Lancelot and Elainel
A story adapted from the romantic verse by Chretien of Troyes
King Arthur's Crown
King Arthur, while wandering as a lad in Lyonesse, found the mouldering bones of two kings who had slain each other. The two kings were brothers and their deaths were deemed so terrible that no one dared touch the remains. Among the rusty armour lay a kingly crown studded with diamonds which Arthur picked up and carelessly set upon his head, whereupon a prophetic voice murmured: 'Lo, likewise you will be king.'
Since becoming King, Arthur had held a joust every year at Camelot with a jewel from the crown as a prize. At every one of these eight jousts so far, Lancelot had easily borne away the prize - his very name on the lists was almost enough to secure him victory. One last diamond remained to be won and Lancelot intended to add it to the others and present it as a set to Queen Guinevere, ensnaring her royal fancy with this boon.
|Lancelot and the Queen
King Arthur sympathised with Queen Guinevere when she became sick: 'You will miss the great deeds of Lancelot at the jousts.'
Guinevere languidly lifted her eyes and looked at Lancelot standing at the King's side: 'Stay with me while I am sick; my love is more than diamonds.'
Loyal to the Queen's every wish and misunderstanding the Queen's meaning, Lancelot told King Arthur a lie: 'My old wound is troubling me and I shall be unable to take part in the jousts.'
Though disappointed, Arthur accepted Lancelot's reason and left the two together, whereupon Guinevere sharply questioned Lancelot: 'Why do you not go to the jousts? Will not the knights and crowds murmur that we are taking our pastime behind the King's back?'
Vexed at having lied for no reason, Lancelot answered: 'That summer when you first loved me, you would take no more notice of the crowd than a cricket; as for the knights, I can silence them with ease. Are you now weary of my love and service, and truer to your faultless lord King?'
Guinevere laughed with scorn: 'Arthur! My faultless King? That passionate perfection. He is all fault who has no fault at all. The man who loves me must have a touch of earth about him. I am yours, as you know, not Arthur's. Now go to the jousts and quieten all the voices.'
'How can I now appear? I have given my word to Arthur.'
'Knights go down before your lance at the merest touch because of the lustre of your name; so hide it and go unknown.' Guinevere then kissed Lancelot and added: 'By this kiss you will win and the King will approve your pretext.'
Lancelot and Elaine
Lancelot took his departure, mounted his steed and with no thought as to direction, took a green road off the well-trodden track and lost in a fancy, he wandered aimlessly. Seemingly directed by fate he came upon a castle, home of the lord Astolat, his son Torre and his daughter Elaine, mother of the house. This was the same Elaine who had once helped him in his search for Guinevere when she was held captive by Meleagant.
All three greeted Lancelot in the castle court with Elaine, the lily maid, standing slightly abashed in the rear. The lord of Astolat inquired of his guest: 'From whence have you come and by what name livest between the lips?'
'I come from King Arthur's court at Camelot where I intend to joust for the diamond. Do not ask me my name but take my shield and pray lend me another, if you have such?'
'Here take Torre's shield,' the lord said offering a shield to the knight and adding with a laugh: 'It is blank enough. At the last joust my son was hurt in first tilt . . . it is just a jest amongst us. My daughter Elaine dreamed that someone put a diamond in her hand and it was too slippery to hold and fell into a stream. So my son said that if he won the diamond at the joust she had better keep it safely.'
'Give me leave, father, to accompany this noble knight to Camelot. Win or not, I will do my best.'
'Grace me, my friend,' Lancelot agreed, 'I need a guide and you may yet win the large diamond and yield it to this fair maiden.'
'A diamond is for queens, not simple maids,' answered Tore; and Elaine, holding her eyes upon the ground, flushed a little at this disparagement.
Lancelot looked to her: 'What is fair is only for what is fair. This maiden's wearing of a jewel as fair as any found on earth would not violate the bond of like to like.'
Elaine lifted her eyes and saw in his face, as she had seen at their first meeting, the great and guilty love that he bore for the Queen. Bruised and bronzed, battle marred was his face but behind the sword cuts, Elaine saw the love he bore for his lord King Arthur and the moods that drove him into wanderings and solitude. And then, for all his agonies, he seemed the goodliest man, a noble man, and though being half his age, she knew she loved him.
That evening the lord of Astolat entertained the great knight with meat and vintage of the best, interesting talk and minstrel melody. Lancelot spoke with courtly grace but whenever Elaine noted the smile dying on his lips and a cloud of melancholy overcoming his face, she strove to cheer him up and again he would become all tenderness and manners.
They all retired for the night but Elaine could not rest: his face lived before her, splendid, full of noble ideals, holding her all night long from her sleep.
In the morning she rose to bid farewell to her brother and found Lancelot mounting his horse in the castle court. Catching sight of Elaine in the dewy light, Lancelot was amazed - he had not dreamed she was so beautiful. Suddenly, a wild desire came over her: 'Noble lord, will you wear my favour at the joust?'
'Nay, I have never worn favour of any lady in the lists.'
'Needs must rule, my lord - lesser chance that anyone will recognise you.'
'True, my child; fetch it to me.'
She brought him a red sleeve embroidered with pearls which he bound on his helmet. Since Torre had already given him his unblazoned shield, Lancelot handed his own to Elaine: 'Do me this grace, my child, hold my shield till I come.'
'Twice today I am your squire,' she said with a laugh.
The two knights rode away and had disappeared into the distance before Elaine tore her eyes away from her loved one. She then climbed the tower to be alone with her shield and fantasy.
|Gawain and Elaine
At the jousts, no matter whether kings, dukes, counts or barons, Lancelot overthrew them all. 'How then? Who? This cannot be Lancelot who never wears a lady's favour,' cried all the knights and in their fury all bore down on Lancelot at once. A spear lamed Lancelot's horse and as he fell another pieced his own side.
Torre rushed forward with another horse and sweating with agony, Lancelot miraculously mounted again and drove all the knights back to the barrier. 'The prize is yours,' the knights shouted.
'No diamonds!' Lancelot shouted. 'For God's love, give me a little air! My prize is death!' Helped by young Torre, Lancelot staggered away from the field and was soon lost to sight.
Hidden from the world in grove of poplars and aspen trees, Torre pulled the lance free from Lancelot's side and with the pain, Lancelot swooned away. The faithful Torre staunched the wound and stayed to nurse him, not knowing if he would live or die.
King Arthur, seeing that the unknown knight who had won the day had gone away sorely wounded charged Lord Gawain: 'Go forth and find the knight. He must not pass uncared for and do not cease from your quest till you find him.'
Gawain set out, taking the diamond with him.
The King returned to Guinevere a little recovered from her sickness. 'Where is Lancelot? Is he not with you? Did he not win the prize?' Guinevere asked with surprise.
'Nay but one just like him.'
'But it was him!' Guinevere said and explained how Lancelot had pretended to be injured so he could joust unknown.
'Good news for all who love him,' said Arthur, 'he is no more a lonely heart for he wore a maiden's favour, but bad news that he left the field sorely wounded and goodly hopes are mine that he recovers well.'
'Yea, lord, your goodly hopes are mine,' Guinevere choked, turning away to hide her face. Alone in her chamber, Guinevere flung herself upon the bed and writhed, clenching her fingers till they bit the palm and shrieking out: 'Traitor!'
Meanwhile, Gawain had searched everywhere to no avail until he came upon the castle of Astolat where he explained his quest.
'Look no further,' the lord of Astolat answered, 'the knight you seek has left his shield here and he will come for it himself.'
When Gawain explained that the unknown knight had won the diamond but was wounded, Elaine caught her breath as though feeling the sharp lance in her own side and swooned away.
Gawain stayed at Astolat to wait for the knight to return, casting his eyes upon fair Elaine.With flashing wit, golden eloquence, sighs, slow smiles and amorous admiration, he began to play upon her until she rebelled against it: 'Why do you not ask to see the shield that the knight left where you might learn his name.'
When Gawain saw the azure lions crowned with gold, he smote his thigh: 'Lancelot!'
'True,' Elaine replied, 'the knight who I dreamed the greatest knight of all.'
'And do I dream that you love this greatest knight of all? Do I waste myself in vain.'
'I do not know if I know what true love is; but if I know, there is none other that I love.'
'Yea, in God's truth, you love him well. But do you know what others know?
Whom he loves?'
Elaine knew but just said: 'So be it.'
'One golden minute's grace,' said Gawain, 'far be it from me to cross the mighty Lancelot - I leave the diamond with you.' Gawain then lightly kissed her hand before putting the diamond into it and was singing a love ballad as he rode away towards Camelot.
King Arthur was none too pleased that Gawain had ceased his quest for Lancelot: 'Obedience is the courtesy due to kings,' he rebuked.
In his resentment, Gawain told everyone about the maid of Astolat. Ears pricked and tongues were loosed. Some read the King's face, some the Queen's, some marvelled, but most presumed the maid unworthy.
At banquet knights drank to Lancelot and the lily maid and smiled at each other. Guinevere, holding her passion, tightened her lips, felt the knot in her throat, pressed her feet hard against the floor and hated all those who smiled.
Elaine asked her father if she could fulfill Gawain's quest and give the diamond to Lancelot with her own hand. Her father reluctantly agreed: 'Being so willful, you must go.' Slipping out of the castle she found her father's words humming in her ear but changed a little to: 'Being so willful , you die.' Just as a bee buzzes at us, she shook the words off but it echoed in her heart.
She found her brother Torre tending Lancelot in a cave. Lancelot lay on wolf's skin, unsleek and unshorn, gaunt like a skeleton of himself. His large black eyes, larger through leanness, merely stared at her as she explained her presence. When his eyes began to eventually glisten, Elaine wondered: 'Are they bright for me?'
Kneeling by his side, she laid the diamond in his open hand and as her face came close to his, he kissed her. She slipped like water to the floor. 'Alas your ride has wearied you,' he said. Quickly rising, she said: 'No rest for me,' and began to tend him. Everyday. Brain-feverous he may have been, uncourteous with pain but she sweetly nursed him, meeker and milder than any mother to her sick child.
When Lancelot had fully recovered, all three returned to Astolat where Lancelot told Elaine: 'Such service have done to me that ask me of some goodly gift. Speak the wish most dear to your heart.'
Suddenly, passionately, she blurted out: 'I have gone mad; I love you. Let me die!'
'What's this?' asked Lancelot in surprise.
'Your love, your love, I want your love, to be your wife!'
'Sweet Elaine, if I had chosen to wed I would have wedded earlier.'
'No! No! I care not to be your wife but to be with you, to see your face, to serve you and follow you through the world.'
'Nay! That cannot be - to bring dishonour upon your father and your brother! Nay, noble maid, this is not love but love's first flash of youth. Yield your flower of life to one more fitly yours, not thrice your your age. In all your quarrels I will be your knight, dear damsel, but more than this I cannot do.'
Elaine went deathly pale. 'Of all this will I nothing,' she exclaimed and fell into a faint. Lancelot and Torre bore her to the tower where she lay listless.
Her father became worried. 'I fear that this flash will strike my blossom dead,' he told Lancelot. 'You are too courteous. Use some rough discourtesy to break her passion.'
So Lancelot departed, taking back his shield and mounting his horse in the courtyard knowing that she would hear the hooves upon the stones and would watch him from the tower. Not glancing up, nor waving his hand, nor bidding farewell, he sadly rode away - the one discourtesy he had displayed.
Elaine sat in her tower, broken-hearted, left to fight out her grief. The woe of loving and not being loved robbed her cheek of her colour and slowly, listlessly, her life began to ebb away.
Feeling her death approaching, she offered her languid hands to her father and brother: 'Father, you have never yet denied my fancies, do not deny me now. Remember w hen the mute boatman used to take us up the river in the barge and you would not let me pass the cape. Well, when the heat has gone from my heart, place me in the stately barge and let the mute boatman steer me past the cape until I find the palace of the King. And dearest brother, write me a letter to carry in my hand for Lancelot and the Queen and for all the world.'
Her father promised, whereupon she almost became cheerful, but it was more in the fantasy than the blood and it was plain to see the end of the lily maid of Astolat was near. Like a distant friend, death called to her. Ten slow mornings passed and on the eleventh her father laid the letter in her hand, closed the hand upon it and watched her die.
At the palace Lancelot had sought audience with the Queen to give her the hard-won diamonds, all nine of them won with bruise and blow: 'Lady, my liege, in whom I have my joy, take what I have won - they are only for you.'
A cold passive hand received the diamonds and laid them carelessly aside on a table. 'Diamonds for me!' she exclaimed bitterly. 'Not for me! For her! For your new fancy. Add my diamonds to her pearls, deck her with these! Tell her she shines me down . . . nay, she shall not have them!' With her final words Guinevere picked up the diamonds and flung them through the window into the stream flowing below.
Not understanding her mood and aghast at her deed, Lancelot leaned out of the window to trace the jewels and saw beyond, drifting slowly downstream, the barge carrying the lily maid of Astolat. The mute boatman paused at the palace steps and King Arthur ordered two knights to reverently carry the maid into the hall.
Lancelot came down to look compassionately upon her. Even the Queen took pity. Arthur took the letter from the stiff hand of the lily maid and read it aloud in the midst of the awe-struck court: 'Sir Lancelot of the Lake, you left me taking no farewell. Take my last farewell of you. I loved you and my love had no return; so my true love has been my death.'
Lancelot explained to the court: 'How heavy is my heart at this gentle maiden's death. She was good and true and loved me but I swear that I gave no cause for suc h a love, a love that was beyond all love in women that I have known. Her father and brother will testify that I tried to break her love with discourtesy by not bidding her farewell - against my nature. Had I dreamt the damsel would die I would have put my wits to some rough use and helped her from herself.'
Touched by the story of the maiden's love, King Arthur bade Lancelot fulfill her last request and lay her to rest. Queen Guinevere told Lancelot: 'You might at least have done her so much grace, fair lord, as would have helped her from her death.'
Lancelot raised his head, their eyes met and Guinevere's fell. 'Dear Queen,' he said, 'she would not be content save I wedded her which could not be. She wanted to follow me through the world and this could not be. This she would not accept.'
Elaine was buried in a richly shrine like a queen with rites and mass and rolling music with Lancelot's shield at her feet and a lily in her hand.
Afterwards, Guinevere drew near to Lancelot and whispered: 'Forgive me, Lancelot, mine was jealousy in love.'
Haunted by remorse for his involuntary crime, Lancelot again wandered away from Camelot.