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Chapter 3 – Knights of the Table Round

Mark TwainMay 20, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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MAINLY the Round Table talk was monologues —
narrative accounts of the adventures in which
these prisoners were captured and their friends and
backers killed and stripped of their steeds and armor.
As a general thing — as far as I could make out —
these murderous adventures were not forays undertaken
to avenge injuries, nor to settle old disputes or sudden
fallings out; no, as a rule they were simply duels between strangers — duels between people who had never
even been introduced to each other, and between
whom existed no cause of offense whatever. Many a
time I had seen a couple of boys, strangers, meet by
chance, and say simultaneously, “I can lick you,” and
go at it on the spot; but I had always imagined until
now that that sort of thing belonged to children only,
and was a sign and mark of childhood; but here were
these big boobies sticking to it and taking pride in it
clear up into full age and beyond. Yet there was something very engaging about these great simple-hearted
creatures, something attractive and lovable. There did
not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so
to speak, to bait a fish-hook with; but you didn’t seem
to mind that, after a little, because you soon saw that
brains were not needed in a society like that, and indeed would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled its symmetry — perhaps rendered its existence impossible.

There was a fine manliness observable in almost every
face; and in some a certain loftiness and sweetness that
rebuked your belittling criticisms and stilled them. A
most noble benignity and purity reposed in the countenance of him they called Sir Galahad, and likewise in the
king’s also; and there was majesty and greatness in
the giant frame and high bearing of Sir Launcelot of
the Lake.

There was presently an incident which centered the
general interest upon this Sir Launcelot. At a sign
from a sort of master of ceremonies, six or eight of the
prisoners rose and came forward in a body and knelt
on the floor and lifted up their hands toward the ladies’
gallery and begged the grace of a word with the queen.
The most conspicuously situated lady in that massed
flower-bed of feminine show and finery inclined her
head by way of assent, and then the spokesman of the
prisoners delivered himself and his fellows into her
hands for free pardon, ransom, captivity, or death, as
she in her good pleasure might elect; and this, as he
said, he was doing by command of Sir Kay the Seneschal, whose prisoners they were, he having vanquished
them by his single might and prowess in sturdy conflict
in the field.

Surprise and astonishment flashed from face to face
all over the house; the queen’s gratified smile faded
out at the name of Sir Kay, and she looked disappointed; and the page whispered in my ear with an
accent and manner expressive of extravagant derision —

“Sir KAY, forsooth! Oh, call me pet names, dearest, call me a marine! In twice a thousand years shall
the unholy invention of man labor at odds to beget the
fellow to this majestic lie!”

Every eye was fastened with severe inquiry upon Sir
Kay. But he was equal to the occasion. He got up
and played his hand like a major — and took every
trick. He said he would state the case exactly according to the facts; he would tell the simple straightforward tale, without comment of his own; “and then,”
said he, “if ye find glory and honor due, ye will give
it unto him who is the mightiest man of his hands that
ever bare shield or strake with sword in the ranks of
Christian battle — even him that sitteth there!” and he
pointed to Sir Launcelot. Ah, he fetched them; it
was a rattling good stroke. Then he went on and told
how Sir Launcelot, seeking adventures, some brief time
gone by, killed seven giants at one sweep of his sword,
and set a hundred and forty-two captive maidens free;
and then went further, still seeking adventures, and
found him (Sir Kay) fighting a desperate fight against
nine foreign knights, and straightway took the battle
solely into his own hands, and conquered the nine; and
that night Sir Launcelot rose quietly, and dressed him
in Sir Kay’s armor and took Sir Kay’s horse and gat
him away into distant lands, and vanquished sixteen
knights in one pitched battle and thirty-four in another;
and all these and the former nine he made to swear
that about Whitsuntide they would ride to Arthur’s
court and yield them to Queen Guenever’s hands as
captives of Sir Kay the Seneschal, spoil of his knightly
prowess; and now here were these half dozen, and the
rest would be along as soon as they might be healed of
their desperate wounds.

Well, it was touching to see the queen blush and
smile, and look embarrassed and happy, and fling furtive glances at Sir Launcelot that would have got him
shot in Arkansas, to a dead certainty.

Everybody praised the valor and magnanimity of Sir
Launcelot; and as for me, I was perfectly amazed,
that one man, all by himself, should have been able to
beat down and capture such battalions of practiced
fighters. I said as much to Clarence; but this mocking featherhead only said:

“An Sir Kay had had time to get another skin of
sour wine into him, ye had seen the accompt doubled.”

I looked at the boy in sorrow; and as I looked I saw
the cloud of a deep despondency settle upon his countenance. I followed the direction of his eye, and saw that
a very old and white-bearded man, clothed in a flowing
black gown, had risen and was standing at the table
upon unsteady legs, and feebly swaying his ancient
head and surveying the company with his watery and
wandering eye. The same suffering look that was in
the page’s face was observable in all the faces around
— the look of dumb creatures who know that they must
endure and make no moan.

“Marry, we shall have it a again,” sighed the boy;
“that same old weary tale that he hath told a
thousand times in the same words, and that he WILL tell
till he dieth, every time he hath gotten his barrel full
and feeleth his exaggeration-mill a-working. Would
God I had died or I saw this day!”

“Who is it?”

“Merlin, the mighty liar and magician, perdition
singe him for the weariness he worketh with his one
tale! But that men fear him for that he hath the
storms and the lightnings and all the devils that be in
hell at his beck and call, they would have dug his entrails out these many years ago to get at that tale and
squelch it. He telleth it always in the third person,
making believe he is too modest to glorify himself —
maledictions light upon him, misfortune be his dole!
Good friend, prithee call me for evensong.”

The boy nestled himself upon my shoulder and pretended to go to sleep. The old man began his tale;
and presently the lad was asleep in reality; so also were
the dogs, and the court, the lackeys, and the files of
men-at-arms. The droning voice droned on; a soft
snoring arose on all sides and supported it like a deep
and subdued accompaniment of wind instruments.
Some heads were bowed upon folded arms, some lay
back with open mouths that issued unconscious music;
the flies buzzed and bit, unmolested, the rats swarmed
softly out from a hundred holes, and pattered about,
and made themselves at home everywhere; and one of
them sat up like a squirrel on the king’s head and held
a bit of cheese in its hands and nibbled it, and dribbled
the crumbs in the king’s face with naive and impudent
irreverence. It was a tranquil scene, and restful to the
weary eye and the jaded spirit.

This was the old man’s tale. He said:

“Right so the king and Merlin departed, and went
until an hermit that was a good man and a great leech.
So the hermit searched all his wounds and gave him
good salves; so the king was there three days, and then
were his wounds well amended that he might ride and
go, and so departed. And as they rode, Arthur said,
I have no sword. No force *, said Merlin, hereby is a
[* Footnote from M.T.: No matter.]
sword that shall be yours and I may. So they rode till
they came to a lake, the which was a fair water and
broad, and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of
an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword
in that hand. Lo, said Merlin, yonder is that sword
that I spake of. With that they saw a damsel going
upon the lake. What damsel is that? said Arthur.
That is the Lady of the lake, said Merlin; and within
that lake is a rock, and therein is as fair a place as any
on earth, and richly beseen, and this damsel will come
to you anon, and then speak ye fair to her that she will
give you that sword. Anon withal came the damsel
unto Arthur and saluted him, and he her again.
Damsel, said Arthur, what sword is that, that yonder
the arm holdeth above the water? I would it were
mine, for I have no sword. Sir Arthur King, said the
damsel, that sword is mine, and if ye will give me a gift
when I ask it you, ye shall have it. By my faith, said
Arthur, I will give you what gift ye will ask. Well,
said the damsel, go ye into yonder barge and row yourself to the sword, and take it and the scabbard with
you, and I will ask my gift when I see my time. So
Sir Arthur and Merlin alight, and tied their horses to
two trees, and so they went into the ship, and when
they came to the sword that the hand held, Sir Arthur
took it up by the handles, and took it with him. And
the arm and the hand went under the water; and so
they came unto the land and rode forth. And then Sir
Arthur saw a rich pavilion. What signifieth yonder
pavilion? It is the knight’s pavilion, said Merlin,
that ye fought with last, Sir Pellinore, but he is
out, he is not there; he hath ado with a knight of
yours, that hight Egglame, and they have fought
together, but at the last Egglame fled, and else he had
been dead, and he hath chased him even to Carlion,
and we shall meet with him anon in the highway. That
is well said, said Arthur, now have I a sword, now will
I wage battle with him, and be avenged on him. Sir,
ye shall not so, said Merlin, for the knight is weary of
fighting and chasing, so that ye shall have no worship
to have ado with him; also, he will not lightly be
matched of one knight living; and therefore it is my
counsel, let him pass, for he shall do you good service
in short time, and his sons, after his days. Also ye
shall see that day in short space ye shall be right glad
to give him your sister to wed. When I see him, I will
do as ye advise me, said Arthur. Then Sir Arthur
looked on the sword, and liked it passing well.
Whether liketh you better, said Merlin, the sword or
the scabbard? Me liketh better the sword, said Arthur.
Ye are more unwise, said Merlin, for the scabbard is
worth ten of the sword, for while ye have the scabbard
upon you ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so
sore wounded; therefore, keep well the scabbard always
with you. So they rode into Carlion, and by the way
they met with Sir Pellinore; but Merlin had done such
a craft that Pellinore saw not Arthur, and he passed by
without any words. I marvel, said Arthur, that the
knight would not speak. Sir, said Merlin, he saw you
not; for and he had seen you ye had not lightly departed. So they came unto Carlion, whereof his
knights were passing glad. And when they heard of
his adventures they marveled that he would jeopard his
person so alone. But all men of worship said it was
merry to be under such a chieftain that would put his
person in adventure as other poor knights did.”

 

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