Encyclical

What with one thing and another he’d been separated from his hunting party and brother knights and though they were no more than a morning’s ride from King Mark’s castle Sir Gawain (of Arthur’s knights the very paragon of gentility) found himself lost yet again. “Some strange adventure is this,” quotha, “and dark these woods.” He spun a tale and eke another to himself before coming to the other side, and marveled to see a vast plain spread out before him and a court thereon assembled. “I will assay it, and bear report to Mark the king of what passes in his domain,” and, so saying, descended unto the court.

A strange court indeed. A young man of the most unaffected simplicity, whose face was the very index of his mind, sat a high bench against a woman of twenty-six or twenty-seven, bound hand and foot like a criminal, with the most noble, the most agreeable, the most interesting visage, rendered yet a thousand times more piquant by that tender and touching air innocence contributes to the traits of beauty. Sir Gawain marveled at the abuses piled upon her by the young man, and vowed in his heedless heart to rescue her, an he could.

“Oh, Monsieur,” she sobbed, “unbend, I beseech you; be so generous as to relieve me without requiring what would be so costly I should rather offer you my life than submit to it!”

“Tell us,” commanded the young man, “why so strange an animal as man was made? and if the Emperor of the Ottomans concerns himself with the comfort of the mice on board his ships?”

“I pray you, tell me what this means,” said Sir Gawain of a good old man standing off to the side, “and why she cries so.”

“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “I am entirely ignorant of the event you mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.”

And Sir Gawain was sore perplexed, and not a little outraged.

Perfect Gentility

There’s a weird rule at the house and it’s this: anything you get during the day you have to give to the host during dinner, and it’s a pretty broad interpretation of things you can get. When Sir Gawain gets in trouble it’s over a kiss. He doesn’t go out of his way to get the kiss – married women aren’t usually his thing – but he doesn’t normally pass up the opportunity to pitch a little woo with a beautiful lady, either. If she’s married it’s her look out.

Anyway, they fool around for a while – more or less innocently – and he feels like the cat who ate the canary until the host leans across the table during dinner and fixes him with a stare that’d do an auger proud.

“What?” says Sir Gawain, except he says it a little bit more politely than that.

The host coughs and keeps boring into him with his eyes. Sir Gawain starts to get annoyed. “Look,” he says, “if this is about my staying here this morning, I told you, I’ve got this pulled muscle, I can’t go hunting–“

The host shakes his head and laughs. “I want my kiss,” he says, and Sir Gawain tries his best to set the wife on fire with his eyes but the guards at either end of the hall have pulled out their swords and there’s not much else for it except to make out with the host for a while.

It’s not that bad, really, but when the wife slips into his room the next morning with nothing on but a smile he’s pretty firm about how badly pulled his muscles are.

Mrs. Frisby and the Knight of the Round Table

Sir Gawain had a talent and this was it: being of fairy blood (long story), he gained in strength all the morning long, until it was the strength of ten men that he was having, and after that declined until at evening he was no more than a doughty knight might have reason to expect to be. And so it was that the genteel knight did such deeds of arms before noon that all who saw him marvelled to see such things wrought, and cried that never was such a knight seen upon the earth, unless it were Sir Launcelot or Sir Tristram (or, in earlier times, Sir Lamorak, but Gawain’s brothers killed him out of spite; or, Sir Palomides, but he was heathen and not to be counted, which caused the redoubtable knight much consternation).

But certain it was that Sir Gawain had a talent, too, for finding strange adventures and running afoul of enchaunters, and after one such encounter found himself alone and no larger than the palm of his hand.

“Surely,” said Sir Gawain, “such a trial has beset no knight before; or, if indeed it has (and I hesitate to say it may not be so), never did the report find its way neither to Orkney nor to Tintagel.” And Sir Gawain was much tasked to discover a way out of his predicament.

Crossing a field, he was set upon by a large and villainous cat, and, it being evening, was sore put to defend himself. “No knightly death is this,” quotha, “done in by Sir Puss!” And so saying withdrew himself with much distress into a mousehole in the soft ground behind a large boulder.

“Who’s there?” piped the mouse that lived there. “Did Nicodemus send you?”

“Madam,” said Sir Gawain, and swept a bow (for such was his courtesy, that extended e’en to the beasts of the field), “I must own that he did not, and it was only for shelter from yon cat that I fled hence.”

“Well, that’s all right, I suppose,” said the mouse. “We all help each other against the cat.”

The Tale of Gawain

Sir Gawain, that most parfait gentil knight, who killed a woman (just once!) and cut off a man’s head before sleeping with his wife (it’s complicated!), came upon a strange building while out a-questing.

This was all during the search for the Sangreal, of course, and things were different then.

It was almost a ruin, and weirdly built, with columns a-tilt before a garden that bore, beneath the wrack of the weeds, the faint imprint of a careful and miniature design. The doors were flimsy things, and opened sideways. Sir Gawain sent his dwarf ahead to beg admittance, “For here,” (said he) “is doubtless some rare adventure, and, if not apt to the Sangreal, may yet be a tale to amuse the king and eke his queen at Christmastide.”

The dwarf came back and made clear by signs that Sir Gawain was to enter in.

Inside sat a lady and a man, elaborately dressed and strangely, in long sleeves and wide belts, quite alien to Carleon-upon-Usk. The lady was lanky with hair that spread out in a pool around her and a long and red-tipped nose. The man was a paragon of grace and manly beauty. “Indeed,” (said Sir Gawain to himself) “never did I see a comlier, unless it were Sir Launcelot or Sir Galahad his bastard.”

The man rose and drew Sir Gawain aside, and recited this poem, “How comes it that with my sleeve I brushed this saffron-flower that has no loveliness either of shape or hue?”

All of which baffled Sir Gawain, who was much for courting but little for poetry (though gallant!).