King Arthur was at Cardoil with the Queen and right few knights. By God's pleasure, the wish and the will had come back to him to win honour and to do largesse as most he might. He made seal his letters and sent them throughout all his lands and all the islands, and gave notice to the barons and knights that he would hold court at Pannenoisance, that is situate the sea of Wales, at the feast of S. John after Whitsuntide. And he was minded to put it off until that day, for that suntide was already too nigh, and they that should be thereat might not all come by the earlier day. The tidings went through all lands, so that knights come in great plenty thereunto, for well-doing had so waxed feeble in all the kingdoms, that every one had avoided King Arthur as one that should do nought more for ever. Wherefore all began now to marvel whence his new desire had come. The knights of the Table Round that were scattered through the lands and the forests, by God's will learnt the tidings and right great joy had they thereof, and came back to the court with great ado. But neither Messire Gawain nor Lancelot came thither on that day. But all the other came that were then on live. S. John's day came, and the knights were come from all parts, marvelling much that the King had not held the court at Whitsuntide, but they knew not the occasion thereof. The day was fair and clear and the air fresh, and the hall was wide and high and garnished of good knights in great plenty. The cloths were spread on the tables whereof were great plenty in the hall. The King and the Queen had washen and went to sit at the head of one table and the other knights sate them down, whereof were full five score and five as the story telleth. Kay the Seneschal and Messire Ywain the son of King Urien served that day at the tables at meat, and five-and-twenty knights beside. And Lucan the Butler served the golden cup before the King. The sun shone through the windows everywhere amidst the hall that was strown of flowers and rushes and sweet herbs and gave out a smell like as had it been sprinkled of balm. And straightway after the first meat had been served, and while they were yet awaiting the second, behold you three damsels where they enter into the hall! She that came first sate upon a mule white as driven snow and had a golden bridle and a saddle with a bow of ivory banded with precious stones and a saddle-cloth of a red samite dropped of gold. The damsel that was seated on the mule was right seemly of body but scarce so fair of face, and she was robed in a rich cloth of silk and gold and had a right rich hat that covered all her head. And it was all loaded of costly stones that flamed like fire. And great need had she that her head were covered, for she was all bald without hair, and carried on her neck her right arm slung in a stole of cloth of gold. And her arm lay on a pillow, the richest that ever might be seen, and it was all charged of little golden bells, and in this hand held she the head of a King sealed in silver and crowned with gold. The other damsel that came behind rode after the fashion of a squire, and carried a pack trussed behind her with a brachet thereupon, and at her neck she bore a shield banded argent and azure with a red cross, and the boss was of gold all set with precious stones. The third damsel came afoot with her kirtle tucked up like a running footman; and she had in her hand a whip wherewith she drove the two steeds. Each of these twain was fairer than the first, but the one afoot surpassed both the others in beauty. The first cometh before the King, there where he sitteth at meat with the Queen.
"Sir," saith she, "The Saviour of the world grant you honour and joy and good adventure and my Lady the Queen and all them of this hall for love of you! Hold it not churlishness and I alight not, for there where knights be may I not alight, nor ought I until such time as the Graal be achieved."
"Damsel," saith the King, "Gladly would I have it so."
"Sir," saith she, "That know I well, and may it not mislike you to hear the errand whereon I am come,"
"It shall not mislike me," saith the King, "say your pleasure!"
"Sir," saith she, "The shield that this damsel beareth belonged to Joseph, the good soldier knight that took down Our Lord of hanging on the rood. I make you a present thereof in such wise as I shall tell you, to wit, that you keep the shield for a knight that shall come hither for the same, and you shall make hang it on this column in the midst of your hall, and guard it in such wise as that none may take it and hang at his neck save he only. And of this shield shall he achieve the Graal, and another shield shall he leave here in the hall, red, with a white hart; and the brachet that the damsel carrieth shall here remain, and little joy will the brachet make until the knight shall come."
"Damsel," saith the King, "The shield and the brachet will we keep full safely, and right heartily we thank you that you have deigned to bring them hither."
"Sir," saith the damsel, "I have not yet told you all that I have in charge to deliver. The best King that liveth on earth and the most loyal and the most righteous, sendeth you greeting; of whom is sore sorrow for that he hath fallen into a grievous languishment."
"Damsel," saith the King, "Sore pity is it and it be so as you say; and I pray you tell me who is the King?"
"Sir," saith she, "It is rich King Fisherman, of whom is great grief."
"Damsel," saith the King, "You say true; and God grant him his heart's desire!"
"Sir," saith she, "Know you wherefore he hath fallen into languishment?"
"Nay, I know not at all, but gladly would I learn."
"And I will tell you," saith she. "This languishment is come upon him through one that harboured in his hostel, to whom the most Holy Graal appeared. And, for that he would not ask unto whom one served thereof, were all the lands commoved to war thereby, nor never thereafter might knight meet other but he should fight with him in arms without none other occasion. You yourself may well perceive the same, for your well-doing hath greatly slackened, whereof have you had much blame, and all the other barons that by you have taken ensample, for you are the mirror of the world alike in well-doing and in evil-doing. Sir, I myself have good right to plain me of the knight, and I will show you wherefore."
She lifteth the rich hat from her head and showeth the King and Queen and the knights in the hall her head all bald without hair.
"Sir," saith she, "My head was right seemly garnished of hair plaited in rich tresses of gold at such time as the knight came to the hostel of the rich King Fisherman, but I became bald for that he made not the demand, nor never again shall I have my hair until such time as a knight shall go thither that shall ask the question better than did he, or the knight that shall achieve the Graal. Sir, even yet have you not seen the sore mischief that hath befallen thereof. There is without this hall a car that three white harts have drawn hither, and lightly may you send to see how rich it is. I tell you that the traces are of silk and the axletrees of gold, and the timber of the car is ebony. The car is covered above with a black samite, and below is a cross of gold the whole length, and under the coverlid of the car are the heads of an hundred and fifty knights whereof some be sealed in gold, other some in silver and the third in lead. King Fisherman sendeth you word that this loss I hath befallen of him that demanded not unto whom one serveth of the Graal. Sir, the damsel that beareth the shield holdeth in her hand the head of a Queen that is sealed in lead and crowned with copper, and I tell you that by the Queen whose head you here behold was the King betrayed whose head I bear, and the three manner of knights whose heads are within the car. Sir, send without to see the costliness and fashion of the car."
The King sent Kay the Seneschal to see. He looked straitly thereat within and without and thereafter returned to the King. "Sir," saith he, "Never beheld I car so rich, and there be three harts withal that draw the car, the tallest and fattest one might ever see. But and you will be guided by me, you will take the foremost, for he is scarce so far, and so might you bid make right good collops thereof."
"Avoid there, Kay!" saith the King. "Foul churlishness have you spoken! I would not such a deed were done for another such kingdom as is this of Logres!"
"Sir," saith the damsel, "He that hath been wont to do churlishness doth right grudgingly withdraw himself therefrom. Messire Kay may say whatsoever him pleaseth, but well know I that you will pay no heed to his talk. Sir," saith the damsel, "Command that the shield be hung on this column and that the brachet be put in the Queen's chamber with the maidens. We will go on our way, for here have we been long enough."
Messire Ywain laid hold on the shield and took it off the damsel's neck by leave of the King, and hung it on the column in the midst of the hall, and one of the Queen's maidens taketh the brachet and carrieth him to the Queen's chamber. And the damsel taketh her leave and turneth again, and the King commendeth her to God. When the King eaten in hall, the Queen with the King and the knights go to lean at the windows to look at the three damsels and the three white harts that draw the car, and the more part said that the damsel afoot that went after the two that were mounted should have the most misease. The bald damsel went before, and set not her hat on her head until such time as behoved her enter into the forest; and the knights that were at the windows might see them no longer. Then set she her hat again upon her head. The King, the Queen, and the knights when they might see them no more, came down from the windows, and certain of them said that never until this time had they seen bald-headed damsel save this one only.
Hereupon the story is silent of King Arthur, and turneth again to speak of the three damsels and the car that was drawn by the three white harts. They are entered into the forest and ride on right busily. When they had left the castle some seven leagues Welsh behind them, they saw a knight coming toward them on the way they had to go. The knight sat on a tall horse, lean and bony. His habergeon was all rusty and his shield pierced in more than a dozen places, and the colour thereon was so fretted away that none might make out the cognizance thereof. And a right thick spear bore he in his hand. When he came anigh the damsel, he saluted her right nobly.
"Fair welcome, damsel, to you and your company."
"Sir," saith she, "God grant you joy and good adventure!"
"Damsel," saith the knight, "Whence come you?"
"Sir, from a court high-plenary that King Arthur holdeth at Pannenoisance. Go you thither, sir knight," saith the damsel, "to see the King and the Queen and the knights that are there?"
"Nay, not so!" saith he. "Many a time have I seen them, but right glad am I of King Arthur that he hath again taken up his well-doing, for many a time hath he been accustomed thereof."
"Whitherward have you now emprised your way?" saith the damsel.
"To the land of King Fisherman, and God allow me."
"Sir," saith she, "Tell me your name and bide awhile beside me."
The knight draweth bridle and the damsels and the car come to a stay. "Damsel," saith he, "Well behoveth me tell you my name. Messire Gawain am I called, King Arthur's nephew."
"What? are you Messire Gawain? my heart well told me as much."
"Yea, damsel," saith he, "Gawain am I."
"God be praised thereof, for so good knight as are you may well go see the rich King Fisherman. Now am I fain to pray you of the valour that is in you and the courtesy, that you return with me and convoy me beyond a certain castle that is in this forest whereof is some small peril."
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "Willingly, at your pleasure."
He returneth with the damsel through the midst of the forest that was tall and leafy and little haunted of folk. The damsel relateth to him the adventure of the heads that she carried and that were in the car, like as she did at the court of King Arthur, and of the shield and the brachet she had left there, but much it misliked Messire Gawain of the damsel that was afoot behind them. "Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "Wherefore doth not this damsel that goeth afoot mount upon the car?"
"Sir," saith she, "This shall she not, for behoveth her go not otherwise than afoot. But and you be so good knight as men say, betimes will she have done her penance."
"How so?" saith Gawain.
"I will tell you," saith she. "And it shall so be that God bring you to the hostel of rich King Fisherman, and the most Holy Graal appear before you and you demand unto whom is served thereof, then will she have done her penance, and I, that am bald, shall receive again my hair. And so you also make not demand thereof, then will it behove us suffer sore annoy until such time as the Good knight shall come and shall have achieved the Graal. For on account of him that first was there and made not the demand, are all the lands in sorrow and warfare, and the good King Fisherman is yet in languishment."
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "God grant me courage and will herein that I may come to do this thing according to your wish, whereof may I win worship both of God and of the world."
Messire Gawain and the damsels go on their way a great pace through the high forest, green and leafy, where the birds are singing, and enter into the most hideous forest and most horrible that any might ever see, and seemed it that no greenery never there had been, so bare and dry were all the branches and all the trees black and burnt as it had been by fire, and the ground all parched and black atop with no green, and full of great cracks.
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "Right loathly is this forest and right hideous. Goeth it on far like this?"
"Sir." saith she, "For nine leagues Welsh goeth it on the same, but we shall pass not through the whole thereof."
Messire Gawain 1ooketh from time to time on the damsel that cometh arbor, and sore it irketh him that he may not amend her estate. They ride on until that they come to a great valley and Messire Gawain looketh along the bottom and seeth appear a black castle that was enclosed within a girdle of wall, foul and evilseeming. The nigher he draweth to the castle the more hideous it seemeth him, and he seeth great halls appear that were right foully mis-shapen, and the forest about it he seeth to be like as he had found it behind. He seeth a water come down from the head of a mountain, foul and horrible and black, that went amidst the castle roaring so loud that it seemed to be thunder. Messire Gawain seeth the entrance of the gateway foul and horrible like as it had been hell, and within the castle heard he great outcries and lamentations, and the most part heard he saying: "Ha, God! What hath become of the Good Knight, and when will he come?"
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "What is this castle here that is so foul and hideous, wherein is such dolour suffered and such weary longing for the coming of the Good Knight?"
"Sir, this is the castle of the Black Hermit. Wherefore am I fain to pray you that you meddle not herein for nought that they within may do to me, for otherwise it may well be that your death is at hand, for against them will you have no might nor power."
They come anigh the castle as it were a couple of bow-shots, and behold, through the gateway come knights armed on black horses and their arms all black and their shields and spears, and there were a hundred and fifty and two, right parlous to behold. And they come a great gallop toward the damsel, and toward the car, and take the hundred and fifty-two heads, each one his own, and set them upon their spears and so enter into the castle again with great joy. Messire Gawain seeth the insolence that the knights have wrought, and right great shame hath he of himself that he hath not moved withal.
"Messire Gawain," saith the damsel, "Now may you know how little would your force have availed you herein."
"Damsel, an evil castle is this where folk are robbed on such wise."
"Sir, never may this mischief be amended, nor this outrage be done away, nor the evil-doer therein be stricken down, nor they that cry and lament within the prison there be set free until such time as the Good Knight shall come for whom are they yearning as you have heard but now."
"Damsel, right glad may the knight be that by his valour and his hardiment shall destroy so many evil folk!"
"Sir, therefore is he the Best Knight in the world, and he is yet young enough of age, but right sorrowful am I at heart that I know not true tidings of him; for better will have I to see him than any man on live."
"Damsel, so also have I," saith Messire Gawain, "For then by your leave would I turn me again."
"Not so, sir, but and you shall come beyond I the castle, then will I teach you the way whereby you ought to go."
With that they go toward the castle all together. Just as they were about to pass beyond the castle wall, behold you where a knight cometh forth of a privy postern of the castle, and he was sitting upon a tall horse, his spear in his fist, and at his neck had he a red shield whereon was figured a golden eagle. "Sir knight," saith he to Messire Gawain, "I pray you bide."
"What is your pleasure?"
"You must needs joust with me," saith he "and conquer this shield, or otherwise I shall conquer you. And full precious is the shield, insomuch as that great pains ought you to take to have it and conquer it, for it belonged to the best knight of his faith that was ever, and the most puissant and the wisest."
"Who, then, was he?" saith Messire Gawain.
"Judas Machabee was he, and he it was that first wrought how by one bird to take another."
"You say true," saith Messire Gawain; "A good knight was he."
"Therefore right joyful may you be," saith he, "and you may conquer the same, for your own is the poorest and most battered that ever saw I borne by knight. For hardly may a man know the colour thereof."
"Thereby may you well see," saith the damsel to the knight, "that his own shield hath not been idle, nor hath the horse whereon he sitteth been stabled so well as yours."
"Damsel," saith the knight, "No need is here of long pleading. Needs must he joust with me, for him do I defy."
Saith Messire Gawain, "I hear well that you say."
He draweth him back and taketh his career and the knight likewise, and they come together as fast as their horses may carry them, spear in rest. The knight smiteth Messire Gawain on the shield whereof he had no great defence, and passeth beyond, and in the by-pass the knight to-brake his spear; and Messire Gawain smiteth him with his spear in the midst of his breast and beareth him to the ground over the croup of his horse, all pinned upon his spear, whereof he had a good full hand's breadth in his breast. He draweth his spear back to him, and when the knight felt himself unpinned, he leaped to his feet and came straight to his horse and would fain set his foot in the stirrup when the damsel of the car crieth out: "Messire Gawain, hinder the knight! for and he were mounted again, too sore travail would it be to conquer him!"
When the knight heard name Messire Gawain, he draweth him back: "How?" saith he; "Is this then the good Gawain, King Arthur's nephew?"
"Yea," saith the damsel, "He it is without fail!"
"Sir," saith the knight to Messire Gawain, "Are you he?"
"Yea," saith he, "Gawain I am!"
"Sir, so please you," saith he, "I hold me conquered, and right sorry am I that I knew you not or ever I had ado with you."
He taketh the shield from his neck and holdeth it to him. "Sir," saith he, "Take the shield that belonged to the best knight that was in his time of his faith, for none know I of whom it shall be better employed than of you. And of this shield were vanquished all they that be in prison in this castle." Messire Gawain taketh the shield that was right fair and rich.
"Sir," saith the knight, "Now give me yours, for you will not bear two shields."
"You say true," saith Messire Gawain.
He taketh the guige from his neck and would have given him the shield, when the damsel afoot: "Hold, sir knight, you that are named Messire Gawain! What would you do? And he bear your shield into the castle there, they of the castle will hold you recreant and conquered, and will come forth thence and carry you into the castle by force, and there will you be cast into his grievous prison; for no shield is borne thereinto save of a vanquished knight only."
"Sir knight," saith Messire Gawain, "No good you wish me, according to that this damsel saith."
"Sir," saith the knight, "I cry you mercy, and a second time I hold me conquered, and right glad should I have been might I have borne your shield within yonder, and right great worship should I have had thereof, for never yet hath entered there the shield of knight so good. And now ought I to be right well pleased of your coming, sith that you have set me free of the sorest trouble that ever knight had."
"What is the trouble?" saith Messire Gawain.
"Sir," saith he, "I will tell you. Heretofore many a time hath there been a passing by of knights both of hardy and of coward, and it was my business to contend and joust with them and do battle, and I made them present of the shield as did I you. The more part found I hardy and well able to defend themselves, that wounded me in many places, but never was knight so felled me to the ground nor dealt me so sore a buffet as have you. And sith that you are carrying away the shield and I am conquered, never here-after shall knight that passeth before this castle have no dread of me nor of no knight that is herein."
"By my head," saith Messire Gawain, "Now am I gladder of my conquest than I was before."
"Sir," saith the knight, "By your leave will I go my way, for, and I may hide not my shame in the castle, needs must I show it openly abroad."
"God grant you do well!" saith Messire Gawain.
"Messire Gawain," saith the Damsel of the Car, "give me your shield that the knight would fain have carried off."
"Willingly, damsel," saith he. The damsel that went afoot taketh the shield and setteth it in the car. Howbeit, the knight that was conquered mounted again upon his horse, and entered again into the castle, and when he was come thereinto, arose a noise and great outcry so loud that all the forest and all the valley began to resound thereof. "Messire Gawain," saith the Damsel of the Car, "the knight is shamed and there cast in prison another time. Now haste, Messire Gawain! for now may you go!"
With that they all set forward again upon their way together, and leave the castle an English league behind. "Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "When it shall please you, I shall have your leave to go."
"Sir," saith she, "God be guard of your body, and right great thanks of your convoy."
"Lady," saith he, "My service is always ready at your command."
"Sir," saith the damsel, "Gramercy, and your own way see you there by yonder great cross at the entrance of yonder forest. And beyond that, will you find the fairest forest and most delightsome when you shall have passed through this that sore is wearisome."
Messire Gawain turneth him to go, and the damsel afoot crieth out to him: "Sir, not so heedful are you as I supposed."
Messire Gawain turneth his horse's head as he that was startled: "Wherefore say you so, damsel?" saith he.
"For this," saith she, "That you have never asked of my Damsel wherefore she carrieth her arm slung at her neck in this golden stole, nor what may be the rich pillow whereon the arm lieth. And no greater heed will you take at the court of the rich King Fisherman."
"Sweet, my friend," saith the Damsel of the Car, "blame not Messire Gawain only, but King Arthur before him and all the knights that were in the court. For not one of them all that were there was so heedful as to ask me. Go your ways, Messire Gawain, for in vain would you now demand it, for I will tell you not, nor shall you never know it save only by the most coward knight in the world, that is mine own knight and goeth to seek me and knoweth not where to find me."
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "I durst not press you further."
With that the Damsel departeth, and Messire Gawain setteth him forward again on the way that she had taught him.