Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion

from Arthurian Romances

by Chrétien de Troyes

Listen to this story and subscribe to The Myths and Legends Podcast!

See the other sources from The Myths and Legends Podcast.

Arthur, the good King of Britain, whose prowess teaches us that we, too, should be brave and courteous, held a rich and royal court upon that precious feast-day which is always known by the name of Pentecost. The court was at Carduel in Wales. When the meal was finished, the knights betook themselves whither they were summoned by the ladies, damsels, and maidens. Some told stories; others spoke of love, of the trials and sorrows, as well as of the great blessings, which often fall to the members of its order, which was rich and flourishing in those days of old. But now its followers are few, having deserted it almost to a man, so that love is much abased. For lovers used to deserve to be considered courteous, brave, generous, and honourable. But now love is a laughing-stock, for those who have no intelligence of it assert that they love, and in that they lie. Thus they utter a mockery and lie by boasting where they have no right. But let us leave those who are still alive, to speak of those of former time. For, I take it, a courteous man, though dead, is worth more than a living knave. So it is my pleasure to relate a matter quite worthy of heed concerning the King whose fame was such that men still speak of him far and near; and I agree with the opinion of the Bretons that his name will live on for evermore. And in connection with him we call to mind those goodly chosen knights who spent themselves for honour's sake. But upon this day of which I speak, great was their astonishment at seeing the King quit their presence; and there were some who felt chagrined, and who did not mince their words, never before having seen the King, on the occasion of such a feast, enter his own chamber either to sleep or to seek repose. But this day it came about that the Queen detained him, and he remained so long at her side that he forgot himself and fell asleep. Outside the chamber door were Dodinel, Sagremor, and Kay, my lord Gawain, my lord Yvain, and with them Calogrenant, a very comely knight, who had begun to tell them a tale, though it was not to his credit, but rather to his shame. The Queen could hear him as he told his tale, and rising from beside the King, she came upon them so stealthily that before any caught sight of her, she had fallen, as it were, right in their midst. Calogrenant alone jumped up quickly when he saw her come. Then Kay, who was very quarrelsome, mean, sarcastic, and abusive, said to him: "By the Lord, Calogrenant, I see you are very bold and forward now, and certainly it pleases me to see you the most courteous of us all. And I know that you are quite persuaded of your own excellence, for that is in keeping with your little sense. And of course it is natural that my lady should suppose that you surpass us all in courtesy and bravery. We failed to rise through sloth, forsooth, or because we did not care! Upon my word, it is not so, my lord; but we did not see my lady until you had risen first.”

"Really, Kay," the Queen then says, "I think you would burst if you could not pour out the poison of which you are so full. You are troublesome and mean thus to annoy your companions.”

"Lady," says Kay, "if we are not better for your company, at least let us not lose by it. I am not aware that I said anything for which I ought to be accused, and so I pray you say no more. It is impolite and foolish to keep up a vain dispute. This argument should go no further, nor should any one try to make more of it. But since there must be no more high words, command him to continue the tale he had begun.”

Thereupon Calogrenant prepares to reply in this fashion: "My lord, little do I care about the quarrel, which matters little and affects me not. If you have vented your scorn on me, I shall never be harmed by it. You have often spoken insultingly, my lord Kay, to braver and better men than I, for you are given to this kind of thing. The manure-pile will always stink, and gadflies sting, and bees will hum, and so a bore will torment and make a nuisance of himself. However, with my lady's leave, I'll not continue my tale to-day, and I beg her to say no more about it, and kindly not give me any unwelcome command.”

"Lady," says Kay, "all those who are here will be in your debt, for they are desirous to hear it out. Don't do it as a favour to me! But by the faith you owe the King, your lord and mine, command him to continue, and you will do well.”

"Calogrenant," the Queen then says, "do not mind the attack of my lord Kay the seneschal. He is so accustomed to evil speech that one cannot punish him for it. I command and request you not to be angered because of him, nor should you fail on his account to say something which it will please us all to hear; if you wish to preserve my good-will, pray begin the tale anew.”

"Surely, lady, it is a very unwelcome command you lay upon me. Rather than tell any more of my tale to-day, I would have one eye plucked out, if I did not fear your displeasure. Yet will I perform your behest, however distasteful it may be. Then since you will have it so, give heed. Let your heart and ears be mine. For words, though heard, are lost unless understood within the heart. Some men there are who give consent to what they hear but do not understand: these men have the hearing alone. For the moment the heart fails to understand, the word falls upon the ears simply as the wind that blows, without stopping to tarry there; rather it quickly passes on if the heart is not so awake as to be ready to receive it. For the heart alone can receive it when it comes along, and shut it up within. The ears are the path and channel by which the voice can reach the heart, while the heart receives within the bosom the voice which enters through the ear. Now, whoever will heed my words, must surrender to me his heart and ears, for I am not going to speak of a dream, an idle tale, or lie, with which many another has regaled you, but rather shall I speak of what I saw."

"It happened seven years ago that, lonely as a countryman, I was making my way in search of adventures, fully armed as a knight should be, when I came upon a road leading off to the right into a thick forest. The road there was very bad, full of briars and thorns. In spite of the trouble and inconvenience, I followed the road and path. Almost the entire day I went thus riding until I emerged from the forest of Broceliande. Out from the forest I passed into the open country where I saw a wooden tower at the distance of half a Welsh league: it may have been so far, but it was not anymore. Proceeding faster than a walk, I drew near and saw the palisade and moat all round it, deep and wide, and standing upon the bridge, with a moulted falcon upon his wrist, I saw the master of the castle. I had no sooner saluted him than he came forward to hold my stirrup and invited me to dismount. I did so, for it was useless to deny that I was in need of a lodging-place. Then he told me more than a hundred times at once that blessed was the road by which I had come thither. Meanwhile, we crossed the bridge, and passing through the gate, found ourselves in the courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard of this vavasor, to whom may God repay such joy and honour as he bestowed upon me that night, there hung a gong not of iron or wood, I trow, but all of copper. Upon this gong the vavasor struck three times with a hammer which hung on a post close by. Those who were upstairs in the house, upon hearing his voice and the sound, came out into the yard below. Some took my horse which the good vavasor was holding; and I saw coming toward me a very fair and gentle maid. On looking at her narrowly I saw she was tall and slim and straight. Skilful she was in disarming me, which she did gently and with address; then, when she had robed me in a short mantle of scarlet stuff spotted with a peacock's plumes, all the others left us there, so that she and I remained alone. This pleased me well, for I needed naught else to look upon. Then she took me to sit down in the prettiest little field, shut in by a wall all round about. There I found her so elegant, so fair of speech and so well informed, of such pleasing manners and character, that it was a delight to be there, and I could have wished never to be compelled to move. But as ill luck would have it, when night came on, and the time for supper had arrived. The vavasor came to look for me. No more delay was possible, so I complied with his request. Of the supper I will only say that it was all after my heart, seeing that the damsel took her seat at the table just in front of me. After the supper the vavasor admitted to me that, though he had lodged many an errant knight, he knew not how long it had been since he had welcomed one in search of adventure. Then, as a favour, he begged of me to return by way of his residence, if I could make it possible. So I said to him: 'Right gladly, sire!' for a refusal would have been impolite, and that was the least I could do for such a host."

"That night, indeed, I was well lodged, and as soon as the morning light appeared, I found my steed ready saddled, as I had requested the night before; thus my request was carried out. My kind host and his dear daughter I commended to the Holy Spirit, and, after taking leave of all, I got away as soon as possible. I had not proceeded far from my stopping-place when I came to a clearing, where there were some wild bulls at large; they were fighting among themselves and making such a dreadful and horrible noise that if the truth be known, I drew back in fear, for there is no beast so fierce and dangerous as a bull. I saw sitting upon a stump, with a great club in his hand, a rustic lout, as black as a mulberry, indescribably big and hideous; indeed, so passing ugly was the creature that no word of mouth could do him justice. On drawing near to this fellow, I saw that his head was bigger than that of a horse or of any other beast; that his hair was in tufts, leaving his forehead bare for a width of more than two spans; that his ears were big and mossy, just like those of an elephant; his eyebrows were heavy and his face was flat; his eyes were those of an owl, and his nose was like a cat's; his jowls were split like a wolf, and his teeth were sharp and yellow like a wild boar's; his beard was black and his whiskers twisted; his chin merged into his chest and his backbone was long, but twisted and hunched. There he stood, leaning upon his club and accoutred in a strange garb, consisting not of cotton or wool, but rather of the hides recently flayed from two bulls or two beeves: these he wore hanging from his neck. The fellow leaped up straightway when he saw me drawing near. I do not know whether he was going to strike me or what he intended to do, but I was prepared to stand him off, until I saw him stop and stand stock-still upon a tree trunk, where he stood full seventeen feet in height. Then he gazed at me but spoke not a word, any more than a beast would have done. And I supposed that he had not his senses or was drunk. However, I made bold to say to him: 'Come, let me know whether thou art a creature of good or not.' And he replied: 'I am a man.’

‘What kind of a man art thou?’

‘Such as thou seest me to be: I am by no means otherwise.’

‘What dost thou here?’

‘I was here, tending these cattle in this wood.’

‘Wert thou really tending them? By Saint Peter of Rome! They know not the command of any man. I guess one cannot possibly guard wild beasts in a plain or wood or anywhere else unless they are tied or confined inside.’

‘Well, I tend and have control of these beasts so that they will never leave this neighbourhood.’

‘How dost thou do that? Come, tell me now!’

‘There is not one of them that dares to move when they see me coming. For when I can get hold of one I give its two horns such a wrench with my hard, strong hands that the others tremble with fear, and gather at once round about me as if to ask for mercy. No one could venture here but me, for if he should go among them he would be straightway done to death. In this way I am master of my beasts. And now thou must tell me in turn what kind of a man thou art, and what thou seekest here.’

‘I am, as thou seest, a knight seeking for what I cannot find; long have I sought without success.’

‘And what is this thou fain wouldst find?’

‘Some adventure whereby to test my prowess and my bravery. Now I beg and urgently request thee to give me some counsel, if possible, concerning some adventure or marvellous thing.'

Says he: 'Thou wilt have to do without, for I know nothing of adventure, nor did I ever hear tell of such. But if thou wouldst go to a certain spring here hard by and shouldst comply with the practice there, thou wouldst not easily come back again. Close by here thou canst easily find a path which will lead thee thither. If thou wouldst go aright, follow the straight path, otherwise thou mayst easily go astray among the many other paths. Thou shalt see the spring which boils, though the water is colder than marble. It is shadowed by the fairest tree that ever Nature formed, for its foliage is evergreen, regardless of the winter's cold, and an iron basin is hanging there by a chain long enough to reach the spring. And beside the spring thou shalt find a massive stone, as thou shalt see, but whose nature I cannot explain, never having seen its like. On the other side a chapel stands, small, but very beautiful. If thou wilt take of the water in the basin and spill it upon the stone, thou shalt see such a storm come up that not a beast will remain within this wood; every doe, star, deer, boar, and bird will issue forth. For thou shalt see such lightning-bolts descend, such blowing of gales and crashing of trees, such torrents fail, such thunder and lightning, that, if thou canst escape from them without trouble and mischance, thou wilt be more fortunate than ever any knight was yet.'

I left the fellow then, after he had pointed our the way. It must have been after nine o'clock and might have been drawing on toward noon, when I espied the tree and the chapel. I can truly say that this tree was the finest pine that ever grew on earth. I do not believe that it ever rained so hard that a drop of water could penetrate it, but would rather drip from the outer branches. From the tree I saw the basin hanging, of the finest gold that was ever for sale in any fair. As for the spring, you may take my word that it was boiling like hot water. The stone was of emerald, with holes in it like a cask, and there were four rubies underneath, more radiant and red than is the morning sun when it rises in the east. Now not one word will I say which is not true. I wished to see the marvellous appearing of the tempest and the storm; but therein I was not wise, for I would gladly have repented, if I could, when I had sprinkled the perforated stone with the water from the basin. But I fear I poured too much, for straightway I saw the heavens so break loose that from more than fourteen directions the lightning blinded my eyes, and all at once the clouds let fall snow and rain and hail. The storm was so fierce and terrible that a hundred times I thought I should be killed by the bolts which fell about me and by the trees which were rent apart. Know that I was in great distress until the uproar was appeased. But God gave me such comfort that the storm did not continue long, and all the winds died down again. The winds dared not blow against God's will. And when I saw the air clear and serene I was filled with joy again. For I have observed that joy quickly causes trouble to be forgot. As soon as the storm was completely past, I saw so many birds gathered in the pine tree (if any one will believe my words) that not a branch or twig was to be seen which was not entirely covered with birds. The tree was all the more lovely then, for all the birds sang in harmony, yet the note of each was different, so that I never heard one singing another's note. I, too, rejoiced in their joyousness, and listened to them until they had sung their service through, for I have never heard such happy song, nor do I think any one else will hear it, unless he goes to listen to what filled me with such joy and bliss that I was lost in rapture. I stayed there until I heard some knights coming, as I thought it seemed that there must be ten of them. But all the noise and commotion was made by the approach of a single knight. When I saw him coming on alone I quickly caught my steed and made no delay in mounting him. And the knight, as if with evil intent, came on swifter than an eagle, looking as fierce as a lion. From as far as his voice could reach he began to challenge me, and said: 'Vassal, without provocation you have caused me shame and harm. If there was any quarrel between us you should first have challenged me, or at least sought justice before attacking me. But, sir vassal, if it be within my power, upon you shall fall the punishment for the damage which is evident. About me here lies the evidence of my woods destroyed. He who has suffered has the right to complain. And I have good reason to complain that you have driven me from my house with lightning-bolt and rain. You have made trouble for me, and cursed be he who thinks it fair. For within my own woods and town you have made such an attack upon me that resources of men of arms and of fortifications would have been of no avail to me; no man could have been secure, even if he had been in a fortress of solid stone and wood. But be assured that from this moment there shall be neither truce nor peace between us.'

At these words we rushed together, each one holding his shield well gripped and covering himself with it. The knight had a good horse and a stout lance, and was doubtless a whole head taller than I. Thus, I was altogether at a disadvantage, being shorter than he, while his horse was stronger than mine. You may be sure that I will tell the facts, in order to cover up my shame. With intent to do my best, I dealt him as hard a blow as I could give, striking the top of his shield, and I put all my strength into it with such effect that my lance flew all to splinters. His lance remained entire, being very heavy and bigger than any knight's lance I ever saw. And the knight struck me with it so heavily that he knocked me over my horse's crupper and laid me flat upon the ground, where he left me ashamed and exhausted, without bestowing another glance upon me. He took my horse, but me he left, and started back by the way he came. And I, who knew not what to do, remained there in pain and with troubled thoughts. Seating myself beside the spring I rested there awhile, not daring to follow after the knight for fear of committing some rash act of madness. And, indeed, had I had the courage, I knew not what had become of him. Finally, it occurred to me that I would keep my promise to my host and would return by way of his dwelling. This idea pleased me, and so I did. I laid off all my arms in order to proceed more easily, and thus with shame I retraced my steps. When I reached his home that night, I found my host to be the same good-natured and courteous man as I had before discovered him to be. I could not observe that either his daughter or he himself welcomed me any less gladly, or did me any less honour than they had done the night before. I am indebted to them for the great honour they all did me in that house; and they even said that, so far as they knew or had heard tell, no one had ever escaped, without being killed or kept a prisoner, from the place whence I returned. Thus I went and thus I returned, feeling, as I did so, deeply ashamed. So I have foolishly told you the story which I never wished to tell again."

"By my head," cries my lord Yvain, "you are my own cousin-german, and we ought to love each other well. But I must consider you as mad to have concealed this from me so long. If I call you mad, I beg you not to be incensed. For if I can, and if I obtain the leave, I shall go to avenge your shame.”

"It is evident that we have dined," says Kay, with his ever-ready speech; "there are more words in a pot full of wine than in a whole barrel of beer. They say that a cat is merry when full. After dinner no one stirs, but each one is ready to slay Noradin, and you will take vengeance on Forre! Are your saddle-cloths ready stuffed, and your iron greaves polished, and your banners unfurled? Come now, in God's name, my lord Yvain, is it to-night or to-morrow that you start? Tell us, fair sire, when you will start for this rude test, for we would fain convoy you thither. There will be no provost or constable who will not gladly escort you. And however it may be, I beg that you will not go without taking leave of us; and if you have a bad dream to-night, by all means stay at home!”

“The devil, Sir Kay," the Queen replies, "are you beside yourself that your tongue always runs on so? Cursed be your tongue which is so full of bitterness! Surely your tongue must hate you, for it says the worst it knows to every man. Damned be any tongue that never ceases to speak ill! As for your tongue, it babbles so that it makes you hated everywhere. It cannot do you greater treachery. See here: if it were mine, I would accuse it of treason. Any man that cannot be cured by punishment ought to be tied like a madman in front of the chancel in the church.”

"Really, madame," says my lord Yvain, "his impudence matters not to me. In every court my lord Kay has so much ability, knowledge, and worth that he will never be deaf or dumb. He has the wit to reply wisely and courteously to all that is mean, and this he has always done. You well know if I lie in saying so. But I have no desire to dispute or to begin our foolishness again. For he who deals the first blow does not always win the fight, but rather he who gains revenge. He who fights with his companion had better fight against some stranger. I do not wish to be like the hound that stiffens up and growls when another dog yaps at him."

While they were talking thus, the King came out of his room where he had been all this time asleep. And when the knights saw him they all sprang to their feet before him, but he made them at once sit down again. He took his place beside the Queen, who repeated to him word for word, with her customary skill, the story of Calogrenant. The King listened eagerly to it, and then he swore three mighty oaths by the soul of his father Utherpendragon, and by the soul of his son, and of his mother too, that he would go to see that spring before a fortnight should have passed; and he would see the storm and the marvels there by reaching it on the eve of my lord Saint John the Baptist's feast; there he would spend the night, and all who wished might accompany him. All the court thought well of this, for the knights and the young bachelors were very eager to make the expedition. But despite the general joy and satisfaction my lord Yvain was much chagrined, for he intended to go there all alone; so he was grieved and much put out because of the King who planned to go. The chief cause of his displeasure was that he knew that my lord Kay, to whom the favour would not be refused if he should solicit it, would secure the battle rather than he himself, or else perchance my lord Gawain would first ask for it. If either one of these two should make request, the favour would never be refused him. But, having no desire for their company, he resolves not to wait for them, but to go off alone, if possible, whether it be to his gain or hurt. And whoever may stay behind, he intends to be on the third day in the forest of Broceliande, and there to seek if possibly he may find the narrow wooded path for which he yearns eagerly, and the plain with the strong castle, and the pleasure and delight of the courteous damsel, who is so charming and fair, and with the damsel her worthy sire, who is so honourable and nobly born that he strives to dispense honour. Then he will see the bulls in the clearing, with the giant boor who watches them. Great is his desire to see this fellow, who is so stout and big and ugly and deformed, and as black as a smith. Then, too, he will see, if possible, the stone and the spring itself, and the basin and the birds in the pine-tree, and he will make it rain and blow. But of all this he will not boast, nor, if he can help it, shall any one know of his purpose until he shall have received from it either great humiliation or great renown: then let the facts be known.