Iwein: The Knight with the Lion, Chapter Two

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Chapter Two: Riding to Wales in Search of that Enchanted Forest

As promised, Iwein fils de roi Lac rose early the next morning, bathed, dressed, perfumed, armored and armed himself, put on his winter travel cape and boots, and, after giving the stable boy only a mild beating for failing to tighten his saddle adequately, set off in the pale light of false dawn for the Welsh border and for Kay’s Enchanted Forest.

He did not get very far on the first day because of a general lack of urgency in his heart. On the second day he did not get very far due to the weather. As was typical of Berkeshire in the spring in Arthur’s time, the weather turned appallingly wet and cold, forcing Iwein off the mud that used to be a road and into the relative comfort of the Priory of Saint Mary at Hurley.  They took good care of him and his horse, Sable. As things happened, those monks needed to provide their hospitality for three solid days, while it rained, rained some more and rained again. There was little for an outsider to do, aside from reading and praying with the brothers, which Iwein did. The only real conversations he had during those three days came in the time granted for conversation after supper and the vesper reading in evening, and that conversation kept turning to the topic of astronomy. The most interesting of these talks—by far—went something like this:

Brother Prior: Are the stars equally distant from the Earth or are some closer than others?

Brother Aelfrid: I would say that they are all equally distant from the Earth, since that is what bare observation will tell us.

Brother Theodore: Observation also tells us that stars are not equally distant from each other.

Brother Prior: What may we infer from that fact?

Brother Theodore: If the stars are not all equally distant from each other, then they may not all be equally distant from the Earth. Since we know that the Earth, like the stars, is a point fixed in the heavens by God, we may conclude that it, like they, is not equally distant from each of them.

Brother Alfrid: But are they not fixed in the same celestial sphere?

Brother Theodore: Does the sphere have only a surface or is it a thing of depth? If it is a sphere at all it must of need be a thing of depth, for a sphere could not be constituted of that which has no depth. Consider the foam that forms upon the stormy sea and liken the ether bearing the stars and planets to that sea, the stars and planets to bubbles in the foam…

And so on. Iwein began fall asleep when the dialogue reached this point or soon thereafter, and therefore never heard that it could be demonstrated that the Earth is a sphere of finite size, a mere point with respect to the heavens, and that the stars were of varying distances from this point and that these distances could not be told by mere observation but only by application of some fine science called trigonometry. Nor did he hear the subsequent debate about whether or not matter had an ultimate indivisible form.

On the fourth day, the weather cleared somewhat and Iwein, having shaken off that lack of urgency and grown restive in confines of his small guest room with the straw-matted cot to sleep on, conferred with Prior Godwin on the question of resuming his journey as the two of them strolled the stone path between the Chapel and the guest house. This was actually the first opportunity that Prior Godwin had found to speak at length with the sole guest in his house.  It was late in the afternoon, still before vespers, and the vernal light made the damp landscape seem particularly radiant.

Prior Godwin was rather a tall man and was unusually young in appearance for a position of his responsibility, from what little Iwein knew of the religious life. He was also a man who expressed a keen interest in affairs outside his priory in questions like this:

“Tell me, knight. You’ve met the king?”

“Yes, several times. I mean not just in battle or at state occasions. He assembles as many of us as can come at the major feasts of the church to share in the hospitality of his court.”

“He is partly Welsh is he not, on his father’s side?”

“Yes. He looks it, too. He’s dark headed as any you’d find. He’s not a very tall man, somewhere between you and me there,” here he held his hand in the air a pair of inches above his own head. “He’s very stout. And he can sing very well.”

“A very great warrior, I’ve heard,” Prior Godwin stopped for a moment to adjust his sandal, drew a pebble out of it and threw it to the side of the path. “I’ve heard he stormed a fortress in Scotland and took the gate by himself early in his days.”

“Well, he wasn’t completely by himself, but yes, the part about him taking the gate alone is true. He did. I saw it and it was an amazing feat of arms. None could stop him. To stand as foe before him was death.  I’d never seen a man catch a spear in mid-flight, turn it and throw it back through the one who first cast it at him. Arthur did that. I don’t think I could… not I or any other man of war alive.”

“He threw a spear completely through a man?”

“Yes. Completely. The man was not without defense, either. If I live a hundred years, I do not look to see a feat of arms like that again.”

Brother Prior whistled into the air. Then, after a pause, he began again, asking, “He has united Britain as none since Rome. Not even the Danes held the whole land as Arthur does now. And I would know, dearly want to know: Is he a good man?”

“What do you mean by ‘good’? There is only one who is good, and,…’”

“And it’s my job to quote Him, to speak for Him, to preach His word to my monks, yes. My question, knight and duke, is meant in earnest. What sort of king do we truly have in Arthur son of Uther? Since he returned and took the throne for himself, he has ruled well and justly. But Richard did, too, mostly. Finally, his own sins and failings were his downfall.  Is Arthur a man with God on his heart? Does he pray? Does he confess? Does he weep for his enemies as well as his friends? Does he seek the weal of his people or only his own, as his father did? That is what I want to know.”

“Two of those questions I cannot answer,” Iwein began. “I have seen him pray. In fact, that’s one of the ways we tell visitors to find him around the high feasts of the Church. After the bishop and the priests and the monks, he, Arthur, will be the first one to go to prayer and the last one to leave, ceremony be hanged. And he does confess, so I’ve been told, almost every week. But his heart? Who am I to say I know it? It was only three years ago that I was called and then came to the Round Table. I am not yet four-and-twenty, I am not even married, sir. The life I know is war and fighting and, yes, reading and writing– I saw that superiority in your eyes there, brother religious. You should fight harder your own pride.”

If the Prior was stung by Iwein’s words, his mien did not betray it. He nodded impassively and said, “Go on, if you will.”

“But about the king. I would not yet say that I know men, much less the king. I have seen one thing, though, one thing that speaks so well of his character as being that of a good, Christian king. He has always shown mercy on the field of battle when an enemy was down. He never strikes a defeated foe, and he never takes a life if justice and honor don’t demand it. He never kills in wrath or so much as lets fly his hand out of anger. Does that answer your question?”

“What does my countenance tell you, knight? Do I glower? Do I scowl? It is an answer better than I hoped.”

There was a long silence between the two and when conversation began again it concerned more quotidian matters, such as the size of the abbey’s dovecoat and the introduction of the new gear system for the windmill, one based on the work of a German monk who had come to stay with them for about a year. It was only on the following day, and then at dawn, that Iwein was finally able to take his leave of the brothers and begin his travel to the west and Wales. Before setting off, he inquired of the Prior, whose name he learned was Edwin, whether he had heard ought of a strange forest which lay in or near the region of Cantref Mawr.

“Yes, I have,” Prior Godwin replied. “There is a wood near a raised hill atop which sits a castle which is said to be enchanted, so the wood itself has come to be thought bewitched as well. The talk among the working folk is that giants seek the place out and gather there. And that there is—Lord  save us!—some warlock or witch dwelling on the hill near the castle who can shape the weather to his …or her …will.”

“His or her? So, no one’s ever seen this person?”

“No, no. Several over the years have said they saw the person, but some said a man, some said a woman. In any case, the weather seems to turn to benefit the people dwelling there. Sun when they need it, rain when they don’t, and so on. This all seems very unlikely to me, though. That castle is inhabited, you know. There some… ducal family living there, holding the land the liens and all. I don’t know the names, nor any of the politics.”

“A duke and his family… And some mysterious warlock or witch person. This is all very ominously intriguing. Thank you, Prior Godwin. May the Lord keep you until we meet again.”

“And may the Lord be with you on your journey!”

The condition of the roads was better than he had expected, as he set out, though by no means the best one could hope for. The weather had been unusually cool even for a British spring, the season itself had hardly gained ground against the fading remnants of winter. Budding trees and flowering fields were still in their nascence and the damp and the mud made even the Old Roman road running up northwest from the southern midland unpleasant travel. Nights were chilling and for two days he and his horse slept outdoors along the roadside before he finally reached Berkeley and a warm bed. He stayed for two days with local Pauline friars and then renewed his journey westward and toward Cantref Mawr, where he trusted he would find the giant, the table, the spring…all that Kay had described. The road in front of him just seemed to twist and turn endlessly. The hundred greens of the trees and grasses, the fresh, dizzying dance of colour in the array of spring flowers, even the occasional farmer at work in his field began to seem monotonous distractions from his end…

…until he rounded a curve and saw before him, in a thin, level valley between scrubby hills. In the distance there was a herd of sheep on a field which was bordered by light woods, and amid the sheep he saw the figure of a man…or man-like being, at least, once he adjusted his understanding for scale. That was a giant alright, and clad, as far as Iwein could tell, in skins. Iwein spurred his horse forward, closing the ground between them, only slowing again when he reached the outer edge of the herd. He was between eight and nine feet tall, Iwein estimated, his brown hair and beard were long but unusually well-kept, his eyes a dark but lustrous brown. The giant seemed only mildly curious at the arrival of a fully armored knight in his territory, and the huge man only intermittently glanced at Iwein. Instead, shaggy-coated ogre gave much more attention to his herd, guiding his sheep with whistles and calls.

“Hail, herdsman! How goes the day?”, Iwein shouted, cantering Sable and approaching to with thirty yards or so of the giant and his livestock.

“Well enow. It’s a fine, bright day to be out on the fields, is it not? Very welcome after all the rain. That made sleeping in the fields just one long, cold bath.”

Almost in spite of himself, the knight chuckled. He had halted his horse. The giant had stopped, too, leaning on his proportionately enormous shepherd’s staff. Were it not for his size he would have looked like any other herdsman, and even one pleasantly content with his work.

“You haven’t been here before, have you?”, the Giant asked. “A year ago? Perhaps two?”

“No, that was a brother knight. He left a task unfinished. He asked you about an adventure, and you told him about a stone table and a stream.”

The giant now chuckled himself. “He told you about that, did he? Then he’s a humbler man than I took him to be. I thought he would never speak of it.” The giant then raised his right hand and pointed with his forefinger to the northwest, to the wooded area bordering on his pasture. “If you have the heart for adventure, and I mean a challenge whose point is set to the very heart of virtue, the Stone Table is there, up the road, through the trees, following that thin thread of a stream there.” He traced the lay of the land in the air with his finger, then turned back to face Iwein. “Go, take the pitcher you will in a recess in the side of the table, and fill it with water from the stream. Then pour it out on the table and wait.”

“Wait for what?” the knight asked, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle.

The giant only smiled a surprisingly impish smile answered, “Go and find out, knight.”

Iwein nodded, wheeled his horse around and headed in the direction the giant had indicated.

“And fill the jug up to the top!”, the giant called after him. “Then pour it out on the stone table. In the middle. The middle!”

“The middle,” Iwein muttered to himself. He rode on following the track the giant had indicated. It soon turned into a fair excuse for a road once it curved around the woods, and then he found he was riding on what had once been quite a broad paved stone road, but was now significantly overgrown, with young trees hemming it in on either side. He slowed his horse, trying with his eyes to discern the outlines of the road, the shape of the land around it and soon found himself thinking, “There were buildings here, once. Long ago, this was not empty fields and woods. What is under those bushes? And why is this path kept passable? Whose route am I following?”  

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Before he could pursue these thoughts any farther, though, the overgrowth before him thinned out, with the road leading into a broad open field on one side of the road. At the other side the field, nearly in the center of it measured against the length of the road through it, stood a very large stone table. It looked to be about four feet tall from the ground, about twelve feet long, and as he drew close enough to get a good look at it, irregular in width but at the widest about five feet wide. It was weathered, cracked in places, and nearly uniform in color, being a shade of slate blue that, in the wooded environs, was startling. And, as described by Kay and by the giant herdsman, there was a stream running behind it and a recess in the side visible from the road.  In that recess there was a stone pitcher of an alabaster hue. The contrast with the color of the table was startling. More startling, though, was what he saw when he dismounted and walked forward, coming close enough to look straight down at the top. The surface was, he saw, etched with something, pale, thin lines of a shape that looked familiar to him.

He had seen maps before, even maps of the English and French coastlines, such as were made in his day, but he had never seen a complete outline map of the British Isles. None had yet been made in Iwein’s day, and he had certainly never seen one that had the accuracy that you or I would expect from a modern map, showing those coastlines in scale. But there it was, etched into the top of the stone table, a map showing he contour outlines of the British Isles, including Man, Ireland, Skye, all of them, and with the habits of mind shaped by his experience with common maps drawn however carefully on leather or parchment, it was a prodigious leap of inference for him to rightly divine what he saw there depicted, but he did. Another fact he noticed was that the top of the table was completely clean. No fallen leaves, nuts, bird droppings, not even dust obscured its surface. He extended his gloved hand to touch it and was quite startled when the surface immediately nearest his hand began to emit a pale golden light.

He withdrew his hand. The light ceased. He tested the phenomenon twice more with the same result.

“Saint Michael and Saint George, stand with me,” he whispered. “Kay did not mention this.”

For a moment and only a moment he considered doing what Kay had done: leaving with the adventure untried. Then, after thinking to take his horse down to the stream and tie it to a good, sturdy oak a few feet from the point where the road opened into the clearing, he walked back to the table, removed the jug from the recess, filled it in the stream– pausing to take a drink himself—it had been a long ride– and poured all of the water from the jug out onto the top of the stone table in one quick tip of the vessel’s mouth.

            As the water struck the table’s top, the slate blue surface gave forth that pale golden light again, but this time with an intensity that overwhelmed the cloud-muted daylight. Suddenly a massive gust of wind ripped through the clearing, thunder peeled through the sky, and a piercing sound like the sharpest, most brilliant trumpet rose and echoed through the trees. Iwein dropped the jug in the grass. The light grew with the crescendo of sound, and Iwein had to raise his hands to shield his eyes from the glare coming from the table, which itself now entirely suffused in golden light. Then, in a flash, all of sound, light and wind was gone. He lowered his hands to look again at the table and saw at once that there was no sign any water had ever touched its surface. It looked exactly as it had when he had first scrutinized it.

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            He did not have long to reflect on this mystery, for he became then aware of the sound of hoofbeats approaching. He turned to face the stone road and saw at the far end of the field a rider, another knight on a chestnut steed. He was tall, fully armored and armed, and had a green and black cloak flying about him as he sped toward the clearing. As he drew nearer Iwein discerned that this other knight’s raven hued breastplate bore the device of a green gryphon rampant on it and that the device was repeated on his shield.  The workmanship, he could tell at a glance, was excellent. The knight’s face was exposed, for his helmet was without faceplate and his face was livid. The first words he shouted when he reined in his horse to a stop inside the clearing were loaded with palpable rage.

            “Who are you and how dare you use my table?”

            “I am Iwein, a knight and duke. I knew not that it was your table, sir, and only poured out water on it as I had been told to do by that herdsman down the road…”

            “The giant?”

            “Yes. He said nothing of battling one of my own, a fellow knight. Pouring water on the table…it certainly did not seem it would do any harm. I thought…. Certainly I had no real expectation except that of adventure, if the giant was telling the truth, and I meant no insult or ill. Knowing only what he said, how could I have?”

            “That matters little. You would have been better served had you done nothing! Draw your sword and defend yourself!”

            The knight with the Green Gryphon device drew his own sword and advanced on horseback. Iwein drew his blade and spurred his horse forward to meet him. Their blades clashed and sparks flew. It would be thrilling, would it not, if I could report that their skills and strengths were so evenly matched that the battled raged on for what seemed like hours?  It would stir the blood, indeed, if I could say that each combatant pushed the other to previously unparalleled feats of martial prowess and showed himself to be a full-flown paragon of knighthood. The truth is that, although neither was by any measure a knight of poor skills, it became apparent in less than a minute to both Iwein and his opponent that the knight of the Green Gryphon was overmatched.  Iwein easily parried or blocked with his shield nearly every strike the strange knight made, while his own blows lighted on his opponent’s arms and chest repeatedly and hard. They circled each other on their horses, the Green Gryphon knight looking for some advantage, any would do, and Iwein keeping up his guard. He soon noticed the labored breathing of his opponent.

“You may yield, sir. There is no dishonor in it.”

The magnanimous offer only further enraged the Green Gryphon knight, who renewed his inadequate attacks on Iwein. Iwein continued parrying, blocking, and then landed, almost unintentionally, a decisive piercing strike to the opponent’s chest. He drew his blade back and his wounded foe gasped and sagged in his saddle.

“Please, sir, you may yield!” Iwein shouted it and if the other knight perceived the tone of desperation in Iwein’s voice, he understood it wrongly. He grimaced and attempted to raise his sword to strike again only to drop it, slick with his own blood, to the ground. Then, surprising Iwein, the stranger wheeled his horse around and fled across the sward back to the stone road without a word. Iwein hesitated for a moment, but then gave chase.

It was quite chase. The Green Gryphon knight may have been wounded, but his horse was not, and was keen to get its master as far away from the site of the duel as it could, and quickly. The chestnut horse was a fantastic steed, too, putting Iwein’s own proud Sable, also a terrific specimen of equine strength and stamina, to one of the hardest tests of his life. Sable acquitted himself well, and was gaining on the Green Gryphon when they rounded a curve, came into open, and saw on the green hill the castle to which the enemy knight was speeding. Iwein spurred Sable on further, and the distance between them closed yet more. They were now less than a mile from the gates, less than three-quarters of a mile, half a mile…. Iwein could hear voices, shouts coming from men within and atop the walls, from the gatehouse…

He expected a storm of stones, arrows or perhaps even javelins to rain down on him, and set his helm and shield appropriately. He would follow the Green Gryphon in through the gates if he could not catch him outside, and learn who it was he had fought, that was his firm resolution. To his surprise there was no response from the inhabitants of the castle except shouting… in Welsh, which he could not understand. They were clearly going to let both of them through the gate before they took any action. Good.

 Sable charged ahead and the last 800…600…400 yards vanished in in a blaze of speed. Iwein grew close enough to see the nails in the chestnut horse’s shoes and began shouting “Yield, sir!” again, only to be further ignored by the black-clad knight. They raced through the outer gates of the castle and suddenly the leading horse stumbled, as it tried to slow and stop suddenly. There was a crow of armed men inside the outer gates, arranged in a loose semi-circle around the main thoroughfare brandishing polearms and javelins. Sable was so close behind him that he stumbled himself, slid, and fell to one side into the crowd. Iwein was barely able to throw himself from the saddle in time to keep from being hurdled toward the waiting blades of the crowd’s weapons himself. He rolled to the ground and stood, shaking for a moment as he took in the scene.

The Green Gryphon knight’s horse was still moving, nervously among men who were trying to calm it. The enemy knight himself lay on the ground, surrounded by a group of more heavily men, men with full armor and swords, and by two ladies, one attired like him in black and green. And Sable…. With horror Iwein looked on his companion of many battles and saw that he had been pierced and cut in his fall. His right front leg appeared broken. He was bleeding but alive, fear and confusion in his dark animal eyes. Iwein ignored the soldiers around him, drew his sword  and knelt beside Sable. He whispered to him and stroked his nose.

“There, there, my boy…Sable…my poor boy!” His voice caught. “This won’t last long. You’ll run again. You’ll be well, again. But not here,” he continued murmuring to Sable and stroking his neck for a moment and was barely aware of the murmuring people around him as he lined his sword up with Sable’s heart and sunk the blade in, ending the horse’s suffering. As his horse’s last breath fell, he withdrew his blade, dropped it to the ground and raised his hands in surrender. Removing his helm, He wiped tears from each eye with his gloved hands as he shouted at the crowd:

“You all owe me a horse! A good one, like him!”

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