And so it happened. No more peace till the one were dead. Or surrendered. Tapping out was still allowed; they weren’t animals.
For three solid hours they jousted. Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine, hammering one another out in the field in front of Castle Benwick. Their horses died in the first pass, but without a word they dismounted, pulled out their swords, and just went to town on one another.
Three hours in, as noon approached, Sir Launcelot started to wonder what was up. Sir Gawaine was not a guy he would have expected to put up this solid a fight. Maybe he was just motivated to expend hidden reserves, what with avenging his family. Or maybe — and this was the true thing — Sir Gawaine had a secret.
This came up once before, roundabout Chapter 17 of Book IV. From around ten to noon, Gawaine’s strength would multiply. For a little while at noon, he would be straight-up super-strong. So while, normally, Gawaine would slowly be getting weaker and weaker, as Launcelot bruises and nicks him, instead he came at Launcelot with more and more power!
Was this the end of Launcelot? No, because even when up against a guy with super-strength, Launcelot still fought smart. Malory breathlessly reports that Launcelot switched to a purely defensive fighting style as Gawaine’s strength waxed. He simply waited out Gawaine-as-Hourman, your standard Foreman-Ali matchup.
Finally, Gawaine’s strength left him. Where this magic strength came from, Malory can’t say. Malory blames an holy man for it, which I would interpret as Nacien, except that it first showed up way way way back when Gawaine was a young man. It was completely inexplicable there, too. Regardless, once Gawaine burned out, he became easy pickings for Launcelot, who smashed his skull in.
Gawaine lay on the ground, exhausted and bloodied and half-dead. As Launcelot turned away, however, Gawaine wheezed out “Why withdrawest thou thee?”
“I won,” said Launcelot.
“No, you haven’t won yet. I’m still alive. Long as I’m alive, this fight isn’t over. Get back here and finish it, or next time we meet, I will!”
Launcelot shook his head no. “Wit thou well, Sir Gawaine, I will never smite a felled knight.” He walked away from the still-protesting Gawaine, as doctors and medics and leech-handlers rushed in to treat the half-dead knight.
As Launcelot walked back to his castle, none of Arthur’s army dared to touch him. He passed King Arthur’s tent on the way, and told his old friend and former liege lord to just go home because there was nothing Arthur could accomplish there.
Arthur kept the siege going, though, for weeks, and eventually Gawaine was healed up and he immediately started shouting insults at Launcelot again, challenging him to a rematch.
Launcelot told Gawaine that Gawaine was incapable of mounting a serious offense Launcelot needed to worry about. Gawaine just refused every offer Launcelot made, and at last they jousted a second time. Launcelot easily dehorsed Gawaine, who responded with that line about a mare’s son failing but a queen’s son not. Launcelot was just pissed enough to fight Gawaine; he dismounted and they sword-fought. This time Launcelot went in knowing Gawaine had the super-strength, so he waited it out. Once they had passed noon Launcelot beat him up and left him for dead. So again, Gawaine lay there complaining, and Launcelot ignored him, and Gawaine spent another month resting.
“Alas,” said Arthur, “that ever this unhappy war was begun.“
Nevertheless Arthur did not go home, as Launcelot kept suggesting! Instead the siege continued for three weeks more, with no activity to speak of, until one morning Sir Gawaine felt healthy enough to get up and walk around. First thing he did was mount up and ride over to the castle gates, where he started shouting for Launcelot to come out and joust. Foul traitor knight, you know the drill.
Sir Launcelot stuck his head out over the top of the castle walls. “Seriously?”
“I’m here and I’m ready to continue our joust!” shouted Gawaine.
“Gawaine, seriously, that’s just silly. You’re embarrassing yourself. We’ve already done this.”
“Then we’re going to have to do it again! And again and again, until one of us is dead!”
“Well ye wot, Sir Gawaine, ye may not greatly hurt me. We’ve established which of us is the bad-ass ultra-knight and which of us wouldn’t have been on the Round Table in the first place if he wasn’t King Arthur’s nephew.”
“Come down!” shouted Gawaine. “Come down and demonstrate to me with your hands just why you think you don’t need to apologize to me!”
“Christ,” said Launcelot. “I’m getting sick of this.”
Launcelot came out of the castle, again. He and Gawaine jousted, again. Launcelot easily dehorsed Gawaine, again. Gawaine got up and demanded they sword-fight, again. Launcelot and Gawaine sword-fought, again. As noon approached Gawaine filled with a kind of mad strength, again. Launcelot waited it out, for the third time. Three hours after their fight started (again) Launcelot bashed Gawaine’s head in, in the exact same place as the two times he did it before.
And once again, as Launcelot turned to leave, Gawaine complained about being left alive, and again he declared that their battle would not end until one of them was dead. And once again Gawaine spent weeks convalescing, and then, yet again…
Shocking twist! Three days before Gawaine’s planned fourth bout with Launcelot, Arthur received news from England that caused him to pull up stakes and return to Camelot post-haste!
TO BE CONTINUED IN: BOOK XXI! Dun dun dunnn!