In the fellowship of the Round Table when it was founded there were two and twenty vacant seats, and for these places there was striving by many a noble knight. And Arthur was glad, for he welcomed every brave man and true that came to his court.
One of those that came into the fellowship and won great honor, so that he was one of the most famous knights, was Sir Perceval, and his story I am going to tell you as it is written in many ancient books and chronicles. Perceval's father, for whom he was named, was a knight in the days of King Uther. He was beloved by all the court and held in honor by brave knights everywhere. To him the king had given in marriage his sister, the fair Achefleur, and with her he gave great wealth and many broad lands.
When the fair Achefleur and the mighty Perceval were married there was great rejoicing in the land, and after the wedding there was appointed a jousting at the court to which all the knights of the realm were bidden. There at that tourney, while his lady sat on the wall and beheld him, Sir Perceval did great deeds. Knight after knight rode up to tilt with him, and every one turned back crestfallen with his shaft broken. Sixty shafts Sir Perceval broke that day, and many a knight he unhorsed and bare out of his saddle. Among those whom he defeated was a powerful and famous knight, known by the color of his armor as the Red Knight. When the tourney was done they gave Sir Perceval the prize, for he was best worthy, and he bore it to his bride, who was right joyful over the honor in which her lord was held. All gave him praise, for he had proved himself the best knight—all save the Red Knight. He had never been unhorsed since he entered the lists of knighthood, and he rode sullenly away, thinking evil in his heart against Sir Perceval.
For a year Perceval dwelt quietly at home with his lady. Then a son was born to them. (It is he who is the hero of our tale.) They named him Perceval after his father, and so greatly did the father rejoice that a boy child had been born to him, that he made a great feast and appointed a jousting which should follow it. When the Red Knight heard that he was right glad. In all haste he put on his armor and rode thither.
On the first day of the tourney Sir Perceval did passing well for the love of his young son. Knight, duke, baron, and earl he bore down before him, and all who looked on praised his skill and called him the best knight that was there. But on the second day the Red Knight came, and there before the eyes of all he slew Sir Perceval. When he had done that wicked deed he turned his horse and rode away, and none dared bid him abide, for he had slain the best of them all.
Sorely did the lady Achefleur grieve when they brought home Sir Perceval dead, and in that hour of her sorrow she made a mighty
resolve, that her young son should never take part in any tourney. Deeds of arms and skill of sword he should not know, but into the woods she would take him and there she would rear him, far from the sound of battle and tourney.
"In the woods should he be.
There should he nothing see
But the leaves on the tree
And the groves so gray,
And with the wild beasts play."
Many sought to hinder her, but she would hear naught of their reasons. Her boy should never know the jousts or tournament that killed his noble father.
The lady Achefleur took her leave of all that she had known. She left behind her bower and hall and went into the wood, taking with her none but the babe, and a maiden who should serve her. Of her goods would she carry none,—not her jewels, nor her silken robes, nor her richly embroidered hangings and tapestries. For these she would have no use, but only for a flock of goats, whose milk would give her food. Of all her lord's fair gear, his sword and his shield and his costly armor, would she take naught but a little spear that he had used when he was a page. So she went forth, and there in the wood she lived for many a year, and the boy Perceval grew and became strong and tall and good to look upon. Together they dwelt in a hut in the wildwood, ten leagues from any dwelling.
As the lad Perceval grew he learned much of the lore of the woods. By whistling he could call to him the beasts of the woodland. Never a beast roamed the forest that would not come at his call. He knew many strange secrets about the birds and the flowers and the trees. And he could run swiftly and sling a stone and throw his spear with strength. But of the
world beyond the forest he knew nothing. Of courage and bravery and honor his mother taught him much. All the knightly virtues she instructed him in, but of knightly lore and of arms and of the customs of castle and field she taught him nothing. For fifteen winters they dwelt there, and the lad was fair and tall, and his mother held him passing dear.
As the boy grew older his mother bade him pray to God that He would help him to be a good man.
"Sweet mother," said Perceval, "what kind of a God is this to whom now ye bid me pray?"
"It is the great God of heaven," she replied. "He it is who made the world, and all that dwells therein, birds and beasts and men. He has all power, and is stronger and mightier than any living thing, and more beautiful than aught that ye can ever see. To Him you must pray."
"But where does this great God dwell, sweet mother?"
"Everywhere, my son, in all this world that He has made; therefore can ye pray to Him."
As Perceval was walking one day in the woodland many leagues from home, he heard a strange sound. It was the clanking of steel weapons and armor, but Perceval knew it not, for he had never seen a man in armor. Round the turn of the path there rode three knights, and as they rode their coats of mail jingled, and their arms rattled, and their lances clashed upon their shields. When they came in sight the lad was dazzled by their splendor, for the armor glittered from helmet to spur, and the trappings of the horses shone in the sun.
"These are the gods of whom my mother has told me," he thought to himself. "Surely they are more beautiful than aught else in the world, and they shine like the sun."
He was afraid before them and fell upon his knees in the path and began to repeat a prayer.
Straightway the foremost of the knights dismounted (that was Gawain) and said, "My son, who art thou, and what wilt thou?"
The others sat on their steeds and gazed in amazement at this comely lad so strangely clad in a goatskin garment with a goatskin hood.
Perceval answered: "Son am I to the lady that dwelleth in the forest. Tell me which one of you all three is the great God of whom my mother has told me?"
Then Gawain spoke full fair and courteously: "Nay, nay, my lad, hold us not to be gods. We are only knights."
"And what manner of beast may knight be?" quoth Perceval. "For of it I have never heard. Where doth it dwell?"
"Of a faith I will tell thee truly. 'Tis a beast that is strong and powerful and mighty above all other beasts, be they man or giant or dragon. And it dwelleth in city and court and highway, wherever fair adventure may be found and brave service done."
"Tell me, Knight-Beast, what dost thou bear on thy head? And what is that which hangeth at thy neck? It is red and shineth in the sun."
"That which I wear on my head is a helmet made of steel, and this that hangeth from my neck is a shield, banded with red gold."
"But of what use is it?"
"It is to ward off the blow of a sword or lance; but tell me, lad, didst thou never see a man in armor?"
"Nay, kind sir, never; but, I pray thee by thy courtesy, tell me yet one thing more. With what hast thou clad thyself that seemeth to be of many tiny rings?"
"It is a coat of mail; so closely are these rings woven together that the point of a sword cannot pierce between and wound me."
"And what hast thou girt at thy side? Tell me, if thou wilt."
"That is the sword, which is the badge of knighthood," said Gawain, drawing his shining blade from its scabbard. That is to work against all those who are doing evil in this world, for remember this, my son, the sword of King Arthur is not given for idle combat, but to be wielded in worthy causes, and woe betide that faithless knight that useth it amiss."
"Knight-Beast," quoth Perceval, "could I also become a knight, for I too am a man?"
Then Gawain looked deep into the eyes of the lad, as if he would search his very soul, and said, "Wilt thou be brave and valiant, and never turn back from an enemy?"
"Wilt thou flee all wrong as if it were a plague, and follow ever after purity, temperance, and reverence?"
"Of a truth, I believe thou wilt," said the knight, "for I never saw fairer lad, nor more honest."
"But how shall I become a knight?"
"A noble king, Arthur, rules in this land, who is the best knight in the realm, and is head over all the knights. By him canst thou be made knight, if he will receive thee. But first thou must go to thy mother and ask her if thou mayest."
And with a word of farewell Gawain rode away with his companions, and the boy stood looking after them until they were out of sight.
When the last sound of clanking armor had died away, Perceval turned and ran toward home in all haste. His mother was awaiting him anxiously, for he had been away longer than was his wont. But as she looked at him she was troubled, and said, "Where have you been, fair son? Tell me what aileth thee."
And the boy answered: "Mother, I will tell thee straight. I have been in the forest, and there I have seen a fair, fair sight."
"What was that, my son?"
"It was a man more beautiful than any I have ever seen. At first I thought him God, but he told me he was a knight. And, mother, I would fain be a knight too, and I must go to King Arthur's court."
Then his mother cried out in her sorrow: "Alas, my son! Long have I labored and much have I striven that thou shouldest know naught of knighthood or of chivalry or of aught that belongeth to the world of arms. I would choose that thou hadst never heard of it."
"But, mother, sweet mother, may I not go and be a knight?"
"Son, thou art all the comfort I have. God hath left me nothing more, but with thee I was content."
But Perceval heeded not what his mother said, for his thoughts were full of the wonderful sight he had seen.
"Give me to eat,"he exclaimed, "for I would away to the court of the king. I tell thee, if I may not be such a knight as I saw, thou shalt have little joy of me henceforward."
The mother knew that it was even as he had said, and she prepared him food that he might be strong for the journey. Garments she could not provide, but he must go in the goatskin garb that she had fashioned for him.
Ere Perceval departed his mother told him many things which he should heed in this new world whither he was going.
"Fair son," she said, "thou wilt go straight to King Arthur, and little thou knowest of hall or bower. Hearken well to what I shall say unto thee. When thou meetest a knight, doff thy hood, for so wilt thou show proper respect. And I pray thee, company not with man or woman save those of gentle birth or breeding. If thou findest anywhere, be it far or near, a lady who is in need, succor her even to the measure of thy life. And wherever thou art, honor thine elders and have respect unto thy king. So shalt thou prosper and be worthy of the knighthood thou seekest."
Then his mother embraced and kissed Perceval, and he went his way. Many days he journeyed over vale and hill till he came to the court of that mighty and courteous lord, King Arthur.
"Yesterday saw I knights three,
Such an one shalt thou make me."
The knights of the Round Table were seated at meal when Perceval came to Camelot; but the lad waited not. Clad in his goat skin coat he strode into the hall, and walked to the head of the board, and doffed his hood. The knights looked up in amazement at this bold youth who ventured thus to enter Arthur's hall, and marveled at his rough garments and his great stature, but above all at his beauty, for the lad was passing fair.
"Friend," quoth the king, "come eat with us. Then shalt thou tell me who thou art and what thou seekest."
"Nay," said Perceval, "I will tell thee before I eat. From the great forest I come, and I would be one of thy knights."
Those who sat by smiled at this bold request; but the king said gently, "What knowest thou of knighthood, my son?"
"Naught know I, save what I learned from one of thine own fair knights whom I met in the forest," and he told him of his meeting with Sir Gawain. (Gawain had not yet returned from his quest.)
As the lad talked, King Arthur looked upon him and marked well his sturdy limbs and his fair body and his honest face, and ever he sought in his mind who the boy might be. There was in his face the likeness to one whom he had seen, but he knew not that he was the son of that famous knight, Sir Perceval, who had been King Uther's friend. Ever as he looked his heart went out to him the more. The lad finished his tale with the words, "Therefore am I come to thee to see if thou wilt make me a knight."
And Arthur answered, "Sit thee down and eat, my son, for thou hast come a long journey. Afterwards I will do with thee what I can, for thou must learn many things before thou canst be a knight."
They brought Perceval to a seat at the foot of the king's table and gave him meat and drink in plenty. And the lad astonished all by his great appetite, for he had gone long without food. As he ate he gazed about him and saw the shields that hung over each man's seat. Some were richly carved and blazoned, for these knights had done many noble deeds; and others merely carved, and some few were blank, for these belonged to those who had come but lately into the fellowship.
When Perceval had finished he wandered forth from the castle hall and met a knight who stood beside the door. (Him Arthur had sent there to meet the boy.) Perceval doffed his hood as his mother had taught him, and the knight led him away to give him his first lesson in the use of arms.
He took him to a huge armory which was at the side of the court and taught him the names of the weapons. First he gave to him the lance and told him how he should hold that, and then the shield which he must grasp with his left hand to protect himself against the attack of the enemy. When he had showed him these, he asked him, "If you met a knight and he struck you, what would you do?"
"Strike back!" answered Perceval boldly. "With what would you strike?"
"With the lance."
"And if your lance broke against his shield or was bent by the force of his charge, what would you do?"
"I would run at him with my fists."
"Ah, no!" said his master. "That you must not do, for that is against the rules of knighthood. You must have a sword and learn to fence with it. That will I teach you next, and then you can attack him with that; but knights fight not with their fists."
Last of all he told him how when he won his arms he must care for them and polish them and never leave them dull or damp, for to leave his arms to rust was the sign of a careless knight.
But ere Perceval laid aside his goatskin coat he was destined to other adventures. When his lesson was done the knight brought him back to the castle hall where King Arthur and his knights were still sitting about the table, and hardly had they taken their seats when there was a commotion at the door, and into the hall there rode a mounted knight.
Such a knight Perceval had never seen. He was tall and strong, and he was clad all in red. His mantle and his hood, the plume of his helmet, and even the fastenings of his spurs were red. Right into the hall he rode his steed, and from the table in front of the king he seized a cup of rich red gold which was filled with wine. Before them all he drank that wine, and in a loud voice he called them recreants and cowards, both king and knights and all that were assembled. Then, looking neither to right nor to left, he rode out of the hall and left them sitting there.
Before any could move from their places, Perceval rushed from the hall and leaped upon the mare that had brought him to Camelot, and rode after him. Yet he knew not that this was the Red Knight who had slain his father.
Swiftly he rode after him, and when he came near he called loudly to the Red Knight, "How, man on the red steed! bring again the king's cup, or with my dart I will slay thee."
The knight turned to see who was calling to him, and when he saw the boy in goatskin on the mare, he laughed loudly and said, "If thou comest nearer me, thou shalt rue it, thou fool."
So little did he respect him that he lifted the vizor of his helmet, so that he might see him more plainly, and mocked him for his goatskin coat and his beardless face.
But Perceval said, "Whether I be fool or not we shall soon see."
In his hand he held the spear that was his father's, that he had used as a boy in the woods, and he threw it at the knight. Right well did he aim and strongly did he throw, and the spear struck the Red Knight in the eye where he had opened his vizor, and he fell from his horse dead.
Then Perceval came near to despoil him of his armor, but he could not find an opening anywhere. So cunningly was the armor laced and fastened that the boy could find no way to get within. While he was working at it a knight came up who had ridden after him from the castle hall when he sped away so suddenly. He was the one whom Arthur had appointed to teach the boy and instruct him in the use of arms. He showed him how to unlace the armor and how to slip it off, and when they had disarmed the Red Knight he put it on the boy over his goatskin garments. Thus did Perceval gain his first suit of armor from the knight who had foully slain his father.
That was the first adventure that Perceval had at King Arthur's court. He did not return to the castle hall, but sent back to the king the cup which the Red Knight had stolen, and rode away in quest of adventure. The tales of his brave deeds and of the strange sights that he saw and of the lessons that he learned would fill many books. Ever word of his simplicity and his bravery came to the ears of King Arthur, and one day the king
set out with three of his knights, Gawain, Iwain, and Kay, to find Perceval, whose parentage he had discovered, and bring him back to the court. They met him at a tourney which was being held in the west of England, and they knew him by his red armor, but he knew them not. So they cast lots who should joust with him and the lot fell to Gawain. For an hour the two fought together, and neither could prevail against the other. But Perceval marveled at Gawain's strength and skill and knew him for the best knight he had ever met. At last they broke their spears against each other, and Gawain cried truce, and told Perceval who he was, and brought him to King Arthur and his companions.
"Much have I fought," said Perceval when he stood before the king, "but yet I am not a knight."
There on the spot Arthur made him kneel down before him, and gave him three strokes on the shoulder, and said to him, "Rise, Sir Perceval, loyal knight in the court of King Arthur."
"Blithe shall I never be
Till I my mother see,
Or know how she fare."
King Arthur urged Sir Perceval to return to the court, where he would make a feasting in his honor; but he remembered his mother and declared that he must find her or he would never be happy again. Before them all he made a vow that he would not ride horse nor wear armor until he had seen her. He laid aside his armor and put on his goatskin coat, and went away into the forest, saying that he would never come out again till he had found her.
Seven days and nights he wandered, and still he could not find her. In all that time he touched neither meat nor drink, so full was he of care. On the ninth day he came to a well which was near his former home, and there he drank. As he went forth refreshed, he came all at once upon her, but she was sorely changed. She stared at him with wild eyes, and cried out, "Alas! such a son once I had."
Then his heart was lightened, and he took her up upon his back (little was his pride) and ran with her to a castle that was near the edge of the wood. The porter at the gate stared when he saw Sir Perceval, but he let him in, and they wrapped his mother in soft coverings and laid her on a silken couch and gave her a potion to drink. She fell asleep, and there she lay for three days and three nights. In all that time there was no thought in the castle for any but her, and some one watched ever by her day and night.
At last she waked, and the strangeness was gone from her look and her mind was clear. Together Sir Perceval and his mother thanked God, and when she had been clad in soft gray and green robes, Sir Perceval took her home to the court. All welcomed him gladly and gave greeting to the lady Achefleur, who had returned after so many years; and they dwelt there together happily. Sir Perceval had many adventures and did many noble deeds, and came to be one of the chief knights of all the goodly fellowship of the Round Table.