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The Fall of Arthur, Page 2

J. R. R. Tolkien

  unto Kent kindled the coast blazeth.

  Hither have I hardly hunted riding

  on the sea pursued to your side hastened,

  treason to tell you. Trust not Mordred! 165

  He is false to faith, your foes harbours,

  with lords of Lochlan league he maketh,

  out of Almain and Angel allies hireth,

  coveting the kingdom, to the crown reaching

  hands unholy. Haste now westward!’ 170


  A while then Arthur white with anger

  there sat in silence. Thus sudden fortune

  had turned and betrayed him. In twenty battles

  he had fought and conquered; his foes were scattered,

  neath his hand were humbled heathen chieftains. 175

  Now from hope’s summit headlong falling

  his heart foreboded that his house was doomed,

  the ancient world to its end falling,

  and the tides of time turned against him.

  Swift then sent he to summon Gawain 180

  bold in counsel. Bitter words he spake;

  the evil tidings all he told him.

  ‘Now for Lancelot I long sorely,

  and we miss now most the mighty swords

  of Ban’s kindred. Best meseemeth 185

  swift word to send, service craving

  to their lord of old. To this leagued treason

  we must power oppose, proud returning

  with matchless might Mordred to humble.’

  Gawain answered grave and slowly: 190

  ‘Best meseemeth that Ban’s kindred

  abide in Benwick and this black treason

  favour nor further – yet I fear the worse:

  thou wilt find thy friends as foes meet thee.

  If Lancelot hath loyal purpose 195

  let him prove repentance, his pride forgoing,

  uncalled coming when his king needeth!

  But fainer with fewer faithfulhearted

  would I dare danger, than with doubtful swords

  and tarnished shields of truant lieges 200

  our muster swell. Why more need we?

  Though thou legions levy through the lands of Earth,

  fay or mortal, from the Forest’s margin

  to the Isle of Avalon, armies countless,

  never and nowhere knights more puissant, 205

  nobler chivalry of renown fairer,

  mightier manhood under moon or sun

  shall be gathered again till graves open.

  Here free unfaded is the flower of time

  that men shall remember through the mist of years 210

  as a golden summer in the grey winter.

  And Gawain hast thou. May God keep us

  in hope allied, heart united,

  as the kindred blood in our bodies courseth,

  Arthur and Gawain! Evil greater 215

  hath fled aforetime that we faced together.

  Now in haste is hope! While hate lingers,

  and uncertain counsel secret ponders,

  as wroth as wind let us ride westward,

  and sail over sea with sudden vengeance!’ 220




  How the Frisian ship brought news, and Mordred gathered his host and went to Camelot seeking the queen.

  Dark wind came driving over deep water,

  from the South sweeping surf upon the beaches,

  a roaring sea rolling endless

  huge hoarcrested hills of thunder.

  The world darkened. Wan rode the moon 5

  through stormy clouds streaming northward.

  From France came flying a fleet vessel

  dark and dragon-prowed, dreadly carven,

  sable-shrouded, on the sea leaping,

  by the waves hunted as a wild creature 10

  among hungry hounds. The horns of the wind

  were its mort blowing. Men were calling,

  to their gods crying with grim voices,

  as it rode to wreck with riven timbers

  in the mouths of the sea. The moon glittered 15

  in the glaring eyes upon their grey faces

  death outstaring. Doom o’ercame them.

  Mordred was waking. His mind wandered

  in dark counsels deep and secret.

  From a window looked he in western tower: 20

  drear and doubtful day was breaking,

  grey light glimmered behind gates of cloud.

  About the walls of stone wind was flowing;

  sea sighed below, surging, grinding.

  He heard nor heeded: his heart returned 25

  to its long thraldom lust-tormented,

  to Guinever the golden with gleaming limbs,

  as fair and fell as fay-woman

  in the world walking for the woe of men

  no tear shedding. Towers might he conquer, 30

  and thrones o’erthrow yet the thought quench not.

  In her blissful bower on bed of silver

  softly slept she on silken pillows

  with long hair loosened, lightly breathing,

  in fragrant dreams fearless wandering, 35

  of pity and repentance no pain feeling,

  in the courts of Camelot queen and peerless,

  queen unguarded. Cold blew the wind.

  His bed was barren; there black phantoms

  of desire unsated and savage fury 40

  in his brain had brooded till bleak morning.

  A stair he mounted steeply winding

  to walls embattled well-wrought of stone.

  O’er the weeping world waking coldly

  he leant and laughed, lean and tearless. 45

  Cocks were crowing. Clamour rose at gate.

  Servants sought him soft-foot running

  through hall and bower hunting swiftly.

  His eager squire Ivor hailed him

  by the dungeon-stair at the door standing: 50

  ‘Lord! Come below! Why alone walk ye?

  Tidings await you! Time is spared us

  too short for shrift. A ship is landed!’

  Mordred came then; and men trembled

  at his dark visage drenched with water; 55

  wind-tossed his hair, and his words grated:

  ‘Do ye ransack with rabble this royal castle,

  Because a ship from storm to shore flieth?’

  Ivor him answered: ‘On your errand hasting

  the Frisian captain from France cometh 60

  on wings of wind, his word keeping,

  fate defying. Fate hath conquered.

  His ship is broken on the shore lying;

  at the door of death he doomed lingers.

  All else are dead.’ At early day 65

  the red rover the rings of gold

  repayed to his patron, ere he passed to hell;

  shrift he sought not, nor shaven priest,

  his latest words to his lord speaking:

  ‘Cradoc the accurséd to the king flying 70

  through thy net slipping news untimely

  east to Almain ere the hour was ripe

  hath brought from Britain. Bare is thy counsel;

  in Arthur’s ears all is rumoured

  of thy deeds and purpose. Dark his anger. 75

  He hastens home, and his host summons,

  from the Roman marches riding as tempest.

  Nine thousand knights draw near the sea;

  on northern waves his navy lies,

  Whitesand with boats, wherries and barges 80

  shipwrights’ hammers, shouting seamen,

  ringing armour, riders hasting,

  is loud and thronging. Look ye to it!

  Shining on bulwarks shields are hanging

  blazoned in blood-red foreboding war. 85

  On the waves they wait and the wind’s fury;

  lean hounds at leash longships are tugging

  on heaving hawsers. Haste now eastwa

  Radbod the Red, rover fearless,

  heathen-hearted to hate faithful, 90

  died as his doom was. Dark was the morning.

  To sea they cast him, of his soul recked not

  that walks in the waters, wandering homeless.

  Wild rode the wind through the West country.

  Banners were blowing, black was the raven 95

  they bore as blazon. Blaring of trumpets,

  neighing of horses, gnashing of armour,

  in the hoar hollows of the hills echoed.

  Mordred was marching; messengers speeding

  northward and eastward the news bearing 100

  through the land of Logres. Lords and chieftains

  to his side he summoned swift to hasten

  their tryst keeping, true to Mordred,

  faithful in falsehood, foes of Arthur,

  lovers of treason, lightly purchased 105

  followers of fortune, and freebooters

  of Erin and Alban and East-Sassoin,

  of Almain and Angel and the isles of mist;

  the crows of the coast and the cold marshes.

  He came to Camelot, the queen seeking. 110

  Fiercely heard she his feet hasten

  with striding steps the stair climbing.

  To her bower came he. With burning eyes

  by the door he stood darkly gazing.

  She sat silent no sign giving 115

  at the wide window. Wan gleamed the day

  in her bright tresses bleakly golden.

  Grey her eyes were as a glittering sea;

  glass-clear and chill they his glance challenged

  proud and pitiless. But pale her cheek 120

  for heart misgave her, as one that hounds tameth

  to follow her feet and fawn at hand,

  when wolf unawares walks among them.

  Then spake Mordred with his mouth smiling:

  ‘Hail! Lady of Britain! It is long sitting 125

  alone lordless in loveless days,

  a kingless queen in courts that echo

  to no noise of knighthood. Yet never shalt thou

  on earth hereafter thine hours barren

  and life find loveless. Nor less than queen 130

  with dimmed glory thy days revile

  though chances change – if thou choose aright.

  A king courts thee his crown to share,

  his love offering and loyal service.’

  Gravely Guinever again answered: 135

  ‘Thou callest thee king, and of crown speakest –

  in his lieu ‘twas lent thee by thy liege-master,

  who liveth yet and reigneth, though long absent.

  For thy love I thank thee and loyal service,

  though due I deem it from dear nephew 140

  to Arthur’s queen.’ Then her eyes wavered,

  and he set her beside him, seized her fiercely.

  Grim words he spake – Guinever trembled:

  ‘Now never again from northern wars

  shall Arthur enter this island realm, 145

  nor Lancelot du Lake love remembering

  to thy tryst return! Time is changing;

  the West waning, a wind rising

  in the waxing East. The world falters.

  New tides are running in the narrrow waters. 150

  False or faithful, only fearless man

  shall ride the rapids from ruin snatching

  power and glory. I purpose so.

  Thou at my side shall lie, slave or lady,

  as thou wilt or wilt not, wife or captive. 155

  This treasure take I, ere towers crumble,

  and thrones are o’erturned, thirst first will I slake.

  I will be king after and crowned with gold.’

  Then the queen took counsel in her cold bosom

  between fear and prudence; feigning wonder, 160

  softly after silence she dissembling spake:

  ‘My lord, unlooked-for were thy love-speeches,

  and this eager suit thou urgest now;

  new thoughts arise needing counsel!

  Delay allow me and a little respite 165

  ere thou ask my answer! Should Arthur come,

  my plight were perilous. Could thou proof show me

  that thou wilt ride over ruin, wresting kingship

  from troublous times, troth were plighted

  with briefer counsel.’ Bitterly laughed he: 170

  ‘What proof of power shall prisoner seek,

  captive of captor? Be I king or earl,

  ‘twixt bride and bond brief be the choosing!

  Needs must tonight that I know thy mind;

  longer I grant not.’ Then his leave took he. 175

  Fierce and hasty his feet echoed

  with striding steps on the stone pavement.

  Night came slowly. The naked moon

  slipped sudden forth from swathing clouds

  torn by tempest, in a tarn of stars 180

  swam serenely. Riding swiftly

  hosemen hastened. Hooves were beating,

  steel-pointed spears stung with silver.

  Long leagues behind in a low valley

  the lights of Camelot lessened and faded; 185

  before lay forest and the far marches,

  dark roads and dim. Dread pursued them.

  Wolf had wakened in the woods stalking,

  and the hind hardly from hiding driven

  her foe had fled, fear-bewildered, 190

  cowed and hunted, once queen of herds

  for whom harts majestic in horned combat

  had fought fiercely. So fled she now,

  Guinevere the fair in grey mantled,

  cloaked in darkness, from the courts stealing. 195

  Few faithful men her flight aided,

  folk that followed her in former days,

  when from Leodegrance to Logres rode

  bride to bridegroom brave and golden

  in mighty Arthur’s morning glory. 200

  Now to lonely towers, land deserted,

  where Leodegrance once long ago

  at the Round Table regal feasted,

  she hastened home to harbour cold,

  hiding uncertain. In her heart darkly 205

  she thought of Lancelot, should he learn afar

  of her woe and wandering by wolf hunted.

  If the king were conquered, and the crows feasted,

  would he come at her call, queen and lady

  riding to rescue? Then from ruin haply 210

  were gladness wrested. Guinevere the fair,

  not Mordred only, should master chance

  and the tides of time turn to her purpose.




  Of Sir Lancelot, who abode in Benwick.

  In the South from sleep to swift fury

  a storm was stirred, striding northward

  over leagues of water loud with thunder

  and roaring rain it rushed onward.

  Their hoary heads hills and mountains 5

  tossed in tumult on the towering seas.

  On Benwick’s beaches breakers pounding

  ground gigantic grumbling boulders

  with ogre anger. The air was salt

  with spume and spindrift splashed to vapour. 10

  There Lancelot over leagues of sea

  in heaving welter from a high window

  looked and wondered alone musing.

  Dark slowly fell. Deep his anguish.

  He his lord betrayed to love yielding, 15

  and love forsaking lord regained not;

  faith was refused him who had faith broken,

  by leagues of sea from love sundered.

  Sir Lancelot, Lord of Benwick

  of old was the noblest knight of Arthur, 20

  among sons of kings kingly seeming,

  deemed most daring, in deeds of arms

  all surpassing, eagerhe

  among folk whose beauty as a flower blossomed

  in face the fairest, formed in manhood 25

  strong and gracious, steel well-tempered.

  White his hue was; his hair raven,

  dark and splendid; dark his eyes were.

  Gold was Gawain, gold as sunlight,

  but grey his eyes were gleaming keenly; 30

  his mood sterner. By men holden

  almost equal envy he knew not,

  peer and peerless praising justly,

  but to his lord alone his love giving;

  no man nor woman in his mind holding 35

  dearer than Arthur. Daily watchful

  the Queen he doubted, ere the cold shadow

  on her great glory grey had fallen.

  To Lancelot her love gave she,

  in his great glory gladness finding. 40

  To his lady only was his love given;

  no man nor woman in his mind held he

  than Guinever dearer: glory only,

  knighthood’s honour, near his lady

  in his heart holding. High his purpose; 45

  he long was loyal to his lord Arthur,

  among the Round Table’s royal order

  prince and peerless, proudly serving

  Queen and lady. But cold silver

  or glowing gold greedy-hearted 50

  in her fingers taken fairer thought she,

  more lovely deeming what she alone treasured

  darkly hoarded. Dear she loved him

  with love unyielding, lady ruthless,

  fair as fay-woman and fell-minded 55

  in the world walking for the woe of men.

  Fate sent her forth. Fair she deemed him

  beyond gold and silver to her grasp lying.

  Silver and golden, as the sun at morning

  her smile dazzled, and her sudden weeping 60

  with tears softened, tender poison,

  steel well-tempered. Strong oaths they broke.

  Mordred in secret mirthless watched them

  betwixt hate and envy, hope and torment.

  Thus was bred the evil, and the black shadow 65

  o’er the courts of Arthur as a cloud growing

  dimmed the daylight darkling slowly.

  In evil hour was Agravain

  the dour-handed to death smitten –

  by the door fell he – dear to Gawain. 70

  Swift swords were drawn by sworn brethren

  and the Round Table rent asunder

  in the Queen’s quarrel. Cold rang the blades.

  The Queen was taken. With cruel justice

  fair as fay-woman they to fire doomed her, 75