Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
King Arthur and His Knights
Chapter IX. The Adventure of the Cart
It befell in the month of May, Queen Guenever called to her knights of the Table Round, and gave them warning that early upon the morrow she would ride a-maying into the woods and fields beside Westminster; "and I warn you that there be none of you but he be well horsed, and that ye all be clothed in green, either silk or cloth; and I shall bring with me ten ladies, and every knight shall have a lady behind him, and every knight shall have a squire and two yeoman, and all well horsed."
"For thus it chanced one morn when all the court, Green-suited, but with plumes that mock'd the May, Had been, their wont, a-maying" --Guinevere.
So they made them ready; and these were the names of the knights: Sir Kay the Seneschal, Sir Agrivaine, Sir Brandiles, Sir Sagramour le Desirus, Sir Dodynas le Sauvage, Sir Ozanna, Sir Ladynas, Sir Persant of Inde, Sir Ironside, and Sir Pelleas; and these ten knights made them ready, in the freshest manner, to ride with the queen. So upon the morn they took their horses with the queen, and rode a-maying in woods and meadows, as it pleased them, in great joy and delight. Now there was a knight named Maleagans, son to King Brademagus, who loved Queen Guenever passing well, and so had he done long and many years. Now this knight, Sir Maleagans, learned the queen's purpose, and that she had no men of arms with her but the ten noble knights all arrayed in green for maying; so he prepared him twenty men of arms, and a hundred archers, to take captive the queen and her knights.
"In the merry month of May, In a morn at break of day, With a troop of damsels playing, The Queen, forsooth, went forth a-maying." --Old Song.
So when the queen had mayed, and all were bedecked with herbs, mosses, and flowers in the best manner and freshest, right then came out of a wood Sir Maleagans with eightscore men well harnessed, and bade the queen and her knights yield them prisoners. "Traitor knight," said Queen Guenever, "what wilt thou do? Wilt thou shame thyself? Bethink thee how thou art a king's son, and a knight of the Table Round, and how thou art about to dishonor all knighthood and thyself?" "Be it as it may," said Sir Maleagans, "know you well, madam, I have loved you many a year and never till now could I get you to such advantage as I do now; and therefore I will take you as I find you." Then the ten knights of the Round Table drew their swords, and the other party run at them with their spears, and the ten knights manfully abode them, and smote away their spears. Then they lashed together with swords till several were smitten to the earth. So when the queen saw her knights thus dolefully oppressed, and needs must be slain at the last, then for pity and sorrow she cried, "Sir Maleagans, slay not my noble knights and I will go with you, upon this covenant, that they be led with me wheresoever thou leadest me." "Madame," said Maleagans, "for your sake they shall be led with you into my own castle, if that ye will be ruled, and ride with me." Then Sir Maleagans charged them all that none should depart from the queen, for he dreaded lest Sir Launcelot should have knowledge of what had been done.
Then the queen privily called unto her a page of her chamber that was swiftly horsed, to whom she said, "Go thou when thou seest thy time, and bear this ring unto Sir Launcelot, and pray him as he loveth me, that he will see me and rescue me. And spare not thy horse," said the queen, "neither for water nor for land." So the child espied his time, and lightly he took his horse with the spurs and departed as fast as he might. And when Sir Maleagans saw him so flee, he understood that it was by the queen's commandment for to warn Sir Launcelot. Then they that were best horsed chased him, and shot at him, but the child went from them all. Then Sir Maleagans said to the queen, "Madam, ye are about to betray me, but I shall arrange for Sir Launcelot that he shall not come lightly at you." Then he rode with her and them all to his castle, in all the haste that they might. And by the way Sir Maleagans laid in ambush the best archers that he had to wait for Sir Launcelot. And the child came to Westminster and found Sir Launcelot and told his message and delivered him the queen's ring. "Alas!" said Sir Launcelot, "now am I shamed for ever, unless I may rescue that noble lady." Then eagerly he asked his armor and put it on him, and mounted his horse and rode as fast as he might; and men say he took the water at Westminster Bridge, and made his horse swim over Thames unto Lambeth. Then within a while he came to a wood where was a narrow way; and there the archers were laid in ambush. And they shot at him and smote his horse so that he fell. Then Sir Launcelot left his horse and went on foot, but there lay so many ditches and hedges betwixt the archers and him that he might not meddle with them. "Alas! for shame," said Sir Launcelot, "that ever one knight should betray another! but it is an old saw, a good man is never in danger, but when he is in danger of a coward." Then Sir Launcelot went awhile and he was exceedingly cumbered by his armor, his shield, and his spear, and all that belonged to him. Then by chance there came by him a cart that came thither to fetch wood.
Now at this time carts were little used except for carrying offal and for conveying criminals to execution. But Sir Launcelot took no thought of anything but the necessity of haste for the purpose of rescuing the queen; so he demanded of the carter that he should take him in and convey him as speedily as possible for a liberal reward. The carter consented, and Sir Launcelot placed himself in the cart and only lamented that with much jolting he made but little progress. Then it happened Sir Gawain passed by and seeing an armed knight travelling in that unusual way he drew near to see who it might be. Then Sir Launcelot told him how the queen had been carried off, and how, in hastening to her rescue, his horse had been disabled and he had been compelled to avail himself of the cart rather than give up his enterprise. Then Sir Gawain said, "Surely it is unworthy of a knight to travel in such sort;" but Sir Launcelot heeded him not.
At nightfall they arrived at a castle and the lady thereof came out at the head of her damsels to welcome Sir Gawain. But to admit his companion, whom she supposed to be a criminal, or at least a prisoner, it pleased her not; however, to oblige Sir Gawain, she consented. At supper Sir Launcelot came near being consigned to the kitchen and was only admitted to the lady's table at the earnest solicitation of Sir Gawain. Neither would the damsels prepare a bed for him. He seized the first he found unoccupied and was left undisturbed.
Next morning he saw from the turrets of the castle a train accompanying a lady, whom he imagined to be the queen. Sir Gawain thought it might be so, and became equally eager to depart. The lady of the castle supplied Sir Launcelot with a horse and they traversed the plain at full speed. They learned from some travellers whom they met, that there were two roads which led to the castle of Sir Maleagans. Here therefore the friends separated. Sir Launcelot found his way beset with obstacles, which he encountered successfully, but not without much loss of time. As evening approached he was met by a young and sportive damsel, who gayly proposed to him a supper at her castle. The knight, who was hungry and weary, accepted the offer, though with no very good grace. He followed the lady to her castle and ate voraciously of her supper, but was quite impenetrable to all her amorous advances. Suddenly the scene changed and he was assailed by six furious ruffians, whom he dealt with so vigorously that most of them were speedily disabled, when again there was a change and he found himself alone with his fair hostess, who informed him that she was none other than his guardian fairy, who had but subjected him to tests of his courage and fidelity. The next day the fairy brought him on his road, and before parting gave him a ring, which she told him would by its changes of color disclose to him all enchantments, and enable him to subdue them.
Sir Launcelot pursued his journey, without being much incommoded except by the taunts of travellers, who all seemed to have learned, by some means, his disgraceful drive in the cart. One, more insolent than the rest, had the audacity to interrupt him during dinner, and even to risk a battle in support of his pleasantry. Launcelot, after an easy victory, only doomed him to be carted in his turn.
At night he was received at another castle, with great apparent hospitality, but found himself in the morning in a dungeon, and loaded with chains. Consulting his ring, and finding that this was an enchantment, he burst his chains, seized his armor in spite of the visionary monsters who attempted to defend it, broke open the gates of the tower, and continued his journey. At length his progress was checked by a wide and rapid torrent, which could only be passed on a narrow bridge, on which a false step would prove his destruction. Launcelot, leading his horse by the bridle, and making him swim by his side, passed over the bridge, and was attacked as soon as he reached the bank by a lion and a leopard, both of which he slew, and then, exhausted and bleeding, seated himself on the grass, and endeavored to bind up his wounds, when he was accosted by Brademagus, the father of Maleagans, whose castle was then in sight, and at no great distance. This king, no less courteous than his son was haughty and insolent, after complimenting Sir Launcelot on the valor and skill he had displayed in the perils of the bridge and the wild beasts, offered him his assistance, and informed him that the queen was safe in his castle, but could only be rescued by encountering Maleagans. Launcelot demanded the battle for the next day, and accordingly it took place, at the foot of the tower, and under the eyes of the fair captive. Launcelot was enfeebled by his wounds, and fought not with his usual spirit, and the contest for a time was doubtful; till Guenever exclaimed, "Ah, Launcelot! my knight, truly have I been told that thou art no longer worthy of me!" These words instantly revived the drooping knight; he resumed at once his usual superiority, and soon laid at his feet his haughty adversary.
He was on the point of sacrificing him to his resentment, when Guenever, moved by the entreaties of Brademagus, ordered him to withhold the blow, and he obeyed. The castle and its prisoners were now at his disposal. Launcelot hastened to the apartment of the queen, threw himself at her feet, and was about to kiss her hand, when she exclaimed, "Ah, Launcelot! why do I see thee again, yet feel thee to be no longer worthy of me, after having been disgracefully drawn about the country in a--" She had not time to finish the phrase, for her lover suddenly started from her, and, bitterly lamenting that he had incurred the displeasure of his sovereign lady, rushed out of the castle, threw his sword and his shield to the right and left, ran furiously into the woods, and disappeared.
It seems that the story of the abominable cart, which haunted Launcelot at every step, had reached the ears of Sir Kay, who had told it to the queen, as a proof that her knight must have been dishonored. But Guenever had full leisure to repent the haste with which she had given credit to the tale. Three days elapsed, during which Launcelot wandered without knowing where he went, till at last he began to reflect that his mistress had doubtless been deceived by misrepresentation, and that it was his duty to set her right. He therefore returned, compelled Maleagans to release his prisoners, and, taking the road by which they expected the arrival of Sir Gawain, had the satisfaction of meeting him the next day; after which the whole company proceeded gayly towards Camelot.