King Arthur and the Unicorn
Taken from the fourteenth century romance Le Chevalier Papegau
In his youth King Arthur once went sailing alone in search of adventure. He was overtaken by a storm that blew him far off course and ended up stranded on a lonely shore with his ship stuck fast on a sandbank. Gazing along the rugged coast, the only sign of habitation was a single square, red tower at the edge of a forest. So Arthur made his way there to seek help.
It was a strange tower with no doors or windows. At first there was no reply to his calls. Then a man's head appeared over the battlements. 'What do you want?' he called down gruffly. Arthur explained that he needed help to free his ship from the sands.
The stranger seemed to soften a bit. 'That’s a reasonable enough request' he replied, 'but nothing can be done till my son returns from hunting. If you’re prepared to wait, we’ll help set you on your way.'
Since he had little choice, and was by now curious about the stranger in the tower anyway, Arthur settled down to wait. In due course he asked the man how he came to be living in such a remote place.
'Sir,' came the reply from the battlements, 'you cannot tell this from where you are, but I am a dwarf and long ago I was in the service of the king of Northumbria. As you must know, a dwarf's life is a precarious one, and when things go wrong we are more likely than others to catch the blame. So it happened with me, and my lord had me banished and set ashore with my wife in this desolate place.
'She, poor lady, died almost immediately in childbirth. After I had buried her, I wrapped the babe in her cloak and went looking for somewhere to shelter for the night from the elements and the wild beasts, for it was winter and I feared for the child's life.
'In the forest not far from here I found a large hollow tree filled with dead leaves. Just right for a cradle I thought, seeing how nothing better was to be had. But as I began to plump the leaves up into a pillow, I heard a rustling and found a nest of fawns. They had been so well covered that I didn't see them until they moved. Each fawn had a tiny horn in the middle of its brow.
'Well, I was so taken aback that for a while I did not know what to do. Then suddenly their mother returned. She was a great white beast, as large as any mare and with a sharp horn like a lance on her brow. She had a spark in her eyes that told me she thought I had been about to steal or harm her children. I panicked and ran and was just about to congratulate myself on my escape when I realized that I had lost my own son. Then I heard his cry from far away and knew I must have left him by the hollow tree.
'In fear and trembling I crept back and my heart almost stopped when the babe suddenly went quiet. I loved the child dearly already, both for his own sake and because he was all I had to remind me of my dear wife. As I crept nearer, I found the Unicorn lying in the hollow of the tree with her fawns nursing at her breast, and my own babe in there among them, feeding as mightily as if he were their brother.
'That night I hid nearby, almost freezing to death, unable to decide what to do. It was plain that the Unicorn could feed the babe better than I, but how could I abandon him to the care of a wild beast? In the morning the Unicorn left to feed and I took my son and washed him and wrapped him in swaddling as best I could. I meant to return him to the nest, but before I was done, the mother returned. This time though, she greeted me in the sweetest and gentlest way. There was no spark of anger in her blue eyes and, when she lay down with her fawns, she motioned with her head for me to return the child to her.
'From that day until he was weaned the Unicorn remained my son's wetnurse. I built a hut near the hollow tree and we lived together as a family, no evil creature daring to threaten us. Such was the virtue of the Unicorn's milk that my son grew into a giant, soon able to uproot trees with his bare hands. In time he built this tower for me, so I would be safe when he was off hunting or at play. And the Unicorn is still my son's constant companion, although her other children have long gone off into the world.'
As the dwarf concluded his tale the ground began to tremble. 'Here comes the boy now,' said the dwarf. Arthur, who had not known how much of the tale to believe, was mightily impressed to see a true giant come striding out of the forest with a dead bear slung lightly over one shoulder and a mighty club over the other. Beside him came, trotting daintily, a milk-white Unicorn.
The mystery of the tower's lack of doors and windows was explained when the giant lifted Arthur up to the battlements. There he joined the dwarf for a feast whilst the giant remained outside, his head almost on a level with theirs. The following day he and the Unicorn helped drag Arthur's boat off the sands and he set sail again.