Note: Loosely based (very loosely) on Hartmann von Aue’s version of Iwein: Der Ritter mit dem Löwen, the following is a start on an Arthurian romance which focuses less on the legendary king and more on the men who followed him. The basic story has been kicking around in my head for a while now. Let me know if you find it worth pursuing further.
It was the second day of Feast of Easter in the year of our Lord 1200, and though it was an unusually cold and gray day, even for Britain in early springtime, the castle church and great halls of Camelot were adorned with the glorious whites, greens, golds and violets of the season, which shone even in the twilight, as the day passed into a frosty evening. The tumult of the day died down, the shadows from the west grew longer and as was often the case in that storied company, talk among the gathered knights of King Arthur’s Round Table turned to tales of adventures passed in lands far distant. In one particular corner of Camelot— around the central fire place of the second-floor Great Room–the conversation between the king’s foster brother, Sir Kay, Prince Erik of Norway, Sir Iwein of Brittany, and Sir Gawain of Wales, turned to the most particular topic of fantastic beasts. They had arranged themselves in a loose semi-circle, seated on benches around the fire, a cask of ale on a circular oak table to the right of the fire place itself.
“So,” asked Gawain, “have you really got trolls up there in the north country, or all those stories made up?” The fire light lent his reddish hair a coppery hue where he sat, looking across at the Norseman.
Erik, who had been warming his ale with an iron did not interrupt this important task to reply but said, “Ja, ja, trolls are so real you only wish they weren’t when you see them!” He turned to face Gawain only after he’d stung his beer with the blazing red iron.
“Well, what do they look like?”, asked Kay. “Are they a kind of malformed giant? Twisted arms, three heads, that sort of creature?”
Erik raised the gray stone crock of steaming amber beer to his lips, took a draft, and answered, “No. They are a lot less man-like than giants. Their skin is usually gray and it looks almost like rock, their eyes red-orange like burning coals. And they don’t talk. Not at all. So, getting them to argue with each other while you think of tactics? That will not work.”
Gawain and Kay laughed at his description. “Now, come on!”, Gawain chortled. “Stone skin?”
“Skin that ‘looks like stone’, is what I said. But it isn’t stone–hard. Not while they’re alive. But it is hard enough to turn spears even at short distances. Arrows at range will bother them, but I’ve never seen one killed that way. If you hit one with enough arrows…then perhaps. The big advantage we men have on them is that they do turn to stone when sunlight strikes them. That then kills them.”
“Turn to stone? I’d find an Italian’s promise more credible than that,” muttered Iwein as he cast the tall Northman a disapproving glance. “Now you’re just having us on, aren’t you? Next thing you’ll say that they grow back any parts you hack off.”
“No, they don’t do that either,” Erik replied. “But they do turn to stone when daylight even touches them. We have a saying back home, ‘Til trollar steini kraka,’ which is in your English is ‘Til the trolls crack like stone,’ and means ‘until dawn.’ Everyone in the Northlands knows this, and I have seen it happen exactly once. These trolls were chasing my uncle and me in the hills near Finnskogen when…”
“Slow down, there, Northman. You’ve seen it happen?” Iwein, had, up to this point only been half listening to increasingly incredible Erik. He put a touch too much doubt in his voice, which provoked a response of unexpected vehemence from Erik. Nearly bellowed, it was this:
“Ja, Ja! I’ve seen it with my own eyes, when out on a troll-hunt with my uncles! We spent days tracking them up in the mountains. They had been killing sheep too near a town where one of our jarls lived. Do you believe me or are you calling me a liar?”
“No, no! It just seems difficult to believe. ‘Trolls turn to stone in daylight?’ It sounds like what you’d say in a child’s story!”
“And what do you think your stories about fighting giants sound like to people who haven’t seen any giants?”, Erik responded to Iwein’s continued skepticism with some of his own.
“I suppose that they might sound like the made-up stories of some country braggart. There’s none here who can test my words. But they’re true. I’ve fought and killed more than a dozen giants. Alone, I might add.”
“Pfaww,” Erik snorted expressing a genuine disbelief of his own. “A dozen? I doubt there are more than a dozen in all the world!”
At this Iwein’s face reddened fiercely, and the first sparks of real anger kindled in his eyes. Seeing this, both Kay and Gawain let out low whistles and stood up. Gawain put a hand on Iwein’s shoulder and said, “Easy, there, friend,” while Kay faced Erik.
“Northman, you’ve not been here long enough for that to count as a real insult, so we’ll let it go this time,” Kay said, and shot an inquiring glance at Iwein as he spoke. Iwein nodded, the fire in his eyes dying down, and Gawain relaxed his grip on his friend’s shoulder. Then, with an exaggerated flourish, Gawain pointed at Iwein and said, “This man is to giants what cats are to mice. No other member of the Order of the Round Table has even seen as many giants as he’s actually killed by his own hand. He’s got an astonishing gift for it, like Bors has for wrestling, Parzival for shooting, or…”
“Bedivere for drinking,” Kay interjected.
“Now, Kay! That was unkind,” Gawain admonished. “He’s a brother knight. Show some respect.”
“Alright, alright. But it’s true, you must admit! He’s never met a cask he didn’t drink dry yet. He’s drinking himself fat. Pretty soon he’ll need a siege winch to lift him onto his horse…the poor beast. He nearly crushes it already. Little wobbly horse legs sticking out from under that prodigious mound of flesh…”
“Kay, stop it!” Gawain was now truly offended, and his tone made that clear. Kay looked duly chastised and sat down again. There was silence for a moment before Erik spoke again.
“So, Iwein, tell me, are giants slow?”
“No, they surely are not.” A new sort of light, that of enthusiasm, radiated not from Iwein’s eyes but from his whole face. “Lots of ignorant people think that they would be because of their size, but giants are just as fast as men. They are big and they are fast, making them very, very dangerous. What they lack is stamina, and that’s how you kill them.”
“Why, it’s the same with trolls. They might be related!”
“Well, they might indeed. So, when you fight them, you just stay out of their reach for a while and let them wear themselves down.”
“Lots of feinting and dodging…”
“Aye, and then, when they start to breath hard, then you hail down blows on them fast as a smith on red iron!”
“Ja, it’s the same with trolls, once they start huffing and drooling….”
“They’re finished!” Iwein smiled and took a long draught of his own ale.
“Do you start with the legs?”
“No, I usually go for the primary arm at the hand first, right at the wrist, hack it off if I can, but get it bleeding at least.”
“Oh, that’s good. But isn’t it better to get their legs out from under them first?”
“Only with the little ones, then it’s more like fighting a man,” Iwein raised his hand and made a chopping motion to emphasize his point. “You don’t want a larger giant falling down on top of you, which is the risk you run when you go for the legs. I made that mistake once when I was about your age but, thankfully, I lived never to repeat it.”
Then Erik looked pensive for a moment, considering the sense of the older knight’s remarks, then smiled appreciatively and nodded at Iwein “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind for next time. Go for the arms first, not the legs.”
For their parts Kay and Gawain regarded the other two men with a mix of bafflement and annoyance as they sipped their ales. Finally, Gawain said, “You two are just insufferable. I have met exactly one giant in all my life and that is all I want to meet, thank you. And you two talk like you were going on about a ball game or bear wrestling.”
“Fighting giants is a lot like bear wrestling, truly,” Iwein said with a smile. “As long as you keep your head about you, the bear’s bound to lose his. Pity you couldn’t keep your head about you with your giant, Gawain, or was some other body part you were thinking with at the time? I hear he had a fetching wife.”
Gawain turned red and Kay snorted derisively. Kay now put his hand on the Welshman’s shoulder as the latter began to stand in anger. Gawain read the signal and sat down. “Don’t listen to these fools!” Kay said. “They don’t know the whole of your tale, Wain. Your giant was, after all, a giant knight in green armor.”
“A giant knight?” Erik nearly shouted. “But they don’t even know how to smelt metals. Where would they find smiths to build armor large enough?”
“You’re thinking of the younger race of giants. The kind we see more of these days. But it is a tale long in the telling,” Gawain said in a near groan. “It all started one Christmas, a high feast of the church, not unlike this one we’re in now. It was two years ago, that year when the weather was unexpectedly mild…”
Before Gawain could continue his tale, though, Erik and Iwein had become aware of the soft sound of cloth scuffing across stone. They half turned, craning their heads over their shoulders to see who approached their circle and saw in the torchlight Guinevere the Queen, accompanied by two of her older attendant ladies. She was uncharacteristically bare-headed, no crown, only free black hair, and was wearing her heaviest green robe, the one with ermine trim around the neck and sleeves, white silk slippers on her feet. She had the bleary-eyed look of one awakened from a sound sleep. The ladies attending her were dressed in a darker blue, the hair on their heads covered for propriety. Erik and Iwein both started from their benches, knocking them over in the process, and Iwein, in his haste to stand, slopped a great portion of his ale onto the floor just as they both blurted out, “My lady majesty,” in tandem.
“Oh, you two are the heart of gallantry,” Kay muttered as he stood.
“My queen, what brings you out of your chambers at this hour?” Gawain alone had managed to keep his complete composure at the unexpected approach of his queen and aunt, and bowed appropriately, smiling at Guinevere before casting a quick look of approbation to Erik and Iwein.
“It’s Arthur,” Guinevere responded. “These negotiations with the great kings of Christendom, all them complete and unadulterated imbec…. Ahem…all of our pleasant relations from across the sea. The endless disputations have him unable to sleep, so of course, it wakes me when he gets out of bed to go pray or to write something down. Then, when he finally could lay himself down and finally did nod off, I was thinking about the war myself and I couldn’t get back to sleep. So, rather than disturb him, I thought to just take a walk until my thoughts slowed down again. I need to calm myself and take my mind off of wars and alliances for a while if I’m going to get be able to sleep at all tonight.”
“Do you think the alliance with the Empire will work? Do you think we can truly end war in Christendom?”, Erik blurted the question out without thought.
“Did you not hear what the poor woman said?” Kay reproached him in a tone bordering on anger.
Guinevere sat down on a bench beside Gawain, shaking her head and holding her hand out, palm flat, in Kay’s direction. “No, Kay, leave your scolding. It’s a question that could have graver direct consequences for you knights than for me. The young man is right to ask it. And the answer, as far as I think, is it will work if the French nobles and the Kings and Princes of the German lands want it to work, which will only happen if they can forget their own grievances and competing land claims long enough to fight together as brothers and not against each other as rivals. If they don’t, then the Pope, Arthur, and all who have hoped to create a united Christian Europe to stand and fight as one against the Caliph and his armies… all of our own work will have failed, and we will have to live with that failure’s consequences, as will our children unto unknown generations.”
There was a very cold and unpleasant silence for a while as the men around her, each of whom lived for duty, honor and battle considered her words.
“Your mind, then, is that it might fail?” The question came from Gawain this time. Guinevere struck him on the chest, annoyed.
“What I think, nephew, is that I’ve thought about it enough for tonight. And tomorrow. And Arthur’s thought enough about it for the next year. I want to think about something else for a while. What were you all discussing before I interrupted? Something about giants?”
“We were comparing giants and trolls, the Norseman and I,” said Iwein, sitting down again and pulling his bench closer to the queen’s.
“Ah, knightly adventure,” the queen said with a smile. Then, in a tone of playful imperiousness, she said to them all, “Regale your queen with a tale of chivalry and daring, my knights. Enchant me with flights of …” her voice was rising, her face aglow with humor, when it all changed. Her countenance assumed a pensive aspect, and when she spoke, her voice was sober and almost cuttingly direct. “No. Let’s not hear those. We’ve all heard tales enough of your great triumphs and victories and none of you needs practice in boasting. Better instead that you tell me of an adventure that you yourself have failed in or one that has left you with naught of gain, neither in honor, nor wisdom nor wealth.”
All eyes turned to Gawain. He coughed nervously and said, defensively, “Well, I was going to tell my story. I know, I failed Bercilac’s challenge. Everybody’s heard the whole story….what a way to ruin a Christmas, too…”
“I haven’t heard the story,” interjected Erik.
“Later, Erik. Much later,” said Gawain.
The Queen made a disapproving face. “Gawain that tale does end well. Yours was a temporary failure. I want to hear of those adventures that did not end well. My dear and gentle men, come now! You can’t be as invincible as all that. Really, now, there must be some one of you–besides Gawain–who has faced some insurmountable foe or unsolvable conundrum in all your knightly adventures.”
Iwein took a sip of his ale and said sadly, “There is the fate of the lamented Sir Ortnit of Bohemia. That damned dragon is still out there and Ortnit left a wife and son behind him.”
All the knights took a moment to cross themselves at the mention of their dead acquaintance. After a respectful silence they glanced at each other some nervously, some thoughtfully, but each wondering who, if any of them, would reveal his disgrace before the queen and his fellows.
Finally, Kay took a long pull on his ale, ran his right hand across his thin blond beard, stood from his bench, and began, “Well, I’ve never talked about this one journey….”
“What, you? Held your tongue about some particular thing that you’ve done? Are you sure that you’re Kay son of Hector, the king’s foster brother?” Gawain taunted.
“Yes,” the word hissed from Kay’s mouth. “There are some things I never speak of, Gawain. This particular thing happened around a year ago when I was riding through that enchanted forest out near the northern Welsh border. You know, the one where Excalibur used to be stuck in that rock in the glen? As it happened, one morning, I came upon a rather strange looking herdsman on a road through Cantref Mawr.”
“Not a giant, I hope,” said Iwein, between draughts from his beer.
“Yes, but quite so. He was nine feet tall if he was an inch, dark-headed with a huge, bristling beard. He was dirty, smelly, clad in goat skins, and was just standing in a clearing, bold as day, with some bedraggled looking sheep milling about him when I came upon him. He greeted me first, saying in a surprisingly sonorous voice, ‘Good morning, good sir,’ just as I came in sight of him
“Well, as you can imagine, I was rather leery of the fellow, being as I was in an ENCHANTED FOREST (Kay absolutely bellowed the words, to the merriment of his audience), and replied with a fair greeting of my own. Then I asked him, ‘What manner of being are you?’
‘A man, like yourself, only poorly dressed and unshaved,’ came his reply.
‘Are you another’s servant or are these your own sheep?’, I asked.
‘I serve only myself and my kin and the sheep are my own,’ he replied.”
Here Kay paused for a draught of his ale. Then he continued, “Being the King’s foster brother, I asked him, ‘No man’s servant but your own? Don’t you know you have a king?’
‘A king? Since when? I never heard any tell of any king in these parts.’”
Kay paused again. “This last assertion I found hardly believable, so I continued my interrogation.” He cleared his throat.
“‘A king, you know, Arthur, the King of all Britain! This is still Britain, you know!’
‘I suppose it is, but I don’t know of no King, Arthur or any other.’
‘I assure you, he’s your King!’
‘What would you know of it?’
‘I have the privilege of being both his knight and his foster brother!’, I answered, and I have to admit, more than indignity was in my reply. I mustered every iota of pride and confidence in my voice, raised myself up in my saddle, and impressed the prodigiously large shepherd not one bit.”
‘Well, tell me this, foster brother of the king, why do you ride around dressed like that if you could be safe at home in a warm bed in the king’s castle?’
‘I’m a knight, and I ride seeking adventure!’
“Again, my interlocutor was not impressed, and only asked, ‘Why?’”
‘Why seek adventure? I don’t see any point to it. Who wants anything to do with adventure? What does it gain you? I tend my flock, I eat my bread and meat and sleep well at night. What more would any wise man want? What does adventure earn a man but toil and hazard?’
‘Why, it brings honor to my name, to the king whom I serve, to my father, to the Round Table, to Britain,..,;’ and I would have gone on had the shepherd not begun shaking his head and waving his open hands at me dismissively.
‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I can see now that you are a strange sort of man, who’d rather chase adventure than stay by a nice warm fire and eat nice warm food, so I’ll tell you what I know about adventure, you’re so keen on it and all. If you keep riding this road past to the northwest, you’ll come to another clearing, in maybe five miles. There you’ll find a big, oblong stone table with a pitcher in a recess at its base and nearby a brook. You can use the pitcher to get yourself some water from the brook, but drink it all, if you’re smart. It’s very refreshing. You’ll feel like a new man, I dare say, if you drink it. But if you want your adventure, though, don’t drink any of that water. Not a drop. Instead, pour all of it out on the stone. That will deal you more adventure than you might want, judging by the size of you.’”
“But you’re six feet tall!”, exclaimed Guinevere, interrupting the narrative.
“I told you. He was much taller, nine feet if he was an inch,” Kay said sheepishly, “and his taunt had what I suppose to be its desire effect. I shouted, ‘More than I can handle?! Pah!’ And I rode off in a fury, bent on finding the stone table and putting it to the test.”
“Did you?”, asked Erik, wiping ale foam from his moustache as he did.
Kay cast his eyes down, controlling his embarrassment as best he could. Kay enjoyed telling stories, though, and the sight of his friends and sister-in-law regarding him with rapt attention was enough to cool the heat of the flush that took his face. He took another sip on his ale and began again.
“The large fellow was quite wrong about the distance. It was more like seven miles before I reached a clearing matching his description. It was beautiful, almost like the flowering gardens Arthur had made in the fields near here. And there were so many birds singing in the trees, and the sound of the brook was so clear, so nearly like a peel of a myriad of small bells, that I thought I had stumbled upon a concert of minor angels. The giant’s description really didn’t do it justice at all. My heart was so taken with the idyllic splendor of the place that I nearly forgot about the stone table. Then my horse sneezed, I broke from my reverie, and saw it.
“The stone table was huge, round, flat on top, and of a peculiar blue color. There was no pitcher on the top, like the giant had said, so I dismounted to examine it further and found, in a recess in the side of the table facing the brook and therefore hidden from view from the path, a large pitcher of white marble. It showed no sign of wear or use and seemed to be sculpted to fit hands more delicate than its size would tell. I picked it up more to admire its stony grace than to use it as the shepherd had instructed me, but, as I was thirsty, I took it over to the brook, drew water and drank. It was the sweetest water I’d ever tasted! I nearly drained the pitcher, but then, remembering the shepherd’s words, I refilled the pitcher and went to the stone to pour the water out onto its surface.
“But before I let a single drop of water fall onto the stone, I stopped myself. ‘Why am I heeding a giant’s words?’, I thought, suddenly seized with misgiving. ‘What if he told the truth and this really will summon more adventure than I or any other single knight could face alone? Suppose a dozen bloodthirsty giants or two–headed dragon appeared and slew me right here in this strange wood? Would it really serve my honor or Arthur’s to die out here alone, with none knowing why? Or, suppose nothing happens other than I pour out the water on a big blue slab of rock? Nothing happens at all and I spend days feeling like a fool for listening to some trickster of a giant?’ These and other like thoughts coursed through my mind for what seemed like an hour or more but could not have been more than a pair of moments. The end of it was, I poured the water out on the ground and not on the stone table, returned the pitcher to its resting place and rode on. My courage failed me, my queen, my friends, and I have not been able to escape the sense that I failed some important test that day. That, despite the giant’s deprecations, there was something of great gain to be had there.”
In the firelight all could see that Kay’s visage had assumed a downcast aspect. No one spoke for what seemed an uncomfortably long time, and all seemed lost in their own thoughts of deeds undone and chances missed.
Finally, Iwein spoke and asked, “So this was in North Wales or South Wales?”
“The north. Why?”
“Oh, just asking. One likes to know where enchanted forests and giants can be found. We may run short of them someday if we don’t keep track of them.”
“Oh, does one?”, Kay growled. “This is a shameful story, brother knight, and I will thank you not to mock me. Would you have done what the giant said?”
“No. I’d have killed the damned giant, taken the pitcher, and watered my horse with it.”
Erik and Gawain snickered at this, but Kay’s face reddened and the queen just smiled wryly.
“Oh, of a truth, mock me. Some chivalrous heart, yours. But mark my words, you would fare no better than I did if you faced this task.” Kay spoke in measured tones, but his every word was filled with wounded pride, and as he glanced at Erik and Gawain, looking for support, the grins disappeared from their faces.
Iwein sipped his beer before saying, “Maybe not. Maybe I’d do just as you did. In any case, I will find out.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in, and it was Gawain who first spoke with dawning incredulity.
“Now hold a breath, here. You’ll what?”
Kay nearly choked on his beer. Then he asked, still coughing and sputtering, “Just when do you think you will do this? With the French and the Swabians, the Franks, the Austrians, and in fact all the Dukes and Princes of the continent here, we’re all obligated to stay at court!”
Iwein sighed. “You heard the queen, men. The wheels of diplomacy turn most slowly, friend. I’ll go, come back, and have another dead giant to my credit before they even finish agreeing on what they will agree to consider perhaps doing in a year or two. And I’ll find out what the stone table was all about.”
“If you do,” said Kay, “and you come back victorious, I will kiss your horse on the lips in full view of the king.”
“Accepted!”, exclaimed Iwein. “I’ll leave in the morning. While I’m gone, Kay, you’d best practice your kissing. My horse is very particular.”