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The quest of the fair un.., p.18
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       The Quest of the Fair Unknown, p.18

           Gerald Morris
 
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  "Do you like it?" Guinglain asked. "It's very warm."

  "You look like a holy man," Gawain said, distaste in his voice.

  "I think it suits you very well," Terence said. "Shall we eat?" He produced some food from their gear, but before they could begin on it, they were interrupted by a loud knock. The door swung open to reveal a tall, broad-shouldered woman in peasant's clothes, who was holding a sturdy, glowering boy by the hand. "Hello?" she called out in a grating voice.

  "Hello," Guinglain replied.

  "Good! They told me in t'village that there wasn't no hermit anymore, but I came to see for meself, them bein' all knocks-in-the-cradles. I needed a holy man, you see."

  "You've come to see the hermit?" Guinglain said.

  "Ay, I've come to see you."

  "Me? But ... I..."

  "I know you're not t'same hermit as was here before, which is a pity, because he was a right one, but you'll do." At that, the woman jerked the boy's arm, nearly lifting him from his feet. The boy clamped his jaw shut and glowered at the ground. "It's this bewitched son of mine!" she snapped. "He won't mind me at all! Don't seem to matter how hard I beat him, either. He's a child of wickedness is what he is, so I brought him to you! Do ye think he has a devil?"

  Guinglain looked at the boy's sullen face, and his heart grew strangely warm. "I'll speak to him, mistress," he said gravely. "And see if I find a devil in him." From the corner of his eye, he saw Gawain and Terence blinking at him, but he only smiled. Stepping forward, he took the boy's hand firmly from his mother's and led him briskly outside. As soon as the door was closed, he released the boy's hand. "Sorry if I was rough," he said. "I thought I needed to be firm, or your mother wouldn't have let go. What's your name?"

  "Bert," the boy muttered.

  "Well, Bert, why don't you come with me over behind those trees?"

  "What're ye going to do?"

  "Get out of the wind. I wonder if there's a stream back there. There has to be some water around somewhere. Come and help me look."

  They went together into the woods until they found a brook spilling into a small pool. Guinglain dipped his face into the pool and drank. Bert just watched him.

  "Are ye going to beat me?" he asked suddenly.

  "Much good that would do," Guinglain said with a laugh. "I'll wager you can take any beating, and without crying at that."

  "Well, I can, too," Bert said belligerently. "But the other hermit whipped me when Momma brought me to him."

  "And look what good it did," Guinglain said mildly. He shook his head and added, "I couldn't punish you anyway. You know how your mother called you a 'child of wickedness'?"

  "She's always calling me that."

  "Well, I'm one too."

  "What?" Bert looked up, his eyes wide.

  Guinglain nodded. "God's truth. Not three days ago I was in a great castle, and an old king held out his hand and told me so. 'Child of wickedness'—those very words! So how could I punish you?"

  "How can a holy man be a child of wickedness?" Bert asked suspiciously.

  "Well, the thing is, I don't try to be wicked. It just happens, I guess. So I keep trying to do better, and maybe that's enough for a beginner. The hermit who used to beat you, he must have been just about perfect himself or he couldn't have done that, but I'm not like him. I'm more like you."

  "You're like me?"

  "Just like you. I don't try to do wrong, exactly, but I don't like obeying commands that I think are stupid or wrong, so I end up making people mad at me. I guess you and I are children of wickedness together."

  Bert stared at Guinglain, speechless.

  Guinglain grinned at him. "There ought to be a guild for people like us. You know, the Noble Order of Children of Wickedness, or something like that. There might even be a few more of us about."

  Bert thought this over. "My sister Gussie's pretty wicked."

  Guinglain nodded. "Yes, this would have to be a guild for both boys and girls. And it wouldn't just be common folks like us. I know an earl's daughter named Ellyn who could show us all a thing or two."

  "A guild!" Bert said excitedly. "And we can use your hermitage as our guild hall!"

  Guinglain felt a sudden stab of remorse, as he realized that Bert had taken his banter—meant only to reassure the boy—more seriously than he had intended. "Well, Bert, it's not really my hermitage, you know," he said.

  "But you will stay, won't you?" Bert asked, his eyes bright. "The other hermit's gone. And we could have meetings, and even a treasury."

  This took Guinglain by surprise. "Treasury? But I don't have any—"

  "I do!" Bert said triumphantly. He jammed his grubby fist into his shirt and produced a shiny gray blob. "This is a lump of real iron that Smithy in t'village let me have. If you hold it right, it looks just like Father Gerald from the church. See? This shiny bit's the top of his head."

  Guinglain began to laugh. It was as if a bubble had suddenly burst inside, and a light, airy joy had been released, filling him from his toes to his ears. He laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes, and for some time he couldn't speak. Bert stood his ground, but he watched Guinglain's paroxysm nervously. At last, though, Guinglain was able to reply. "Yes, Bert. I'm staying," he said. "And I have some treasures, too. I have a white feather as long as your arm, a bird's nest, and a really great black stone." Bert looked impressed, and Guinglain took a deep breath, savoring the cold air. "Come on then, Bert," he said. "We should go back to your mother."

  As they stepped into the hermitage, Guinglain grasped Bert's arm roughly. Bert met his eye, then nodded and assumed such a woefully contrite expression that Guinglain had to struggle not to burst into laughter again. "Ma'am," Guinglain said briskly. "I've spoken to your boy here. He is a stubborn case, but I think he may do better now."

  "He'd better," the woman said.

  "I don't promise that he's healed, mind you," Guinglain added. "You may very well have to bring him to me again."

  Bert's mother nodded with satisfaction. "You'll give him a taste of what he deserves, then?"

  "Exactly what I intend, ma'am," Guinglain said, with all the sternness he could muster.

  Bert's mother took her son by his other arm and marched him out of the hermitage. Guinglain called over her shoulder, "I hope you've learned something today, Bert!"

  "I have, sir!" the boy replied earnestly, but when his mother wasn't looking, he looked back and gave his new friend a private smile.

  Guinglain stood in the doorway watching the two cross the unkempt clearing. He became aware that Terence was at his side. "You're staying, then?" he asked, but it wasn't really a question.

  "I've a fancy to become a holy man," Guinglain replied.

  "You're mad," Gawain said, joining them.

  "Yes," Guinglain replied. "That should help, don't you think?"

  Just then Bert's mother stopped and turned back toward them. "Pardon me, but I don't know your name, sir. The others in the village ought to know we've a new hermit, but I don't know what name to tell them."

  Guinglain nodded. "Tell them that I'm Brother Guinglain."

  "Brother Guinglain," the woman repeated. Then she turned back and continued away.

  "Guinglain?" asked Gawain, his voice strained. "Where did that name come from?"

  Guinglain looked at his friend curiously. "I picked it up on my quest," he replied. "I thought I'd see what I could make of it. Why? Don't you like it?"

  Gawain shook his head dazedly. "It's not that," he said. "It's just that ... it's my grandfather's name, a good man. I always used to say that if I ever had a son myself, I would call him that."

  Then Beaufils understood, and looking into Gawain's eyes saw the same revelation dawning there. For a long moment, father and son grinned wordlessly at each other. At last, Terence broke the silence.

  "Now I see why Father has shown so much interest in you," he said. "And you're still going to stay here? Are you now done with all your questing?"

  Guinglain chuc
kled. "Oh no. I think everything I've done up to this point has been preparation. I'm just now ready to start."

  Half an hour later, Gawain and Terence took a fond farewell of Guinglain, promising to be back soon. Then the knight and the squire rode back to the king's court, and the holy man went to sit by the fire in stillness and begin his quest. He didn't exactly know what he was looking for, but he knew what to call it: the Fair Unknown.

  * * *

  Author's Note

  At the height of the Middle Ages, if you were a poet or storyteller, then the chances were that you wrote about King Arthur and his court. It was just what you did. Medieval bards who wanted to tell adventure tales told about Arthurian knights on quests, slaying dragons and defeating recreant knights. The ones who preferred love stories told about Arthur's knights and their ladies. Some of the stories were masterpieces, and some were very bad, but they all took place in King Arthur's court.

  Sometimes, even people who didn't want to tell stories at all latched onto the Arthurian world. At any rate, this seems to have happened in an anonymous French book called the Queste del Saint Graal—The Quest of the Holy Grail. The author of this book—most people think he was a thirteenth-century monk—wasn't really interested in Arthur or his knights. He just used them as scenery for his real purpose: to describe the spiritual quest for God. This the Queste does with allegories and symbolic dream interpretations by the cartload, a lot of inaccurate but imaginative history, and, distressingly often, with sermons. You can hardly read a page without encountering one of the holy hermits who lurk behind every other tree and getting yet another sermon proclaimed at you.

  For his spiritual allegory, the author of the Queste wanted an irreproachable hero, but since all of Arthur's celebrated knights were known to have broken at least one of the Commandments (generally the same one), he had to invent his own: Galahad. This hero is such a vessel of virtue that we have to admire him, or at least ought to. It is hard to like the fellow, though. So when I took up the story of the Queste, I imported my own hero, an innocent fellow named Beaufils, from a cheerful, rambling Middle English romance called Lybeau Desconus, which means something like "the Fair Unknown."

  In this book, then, I've woven together several different stories. The parts about Galahad and Bors all came from the Queste, although some of Bors's adventures were originally about other characters, and the episodes that focus on Beaufils, Ellyn, Lady Synadona, and the Necromancer are all from Lybeau. I even tossed in one extra story, a brief English romance about Sir Gawain called "The Carl of Carlisle." No particular reason; I just like the story.

  Starting out with a monastic allegory has made this book a bit different from my earlier Arthurian retellings, but it has also given me a chance to show another side of my chosen time period. The Middle Ages was a profoundly, and sometimes oppressively, religious time. There really were hermits and monasteries and priests and little churches scattered about everywhere; there really were anchoresses (such as the wonderful Julian of Norwich) who shut themselves in tiny cells, finding joy in their solitude. In my earlier books, I've had heroes who were squires, ladies, pages, minstrels, knights, and fools, and to be fair to the medieval world, I really needed a religious hero too. And, while my holy man might not have passed muster at a real thirteenth-century monastery, the Queste itself encourages those who start this journey to make their own path.

  That evening they considered how best they might proceed, and agreed to separate the following day and go their several ways, for it would redound to their shame if they rode in a band together ... Then they rode out from the castle and separated as they had decided amongst themselves, striking out into the forest one here, one there, wherever they saw it thickest and wherever path or track was absent.

  Queste del Saint Graal

  —Gerald Morris

  * * *

 


 

  Gerald Morris, The Quest of the Fair Unknown

 


 

 
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