At dawn, on Easter Day, King Arthur stood on the battlements of his Castle at Cardigan in Wales. As he smelt the spring air, he recalled an ancient tradition known as the White Stag.
According to custom, on Easter Monday the King and his knights would go hunting, and who ever killed a white stag would win the right to kiss the fairest maiden at the court. The custom had fallen out of use, but Arthur thought to himself that is was right and proper for a great King to uphold tradition.
After chapel, the Knights of the Round Table gathered in the main hall of the castle. King Arthur announced that he would revive the custom of the White Stag. All were pleased to hear this news except for one – and he was Sir Gawain. Gawain was the most courtly and wisest knight of the Round Table, and none other, apart from the wizard Merlin himself was more trusted, or held in greater esteem, by the King. He spoke quietly to Arthur, so that none other could hear:
“Sire. No good will come from this hunt. He who kills the White Stag must kiss the fairest maiden at the court. But there are 500 beautiful maidens here. Each one is the favourite of some bold knight. Every knight will contend that his maiden is fairest and most noble, and will take grave insult if another is chosen. There will be quarrels and bloodshed.”
But although Arthur saw the wisdom of Sir Gawain’s words, he replied:
“I have spoken my intention. And a King’s words cannot be unspoken.”
The following morning, at daybreak, the knights rose from their beds. They dressed in light tunics, mounted their hunting horses, and set off for the forest carrying their bows and arrows. Queen Guinevere followed behind them on a white pony. A young maiden, the daughter of a Princess, rode by her side.
One of the knights, looked back and saw the Queen and her maiden following at some distance. He turned round his horse and cantered back towards them. He was young and handsome, and finely dressed in a fur-lined cloak, and a tunic of silk that had been woven in Constantinople. His spurs were made of gold, and his only weapon was a sword. His name was Sir Eric.
Eric spoke to the Queen saying that, if it pleased her, he would be glad to ride along with her. And Queen Guinevere thanked the young knight for his company, adding that she could have none better. Then they rode straight on to the forest.
Those out in front, were already chasing the stag. Some blew horns. Others fired arrows. The dogs barked. There was the risk of an accident, with so many arrows flying through the air, and Sir Eric advised the Queen and her maiden to hold back for a while in a clearing.
While they were waiting, they saw a knight coming through the woods. He was fully armoured with a shield over his shoulder and a lance in his hand. Riding behind him was a beautiful maiden, while riding out in front of him, was a dwarf with a whip in his hand.
Queen Guinevere was very curious about this new arrival, and she sent her maiden to ride over and fetch him to her. The maiden rode ahead towards the knight, and the dwarf came to meet her. She spoke to him in a haughty voice:
“Let me pass, little man. I wish to speak to that knight.” But the dwarf blocked her way. When she tried to ride past him, he struck her on the arm with his whip. She cried out with pain, and rode back quickly to the Queen. Guinevere was quite astonished that anyone would be so bad mannered as to wound a young maiden with a whip.
“What shall I do?” she asked Sir Eric. And he told her to never mind, for he would go and talk to the knight. He rode up ahead, and found that his way too was blocked by the dwarf.
“Let me pass, you odious little man who would strike a lady,” he said. But the dwarf replied.
“Be gone. You have no business with my master.”
When Eric tried to ride past, the dwarf struck him over the ear with his whip. The wound stung bitterly. Eric was furious. He was sorely tempted to draw his sword and use it on the dwarf, but he held back, for the knight was fully armed, and Eric himself had no shield and was wearing nothing but his silk tunic. He could not protect himself against the lance of the knight. He decided to retreat. And he was wise to do so.
He rode back to the Queen.
“My lady,” he said. “I was unarmed and could not seek avenge against the knight. My weapons and armour were far away. But now I must rid myself of this shame, or increase it. I will follow the knight at some distance. At the first opportunity, I will borrow some armour and challenge him. Either he or I will pay for this insult with blood.”
And the Queen was sorry that the fine young man must risk his life on account of her honour, and she prayed that God might protect him from evil.
Meanwhile, King Arthur had killed the White Stag with his arrow. The hunting party returned to the castle and later that day the ladies and knights of the court gathered in the hall. All were talking about the choice that Arthur had to make. Who would he pick as the fairest maiden at court? Everyone knew that it would not be an easy choice. There were several knights who swore that they would challenge and fight the King if he did not choose their favourite.
Arthur held a private council with Sir Gawain and Queen Guinevere. Gawain looked grave and said he did not see how to avoid a challenge to the King, for many knights believed it was a matter of honour to defend their favourite’s beauty at the point of a sword or lance.
The Queen was still upset on account of the incident in the forest. She pleaded:
“My Lord. There is one noble knight who is not among us at court. He is Sir Eric, and he risking his life and reputation on account of my honour. I pray, let us postpone the question of the fairest maiden until either he returns, or we hear more unfortunate news of his fate.”
And Gawain agreed that it would be wise to wait a day or two to give time for the knights’ hot tempers to cool. Arthur listened to this advice, and he announced to the court that it would be unfitting to celebrate the feast of the White Stag until they had received news of Eric and his fate.
Meanwhile, Eric was following the knight, the dwarf and the maiden, to see where they might go. Towards late afternoon, they came to a walled town. He followed them through the gates, and saw that the people recognised the knight and his strange company, and that many came out to greet him. But nobody welcomed Eric, because none knew him.
The inns of the town were full of fine knights and their ladies, and Eric had trouble finding lodgings. Eventually, he saw an old soldier sitting on the steps of his house. He was poorly dressed, but he was strongly built and had a fine set of whiskers. Eric stopped to ask him if he knew of any lodgings that were not yet full, and the knight said:
“Why you must stay with me. What I lack in luxury, I can make up for in hospitality.” Eric liked the old man, and gladly agreed. He dismounted, and the soldier called for his daughter to come and take their visitor’s horse to the stable. The young maiden came out. She was wearing nothing but a shift and simple white dress, because they were the only clothes she had. When she saw the handsome young visitor, she blushed a little. Eric was astonished at her beauty. He thought that she was more beautiful than the most beautiful day. He would happily have gazed at her, but soon she was gone with his horse.
Later that evening, after a good dinner, Eric sat with his host by the fire. He asked him why was it that his daughter, who was so beautiful, wore nothing but a simple white dress. The solider replied:
“Noble sir. Poverty treats an old soldier unkindly. I cannot afford to buy her clothes to match her beauty. Even dressed as she is, she does not lack for offers of marriage. I have refused several lords and knights who wished for her hand, for I am waiting for a still better offer. But believe me when I say, her beauty is not her only virtue. Her heart is noble and wise as well. I know no greater happiness than when she is by my side.”
As much as it pleased Eric to hear about the young girl, he recalled that he had come here on a serious business. He asked his host if he knew anything of the knight who rode with a dwarf and a beautiful young maiden, and the old soldier told him everything that he needed to know. Every year, the town offered the prize of a fine hunting hawk to the most beautiful maiden. Andy Knight who claimed that his damsel was the fairest, must joust in a tournament. The victor had the right to give the hawk to his love.
For the past two years, the knight seen by Eric had crushed all who challenged him. His maiden had won the prize. He fought so fiercely, that this year, no knight would dare to come against him, and his maiden would once again be declared the most beautiful girl in town.
Eric replied immediately:
“I have a bitter quarrel with this Knight. I wish to challenge him for the hunting hawk. Good soldier, I ask you this favour. Allow me to be the champion of your daughter’s beauty. I will gladly fight on her behalf.”
The host could see that Eric was of noble spirit, and he replied that he would be honoured for him to fight on behalf of his daughter. And then Eric asked the soldier if he knew of anyone who could lend him a suit of armour – he did not care if it was old or new.
“Why I still keep a fine suit of armour !” declared the soldier. And he took Eric upstairs to show it to him.
The next morning, at day break, the young maiden helped Eric into his armour. She tied the iron protectors to his legs. She dressed him in the tunic of chain mail. She polished the helmet before placing it on his head. Finally, she buckled his sword to his waist. Then she fetched his horse. Eric put his foot in a stirrup and swung up onto it. She handed him the shield and the strong lance. Then the maiden mounted her father’s grey pony. She was still wearing her plain white dress, but even so she attracted many an admiring gaze from the people of the town. Eric rode in front of her, holding his lance upright, and sitting with perfect posture in his saddle.
All the people marvelled. “Who is this knight?’ they said to one another. “We have not seen him before. His maiden is surely very beautiful, but he must be a brave knight indeed to fight for her this day.”
But when his opponent led his dwarf and his maiden through the streets, all knew him. Some people cheered him, others came out and greeted him and wished him well. When too many people crowded in the way, the dwarf threatened them with his whip, and they soon let them through.
When they came onto the jousting field, the knight took his maiden to the place where the hunting hawk was sitting on its perch. He untied it, and held it up high on his arm. He said to to the maiden out loud so others could hear:
“Take this prize, for it is rightly yours. No damsel on this field exceeds you in beauty.”
But before she could take it, Eric rode up and called out:
“Damsel ! Hold back ! Take some other bird, for you have no right to this one !”
The knight was furious at this interruption, and he turned to face Eric.
“How dare you come between my beautiful girl and her prize!” he said. And Eric replied.
“This bird belongs to my maiden, for none can compare to her in beauty, not the even the sun nor the moon. And furthermore, her heart exceeds all others in wisdom and nobility.”
And the other said:
“It is madness that makes you say so. You will pay dearly for your foolish words.”
But Eric was not troubled by his threats and was more than ready to joust with the knight. The two men rode their horses in opposite directions, and then turned and faced each other for the charge. Then they spurred their horses towards each other at great speed. Each aimed their lances at the other. Both struck. And both fell backwards off their mounts onto the ground.
The knights sprang to their feet and drew their swords. They traded heavy blows, splitting shields and breaking helmets. Eric tripped, and while he was still rising back up onto his feet, his opponent swung his sword down on him, meaning to split his helmet open, but Fortune protected Eric, and although the sword broke off a piece of his helmet off the side, it missed his skull and Eric survived the attack. A moment or two later, he glanced over to where the maidens were standing, and he saw that both were weeping with fear for their heroes.
Both knights matched each other in ferocity, skill and strength. The battle went on for two hours, after which the other knight called out to Eric.
“We both grow weary. We do no justice to ourselves or our maidens. Let us rest and then renew our fight with full strength.”
And Eric agreed to stand back and rest. As he stood learning on his sword, he saw his girl in the white dress kneeling and praying piteously on his account. He recalled how his opponent had insulted his Queen, her maiden, and himself. He grew angry once again as he thought of the arrogant knight who was without honour or chivalry. Then he called out:
“Enough of this resting. Let us finish this sooner rather than later.”
And the other replied:
“Since you are in a hurry, prepare now to die.”
And both renewed their attack. But this time Eric had the better of the fight. He gave the knight such a blow on his helmet that he was stunned. And he followed that with three other blows. Now his opponent was lying half conscious on the ground. Eric pulled off his helmet and would have finished him off there and then had not the other cried out:
“Have mercy !”
And Eric held back his final cut. He said sternly,
“Wretch ! Since you plead for mercy I will not kill you, but you must acknowledge for all to hear that I have defeated you utterly and that my damsel is the most beautiful woman under the sun.”
The other hesitated, either because he was proud and stubborn, or because he was weak and short of breath. Eric once again held up his sword and the knight called out:
“Good Knight, hold back for you have defeated me utterly and your damsel is the most beautiful woman under the sun.”
At this, Eric stayed his sword. And the other knight asked:
“But pray, tell me your name and why you hate me so, for to my knowledge, I have not seen you before this day and have done you no harm or dishonour.” And Eric replied,
“I am Eric, a Knight of the Round Table. Yesterday in the forest, you allowed your dwarf to strike the handmaiden of my Queen Guinevere, and then to strike me, though I was unarmed. Now you are my prisoner. I command to swear an oath that you will do my bidding: Mount your horse and ride directly to the Castle at Cardigan where King Arthur is holding court. Kneel before Queen Guinevere, tell her that I am safe, that I have defeated you, and accept whatever punishment she made judge fit for you.”
And the other, whose name was Yder, son of Nut, agreed to Eric’s terms and rode off with his dwarf and his maiden, taking the road for the Castle at Cardigan.
Then Eric presented the hunting hawk to his maiden in the white dress saying:
“Take this prize for your beauty inspired my victory. Truly, there is no face more lovely, no smile more lively, no human form more divine, than yours.”
And all agreed that she had rightly won the prize for beauty. That evening, the Lord of the Town invited Eric and his maiden to dine at his palace, but Eric refused saying that he must honour his host by staying at his house. And the Lord ordered his servants to bring a great quantity of fine food and wine to the soldier’s house, and that night many knights and ladies feasted under his roof.
Eric sat proudly by the young girl, who still wore her simple white dress, and yet outshone all the other ladies and maidens. When he had a chance, Eric spoke to her father and asked for her hand in marriage, which he gladly granted. Then Eric told him that his own father was a king, second only in riches and glory to King Arthur, and that he would make sure that the soldier and his wife were well looked after.
In the morning, he mounted his horse, and the maiden, whose name as Enide, sat behind him, her arms wrapped her knight, holding him over his heart. They rode full of joy to Cardigan, lingering only for kisses on the way.
Meanwhile that other knight had arrived with his dwarf and his maiden at Cardigan. The sentries on the battlements had recognised him from far off, and soon word reached Guinevere that the strange knight who had insulted her was heading for the castle. As he drew nearer, it became clear that he had been in a fight and was in a bad way. Guinevere wondered what news he brought. Was he coming to boast of how he defeated and killed her champion? Or was he coming as Eric’s prisoner, to beg for mercy.
He rode through the gates of the Castle, and asked for an audience with the queen. Barely able to walk he came up to her throne and knelt before her. He begged her pardon and her mercy. After consulting with Sir Gawain, she granted him her forgiveness on one condition – that he serve King Arthur as his knight. He readily agreed
A day later Eric and Enide arrived at Cardigan. There was great rejoicing. The Queen embraced the young girl, and when she saw that she was dressed in a simple white dress, she gave her a beautiful dress of her own. It was of green and gold, and Enide looked even more resplendent and beautiful. Directly afterwards, Eric and Enide were married in the chapel. That evening there was a magnificent feast in celebration. At the hight of the festivities, King Arthur called all to order and announced that he had reached his decision about the fairest maiden. He would bestow his kiss on Enide. She came before him, and the king kissed her gently and properly. He promised to love her as a friend.
All agreed that King Arthur had made the right choice, and not one knight came forth to challenge him.
And that’s the story of the Marriage of Eric and Enide. But their tale does not end with their wedding. I will be back soon with a second story about Eric and Enide, which will tell you what happened after they were married. And Bertie asked me to tell you that and early version of this story was written as a poem in old French, by Chretien do Troyes. There are is also a Welsh version in the Welsh collection of tales the Mabinogion, but in that version they are known as Geraint and Enid.