Upon a certain time King Arthur, together with Queen Guinevere and all of his Court, were making progression through that part of his kingdom which was not very near to Camelot. At this time the King journeyed in very great state, and Queen Guinevere had her Court about her, so there were many esquires and pages; wherefore, what with knights, lords, and ladies in attendance, more than six score of people were with the King and Queen.
Now it chanced that at this time the season of the year was very warm, so that when the middle of the day had come the King commanded that a number of pavilions should be spread for their accommodation, wherein that they might rest there until the heat of the day had passed. So the attendants spread three pavilions in a pleasant glade upon the outskirts of the forest.
When this had been done, the King gave command that the tables, whereat they were to eat their mid-day meal, should be spread beneath the shadow of that glade of trees; for there was a gentle wind blowing and there were many birds singing, so that it was very pleasant to sit in the open air.
Accordingly the attendants of the Court did as the King commanded, and the tables were set upon the grass beneath the shade, and the King and Queen and all the lords and ladies of their Courts sat down to that cheerful repast.
Now whiles they sat there feasting with great content of spirit, and with much mirth and goodly talk among themselves, there came of a sudden a great outcry from the woodland that was near by, and therewith there burst forth from the cover of that leafy wilderness a very beautiful white hart pursued by a white brachet of equal beauty. And there was not a hair upon either of these animals that was not as white as milk, and each wore about its neck a collar of gold very beautiful to behold.
The hound pursued the white hart with a very great outcry and bellowing, and the hart fled in the utmost terror. In this wise they ran thrice around the table where King Arthur and his Court sat at meat, and twice in that chase the hound caught the hart and pinched it on its haunch, and therewith the hart leaped away, and all they who sat there observed that there was blood at two places upon its haunch where the hound had pinched it. But each time the hart escaped from the hound, and the hound followed after it with much outcry of yelling so that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere and all their Court were annoyed at the noise and tumult that those two creatures made. Then the hart fled away into the forest again by another path, and the hound pursued it and both were gone, and the baying of the hound sounded more and more distant as it ran away into the woodland.
Now, ere the King and Queen and their Court had recovered from their astonishment at these things, there suddenly appeared at that part of the forest whence the hart and the hound had emerged, a knight and a lady, and the knight was of very lordly presence and the lady was exceedingly beautiful. The knight was clad in half-armor, and the lady was clad in green as though for the chase; and the knight rode upon a charger of dapple gray, and the lady upon a piebald palfrey. With them were two esquires, also clad for the chase.
These, seeing the considerable company gathered there, paused as though in surprise, and whilst they stood so, there suddenly appeared another knight upon a black horse, clad in complete armor, and he seemed to be very angry. For he ran upon the half-armed knight and smote him so sorry a blow with his sword, that the first knight fell down from his horse and lay upon the ground as though dead; whereat the lady who was with him shrieked with great dolor.
Then the full-armed knight upon the black horse ran to the lady and catched her, and he lifted her from her palfrey and laid her across the horn of his saddle, and thereupon he rode back into the forest again. The lady screamed with such vehemence of violent outcry, that it was a great pity to hear her, but the knight paid no attention to her shrieking, but bore her away by main force into the forest.
Then, after he and the lady had gone, the two esquires came and lifted up the wounded knight upon his horse, and then they also went away into the forest and were gone.
All this King Arthur and his Court beheld from a distance, and they were so far away that they could not stay that knight upon the black horse from doing what he did to carry away the lady into the forest; nor could they bring succor to that other knight in half-armor whom they had beheld struck down in that wise. So they were very greatly grieved at what they had beheld and knew not what to think of it. Then King Arthur said to his Court, “Messires, is there not some one of you who will follow up this adventure and discover what is the significance of that which we have seen, and compel that knight to tell why he behaved as he did?”
Upon this Sir Gawaine said, “Lord, I shall be very glad indeed to take upon me this adventure if I have thy leave to do so.” And King Arthur said, “Thou hast my leave.” Then Sir Gawaine said, “Lord, I would that thou would also let me take my younger brother, Gaheris, with me as mine esquire in this undertaking, for he groweth apace unto manhood, and yet he hath never beheld any considerable adventure at arms.” So King Arthur said, “Thou hast my leave to take thy brother with thee.”
At this Gaheris was very glad, for he was of an adventurous spirit, wherefore the thought of going with his brother upon this quest gave him great pleasure.
So they two went to the pavilion of Sir Gawaine, and there Gaheris aided Sir Gawaine as his esquire to don his armor. Then they rode forth upon that quest which Sir Gawaine had undertaken.
Now they journeyed onward for a very considerable distance, following that direction which they bad seen the hart take when it had sped away from before the hound, and, when, from time to time, they would meet some of the forest folk, they would inquire of them whither had fled that white brachet and the white hart, and whither had fled the knight and the lady, and so they followed that adventure apace.
By and by, after a long pass – it being far advanced in the afternoon – they were, suddenly aware of a great uproar of conflict, as of a fierce battle in progress. So they followed this sound, and after a while they came to an open meadowland with very fair and level sward. Here they beheld two knights fighting with great vehemence of passion, and with a very deadly purpose. Then Sir Gawaine said, “What is this? Let us go see.” So he and Gaheris rode forward to where those two knights were engaged, and as they approached, the two knights paused in their encounter, and rested upon their weapons. Then Sir Gawaine said, “Ha! Messires, what is to do and why do ye fight with such passion, the one against the other, in that wise?” Then one of the knights said to Sir Gawaine, “Sir, this does not concern you; ” and the other said, “Meddle not with us, for this battle is of our own choosing.”
“Messires,” said Sir Gawaine, “I would be very sorry to interfere in your quarrel, but I am in pursuit of a white hart and a white brachet that came this way, and also of a knight who hath carried off a lady upon the same pass. Now I would be greatly beholden to ye if you would tell me if ye have seen aught of one or the other.”
Then that knight who had first spoken said, “Sir, this is a very strange matter, for it was upon account of that very white hart and that brachet, and of the knight and the lady that we two were just now engaged in that battle as thou didst behold. For the case is this: We two are two brothers, and we were riding together in great amity when that hart and that hound came hitherward. Then my brother said he very greatly hoped that the white hart would escape from the hound, and I said that I hoped that the hound would overtake the hart and bring it to earth. Then came that knight with that lady, his captive, and I said that I would follow that knight and rescue the lady, and my brother said that he would undertake that adventure.
“Upon these points we fell into dispute; for it appeared to me that I felt great affection for that hound, and my brother felt as extraordinary regard for the white hart, and that as I had first spoken I should have the right to follow that adventure; but my brother felt affection for the hart, and he considered that as he was the elder of us twain, he had the best right to the adventure. So we quarrelled, and by and by we fell to upon that fight in which thou did see us engaged.”
At this Sir Gawaine was very greatly astonished, and he said, “Messires, I cannot understand how so great a quarrel should have arisen from so small a dispute; and, certes, it is a great pity for two brothers to quarrel as ye have done, and to give one another such sore cuts and wounds as I perceive you have both received.”
“Messires,” said the second knight, “I think thou art right, and I now find myself to be very much ashamed of that quarrel.” And the other said, “I too am sorry for what I have done.”
Then Sir Gawaine said, “Sirs, I would be very glad indeed if you would tell me your names.” And the one knight said, “I am called Sir Sorloise of the Forest.” And the other said, “I am called Sir Brian of the Forest.”
Then Sir Sorloise said, “Sir Knight, I would deem it a very great courtesy if thou wouldst tell me who thou art.”
“I would be very glad to do that,” said Sir Gawaine, and therewith he told them his name and condition. Now, when they heard who Sir Gawaine was, those two knights were very greatly astonished and pleased; for no one in all the courts of chivalry was more famous than Sir Gawaine, the son of King Lot of Orkney. Wherefore those two brothers said, “It is certainly a great joy to us to meet so famous a knight as thou art, Sir Gawaine.”
Then Sir Gawaine said, “Sir Knights, that hart and that hound came only a short while ago to where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere and their Courts of lords and ladies were at feast, and there, likewise, all we beheld that knight seize upon the lady and make her captive. Wherefore, I and my brother have come forth upon command of King Arthur for to discover what is the meaning of that which we beheld. Now I shall deem it a very great courtesy upon your part if you will cease from this adventure and will go in amity unto the Court of the King, and will tell him of what ye beheld and of how you quarrelled and of how we met. For otherwise I myself will have to engage ye both, and that would be a great pity; for ye are weary with battle and I am fresh.”
Then these two knights said, “Sir, we will do as you desire, for we have no wish to have to do with so powerful a knight as you.”
Thereupon those two knights departed and went to the Court of King Arthur as Sir Gawaine ordained, and Sir Gawaine and his brother rode forward upon their adventure.
Now, by and by they came nigh to a great river, and there they beheld before them a single knight in full armor, who carried a spear in his hand and a shield hanging to his saddle-bow. Thereupon Sir Gawaine made haste forward and he called aloud to the knight, and the knight paused and waited until Sir Gawaine had overtaken him. And when Sir Gawaine came up to that knight he said, “Sir Knight, hast thou seen a white hart and a white hound pass by this way? And hast thou seen a knight bearing off a captive lady?”
Unto this the knight said, “Yea, I beheld them both, and I am even now following after them with intent to discover whither they are bound.” Then Sir Gawaine said, “Sir Knight, I bid thee not to follow this adventure farther, for I myself am set upon it. Wherefore I desire thee for to give it over so that I may undertake it in thy stead.” “Sir,” said the other knight, speaking with a very great deal of heat, “I know not who thou art, nor do I care a very great deal. But touching the pursuance of this adventure, I do tell thee that I myself intend to follow it to the end and so will I do, let who will undertake to stay me.”
Thereupon Sir Gawaine said, “Messire, thou shalt not go forward upon this adventure unless thou hast first to do with me.” And the knight said, “Sir, I am very willing for that.”
So each knight took such stand upon that field as appeared to him to be best, and each put himself into a posture of defence and dressed his shield and his spear. Then, when they were thus prepared in all ways, they immediately launched forth, the one against the other, rushing together with great speed and with such an uproar that the ground trembled and shook beneath them. So they met together in the midst of the course and the spear of the strange knight burst all into small pieces, but the spear of Sir Gawaine held; wherefore he hurled that knight out of his saddle with such violence that he smote the ground with a blow like an earthquake.
Then Sir Gawaine rode back to where his enemy was (for that knight was unable to arise), and he removed the helmet from the head of the fallen knight and beheld that he was very young and comely.
Now, when the fresh air smote upon the knight’s face, he presently awoke from his swoon and came back unto his senses again, whereupon Sir Gawaine said, “Dost thou yield unto me?” And the knight said, “I do so.” Then Sir Gawaine said, “Who art thou?” And the knight said, “I am called Sir Alardin of the Isles.” “Very well,” said Sir Gawaine; “then I lay my command upon thee in this wise – that thou shalt go to the Court of King Arthur and deliver thyself to him as a captive of my prowess. And thou art to tell him all that thou knowest of the hart and the hound and the knight and the lady. And thou shalt tell him all that hath befallen thee in this assault.
So the knight said that he would do that, and thereupon they parted, the one party going the one way and the other party going the other way.
After that Sir Gawaine and his brother, Gaheris, rode a considerable distance until they came, by and by, through a woodland into an open plain, and it was now about the time of sunset. And they beheld in the midst of the plain a very stately and noble castle with five towers and of very great strength.
And right here they saw a sight that filled them with great sorrow, for they beheld the dead body of that white brachet lying beside the road like any carrion. And they saw that the hound was pierced through with three arrows, wherefore they wist that it had been slain very violently.
Now when Sir Gawaine beheld that beautiful hound lying dead in that wise, he was filled with great sorrow. “What a pity it is,” he cried, “that this noble hound should be slain in this wise; for I think that it was the most beautiful hound that ever I saw in all my life. Here hath assuredly been great treachery against it; for it hath been foully dealt with because of that white hart which it pursued. Now, I make my vow that if I can find that hart I will slay it with mine own hands, because it was in that chase that this hound met its death.”
After that they rode forward toward that castle, and as they drew nigh, lo! they beheld that white hart with the golden collar browsing upon the meadows before the castle.
Now, as soon as the white hart beheld those two strangers, it fled with great speed toward the castle, and it ran into the courtyard of the castle. And when Sir Gawaine beheld the stag, he gave chase in pursuit of it with great speed, and Gaheris followed after his brother.
So Sir Gawaine pursued the white hart into the courtyard of the castle and from thence it could not escape. Then Sir Gawaine leaped him down from his horse and drew his sword and slew the hart with a single blow of his weapon.
This he did in great haste, but when he had done that and it was too late to mend it, he repented him of what he had done very sorely.
Now with all this tumult, there came out the lord and the lady of that castle; and the lord was one of very haughty and noble aspect, and the lady was extraordinarily graceful and very beautiful of appearance. And Sir Gawaine looked upon the lady and he thought he had hardly ever seen so beautiful a dame, wherefore he was more sorry than ever that, in his haste, he had slain that white hart.
But when the lady of the castle beheld the white hart, that it lay dead upon the stone pavement of the court-yard, she smote her hands together and shrieked with such shrillness and strength, that it pierced the ears to hear her. And she cried out, “Oh, my white hart, art thou then dead?” And therewith she fell to weeping with great passion. Then Sir Gawaine said, “Lady, I am very sorry for what I have done, and I would that I could undo it.” Then the lord of that castle said to Sir Gawaine, “Sir, didst thou slay that stag?” “Yea,” said Sir Gawaine. “Sir,” said the lord of the castle, “thou hast done very ill in this matter, and if thou wilt wait a little I will take full vengeance upon thee.” Unto which Sir Gawaine said, “I will wait for thee as long as it shall please thee.”
Then the lord of the castle went into his chamber and clad himself in his armor, and in a little while he came out very fiercely. “Sir,” said Sir Gawaine, “what is thy quarrel with me?” And the lord of the castle said, “Because thou hast slain the white hart that was so dear to my lady.” To the which Sir Gawaine said, “I would not have slain the white hart only that because of it the white brachet was so treacherously slain.” Upon this the lord of the castle was more wroth than ever, and he ran at Sir Gawaine and smote him unawares, so that he clave through the epaulier of his armor and cut through the flesh and unto the bone of the shoulder, so that Sir Gawaine was put to a great agony of pain at the stroke. Then Sir Gawaine was filled with rage at the pain of the wound, wherefore he smote the knight so woful a blow that he cut through his helmet and into the bone beneath, and thereupon the knight fell down upon his knees because of the fierceness of the blow, and he could not rise up again. Then Sir Gawaine catched his helmet and rushed it off from his head.
Upon this the knight said in a weak voice, “Sir Knight, I crave mercy of you, and yield myself to you.”
But Sir Gawaine was very furious with anger because of that unexpected blow which he had received and because of the great agony of the wound, wherefore he would not have mercy, but lifted up his sword with intent to slay that knight.
Then the lady of the castle beheld what Sir Gawaine was intent to do, and she brake away from her damsels and ran and flung herself upon the knight so as to shield him with her own body. And in that moment Sir Gawaine was striking and could not stay his blow; nevertheless, he was able to turn his sword in his hand so that the edge thereof striketh the lady did not smite the lady. But the flat of the sword struck her upon the neck a very grievous blow, and the blade cut her a little, so that the blood ran down her smooth white neck and over her kerchief; and with the violence of the blow the lady fell down and lay upon the ground as though she were dead.
Now when Sir Gawaine beheld that, he thought that he had slain that lady in his haste, and he was all a-dread at what he had done, wherefore he cried, “Woe is me! what have I done?”
“Alas!” said Gaheris, “that was a very shameful blow that thou didst strike; and the shame of it is mine also because thou art my brother. Now I wish I had not come with thee to this place.”
Then Sir Gawaine said to the lord of that castle, “Sir, I will spare thy life, for I am very sorry for what I have done in my haste.”
But the knight of the castle was filled with great bitterness, because he thought that his lady was dead, wherefore he cried out as in despair, “I will not now have thy mercy, for thou art a knight without mercy and without pity. And since thou hast slain my lady, who is dearer to me than my life, thou mayst slay me also. For that is the only service which thou canst now render me.”
But by now the damsels of the lady had come to her where she lay, and the chiefest of these cried out to the lord of the castle, “Ha, sir, thy lady is not dead, but only in a swoon from which she will presently recover.”
Then when the lord of the castle heard that, he fell to weeping in great measure from pure joy; for now that he knew his lady was alive he could not contain himself for joy. Therewith Sir Gawaine came to him and lifted him up from the ground where he was, and kissed him upon the check. Then certain others came and bare the lady away into her chamber, and there in a little while she recovered from that swoon and was but little the worse for the blow she had received.
That night Sir Gawaine, and his brother, Gaheris, abided with the knight and the lady, and when the knight learned who Sir Gawaine was, he felt it great honor to have so famous a knight in that place. So they feasted together that evening in great amity.
Now, after they had refreshed themselves, Sir Gawaine said, “I beseech you, sir, to tell me what was the meaning of the white hart and the white brachet which led me into this adventure.”
To this the lord of the castle (whose name was Sir Ablamor of the Marise) said, “I will do so.” And therewith he spake as follows:
“You must know, sir, that I have a brother who hath always been very dear to me, and when I took this, my lady, unto wife, he took her sister as his wife.
“Now, my brother dwelt in a castle nigh to this, and we held commerce together in great amity. But it befell upon a day that my lady and my brother’s lady were riding through this forest together discoursing very pleasantly. What time there appeared a lady unto them, exceedingly beautiful, and of very strange appearance, for I do not think that either my lady or her sister ever beheld her like before.
“This strange lady brought unto those two ladies a white hart and a white brachet, and the hart and the hound she held each by a silver chain attached to a golden collar that encircled its neck. And the white hart she gave unto my lady and the white brachet she gave unto my lady’s sister. And then she went away leaving them very glad.
But their gladness did not last for very long, for ever since that time there hath been nothing else but discord between my brother and myself, and between my lady and her sister, for the white hound hath ever sought the white hart for to destroy it, wherefore I and my lady have entertained very great offence against my brother and his lady because they did not keep the white brachet at home. So it has come to pass that a number of times we have sought to destroy the hound, so that my brother and his lady have held equal offence against us.
“Now this day it chanced I was toward the outskirts of the forest to the east of us, when I heard a great outcry in the woodland, and by and by the white hart that belonged to my lady came fleeing through the woodland, and the white brachet that belonged to my brother’s lady was in pursuit of it; and my brother and his lady and two esquires followed rapidly after the hart and the brachet.
“Then I was very greatly angered, for it seemed to me that they were chasing that white hart out of despite of my lady and myself, wherefore I followed after them with all speed.
“So I came upon them at the outskirts of the woodland, nigh to where there were a number of pavilions pitched in the shade of a glade of trees in the midst of the meadow, and there, in mine anger, I struck my brother a great blow so that I smote him down from his horse. And I catched his lady and I threw her across the horn of my saddle and I bore her here away to this castle, and here I have held her out of revenge because they pursued the white hart which belonged to my lady. For my lady loved that hart as she loved nothing else in the world, excepting myself.”
“Sir,” said Sir Gawaine, “this is a very strange matter. Now I beseech thee to tell me of what appearance was that lady who gave the white hart and the white hound unto those two ladies?” “Messire,” said the knight, “she was clad all in crimson, and about her throat and arms were a grea many ornaments of gold beset with stones of divers colors, and her hair was red like gold and was enmeshed in a net of gold, and her eyes were very black and shone with exceeding brightness, and her lips were like coral, so that she possessed a very strange appearance.”
“Ha!” said Sir Gawaine, “from this description methinks that lady could have been none other than the sorceress Vivien. For now she spendeth all of her time in doing such mischief as this by means of her enchantment, out of pure despite. And, indeed, I think it would be a very good thing if she were put out of this world so that she could do no more such mischief. But tell me, Messire, where now is that lady, thy wife’s sister?” “Sir,” said the knight, “she is in this castle and is a prisoner of honor.” “Well,” quoth Sir Gawaine, since now both the hart and the hound are dead, ye can assuredly bear no more enmity toward her and your brother, wherefore I do beseech you that you will let her go free, and will enter again into a condition of amity and good-will the one with the other, in such a manner as hath afore obtained between you.” And the lord of the castle said, “Sir, it shall be so.” And so he set the lady free at that time, and thereafter there was amity between them as Sir Gawaine had ordained.
And the next day Sir Gawaine and his brother, Gaheris, returned unto this Court of the King and he told King Arthur and his Court all that had befallen, hiding nothing from them.
Now, Queen Guinevere was very much displeased when she heard how Sir Gawaine would show no mercy to that knight and how he had struck the lady with his sword. Wherefore she said aside to one of those who stood nigh to her, “It seems to me to be a very strange thing for a belted knight to do, to refuse to give mercy unto a fallen enemy and to strike a lady with his sword; for I should think that any sword that had drawn blood from a lady in such wise would be dishonored for aye; and I cannot think that anyone who would strike a lady in that wise would hold himself guiltless unto his vow of knighthood.”
This Sir Gawaine overheard and he was exceedingly wroth thereat. But he concealed his anger at that time. Only after he had gone away he said to Gaheris, his brother, “I believe that lady hateth me with all her heart; but some time I will show to her that I have in me more courtesy and am more gentle than she believes me to be. As for my sword, since she deemeth it to be dishonored by that blow, I will not use it any more.” So he took the sword out of its sheath and brake it across his knee and flung it away.
Now all this hath been told to set forth that which follows; for there ye shall learn what great things of nobility Sir Gawaine could do when it behooved him to do them. For, haply, ye who have read this story may feel as Queen Guinevere did, that Sir Gawaine was not rightwise courteous as a belted knight should have been in that adventure aforetold.