The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.4 (Fall 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Owein, or The Countess of the Fountain (translated from Middle Welsh)
John R. Harris
The Emperor Arthur was in Caer-Llion-on-Wysc.1 It was sitting in his chamber he was one day, and together with him Owein son of Urien and Cynon son of Clydno and Cei son of Cynyr; and Gwynhwyfar and her handmaids, too, a-stitching at the window. And though ’tis said there was a porter at Arthur’s court, there was none. Glewlwyt Great-Grasp was there, however, in the porter’s place, a-greeting guests and travelers and performing the first honors to them, and telling them the court’s custom and its habit: to the man entitled to enter feasting hall or chamber, a-telling him the way; and to the man entitled to lodging, a-telling him that way.
In the very middle of the chamber was the Emperor Arthur seated upon a heap of rushes, and a spread of yellow-red silk brocade beneath him, and a cushion and its sleeve of red silk brocade beneath the point of his elbow.
Thereupon said Arthur, “My men, though it draw laughter upon me,” said he, “sleeping I will be the while I await my meat. And telling tales can ye yourselves be, and taking jugs of mead and chops from the hand of Cei.” And off to sleep went the Emperor.
And a question did Cynon son of Clydno put to Cei about [fulfilling] that which Arthur had promised to them.
“Myself, I would like the good tale-telling that was promised to me,” said Cei.
“Well, man,” said Cynon, “the fairest thing were for thee to be doing what Arthur promised first, and then the best tale-telling that we know, we shall deliver it to thee.”
Going off to kitchen and mead-cellar did Cei, and coming with a jug of mead with him, and a chalice of gold, and a fist’s fullness of spits with chops upon them. And a grab at the chops made they, and a start of drinking the mead.
“Done, now,” said Cei. “It’s ye that owe to me a tale told.”
“Cynon,” said Owein, “pay to Cei his tale.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said Cynon, “thou art a man who’s better a-telling tales than I, and more knowest thou of wondrous things. Pay thou a tale to Cei thyself!”
“Make a start,” said Owein, “with the thing most wondrous thou hast known.”
“I shall do it,” said Cynon.2
“The only son of my mother and father was I, and high of spirit was I, and great was my arrogance. And I reckoned naught of armed resistance to be in the world that might prevail over me. And after there came to pass my prevailing over every armed resistance of what was in my own land, a full equipping of myself I made and a traveling of the world’s far reaches and its wastes; and in the end a coming upon the fairest glen of the world, and a forest evenly high within it, and a running river that was all through the glen, and a path along the river’s bank. And traveling the path I did till midday, and I traveled the other bank till dusk.3 And then I came to a broad meadow, and at the meadow’s edge I saw a great many-splendored citadel and the sea at the citadel’s side close by.
“And I came up toward the citadel, and behold, two lads curly-headed, yellow-haired, and a garland of gold about the head of each of them, and a tunic of yellow silk brocade about each of them, and two buskins of new leather about the feet of each, and buckles of gold a-fastening these upon their ankles; and to each of them a bow of elephant tusk in hand, and bowstrings of deer sinew upon them, and arrows [too] and their shafts of walrus tusk after being winged with peacock feathers, and heads of gold upon the shafts; and knives with golden blades upon them, and their handles of walrus tusk, in each of two targets; and they two [i.e., the lads] a-casting the knives [in contest].4
“And a span away from them I saw a man curly-headed, yellow-haired, in his life’s prime, and his beard newly clipped, and a tunic and mantle of yellow silk brocade about him, and a ribbon of gold weave in his mantle, and two buskins of mottled leather upon his feet and two gold snaps a-fastening them.
“And when I saw him, approach him I did and give unto him greetings; and so fine his breeding that sooner did he greet me than I him. And coming with me toward the city did he. And no inhabitants in the city were there but what were in the hall. There a twenty and four of maidens were a-stitching silk before the window. And this I say unto thee, Cei: likely it is to me that fairer was the ugliest of those ones there than is the fairest maid that ever thou hast seen in the island of Britain; the handsomest of them, handsomer would she be than Gwynhwyfar the wife of Arthur when ever she was handsomest upon Christmas Day or Easter Day at Mass.
“And arise did they before me; and six of them that took my horse and did me myself help loose of gear; and six others of them that took my arms and washed them in polish till they were as bright as what is brightest; and a third six of them that put linens upon the tables and prepared the food; and the fourth six that drew off my dusty raiment and they putting other raiment upon me—a shirt and trousers of cambric, and tunic and surcoat and mantle of yellow silk brocade, and a wide fringe upon the mantle. And [they—the final six] drawing beneath me and around me cushions numerous with covers of red cambric around them.
“And a sitting made we then. The six of them that took my horse did do for him and his whole harness the equal of the best grooms on the island of Britain.
“And thereupon, behold, bowls of silver and water for washing in them, and towels of white cambric, and some of green; and a washing did we make, and a going to sit at the table did the former man, and myself nearest to him, and all of the maidens at my own side but for them who were a-serving. And silver was the table, and cambric the linens of the table, and there was not a vessel a-serving the table but it was of gold or silver or buffalo-horn. The food that came then—certain may it be to you, Cei, that I had not ever seen or heard of food or drink whose like I was seeing there, except that the preparation of the food and drink I saw there was better than ever in any other place.
“And eat we did until the eating was half done, and not one word spake either the man or any one of the maidens to me until then. And when it seemed likely to the man that conversing were better to me than eating, an asking he made of me what sort of traveling was mine and what sort of man was I. And I said ’twas high time for me to find some one as would converse with me, and that not in this court was anything the equal of its weakness in conversation.
“‘Yea, lord,’ said the man, ‘we should have spake with thee long since had not it been a hindrance to thy eating; and now indeed we shall converse with thee.’5
“And thereupon I told the man who I was, and what the traveling that was mine, and saying myself to be a-seeking one who might prevail over me, or I prevail over him.
“And looking upon me then did the man, and a-smiling, and he said to me. ‘Did I not suppose that an excess of what thou ask should come to thee from my telling it to thee, I indeed would tell thee that which thou seekest.’
“And at that I did take on a sadness and a brooding; and the man made notice of that in me, and he said to me, ‘Since ’tis better with thee,’ said he, ‘for me to tell thee thy loss than thy profit, tell it I will. Sleep here this night,’ said he, ‘and rise early a-morrow, and take the path that was traversed along the valley by thee until thou shouldst come to the forest already traversed. And some distance into the forest, encountering a crossroad [wilt thou be] upon thy right hand. And traveling along this [be thou] until thou shouldst come to a great clearing of meadowland, and a mound in the middle of the clearing. And a man large and dark shalt thou see atop the mound not smaller than a pair of the men of this world;6 and one foot has he, and one eye in the middle of his forehead; and a staff of iron is his, and certain will it be to thee that no pair of men in the world would not have their full load in the staff. An unruly man is he not, [yet] a hideous man is he. The guardian of the forest is this. And thou shalt see a thousand of animals a-grazing round about him. And asking [be thou] of him the way to go from the clearing. And contrary will he be to thee, yet he it is will tell thee the way how thou mayst find what thou dost seek.’
“Long was that night to me. On the following day’s morn, a rising did I make and arraying my arms about me and ascending upon my horse and traveling before me along the valley and the forest, and by the crossroad that the man had told came I unto the clearing. And when I came there, more reckoned I the wild animals that I saw there by three times than what the man had said. And a dark man was there a-sitting upon the mound. Large the man had said to me he was: larger by much was he than that. And the iron staff that the man had said to be the full load of two men in it—plain it was to me, Cei, that in it was the full load of four warriors. This was in the hand of the dark man.
“And greeting the dark man I did, but nothing he said to me if not contrariness. And an asking I made of him what power was his upon those animals. ‘Myself will show it to thee, little man,’ said he. And taking the staff in his hand [did he], and striking a stag a great blow with it till he was a-bellowing loud. And after his bellowing came of wild animals a number equal to the stars in the sky, till ’twas tight for me to stand in the clearing together with them, and they having of serpents and lions and vipers and diverse animals. And looking upon them all did he, and bidding them to go and graze. And a-hanging all their heads did they, and revering him thus as do serving men unto their lord. And he said to me, ‘Dost thou see, then, little man, the power that is mine upon these animals?’
“And then asking the way I did of him. And gruff he was with me, yet asking did he of me what place I would wish to go. I said to him what man was I and what thing I was seeking. And tell me [that thing] he did. ‘Take,’ said he, ‘the way that the clearing goes, and travel up the hill beyond till thou comest unto its top. And there wilt thou see a vale extending a great distance, and in the middle of the vale wilt thou see a great tree, and greener its top than what might be called greenest. And beneath this tree is a fountain, and beside the fountain is a great stone, and upon the stone is a silver bowl [held] by a silver chain the way it cannot be loosed. And take the bowl and throw a bowlful of water upon the stone. And then a great thunder wilt thou hear, and reckoning wilt thou be from the thunder that the collapse of heaven and earth [has come]. And after that storm will come a chill shower, and difficult will be to thee its suffering while in life, and hail will there be. After this storm will there be fair weather. And not one leaf on the tree will there be that the storm has happened not to tear away. Thereupon will come a shower of birds descending upon the tree, and not hast thou heard in thine own land ever a song the equal of what they will sing. And when the song will seem most pleasant to thee, thou wilt hear a great pant-tramp and snort a-coming along toward thee from up the valley. And thereupon wilt thou see a horseman upon a pure black horse, and raiment of pure black silk about him, and a pennon of pure black cambric upon his lance. To thy encounter will he address him as soon as may be. Though thou shouldst fly, he will overtake thee; though thou shouldst stay for him as horsed opponent, he will leave thee afoot. And if thou hast not grief there, no need will there be for thee to seek trouble whilst thou be living.’7
“And taking the way did I till I came to the top of the hill; and thence I saw the vale that the dark man had related to me. And to the side of the tree I came, and a fountain I saw beneath the tree, and the marble stone beside it, and the silver bowl held by the chain. And taking the bowl did I, and throwing a bowlful of water upon the stone. And thereupon, behold, the thunder coming, greater twice than the dark man had said, and after the thunder the shower. And clear it was to me, Cei, that nor man nor beast that the shower had overtaken would remain alive, for nor hide nor flesh would have halted its descent till bone should stop [it]. And turning about the crupper of my horse to the shower did I, and setting the edge of my shield above my horse’s head and neck, and setting the visor down upon my own head, and bearing the shower thus.
“And as my spirit was wanting to leave my body, the shower ceased. When I looked upon the tree, there was not one leaf upon it. And then there came fine weather. And then, behold, the birds descending upon the tree and beginning their singing. And certain I am, Cei, that not before nor since have I ever heard a song the equal of that one.
“And when ’twas most pleasing to me to be listening to the birds a-singing, behold, a pant-tramp coming along toward me from up the valley, and [someone] saying to me, ‘Thou cavalier,’ said he, ‘what wouldst thou claim of me? What evil have I done to thee when thou didst to me and my domain what thou hast done today? Didst not know that the shower today has left nor man nor beast alive in my domain of those it found outside?’
“And thereupon, behold, a knight upon a pure black horse and pure black raiment of silk brocade about him, and a pennon of pure black cambric upon his lance. Encountering [him] did I, and though it were fierce [encounter] ’twas not long till I was thrown to the ground. And then placing the butt of his lance did the knight through the bridle reins of my horse, and away he went and the two horses with him, and leaving myself there. The black man [i.e., knight] did not do so much as make me prisoner in his loftiness, nor did he even despoil me.8
“And coming my way back I did the way I had come before. And when I came to the clearing, the dark man was there; and I do confess to thee, Cei, it was a thing remarkable that I melted not into a slick pool with the shame I had from the mockery of the dark man. And to the city where I had been the night before came I that night. And greater [was] the cheer at my coming that night than the night before, and better my entertaining, and the conversation I wanted with the man and the maidens did I have. And no one did I find that mentioned before me a thing about my journey to the fountain. Nor did I mention a word myself before anyone. And there I was for that night.
“And when I arose upon the morrow’s morn, there was a palfrey dark brown, and a mane pure red—as red as lichen—upon him, a-ready after his full harnessing. And after arraying myself in my armor and leaving my blessing there, a-going [did I] unto my own court. And that horse is with me yet in the stable yonder, and between me and God, Cei, I would not give him even for the best palfrey in the island of Britain. And ’tis God who knows, Cei, a man has not ever admitted about himself a story as failure-full as this one; and yet strange is it to me that I have not ever, nor before nor after, heard him who might know anything of this story if not what I have said, and that this story’s marvels are in the Emperor Arthur’s domain without anyone’s [ever] having chanced upon them.”
“Well, man,” said Owein, “how might it not be good to go and seek the marvels of that place?”
“As my hand be my friend,” said Cei, “oft dost thou speak with thy tongue of that which thou wouldst not do with thy action.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said Gwynhwyfar, “it were better thou be hanged, Cei, than saying speech so injurious as that to such a man as Owein.”
“As my hand be my friend, Milady,” said Cei, “not more of praise hast thou said of Owein thyself than have I.”9
And thereupon awakening did Arthur, and asking had he slept a while.
“Indeed, Milord,” said Owein, “a good while.”
“And is it time for us to go to the tables?”
“’Tis time, Milord,” said Owein.
And then a blowing of the horn to wash was done, and done the going of the Emperor and all his household to eat. And after the eating had happened, slipping away did Owein, and going to his lodgings did he to prepare his horse and his arms.
And when he saw the next morn’s daylight, arraying himself in arms did he, and mounting upon his horse, and traveling the far reaches of the world before him did he and the lonely mountains. And at last he came upon the glen that Cynon had told him of, how he knew for certain ’twas that one. And traveling did he along the glen beside the river, and along the river’s other side till he came to the valley. And the valley he traveled till he saw the citadel, and toward the citadel he came.
What he saw [then] was the lads throwing their knives in the place where Cynon had seen them, and the blond man whose was the citadel a-standing at their side. And when Owein was wanting to give a greeting to the blond man, a greeting did the man give Owein, and stepping along toward the citadel just before him.
And in the city he saw a chamber, and in the chamber he saw the maidens a-stitching silk brocade in chairs of gold. And more estimable by much to Owein [was] their fairness and their beauty than what Cynon had said to him. And rising they did to wait upon Owein as they had waited upon Cynon. And more estimable to Owein was the entertainment than [it had been] to Cynon, and at halfway through the eating a question put the blond man to Owein [about] what travel was his. And Owein told the whole of his travel to him… “and a-seeking after the horseman who is guarding the fountain would I be.” And the blond man went a-smiling that ’twas a hard thing for him to describe that journey to Owein as it had been hard for him to describe it to Cynon. And yet describing he did to Owein the whole concerning that. And to their sleep they went.
And on the morrow’s morn was Owein’s horse readied by the maidens, and a-traveling did Owein before him till he came to the clearing where the dark man was. And more estimable was the dark man’s size to Owein than [it had been] to Cynon. And asking the way did Owein of the dark man, and he who did tell it. And going his way did Owein as [did] Cynon until he came up beside the green tree. And he saw the fountain and the stone beside the fountain, and the bowl upon it. And taking the bowl did Owein and throwing a bowlful of water upon the stone. And thereupon, behold, the thunder, and after the thunder the shower. Greater by much were they than Cynon had said. And after the shower a brightening did the sky make, and when Owein looked upon the tree, not one leaf was upon it. And thereupon, behold, the birds descending upon the tree and singing.
And when most pleasant was the birds’ song to Owein, he saw the knight a-coming along the valley. And making for him did Owein, and jousting with him fiercely, and shattering their two [lances’] shafts did they, and betook them to drawing their two swords and smiting one the other. And thereupon, ’twas Owein struck a blow upon the knight, through helmet and chain-mail and Burgundian wool, and through skin and flesh and bone, till it drove into the brain. And then did the black knight recognize that his death-blow had fallen upon him, and turning about the head of his horse did he, and fleeing.
And pursue him did Owein, yet not might Owein smite him [again] with his sword, though he was not far from him. And thereupon Owein saw a splendid great castle. And to the gateway of the castle they came, and letting the black knight [to pass] within was done, but letting go the raised gate was done upon Owein. And that [gate] it was that struck an equal blow behind the saddle’s cantle, so that it cut the horse right through in two halves, and [also] the rowels of the spurs upon Owein’s heels, and thence traveled the gate unto the ground, and the rowels of the spurs and the portion of the horse without, and Owein and the horse’s other portion between the two gates. And the gate within was closed so that Owein could not go thence.10
And in a pinch for a plan was Owein. And while Owein was thus, a street opposite to him did he see through a crack in the gate, and a row of houses on either side of the street. And see did he [as well] a maiden curly-headed, yellow-haired, and a garland of gold upon her head, and raiment of yellow silk brocade about her, and two buskins of speckled leather upon her feet, and she a-coming to the gateway.11
And asking her to open [the second gate] did he. “’Tis God who knows, Lady,” said Owein, “no more can it be opened unto thee from here than thou canst save me from there.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said the maiden, “’twere a great pity that [i.e., if] thy saving could not be; and it were right for a woman to do thee good, ’tis God who knows I have not seen ever a better lad for a woman than thou. Were a lady-admirer thine, the best friend of a woman [ever] wert thou; and were a lady-love thine, the best beau [ever] wert thou. And therefore,” said she, “what I can do to save thee, that shall I do. Take thee this ring and put it upon thy finger, and put the stone within thy hand, and close thy fist about the stone, and the time thou hidest it, it will hide thee. And when they of these parts once reflect, they will come to attack thee and destroy thee because of the [dead] man. And after they see thee not, it will be ill with them. And I will be upon yon mounting-block awaiting thee; and thou’lt see me though I see thee not. Come and put thy hand upon my shoulder, and then shall I know thou hast come to me. And what way I may go thence, come thou with me.” And thereupon going thence from Owein did she.
And Owein did all that the maiden asked of him. And thereupon came the men of the court to seek Owein and to destroy him. And when they came to seek, nothing did they see if not half of the horse, and ill it went with them. And disappearing did Owein in their midst, and coming to the maiden, and putting his hand upon her shoulder; and setting off straight ahead did she, and Owein together with her, until they came to the door of a large, handsome loft-room. And opening the loft did the maiden, and coming within did they and closing the loft behind them.
And looking all through the loft did Owein; and not a single nail was in the loft without its being painted with precious paint, and not a board was there without a golden picture upon it all unlike the others. And kindling a fire of coal did the maiden, and putting a silver bowl upon it did she and water in it, and a towel of white cambric upon her shoulder, and the water did she give to Owein for to wash. And putting a silver-gilded table before him [did she], and a tablecloth of yellow cambric upon it, and coming with a dinner for him. And certain was it to Owein that he had not seen ever any sort of food that he did not see there in sufficiency, except there he saw the serving of the food to be better than ever in any other place. And he had not seen ever a place so abundant in marvelous dishes of food and drink as [he saw] there, and not a single vessel was set before him if not vessels of silver and gold. And to eating and drinking went Owein till the afternoon was late.12
And thereupon, behold, they heard an outcry in the castle, and asking did Owein of the maiden, “What wailing is this?”
“Putting [holy] oil upon the man whose is the castle, it is,” said the maiden.
And asleep went Owein, and fit for Arthur were a bed as good as the maiden made for him, of scarlet and gray and silk brocade and sendal and cambric.
And at midnight they heard a fearful outcry.
“What outcry is this, now?” said Owein.
“The man whose is the castle, it is, who has died this hour,” said the maiden.
And just before day they heard an outcry and a wailing immeasurable in their strength, and asking did Owein of the maiden, “What is the reason of this wailing?”
“The corpse of the man whose is this castle is going to the graveyard.”
And rousing himself up did Owein and putting his clothes about him, and opening the window of the loft, and looking upon the castle keep. And he saw nor boundary nor limit to the throngs a-filling the streets, and they in full armor, and women aplenty together with them on horseback and on foot, and the clergy of the city all a-chanting. And Owein imagined the air to ring from the strength of the wailing and the trumpeting and the clergy’s chanting.
And in the middle of that throng it was the bier he saw, and a covering of white cambric upon it, and post-candles aplenty burning round about it. And not a single man beneath the bier was laity or [even] a wealthy baron. And certain it was to Owein that he had not seen ever an amount equal to that of silk and silk brocade and sendal.
And behind the throng he saw a blonde woman, and her hair between her two shoulders, and the blood of plenteous wounds in her tresses,13 and a raiment of yellow silk about her [that was] after being rent, and two buskins of speckled leather upon her feet. And wondrous it was that the tips of her fingers were not bruised from as much as she beat her hands together. And certain it was to Owein that he had not seen ever a woman—though she be in her proper [i.e., normal] state—[who was] the equal of her. And louder was her outcry than was that of man and trumpet in the throng. And when he saw the woman, kindling with love of her did he until each point within him was filled.
And asking did Owein of the maiden who was the woman. “’Tis God who knows,” said the maiden, “a woman of whom it could be said that she is the most beautiful, and the most faithful, and the most generous, and the most wise, and the most noble. Mine own mistress is that lady below—the Countess of the Fountain she is called, wife of the man thou didst kill yesterday.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said Owein, “on my soul, the woman I love most is she.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said the maiden, “she loves not thee, nor a little nor at all.”
And thereupon arising did the maiden, and kindling a fire of coal, and filling a pot of water and setting it to simmer, and taking a towel of white cambric and setting it upon Owein’s neck, and taking a cup of elephant bone and a silver bowl, and filling them of warm water, and washing Owein’s head. And after that opening a coffer [did she] and drawing out a razor—and a handle of elephant bone and two golden grooves upon the razor—and shaving his beard did she, and drying his head and his neck with the towel. And after that bringing a table to face Owein did the maiden and coming with his dinner for him. And certain it was to Owein that he had not received ever a dinner the equal of that nor service as abundant.
And after the dinner had been completely served to him, the maiden prepared his bed. “Come here,” said she, “and sleep, and ’tis I will go a-courting for thee.” And going to his sleep did Owein. And closing the door of the loft did the maiden and going off into the castle.14
And when she came there, nothing if not sadness and worry was [to be found], and the Countess herself in her chamber without suffering the sight of anyone for her sadness. And coming to her did Lunet and offering to her a greeting, and the countess did not answer.15 And umbrage did the maiden take, and said to her, “What has happened to thee, that thou hast answered no one today?”
“Lunet,” said the Countess, “what front hast thou placed on thee, that thou shouldst not come to see the distress that befell me? And [to think] it’s I have placed thee in such high stead! This were a fault in thee!”
“’Tis God who knows,” said Lunet, “I had not imagined that thy sense were not better than it is. ’Twere better for thee to encounter distress in replacing that man than [to seek] something else thou canst never obtain.”
“Between me and God,” said the Countess, “I cannot ever replace my lord with any other man in the world.”
“Thou canst,” said Lunet, “marry a man who would be the equal of him or better than he.”
“Between me and God,” said the Countess, “were it not odious to me to arrange the destruction of a person whom I have cherished, ’tis I would prepare thy destruction for hinting to me a thing so faithless as that. Yet arranging thy exile for thee I will indeed do!”
“It is well with me,” said Lunet, “that no cause for thee [to do] that is there if not my telling thy advantage to thee when thou thyself cannot. And shame be to her, I say, who first turns to the other, be it me to beg a [forgiving] gesture of thee, or thou a gesture of me.”
And thereupon away did Lunet go.
And bestirring herself did the Countess as far as the chamber’s door after Lunet. And looking back behind her did Lunet, and the Countess made a nod toward her. And coming back did Lunet toward the Countess.
“Between me and God,” said the Countess to Lunet, “ill is thy nature. And since it is my advantage that thou art telling to me, tell what way that may be.”
“Tell it I shall,” said she. “Thou of all dost know that thy domain cannot be defended if not by soldierly prowess and arms. And therefore seek thou at once [him] who may defend it.
“What way can I do that?” said the Countess.
“I shall tell,” said Lunet. “If thou canst not defend the fountain, thou canst not defend thy domain. None can defend the fountain if not one of Arthur’s household, and I it is who shall go,” said Lunet, “unto the court of Arthur, and shame to me,” said she, “if I shall come thence without a knight who may guard the fountain as well as or better than the man who has guarded it before.”
“Hard would that be,” said the Countess. “And yet, let thee put to the proof that which thou sayest.”
Lunet made a start of going to Arthur’s court, to all appearance, and going to the loft with Owein did she. And there was she with Owein until ’twas time for her coming back from Arthur’s court.
And then arraying herself [freshly] about did she and coming to the Countess in conference. And cheerful was the Countess at the encounter.
“News from Arthur’s court with thee, is there?” said the Countess.
“The best news with me, Milady,” said she, “the fulfilling of my mission. And what time wouldst like presented to thee the lord who has come with me?”
“Come thou with him,” said the Countess, “at midday tomorrow to confer with me, and I, for my part, shall arrange a vacancy in my affairs here for that.”
And coming did she [Lunet] to her quarters.
And at midday of the morrow did Owein array himself about in tunic and surcoat and mantle of yellow silk brocade, and a wide fringe of gold thread upon the mantle, and two buskins of speckled leather upon his feet and the gold likeness of a lion a-buckling them.16 Coming did they unto the Countess’s chamber, and cheerful was the Countess at the encounter. And looking upon Owein intently did the countess.
“Lunet,” said she, “this cavalier hath not the appearance of a traveler.”
“What ill is in that, Milady?” said Lunet.
“Between me and God,” said the Countess, “no being took the spirit of my lord from his body were it not this man.”
“And ‘twere the better so for thee, Milady. Were this one not mightier than the other, he should not have taken his spirit. Not a thing can be done about that,” said she, “since it hath happened.”
“Go ye to your quarters again,” said the Countess, “and for my part, I shall take counsel.”
And ordering the summons of the whole domain in one place on the morrow did the Countess, and telling them that the earldom was in want of an earl, and not able to be defended if not by horse and arms and soldierly prowess; “and ’tis this I shall leave to your own choice, whether one from among ye should me take [in marriage], or allowing me myself to take from another place the man that should defend it.”
What they decided from their counsel was allowing her a man from another place. And then she took a bishop and an archbishop from her court to make the marriage [between] her and Owein. And pledging fealty to Owein did the men of the earldom, and ’twas Owein who did guard the fountain with lance and sword. How he guarded it is thus: should any knight come there, ’twas Owein would throw him and ransom him for his full worth.
And such wealth did Owein distribute to his barons and his knights that there was no greater love in the domain for any man in the whole world than for him. And three years was he thus.
And as Gwalchmei was a-walking with the Emperor Arthur one day, looking did he upon Arthur and seeing him downcast, sad; and distressed greatly was Gwalchmei to see Arthur in that shape, and asking did he of him, “Milord,” said he, “what has happened to thee?”
“Between me and God, Gwalchmei,” said Arthur, “a longing is upon me for Owein, who hath been lost to me a span of three years. And if I be the fourth year without seeing him, my spirit will not be in my body. And know I full well that it was because of the talk of Cynon son of Clydno that Owein was lost to me.”
“No need is there for thee,” said Gwalchmei, “to muster thy domain for that. Merely but thou and thy household can avenge Owein if he be slain, or free him if he be in prison, and bring him if alive unto thy home.”17
And upon what Gwalchmei had said was it agreed.
Arming themselves did Arthur and the men of the household with him to seek Owein. The extent of their number was three thousand without [counting] attendants, and Cynon son of Clydno a-guiding them.
And coming did Arthur unto the citadel that Cynon had been in, and when they came there they saw the lads a-casting [knives] in the same place, and the blond man standing at their side. And when the blond man saw Arthur, greeting he made to him and inviting him [in]; and accepting the greeting did Arthur, and to the citadel did they go. And though their number were great, no excuse was offered in the city. Arising did the maidens in their service; and fault had they seen in every service ever except [i.e., compared to] the service of [these] women. And not worse was the service of the stable attendants that night than it would have been for Arthur in his own court.
And upon the morrow’s morn did Arthur set out thence, and Cynon a-guiding for him, and they came unto the place where was the dark man. And more estimable by much was the size of the dark man to Arthur than what had been told to him. And unto the top of the hill did they go, and to the vale, and unto the green tree’s border, and there they saw the fountain and the basin and the stone.
And then came Cei to Arthur, and he said, “Milord,” said he, “’tis I knows the cause of all this traveling, and a request is mine: to be allowed to throw the water upon the stone and to encounter the first trouble that should come.” And permitting him [to do so] did Arthur.
And throwing a bowlful of water upon the stone did Cei. And thunder came into the region after that, and after that the shower; and they had not heard ever thunder and a shower like unto those, and many of the attendants did the shower slay who were in Arthur’s entourage. And after the shower’s abating, the sky grew fair, and when they looked upon the tree, not one leaf was upon it. And descending upon the tree did the birds, and certain was it to them that they had not heard ever a song the equal of the birds a-singing.
And thereupon they saw a knight upon a pure black horse, and raiment of pure black silk brocade about him, and his a rapid traveling. And Cei made to encounter him and to joust with him. And not long was the joust: ’twas Cei was thrown.
And then a tented bivouac did the knight make, and a bivouac of tents did Arthur and his host make [too] that night.
And when they arose early on the morrow’s morn, a sign of jousting was there upon the lance of the knight. And coming did Cei to Arthur, and saying to him, “Milord,” said he, “foully was I thrown yesterday. Dost thou give me leave today to go and joust with the knight?”
“I give thee leave,” said Arthur.
And going did Cei unto the knight; and at once did he throw Cei, and look upon him, and knock him with the butt of his lance in the forehead so that he broke the helmet and the mail-cap and the skin and the flesh unto the bone as wide as the shaft’s bottom width. 18
And returning did Cei unto his comrades again. And from then on did go Arthur’s household each in turn to joust with the knight, until there was not one left unthrown by the knight but for Arthur and Gwalchmei.
And Arthur, it was, who arrayed himself in arms and was going to joust with the knight.
“Aye me, Milord,” said Gwalchmei, “give me leave to go to joust with the knight first.”19
And giving him leave did Arthur. And go to joust with the knight did he, and a cloak of silk brocade about him that the daughter of the Earl of Anjou had sent him—all about him and about his horse. Because of that, none from among the host did know him.20
And attacking each the other did they, and jousting through that day till dusk, and not close was one of them to throwing the other to the ground.
And on the morrow they went to jousting, and keen-pointed shafts were theirs. Yet neither of them prevailed over the other.
And on the third day did they go to jousting, and shafts massy-hafted, keen-pointed to either one of them. And kindling with rage did they, and attacking each the other they did upon the instant of midday, and such a thrust gave each to the other that all the fastenings of their horses snapped, and each of them was over the crupper of his horse to the ground.
Arising swiftly at once did they, and drawing swords and smiting one the other. And certain it was with the many that saw them that they had not seen ever two men so valiant in such matters nor so mighty. Though the night had been dark, bright had [yet] it been with the fire from their arms.
And thereupon a blow did the knight give to Gwalchmei such that the helmet turned upon his face a way the knight knew that ’twas Gwalchmei therein. And then said Owein, “Milord Gwalchmei, I was not knowing thee because of thy cloak—and thou art my first cousin! Take thee here my sword and my arms!”
“Thou it is, Owein, that art lord [of the fight],” said Gwalchmei, “and thou it is hast prevailed. Take thee this sword of mine!”
And thereupon did Arthur take note of them, and coming to them did he.
“Milord,” said Gwalchmei, “look here—Owein who has prevailed over me, and he will not accept my arms from me.”
“Milord,” said Owein, “he it is who has prevailed over me, and he will not accept my sword.”
“To myself,” said Arthur, “surrender ye your swords, for not prevailing [will be] the one of ye over the other with that.”
And passing his hands about the Emperor Arthur’s neck did Owein,21 and hugging each the other did they. And the host did come to them with haste and a crushing some of others a-seeking the sight of Owein and a pass of their hands about his neck; and ’twas he was close to being a corpse within that crush. And that night did they go all unto their tents.
And on the morrow the Emperor Arthur asked leave to depart. “Milord,” said Owein, “not thus would it be proper for thee. ’Tis three years to that time that I came here away from thee, Lord, and this land is mine. Therefore unto today have I been a-readying a feast for thee, since I knew thou wouldst come a-seeking me. And do thou come together with me to shed thy weariness—thou and thy men—and ye shall cleanse yourselves in our waters.”22
And coming did they all together unto the Countess of the Fountain’s castle. And the feast that had been three years in the readying was consumed in one three-month spell, and not more pleasant to them ever than that was a feast, nor better.
Then did Arthur ask leave to depart, and sending messengers to the Countess to request of her Owein’s releasing to him for to appear before the Isle of Britain’s barons and ladies over a three-month span. And the lady ’twas who granted it, though that was hard upon her.
So coming did Owein together with Arthur to the Isle of Britain.23 And after coming into the midst of kindred and carousing friends, he it was did stay three years instead of three months.
As Owein was one day feasting at the table in the Emperor Arthur’s court at Kaer Llion-on-Wysc, behold, a maiden coming upon a horse, bay and curly-maned with a mane that reached to the ground, and about herself a raiment of yellow silk brocade, and the bridle and what might be seen of the saddle… gold all, it was. And unto Owein straight before his face she came, and taking the ring that was upon his hand.24
“Thus,” said she, “is it done unto a faithless deceiving traitor—shame be upon thy beard!”
And turning the head of her horse [did she], and departing.
And then came the memory to of his journey to Owein, and into gloom he sank. And when the feast was ended, to his lodgings did he come, and greatly was he troubled that night.
And on the morrow’s morn he arose, and not Arthur’s court did he approach but the far reaches of the world and the mountainous wastes. And he was thus until such time as all his clothes were at an end, and until his body itself was near the end, and until long fur came all about him; and traveling together with wild beasts did he, and grazing together with them until they were accustomed to him. And thereupon a-weakening did he until he could not move along with them. And descending from the mountain into the vale did he, and approaching a park as was the fairest of the world. And a widowed countess’s was the park.
One day did the countess and her handmaiden go a-walking beside a lake that was in the middle of the park as far as unto its middle.25 ’Twas they did see in the park a man’s likeness and his figure, and as if seized with fear before him did they act. Yet did they make their way closer to him, and touching him, and looking upon him keenly. What they saw was veins a-throbbing in him, and himself a-moaning from the sun. And going again to her castle did the countess, and taking a chalice’s fullness of precious oil, and giving it into the hand of the maiden.
“Go thou,” said she, “and this with thee, and lead yon horse and clothes with thee, and put them within reach of the man [we saw] just now. And anoint him with this oil round about his heart, and whatever there be of spirit in him will stir with this oil; and for thy part, watch what he will do.”
’Twas the maiden who went before him, and the whole of the oil did she put upon him, and leaving the horse and the clothes within his reach, and going in haste from him and hiding herself and spying upon him.
After a short spell, she it was saw him a-scratching his arms and a-rising up and a-looking upon his flesh, and taking shame of himself did he, so ugly did he see the appearance that was upon him. And perceiving the horse and the clothes before him did he, and dragging himself he did until he reached the clothes, and pulling them to him from the saddle and arraying them about him did he, and ascending the horse with difficulty.
And then the maiden did make to show herself to him, and a greeting to him made she. And cheerful was he before the maiden, and asking did he of the maiden what land was this and what place.
“’Tis God who knows,” said the maiden, “that a widowed countess is she whose is yon castle, and when her wedded lord was dead, ’twas he had left to her two earldoms; but this night there is not in her possession but the one structure yonder that the young earl, her neighbor, has not taken, for that she would not go as wife to him.”26
“A pity is that,” said Owein.
And Owein went ambling with the maiden to the castle, and in the castle did Owein dismount, and the maiden it was who took him to a comfortable chamber, and kindling a fire for him and leaving him there.
And coming to the countess did the maiden and giving the chalice into her hand.
“Aye, maiden,” said the countess, “is [this] all the oil?”
“Yes, ’tis gone, Milady,” said she.
“Ah, maiden,” said the countess, “not easy for me is it to reproach thee; yet ’tis a misfortune for me to have spent the worth of seven-twenty pounds of precious oil upon a man without knowing who he is. But come, maiden, do thou wait upon him such that there be an abundance of all.”
And that the maiden did, a-waiting upon food and drink and fire and bedding and bath till he was well. And the fur wore away from Owein in scaly clumps. ’Twas three months he was that way, and then was his flesh more bright than before.27
And thereupon one day heard Owein commotion in the castle, and great preparation, and a bearing of arms within. And asking of the maiden did Owein, “What commotion is this?” said he.
“The earl I spoke of to thee,” said she, “’tis he a-coming toward the castle [and] seeking to crush this woman, and a great host with him.”
And then asking of the maiden did Owein, “Has the countess horse and arms?”
“She has,” said the maiden, “such as are best in the world.”
“Wilt thou go, then, to ask of the countess the loan of a horse and arms to me,” said Owein, “the way I can go to look over the host?”
“Gladly will I go,” said the maiden.
And coming to the countess did the maiden, and saying to her the whole of their exchange. Laughing was what the countess did then. “Between me and God,” said she, “’tis I will give horse and arms forever, and never were in his possession better horse and arms than they. And well is it with me for them to be taken by him rather than their being got by my enemies tomorrow against my will.”
And brought forth was a fine black Gascon, and a saddle of beech upon him, and a plenty of arms for man and horse. And arraying them about him did he, and mounting upon the horse, and going off, and two squires together with him equipped with horses and arms.
And when they came unto parts about the earl’s host, they saw nor limit or boundary to it. And asking of the squires did Owein in what battalion was the earl.
“In the battalion,” said they, “that yon four yellow pennons are in it. Two are at his front and two are at his back.”
“Well, then,” said Owein, “go ye back and await me at the castle’s gate.”
And turning themselves about did they.
And traveling before him did Owein through the two most forward battalions until he encountered the earl. And him did Owein pull from the saddle until he was between him and his pommel, and turning about the head of his horse did he toward parts about the castle. And whatever trouble he got, ’twas he who came and the earl along with him till he came to the castle’s gate where the squires were him awaiting.
And within they went, and Owein served up the earl unto the countess, and saying to her as thus: “Here thou seest thy recompense for the holy oil I got from thee!”
And the host bivouacked about the castle, and for the earl to be given his life did he give back the two earldoms unto her. And for his freedom he gave half of his own domain, and the whole of her gold and silver and jewels, and pledges on top of that.
And off did Owein go, though offering herself and her whole domain did the countess. Yet naught did Owein want but traveling the far reaches and wastes of the world before him.28
And as he was thus a-traveling, he ’twas who heard a great roar within the forest—and a second, and a third. And coming there did he. And when he came, he saw a great cliff in the forest’s midst and a gray stone beside the rising. And a cleft was in the stone, and a serpent was in the cleft, and a lion pure white was within the serpent’s reach. And when the lion would seek going thence, lunging would the snake be at him, and then would that one let out a roar.
What Owein did then was unsheathing his sword and drawing near the stone. And as the serpent was coming from the stone, striking [with] his sword did Owein such that it [the snake] was in two halves upon the ground, and drying his sword, and going his way as before.29
And what he saw then—it was the lion a-following him, and a-playing about him like a hunting dog that he himself had reared. And traveling did they unto the day’s dusk.
And when ’twas time for Owein to rest, dismounting did he and loosing his horse to graze within a meadow level and wooded. And striking a fire did Owein, and when the fire was prepared by Owein, there was a sufficiency of firewood [gathered] by the lion for a full three nights. And disappear had the lion from him, and on the spot—behold, the lion a-coming to him and a fine great roebuck with him, and going to lie down beside the fire with it.
And taking the roebuck did Owein and flaying it, and putting chops upon spits about the fire, and giving the buck—all but for that—to the lion to eat.
And as Owein was thus, ’twas he who heard a great moan, and a second, and a third, and they nearby to him. And asking [aloud] did Owein was it mortal being had made them.
“Aye, ’tis true,” said the person.
“Who then art thou?” said Owein.
“’Tis God who knows,” said she, “Lunet I am, the Countess of the Fountain’s handmaiden “
“What dost thou there?” sais Owein.
“Enduring my imprisonment,” said she, “on account of a youth who came from the Emperor’s court desiring the Countess in marriage, and who was together with her a spell. And he went to visit Arthur’s court, and he came not again ever. And the ally he was to me such as I loved most in all the world. What two of the Countess’s chamberlains did, ’twas to belittle him to my face and to call him a deceiver and a traitor. I said, for my part, that their two bodies together could not strive against his one body alone. And thereupon did they make me a prisoner in this bowl of stone, and saying that my spirit would not be in my body if he should not come to defend me by an appointed span of days. And no further is the span than the morrow’s morrow, and none I have who might seek him. Who it is, ’tis Owein son of Uryen.”
“Is it certain in thy own mind,” said he, “that were that youth to know this, he would come in thy own defense?”
“Certain, between me and God,” said she.
And when the chops were cooked enough, their dividing in two halves between himself and the maiden did Owein, and they went to eating. And after that, conversing [did they] until it was the morrow’s day.
And on that morrow, asking of the maiden did Owein was there a place where he could get food and welcome that night.
“There is, Milord,” said she. “There through do thou go,” said she, “unto the ford, and travel the path alongside the river, and at the end of a span wilt thou see a great citadel and numerous towers upon it. And the earl whose is that citadel is the best man in the world for [providing] food, and there canst thou be tonight.”30
And not had any watchman watched his lord ever the equal of how the lion had watched Owen the night before.
And then saddling his horse did Owein, and traveling before him past the ford until he saw the citadel. And to the citadel came Owein, and a receiving was made him there honorably, and caring for his horse attentively and setting a sufficiency of food under his muzzle. And going to the horse’s manger did the lion for to sleep, such that no one from the citadel might dare to come in the horse’s proximity before him. And certain was it to Owein that he had not seen a place the equal of that one in service. Yet as sad was each man there as if death were in each man of them.
And going to eat did they, and sitting at Owein’s one hand did the earl, and the lone daughter as was his at Owein’s other side; and certain it was to Owein that he had not seen ever any maiden handsomer than that one. And coming did the lion beneath Owein’s two feet beneath the table, and Owein it was who fed him from every food that was there for himself.31 And Owein saw there no fault so great as the people’s sadness.
And at the meal’s half way did the earl make to greet Owein. “’Tis high time thou shouldst be cheerful,” said Owein.
“’Tis God who knows of us that not toward thee would we be sad, if not cause of sadness and concern were in us.”
“What is that?” said Owein.
“Two sons are there to me, and my two sons going to the mountain yesterday for to hunt. A beast there is up there, and killing people does he, and eating them. And seizing my sons he did, and tomorrow is the appointed day between me and him to give this maiden to him, or he it is will kill my sons before my eyes. And [though] the likeness of a man is about him, not less is he than a giant.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said Owein, “that is a pity. And which one wilt thou do of those?”
“’Tis God who knows upon my soul,” said the earl, “more honorable to me were the destroying of my sons that he got against my will than the giving of my daughter to him, and me willing, for to be violated and destroyed.”
And conversing of other matters did they. And there throughout that night was Owein.
And on the morrow’s morn they heard a commotion immeasurable in its might. What it was: the huge man a-coming and the two sons with him. And thinking to defend the citadel from him was the earl and to abandon his two sons. Arraying his armor about him did Owein and going out and matching himself with the man, and the lion behind him. And when the man saw Owein fully armed, approaching him did he and battling with him. And better by much did the lion battle the huge man than Owein.
“Between me and God,” said the man to Owein, “it were no struggle for me to battle thee were it not for the animal is at thy side.”
And then Owein cast the lion into the citadel, and closing the gate upon him, and coming to battle with the huge man as before. A roar did the lion make upon hearing Owein’s distress, and climbing until he was upon the earl’s hall, and from the hall unto the citadel walls, and from the walls he leapt until he was at Owein’s side. And a blow did the lion strike upon the huge man’s shoulder such that the paw went [down] through where the body forks, so that all his entrails were seen slipping from him. And then the huge man fell dead.32
Then Owein gave the two sons to the earl; and inviting Owein [to wed his daughter] did the earl, [but] Owein wished only to go before him to the meadow that Lunet was [being held] in.33
’Twas he who saw there a great kindling of fire, and two lads curly-headed, auburn-haired, handsome a-going with the maiden for to cast her into the fire. And asking did Owein what thing they were claiming against the maiden. Explaining their case to him did they as the maiden had explained it the night before. “And Owein it is who has failed [to defend] her, and for that are we setting her afire.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said Owein, “a good knight is that one, and a marvel it is to me that, should he know it to be [thus] for this maiden, he should not come to defend her. And should ye wish me in his place, myself it is will go at ye.”
“We do wish it,” said the lads, “and so doth the One who made us.”
And advancing did they, and they and Owein were all unhorsed [in the clash]. And distress did Owein have with the two lads, and thereupon the lion it was who strengthened Owein, and they were prevailing over the lads. And then did they say, “Ho, cavalier, there was not agreement for us to battle but thee thyself, and ’tis harder for us to battle with yon animal than with thee.”
Then did Owein set the lion in the place where the maiden had been a-prison, and making a wall of stone upon the door, and going to battle with the men as before. And Owein had not come to his [full] strength still, and hearty were the two lads upon him.34 And the lion ever a-roaring [was] for that distress was upon Owein. And a-tearing the wall was the lion until he got a way out, and quickly did he slay one of the lads, and on the spot he slew the other.
Thus did they rescue Lunet from the fire. Then did Owein, and together with him Lunet, go to the Countess of the Fountain’s domain. And when he had come, thence he took the Countess to Arthur’s court; and she it was who was wife to him as long as she lived.
And then he cane his way to the court of the Dark Oppressor, and battled with him; and the lion did not part himself from Owein until his prevailing over the Dark Oppressor.35
And when he came his way to the Dark Oppressor’s court, he approached the hall, and there saw he four and twenty women, the handsomest of any he had seen ever, and there was not clothing about them the worth of four and twenty silver pieces. And as sad were they as death itself.
Asking of them did Owein the story of their sadness. They told him how ’twas the daughters of earls they were, and that they had not come there but with the man as each one of them loved the most along with her. “And when we came here, we it was who got cheer and celebration and the making of us drunk. And after we were drunk did come the demon whose court is this, and he slew our men one and all, and he took our horses from us and our clothes and our gold and our silver. And the bodies of [our] men are in the same house as we, and of [other] corpses many together with them. And there for thee, cavalier, is the story of our sadness. And ill is it with us, cavalier, thine own coming hither, for the ill [it may be] to thee.”36
And pitiable was that to Owein, and going outside at a walk did he. And a knight he saw a-coming to him, and a-greeting him with cheer and friendship like as if he were brother to him. Who that was, was the Dark Oppressor.
“’Tis God who knows,” said Owein, “not to meet thy cheer have I come hither.”
“’Tis God who knows,” said he, “’tis thee shalt not have it.”
And on the spot did they approach one the other, and each the other did fiercely wound, and [at last] hurling himself upon him did Owein, and binding him with his hands behind his back.
And the Dark Oppressor asked quarter of Owein, and saying to him, “Milord Owein,” said he, “prophesied was thy coming hither to vanquish me, and thou indeed hast come and hast done that. A pest of pilgrims was I hitherto, and a nest of plunder was my house.37 Yet leave to me my spirit, and ’tis I will turn to a host of pilgrims, and ’tis I will maintain this house as a hostel for hale and ailing [alike] while I will be alive, for the sake of thy soul.”38
’Twas Owein who took him up on that, and there throughout that night was Owein.
Upon the morrow he took the four and twenty women and their horses and their clothes, and what had come with them of possessions and jewels, and he traveled with them at his side unto the court of Arthur. And joyful had Arthur been at his meeting before when he had lost him, and more joyful [was he] then. And of those women, any one that wished to dwell in Arthur’s court, she did that obtain, and any one that wished to go her way, go did she.
And Owein it was who dwelt in Arthur’s court, most cherished by him, from then on as head of the household guard, until he went to his own domain. It was those [i.e., Owein’s band] were the Three Hundred Swords of Cenferchyn, and the Flight of Ravens.39 And the place that Owein would go with those beside him, there would he prevail.
This story is called The Story of the Fountain’s Countess.40
On the left is the so-called “ice house” just outside of Lismore in southern Ireland. Could such a structure not be the “stone bowl” in which Lunet is imprisoned and whose description has caused so much wild speculation among scholars? The single entrance (right) opens upon an oubliette-like drop of about twenty feet. Today the “bowl” has obviously been awarded a paved walkway and the drop has been sealed with a protective grate; when I visited the spot thirty years ago, none of these tourist-friendly adornments had been added.
1 The word amherawdyr is a Welsh transliteration of the Latin imperator. The borrowing reflects a desire to bestow upon Arthur the highest title of the greatest worldly power known to the medieval Welsh. It shows little awareness of the word’s political nuances for ancient Romans. Of course, “emperor” is also cluttered with suggestion for us today, much of it pejorative. While very tempted to translate this word as “high king” (Irish ard rí) rather than “emperor”, however, I have at last stayed with the Latin form; for unlike the Irish, the Welsh felt a certain rivalry with the ancient Romans, who had once occupied some of their domain (cf. The Dream of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion), and seem to have fashioned in Arthur a satisfying if largely imaginary heir to Rome’s imperial might.
2 There are many reasons why Owein would enjoy the obvious command over Cynon that he evinces here. Cynon himself comments that his cousin has vastly more experience of adventure. Yet we must note in passing with respect to the foundational “Wasting-Sickness Myth” that Cynon is also fulfilling the subordinate role of Cú Chulainn’s charioteer Láeg. He will continue in this role as he anticipates Owein’s journey to the Other World with his own—the subject of the ensuing tale.
3 The passage into the Other World is frequently associated in mythic traditions around the world with events that wax and wane in concert with solar movements: cf. the battle of Odysseus’s men with the Cicones in Odyssey 9. The connection presumably draws upon the audience’s awareness that the sun follows the Underworld’s subterranean passage from west to east every night. That a late medieval Welsh audience might have detected some such allusion of great antiquity is very probable; for however superior this audience’s understanding of the cosmos to the primitive myth’s representation—and however irrelevant that myth to explaining meteorology in a state-of-the-art manner—mythic cues still riddled traditional tales. In other words, it would have been understood that Cynon is here passing into a space beyond the normal world of the living.
4 No one seems to know quite what sort of game is being played in this difficult passage; the text is ambiguous, and various editors have proposed emendations to render the scene more sensible. The very proliferation of minute detail which makes the passage so troublesome, however (and the entire tale has nothing nearly as florid as this description and the following one), suggests that narrative clues were being transmitted to the original audience. Their meaning? Perhaps an emphasis that Cynon has entered the Other World, where gold and ivory abound. (Naturally, a gold-bladed knife would be practically useless in “reality”.) May there also be a hint that these beautiful people reflect a foreign presence (viz. Scandinavian/Norman) in their fair hair and high sophistication? The more native-Celtic coloring of the grim Black Man whom we meet shortly may be meant to stand in contrast to the castle’s Elysian race.
5 Cynon’s declaration seems somewhat brusque, and even boorish, in the light of the incomparable hospitality he has otherwise encountered at the castle. The host’s explanation not only seems reasonable, but must probably be understood as completing an implicit indictment of Cynon’s manners. Recall that the young man himself admitted to youthful arrogance as he began his tale. This exchange, then, is likely a hint that he requires the kind of humbling initiation which he is about to receive. Refraining from a questioning of guests until after they have been fed, by the way, was a recognized courtesy in the Homeric world; cf. Odysseus’s treatment in the court of Alcinous and later by the swineherd Eumaeus (Od. 7 and 14; in both cases, the formulaic question, “Who art thou of men?” is asked well after the guest has been comforted and fed).
It is also possible that the silence which Cynon finds disconcerting in his hosts is another hint to the audience that he has entered the Other World, where spirits speak not at all or not in mortal tongue.
6 Translations invariably render gwr du as “black man”—and so it is. The Celtic languages, however, designate people as black or brown or white or red on the basis of hair rather than skin color (hence the blond master of the castle is literally the “yellow man”). The giant in question, therefore, is probably black-haired, perhaps a suggestion that he belongs to the originary Celtic stock that preceded the arrival of Scandinavian peoples. (Cú Chulainn, for instance, is described as fer beg du in one ancient text: a “little dark [or black] man”.) A provenance leading to primitive Celtic roots would be especially appropriate of the giant in that he has numerous shamanic characteristics reiterating this proximity to wild, raw nature. The mound he occupies is reminiscent of a fairy knoll (e.g., the Green Knight’s in the Middle English romance about Sir Gawain journey and test), and he clearly holds sway over the forest’s animals. Physical deformities or mutilations also often distinguish the shaman, whose bizarre figure appears to have been almost a magnet for the abnormal; cf. the discussion of Cú Chulainn’s entranced distortions in Stephen Aldhouse and Miranda Green, The Quest for the Shaman (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005), 188-191.
7 It is fitting that this odd figure bristling with shamanic qualities should reveal to Cynon the entry to the Other World—for the Land of the Fountain is exactly that, a yet more spirit-like place than the castle where he spent the previous night. The rite of the poured water itself, along with the curious cycle of seasons compressed into a few appalling moments, indicates entry into such a space in terms that the medieval Welsh audience would easily have recognized. The night-colored horse and rider, inescapable and invincible, are of course as clear an emblem of death itself as one could wish.
8 Here the “black man” is of course the knight clad in black (the “black knight”, as we would say), though the phrase gwr du is identical to the one used of the one-eyed giant.
9 Chrétien’s Yvain undertakes his journey after registering shame at his cousin’s having been so humiliated by the Black Knight. Cynon acknowledges his shame here, but Owein does not seem disturbed by it; he resolves to visit the strange land, rather, in the spirit of curiosity and adventure. Cei’s mockery of him will be repaid with bruises later on.
10 The horse’s demise, which may seem gratuitous cruelty to modern readers, reminds us that a ritual sacrifice was often required in ancient tales before the Other World Traveler could be admitted into the spirit realm. To be clear, a medieval Welshman would likely have seen in this detail, not the encoded fulfillment of some discarded pagan rite (for such a practice would indeed now be regarded as pagan), but rather an allegorical cue that the hero is crossing a spiritual boundary.
11 This initial description of Lunet is no doubt a cue of the sort described in the previous note—for the details of her appearance narrowly correspond to those given of the two sportive young men on the lawn of the first marvelous castle across the river.
12 Just as the unhappy horse’s bisection implies a sacrifice, so Lunet’s elaborate service also hints at certain rituals. The medieval audience, aware of the mythic past, would recognize in her a Sibyl-like figure appointed to lead the traveler through the Other World. The meal further signifies Owein’s accepting entry into the strange space, for the visitor who once partakes of the spirits’ hospitality becomes one of them, like it or not. (Such union usually represents death, as it does for the male lead in the Irish romance, Eachtra Mhélora agus Orlando.)
13 Self-defacement and tearing of clothes is a ritual form of grieving quite common in traditional cultures.
14 This entire passage is almost invincibly suggestive of all the wrong things to the contemporary casual reader. The dutiful maiden (Lunet) seems to be the perfect geisha: she washes and shaves the hero, makes his meal, serves it, and then sends him to bed. That no sexual component to this service is ever mentioned explicitly, however, is not an example of medieval tact. The elaborate descriptive details once again hint to us that we are witnessing a kind of ritual. The consumption of the foreign space’s food, already discussed in n. 12, is repeated; and for good measure, a baptismal element is added (which we shall see repeated, as well, in the ointment later provided by the widowed countess). The romancier is strongly signaling his audience that Owein is entering new spiritual territory—that, in a sense, he is being reborn.
15 This is the first time that Lunet has been named in the text. Scholars who are held captive by the notion of a French original text (not necessarily Chrétien’s) rejoice at this textual event, for the name seems of French extraction. Yet it is even more plainly Latin, in its pristine form.
Considering the delay in the name’s appearing in our text, I suggest the following highly whimsical possibility. If we continue to assume the twelfth-century Welsh audience’s familiarity with pagan myth, that the Latin meaning of the maiden’s name—i.e., Moon—might be invoked at just this point to hint at some solar event. The Countess herself would obviously be the source of light, the Sun (whose nightly passage underground is often associated with the cavern of the spirits). Does her attendant’s close encounter with her indicate a New Moon: i.e., a time of renewal, of passage from the old to the new wherein grief gives way to hope? One must be aware of the possibility, though I am the first to concede that it is remote.
16 Notice that Owein is now adorned in the yellow silk brocade that distinguished the denizens of the hospitable castle first encountered by Cynon. Lunet has clad him, in other words, to have the celestial brilliance of those who inhabit the spirit world. He is now fully “of them”.
17 The assumption that Owein is slain or in prison, far from being unnecessarily pessimistic, would have reminded the original audience that, in a mythic sense, Owein has indeed become a thrall of the spirit world.
18 Arthur’s seneschal, Cei or Kay, is a comic figure in many Arthurian romances. Typically represented as a surly, arrogant, but harmless braggart, he of course insulted Owein at the beginning of this tale. (Chrétien’s Yvain has Guinevere upbraid him at great length even before Cynon/Calogrenant’s Other World tale.) We may suppose that Owein knows his true identity and that his repeated unhorsing here is thus a kind of comic comeuppance, even though, as the episode continues, Owein fails to recognize Gwalchmei after a much lengthier confrontation. A long cloak is said to account for that failure of recognition, a bit implausibly. See note 20.
19 It is clearly part of Gwalchmei/Gawain’s mythic/legendary function to be the final bulwark between Arthur and danger. He volunteers to intercede at precisely this same moment (i.e., as Arthur prepares to rise and meet the challenge, his other warriors having been neutralized) in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
20 The detail of Gawain’s being draped in a cloak so long that it makes him unrecognizable seems random, and even implausible; for surely the host realizes that every knight but Arthur and Gawain has jousted. The cloak is said later to have prevented Owein from recognizing his cousin, though this makes little sense, because a shifting of Gwalchmei’s helmet—not his cloak—sparks the black knight’s recognition. (The huge cloak, in any case, must surely have been discarded once the combatants were afoot.) What’s going on here?
To the original audience, this “veiling” of identity, otherwise unnecessary to the story and even clumsy, may very well signify that Gawain is successfully entering the spirit realm from which all the others have so far been rebuffed. Suspension of identity is one mythic indicator of such entry. Notice that even his charger is enveloped in the cloak—a suggestion, perhaps, that the horse is a kind of offering in the process, as Owein’s was when the portcullis cut it in two. (Also recall that the original black knight claimed Cynon’s horse as a kind of “debt recovery”.)
21 Interlacing the fingers behind the neck of another was a particularly affectionate form of greeting in Celtic cultures. (It appears, for instance, in the Middle Irish adaptation of the Aeneid, the Imtheachta Aeniasa.) The essence of the gesture is the trust shown: two hands so engaged can of course not reach for any weapon.
22 A direct translation into contemporary English makes it sound as though Owein is making unpleasant insinuations about his lord’s hygiene! This is not at all the case. In fact, the offer of a bath along with a feast hints at some vaguely ritual importance for the former—in the tale if not in Welsh custom. Might this baptism be necessary for Arthur’s initiation into the “fairy space” represented by the Castle of the Fountain?
23 A couple of points about the previous few lines: first, Arthur’s sending messengers to the Countess rather than addressing her himself seems odd—unless, perhaps, he is not fully able to see her or be heard by her. Again, the mythic origins of this material may be deliberately and subtly implied by the romancier. As part of the living world, perhaps Arthur needs go-betweens of some sort to communicate with the spirit world. The references to the Isle of Britain are also curious insofar as we know that none of the travelers ever left Britain’s island shores. Is the Realm of the Fountain, then, not on British soil? The answer must be “no”; and yet again, the only context in which that answer makes any sense is if the audience were expected to recognize this realm as existing in another dimension.
24 One would expect that the maiden might hurl the Countess’s ring at Owein. That she takes his, instead, indicates his formal ejection from the Other World kingdom; for remember that he achieved safe admittance into this kingdom only when Lunet presented him with the Ring of Invisibility (presumably the same one as is now confiscated).
25 Whenever this tale, whose prose style typically seems simple and direct, mentions such “needless” detail as the lake and a walk along half its distance, a mythic allusion was probably being transmitted to the audience. Here the body of water would suggest the change of state that “washes” the traveler of his previous attachments and initiates him (like the mystical Fountain) into the Other World’s dimensions; and the walkers’ going halfway implies that the traveler, Owein, has covered the other half in preparation for entry. Of course, none of these characters touches a drop of water: the mythic ritual is highly implicit.
26 Notice the many similarities between this countess’s predicament and the Countess of the Fountain’s when Owein first encountered her. The first stage of his “penitence” appears to involve repeating his rescue of a lady in almost identical distress. Further similarities are suggested between the maiden’s attentions and Lunet’s in the following scene.
27 The transformation, in Pauline terms, from “old man” to “new man”—from man in a pure state of nature to man brought to a nobler level—is thus complete in Owein. That a spiritual significance underlies his anointing with precious oil (i.e., his baptism) is the more likely in that the chalice’s contents are lavished upon him unstintingly. In Christian doctrine, grace is also awarded with extravagant generosity to those who receive it.
Chrétien buries the allegory in Yvain. The distraught knight, recognized by locals, has his wits restored by ointment rubbed about his temples and forehead, not his heart—though the frivolous maidservant disobeys her lady and applies it all the way down to his heels. The lady remarks that she received the ointment from Merlin, which certainly does nothing to imply a parallel with Christian sacrament.
28 Of course, Owein’s act of penance—about which this countess knows nothing—would be spoiled if he accepted any reward from her. He has now essentially retraced the heroic movements that led to his winning the Fountain’s countess. We shall see next that the qualities wanting in him at that point must be added to continue his reformation.
29 Nothing is more clearly allegorical in this heavily allegorized romance than Owein’s rescue of the lion and the beast’s subsequent noble fidelity to him. Of course, the serpent represents evil, and by destroying its influence Owein acquires qualities or virtues that carry him beyond the stage of spiritual development—an obviously insufficient stage—where he had been upon winning the Countess of the Fountain’s hand. What new trait or traits precisely does the lion symbolize? The rest of the tale will suggest possibilities, but surely his miraculous fidelity must be among them, for fides was the Christian virtue (i.e., of the “faith, hope, and charity” triad) which Owein spectacularly lacked earlier.
30 It is understandably disturbing to contemporary readers that Owein not only fails to declare himself to Lunet, but seems to play at undermining her confidence in her hero—and even troubles her about food and lodgings! The continental audience of Chrétien, indeed, had the same reservations: that estimable author has Yvain openly name himself to “Lunete” through her prison’s window and vow to be her champion once he hears her sad tale.
Chrétien, frankly, is tone-deaf to the spiritual allegory, here as elsewhere. We must appreciate first that Owein is progressing through stages of penitence: his announcing his identity at this point would be arrogant and disruptive to that process, for in a sense he is not yet the “new Owein” and must not claim to be so. There is also a kind of self-deprecation in his questioning the named knight’s fidelity, as if he were acknowledging to himself that his past conduct has given others every right not to trust in his steadfast support.
Of course, we must assume that Owein is physically not very visible to Lunet under cover of darkness and as she languishes in her “bowl of stone”. Though some scholars have tried to argue that this odd phrase is the mistranslation of a hypothetical French text, such “inverted vessel” structures are not unknown in Celtic Europe. One dome of ancient masonry in Lismore, Ireland, built over a deep pit, was no doubt intended as a dungeon. In historic times, the locals stored ice in it!
31 It is possible that this emphasized sharing of food between Owein and the lion is meant to underscore the beast’s allegorical sharing in the hero’s reformed personal identity.
32 It seems unchivalrous that Owein should have vanquished the giant with the lion’s help (or that the lion should have done so largely without Owein’s help). Chrétien, of course, sought to mitigate the heroic tarnishing implicit here—at the expense of the allegory, as usual. For the original Welsh audience was surely meant to understand that Owein, though valiant, cannot be completely healed and victorious against this supernatural enemy without what the lion symbolically brings to his character. That the addition is a spiritual element rather than mere physical might must be grasped by readers who have any desire to retrieve the tale’s deeper meaning.
33 Here as at the end of the previous adventure involving the widowed countess, Owein refuses what is vaguely expressed as an invitation (gwahawd) in Welsh. In the former case, however, the countess specifies herself and her domain in the offer. Here we have just the one word. The classic translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones has the hero decline a “welcome”. Their rendition seems insufficient to me, though linguistically sound. Owein has already been welcomed as a guest; and if further welcome were to include lavish verbal thanks, he would scarcely have declined that. Common sense, then, as well as parallelism with the previous adventure, requires that he be extended a truly heroic reward. The earl must be inviting him to wed his daughter. Naturally, neither of the parties whom he saves from outrage and misery knows that he is already married and that he is midway through a kind of penance.
34 It is slightly awkward, by a fully literate narrative standard, to see this explanation of Owein’s needing the lion appear so late when it surely would have applied equally to his struggle against the giant. Yet the story-teller may be underscoring rather than undermining his allegory. He writes only that Owein has still not reached his strength: he does not divulge whether this lacking strength (nerth) is physical or spiritual. Indeed, the ensuing and final episode, which otherwise has the appearance of an anticlimactic afterthought, is probably intended to show us that a fully reformed Owein (now reunited with his wife) can perform deeds of both physical valor and exemplary charity on his own. The lion has been fully “absorbed” and has no role to play in the hero’s victory: we are told, indeed, that he accompanies Owein no more after the encounter with the Dark Oppressor.
35 Here the word du no more refers to race-related skin tones than elsewhere—but neither does it refer to hair color, as before. The adjective signifies, rather, that the Oppressor is a true representative of the shadowy, deathly Other World: the ultimate challenge for the ancient shamanic style of hero.
36 Compare the Dark Oppressor’s modus operandi with Circe’s, the dark Other World queen of the Odyssey. A cheerful reception and a round of drinks is followed by transformation into naked destitution surrounded by preceding victims.
37 I have taken some small liberties with the translation of yspeilwr, “a despoiler”, in order to preserve the phonetic resonance between this word and yspyttwr, “a hospitaler, one who runs a hostel for pilgrims”. Why the text should begin to show an interest in such effects as it nears its end is an open question, but one likely answer is that the Dark Oppressor episode was a rather late insertion by a scribe who decided that the original story’s spiritual message needed a little more emphasis. This scribbler’s style apparently included a certain love of flourish.
38 In an “ordinary” romantic adventure (if there is such a thing), both chivalry and justice would require that the avenging knight slay a villain so evil as the Dark Oppressor, who has not only slaughtered dozens of unsuspecting men against the sacred laws of hospitality but has stripped their women virtually bare in a quasi-violation. That Owein allows this consummate scoundrel to live indicates that he is not truly mortal: that he is indeed Death. One might say, then, in furtherance of the allegory, that Owein’s real achievement here is to enlist death into the service of holy ends.
The otherwise very peculiar mention of a prophecy, too, may well have highlighted the Oppressor as Sir Death and his inhospitable domain as the dead world. The hero’s invasion of that eerie space is a subject of prophecy in many traditions: cf. the prophecy that a stranger named Odysseus would blind Polyphemus, or the many scriptural passages read in the Middle Ages as prophetic of the Harrowing of Hell.
39 Owein or Owain, the son of Urien or Uryen, was a historical figure celebrated by the poet Taliesin, among others. Though this concluding scrap of information has no bearing on our story, it appears to remind the audience that the tale just heard is not a complete fantasy but that its main character was one of Welsh history’s great heroes. See Andrew Breeze, Medieval Welsh Literature (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997), 11-15.
Were Owein’s “Flight of Ravens” an exclusively military order, or did they have some association with hunting? If the latter, then this apparently random item of information may supply the missing link to the source-myth’s insistence that the hero is hunting when he reaches the interface to the Other World. Ravens, of course, consume carrion and thereby enjoy a kind of archetypal privilege to that interface; while fighting and hunting, from a historical and cultural perspective, frequently coexisted in the ancient Celtic world (cf. the connection of cattle raids to military expeditions in Irish saga and the activities of the legendary Fionn MacCumhail’s fianna).
40 Medieval tales were often dubbed at their end in this fashion—a reflection of the complex hybrid-environment of “oral literacy” wherein the written story was almost always read aloud to the audience. Ruth Finnegan reminds us that “oral poems do not normally have titles… the start and finish may not always be clearly delineated beforehand or even in the actual performance” (Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context [Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1992], 107). Naming at the end underscores what has just been heard as a unit, whereas our fully literate habit of naming at the beginning provides a kind of marker within an index. Stories read silently to oneself must begin on a specific page: stories read aloud to a group must have an endpoint designated that separates them from further speech.
Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.
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