The Grail Episode
Translated by Jessie L. Weston
LONG and weary were the journeyings that good knight, Sir Gawain, made in search of the Grail; for he came even to a land wherein from the waxing to the waning of the moon there lacked not adventures stiff and stern. Yet his manhood stood him in good stead at need, otherwise had the toil and the strife weakened him overmuch. Howsoe'er it vexed him sorely. Yet the road led him at the last to a rich and goodly land, so well tilled that naught was lacking of the fruits of the earth, corn, and vines, and fair trees, all whereby man might live grew freely on either hand. That was right pleasing to Sir Gawain, who was worn with travel, for the land was like unto a garden, green, and in nowise bare, and of right sweet odour; it might well be held for au earthly Paradise, since 'twas full of all delights that heart of man might desire.
But ere ever he came within its borders a strange adventure befell him, for he saw a fiery sword, the breadth whereof he might not measure, which kept the entry to a fastness, within which stood a dwelling, cunningly builded, but the walls whereof were clear and transparent as glass; naught that passed therein might be held secret but 'twould have been seen without. I wot not how it chanced, but 'twas void and bare, and Sir Gawain deemed it strange and of ill omen; I think me well 'twas of ill, for 'twas a wild land, but therewith he left it behind him.
So the knight journeyed through that fair country, where he found all that heart desired, or that was needful to the body, so that his strength came again unto him, and he was wholly recovered of the pains which he had endured. And when he had ridden a twelve days' journey through the woodland he came again to an open country, and there he did meet with his comrades, Sir Lancelot and Sir Calogreant, whereat he was greatly rejoiced. The twain had wandered far astray, and save for their arms he might scarce have known them. He found them sleeping under a tree, whither his road led him, and for very joy he wakened them. Then they greeted each other gladly, and told each to the other the toils and the troubles that had befallen them as they rode singly or in company on their quest.
No longer might they abide there, for it drew towards nightfall; and as they went their way they beheld and saw how on the same track a squire spurred swiftly towards them, nor would he slacken his pace ere they met; right friendly was his mien as he bade Sir Gawain and his comrades be welcome to God, and to his lord, and to himself in sooth he spoke truly and in no mockery, for good token he gave thereafter of his truth. He prayed them, in the name of his lord, that since they were come into his land they would do him so much honour as to turn aside unto his dwelling, for they were on the right road, and 'twas nigh at hand.
Sir Gawain made answer, "I thank ye right heartily, ye and your lord, know that we will gladly come unto your dwelling an' we be not forbidden by sword-thrust." The squire spake again, "This will I tell ye surely, follow ye this road straight unto the Burg, 'tis here full nigh at hand; I, having shown ye the road, will hasten thither, and ride ye as softly as ye will." With that he turned him again, and had swiftly out-ridden them.
Know ye that the knights were not over-long upon the road, for the twain, Sir Lancelot and Sir Calogreant, were sore a-hungered; sudden they saw before them a castle, fair to look upon, and they deemed they should find a goodly lodging therein. Without, on a meadow, was a great company of knights, who vied with each other in skilful horsemanship, as knights are wont to do. Without spear or shield, in courteous wise they rode hither and thither on the open field; but when the three had come so near that they took knowledge of them, that noble folk left their sport, and rode swift as flight over the meadow toward the road, and received the guests with gentle greeting, as is love's custom, bidding them welcome to their lord's land. With that they took them in safe-conduct, and led them even to the castle--I wot Sir Gawain there found gladsome gain!
The Burg was fairly builded, and therein dwelt a great folk, knights and ladies, who were right joyful as was fitting, that did Sir Gawain mark right well, and drew comfort therefrom. So well did they receive him that it grieved him naught that he was come unto their company; they beheld him right gladly, and all that was needful to him they gave him with full hand. So went he with the twain, Sir Lancelot and Sir Calogreant, unto the lord of the castle, even as they showed him the road.
'Twas the fairest palace ever builded, an the tale lie not no richer might tongue of man describe, or heart of man conceive. Never might the host be vexed through poverty, a courteous prince he was and good, and wise withal I ween. For the summer's heat his hail was all bestrewn with roses, whereof the perfume rejoiced him greatly. White was his vesture, cunningly wrought and sewn with diaper work of gold, 'twas a skilful hand that wrought it! Before him sat two youths of noble birth, whom he ever kept in his company; they jested lightly, the one with the other, the while they played at chess before his couch, and the lord leaned him over towards the board, for it gladdened him to behold the game, and to hearken to their jesting. When Sir Gawain entered the hail the host received him and his two comrades well, and bade them be seated; Sir Gawain he made to sit beside him on the couch, on a cushion of rose-coloured silk did they sit together. In sooth there was pleasure enow of question and answer, and of knightly talk betwixt the host and Sir Gawain; and they who sat at the chessboard jested and made merry. Thus they made pastime till nightfall, and then were the tables set that all might eat, nor was any man forgotten, there was space for all.
Then the knights arose, and Sir Gawain also, but the host spake to them all by name, for right well he knew them, and bade them sit by him, which they were nothing loth to do: With that there came a great company of knights and ladies, who saluted the host, as is the fashion of women, and sat them all down. Long was the hall and wide, yet 'twas full in every part, and all the tables filled. After them came full twenty chamberlains, young men of noble birth and courteous bearing, who bare napkins and basins, that did the knights mark well; behind them were a great company, bearing candles and candlesticks without number, with that was the hail so light 'twere hard to tell whether 'twere day or night. And there followed thirty minstrels, and others who sang full many a tuneful melody, all with one accord rejoiced and sang praises.
The two knights and Sir Gawain sat beside their host, yet not on a level, for Sir Gawain sat above, and they below, and the host 'twixt the three. The others sat all around the hall, and ate each twain together, a knight with his lady.
And when all were seated, and were fain to eat, then there came into the hail a wondrous fair youth, of noble bearing, and in his hand he held a sword, fair and broad, and laid it down before the host. With that Sir Gawain 'gan to bethink him what this might betoken. After the youth came cupbearers, who passed through the hail, serving wine to all who were seated ere they might eat. Sir Gawain and his comrades did they serve first of all, the while the host sat beside them and did neither eat nor drink. Nor would Sir Gawain drink, but for his comrades twain they were so sore vexed by thirst, that even though hebade them refrain yet must they drink withal, and thereafter did they fall into a deep slumber, and when Sir Gawain beheld this it vexed him sorely.
Oft-times did the lord of the castle pray Sir Gawain to drink, as a courteous host doth his guest, but otherwise was he minded, and well on his guard, lest he too fall asleep. At the last came in fair procession, as it were, four seneschals, and as the last passed the door was the palace filled--nor were it fitting that I say more. In the sight of all there paced into the hail two maidens fair and graceful, bearing two candlesticks; behind each maid there came a youth, and the twain held between them a sharp spear. After these came other two maidens, fair in form and richly clad, who bare a salver of gold and precious stones, upon a silken cloth; and behind them, treading soft and slow, paced the fairest being whom since the world began God had wrought in woman's wise, perfect was she in form and feature, and richly clad withal. Before her she held on a rich cloth of samite a jewel wrought of red gold, in form of a base, whereon there stood another, of gold and gems, fashioned even as a reliquary that standeth upon an altar. This maiden bare upon her head a crown of gold, and behind her came another, wondrous fair, who wept and made lament, but the others spake never a word, only drew nigh unto the host, and bowed them low before him.
Sir Gawain might scarce trust his senses, for of a truth he knew the crowned maiden well, and that 'twas she who aforetime had spoken to him of the Grail, and bade him an he ever saw her again, with five maidens in her company, to fail not to ask what they did there-and thereof had he great desire.
As he mused thereon the four who bare spear and salver, the youths with the maidens, drew nigh and laid the spear upon the table, and the salver beneath it. Then before Sir Gawain's eyes there befell a great marvel, for the spear shed three great drops of blood into the salver that was beneath, and the old man, the host, took them straightway. Therewith came the maiden of whom I spake, and took the place of the other twain, and set the fair reliquary upon the table--that did Sir Gawain mark right well-he saw therein a bread, whereof the old man brake the third part, and ate.
With that might Sir Gawain no longer contain himself, but spake, saying, "Mine' host, I pray ye for the sake of God, and by His Majesty, that ye tell me what meaneth this great company, and these marvels I behold?" And even as he spake all the folk, knights and ladies alike, who sat there, sprang from their seats with a great cry, and the sound as of great rejoicing. Straightway the host bade them again be seated as before, and make no sound until he bade, and this they did forthwith.
At the sound of the great cry the twain, Sir Lancelot and Sir Calogreant, wakened, for through the wine they had drunk they slept soundly, but even as they beheld the maidens who stood around the board, and the marvels that had chanced, they sank back into slumber, and so it was that for five hours sleep kept fast hold of them, the while the old man spake thus:
"Sir Gawain, this marvel which is of God may not be known unto all, but shall be held secret, yet since ye have asked thereof sweet kinsman and dear guest, I may not withhold the truth. 'Tis the Grail which ye now behold. Herein have ye won the world's praise, for manhood and courage alike have ye right well shown, in that ye have achieved this toilsome quest. Of the Grail may I say no more save that ye have seen it, and that great gladness hath come of this your question. For now are many set free from the sorrow they long had borne, and small hope had they of deliverance. Great confidence and trust had we all in Perceval, that he would learn the secret things of the Grail, yet hence did he depart even as a coward who ventured naught, and asked naught. Thus did his quest miscarry, and he learned not that which of a surety he should have learned. So had he freed many a mother's son from sore travail, who live, and yet are dead. Through the strife of kinsmen did this woe befall, when one brother smote the other for his land: and for that treason was the wrath of God shown on him and on all his kin, that all were alike lost.
"That was a woeful chance, for the living they were driven out, but the dead must abide in the semblance of life, and suffer bitter woe withal. That must ye know--yet had they hope and comfort in God and His grace, that they should come even to the goal of their grief, in such fashion as I shall tell ye.
"Should there be a man of their race who should end this their sorrow, in that he should demand the truth of these marvels, that were the goal of their desire; so would their penance be fulfilled, and they should again enter into joy: alike they who lay dead and they who live, and now give thanks to God and to ye, for by ye are they now released. This spear and this food they nourish me and none other, for in that I was guiltless of the deed God condemned me not. Dead I am, though I bear not the semblance of death, and this my folk is dead with me. However that may be, yet though all knowledge be not ours, yet have we riches in plenty, and know no lack. But these maidens they be not dead, nor have they other penance save that they be even where I am. And this is by the command of God, that by this His mystery, which ye have here beheld, they shall nourish me once, and once alone, in the year. And know of a truth that the adventures ye have seen came of the Grail, and now is the penance perfected, and for ever done away, and your quest hath found its ending."
Therewith he gave him the sword, and told him he were right well armed therewith, and however much he might bear it in strife never would it break, and he bade him wear it all his days. Thus did he end his tale, telling no more, save that he might now leave the quest he had undertaken, and that for the rest, on the morrow should his toil be ended. And in so far as concerned the maidens 'twas through their unstained purity, and through no misdoing, that God had thus laid on them the service of the Grail; but now was their task ended, and they were sad at heart, for they knew well that never more should the Grail be so openly beheld of men, since that Sir Gawain had learned its secrets, for 'twas of the grace of God alone that mortal eyes might behold it, and its mysteries henceforth no tongue might tell.
With this speaking the night had passed, and the day began to dawn, and as his tale was done, lo! from before Sir Gawain's eyes the old man vanished, and with him the Grail, and all that goodly company, so that in the hail there abode none save the three knights and the maidens.
And Sir Gawain was somewhat sorry, when he saw his host no more, yet was he glad when the maiden spake, saying that his labour was now at an end, and he had in sooth done all that pertained unto the Quest of the Grail, for never elsewhere in any land, save in that Burg alone, might the Grail have been beheld. Yet had that land been waste, but God had hearkened to their prayer, and by his coming had folk and land alike been delivered, and for that were they joyful.
That day Sir Gawain abode there with I his comrades, who rejoiced greatly when they heard the tale, and yet were sorrowful in that they had slumbered when the Grail passed before them, and so beheld it not. Good hostelry they found in that Burg, and when the morning dawned and they must needs depart then was many a blessing called down upon Sir Gawain by those maidens, that he might live many years in bliss and honour, this they prayed of a true heart, since he had set them free, and one blessing surely seeketh another. So the good knight departed from among them. Thus doth the Quest of Sir Gawain find an ending.
Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle. ed. and trans. Jessie L. Weston. London: D. Nutt, 1903.
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