This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
Everything was different, somehow, at King Arthur’s court since the coming of Sir Galahad. The knights were all vowed, now, to the search for the Holy Grail, which had disappeared from the castle of King Pelles when Sir Galahad went away. Who had taken it, everybody asked each other; but no one could give a reply. Had it really been carried through the banqueting hall the night that Sir Galahad had taken his place upon the Perilous Seat? Or was it only a dream, a vision, that the knights had seen? If it were a vision, would any of them see it again? They could not answer these questions, but, one and all, they sought for the Shining Cup for the rest of their lives.
Joseph and the Rich Fisher had long ago passed away, you see, and perhaps they alone knew what the Holy Grail really was. The strange old minstrel with the two bright snakes around his neck knew just a little, but not everything. He wore the snakes to show that he belonged to the old, old order of bards — the men who were something like priests and who sang stories of great nations and greater kings. His song of the Holy Grail was written down in the little book that he must have found in Merlin’s mysterious house, with the seventy windows and the sixty doors. For Merlin was one of these bards himself and very likely wore bright snakes about his neck as he came and went at King Arthur’s court, though we are not exactly told that he ever did. But, then, we are by no means told all that happened in those days, and, if we were, perhaps we should not believe it.
This we do know, however, that all the knights who searched for the lost Grail Cup knew that they had no chance of finding it or even catching a glimpse of it in a vision, unless they were perfectly good and true and pure and without reproach. So all of them tried hard to be so, and, though none of them ever quite succeeded, the very trying made their lives beautiful — just as shining and beautiful as the silver armor they wore and the spears and swords that they carried in their hands.
They still met at the Round Table, still passed the Cup of Fellowship from hand to hand, but the king, as he sat among them, felt that he was growing old. His eyes were heavy, often, and his feet and hands were tired. And, one day, he was obliged to go into battle against an enemy when he was too weary to fight. He was struck down and wounded, and his faithful knights carried him to a quiet grassy place in a meadow, near which rippled the shining waters of a great lake.
King Arthur lay on the moss with his fingers on the handle of his sword Excalibur, and his followers stood around him with sad faces, for they thought that death was about to take their beloved king. But he himself knew better. He smiled as he lay there, and his face was very bright. Lifting himself up a little, he looked towards the waters of the lake and then he beckoned to a knight who was called Sir Bedivere.
“Take my sword Excalibur,” said he. “Throw it as far as you can fling it towards the center of the lake. Then come back and tell me what happens.”
Sir Bedivere took the sword and carried it to the edge of the lake. Night was falling, and the moon was brightening above the quiet hills. In the moonlight, the jewels in the handle of Excalibur looked very rich and beautiful — so rich and so beautiful that Sir Bedivere felt he could not bear to throw the sword into the water. He hid it all among the forget-me-nots and meadow-sweet and went, empty-handed, back to the king.
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“Did you throw the sword into the lake?” asked Arthur eagerly.
“Yes, sire,” answered Sir Bedivere boldly.
“Nothing happened, sire!”
The king lay back again with a groan.
“Faithless messenger!” he said. “You have not thrown the sword! Go! Do as I command.”
Again Sir Bedivere went, but again the beauty of Excalibur overcame him. He returned to the king and declared that he had flung the sword into the water, but still nothing had happened.
Arthur looked at him steadily, and his eyes made Sir Bedivere afraid.
“You are not speaking the truth!” cried the king. “Go! Do as I command!”
His voice was very strong and stern, and at last Bedivere obeyed. Hurrying to the water’s edge, he took Excalibur in his hand again, without daring to look at its beauty. The rubies and sapphires and diamonds of the handle flashed as he flung it far, far into the lake. Just as it was about to strike the water, a white hand and arm, clothed in a shining sleeve, rose above the ripples, and the outstretched fingers caught the sword by the hilt. Three times the hand waved Excalibur in the moonlight — then both arm and sword disappeared below the water, and all was still.
Breathless and awed, Sir Bedivere went back to the king and told what he had seen.
“It is well!” said Arthur. “Carry me to the lake!”
So his knights lifted him and carried him gently across the moonlit grass, until they came to the water’s edge. As they walked in slow procession, they saw a dim ship, like a dark barge, coming from the middle of the lake towards the bank. Many ladies, shadowy in the pale light, were seated in it, with their heads bowed upon their hands. All of them were hooded, and three, who wore crowns upon their heads, looked like queens.
Then the king bade the knights lay him in the barge, and they did so and gave him into the care of the three queens. Down from the hills swept a great wind — and it seemed as if the sound of sobbing and wailing was in its cold breath. The clouds rushed across the moon and the water of the lake looked black and terrible as the barge began to move away from the land. The knights stood upon the bank and watched as if they were in a dream.
Then, even as they watched, the darkness went away. Far, far off, right away, as it were, beyond the mere, little shining islands began to show, bright and beautiful, and for all the world like sunset clouds. All the knights had heard of these islands and knew that they were called the Isles of the Blest. In the very center of them was the fairest of all, named Avalon. Its valleys were fragrant with flowers, and in its orchard grew trees that bore golden apples. It seemed to the knights that the barge with the three fairy queens and the weary human king sailed right up to the shores of Avalon and that a number of bright and beautiful people came to meet it. Then the whole vision faded. Nothing was left but the lake, and the moonlit meadows, and the memory of the great and only king of the Round Table.
But some people say that Arthur lives and is happy in Avalon to this day and that there he has met Joseph, and the Rich Fisher, and his old wise teacher, Merlin, the great magician.
They say, too, that it is in Avalon that the Silver Table is hidden, on which stands the Shining Cup, and that the mysterious feast is held there every evening, which fills all the guests with joy and amazement, just as they were filled with joy and amazement hundreds of years ago on that Christmas Day when Joseph’s staff broke into blossom at Glastonbury.