Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 153

[Pg 271] and the lonely journey seemed much more dreary than it had before, when he rode out from Carlisle so full of hope and courage and self-confidence.

The Loathly Lady

Arthur was riding mournfully through a lonely forest when he heard a woman’s voice greeting him: “God save you, King Arthur! God save and keep you!” and he turned at once to see the person who thus addressed him. He saw no one at all on his right hand, but as he turned to the other side he perceived a woman’s form clothed in brilliant scarlet; the figure was seated between a holly-tree and an oak, and the berries of the former were not more vivid than her dress, and the brown leaves of the latter not more brown and wrinkled than her cheeks. At first sight King Arthur thought he must be bewitched—no such nightmare of a human face had ever seemed to him possible. Her nose was crooked and bent hideously to one side, while her chin seemed to bend to the opposite side of her face; her one eye was set deep under her beetling brow, and her mouth was nought but a gaping slit. Round this awful countenance hung snaky locks of ragged grey hair, and she was deadly pale, with a bleared and dimmed blue eye. The king nearly swooned when he saw this hideous sight, and was so amazed that he did not answer her salutation. The loathly lady seemed angered by the insult: “Now Christ save you, King Arthur! Who are you to refuse to answer my greeting and take no heed of me? Little of courtesy have you and your knights in your fine court in Carlisle if you cannot return a lady’s greeting. Yet, Sir King, proud as you are, it may be that I can help you, loathly though I be; but I will do nought for one who will not be courteous to me.”

[Pg 272]

The Lady’s Secret

King Arthur was ashamed of his lack of courtesy, and tempted by the hint that here was a woman who could help him. “Forgive me, lady,” said he; “I was sorely troubled in mind, and thus, and not for want of courtesy, did I miss your greeting. You say that you can perhaps help me; if you would do this, lady, and teach me how to pay my ransom, I will grant anything you ask as a reward.” The deformed lady said: “Swear to me, by Holy Rood, and by Mary Mother, that you will grant me whatever boon I ask, and I will help you to the secret. Yes, Sir King, I know by secret means that you seek the answer to the question, ‘What is it all women most desire?’ Many women have given you many replies, but I alone, by my magic power, can give you the right answer. This secret I will tell you, and in truth it will pay your ransom, when you have sworn to keep faith with me.” “Indeed, O grim lady, the oath I will take gladly,” said King Arthur; and when he had sworn it, with uplifted hand, the lady told him the secret, and he vowed with great bursts of laughter that this was indeed the right answer.

The Ransom

When the king had thoroughly realized the wisdom of the answer he rode on to the Castle of Tarn Wathelan, and blew his bugle three times. As it was New Year’s Day, the churlish knight was ready for him, and rushed forth, club in hand, ready to do battle. “Sir Knight,” said the king, “I bring here writings containing answers to your question; they are replies that many women have given, and should be right; these I bring in ransom for my life and lands.” The [Pg 273] churlish knight took the writings and read them one by one, and each one he flung aside, till all had been read; then he said to the king: “You must yield yourself and your lands to me, King Arthur, and rest my prisoner; for though these answers be many and wise, not one is the true reply to my question; your ransom is not paid, and your life and all you have is forfeit to me.” “Alas! Sir Knight,” quoth the king, “stay your hand, and let me speak once more before I yield to you; it is not much to grant to one who risks life and kingdom and all. Give me leave to try one more reply.” To this the giant assented, and King Arthur continued: “This morning as I rode through the forest I beheld a lady sitting, clad in scarlet, between an oak and a holly-tree; she says, ‘All women will have their own way, and this is their chief desire.’ Now confess that I have brought the true answer to your question, and that I am free, and have paid the ransom for my life and lands.”