sewing with her handmaids, Guenevere.
In a high window where the western sun
Gave light to work by, she with all her maids
Embroidered on green silk small flowers, each one
A bloom of Avalon where nothing fades,
And each a different form, a different shade,
Some streaked or mottled, some of purest hue--
Bright silver, scarlet, purple, saffron, blue--
A work as lovely as the golden dawn.
And Arthur on a couch of rushes lay,
Or half reclined, his elbow resting on
A silken cushion, as he passed the day
In talk of heroes of times past, till Kay,
His seneschal, should call the court to meat.
But meanwhile, slow-winged time with easy beat
Flaps slowly past. Then, "Sirs, would you not make
A game of me, I'd sleep a time. And you,
Give Kay so strange a tale that he will slake
Your thirst with mead, as is a minstral's due."
And Arthur slept. And Cynon said, "Kay do
As Arthur bade, and bring us drink." Then Kay,
"No, first the promised tale, and then I may."
And as they spoke, King Arthur dreamed of she
Whose castle is the Northern Crown, and of
Llue Llaw, her son, who through her enmity
Could have no name, or arms, or woman's love
Except from her. How when he could not move
Her motherhood, he won through magic charms
And trickery, the gift of name and arms,
But could not have a wife till Math the Old
And Gwyddion, from flower of oak and broom
And meadowsweet, from white and red and gold,
Devised a maid as lovely as the blooms
That elemented her--his love and doom.
Too light they made her, for there is no art
That moulds soft petals to a constant heart.
He dreamed of how her lover formed a spear
To kill Lleu while he bathed, for only there,
And with a weapon worked at for a year,
Could he be killed, and how when thus prepared,
He struck, and Lleu dead rose into the air
In eagle form and disappeared--a dream
That soon to Arthur would prophetic seem.
But here's a pause--let me cut in to say,
If we will love a being fine as air,
What is it but the coarseness of our clay
That dares demand her subtle spirit share
Our dull stability; things bright and rare
Cannot be long possessed. And now again
To Cynon, son of Clydno, Kay, Owain.
"No," said Cynon, "it were better you
Fulfilled King Arthur's promise first, then we
Will tell, I swear, a tale as strange as true."
"I yield me, then," said Kay. "I first must see
To these slow cooks, and then will bring your fee."
The mead was brought; then Owain, "Now your tale."
"No, you--I could not do it half so well."
"The task is yours," said Owain. "Speak--you owe
A tale for both of us." Then Cynon said,
"Here is the strangest story that I know,
Although I'd rather tell you one instead
Reflecting greater glory on my head.
As a young knight I mastered arms so well
That soon I thought myself invincible.
My country had grown small for one as great
As I now deemed myself, and so I sought
Adventure in far lands, till chance or fate
Led me into as fair a vale as aught
That ever man has seen; I almost thought
I'd found lost paradise--the grass so bright
And soft, the trees all of an even height.
There was a river there, and on its lea,
A path that brought me by midday onto
A level plain that stretched off to the sea.
There a high castle stood, and as I knew
No hostel near, I sought the welcome due
One of my birth from he who held these walls.
A drink; then I will tell what things I saw."
As for myself--does anybody hear?
This makes me think of late-night radio,
Or parsley on a steak--they put it there
To look at, not to eat. I hardly know
A soul who reads, and as for verse, although
It sells a little yet, I've seldom seen
A book worn out, or even less than clean.
A book of verse, I mean; there's still demand
For spies and Harlequin Romance. One ought,
As Gertrude Stein has said, not turn a hand
To work you know won't pay. I've always thought
That good advice, so why this tale--it's not
Pop literature; in fact, some will find this
A bit to highbrow for their tastes, I guess.
And then they tell me that there's not a muse!
Indeed! Then why would anybody write
At all, and certainly there's no excuse
For verse, especially if not something light.
It's money that I want; I take delight
In things material--give me a yacht,
A Jag, a Harley, and a beachfront lot.
All things have spirits; those of greater price
Have brighter auras, though. Then why not sell
Used cars, invest in stock, or give advice
To corporations on cash flow? Oh well,
I'm started on this now, so what the hell!
Let cars, kept women, cabin cruisers go;
I am compelled to write--that's all I know.
Those last four stanzas all were mine. Now where
were we?--Oh yes. "As I drew near, I saw
Two handsome youths with curling, golden hair,
Each with a golden frontlet on his brow,
And robes of yellow silk. An ivory bow,
And ivory shafted arrows too, they held,
With peacock feathers winged, and heads of gold.
Two knives with golden blades and ivory hafts
As targets served, and when from time to time
They sped especially well-directed shafts,
There was an older man, one in his prime,
Who spoke encouragement, and praised their aim.
His tunic was of yellow silk, like theirs;
Like them he had thick, curling, golden hair.
As I approached, he greeted me before
I could greet him, and brought me to the hall,
A room as large and splendid as . . . no, more
Than this. There four and twenty maids I saw
At needlework by windowlight, and all
By far were fairer than the fairest here,
The least more lovely than bright Guenevere.
They rose at my approach, some to prepare
A feast for us, and some to take my steed,
And never groom has given better care
To horse than mine received. And every need
Of mine was served as well; one brought me mead;
One water in a silver bowl, that I
Might wash; one, linen cloth on which to dry.
Some took my soiled traveling clothes, and dressed
Me in fine yellow silk, and then we ate.
And everything I found was of the best--
The meat, the conversation, and the plate
Of well-wrought gold. And never feast so great
Has any known since Bran's revenging host
Returned from Ireland, all but seven lost.
And with them the still-speaking head of Bran,
Who brought them to a castle by the sea.
There eighty years they stayed, and never man
Had better fellowship, or felt more free
Of all life's sorrows than that company.
There all the heart desires they had, and more,
But this alone--one small, forbidden door.
And then one opened it and saw the beach,
The lead-grey sky, the cold, dead waves, and all
Their loss and sorrow came again to each.
Not so with us--I can not well recall
More courtesy in even Arthur's hall,
More joy than I found there. When we had dined,
That lord asked what adventure I would find.
'I seek a knight to best, or to best me
In trial of arms,' I said. 'Report of such,
I could give you,' he answered quietly,
And smiled, 'except I fear that overmuch
Of ill should come to you.' Then could I touch
No morsel of my food for very shame,
For loss of honor, and for chance of fame.
Then seeing how his words had been received,
'Since you prefer your hurt, and not your good,
Remain tonight. Tomorrow when you leave,
Return the way you came. Just in the wood,
You'll find a byway wending right, and should
You follow it, you'll come to open ground,
And at its center there will be a mound.
There you will meet a black man tall as two.
One cyclops eye he has, and in his hand,
A club of ill-wrought iron, and 'round him you
Will see a thousand grazing beasts. This land
Is his; the animals are his command.
This is the Forest Keeper, fearsome less
For actual evil, than for ugliness.
He will speak roughly to you, but ignore
His scowls and threats, and ask what you would know.
How long a night that was! I rose before
The sun, and armed myself, asweat to go.
Nor did I find I'd been misled, for lo,
There was the path, the field, the animals,
The black man too, and Kay, he was not small,
I promise you, whatever joke you make.
Not four, the best of Arthur's knights, could hold
His club, but nonetheless, I did not quake--
Not outwardly, but carelessly I strolled
Into that field, and made my greeting bold.
And he gave answer with the worst abuse,
The vilest terms that ever man did use.
So next I asked him of his power, and he,
"I'll show you, little man." And then he took
His club in hand. And frightened, hastily
I drew my sword, but I, in that, mistook
What he intended, for with it he struck
A stag a mighty blow. And then I saw,
In answer to t he creature's belling call,
That field filled up with animals, till there
Was scarsely room to stand. The stars that glaze Dark night are not more numerous than bear,
And snake, and lion there. At him they gaze
With timid eyes, until he bids them graze;
Then they all bow as to their lord, and he,
"This, little man, is my authority."
So now I told the black man of my quest,
And he, though scowling still, "Walk up that rise, And you will see beyond, off to the west,
A vale like some great watercourse, but dry.
A fountain, though, just at its midpoint lies,
And by that fountain stands a tree more green
Than any fir or holly ever seen.
And on a marble slab beneath that tree,
A silver bowl held by a silver chain.
From it pour water on the slab. There'll be
A peal of thunder, then will come a rain,
And wind, and hail so hard you would be slain,
Had you not armor on--a storm to make
The crude foundations of the world shake.
And when at last the sky grows clear, that tree
Will be without a leaf. But then a flight
Of birds, all singing more delightfully
Than you have ever dreamed of will alight
On those bare limbs, then a less pleasant sight,
For one will come who, if he does not give
You trouble, you'll find none long as you live.'
All that the black man told me, I found true;
There was the fountain, marble slab, and tree,
The silver bowl and chain. And when I threw
The water on that slab, so loud to me
The thunder seemed, I thought the earth must be
Half split. And then the sky grew dark as night, And burst on me with all of heaven's might.
No words can tell how furious that storm,
How hard the blows of that flesh-tearing hail.
My shield perserved my horse's head from harm;
As for myself, there was my helm and mail--
Small help they seemed. And surely in that vale,
No man or beast could have been left alive
Unsheltered--I was lucky to survive.
The sky grew clear, and lo, a flight of birds
Alighted on the branches of that tree
Where not a leaf remained. Nor had I heard
A music that gave more delight to me
Than that song did. Then hoofbeats suddenly
Rang loud, and there, hard spurring, came a knight,
His horse, his shield, his armor black as night.
'What harm,' the black knight cried, 'could I have done To you, that you repay me thus, for know,
In my dominion there is scarcely one
Alive of those caught out in that great blow.'
Of whether this should prove a friend or foe,
I had but little doubt. My lance I set,
And drove at him, and he at me. We met--
But let me make a long story short--I'd found
My match. The Black Knight let my horse away,
While I, half dazed, lay watching from the ground,
Too far beneath contempt to hold or slay.
So back I made my way afoot, and Kay,
The jeers that black man made!--would I had died
A hundred times than be so mortified.
(I mean the Forest Keeper, not the knight.)
I loitered long along the way, too sore
To travel far, and came by waning light
To that same castle where I'd slept before.
And there I was made welcome as--no, more
Than then, and feasted like a royal guest,
And no one asked the outcome of my quest.
And when I rose, I found a horse, all black,
But for a bright red mane, prepared for me.
I put my armor on, swung to its back,
Then blessed my host for hospitality,
And came away. And if you'd care to see
That horse, he's in my stable yet, the best,
I tell you, Kay, that ever knight possessed.
This is my tale; you know it must be true,
Because its telling hardly flatters me."
If you would hear what this is prologue to,
What Owain said, Kay's bitter mockery,
You'll find them in Part II. There ought to be
A better term, for when I speak of "parts,"
I think of cuts of meat, and not the arts.
But "chapter" is for prose, and "cantos" sound
Pretentious, though both Pope and Dante call
their sections that. And "books" must be around
A thousand lines. I could do worse than fall
Back on a flat "Part I," though all in all,
I think of terms conceivable, the worst
Would be the Medieval "Fit the First."
This ends the first part of the poem. There are another four parts, but this is enough for one page. I will add the rest of the poem one page at a time. In the meantime, here are links to other related pages on the Meadhall website.
Click on the door to go to Part II of The Lady
of the Fountain.