Jhesu Cryst our Sauyour · And hys modyr, þat swete flowr, · Helpe hem at her nede · þat harkeneþ of a conquerour, · Wys of wytte and whyght werrour · And doughty man yn dede – May Jesus Christ our Saviour and his mother, that sweet flower, help at his need anyone who will listen to this story of a brave and intelligent knight, who was very accomplished in battle. His name was Guinglain, the son of Sir Gawain, and he was conceived secretly in a forest – listen! because no story of a better knight exists.
Guinglain was handsome to look at, well-proportioned and strong, with bright, intelligent eyes, despite being a bastard. His mother kept him in seclusion, away from any threat of shame or dishonour because of his illegitimacy; and because of his handsome looks she lovingly called him Prettyface. And rather naïvely in turn, he never thought to ask his father's name.
One day, Prettyface went into a forest to hunt deer and came across a knight lying on the ground, lifeless in a shining cocoon of bright steel. A dead knight. The child disrobed the body and dressed himself in the sturdy and expensive armour, and when he was fully armed he rode to the city of Glas, that some take to mean Glastonbury, where King Arthur was holding court. He kneeled in the hall before all the knights, greeted them courteously and correctly and said: 'King Arthur, my lord, grant me permission to say a few words, for your love.' King Arthur acceded to his request without hesitation.
'But who are you?' he asked.
The child said: 'I haven't a clue who I am, Sir, isn't that ridiculous! But while I was in the forest my mother called me Prettyface.'
'It is indeed ridiculous,' replied the king, 'that he who would be a knight, and fully looks the part I must say, does not even know his own name!' Then King Arthur turned to the assembled nobles.
'Now shall I give this handsome young man a name before you all,' he cried, 'for he is so fair and noble-looking; a name, by God, that is unknown even to his mother, whoever she is. Everybody shall call him the Fair Unknown, for love of me. And now you know his name.'
King Arthur immediately knighted him, gave him a new suit of armour, a mighty sword, I tell you no word of a lie, and hung a shield around his neck, a gilded shield sporting a silken griffin; and he had Sir Gawain agree to teach him all the subtleties of combat on the tournament field.
When he had thus been made a knight, this young man asked a favour: 'I would be very pleased,' he asked the King, 'to take the first combat for which you are required to provide a champion.'
The king replied: 'I grant you your asking. Whatever adventure comes along will be yours. But I think you are too young for serious fighting, by all that I can see.'
Then all the dukes, earls and barons in King Arthur's hall washed and went to the tables to eat; and there was no shortage of food I can tell you! Shortly afterwards, the king was approached by a maiden on horseback with a dwarf riding alongside, both sweating profusely.
The maiden, Elaine, was as bright as a button: a lady messenger. No countess, or queen even, could match her for composure. She was richly and generously clothed in a fine garment trimmed with fur; she rode a milk-white horse and sat on a saddle studded with diamonds. The dwarf was smartly dressed also, well-built with a beard as yellow as wax and, truly, his hair hung in plaits down to his waist. His shoes were cut like a knight's; he was not poor.
'Tell everyone why you are here,' he urged his mistress, 'for the time has come.'
The maiden knelt before all the knights, greeted them courteously and said: ' A terrible thing has happened; my lady of Segontium, who is so brave, has been put in prison and asks you to send her a knight, quickly, to release her.'
Up sprung the young knight with a light heart and said: 'King Arthur, my lord, if you will keep your word to me, I shall take on this fight and win this fair lady.'
'I did indeed give you my word,' replied King Arthur, 'and I shall keep it without any argument. God grant you grace and strength to uphold this lady's rights with the edge of your sword.'
But Elaine was not pleased with this at all and said: 'Why did I choose to come here for help? Have no doubt that I shall make it widely known that you send children to fight your battles, when Lancelot, Perceval, Gawain and other skilled and tested warriors just stand by and watch; your reputation shall be destroyed!'
Rather arrogantly and a little foolishly, the dwarf approached King Arthur and said: 'Noble King, this is ridiculous! The child here is not a warrior! Before he has ever seen the lady he will be required to fight three battles at least, beginning at the Perilous Place beside the Castle of Adventure.'
The Fair Unknown answered: 'Go to hell! I have never been frightened of any man! I bring from a great battle where many men were slain a little knowledge of fighting with spear and sword. He who flees through fear should be dragged through the streets and butchered. I shall take on this battle, as King Arthur requires, and let nobody down.'
King Arthur told the maiden in no uncertain terms: 'You shall have no other knight, by God who died for me! If you do not like him, go somewhere else!'
The maiden was so angry at this that she sat and sulked at a table, eating and drinking nothing, despite the fine company around her. At last the tables were cleared.
Then King Arthur called to him four of his best knights, to arm the Fair Unknown.
'With Christ's help,' he said, 'he will find strength and honour and be a good champion to the Lady of Segontium, and uphold her rights.'
These knights were happy to respond to their king's command: Sir Gawain, Sir Perceval, Sir Yvain and Sir Gawain's own brother Sir Agravain, as the French tale tells us. They cast on him a silk shirt, then a white tunic and finally a bright coat of chain mail with very small, strong links.
Sir Gawain, his own father, hung a shield about his neck; a shield whose emblem was a griffin. Lancelot brought him a spear that would serve him well in combat, and a keen sword. Sir Yvain brought him a horse that was eager and accomplished in battle, and Sir Perceval set upon his head a fine steel helmet.
The knight sprang onto his new horse and rode to King Arthur. 'My noble lord,' he said, 'give me your blessing without delay, for I wish to depart immediately.'
King Arthur raised his hand and gave him his blessing, as a noble sovereign should. 'God grant you success,' he said. 'May you free the lady from her prison, and Godspeed!'
The maiden mounted her pony, the dwarf rode by her side, and for three days they gave the young knight nothing but grief and abuse.
'Useless oaf!' she would cry. 'Wretch!' Then on the third day: 'Even if you were five times as strong as you are,' she chided, 'you would soon face the same humiliation. The pass ahead is occupied by a knight who fights all comers; his name is Sir William Selebranche and he is such a fine warrior that no man has ever conquered him. All who ride against him receive a spear through the groin, or the heart!'
'Is he that good?' retorted the Fair Unknown.
When he caught sight of them approaching, Sir William Selebranche rode from the Perilous Place and said: 'Welcome my fair brother! Whoever rides here, by day or by night, must fight with me or forfeit all his arms.'
'If I must,' replied the Fair Unknown, 'then take your horse and we will see how firmly you sit in your saddle.'
Without any pause, each rode to give himself some room to turn, then galloped towards the other. The Fair Unknown hurt Sir William in the ribs, lurching him so violently in his saddle that his stirrups broke and he fell backwards over his horse's backside and onto the ground.
'By my faith!' he cried. 'Nobody has ever done that to me before! Since my horse is gone and you call yourself a knight, fight with me on foot.'
They sprung against each other with their swords swinging, blows clanging against steel and sparks flying from helmets. The Fair Unknown made a swing for Sir William's head that tore the protection away from his helmet and shaved him to the bone. Sir William launched himself into a desperate counterattack and broke his sword into two pieces against the other knight's armour.
'Mercy!' he cried. 'For the love of Mary, let me live! I have no weapon!'
'Only if you make me a promise before we part,' answered the Fair Unknown. 'You will swear upon my sword, on your bended knees, that you will go to King Arthur and say: "Lord of renown, I deliver myself as prisoner, overcome by the knight who sent me here, known to you as the Fair Unknown."'
Sir William went down on his knees and did as he had been asked.
They all departed. Sir William took the shortest route to King Arthur's hall. And by chance, before nightfall he met with three knights, his sister's sons, who were not at all pleased to see him in such a state. 'Uncle William!' they cried. 'Who has cut your face so badly and why are you walking so dejectedly in the opposite direction to the one you should be taking?'
'There is no other course to take,' he replied. 'I have been defeated by a brave knight called the Fair Unknown, who rides with a well-dressed dwarf as his squire, and I have sworn upon his sword to go directly to King Arthur's court, resting neither by day nor by night until I have yielded to him as a prisoner and vowed never to take arms against any of his knights ever again; all this have I sworn.'
Then said the three knights: 'You will be well avenged, uncle, this we swear!'
Thinking himself to be in uninhabited terrain, the Fair Unknown, along with Elaine and her dwarf, rode from pass to valley, from valley to ridge, and when darkness descended he found the fair young damsel ready to spend the night in his company.
'Forgive me,' she encouraged, 'for saying such wicked things about you. Let me make it up to you in some little way.' The Fair Unknown forgave her, and very little sleep was had by them that night.
In the morning, they made their way towards Segontium. The dwarf, the damsel's squire, served them both. Soon they came upon three knights, all in bright armour riding out of Carbantoritum, armed to the teeth: the nephews of Sir William Selebranche.
The eldest nephew lowered his lance, but to no advantage because his thighbone snapped in two as the spear of the Fair Unknown struck him. Blows rained thick and fast, grim strokes from all sides. The middle brother tried to wrestle the Fair Unknown to the ground, but broke his left arm in the attempt. The youngest brother saw that he was now forced to sustain the combat alone and so yielded up his spear and shield.
'No!' cried the Fair Unknown. 'You shall not escape so lightly, by God! You and your two brothers shall here and now swear to me that you will take yourselves immediately to King Arthur's court and say: "Lord of renown, a knight has sent us here as your prisoners; we bequeath to you our castles and our towns, and give ourselves into your hands, to do whatever you desire with us." Unless you do this, I shall kill you all.'
The brothers swore to go to King Arthur's court and make their oaths. The Fair Unknown then departed with the maiden.
For three days they rode onwards with light hearts, this Fair Unknown, the damsel Elaine and her dwarf. And ever westwards they rode, through dark and ancient forests, towards Segontium.
A makeshift bower of branches and leaves gave them shelter for one night, keeping them dry while the dwarf remained outside to keep a watchful eye open, so that no thief should take their horses. But fear gripped him; the smell of fire, the sounds of violence.
'Arise, young knight!' he whispered. 'Get on your horse and be on your guard.'
The Fair Unknown leapt onto his horse, took his shield and lance in his hands and rode towards the fire. And when he got near, he saw two giants. One of them held a maiden to him and the other was turning a wild boar about on a spit.
'Help!' cried the damsel. 'Perish the day that I should have to sit with two fiends like these! Help me Mary, for the love of your sweet son Jesus, don't abandon me!'
The Fair Unknown took up his lance and galloped towards the black giant, piercing him through a lung. The point went on into his heart. The maiden leapt up and thanked heaven's queen for sending such prompt relief!
Elaine arrived, and she and the dwarf took the damsel by the hand and led her away into the forest. The red giant struck out with the spit like a madman. His blows were so fierce that the young knight's horse fell dead to the ground. The Fair Unknown leapt out of his saddle like the spark out of a coal and gave the giant a stroke of his sword that cut his arm in two. The giant fell to the ground and the Fair Unknown cut off his head.
Giving the same treatment to the giant he had first impaled, he took the two heads to the damsel for whom he had fought. She was very happy and excited.
'Gentle damsel,' he said, 'tell me your name and where you were born.'
'My father lives close by,' she replied. 'He is Earl Antore, an old and distinguished knight who was once a mighty warrior. Because of me, the giants have had our castle under siege for a long time. Yesterday, they sprang out of a cave and took me to their cooking fire. They would have killed me had not God, who made this world, sent you to save me.
Without any more ado, the Fair Unknown selected a fresh horse, they mounted their horses and rode off together. He told the Earl how he had saved his daughter, and the two heads were sent to King Arthur, and made a big impression at court. The reputation of the Fair Unknown rose by leaps and bounds.
The Earl gave him some fine clothes, bright armour, a shield and a noble warhorse, and quickly proffered his daughter's hand in marriage to this young knight, along with fifteen castles and their lands, to hold in perpetuity. But the Fair Unknown declined the generous offer. 'By the love of sweet Jesus,' he said, 'I have no plans to marry just yet.'
Dressed in his new arms and seated upon his new horse, the Fair Unknown rode with Elaine and her dwarf towards the city of Carlisle. And there they saw an area of parkland in which stood a castle that seemed fit to be in royal hands. It was the most magnificent stone castle that any of them had ever seen, with battlements all around.
'This would be a fine castle to capture,' observed the Fair Unknown, ambitiously. The damsel laughed. 'It belongs to the best knight in these parts,' she cautioned, 'and whoever fights with him is invariably made to bend his neck to the sword. For the sake of his lady, who is very beautiful, he has made it known that if any man can bring into his presence a more attractive woman, that man will win a white falcon as his reward. But if the maiden turns out to be not so attractive after all, the man must fight with this lord, whose name is Sir Gyffroun; and if he loses, his head will be displayed for all to see on the end of a spear. And if you don't believe me, look for yourself at the battlements over there. Can you see all the heads on poles, some alone and some in pairs, all around the castle?'
'By Christ!' exclaimed the dwarf.
They spent the night in the town at the foot of the castle. Next morning, the Fair Unknown rose early and armed himself in Earl Antore's armour. Then he mounted his horse and rode towards the proud palace.
Sir Gyffroun arose early, as usual, and when he saw a knight galloping towards him like a prince, he cried: 'Do you come with good intent or with bad?'
'I have an unquenchable thirst to challenge you,' replied the Fair Unknown. 'For you seem to have some strange idea that no woman can come even halfway to matching your lady for beauty, yet I know just such a girl in the town. Therefore I shall take your white falcon rightfully to King Arthur.
'Gentle knight,' replied Sir Gyffroun, 'how shall we decide which of us is telling the truth?'
'Set them both in the marketplace,' replied the Fair Unknown, 'in the centre of Carlisle, and let every man see them and decide for himself. If my damsel is less attractive than yours, I shall fight you for the white falcon.'
'I agree to these terms,' cried Gyffroun.
The Fair Unknown rode back to his lodgings and asked the damsel Elaine to dress herself in her finest frock. 'By heaven's queen!' he exclaimed, 'Gyffroun's damsel will be down from the castle in a moment! If you cannot show everyone that you are the prettiest girl around, I must fight with him to win the white falcon.'
The damsel Elaine quickly put on a fine robe and a velvet mantle trimmed with grey fur. Then the Fair Unknown set her upon an attractive pony and the three of them rode off. Faces turned admiringly as they passed.'
She rode into the marketplace and waited there. Sir Gyffroun approached with two squires, carrying a red shield with a gold border and three silver owls; and all his horse's trappings were in the same matching colours. One squire carried his lances and the other bore the white falcon.
Behind him rode a proud lady clothed in purple. Folk had come from far and wide that morning just to catch a glimpse. They led her into the marketplace so that all could see her. Then everyone, young and old, were of one voice:
'Gyffrouns's lady is as beautiful as a rose in a rose garden,' they all said. 'Without any doubt. And Elaine the messenger seems but a spray of lavender in comparison!'
'Sir Fair Unknown!' cried Sir Gyffroun 'You have lost the hawk, I think!'
What more needs to be said? They rode into a field and galloped towards each other with lances lowered. Timber broke, spears splintered and the ensuing blows came like thunder from the sky; heralds sounded trumpets and shouted out the progress of the fight for those who could not see for themselves.
The knights rode towards each other once more, with great ferocity. Sir Gyffroun struck the Fair Unknown a massive blow on the shield, but the young knight held firm in his saddle and with the point of his own spear cast Sir Gyffroun and his steed down heavily onto the ground. The crack that everybody heard was the sound of the knight's back breaking.
Then all who were there said that the Fair Unknown had won the white falcon. They brought the bird to the young knight and everybody accompanied him into the town. Sir Gyffroun was taken on his shield up into the castle, with great lamentation. The gyrfalcon was put in the custody of a knight and taken to King Arthur, along with a message describing the circumstances under which the hawk had been won.
When King Arthur received the communication and had it read out, he exclaimed: 'The Fair Unknown is invincible! This is the fourth time now that he sends me the spoils of victory!' and he sent a hundred pounds worth of gold florins out to Carlisle. The Fair Unknown entertained the local lords and nobles for a month, then he and the damsel Elaine took their leave and continued their journey towards Segontium.