Long, long ago King Arthur held court all over the place.
There were three royal cities in Britain, and he traveled between the three, ruling here, ruling there.
His favourite, the place where he spent Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, was Gelliwig – Callington to you and me.
Caradoc, born in Brittany, was sent to Arthur's court to learn to be a knight. He learnt to... ...handle a hawk for hunting, ...balance and thrust with a sword and spear ...ride like the wind ...respect the ladies ...be courteous and sensible and ...never, ever boast.... When Caradoc was 15, Arthur held a ceremony to knight 50 lads. Caradoc was one.
The ceremony took place at the festival of Whitsun; the time when the hedgerows turn white, wild garlic grows in the shade and cow parsley in the sun. Caradoc looked incredibly handsome dressed in his linen shirt, white robe silk embroidered with gold, and ermine trimmed mantle. Sir Gawain put a spur on Caradoc’s right foot, Sir Yvain fastened on his left spur and Arthur blessed him. “Dear nephew, may God in his grace make you a brave man.”
Caradoc was a bit too brave sometimes, as we shall see. The lads were given swords and made knights – and then the feast began. The court was midway through the sumptuous feast when a knight on a grey horse rode through the door. He was dressed in a grey ermine cloak and big hat. Round his waist a silk belt held a razor sharp sword. He rode right up to King Arthur.
“Your Majesty, may God protect you, the best and greatest king on earth. I have come to ask you for a gift, if you would give it to me.”
“Welcome my friend” replied the King,” I’m sure I won’t refuse your request.”
“The gift that I ask is to receive a blow to the neck in exchange for another.”
“Explain…” “I will give my prized sword to a Knight. If he can cut off my head with a single stroke, let him strike away. If I can recover from this blow, let him accept one from me in a year’s time.”
“I wouldn’t do it for all the gold in Normandy” said Sir Kay. “Any man would be a fool to strike you on those terms.”
But it was bad manners for a king to refuse a request for a gift from a visitor. Now we would say “You must be joking.” Now we would say,” On your bike and begone.” (or on your horse for that matter). But Arthur could not refuse. He hesitated and the visitor insisted: “If you refuse me this little gift it will be reported through all the world.” At that the stranger drew his sword, and it glinted in the early summer sunlight.
There was a deathly silence. All the knights wondered what trick was afoot. No knight relished the task at hand, yet no one wanted to see Arthur dishonour a guest by refusing a gift request. Caradoc, the new knight, rushed forward. The stranger started slightly as Caradoc stepped forward, seeing in the young knight’s face an echo of his own. “Have you been chosen as the best Knight?” the stranger asked. “Certainly not, just the biggest fool.” With that the stranger leaned over and rested his head on the table.
Sir Yvain rushed forward to seize the sword from Caradoc’s hands but Caradoc held fast, raised the sword and delivered such a blow that the sword plunged in the table. The stranger’s head flew off – but the stranger’s body chased after the stranger’s head, picked it up and put it back in its proper strange place. “Your Majesty” said the stranger, as everyone gazed in astonishment. ” Keep your part of the bargain. As I have received a neck blow, so your Knight must receive one from me, here, one year from today.”
So the year went by.
Arthur and his court travelled round Britain, Caradoc with them. Arthur was sad and troubled all year, Caradoc’s parents in despair. Many a tear was shed at court for the young Knight and the fate awaiting him at the edge of the stranger’s sword. Caradoc appeared untroubled. Instead he threw himself into knightly life, performing many deeds of valour and bravery. He comforted the King. “Give up your sorrow, uncle, it all lays in the hands of God.” The year turned from Michaelmas, Christmas, Easter and back to Whitsun again. The court moved round the kingdom, then returned to its Whitsun home at Gelliwig.
As day followed night, festival followed festival, Caradoc knew he could not escape his fate.
The hedgerows bloomed white, wild garlic and cow parsley, and the young knight’s heart grew grey, troubled at his fate. The court assembled, the stranger arrived, his sword shining at his side in its silk band.
“Caradoc, come forward and you’ll get your reward.” Caradoc leapt forward but the king held up his hand.
“Stranger, I offer you a ransom for Caradoc’s life – all the gold and silver plate and a knight’s armour if you will free him.”
The stranger shook his head. “I don’t accept, I will cut off his head…”
“I will offer you all the precious stones in this country, no, in all my Kingdom.”
“I don’t accept, I will cut off his head.”
Then the Queen stepped forward, pleading, “Accept the ransom, free the knight.”
“I don’t accept, I will cut off his head."
Caradoc leapt forward and put his head on the table.
The stranger raised his sword – And struck Caradoc with the flat of its blade, and did the young knight no harm.
“Do you know why I did you no harm? You are my son and I am your father.” The stranger was the Evil Enchanter, and told Caradoc the truth about his birth – but the young knight didn’t believe him, and sent him on his way.
There was great joy in Arthur’s court that Caradoc had kept his head. It stayed firmly on his shoulders for many a year to come.
retold by Sue Field