XIV: THE LAY OF THE THORN by Marie de France
Whosoever counts these Lays as fable, may be assured that I am not of his mind. The dead and past stories that I have told again in divers fashions, are not set down without authority. The chronicles of these far off times are yet preserved in the land. They may be read by the curious at Caerleon, or in the monastery of St. Aaron. They may be heard in Brittany, and in many another realm besides. To prove how the remembrance of such tales endures, I will now relate to you the adventure of the Two Children, making clear what has remained hidden to this very hour.
In Brittany there lived a prince, high of spirit, fair of person, courteous and kind to all. This Childe was a King’s son, and there were none to cherish him but his father and his father’s wife, for his mother was dead. The King held him dearer than aught else in the world, and close he was to the lady’s heart. The lady, for her part, had a daughter by another husband than the King. Very dainty was the maiden, sweet of colour and of face, passing young and fair. Both these children, born to so high estate, were right tender of age, for the varlet, who was the elder of the twain, was but seven years. The two children loved together very sweetly. Nothing seemed of worth to one, if it were not shared with the other. They were nourished at the same table, went their ways together, and lived side by side. The guardians who held them in ward, seeing their great love, made no effort to put them apart, but allowed them to have all things in common. The love of these children increased with their years, but Dame Nature brought another love to youth and maid than she gave to the child. They delighted no more in their old frolic and play. Such sport gave place to clasp and kisses, to many words, and to long silences. To savour their friendship they took refuge in an attic of the keep, but all the years they had passed together, made the new love flower more sweetly in their hearts, as each knew well. Very pure and tender was their love, and good would it have been if they could have hidden it from their fellows. This might not be, for in no great while they were spied upon, and seen.
It chanced upon a day that this prince, so young and debonair, came home from the river with an aching head, by reason of the heat. He entered in a chamber, and shutting out the noise and clamour, lay upon his bed, to ease his pain. The Queen was with her daughter in a chamber, instructing her meetly in that which it becomes a maid to know. Closer to a damsel’s heart is her lover than her kin. So soon as she heard that her friend was come again to the house, she stole forth from her mother, without saying word to any, and accompanied by none, went straight to the chamber where he slept. The prince welcomed her gladly, for they had not met together that day. The lady, who thought no wrong, condoled with him in his sickness, and of her sweetness gave him a hundred kisses to soothe his hurt. Too swiftly sped the time in this fashion. Presently the Queen noticed that the damsel was no longer with her at her task. She rose to her feet, and going quickly to the chamber of the prince, entered therein without call or knock, for the door was unfastened on the latch. When the Queen saw these two lovers fondly laced in each other’s arms, she knew and was certified of their love. Right wrathful was the Queen. She caught the maiden by the wrist, and shut her fast in her room. She prayed the King to govern his son more strictly, and to hold him in such ward about the Court that he might get no speech with the damsel. Since he could have neither sight nor word of his friend, save only the sound of weeping from her chamber, the prince determined to tarry no further in the palace. He sought his father the self-same hour, and showed him what was in his mind.
“Sire,” said he, “I crave a gift. If it pleases you to be a father to your son, make me now a knight. I desire to seek another realm, and to serve some prince for guerdon. The road calls me, for many a knight has won much riches with his sword.”
The King did not refuse the lad’s request, but accorded it should be even as he wished. He prayed the prince to dwell for a year about the Court, that he might the more readily assist at such tourneys and follow such feats of arms as were proclaimed in the kingdom. This the prince agreed to do—the more readily because there was nothing else to be done. He remained therefore at the Court, moving ever by his father’s side. The maiden, for her part, was in the charge of her mother, who reproached her always for that she had done amiss. The Queen did not content herself with reproaches and threats. She used the sharp discipline upon her, so that the maiden suffered grievously in her person. Sick at heart was the varlet whilst he hearkened to the beatings, the discipline and the chastisement wherewith her mother corrected the damsel. He knew not what to do, for well he understood that his was the fault, and that by reason of him was her neck bowed down in her youth. More and more was he tormented because of his friend.
More and more the stripes with which she was afflicted became heavier for him to bear. He shut himself close within his chamber, and making fast the door, gave his heart over to tears.
“Alas,” cried he, “what shall I do! How may the ill be cured that I have brought on us by my lightness and folly! I love her more than life, and, certes, if I may not have my friend I will prove that I can die for her, though I cannot live without her.”
Whilst the prince made this lamentation, the Queen came before the King.
“Sir,” said she, “I pledge my oath and word as a crowned lady that I keep my daughter as strictly as I may. Think to your own son, and see to it that he cannot set eyes on the maid. He considers none other thing but how to get clasp and speech of his friend.”
For this reason the King guarded his son about the Court as closely as the Queen held the maiden in her chamber. So vigilant was the watch that these pitiful lovers might never have word together. They had no leisure to meet; they never looked one on the other; nor heard tidings of how they did, whether by letter or by sergeant.
They lived this death in life till the same year—eight days before the Feast of St. John—the varlet was dubbed knight. The King spent the day in the chase, and returning, brought with him great store of fowl and venison that he had taken. After supper, when the tables were removed, the King seated himself for his delight upon a carpet spread before the dais, his son and many a courteous lord with him. The fair company gave ear to the Lay of Alys, sweetly sung by a minstrel from Ireland, to the music of his rote. When his story was ended, forthwith he commenced another, and related the Lay of Orpheus; none being so bold as to disturb the singer, or to let his mind wander from the song. Afterwards the knights spoke together amongst themselves. They told of adventures which in ancient days had chanced to many, and were noised about Brittany. Amongst these lords sat a damsel, passing sweet of tongue. In her turn she told of a certain adventure which awaited the adventurous at the Ford of the Thorn, once every year, on the vigil of St. John, “but much I doubt whether now there be knights so bold as to dare the perils of that passage.” When the newly made knight heard these words his pride quickened within him. He considered that although he was belted with the sword, he had as yet done no deed to prove his courage in the eyes of men. He deemed the time had come to show his hardihood, and to put to silence the malicious lips. He stood upon his feet, calling upon damsel, King and barons to hearken to his voice, and spake out manfully in the ears of great and small.
“Lords,” cried he, “whatever says the maiden, I boast before you all that on St. John’s Eve I will ride alone to the Ford of the Thorn, and dare this adventure, whether it bring me gain or whether it bring me loss.”
The King was right heavy to hear these words. He thought them to be the gab and idle speech of a boy.
“Fair son,” said he, “put this folly from your mind.”
But when the King was persuaded that whether it were foolishness or wisdom the lad was determined to go his way, and abide the issue of the adventure,
“Go swiftly,” said he, “in the care of God. Since risk your life you must, play it boldly like a pawn, and may God grant you heart’s desire and happy hours.”
The self-same night, whilst the lad lay sleeping in his bed, that fair lady, his friend, was in much unrest in hers. The tidings of her lover’s boast had been carried quickly to her chamber, and sorely was she adread for what might chance. When the Eve of St. John was come, and the day drew towards evening, the varlet, with all fair hopes, made him ready to ride to the Ford Adventurous. He had clad himself from basnet to shoes in steel, and mounted on a strong destrier, went his road to essay the Passage of the Thorn. Whilst he took his path the maiden took hers. She went furtively to the orchard, that she might importune God to bring her friend again, safe and sound to his own house. She seated herself on the roots of a tree, and with sighs and tears lamented her piteous case.
“Father of Heaven,” said the girl, “Who was and ever shall be, be pitiful to my prayer. Since it is not to Thy will that any man should be wretched, be merciful to a most unhappy maid. Fair Sire, give back the days that are gone, when my friend was at my side, and grant that once again I may be with him. Lord God of Hosts, when shall I be healed? None knows the bitterness of my sorrow, for none may taste thereof, save such as set their heart on what they may not have. These only, Lord, know the wormwood and the gall.”
Thus prayed the maiden, seated on the roots of that ancient tree, her feet upon the tender grass. At the time of her orisons much was she sought and inquired after in the palace, but none might find where she had hidden. The damsel herself was given over altogether to her love and her sorrow, and had no thought for anything, save for prayers and tears. The night wore through, and dawn already laced the sky, when she fell on a little slumber, in the tree where she was sheltered. She woke with a start, but returned to her sleep more deeply than before. She had not slept long, when herseemed she was ravished from the tree—but I cannot make this plain for I know no wizardry—to that Ford of the Thorn, where her friend and lover had repaired. The knight looked upon the sleeping maiden, and marvelled at so fair a sight. All adread was the lady when she came from her slumber, for she knew not where she lay, and wondered greatly. She covered her head by reason of her exceeding fear, but the knight consoled her courteously.
“Diva,” said he, “there is no reason for terror. If you are an earthly woman, speaking with a mortal tongue, tell me your story. Tell me in what guise and manner you came so suddenly to this secret place.”
The maiden began to be of more courage, till she remembered that she was no longer in the orchard of the castle. She inquired of the knight to what haunt she had come.
“Lady,” he made answer, “you are laid at the Ford of the Thorn, where adventures chance to the seeker, sometimes greatly against the mind, and sometimes altogether according to the heart.”
“Ah, dear God,” cried the lady, “now shall I be made whole. Sir, look a little closer upon me, for I have been your friend. Thanks be to God, who so soon has heard my prayer.”
This was the beginning of adventures which happened that night to the seeker. The maiden hastened to embrace her lover. He got him nimbly from his horse, and taking her softly between his arms, kissed her with more kisses than I can tell. Then they sat together beneath the thorn, and the damsel told how she fell asleep within that old tree in the pleasaunce, of how she was rapt from thence in her slumber, and of how, yet sleeping, he came upon her by the Ford. When the knight had hearkened to all that she had to say, he looked from her face, and glancing across the river, marked a lord, with lifted lance, riding to the ford. This knight wore harness of a fair vermeil colour, and bestrode a horse white of body, save for his two ears, which were red as the rider’s mail. Slender of girdle was this knight, and he made no effort to enter the river, but drew rein upon the other side of the passage, and watched. The varlet said to his friend that it became his honour to essay some feats of arms with this adversary. He got to horse, and rode to the river, leaving the maiden beneath the thorn. Had she but found another horse at need, very surely would she have ridden to his aid. The two knights drew together as swiftly as their steeds could bear them. They thrust so shrewdly with the lance, that their shields were split and broken. The spears splintered in the gauntlet, and both champions were unhorsed by the shock, rolling on the sand; but nothing worse happened to them. Since they had neither squire nor companion to help them on their feet, they pained them grievously to get them from the ground. When they might climb upon their steeds, they hung again the buckler about the neck, and lowered their ashen spears. Passing heavy was the varlet, for shame that his friend had seen him thrown. The two champions met together in the onset, but the prince struck his adversary so cunningly with the lance, that the laces of his buckler were broken, and the shield fell from his body. When the varlet saw this he rejoiced greatly, for he knew that the eyes of his friend were upon him. He pressed his quarrel right fiercely, and tumbling his foe from the saddle, seized his horse by the bridle.
The two knights passed the ford, and the prince feared sorely because of the skill and mightiness of his adversary. He could not doubt that if they fell upon him together he would perish at their hands. He put the thought from mind, for he would not suspect them of conduct so unbecoming to gentle knight, and so contrary to the laws of chivalry. If they desired some passage of arms, doubtless they would joust as gentlemen, and each for himself alone. When these three knights were mounted on their steeds, they crossed the ford with courtesy and order, each seeking to give precedence to his companion. Having come to the bank the stranger knights prayed the prince to run a course for their pleasure. He answered that it was his wish, too, and made him ready for the battle. The prince rejoiced greatly when he saw one of these two adversaries ride a little apart, that he might the more easily observe the combat. He was assured that he would suffer no felony at their hands. For their part the two knights were persuaded that they had to do with an errant who had ridden to the ford for no other gain than honour and praise. The two adversaries took their places within the lists. They lowered their lance, and covering their bodies with the shield, smote fiercely together. So rude was the shock that the staves of the spears were broken, and the strong destriers were thrown upon their haunches. Neither of the good knights had lost his saddle. Each of the combatants got him to his feet, and drawing the sword, pressed upon his fellow, till the blood began to flow. When the knight who judged this quarrel saw their prowess, he came near, and commanded that the battle should cease. The adversaries drew apart, and struck no further blow with the sword. Right courteously and with fair words he spake to the prince. “Friend,” said the knight, “get to your horse, and break a lance with me. Then we can go in peace, for our time grows short. You must endure till the light be come if you hope to gain the prize. Do your devoir, valiantly, for should you chance to be thrown in this course, or slain by misadventure, you have lost your desire. None will ever hear of this adventure; all your life you will remain little and obscure. Your maiden will be led away by the victor, seated on the good Castilian horse you have gained by right of courage. Fight bravely. The trappings of the destrier are worth the spoil of a king’s castle, and as for the horse himself he is the swiftest and the fairest in the world. Be not amazed that I tell you of these matters. I have watched you joust, and know you for a hardy knight and a gallant gentleman. Besides I stand to lose horse and harness equally with you.”
The prince listened to these words, and accorded that the knight spoke wisely and well. He would willingly have taken counsel of the maiden, but first, as surely he knew, he must joust with this knight. He gathered the reins in his glove, and choosing a lance with an ashen staff, opposed himself to his adversary. The combatants met together so fiercely that the lance pierced the steel of the buckler; yet neither lost stirrup by the shock. When the prince saw this he smote the knight so shrewdly that he would have fallen from the saddle, had he not clung to the neck of his destrier. Of his courtesy the prince passed on, and refrained his hand until his enemy had recovered his seat. On his return he found the knight full ready to continue his devoir. Each of the champions plucked forth his sword, and sheltered him beneath his shield. They struck such mighty blows that the bucklers were hewn in pieces, but in spite of all they remained firm in the saddle. The maiden was aghast whilst she watched the melée. She had great fear for her friend, lest mischief should befall him, and she cried loudly to the knight that, for grace, he should give over this combat, and go his way. Very courteous was the knight, and meetly schooled in what was due to maidens. He saluted the damsel, and, together with his companion, rode straightway from the ford. The prince watched them pass for a little, then without further tarrying he went swiftly to the maiden, where, all fearful and trembling, she knelt beneath the thorn. The lady stood upon her feet as her lover drew near. She climbed behind him on the saddle, for well she knew that their pains were done. They fared so fast that when it was yet scarce day they came again to the palace. The King saw them approach, and rejoiced greatly at his son’s prowess; but at this he marvelled much, that he should return with the daughter of the Queen.
The self-same day of this homecoming—as I have heard tell—the King had summoned to Court his barons and vassals because of a certain quarrel betwixt two of his lords. This quarrel being accorded between them, and come to a fair end, the King related to that blithe company the story of this adventure. He told again that which you know, of how the prince defended the Ford, of the finding of the maiden beneath the thorn, of the mighty joust, and of that white horse which was taken from the adversary.
The prince both then and thereafter caused the horse to be entreated with the greatest care. He received the maiden to wife, and cherished her right tenderly. She, and the steed on which she would always ride, were his richest possessions. The destrier lived many years in much honour, but on a day when his master was taking the harness from his head, he fell and died forthwith.
Of the story which has been set before you the Bretons wrought a Lay. They did not call the song the Lay of the Ford, although the adventure took place at a river; neither have they named it The Lay of the Two Children. For good or ill the rhyme is known as the Lay of the Thorn. It begins well and endeth better, for these kisses find their fruition in marriage.