The Celtic Literature Collective

Mort Artu


THEREUPON they separated, and Arthur went to one of his castles and stayed there for a time, and all spoke of the good fortune that had come to him who was so worthy that he had conquered France. While Arthur dwelt thus, time passed and St. John's Day approached, and then all the noblest men of Britain gathered and came in such numbers that one could not count them. And there were knights present aplenty both rich and poor. Then came the day, and the king went to hear Mass and the archbishop chanted it who had aided him so much in his rule. And when he had heard Mass he came back to his palace, and then the horn was blown for washing before the meal below in the town, and the knights seated themselves to eat. Then King Arthur sat on the highest dais and with him King Lot of Orkney. On the other side sat the King of Denmark and the King of Ireland; and in the court there were seven kings all of whom were obedient to his command. 

Just as the king down to eat and the first course had been carried before him, Arthur and his nobles and his kings looked up and beheld coming through the door of the hall twelve men, white and hoary of head, who were most richly clothed and bore twelve olive branches. When they had entered the hall, they looked upon the nobles and knights who were at the court of the king and then they said to each other so that they might not be overheard: "Lord, this is indeed a most powerful king." Then they passed all the tables and came very wrathfully where Arthur was, and then all twelve stopped and all were silent except one. And this one spoke most haughtily and said: "May God who has power over all the world and can do all things by His commandment protect above all the Emperor of Rome and after him the Pope and the senators of Rome who must guard and defend the law. And may God, upon Whom you hear me call, bring ruin to Arthur and all those who are under his rule for he has done wrong to God and to Holy Church and to the law of Rome, for he has lopped off and cut down that which ought to belong to it and has killed the king in battle who held his lands of Rome and who gave tribute for them each year to Rome. Now know that although we wonder at you we are scorn Jul and although scornful we wonder, for you are such a vile folk that all the world should despise you, and you are slaves in bondage and have always been and your ancestors also. And now you seek to free yourselves and live outside of servitude as other folk. 

"You know that you were all in servitude to Julius Caesar and you gave tribute to him. And the other kings of Rome have likewise received your tribute, and you have never lived a single day outside of servitude. Now know that we have great scorn that you desire to free yourself, and know that the emperor has such great scorn of you and holds you so villainous that he can not believe that you might wish to free yourselves from bondage to him. Therefore he sends you word and commands you by the twelve of us that you see here that you render him the same tribute as your ancestors, that you send him the same as Julius Caesar received. And if you do not do this the emperor will come upon you; therefore I advise you to send it to him, for the Romans are filled with great anger against you; even the commoners of the country cry to the emperor 'Sire, in the name of God, now let us go against the dogs of Britain who have destroyed France.' And know that if the emperor grants their boon they will come upon you. But he cannot believe that you have reared yourself so high that you have conquered France, and know that if he comes upon you flight will not help you; you will never find a refuge from which he will not cast you forth; and he has sworn by his crown that he will flay you, and the knights of your land he will boil in caldrons and burn in fires, and he will sell them, one to another, and of them make great carnage." 

When Arthur had heard and understood this that the messengers spoke, his blood boiled and he trembled and felt shame because of his nobles who were seated at the tables in the hail, and he leaped to his feet and said: "Lords, you know well our language. I do not know where you were born, yet I have understood you thoroughly. Now I pray that you will be seated and eat if you have need of it." And these answered: 'We would rather lose a hand each than eat at your court, for to do so would be unnatural and depraved." When Arthur heard them he laughed and said: "Lords, I shall take counsel of the request you have made of me and will quickly give you an answer." 

Then he called his nobles, the King of Ireland and the King of Orkney and Sir Gavain and Mordret his brother and Keu the seneschal and Beduier and enough of the others to make twelve. And they entered a very rich chamber which was painted most elegantly. And the painting portrayed how the three goddesses gave Paris the apple; and the first promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, and the second promised him the greatest riches in the world, and the third promised him if he gave it to her that he would be the best knight on the whole earth. When each had made this offer she believed the others knew nothing of it; then Paris thought that he was a good knight and one of the most valiant in all his country, and he saw that he had no need of being more wealthy than he was, and he thought that he would value more highly than anything else the enjoyment of the most beautiful woman. Therefore he took the apple and gave it to the goddess who had promised him the woman, and when she saw the apple that Paris had given her she was very glad, for through this gift she had power over the other goddesses. And then she showed him a woman more beautiful than any in the world; but he bought her beauty too dearly. With this story the chamber was painted to which Arthur led the twelve nobles in order to seek counsel. 

Then he said to them: "Lords, you are all my men and I am your lord. You have heard clearly how the messengers of the Emperor of Rome have reviled and scorned me and have spoken great insults to me, though never did I let it appear by my face. Therefore I pray that you will give me such counsel as your honor may require; and know well that I will do whatever you advise me." 

Then King Lot of Orkney rose to his feet, he who was a most worthy man and wise, and he said to the king: "Sire, you ask for counsel and we will advise you well if you know to understand it. You have heard how the messengers of the Emperor of Rome have insulted you and have reproached you because Julius Caesar conquered Rome and France and Britain, your realm. And this was true, for he won it by treason and treason is not at all right; and I will tell you in some wise how he obtained it. It happened formerly that there was a king who had a brother and two beautiful children. This king died and left the land to his two children; but it seemed to the common people that they were too young to maintain their rule successfully; therefore they gave the governance of the realm to their uncle and he was king. And when he was king he made one of his nephews a duke and the other a count. And he who was king was named Casibelan, and his nephews performed certain misdeeds, I know not what, against him; therefore he ordered them to appear at his court and wished to kill them. When the children saw that their uncle hated them and had taken the realm from them, they sent word to Julius Caesar that he could now conquer England. For Julius Caesar had come there twice before but could hurt Casibelan in no way. When he heard the word the children sent to him he was very happy and replied to them that they should send him hostages, and they sent these to him thus giving good surety. Then Julius Caesar set out by sea and arrived in this country, and the two children gathered a great host and joined Julius Caesar, and then they came where Casibelan was and fought with him and conquered him. And when they had conquered him, Julius Caesar received the homage of the two brothers and made the eldest of them king, and they gave him tribute. And because of these events the Romans claim tribute from you. Now I will tell you something else: there were once two brothers in Britain. Of these two brothers one was named Brenes and the other Belin. The two brothers were so powerful that they crossed the sea and conquered France and from there they went as far as Rome. When those of Rome saw them coming they were afraid and came out to meet them and swore to them that they would obey their commands, and they gave forty hostages into the hands of the two brothers. And when the hostages were given, Brenes and Belin said that they would return to Britain. Then they turned back from there, and the Romans, after they had seen them turn back, said that it was very wrong that they had let them lead away their hostages. And they settled upon a plan by which they would come armed in front of them to a steep pass where the way was very narrow. This they did and assembled fifty thousand knights and sent them to a bad pass; and Brenes and Belin had divided their people so that Belin led half of them and Brenes the other hail. And in the two divisions there were more than a hundred thousand men. Then Brenes came to the narrow place and wished to pass through, and the Romans leaped out against him, and they encountered each other most fiercely. Then Brenes was dismayed and approached a squire and said to him: 'Good friend, go to Belin my brother and tell him that we are betrayed, and tell him to go behind the Romans by a defile and assail them from the rear.' Just as the king had told the messenger, it was related by the messenger to Belin, and when Belin heard this he was much moved and rode at full gallop and went through a pass by which a peasant guided him. And thus he arrived at the battle, and Brenes was now somewhat exhausted from combat, and Belin gave his battle-cry and came into the battle with all fifty thousand men shouting 'Britain!' And Brenes cried, 'France!' And then the Romans were dismayed, and the Britons slew them, and all the Romans were killed, and then both Brenes and Belin turned back to Rome and camped before the city and erected gallows and hanged all the children there that the rich people of Rome had given into their power. And then the Romans surrendered the city to them, and they were crowned as emperors, and the Romans rendered thee tribute. And for this reason it seems to me that you should have lordship over the Romans and ought to be emperor of Rome. Both they and you claim it; now I know no other way than that you go against each other and who is best able to succeed, may he do the best and have the most in the end. 

"Sire, I will tell yet another thing. Remember that Merlin came to your court the same day that you became king. He told you that there had been two kings in Britain who had been kings of France and emperors of Rome. Sire, you are King of France and I tell you that you will be King of Rome if you have the heart to conquer it; for Merlin never lies, instead he has always spoken the truth. Now cross the sea and call upon your knights and join in battle with the Romans; and I tell you that you will be victorious for you will have the best knights in the world." And then all twelve counselors cried: "Lord Arthur, ride in strength and conquer Rome and all the land of Lombardy and we will aid you with all our power." 

When Arthur heard his barons he was very happy and said: "Lords, it seems to me that King Lot has spoken well, and know that from what he has told me, even if the Romans had not come here, I should have gone there to seek what my ancestors held." Then Arthur went into the palace and found the messengers of Rome and said to them: "Lords, now you may be sure I wonder much where the emperor has found the courage to send to me for tribute and to insult me in the way that you have spoken. And be sure indeed that I shall remove any stain of serfdom from myself by opposing him, and you may tell him for certain that before eight months have passed I desire to have approached so near to Rome that from my army one will be able to throw a javelin into the city unless he will come forth to meet me; and it is my desire to fight with him, body against body, or might against might." And the messengers responded: 'We assure you that the emperor will be before you with two hundred thousand men or more." 

Thereupon they went forth from the hall most proudly nor did they request permission to leave, and they left there and came to the sea and passed beyond it, and they journeyed so many days that at last they canle to Rome and found the emperor there and told him all that they had accomplished and how the Britons were an arrogant and powerful people and had the worthiest knighthood of the world by virtue of a Round Table which they had built. "And know that we spoke your message to Arthur and he said that he would take counsel of it; and he led out twelve of his nobles, and they were a long while in his chamber and finally their counsel came to this, that Arthur sends you word that before eight months have passed he will come so near Rome that one will be able to throw a javelin there from his army unless you come out against him." 

When the emperor heard his messengers he was very angry, and then he had letters written and sealed documents, and he assembled the greatest host that man has ever seen, and he called up soldiers and archers and a great body of knights and men-at-arms mounted and afoot who bore lances and javelins. And, in truth, he sent word to the King of Spain who was a Saracen, and this Saracen led the greatest host there that has ever been seen, nor did a ruler ever have a more powerful army. And all came at the direction of the emperor, and indeed the great host when it was set in motion was held to be three hundred thousand men, all able-bodied and capable of bearing arms. And when the army was assembled the emperor cried out to them and described to them how Arthur wished to rebel against him and had killed in battle King Floires who held his land under Rome. "Also he sends word that he wishes to have tribute from us. Therefore I pray that you give me counsel now concerning these things. 

When the nobles heard what he had said there was great scoffing and they cried all together: "True Emperor, ride in force and cross the mountains and the sea and conquer Britain and avenge King Floires whom Arthur, the King of Britain, has killed. And we will aid you with all our power!" While the emperor was holding this assembly three messengers came to the emperor and saluted him in a loud voice in their language, speaking for the sultan. And they said: "Lord Emperor, the sultan sends you word that he comes at your command to destroy the Britons, and he does so because the King of Spain, who is his brother, comes as well. And I can assure you that his host numbers fifty thousand Saracens, and in three days they will encamp in the meadows before Rome." 

When the emperor heard this he was very happy; and when it came to the third day he mounted hqrse, and all the senators of Rome with him, and they journeyed forth in great joy to meet the sultan, and they met him at a half a league from Rome. And when the emperor saw him he spurred to meet him and threw his arms about his neck. Nor did he heed in the least either Christianity or baptism when he kissed him squarely upon the mouth, and all the senators of Rome bowed most deeply; and though they knew well that they were sinning against God, yet they feared the Britons greatly. Then they encamped before Rome and stayed there fifteen days in order to rest their people; and in this fifteen days the emperor transgressed greatly against God and Holy Church, for he took for wife the sultan's daughter, who was a pagan and a very beautiful woman. This weighed much upon the common people of Rome, and they said many times that the emperor had lost a large part of his faith. 

After the fifteen days were passed the host rode forth and crossed lands and countries. But of the course of their days or of what happened to them Blayse does not speak, for Merlin did not wish to tell of this. Yet I can tell you that they came into the land of Provence and at that time they heard it told that in the marches of Brittany was Keu, Arthur's seneschal, who guarded the land. And when the emperor learned this he advanced in that direction, and Arthur knew this by spies, and he had come now at the port of Dover on the sea and prepared his fleet, for he had a great host. 

When the fleet was ready Arthur came to Mordret his nephew who was the brother of Sir Gavain, and he gave into his keeping his land and his castles and his wife. But he would have fared better if he had boiled both of them in a caldron, for Mordret who was his nephew committed the greatest treason against him that one has ever heard told; for he loved his wife, and he acted in such a fashion with the knights and castellans and baillifs that they received him as their lord, and he espoused the queen, and he put garrisons into the castles of the land and had himself crowned king. 

But Arthur, who was not on the watch for any of this, had his knights with their arms and harness embark in the ships, and the mariners brought them to shore at the port called Calais. And when they had arrived they made this known to the nobles of the land and these were most joyful for it. Then the king, by common counsel of the host, sent two messengers to Paris and the people of Paris were most joyful and said that they would receive him as lord. And when Arthur knew this he came to Paris and there assembled his army. And when the Romans and Saracens heard it said that Arthur was in Paris, they journeyed until they came to within three leagues of Paris, and then Arthur sent Gavain and Beduier to the host to learn if the emperor wished personal combat with him. Gavain went there and Beduier as well, and they came to the tent of the emperor, and they were on two good horses and they themselves were handsomely armed. Gavain presented his message most proudly, abusing the emperor with his words and speaking most insultingly, and this went so far that it weighed upon a legate there and he said: "The Britons are always liars and ill- speaking boasters, wretched knight; and if you speak more I shall thrust you from your horse." 

Thereupon Beduier struck him through the body with his lance, and Gavain struck one of the nephews of the emperor through the body with his lance, and then he drew his sword and struck a knight in the middle of his head so that he split him to the waist. Thereupon he spurred forward and cut off the heads of six of them. Then they wished to depart but could not, for more than twenty thousand came galloping upon them before they had gone two hundred feet so that in front of Beduier and Sir Gavain were more than two thousand men. Then they attacked Gavain and Beduier with bare swords, with lances, with javelins, with darts and with stones and with clubs, and they gave them so many blows that they almost killed them. And they killed the horse of each, and then great rage grew within Sir Gavain, and he drew his sword and took his shield and struck a Roman who had held the justice of great lands and gave him so great a blow that he split him to the breast. And he took the horse and mounted it and came to Beduier, who defended himself most stoutly, and thought to aid him. But before he could get there he was beaten down again and his horse killed under him. And when Gavain saw that he had lost the horse that he had won, he leaped up again and defended himself most fiercely, no matter that to defend himself might avail naught; then the twenty thousand who were in the woods leaped forward and struck the Romans and scattered them most savagely and killed all of them so that almost none escaped. 

And then the messengers returned, recounting this to Arthur; and after Arthur heard them he had his people arm themselves. And then he commanded that two hundred horns and two hundred trumpets be sounded, and this was done. And then it seemed that all the earth shook, and the echoes were so great that it seemed that all the earth would shatter, and one could not even have heard God thundering there. Then they rode all in order to battle, and the royal gonfalon was borne by Saigremor. And they met the twenty thousand who had delivered Sir Gavain, and they closed ranks with these and Gavain led them. Then the fleeing remnants returned to the tent of the Emperor of Rome and told him that Bretiaus his brother was dead. And when the emperor heard them he was greatly moved and said that he wished to sell him most dearly to Arthur and the Britons. And then he had the battle horn sounded at the master tent, and this was the signal that they should arm. And when the Romans heard the battle horn resound they armed themselves, and the pagans as well. And then they ordered their battalions and their squadrons, and they moved there where they believed they would find Arthur, and Arthur rode against them likewise. And they approached so closely that they could see each other without any difficulty. 

When they were so near each other that they could see one another, there was no one so bold that he did not feel some terror. And then the Christians made confession each to the other, and asked pardon of all wrath and ill will, and they plucked blades of grass and with them took communion, and then they remounted their horses. And, in very truth, never so great a force was seen elsewhere; and when they had so neared each other that they were almost ready to strike, Sir Gavain, who led the first squadron, gave rein to his horse and struck a Saracen on his shield so that he pierced it and the hauberk as well, and he guided the iron right through his breast and drove him down dead from his horse. And then they ran together from both sides. Gavain had entered in battle with twenty thousand men against fifty thousand Saracens; therefore he could not long sustain himself; nevertheless they killed eleven thousand of the pagans; and ~of the men of Gavain, seven hundred and sixty knights were killed there; however they would not have been able to maintain themselves had it not been that Keu the seneschal came with twenty thousand knights and relieved Sir Gavain. 

Then they rushed upon the pagans of Spain and killed them in great mounds throughout the field, and the Saracens were not able to stand there. Then these fled and encountered the sultan who approached with fifty thousand Saracens; and they came to Sir Gavain and to Keu the seneschal and fought there from tierce until noon. And in the field so many knights and foot soldiers had been killed that they could not run a course with lances nor come together in order to joust. But with naked swords they killed each other, and, in truth, Gavain performed such deeds of arms that day that he killed with his arm alone a thousand two hundred and thirty of both knights and soldiers. 

It was true that his strength increased after noon and when noon had passed he never struck knight that he did not split him and his horse. He was so fierce that no one dared face him, and by his strength the Britons put the sultan to flight. And then the Emperor of Rome opposed Sir Gavain, who had borne great press, and Sir Keu the seneschal, and they numbered a hundred and fifty thousand men. And then the dust was so great that Keu the seneschal was put to flight and with him the Britons. And Gavain protected them behind, and then came Arthur, together with sixty thousand knights worthy and bold and each one able bodied and well armed, and they joined battle with the Romans, and then there befell the harshest battle that ever body of man could support; and there died in the melee on the one side and the other more than fourteen thousand knights. And you may be sure that Arthur distinguished himself very well there. 

Then the Emperor of Rome came through the ranks most richly armed and cried: "King Arthur, now I am ready to dispute possession of the honors with you, and I will prove that you are my serf. " And Arthur heard him and spurred against him holding his sword in his right hand, and he struck the emperor in the head; and, with the aid of God, he gave him such a blow that he split him down to the waist, and he fell down dead. Then a loud cry arose that the emperor was dead. Thereupon Gavain spurred and struck the sultan with his sword and sundered him at the belt-line, and King Lot struck the King of Spain in the breast with a javelin and drove him dead to the earth. 

And when the Romans and the Saracens saw their lords fall they were filled with great terror, and more than a hundred thousand of them surrounded the bodies and wished to bear them to their tents, and on the other side returned the Britons and the Norsemen and the Irish and the Scots with spears and darts and misericords, and they said that they would bear away the bodies of the three traitors. And the Romans wished to have them. Then so many blows were struck among them that one might have loaded two hundred carts with the fallen and the slain; and I tell you in truth that not since the time of Hercules, who fixed his boundaries in Ethiopia, was there so great a slaughter. Then Gavain returned and could not be sated, and he slew them just as the enraged wolf devours a lamb. And Beduier struck there with his sword until the whole field was flooded with blood. And you may be certain that the Romans would have fled and abandoned the field but twenty thousand foot soldiers, with knights as well, moved into the battle line and with these the Romans held and returned into the field where the bodies of so many knights lay bloodless and pale. Then the Britons strove hard and charged upon the Romans. And Guillac who was King of Denmark held his sword in his right hand and struck a Roman who was greater than the others and gave him such a blow that he split him right through to the saddle of his horse. 

When the Romans saw that he who had led them was dead they were very terrified. And then Arthur returned against them with thirty thousand Britons riding with great violence; and the Britons killed them and overthrew them. Then the Romans and the Saracens fled, and the Britons pursued them for a long while, killing and taking as many of them as they wished, and the chase lasted a day and a night, and indeed fifteen senators of Rome were taken there. 

And when this defeat had been inflicted, Arthur took counsel with his nobles and said that he wished to have himself crowned in Rome. And they advised him that he ride there in strength and be crowned in Rome. Then Arthur ordered that the senators of Rome who had been taken be brought before him, and when they had come before him they fell at his feet and cried for his mercy and that he let them live and that they surrendered Rome to him and would be in his service all the rest of their days. And Arthur pledged them that all would thus be done, receiving them as his men and freeing them from their captivity. 

de Boron, Robert. The Romance of Perceval in Prose. ed. and trans. Dell Skeels. University of Washington Press, 1961.

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