A brilliant boxing match, quicksilver in its motions, transpiring far more rapidly than the mind can absorb, can have the power that Emily Dickinson attributed to great poetry: you know it’s great when it takes the top of your head off.—Joyce Carol Oates, 1987
Cliges crossed the sea and reached Wallingford, where he took expensive lodgings in fine quarters. While he was staying there, his men carried out his commands and made inquiries, finally receiving information that the barons of King Arthur had organized a tournament at which the king himself would be present.
The four-day tournament was scheduled to take place in the open country below Oxford, which was near Wallingford. Because the tournament was more than two full weeks away, Cliges could take his time equipping himself in the interval if he was in need of anything. He had three of his squires hasten to London under orders to fetch three different sets of armor, one black, one vermilion, and the third green. In addition, he ordered that each set be wrapped in new canvas for the return journey so that anyone meeting them along the road would not know the color of the equipment they carried.
The squires set out at once. On reaching London, all they sought they found at hand. Soon they had completed their task, and soon they returned home, traveling as quickly as they could.
Cliges was delighted when they showed him the equipment they had brought. He had it placed aside and hidden along with the set the emperor had presented to him when, by the Danube, he dubbed him knight. If someone were to question me at this point as to why he had them set aside, I would not wish to answer here, for the reason will be told and recounted to you when all the great barons of the land, who come there to win honor, have mounted their horses.
On the day selected and appointed, the esteemed barons gathered. King Arthur, in company with the men he had selected from among his finest, took up positions on the Oxford side. The majority of knights took up positions on the Wallingford side. Do not expect me to extend my tale by telling you such and such a king was there, and such and such a count, and there were these here, and those ones, and these others.
When the time came for the barons to gather, a knight of great renown from the company of King Arthur, following the custom at that time, rode out between the two ranks to open the tournament. But none dared advance to come joust with him; all held back. And there were some who asked, “What are the knights waiting for that none leaves the ranks? One will start out soon.”
And many on the other side said, “Do you not see the kind of opponent their side has sent us? Let the ignorant man know well that the knight in position is one of the four finest known.”
“Who is he then?”
“Do you not see him? It is Sagremor the Unruly.”
“Is that he?”
“Yes, without doubt.”
Cliges was listening and heard their words. Clad in armor blacker than a ripe mulberry, he was seated on Morel; all his equipment was black. Leaving the ranks of the other side, he spurred Morel, who darted forward. All the spectators spoke among themselves. “This man rides well, his lance in its rest. This is a most proper knight. He carries his arms most properly. The shield hanging from his neck suits him well. But he may be considered a fool for engaging of his own accord in a joust with one of the finest men known in this entire country. But where is he from? Where was he born? Who recognizes him?” “Not I.” “Nor I. But no snow has fallen on him.”
Such conversation engaged the people, and the two men gave free rein to their horses, no longer hesitating in their burning impatience for the joust and combat. Cliges delivered such a blow that he pressed his opponent’s shield hard against the arm and the arm against the body. Sagremor fell flat to the ground. Sagremor acknowledged himself his prisoner.
The combat began at once, with adversaries charging at one another in keen competition. Cliges threw himself into the contest, seeking to meet someone to joust with. He did not encounter a knight before him whom he failed to unhorse and take prisoner. From both sides he took the honor. Wherever he rode to joust, he brought the tournament to conclusion. Whoever rushed forward to joust with him was not without great valor; rather, that man won more renown just in waiting for him than in taking another knight prisoner. And if Cliges led his opponent away prisoner, the latter was still highly regarded simply for daring to await him in the joust. The honor and renown of the entire tournament belonged to Cliges.
The next morning, without need of summons or entreaty, they all took up arms again. Lancelot of the Lake, who was not fainthearted, dashed forward to engage in the opening joust. Lancelot was the first to await the joust. And Cliges, greener than meadow grass, came riding a fawn charger with a fine mane. Where Cliges rode his fawn steed, there was no one, with hair or without, who did not gaze on him with awe. Both sides exclaimed, “This man is much more noble and skillful in every respect than that man yesterday in black armor, just as the pine is more beautiful than the hornbeam and the laurel more beautiful than the elder. But we still have not learned the identity of yesterday’s knight. Yet we shall know the identity of this one today. Let anyone who knows him tell us his name.”
Each man declared not to know him or, he believed, ever to have seen him. But he was more handsome than yesterday’s knight and more handsome than Lancelot of the Lake. Had he been dressed in a sack and Lancelot in silver or gold, this man would still be the more handsome. All sided with Cliges.
Match between gladiators, Roman mosaic, c. 325. © Galleria Borghese, Rome. Alinari, The Bridgeman Art Library International.
The two men came charging at each other, spurring as fast as they could. Cliges went and dealt Lancelot such a blow to the gold-trimmed shield with the painted lion that he knocked him from the saddle and swooped down on him to accept his surrender. Unable to defend himself, Lancelot acknowledged himself his prisoner.
Behold the tournament now begun with the clamor and commotion of lances. Those on the side of Cliges placed all their trust in him, for whoever he challenged and struck had never enough strength to prevent himself from falling from his charger to the ground.
Cliges performed well that day: he unhorsed and took prisoner so many that he took twice the honor and gave his men twice the pleasure he had the day before.
The following morning, the strong and agile knights donned their armor again. From the ranks on the Oxford side emerged a vassal of great renown named Perceval of Wales. When Cliges saw him advance and heard his identity, that he was called Perceval, he was anxious to challenge him.
Clad in vermilion armor, Cliges immediately rode forward from the ranks on a chestnut-brown Spanish charger. Then all watched him with even more awe than before and exclaimed that they had never seen such a captivating knight. Without a moment’s delay, the two men spurred on until they exchanged heavy blows on their shields. The short, thick lances curved and bent. Within sight of all the spectators, Cliges dealt Perceval such a blow that he knocked him from his horse and forced him to acknowledge himself his prisoner without much talk and without much ado.
After Perceval offered his pledge, the tournament then began and everyone charged. Cliges forced every knight he met to fall to the ground. That day he could not be seen absent from the combat for a single hour. In the tournament, all struck at him as they would at a tower, though not in twos or threes, for such was not the custom or practice at that time. His shield became an anvil because all pounded and hammered there, splitting and quartering it. But none struck without paying the price and vacating saddle and stirrups. None leaving could fail to admit, unless willing to lie, that the entire victory that day belonged to the knight with the red shield.
But now the men realized that they had all been defeated and routed by a single man, who disguised himself daily with a fresh horse and armor, thus appearing to be a different person. This was the first time they perceived this. Sir Gawain declared never to have seen such a jouster, and because he wished to make his acquaintance and know his name, he said that he would be first at the next morning’s meeting of knights. He did not boast, yet he thought and believed that the knight would have all the advantage and glory when their lances struck, though perhaps in their sword exchange the knight would not be his master, since in this area Gawain himself could not find his better. Now it was his wish to measure himself the next day against the strange knight who had different armor and changed his horse and harness each day. If he continued his daily habit of taking off his old feathers and putting on new ones, he would soon molt for the fourth time.
In this fashion Cliges took off his armor and put on new equipment again. And the next morning Gawain saw him return, whiter than a lily in bloom, gripping his shield by the straps and riding his rested, white Arabian steed, which he had harnessed during the night. Gawain, the brave and the renowned, did not stop on the field, but spurred and rode forward, doing the best he could to joust well if he found an opponent. Soon the two men would be on the field, for Cliges had no care to stay behind, hearing men uttering, “That is Gawain. He is no weakling on horseback or on foot. No one is his equal.”
Hearing the words, Cliges rushed toward him in the center of the field. They advanced and sprang at each other faster than stags who hear dogs barking in pursuit. The lances struck the shields with such clanging blows that the lances split, cracked, and flew into pieces all the way to the butt ends, the cantles broke, and the saddlegirths and breaststraps snapped. Both knights fell to the ground at the same time, then drew their naked swords, while men gathered all around to watch the combat.
One great reason why many children abandon themselves wholly to silly sports and trifle away all their time insipidly is because they have found their curiosity baulked and their inquiries neglected.—John Locke, 1693
In order to separate the pair and bring about accord, King Arthur advanced in front of all. But before the slightest talk of peace, the two fighters had torn apart their hauberks and ripped the meshes to pieces, cleft through the shields and cut them to bits, and smashed the helmets.
When the king had watched them as long as it was his pleasure, as did many others who said that they esteemed the white knight’s feats of arms no less than those of Sir Gawain, none could still declare who was better, who worse, or who should be the victor if they were permitted to fight to the finish. But it did not suit King Arthur that they do more than they had done. Stepping forward to separate them, he said to them, “Withdraw! I forbid more blows. Instead, make peace. Be friends. Dear nephew Gawain, I beg this of you, for it does not befit a worthy man to continue a battle or assault where no hatred or dispute exists. But were this knight willing to come to my court to sport with us, he should meet no pain or sorrow. Entreat him, nephew.”
Having no desire to decline the invitation, Cliges, who had carried out his father’s command to the fullest, agreed to proceed there at the end of the tournament.
The king expressed his will that the tournament not continue too long. At that moment they could well have ended it.
©1990 by Indiana University Press. Used with permission of Indiana University Press.
From Cliges. Author of some of the earliest extant Arthurian romances, Chrétien wrote in vernacular French. He was widely emulated, his work providing source material in the fourteenth century for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also translated Ovid’s Art of Love and Cures of Love.