Chardon Lagache

10

Sir Gareth and the Trowel

You have heard, I am sure, of that gentle and valiant knight, Sir Gareth Beaumains, the youngest brother of Sir Gawain of Orkney.  You have certainly heard how he came to Camelot unrecognised, and how he worked in the castle kitchens for a year as a servant, until Pentecost came again, and with it, a chance to prove his worth by his rescue of the Lady Lyonesse.

It is a fine story, the tale of Sir Gareth and his bride, full of adventure and of romance, and one which well deserves to be told – and yet, there is an earlier story of Gareth that few have ever heard, but which is nonetheless worth the telling, for it speaks of his first proofs of courage and chivalry when he was but a lad at Camelot.

It was, as you know, the custom of King Arthur never to sit down to meat at the Feast of Pentecost until he had heard of a great marvel, and to grant any fair boon that might be asked by a supplicant at the feast.  Young Gareth, who was a youth at this time, and yet untrained, had heard of this custom, and so when he was minded to become a knight, he took care to arrive timely to the feast, that he might be the one to bring his boon of the King.  His boon being a modest one – only that he might have meat and drink at Camelot for a full year, and the promise of two further boons granted at the end of this time – it was gladly granted, and Gareth soon found himself a home at Camelot.

Ah, but not all who would wish for a boon from the King are so prudent to arrange their arrival, and so it was that another knocked at the castle gate not an hour after Gareth’s admittance, and was turned aside.  Oh, she was not turned away entirely, for the King was a generous man, and his Queen likewise a charitable lady, and the poor might ask alms at the kitchen door and never fear refusal – but still, this second supplicant was refused admittance to the feast, and Sir Kay would not hear of her taking her boon to the King.

Now, Sir Kay was a proud and haughty knight, and one who was not known for his kindness to those of low degree, but he cannot be held too much at fault in this case, for you see the supplicant at the gate was no fine lady, nor no widowed old mother, nor yet no young peasant girl, but rather a donkey, with grey, ragged fur and sad eyes.  She carried two saddlebags, one on each side of her body, filled with dresses as fine as the moon and the sun and the stars, but Sir Kay did not know this, and churlish as he might be, he was not so unhandsome as to rob a poor beast of her possessions.

And so he sent the donkey around to the stables, where she might eat hay and vegetable peelings to her heart’s content, until some service was found for her.

Gareth, meanwhile, had been set to fetch and carry in the kitchen, now turning the spit, now building up the fire, now bringing water from the well or taking scraps to the dungheap.  He performed this service very willingly, as his only desire was to prove himself, and to test the chivalry of King Arthur’s court.

He had just emptied a great sack of vegetable scraps into a manger in the stable, when he heard a heavy sigh from behind him.

“Alack the day my mother died!  Alack the day my father went to wed again!  Ah, I had rather have been born as ugly as a troll, or as dull as a log than to have been so looked upon by my own sire!  Ah, woe is me!  I shall lay down my head and die of grief!”

You may be sure that Gareth was startled by this lament, and looked around to see who might have spoken, but the only creature present was a donkey.  Now, donkeys are not frequently known to speak, but there really was nobody else present, either to have spoken, or to help the poor sufferer.  Gareth might be no more than a kitchen lad, but he wished to be a knight, and he knew (Sir Kay notwithstanding) that a knight’s first duty was to be courteous and gentle to those in need.  And so he spoke kindly to the donkey.

“Little donkey, was it you who spoke?”

The donkey lowered her head, for she was weighed down with her sorrows.  “Ah!  Had I never been granted the power of speech, had I been as dumb as the beast that I appear to be, perhaps my father would not have looked upon me so!”

Well, Gareth really didn’t know what to make of this, but he was a good-hearted young man, and the donkey was clearly distressed, and so he patted the her nose and sought to comfort her.

“Fret not, lady donkey, for you have surely come to the place where you will find help!  Why, this is the court of King Arthur himself, who never hesitated to aid a damsel who requested it of him!”

The donkey looked even more morose.  “Alas, gentle knight, damsel I may be, but who would take me for such?  Sir Kay would not permit me even to speak to the King, for he said that there had been wonders enough for one day, and a donkey – even a donkey who could speak – belonged in the stable, with the other beasts.”

At this, Gareth felt rather guilty, for he knew that he had been the ‘wonder’ for the day’s Pentecost feast, and that without his presence, perhaps the donkey would have had her chance to bring her plea before the King.

He sat down on a bale of hay opposite the donkey, and spoke.  “Then tell me of your story, lady donkey, and I shall give you what aid I can.  I am no knight of the court, but the King has promised me two boons, and I would gladly give one of them to you, if it would help you.”

The donkey sighed.  “You are kind, young man.  Know, then, that I am a princess from a distant land.  My mother died many years ago, but before her death, she made my father promise that he would marry no other than her match in beauty and wisdom.  Alas, though my father searched far and wide throughout the land, he could find no such woman, until his eyes lighted on me!  He is determined that we shall be wed, and nothing I can say will convince him to change his mind!  My godmother tried to help me to flee, but my father’s seneschal tricked her, and trapped me in this donkeyskin so that my father would be without either wife or heir, and now I find myself as you see me – a donkey, with no place either among the people from whom I came nor the beasts who I resemble.”

And the donkey princess began to weep.

Now, you are, I am certain, horrified by the princess’s tale, and so, you may be sure, was Gareth – but Gareth was, as we have established, a tender-hearted young man, and truth be told, his own family was not without complications of this sort (though his brother Mordred had turned out quite well, all things considered), and he knew better than to blame a damsel for the wicked lusts of her father.  And so he spoke kindly to the donkey-princess (whose name, by the way, was Jennet) and let dry her tears on his tunic.

When the donkey princess had wept her fill, Gareth rose to his feet.

“I must return to my duties,” he told her.  “But think, I pray you, what boon you wish, or what favour I may do you, to help you and restore you to your true self, so that you may seek justice.  I will return when the fires are banked and the household is in bed.”

And he hurried back to the kitchen, where he received several cuffs on the head, for his absence had been noticed.

It was the custom, or so Sir Kay said, for young kitchenhands of no account to sleep in the stables with the animals and tend their needs, and so it was that when dinner was over and the servants began to go to bed, young Gareth returned to the stable, where he found Jennet waiting for him.

She had not forgotten his promise, and spoke at once.  “I have thought of what you said, and I have decided.  The boon I beg is no small one, and yet it is no greater than my need.  I would have a knight of King Arthur’s court to travel with me, to find my father’s seneschal and have him undo the enchantment under which he placed me, that I may escape my father without altogether escaping my self.”

“Your request is a just one,” replied Gareth.  “Very well; I shall speak to the King.”

But alas for Gareth, the King had departed that very evening on a journey, and when Gareth went to seek him in the morning, he could only find Sir Kay, who would by no means send a knight on so ignoble an errand.

“A donkey princess?” he scoffed.  “Whoever heard of such a thing!  Why, one might as well take a kitchenhand for a knight!”

And the other knights of the Round Table laughed, all but Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot, for Sir Gawain’s blood cried out to him that Gareth was nearer kin than he knew, and Sir Lancelot was ever a model of gentleness and courtesy.

But Gareth stood quietly under Sir Kay’s mockery, and when the other knights fell silent, he spoke again.

“For shame, that one could come to seek succour of the King and of his knights and be so scorned!  If none of you great knights will help the lady, then she shall have a kitchenhand to a knight indeed, and be the better served, I warrant!”

And the knights looked at each other, some little part ashamed, though none were willing to lower themselves so much as to quest for a donkey.

“If a kitchen knight you would be, then I shall see you properly attired,” cried Sir Kay, who never knew when a joke should be at an end, and he took up a great, flat trencher loaf and a great iron pot (which had been used to serve the soup), and threw them at Gareth.  “Behold, a shield and helmet worthy of your rank and your lady!” he said.  “Now, what shall we find for a sword?”  And he looked about the feasting chamber to where the knights all sat at their dinner, but found nothing suited to his wit.

“Nay, there is no sword here that is noble enough for such a knight,” he cried, and, catching Gareth by the ear, he dragged him from the castle, and out to the gardener’s shed, the knights following.

“Here’s a sword more to your mettle,” cried Sir Kay, plucking an old iron trowel from a hook on the shed wall, and he would have struck Gareth with it, but the lad, quicker than thought, caught the trowel from him, and flipped it back to smite Sir Kay across the nose.

Sir Kay dropped him at once with a shout of rage, reaching for the sword at his belt, and things would have gone ill for Gareth had not Lancelot, that good knight, caught Sir Kay by the elbow.

“Hold, gentle Sir Kay,” he said.  “The lad has bested you, and your mockery is justly answered.”

And he nodded at Sir Gawain, who pulled young Gareth away from the fray.

“You’d best make yourself scarce, lad,” he said.  “Sir Kay is a good man, but he holds a grudge.  I’m thinking you’d do well to take that donkey of yours and follow her quest.  By the time you return, Kay’s bloody nose will be forgotten, and it will be the better for you.”

Gareth did not know whether to smile or to frown, for in truth, he had wanted the quest for himself, but he scorned to run away.  “But what of my weapon?” he asked.  “Would you send me on a quest so ill-supplied as this?”

Sir Gawain clapped him on the shoulder.  “A lad who can best one of King Arthur’s knights with a trowel needs no better weapon.  Now, go, lad.  And when you return, I’ll teach you to fight like a true squire.”

And Gareth, perforce, went.

The donkey princess was disappointed to have a kitchenhand for her champion, and not the knight she had desired, but she had been raised to treat her subjects with courtesy.  Indeed, it was clear that Gareth meant well, and so she accepted his company patiently enough, and even permitted him to ride on her back when his feet grew sore.  But as they journeyed on, it became clear that as a donkey, her memory of the path was rather hazy, and as Gareth did not know which direction they were going in, it was not long before they reached the shore of a lake that neither of them had seen before.

“What shall we do now?” cried the donkey princess, “For we cannot force the Seneschal to lift his spell if we cannot find him, and yet I know not whether to go north or south – or indeed, which of those directions is which!”

“Courage, Lady Donkey,” said Gareth.  “Let us rest awhile, and eat some of the trencher bread that Sir Kay gave me.  We will be no worse off for being fed and rested, and perhaps we will be the better for it.”

But no sooner had Gareth taken the bread from his saddlebags than he and the donkey princess were surrounded by gulls, who swooped in over the lake, uttering loud screeches and demanding their share of the bread.  “Now, gulls,” Gareth cried, “I must feed my lady first, and then myself, but be patient and you shall have your share,” and he tore the trencher into three parts.  The first he offered to the donkey princess, and the second he kept for himself, but the third part, he tore into small pieces, and distributed it among the gulls, carefully, so that not one went hungry.

When they had finished their meal, the largest of the gulls hopped closer to Gareth, and spoke.

“You have been kind to us, Gareth Beaumains, and so we will be kind to you in return.  We are gulls; our wings take us everywhere, from one kingdom to the next, and nothing is hidden for us.  If there is something you seek, only tell us, and we will find it for you.”

“Why then, good Sir Gull,” said Gareth, “We seek the Seneschal of my lady’s father.  Can you tell us where we might find him?”

“Certainly,” said the gull.  “Only lie here and rest, and while you sleep, we shall seek among all the birds in the kingdom, until we find one who has seen the man you seek.”

And so Gareth Beaumains and the donkey princess lay down and rested, and when they awoke, the gull had returned.

“You will find the Seneschal three days’ flight from here,” he said.  “Only follow the shore of the lake until you come to the forest, and then take the forest path deep into the woods, until the sun can no longer be seen.  There will be a cross roads, where you must turn right, and when you leave the woods, you will see the castle where the Seneschal lives, between two mountains that lie in the distance.  But you will have to find a way to lure him out, or else a method to enter in by stealth, as he refuses all visitors and speaks to no one, not since the King went mad and the Princess disappeared.”

Gareth thanked the gull kindly for this advice, and he and the donkey princess turned their footsteps to follow the path along the shore of the lake.

The gull’s directions were good, and as night began to fall, they came to the edge of a wood, and by the time the next night came, they found themselves in the darkest part of the forest.  They had no more food with them, and so Gareth suggested that they depart from the path a little, to refill their flasks in the stream, and perhaps to catch a fish or two.  The donkey princess did not eat fish, but she realised that her self-appointed knight could hardly be expected to help her if he was faint with hunger, and so she agreed.

But as they bent to drink, they heard the sound of loud weeping and lamenting.

“Ah, woe is me, for I have lost everything, and how may I find employment without the tools of my trade?”

And from the woods on the other side of the stream, a strange little man appeared.  He was wearing a chef’s apron and hat, and carried a large toasting fork cradled in his arms as though it was his most precious possession.

“Why, has befallen you, my good man?” called Gareth across the stream.

“Alas, my pots and my pans have all been stolen, and my good knives, too, and how shall I cook for the Seneschal without them?”

“For the Seneschal?” asked the donkey princess.

“Yes, indeed!  He is seeking a new cook, since his last one departed for the Crusades, and I was to apply for the job today.  But a thief stole everything I had, and now I have nothing left to cook with!”

Now, Gareth was an intelligent young man, and he had read more than his share of tales, and so at once he reached into his saddlebags and drew out the great pot that had been given him by Sir Kay.  “Here, man!” he said, “Would this be of help to you?”

The cook blinked at him in surprise.  “Well… yes…” he said, uncertainly, and the donkey princess huffed impatiently.

“Open my left saddlebag,” she told Gareth, and he did.  Immediately, a dress spilled out that was the colour of the sun, and so bright that one must squint at it sideways in order to avoid being blinded.

“Where did that come from?” he asked, but the donkey princess shook her head impatiently.

“My father gave it to me.  It’s a long story.  The point is, it’s an expensive dress, and if our friend here were to sell it, he could buy enough ironware to equip a King’s kitchen.”

Across the stream, the cook’s eyes had widened.  “Indeed I could!  But then how could I repay you?”

“Very easily,” said the donkey princess.  “Only see that when we arrive at your master’s castle, we are invited to supper with him, and we will be well paid indeed.”

“Gladly!” said the cook, and waded across the stream to meet them.  He took the dress and the pot from Gareth, shaking his hand heartily, then turned, and went on his way, almost skipping as he went.

“That was very well done,” said Gareth, and the donkey snorted delicately.

“We have bought ourselves an audience with the Seneschal,” she said, “But we must still find a way to make him restore my proper form.”

Still, there was a sprightliness to her steps as they left the forest the next morning, that had not been there when they entered it.

They had walked but a little way, when it began to rain, gently at first, but then in quick droplets like needles, and at last in sheets so heavy that the adventurers could hardly see the path before them.

“This storm is too fierce for travelling,” called young Gareth, for the storm was loud.  “Look ahead, Lady Donkey, and tell me if you see a barn where we may dry our heads, or else let us return to the forest, where the canopy will give us shelter!”

“I see no barn,” the donkey princess, called back, “but did we not pass a cottage not so long ago? Perhaps we might shelter there.”

And so the two travellers turned about, and indeed, there was a cottage not far from where the forest began, with a lean-to beside it where a donkey might shelter.

There was no reply to Gareth’s first knock, nor to his second, but at the third knock, the door was answered by the most ancient and loathly dame that Gareth had ever seen, so that he nearly drew back in horror at the sight of her.

But Gareth was a courteous youth, and moreover, he had once had a sister-in-law of similar aspect, and so he made the lady a low bow, and begged her most humbly for shelter for himself and for his companion.

“I will shelter you,” the loathly dame replied, “And your beast, too, for I see that she is more than she seems.  But in return, you must do me a service.  I am old, and cannot easily work outside and I fields must be tilled, and my seeds sown, before the season is too late and I have no harvest.”

“I will till your fields most gladly,” said young Gareth, “And weed your vegetable garden, too, and chop wood for your fire, for it is not right that you should have no help, and you so aged.”

The loathly dame smiled upon him.  “Till my fields, then, and weed my garden, but there is no need to chop wood for my fire, as I have no axe, and I see you have no more than a trowel to your weapon.”

“I shall do as good service with my trowel as a man might do with a blade,” vowed young Gareth, and the loathly dame laughed.

“Be careful with your promises, young Gareth Beaumains, for what you promise, that must you fulfil, or be cursed for the lack of it.”

And she would hear no more from him that night, but instead busied herself preparing a sleeping space for him behind the stove, and another for the donkey-princess by the fire, and all was quiet until morning.

The next day, Gareth took his trusty trowel, and tilled the fields until his back ached from the work, which in truth was never meant to be done by a man with a hand trowel.  He sowed potatoes and parsnips and cabbages, and weeded the loathly dame’s garden, and by the time evening fell, his feet were sore and his hands were covered with blisters, and the wood had not yet been split.

Still, he had made a promise, and so after a meal of bread and thick soup, he went outside again, and began to split logs as he had promised, and the loathly dame and the donkey princess came outside to watch.

It was a spectacle well worth the watching, for Gareth knew well how to split wood, but he had never tried to do so with a trowel before, and first the trowel bounced off the wood, and then the logs unbraced themselves, and at last, the trowel stuck deep inside a log and could not be moved, no matter how hard Gareth tugged at it.

The loathly dame leaned against the donkey princess and laughed until tears rolled down her wrinkled cheek, and Gareth tried very hard not to think unchivalrous thoughts.  It did not help that the donkey appeared to be laughing too.

“Well, Gareth Beaumains,” the dame said at last, “You have indeed done me good service today, and you have kept your promise, too, for it is true that no man ever served me with a blade as you served me with a trowel!  Nor did ever a man hold his temper so well as you, when I laughed at your pains.

“For your sweet temper, then, I will grant you a boon.  That trowel of yours will indeed serve you as a blade, for as long as you require it to do so.  It will be as tempered steel in your hands, a blade shaped and sharpened by the finest of smiths, and you will never lose a battle so long as you hold it in your hand.  Now, go!  For you have a quest to fulfil, and I have better things to do than amuse myself with earnest young men.”

And before Gareth could blink, the cottage and garden were gone, and he stood, trowel in hand, on the road to the Seneschal’s castle.  The donkey princess stood beside him.

“That was quite well done, despite everything,” she said.

Gareth looked down at his hands.  They were still sore, but the blisters were half-healed, as though his work in the garden had been three days ago and not that morning.  His dignity still felt rather bruised, however.

“We had best be on our way to the castle,” he replied.

The Seneschal’s castle seemed to grow smaller as they approached, so that when they arrived, the travellers were not surprised to find the gate opened by the odd-looking man they had met in the forest.

“Welcome, guests!” he exclaimed, “You arrive in good time!  For my master desires company at the feast, and the feast is nearly served!”

“But what make you at the castle gate?” asked Gareth.  “Are you not the cook?”

The man shrugged.  “Cook, butler, valet, and general factotum.  There are few servants in this place, and of those, yet fewer are living.  My master is a man with little desire for companionship, but I told him my tale, and how you met me in the woods, and he instructed me to welcome you, if ever you should come to this place, for the sake of my soufflés, which you shall experience tonight, and without which my master would be a far sadder man.”

This speech seemed strange to both Gareth and the donkey princess; however they were loath to refuse an invitation that would take them into the presence of the Seneschal himself, and so they allowed themselves to be ushered into his presence.

The Seneschal was an old man, with white hair that went halfway down his back.  He wore a long black surcoat over a black shirt, with no jewelry or decoration about his person save a pair of red, embroidered gloves.  He welcomed the travellers heartily, and they soon found themselves seated at a table in the great hall (a chair had been removed, to allow the donkey princess room to stand), while the cook served them goats cheese soufflés with beetroot ragout.

Now, Gareth had intended to confront the Seneschal at once, but a knight’s first duty is to be courteous in all things, and it is the greatest of discourtesies to allow a perfect soufflé to sink while one accuses one’s host of nefarious deeds, so he ate his soufflé politely – it really was very good – and bided his time.

It is a most regrettable fact that villains are frequently wanting in courtesy, and so it was in this case.  Before Gareth and the donkey princess had finished their soufflés, and with his own soufflé sinking sadly on the plate before him, the Seneschal laid down his fork.

“I suppose you are wondering why a man of my standing was so willing to feast with a kitchen hand and a donkey,” he said.  “When my cook first told me of his meeting with you, I must admit, I was reluctant to do so.  But when he mentioned that the donkey could speak, and carried in her saddlebags a dress as bright as the sun, I realised that he had done me a very great favour by inviting you.”

He paused, fiddling with his gloves, but Gareth and the donkey princess both had their mouths full and could not reply.

The Seneschal smiled, and addressed the donkey princess.  “Really, my dear, it was foolish of you to run away, but more foolish of you to come back.  But the greatest foolishness of all, my daughter and my bride, was when you sat down to dinner with your own father, and never knew him!”

He drew the gloves from his hands, and the air shimmered around him.  Long white hair shortened and became chestnut brown, a beard grew across the clean-shaven face, and the face itself lengthened and grew younger.

In the same moment, the donkey cried out, and fell to the floor, no longer a donkey, but a young woman clothed only in her hair.  Gareth shut his eyes tightly and flung his cloak over her, and the King – for it was indeed he – began to laugh.

He clapped his hands, and six sturdy manservants appeared, armed for battle.

“Now,” he said to Gareth, “You seem to be an innocent in all of this, so I will give you a choice.  You may leave, or you may die.  And as for you, my daughter, you shall stay in close keeping until the banns have been called and you and I are properly wed.”

The manservants moved forward as if to seize the donkey princess, but Gareth at once placed himself in front of her, his trowel in his hand.  Naked women might be outside his experience, but this, he knew how to handle.

“You have offered me a choice, your majesty,” he said, “And I will offer you a choice in return.  Either swear that your daughter will remain unmolested by you, and be permitted to marry a man of her own choosing, or face me in single combat, and leave your daughter an orphan before the night is over.”

The King snorted.  “And why would I offer you single combat, when you are unarmed but for a trowel, and I have soldiers and men to fight for me?”

The princess stood.  She had wrapped herself in Gareth’s cloak, and was as pale as milk, but still very beautiful.  “If you defeat my champion in single combat,” she said, “I will not flee again, but will come to you willingly as your bride.”  And she shuddered as she spoke.

The King looked from the princess to Gareth, and laughed.  “Why, daughter, I could almost think you wanted to marry me after all.  Very well – it shall be as you say.  I shall duel your champion in ten minutes.”

And he swept out of the room.

Gareth stared at the princess, feeling sick to his stomach.  “You can’t possibly mean to marry your own father!” he said.

Princess Jennet shook her head impatiently.  “Of course I don’t.  But it was the only way to get him to agree to single combat.  And the witch did say that you would be impossible to defeat, so long as you held that trowel in your hand.”

“And you’re staking your whole future on what the witch said?”

The princess shook her head.  “No.  But if my father believes me willing, he won’t guard me so closely.”

Gareth breathed a long sigh of relief.

“And I’m also going to be a lot safer if you can survive this, so yes, I’m staking my future on what the witch said.  And on you, of course.  You do know how to use a trowel as a weapon, don’t you?”

Gareth swallowed.  “I know how to use a dagger.  I’m assuming it will be the same principle.”

There was a fanfare of trumpets, and the King swept back into the room, dressed for battle in a chainmail surcoat and helmet, with a tabard embroidered all over in gold.  His sword was of Damascus steel, and he carried a shield of fine bronze.

Gareth, in his kitchen hand’s clothing which had seen better days, with his trowel in hand, felt very overmatched.

Still, a knight of Camelot should show no fear, and a kitchenhand of Camelot could do worse than to imitate his betters, and so Gareth stood tall and proud and tried to pretend that he was as fierce as Sir Kay and as courageous as Sir Gawain, and as noble as Lancelot.

“Tell me your name, before I kill you,” said the King, “that I may send a messenger to your relatives so that they know your fate.”

“I am Gareth of Orkney,” said Gareth, “But you will not need to send a messenger.”

“Will I not?” said the King, and struck.

For Gareth, the battle seemed to take moments and it seemed to take years.  Again and again, he raised his trowel just in time to block the King’s blade, and again and again he fell back, unable to land a blow.  At last, he found his back against the wall, with the King towering over him.  The King struck at him again, his face dark with anger, and Gareth fell to his knees to avoid the blow, and at the same time thrust his trowel upward with all his strength, beneath the chainmail surcoat and into the join between the King’s leg and his torso.

The King fell back with a cry, dropping his sword, and Gareth was on him at once, his trowel pressed to the King’s throat.

“Mercy,” croaked the King, “For the sake of your honour, and your family, and the love you bear my daughter, I cry you mercy.”

Gareth hesitated, and looked at the princess.  She shook her head slightly, her face pale, and Gareth looked down at the King again, wondering whether he had the stomach to kill the man when he was defenseless.

As he hesitated, there was a loud squawk, and a gull flew down the chimney to land in the hall.  It shimmered as it landed, and in its place stood a beautiful woman of middle years.  “Hold, Gareth Beaumains, for your blow is not needed,” she said.

Gareth held, with some relief.

The woman strode forward to stand over the fallen King.

“King Pellam, husband, what wickedness is this?”

The King made to sit up, then winced, and came up on one elbow instead.  “I meant only to keep the promise I made, my love.”

“By seeking to marry our daughter in an unnatural love?  Fie, husband!  I am ashamed to have loved you, I who was once proud to be your wife.”

The King was silent.

“Listen!  As you have acted against nature, so will nature act against you.  The wound that Gareth Beaumains gave you will not heal.  No doctor will be able to cure you, nor no enchantment heal you. You will remain as you were in the moment you were first wounded, bleeding, weakened, in pain, but unable to die, and reliant on the kindness of others for your sustenance.”

“This is no mercy,” objected the King.  “Better that you killed me outright than force me to suffer so for my sins.”

“I did not say that it was mercy,” said the shade of the Queen, and the King was silent.  The Queen’s face was stern.

“But your punishment will not be without an end.”  She gestured to the door, and there was a sound of music.  A procession entered the room, of fair maidens in samite robes, who sang an eerie song.  Last in the procession was a maiden in a gown as bright as the sun.  She carried in her hands a shining cup which glowed with a holy radiance.

She looked at Gareth, and for a moment the maiden was an odd looking man in a cook’s apron, and the cup an iron pot.  He blinked in confusion, and the cook became the grail maiden once more.

“The cup which you see before you is the Holy Grail, which some say is a cup of healing, and others claim was the cup that caught the blood of Our Lord when he died for our sins in the Holy Land.  Many will come to seek it, and you shall offer them hospitality, and help them on their journey.  This will be your duty and your penance.

“And at the end of many years, one will come who is pure enough to achieve the Grail, and he will ask you what you know of it, and in answering his questions you will be healed.”

The procession disappeared, and Gareth blinked in the sudden dimness of the room.  The Queen  turned as if to go, and Princess Jennet ran to her.  “Wait!  Mother – what shall I do now, then?”

The Queen smiled.  “Whatever you choose.  I suggest that you marry that lovely young man who defeated your father.”

Jennet and Gareth looked at each other dubiously.  Gareth knew that a knight must be courteous in all things, but he had never learned how to courteously refuse to tender a marriage proposal.  He hid a sigh.  At least Jennet was pretty.  She might be a little prickly, but being turned into a donkey would bring out the worst in anyone, really.  And she did seem to be quite quick-witted, which was more than could be said for some.  It would be churlish to refuse her just because he wasn’t quite sure that he wanted to be married yet.

“I don’t think…” Jennet said, and Gareth smiled in relief.

“Would you do me the honour…?” he asked, for form’s sake, and she shook her head.

“No, thank you.  It’s kind of you to offer, though,” she added, and Gareth laughed.

“I would hate to disappoint a lady,” he said.  “Friends, then?”

Jennet smiled.  “Friends, certainly.”  She turned back to her mother. “Oh,” she said.

For the Queen was gone as if she had never been there.

Jennet took charge of the castle after that, ordering servants here and there, preparing a litter for her father, and organising his care.  She did not say a word to him, nor he to her.

Gareth, for his part, packed up his saddlebags and used a bit of rope to convert them into a sort of backpack.  He was eager to get back to Camelot.

He supped alone, and gladly accepted the offer of a bed for the night.  Jennet was still busy with her household, and he did not want to leave without bidding her farewell.

And so it was that when morning came, Gareth descended the stairs with his pack to find Jennet waiting for him.  She was wearing a cloak that looked as though it was made of donkey skin, and carried her saddlebags in her hands.

“Why, what is this?” asked Gareth.

Jennet grinned.  “I’m going to seek my fortune,” she said.  “Once I am gone from the castle, it will disappear from this place, so that it can only be found by true seekers of the grail.  As for me, I shall hire myself out as a servant until I may find a man who can see past my ugly cloak to my true self.  And then I shall marry him.”

Gareth blinked.  “That sounds like a rather chancy plan,” he said, cautiously.

“Well, if it doesn’t work, I can always come back to Camelot and take you up on your offer.  Or come back here and be a grail maiden, I suppose, though I’d rather stay as far from my father as possible.  Or I could be a donkey again.  I think I could find the way back to that, now.  Or perhaps I shall go live with the loathly dame and be her apprentice.”

She shrugged.  “Whichever it is, at least I shall be mistress of my own fate, and that is what I want most of all.”

And Gareth inclined his head, for there was nothing more to say.

And that is the tale of how Gareth accomplished his first quest, and saved a damsel who was truly worthy of his help and aid.  And this story shows how a virtuous man with the most ignoble of tools may still vanquish a cruel and unjust man, even if that man is a King in his own castle.  And it shows, too, how well Gareth had learned what his sister in law had taught him, that what a woman desires most is her own way, for when their paths diverged at the edge of the forest, he wished the Princess Jennet God speed with a good heart, and neither he nor she looked back, and from all I have heard, she wed a right noble lord, and lived happily with him all her days, and remembered Gareth fondly, and not least for the hours he spent trying to chop wood with a garden trowel.

 

Sir Gareth and the Thistle

Now, you will know something, I think, of the Holy Grail, and how it came to Camelot and inspired all the knights to seek after it.  And all the knights were eager to endure this quest, but the King was much grieved, for he saw that his fellowship would never meet again once the quest was begun.  And indeed, his vision was true, for many knights of King Arthur’s company went to seek the Grail, and some perished on their way, and others in their return, and yet more returned but were changed beyond recognition or regret.

Still, the King could not deny so holy a purpose, and so the knights departed, in ones and in twos and in parties of six or more, to search for the Holy Grail wheresoever it might be.

I shall not describe the hardships endured by the knights on their journeys, how they suffered hunger and thirst and the attacks of wild beasts, how they were afflicted by sorcerous spells, by treacherous kings and by all manner of unkindnesses, or how they performed great feats of strength and of courage and of virtue.  You have heard these tales already, I am certain.

No, tale I will tell you is homelier than these, and yet it was as true a test of wit and courage as ever a knight of Camelot faced.

Sir Gawain was the first of King Arthur’s knights to declare his intention of seeking the grail, and his brother, Sir Gareth, quickly offered to bear him company on his quest, for he knew something of this grail, and thought he might achieve it, if he sought it with a pure heart.  Sir Gawain accepted his company gladly, and the brothers departed Camelot not three days after the Grail had first been seen there.

The two knights travelled far and fast, and they had been perhaps a month on their quest when they found themselves in a wilderness of thistles, where there was neither water to drink, nor food to eat, nor yet wood for a fire.  It had been three days since they last passed a village and they were very hungry.

“Well, brother, and what shall we do?” asked Sir Gareth, as they rode.

“Indeed, I do not know.  The horses are tired, and I’d as lief rest them, but the ground is covered with thistles, and there is nothing for them to eat or drink but the last bit of hay in my saddlebags.”

“There’s little enough for us to eat or drink, either,” said Sir Gareth.  “I’ve a some flour and butter, and a fistful of salt, but without water I cannot even make us pan-bread.”

Sir Gawain sighed.  “Perhaps we should press on, then.  We need water, and if we spend the night here, we will be another night drier and no closer to having our thirst quenched.  At least if we go on, we might find our way to a well, or to the end of this desert.”

There was wisdom in Sir Gawain’s speech, and truth, too, because the two knights had not ridden a hundred steps more before they found themselves beside a well.  Sir Gawain dismounted at once, and made for the well to draw water for his horse, but Sir Gareth caught him by the shoulder.

“Hold, brother.  Do you not think it strange to find a well in this wilderness, and no house or farm close by?  Surely this well did not come here without help, and he who owns it may wish to exact a price for its use.”

But Sir Gawain only laughed.  “Why, brother, if there is a price, then I will pay it, and gladly!  But in the meantime, our horses must drink, and so should we.”

And he took up the bucket that lay beside the well, and dipped deep.

Scarcely had the water touched his lips when the air before them crackled as if with lightning, and a giant appeared before them. He was thin and cruel-looking, with a coat of ragged green and a crown of purple.

“Thieves!” he bellowed, tearing the bucket from Gawain’s hand.  “You have stolen my water, and for that you shall die!”

And he flung the water over his shoulder into the field of thistles.  As he did so, the thistles sprang up and doubled in size again and then again, until they were an army, all in green and purple, armed and facing the two knights.

He raised his arm, as though to command the thistles into battle, but before he could do so, Gareth spurred his horse forward, shielding his brother from the attack.  “Hold, I pray you!” he cried, “We are no thieves, but knights of the court of King Arthur, and we will gladly pay the fee for your water, if you will but permit us to drink, and to water our horses, for we are full weary and nigh to dying of thirst!”

“And what is that to me?” asked the giant.  “I am the Thistle King, and you have trespassed upon my lands, and trampled my subjects underfoot, and stolen the water which sustains us.  Death is no more than you deserve, for such wickedness.”

“If we have trespassed on your lands and trampled your subjects underfoot, then we will gladly make amends,” said Sir Gawain, “but I swear to you that not a drop of water has passed my lips, and I will prove this in combat if you so desire.”

“So be it,” replied the Thistle King.  “If you two knights can defeat my soldiers before the sun has set, then I will hold you innocent of drinking from the well – indeed you may drink from it with my blessing.  But if you cannot overcome my army, or if the sun sets on your fight, then you will show yourselves to be without honour, and no true knights of Camelot, and I shall know what to do with you.”

And in an instant, the thistle army fell upon the two knights and attacked them most fiercely.

The brothers drew their weapons and joined battle, but at first they had the worst of it, because the thistle-soldiers needed no weapons, but struck cruel blows with their leaves.  But the two knights soon found their rhythm, Gawain striking at the heads of the thistles with his sword and dagger, and Gareth slashing at their roots with his sword and his trowel, so that the soldiers began to fall before them, returning to the ground as thistles of all kinds, and by and by the field was piled with great stacks of thistles as though some giant farmer had been weeding his garden.

The Thistle King was not best pleased at this, but he was compelled to keep his word, and the brothers drank gladly from the well, and watered their horses, too.  But when they would have gone on their way, the giant stood before them once more.

“Not so fast,” said he.  “You have defeated my army, and earned the right to drink from my well, but you have not repaid me for the trespass on my land, nor for the trampling of my subjects.  If you leave without doing so, then you will show yourselves to be without honour, and no true knights of Camelot, and I shall know what to do with you.”

The brothers looked at each other, and then Gareth spoke.  “We are true knights indeed, and will gladly pay the fee for our trespass.  What payment do you require of us?”

The Thistle King smiled.  “Two payments, for the two offenses you have made me, and the first will be that you host both me and my daughter at a feast tonight, before the evening star has set.”

“We will feast you gladly,” said Sir Gareth, “For it is no more than you are due, and a light task indeed for so heavy a transgression.  Tell us, then – what shall the second payment be?”

The Thistle King merely shook his head.  “First of all, I would see this feast that you will make me.  The second payment can wait until then.  But be sure that your honour and your lives are at stake in this, and if either favour is refused or left undone, then both will be forfeit.”

Sir Gawain frowned at this, for it seemed an impossible task, but Sir Gareth nodded courteously.  “We shall feast you, and welcome,” he said.  “Bring your daughter in an hour, and you may be sure that you will have your fill of food and drink.”

The Thistle King left, and Sir Gawain turned to his brother.  “Brother, what have you in mind?  For we surely cannot leave this place with our honour, since there is no meat here for a feast!”

But Sir Gareth simply smiled.  “Now, brother, which of us was it who worked a year in the kitchens of Camelot?  Only bring me those thistles that we so recently cut down – their stems are a delicacy indeed, and will make a fine feast for the Thistle King and his daughter, and for us, too.”

And Sir Gawain did as he said, and Sir Gareth poached the thistle stems in water from the well, and then dredged them with flour and cooked them with the butter from his saddlebags, and he made a salad from the leaves and flowers, and there was enough there to feed the Thistle King and any twelve of his daughters.

When the Thistle King returned, his face fell, for he had not expected the knights to succeed, and had hoped to leave them still in his debt, and yet he could not deny that the food was pleasing to the eye, and very plentiful, and tender and savoury to eat.

“A fine feast this is,” he growled nonetheless, “For you offer me no meat, but only the weeds of the field.”

“Not so,” answered Sir Gareth. “I offer you the costliest dish that ever was served, for these are your soldiers that fell in battle for your sake, and no man living could ever purchase such food.”

The Thistle King frowned and drank from the cup that Sir Gareth had offered him.  “A fine drink you would offer me,” he snarled, “For this is no more than water from my own well in a wooden cup!”

“Not so,” answered Sir Gareth.  “I offer you the most precious wine that ever was drunk, for the price of this water was my brother’s honour and my own, and I assure you that no man living can purchase such a vintage.”

“Perhaps that is true,” sad the Thistle King, “But you dishonour me still, by sitting me down to eat in a bare field, with no candles to light the repast.”

“Not so,” said Sir Gareth, “I offer you a banqueting hall larger and more beautiful than any yet built, for see, we have the stars and the moon for our lights.  No man living could purchase such riches.”

And the Thistle King frowned again, but his daughter smiled at Sir Gareth, as though she liked what she saw.

At length the meal was over, and the Thistle King rose.  “You have feasted me well,” he said.  “And you have repaid me for the trespass that you made on my land.  But there still remains the matter of my subjects, who you trampled underfoot.  And remember, you must pay my price willingly, or you will show yourselves to be without honour, and no true knights of Camelot, and I shall know what to do with you.”

“We are true knights of Camelot,” said Sir Gareth.  “Tell us what reparations we may make for your subjects who we trampled underfoot, and we will gladly make them.”

The Thistle King put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder.  She was a tall, thin girl, with hair like thistledown, gowned all in green gown with purple veil on her head.  “This is my daughter, the only child left of my line.  My younger children were sleeping in this field, waiting to be awoken, and you trampled them so that they will not soon recover.  My price is this: you must marry my daughter, and give me your first child to be my heir.”

“Alas,” said Sir Gareth, “Your request is just, and yet we cannot grant it – my brother and I are already wed.”

“Then whichever of you first trod on my field must put his wife aside,” said the Thistle King, “for my daughter will have a husband this night, or you will surely die.”

“Alas,” said Sir Gawain again, “This cannot be, for it was our horses who first trod on your fields, not us, and your daughter cannot take a horse to husband.”

“Then you are no true knights of Camelot, and I know what to do with you,” roared the Thistle King, and rose, growing as he did so, until he towered over the two knights.  He bent down and plucked Sir Gawain from the ground as easily as one might pluck a daisy, holding him by the throat and shaking him viciously.

Sir Gareth caught up his sword and his trowel, but it was to no avail, as the Thistle King had no roots to sever.  He looked around, wildly, seeking a weapon that could overcome so deadly a foe, and felt something pressed into his hand.

The Thistle King’s daughter stood beside him, with the sack of salt that he had used for cooking.  “Throw it at his feet,” she said, “Thistles cannot abide salt – it poisons them more quickly than anything – and my father is still a thistle.  But be quick about it, if you want your brother to live!”

Sir Gawain was beginning to turn as purple as the thistle maiden’s veil, so Sir Gareth quickly opened the sack and threw a handful of rock salt at the giant’s feet.

The Thistle King let out a loud cry, and began to shrink rapidly. He lost his grip on Sir Gawain, who tumbled to the ground and lay there, stunned, and continued to wither like the weed he was, until he was no taller than an ordinary thistle.

The Thistle King’s daughter reached down and plucked the thistle, and put it in her apron pocket.

“That is quite enough from you,” she informed it, and then turned to Sir Gareth.  “Thank you,” she told him.  “You have done me a good service, and your debt is repaid.  But now you must leave.”

“What service have I done you?” asked Sir Gareth.

The Thistle Maiden smiled.  “Why, you have rid me of a tyrannous father, who would have wed me willy-nilly to the first knight who passed, as he did my sisters.  But these lands are mine now, and I shall know how to rule them.”

Sir Gawain groaned, and began to sit up, rubbing his head groggily.  The Thistle Maiden snapped her fingers, and two Thistle Soldiers sprang up, and began to harness the horses.

“I will grant you safe passage through my lands for the next three days,” she said, briskly. “You may also fill your water flasks at this well, and water your horses before you go.  But go you must.  These are my lands, now, and knights and their quests are not welcome here.”

And without waiting for a reply, she strode away.

And that is the story of how Sir Gareth and Sir Gawain defeated the Thistle King, and helped, all unwitting, to crown a new Thistle Queen.  If any other knight of King Arthur’s court ever had such an adventure, he did not tell of it, but it is true that there was, for a time, a fashion at court for the ladies to wear green gowns and purple veils, and nobody knows who the lady was who started it.

The brothers continued to seek the Grail, but either their hearts were not pure enough, or the Grail had no desire to be found – or perhaps there was some other reason still.

What is certain is that after nearly a year of seeking, the brothers were no closer to finding the Grail than they had been at the beginning.

And so it was that as Easter approached and the fields began once more to flower, Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth turned their steps for home.  No word was spoken between them, nor was there so much as a shared glance, but when a path offered that would lead them back to Camelot, they turned their horses onto it as if no other road had ever been possible.  Their journey had deepened their accord, and each knew what was in the other’s heart.  The Grail would never be theirs, but they had their duty to the King, and they had neglected it long enough.

As for the Thistle Maiden, she is said to have ruled wisely and long, but to my knowledge, none have visited her kingdom since, or if they have, they did not return to tell the tale.

 

station

Chardon Lagache is a station on line 10 of the Paris Métro, located in the 16th arondissement, not too far from the Bois de Boulogne.  The station was opened in 1913 as part of the original line 8, and it became part of line 10 in 1937.  It is named for the Rue Chardon Lagache, which in turn was named for a local retirement home.

I was not able to ascertain where the name of the retirement home was derived, but Chardon means thistle and la gâche means all sorts of things, ranging from the keeper to the trowel.  I went with trowel, because it seemed to fit in better with thistles.  Which, in retrospect wasn’t as clever as I thought it was, because I couldn’t get the trowel and the thistle into the same story.

I did not intend to write two entire stories for this station.  The original plan was to write five drabbles about Sir Gareth of Orkney, also known as Sir Gareth Beaumains.  I figured that with his year working as a servant in the kitchens of Camelot, he would be handier than most with the humbler things in life, such as gardening, and he would also know that one particular variety of thistle, the cardoon, is very tasty once cooked.  I envisaged him being hungry and beseiged by a thistle army and destroying them with his culinary skills.  It all got a little more cannibalistic than I intended, and I am sorry for that.

As for the trowel story, the heroine is also the heroine of Charles Perrault’s story, Donkey Skin, which you can read here.  The incest was his idea, not mine, and I have to say, he is worryingly blasé about it.  I was less blasé, and thought he deserved some sort of punishment, and then I realised I had all the ingredients I needed for a Fisher King / Holy Grail sort of origin story (bonus points for the Grail being a pot, as I believe it started its mythological life as a cauldron of plenty).  Along the way, I borrowed from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and couldn’t resist sneaking in a reference to Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady.

I think that is all the myths and tales that I defaced in writing these two stories, but it’s really hard to tell – there are so many classic fairy tale motifs and Arthurian stories out there that they tend to seep into everything, whether I intend them or not.

I do feel bad for making Sir Gareth complicit in vegetable cannibalism, though.  He was always one of my favourite knights, and that wasn’t a nice thing to do to him.  Though it does, perhaps, explain why he wasn’t deemed virtuous enough to find the grail…

The images I have used in this story are all in the public domain.  The trowel is a photograph by Thamizhpparithi Maari, from which I have removed the background.  The original file is available on Wikimedia commons.  The Donkeyskin picture is by Harry Clark (1922), and is from an edition of Perrault’s fairy tales.  The thistle is a detail from an illustration by otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora, from a book called ‘Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz’ published in 1885.  The knight is actually Sir Galahad, because apparently nobody felt it was worth doing solo paintings of Sir Gareth, or even paintings of him with his brother.  It is by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) and is available on Wikimedia Commons.

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Michel-Ange–Molitor fleur10left Chardon Lagache
fleur10right Mirabeau