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Sir Gawain and the Dragon

 

Frank Thomas Smith

 

One of the most famous knights of King Arthur’s Round Table in Camelot was Sir Gawain, whose name means “white falcon”. His adventures, as those of his comrades Galahad, Lancelot, Perceval and Arthur himself, have been the subject of many tales. But Gawain was not always a knight; he was also a boy once. Now we are going to tell you one of Sir Gawain’s adventures when he was a boy, before King Arthur formed his circle of Knights of the Round Table.

 

            Gawain’s father was the king of the Orkney Islands, but he had lost a war against the barbarian invaders who devastated the North Sea islands, and found refuge in England. He lived there with his family and court in one of the smallest castles of the kingdom, not far from King Arthur’s imposing castle. Gawain often went to Arthur’s castle to watch the knights joust. When he saw the knights in all their fine armor blandishing their lances and swords, he decided to become a knight himself when he grew up. With this idea in mind he carved a lance and a sword of wood, with which he passed hours daily practicing mounted on Blanca, the white mare his mother had given him.

            During his visits to the royal castle he often saw the princess, a child with long chestnut hair, plump and pretty, who was called Gunver. He greeted her by taking off his hat and making a deep, sweeping bow. He would have liked to play with her, but she was a princess of England, and Princesses didn’t have time to play children’s games. She always smiled at him though, and he had the impression that she would have liked to play. Poor princess, he thought.

            One day when Gawain was about to win a joust against an imaginary enemy in the courtyard of his father’s castle, one of King Arthur’s  pages came running in all out of breath and pulling his hair.

            “Master, master, the princess has been kidnapped, come to the royal castle immediately by order of the king! Oh -- where is the master?”

            Gawain’s father came out of the castle and grabbed the page by the neck. “Calm yourself and tell me what happened,” he said. “Who kidnapped the princess?”

            “A dragon!” the page cried, quite beside himself. “I saw it with my own eyes. He seized the poor princess, put her on his spiny back and fled into the forest. The king has ordered all nobles and knights to come immediately to the royal castle to participate in the pursuit.”

            Gawain’s father released the page, whose face was turning orange, and entered the castle to don his armor. “Prepare my horse!” he cried to his own page, an old toothless servant. Minutes later, he galloped away to the royal palace.

            Gawain remained seated on Blanca with his mouth open. Princess Gunver kidnapped, he thought. I must rescue her. Without another thought he turned Blanca’s head toward the gate, which remained open, booted her flanks with imaginary spurs, and was lost in the cloud of dust which his father’s horse had kicked up. Everyone was so agitated by the bad news that none noticed him leave.

            He didn’t head for the royal palace, because he knew they wouldn’t let him join the pursuit. Instead, he galloped straight into the forest. He had no armor, but with his trusty wooden sword and lance he was confident that he would slay the dragon and rescue the princess -- if she hadn’t already been eaten.

            Once inside the forest, Gawain had no choice but to advance without a fixed direction, for he had no idea where the dragon might have taken the princess. Several hours later darkness fell and the noises the nocturnal animals made frightened him. But he told himself that a knight should not be afraid of the dark, and continued on his quest.

            When he could no longer see a yard ahead -- for it was a moonless night --he came to a stream and decided to pass the night there. After he and Blanca drank the refreshing water, he gathered kindling and made a fire to keep warm. He had left in such a rush that he had forgotten to bring food. Blanca, though, grazed contentedly.

            Gawain awoke in the morning when the sun stroked his eyelids. He was ferociously hungry and discovered to his delight that he had fallen asleep under an apple tree whose branches hung heavy with fruit and was crowned with mistletoe. He filled his hat with apples and sat against the tree to enjoy his breakfast.

            “Does it taste good?”

            Gawain jumped and looked up and around him. The voice seemed to have thundered from the sky.

            “Ye..ye..yes,” he said, not knowing to whom.

            “Do you have an extra one?”

            Gawain had already looked in all directions without seeing anyone. “Where are you?” he asked the air.

             “Here,” the voice replied and the figure of a old man with a long white beard appeared before him. He carried a staff from which small red roses grew. The boy was struck dumb with surprise.

            “Do you have an apple for me?” the man asked. “I haven’t eaten in three days.”

            Gawain looked into his hat. “There is only one left,” he said, “but the tree is full.”

            “Really?” the man said, looking at the tree’s branches.

            Gawain looked up at the branches and saw that the tree was now bare of fruit -- only the mistletoe remained. 

            “Then take this last apple.” And taking the apple from his hat he offered it to the man, who ate it with evident relish. When he had consumed the core, he wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his tunic and said, “What are you doing alone in the forest?”

            “I’m looking for someone,” Gawain answered.

            “A-ha! And who are you looking for, if I may ask?”

            “For the dragon who kidnapped the princess. Have you seen them?”

            The man’s green eyes opened wide. “The dragon who kidnapped the princess, eh. Tell me, what is your name?

            “Gawain.”

            His eyes opened wider still. “I see.”

            “What do you see?” Gawain asked him.

            “Nothing, it’s only a manner of speaking. Now allow me to introduce myself. I am Merlin.”

            Now it was the boy’s eyes which opened wide. “The magician?”

            “Himself,” Merlin smiled.

            “Can you help me, Merlin?”

            Merlin sighed and the smile disappeared from his lips. “That depends, boy, it depends a lot,” he said.

            “On what?”

            “On what kind of help you want.”

            “I want to know where the princess and the dragon are.”

            “Nothing else?”

            “No,” Gawain answered, “nothing else.”

            “You don’t want me to rescue the princess too, by any chance?”

            “Of course not,” Gawain answered firmly. “I will do that.”

            The smile returned to Merlin’s face. “And do you think you can do it alone?”

            “Of course,” the boy said, somewhat offended. “Why not?”

            “Why not?” Merlin scratched his beard. “Yes, why not indeed?”

            “Do you know where they are?” Gawain asked again.

            “Yes and no,” the magician answered.

            “What do you mean?” Gawain said, annoyed. “Either you know or you don’t.”

            “Things aren’t always that simple, son. It could be that I know a part but not all. Understand?”

            “No.”

            “Well,” Merlin began patiently, “suppose I knew where they where going but didn’t know if they arrived. Do you understand now?

            “Where were they going?” Gawain asked impatiently.

            “The magician’s eyes changed from green to black. “I suppose you know that the dragon is a ferocious, cruel animal.”

            “Sure,” Gawain said, feeling secure way up on Blanca’s back.

            Merlin grew until his eyes were level with Gawain’s. “And you know that he has only one weakness.”

            “S..sure.”

            “Good. Then all I have to do is tell you where they were going, right?”

            “Right,” Gawain said, wondering what the dragon’s only weakness could be.

            “That way,” Merlin said, pointing to the west with an enormously elongated finger.

            Gawain looked in that direction and jerked the reins to make his horse turn, but stopped suddenly and, turning back to Merlin, asked: “What is the dragon’s only weakness, Mr. Merlin. I forgot.

            “You forgot, eh?” Merlin chuckled. “The dragon’s only weakness is that he is a fool -- and it seems that you suffer from the same weakness.”

            Gawain blushed, hung his head, then looked Merlin in the eye and said, “Thank you”. He galloped off westward in pursuit of the dragon and the princess.

           

It was almost noon when Gawain, approaching a clearing in the forest, heard the princess’s voice. He reined Blanca in abruptly, dismounted and went on foot to the clearing. What he saw when he reached it made him catch his breath.

            At the other end of the round clearing the princess sat on the ground singing. A brown and red dragon listened attentively. What could it mean? Gawain asked himself. Suddenly the dragon lifted its snout  and sniffed the air. “I smell the blood of an Englishman,” he snarled.

            Realizing that he was about to be discovered, Gawain drew his sword and leaped into the middle of the clearing shouting: “I am the Englishmen you smell, evil dragon. Gawain, the white falcon!”

            The dragon blinked as though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

            “Gawain!” Princess Gunver cried, jumping to her feet, “what are you doing here?”

            “I came to rescue you,” the boy said, surprised that she didn’t know.

            “Rescue me from what?”

            “From what? From the dragon, of course.”

            “Oh, thank you,” Gunver smiled. “But that won’t be necessary. The dragon will take me home once I’ve finished singing.”

            Bewildered, Gawain looked at the dragon, who had not moved.

            “Is it a good dragon then?” he asked Gunver.

            “I think so.”

            “Tell me,” Gawain shouted at the beast, “are you a good dragon?”

            On hearing this the dragon thumped his tail on the ground, making it shake. “A good dragon?” he thundered, offended. “Everyone knows that all dragons are bad.”

            “But...but you haven’t eaten the princess and I thought...”

            “Not yet!” the dragon interrupted.

            “Are you going to eat me?” Gunver exclaimed, horrified.

            “Naturally, and soon, when I’m hungrier. I haven’t done it yet because I like music and we dragons can’t sing.” He shook his enormous head and scratched his scales with a razor-sharp claw. “So please don’t call me good!”

            Gawain raised his sword, pushed Princess Gunver behind him and said: “I see that I have not come in vain. I will slay you, cruel dragon!”

            “With that?” the dragon asked, meaning the wooden sword. “Watch that tree.” He pointed with his claw at a tall oak adorned with spheres of mistletoe. Then he blew fire from his nose and the tree was reduced to a pile of ashes. Gawain stepped back and looked at his poor sword while the dragon scoffed: “What do you say now, dragon-killer?”

            Gawain realized that he had no chance of defeating the dragon with his sword and lance, and if he tried he would be reduced to a pile of ashes. “What should I do?” he pondered. Then he remembered Merlin’s words: The dragon has only one weakness--he’s a fool.

            “You’re right,” he said to the dragon, containing his fear. “I can’t kill you alone, so I’ll wait for the other knights to arrive. They should be here soon.”      

            “Other knights?” the dragon snarled. “What other knights?”

            “The knights who are coming to rescue the princess, of course.”

            “Ha! I have already defeated ten knights at once,” the dragon said proudly. “Do you know what was left of them?”

            “Ashes?”

            “Unfortunately, yes, which meant that I couldn’t eat them.”

            “You are a very powerful dragon. The thousand knights who are on their way will not cause you any problem,” Gawain said, although he knew that in such a short time King Arthur couldn’t have gathered more than a dozen.

            “What? Did you say a thousand?” The dragon scratched his scales, which meant he was thinking. “They don’t know where I am.”

            “If I knew why shouldn’t they?”

            “That’s true,” the dragon said, worried now. “How did you know?”

            “A magician told me.”

            “A magician?”

            “Yes, Merlin, who is telling the others right now.”

            “ Who cares?” the dragon growled. “After I’ve eaten you and this plump princess I will have the strength to defeat ten thousand knights.”

            “I don’t agree, dragon, because the knights are led by my father, the king of the Orkney Islands, and Arthur, who is the king of England and Princess Gunver’s father. They have a lot of experience fighting dragons.”

            “Have they really fought against dragons?”

            “Of course. How do you think they got to be kings.”

             The dragon scratched his scales and rumbled. “Well, I’m going to eat you two just in case. Besides, I’m hungry.”

            “If you do we’ll all die,” Gawain said. “I have a better idea.”

            “You do? What is it?”

            “Come over here.” The boy led the dragon to the edge of the clearing, where Gunver couldn’t hear them.

            “We’ll pretend that I killed you,” Gawain whispered, and the dragon had to bend his long neck down to hear. “When the knights come they’ll take the princess away without paying any attention to you because they’ll think you’re dead. Then you can escape.”

            “But how---?”

            Suddenly they heard voices and cries coming from the forest.

            “They’re coming,” Gawain said urgently. “We must hurry. But if I help you, you must promise never to return to this part of the country.”

            “But what are we going to do?”

            “Do you promise that after escaping you will never return?” Gawain insisted.

            “Yes, yes, I promise. Now tell me what we’re going to do.”

            “I go to one end of the clearing and you go to the opposite end. Then I attack you with my lance. It won’t even scratch you of course, but at my signal you fall down as though dead and I put my foot on your back. The princess will witness it all and will tell the knights that you are dead. Get it?”

            “Yes,” the dragon replied, scratching furiously, “I think so.”

            “Once on the ground,” Gawain continued, “you mustn’t open your eyes under any circumstance, or they’ll realize that you’re not dead and the thousand knights will stick you with their lances until you’re dead for real. Do you understand?”

            The sound of riders came nearer, almost upon them.

            “Yes, let’s start,” the dragon urged. He was shaking from snout to tail at the thought of the thousand knights piercing his leathery body with their steel lances.

            Gawain walked quickly over to the princess. “Give me your kerchief, Gunver,” he said. “Knights always carry their lady’s kerchief when they go into battle.”

            “But Gawain,” Gunver protested, “he’ll incinerate you.”

            “Not if I kill him first,” Gawain smiled, taking the pink silk kerchief that the princess offered him and tying it around his arm.

            He mounted Blanca, drew his wooden lance and charged the dragon who opened his enormous jaws and roared ferociously. Gawain knew that his lance would break like a dry twig against the dragon’s scales, so at the last moment he leaned towards the right and passed without touching his opponent.

            “Fall down!” he whispered as he passed, and the dragon -- an excellent actor -- gave a desperate cry as though he were mortally wounded, and collapsed, causing the earth to tremble.

            Gawain dismounted, climbed up onto the dragon’s back and, raising his sword, cried: “You are saved, princess!”

            At that moment four knights charged into the clearing from the forest. They were Gawain’s father, King Arthur and the only other two knights Arthur had been able to recruit at such short notice.

            “Gawain!” his father shouted on seeing his son standing on the dragon. “What happened? Is the dragon dead?”

            “The princess has been rescued,” Gawain answered solemnly, thereby avoiding a lie.

            The dragon, after playing dead until he was sure that all of the thousand knights who had come to kill him were gone, fled from England and never returned.

 

Seven years later, when King Arthur was forming his round table of knights, one of the first to be selected was Sir Gawain, whose fame as a dragon-killer and rescuer of damsels had already been well established.


© Frank Thomas Smith - May be reproduced electronically if source given.

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