King Arthur and the Cat
WHILE on the subject of cats, the curious and interesting legend of "King Arthur's Fight with the Great Cat" should not be passed over; for though not exactly Irish, yet it is at least Celtic, and belongs by affinity to our ancient race. It is taken from a prose romance of time fifteenth century, entitled, "Merlin; or, The Early Life of King Arthur," recently edited, from the unique Cambridge Manuscript, by Mr. Wheatly.
Merlin told the king that the people beyond the Lake of Lausanne greatly desired his help, "for there repaireth a devil that destroyeth the country. It is a cat so great and ugly that it is horrible to look on." For one time a fisher came to the lake with his nets, and he promised to give our Lord the first fish he took. It was a fish worth thirty shillings; and when he saw it so fair and great, he said to himself softly, "God shall not have this; but I will surely give Him the next." Now, the next was still better, and he said, "Our Lord may wait yet awhile; but the third shall be His without doubt." So he cast his net, but drew out only a little kitten, as black as any coal.
And when the fisher saw it he said he had need of it at home for rats and mice; and he nourished it and kept it in his house till it strangled him and his wife and children. Then the cat fled to a high mountain and destroyed and slew all that came in his way, and was great and terrible to behold.
When the king heard this he made ready and rode to the Lac de Lausanne and found the country desolate and void of people, for neither man nor woman would inhabit the place for fear of the cat.
And the king was lodged a mile from the mountain, with Sir Gawvain and Merlin and others. And they clomb the mountain Merlin leading the way. And when they were come up, Merlin said to the king, "Sir, in that rock liveth the cat;" and he showed him a great cave, large and deep, in the mountain.
"And how shall the cat come out?" said the king.
"That shall ye see hastily," quoth Merlin; "but look you, be ready to defend, for anon he will assail you."
"Then draw ye all back," said the king, "for I will prove his power."
And when they withdrew, Merlin whistled loud, and the cat leaped out of the cave, thinking it was some wild beast, for he was hungry and fasting; and he ran boldly to the king, who was ready with his spear, and thought to smite him through the body. But the fiend seized the spear in his mouth and broke it in twain.
Then the king drew his sword, holding his shield also before him. And as the cat leaped at his throat, he struck him so fiercely that the creature fell to the ground; but soon was up again, and ran at the king so hard that his claws gripped through the hauberk to the flesh, and the red blood followed time claws.
Now the king was nigh falling to earth; but when he saw the red blood he was wonder-wrath, and with his sword in his right hand and his shield at his breast, he ran at the cat vigorously, who sat licking his claws, all wet with blood. But when he saw the king coming towards hum, he leapt up to seize him by the throat, as before, and stuck his fore-feet so firmly in the shield that they stayed there; and the king smote him on the legs, so that he cut them off to the knees, and the cat fell to the ground.
Then the king ran at him with his sword; but the cat stood on his hind-legs and grinned with his teeth, and coveted the throat of the king, and the king tried to smite him on the head; but the cat strained his hinder feet and leaped at the king's breast, and fixed his teeth in the flesh, so that the blood streamed down from breast and shoulder.
Then the king struck him fiercely on the body, and the cat fell head downwards, but the feet stayed fixed in time hauberk. And the king smote them asunder, on which the cat fell to the ground, where she howled and brayed so loudly that it was heard through all the host, and she began to creep towards the cave; but the king stood between her and the cave, and when she tried to catch him with her teeth he struck her dead.
Then Merlin and the others ran to him and asked how it was with him.
"Well, blessed be our Lord!" said the king, "for I have slain this devil; but, verily, I never had such doubt of myself, not even when I slew the giant on the mountain; therefore I thank the Lord."
(This was the great giant of St. Michael's Mount, who supped all the season on seven knave children chopped in a charger of white silver, with powder of precious spices, and goblets full plenteous of Portugal wine.)
"Sir," said the barons, "ye have great cause for thankfulness." Then they looked on the feet that were left in the shield and in the hauberk, and said, "Such feet were never seen before!" And they took the shield and showed it to the host with great joy.
So the king let the shield be with the cat's feet; but the other feet he had laid in a coffin to be kept. And the mountain was called from that day, "The Mountain of the Cat," and the name will never be changed while the world endureth.