22 Amongst all the characters of early British history none is more interesting or occupies a more conspicuous place, than the hero of this tale. Urien, his father, was prince of Rheged, a district comprising the present Cumberland and part of the adjacent country. His valor and the consideration in which he was held are a frequent theme of Bardic song, and form the subject of several very spirited odes by Taliesin. Among the Triads there is one relating to him; it is thus translated:–
“Three Knights of Battle were in the court of Arthur: Cadwr the Earl of Cornwall, Launcelot du Lac, and Owain the son of Urien. And this was their characteristic,– that they would not retreat from battle, neither for spear, nor for arrow, nor for sword. And Arthur never had shame in battle the day he saw their faces there. And they were called the Knights of Battle.”
“Now,” quoth Owain, “would it not be well to go and endeavor to discover that place?”
“By the hand of my friend,” said Kay, “often dost thou utter that with thy tongue which thou wouldest not make good with thy deeds.”
“In very truth,” said Guenever, “it were better thou wert hanged, Kay, than to use such uncourteous speech towards a man like Owain.”
“By the hand of my friend, good lady,” said Kay; “thy praise of Owain is not greater than mine.”
With that Arthur awoke, and asked if he had not been sleeping a little.
“Yes, lord,” answered Owain, “thou hast slept awhile.”
“Is it time for us to go to meat?”
“It is, lord,” said Owain.
Then the horn for washing was sounded, and the king and all his household sat down to eat. And when the meal was ended, Owain withdrew to his lodging, and made ready his horse and his arms.
On the morrow with the dawn of day he put on his armor, and mounted his charger, and travelled through distant lands, and over desert mountains. And at length he arrived at the valley which Kynon had described to him, and he was certain that it was the same that he sought. And journeying along the valley, by the side of the river, he followed its course till he came to the plain, and within sight of the castle. When he approached the castle, he saw the youths shooting with their bows, in the place where Kynon had seen them, and the yellow man, to whom the castle belonged, standing hard by. And no sooner had Owain saluted the yellow man, than he was saluted by him in return.
And he went forward towards the castle, and there he saw the chamber; and when he had entered the chamber, he beheld the maidens working at satin embroidery, in chains of gold. And their beauty and their comeliness seemed to Owain far greater than Kynon had represented to him. And they arose to wait upon Owain, as they had done to Kynon. And the meal which they set before him gave even more satisfaction to Owain than it had done to Kynon.
About the middle of the repast the yellow man asked Owain the object of his journey. And Owain made it known to him, and said, “I am in quest of the knight who guards the fountain.” Upon this the yellow man smiled, and said that he was as loath to point out that adventure to him as he had been to Kynon. However, he described the whole to Owain, and they retired to rest.
The next morning Owain found his horse made ready for him by the damsels, and he set forward and came to the glade where the black man was. And the stature of the black man seemed more wonderful to Owain than it had done to Kynon; and Owain asked of him his road, and he showed it to him. And Owain followed the road till he came to the green tree; and he beheld the fountain, and the slab beside the fountain, and the bowl upon it. And Owain took the bowl and threw a bowlful of water upon the slab. And, lo! the thunder was heard, and after the thunder came the shower, more violent than Kynon had described, and after the shower the sky became bright. And immediately the birds came and settled upon the tree and sang. And when their song was most pleasing to Owain, he beheld a knight coming towards him through the valley; and he prepared to receive him, and encountered him violently. Having broken both their lances, they drew their swords and fought blade to blade. Then Owain struck the knight a blow through his helmet, head-piece, and visor, and through the skin, and the flesh, and the bone, until it wounded the very brain. Then the black knight felt that he had received a mortal wound, upon which he turned his horse’s head and fled. And Owain pursued him, and followed close upon him, although he was not near enough to strike him with his sword. Then Owain descried a vast and resplendent castle; and they came to the castle gate. And the black knight was allowed to enter, and the portcullis was let fall upon Owain; and it struck his horse behind the saddle, and cut him in two, and carried away the rowels of the spurs that were upon Owain’s heels. And the portcullis descended to the floor. And the rowels of the spurs and part of the horse were without, and Owain with the other part of the horse remained between the two gates, and the inner gate was closed, so that Owain could not go thence; and Owain was in a perplexing situation. And while he was in this state, he could see through an aperture in the gate a street facing him, with a row of houses on each side. And he beheld a maiden, with yellow, curling hair, and a frontlet of gold upon her head; and she was clad in a dress of yellow satin, and on her feet were shoes of variegated leather. And she approached the gate, and desired that it should be opened. “Heaven knows, lady,” said Owain, “it is no more possible for me to open to thee from hence, than it is for thee to set me free.” And he told her his name, and who he was. “Truly,” said the damsel, “it is very sad that thou canst not be released; and every woman ought to succor thee, for I know there is no one more faithful in the service of ladies than thou. Therefore,” quoth she, “whatever is in my power to do for thy release, I will do it. Take this ring, and put it on thy finger, with the stone inside thy hand, and close thy hand upon the stone. And as long as thou concealest it, it will conceal thee. When they come forth to fetch thee, they will be much grieved that they cannot find thee. And I will await thee on the horseblock yonder, and thou wilt be able to see me, though I cannot see thee. Therefore come and place thy hand upon my shoulder, that I may know that thou art near me. And by the way that I go hence, do thou accompany me.”
Then the maiden went away from Owain, and he did all that she had told him. And the people of the castle came to seek Owain to put him to death; and when they found nothing but the half of his horse, they were sorely grieved.
And Owain vanished from among them, and went to the maiden, and placed his hand upon her shoulder; whereupon she set off, and Owain followed her, until they came to the door of a large and beautiful chamber, and the maiden opened it, and they went in. And Owain looked around the chamber, and behold there was not a single nail in it that was not painted with gorgeous colors, and there was not a single panel that had not sundry images in gold portrayed upon it.
The maiden kindled a fire, and took water in a silver bowl, and gave Owain water to wash. Then she placed before him a silver table, inlaid with gold; upon which was a cloth of yellow linen, and she brought him food. And, of a truth, Owain never saw any kind of meat that was not there in abundance, but it was better cooked there than he had ever found it in any other place. And there was not one vessel from which he was served that was not of gold or of silver. And Owain ate and drank until late in the afternoon, when, lo! they heard a mighty clamor in the castle, and Owain asked the maiden what it was. “They are administering extreme unction,” said she, “to the nobleman who owns the castle.” And she prepared a couch for Owain which was meet for Arthur himself, and Owain went to sleep.
And a little after daybreak he heard an exceeding loud clamor and wailing, and asked the maiden what was the cause of it. “They are bearing to the church the body of the nobleman who owned the castle.”
And Owain rose up, and clothed himself, and opened a window of the chamber, and looked towards the castle; and he could see neither the bounds nor the extent of the hosts that filled the streets. And they were fully armed; and a vast number of women were with them, both on horseback and on foot, and all the ecclesiastics in the city singing. In the midst of the throng he beheld the bier, over which was a veil of white linen; and wax tapers were burning beside and around it; and none that supported the bier was lower in rank than a powerful baron.
Never did Owain see an assemblage so gorgeous with silk23 and satin. And, following the train, he beheld a lady with yellow hair falling over her shoulders, and stained with blood; and about her a dress of yellow satin, which was torn. Upon her feet were shoes of variegated leather. And it was a marvel that the ends of her fingers were not bruised from the violence with which she smote her hands together. Truly she would have been the fairest lady Owain ever saw had she been in her usual guise. And her cry was louder than the shout of the men or the clamor of the trumpets. No sooner had he beheld the lady than he became inflamed with her love, so that it took entire possession of him.
23 Before the sixth century all the silk used by Europeans had been brought to them by the Seres, the ancestors of the present Boukharians, whence it derived its Latin name of Serica. In 551 the silkworm was brought by two monks to Constantinople; but the manufacture of silk was confined to the Greek empire till the year 1130, when Roger, king of Sicily, returning from a crusade, collected some manufacturers from Athens and Corinth, and established them at Palermo, whence the trade was gradually disseminated over Italy. The varieties of silk stuffs known at this time were velvet, satin (which was called samite), and taffety (called cendal or sendall), all of which were occasionally stitched with gold and silver.
Then he inquired of the maiden who the lady was. “Heaven knows,” replied the maiden, “she is the fairest, and the most chaste, and the most liberal, and the most noble of women. She is my mistress, and she is called the Countess of the Fountain, the wife of him whom thou didst slay yesterday.” “Verily,” said Owain, “she is the woman that I love best.” “Verily,” said the maiden, “she shall also love thee, not a little.”
Then the maiden prepared a repast for Owain, and truly he thought he had never before so good a meal, nor was he ever so well served. Then she left him, and went towards the castle. When she came there she found nothing but mourning and sorrow; and the Countess in her chamber could not bear the sight of any one through grief. Luned, for that was the name of the maiden, saluted her, but the Countess answered her not. And the maiden bent down towards her, and said, “What aileth thee that thou answerest no one to-day?” “Luned,” said the Countess, “what change hath befallen thee that thou hast not come to visit me in my grief? It was wrong in thee, and I so sorely afflicted.” “Truly,” said Luned, “I thought thy good sense was greater than I find it to be. Is it well for thee to mourn after that good man, or for anything else that thou canst not have?” “I declare to Heaven,” said the Countess, “that in the whole world there is not a man equal to him.” “Not so,” said Luned, “for an ugly man would be as good as, or better than he.” “I declare to Heaven,” said the Countess, “that were it not repugnant to me to put to death one whom I have brought up I would have thee executed for making such comparison to me. As it is, I will banish thee.” “I am glad,” said Luned, “that thou hast no other cause to do so than that I would have been of service to thee, where thou didst not know what was to thine advantage. Henceforth evil betide whichever of us shall make the first advance towards reconciliation to the other, whether I should seek an invitation from thee, or thou of thine own accord shouldst send to invite me.”
With that Luned went forth; and the Countess arose and followed her to the door of the chamber, and began coughing loudly. And when Luned looked back the Countess beckoned to her, and she returned to the Countess. “In truth,” said the Countess, “evil is thy disposition; but if thou knowest what is to my advantage, declare it to me.” “I will do so,” said she.
“Thou knowest that, except by warfare and arms, it is impossible for thee to preserve thy possessions; delay not, therefore, to seek some one who can defend them.” “And how can I do that?” said the Countess. “I will tell thee,” said Luned; “unless thou canst defend the fountain thou canst not maintain thy dominions; and no one can defend the fountain except it be a knight of Arthur’s household. I will go to Arthur’s court, and ill betide me if I return not thence with a warrior who can guard the fountain as well as, or even better, than he who defended it formerly.” “That will be hard to perform,” said the Countess. “Go, however, and make proof of that which thou hast promised.”
Luned set out under the pretence of going to Arthur’s court; but she went back to the mansion where she had left Owain, and she tarried there as long as it might have taken her to travel to the court of King Arthur and back. And at the end of that time she apparelled herself, and went to visit the Countess. And the Countess was much rejoiced when she saw her, and inquired what news she brought from the court. “I bring thee the best of news,” said Luned, “for I have compassed the object of my mission. When wilt thou that I should present to thee the chieftain who has come with me thither?” “Bring him here to visit me to-morrow,” said the Countess, “and I will cause the town to be assembled by that time.”
And Luned returned home. And the next day, at noon, Owain arrayed himself in a coat and a surcoat, and a mantle of yellow satin, upon which was a broad band of gold lace; and on his feet were high shoes of variegated leather, which were fastened by golden clasps, in the form of lions. And they proceeded to the chamber of the Countess.
Right glad was the Countess of their coming. And she gazed steadfastly upon Owain, and said, “Luned, this knight has not the look of a traveller.” “What harm is there in that, lady?” said Luned. “I am certain,” said the Countess, “that no other man than this chased the soul from the body of my lord.” “So much the better for thee, lady,” said Luned, “for had he not been stronger than thy lord, he could not have deprived him of life. There is no remedy for that which is past, be it as it may.” “Go back to thine abode,” said the Countess, “and I will take counsel.”
The next day the Countess caused all her subjects to assemble, and showed them that her earldom was left defenceless, and that it could not be protected but with horse and arms, and military skill. “Therefore,” said she, “this is what I offer for your choice: either let one of you take me, or give your consent for me to take a husband from elsewhere, to defend my dominions.”
So they came to the determination that it was better that she should have permission to marry some one from elsewhere; and thereupon she sent for the bishops and archbishops, to celebrate her nuptials with Owain. And the men of the earldom did Owain homage.
And Owain defended the fountain with lance and sword. And this is the manner in which he defended it. Whensoever a knight came there, he overthrew him, and sold him for his full worth. And what he thus gained he divided among his barons and his knights, and no man in the whole world could be more beloved than he was by his subjects. And it was thus for the space of three years.24
24 There exists an ancient poem, printed among those of Taliesin, called the Elegy of Owain ap Urien, and containing several very beautiful and spirited passages. It commences:
“The soul of Owain ap Urien,
May its Lord consider its exigencies!
Reged’s chief the green turf covers.”
In the course of this Elegy, the bard, alluding to the incessant welfare with which this chieftain harassed his Saxon foes, exclaims:
“Could England sleep with the light upon her eyes!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51