Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain
One of the Three Welsh romances associated with the Mabinogion, this tale can be found in both the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. The hero of the tale, Owain, is based on the historical figure Owain mab Urien.
Variations of the tale were popular in the days of chivalry, and were repeated in many European sources. Most notable of these is Yvain, Cheualier an Lyon, Chrétien de Troyes' poem written in Old French. Both are believed to have originated from a celtic source, most likely passed down through oral tradition.
The story begins in the court of King Arthur. As the king sleeps, the knights Owain, Kynon and Kai tell tales as they eat.
Kynon tells of a quest to determine whether there is anything left to achieve mastery of. He speaks of wandering, eventually finding a castle where he is greeted by a man. Kynon is led inside, where he receives hospitality from 24 damsels.
The man asks Kynon what he seeks. When Kynon tells him, he is told of a large sheltered glade, where the tall black warden of the woods, a man with one foot and one eye, is to be found wielding a vast iron club.
The following day Kynon sets off to find the woodward. The man demonstrates his power over the animals of the woodland, and directs Kynon to an open space where a fountain is to be found next to a marble slab.
Kynon journeys to the fountain. There he finds a silver bowl, chained to the fountain, as described by the warden. Kynon takes the bowl and throws water on the marble slab. This causes thunder to roar, hailstones to fall and birds to sing. A knight on a black horse appears, and the pair joust against one another.
The knight dismounts Kynon and takes his horse. Crestfallen, Kynon returns to the glade, where the black giant mocks his misfortune.
Back at the castle, Kynon is again entertained. The following day he leaves for his own court. There ends Kynon's tale, as Arthur wakes and the men feast.
In the morning Owain, inspired and intrigued by Kynon's humiliation, finds the mysterious castle. There, again, he is given great hospitality, and describes his search for the knight who guards the fountain.
He sets off the next day and finds the black warden and the fountain. Owain takes the bowl, casts water on the marble slab, and again the knight appears. The pair fight, Owain mortally wounding the knight with his blade. The knight flees and Owain follows him to a vast castle.
The knight passes through the castle portcullis, but it falls on Owain's horse, trapping them. Owain sees beyond a gate a maiden with golden hair clad in yellow. She comes to the gate and opens it.
The maiden, Luned, gives Owain a ring of protection and invisibility, so when the men from the castle come to kill him they are unable to find him. Owain follows the maiden to a chamber. They eat and drink, and Owain sleeps. In the night he hears a cry, which Luned tells him signifies the death of the nobleman who owns the castle.
The next morning Owain hears a commotion. Luned tells him the nobleman's body is being taken to the church. Owain looks out of the window and sees a great many people assembled in their finery.
In the midst of the throng walked a fair lady. Owain falls in love, and asks Luned of her identity. "Heaven knows," she replies. "She may be said to be the fairest, and the most chaste, and the most liberal, and the wisest, and the most noble of women. And she is my mistress; and she is called the Countess of the Fountain, the wife of him whom thou didst slay yesterday." "Verily," said Owain, "she is the woman that I love best." "Verily," said the maiden, "she shall also love thee not a little."
As Owain sleeps, Luned goes to see her mistress, the countess of the castle. Luned tells the countess that unless she can defend the fountain, her dominion will be jeopardised. Only a knight from the court of King Arthur can fulfill the role, and she offers to find such a warrior.
Luned returns to her chamber, where she dallies for the time it would take to visit and return from Arthur's court. She then revisits the countess, bringing with her Owain. The countess dismisses her, and the following day asks her subjects for permission to marry Owain. She does, and for three years Owain defends the fountain.
One day Arthur tells his nephew Gwalchmai (Gawain) of his sorrow at losing Owain. Arthur and 300 of his men embark to find Owain, with Kynon their guide. They find the first castle, the black giant, and the fountain. Kai steps up and throws water from the bowl to the marble.
The black knight appears and defeats Kai. The following day the other warriors all attempt to defeat the knight, until only Arthur and Gwalchmai are left. Gwalchmai fights the knight for three days, until eventually the knight lands a blow to Gwalchmai's head that dislodges his helmet.
"My lord Gwalchmai, I did not know thee for my cousin," says Owain, "owing to the robe of honour that enveloped thee; take my sword and my arms." "Thou, Owain, art the victor; take thou my sword," replies Gwalchmai.
Owain takes the men to the castle of the countess, where they feast for three months. Arthur requests that the countess grants Owain leave for three months, which she consents to.
Owain, however, remains with his fellow warriors for three years; his knightly exploits overshadow his nightly duties and the countess is displeased. One day, at the city of Caerlleon upon Usk, a damsel on horseback arrives and takes from Owain his ring. "Thus," said she, "shall be treated the deceiver, the traitor, the faithless, the disgraced, and the beardless."
In sorrow and self-disgust, Owain roams the land until his body wastes away and his hair grows long. Eventually he is found by a widowed countess who feeds and anoints him until he recovers. Owain hears of how the countess once had two earldoms, but all but a castle was taken by a neighbouring earl who wanted her for his wife.
Three months pass, and one day the earl comes to the castle. Owain takes weapons and armour and captures him, bringing him to the castle. The earl returned the two earldoms he taken from the countess and half of his own possessions.
Owain roams the land once more, eventually encountering a serpent within in a rock, with a fearful black lion nearby. Owain draws his sword and kills the serpent, and the lion follows. The lion brings a roebuck to Owain and they eat.
Owain hears a sigh. It is Luned, who has been imprisoned in a stone vault by the countess' men. She directs him to a castle owned by a hospitable earl, where Owain, his horse and the lion are well received. In the castle Owain meets the earl's beautiful daughter.
The earl tells of a giant monster in the mountains that kills and devours men. The previous day his sons had been taken by the monster, who will slay them if the earl doesn't deliver his daughter.
The following day the monster arrives with the earl's sons. Owain and the lion go to confront him. Although Owain pledges to fight alone, the lion springs into the fray and kills the giant.
Owain continues to the meadow to find Luned. He finds a great fire, towards which two youths are leading the maiden, taking advantage in the absence of her protector. Owain attacks the pair, and with the lion he overcomes them, saving Luned. Owain returns with her to the dominions of the Countess of the Fountain. From there he takes the Countess to the court of Arthur, where she remains his wife to the end of her days.
Owain sets off once more, finding the court of the black giant. There he meets 24 daughters of earls, who had been enchanted and seized by the giant. Aggrieved, Owain leaves.
Outside the castle he finds the black giant. They fight furiously. Owain eventually overcomes him, and binds his hands. In a plea bargain, the giant says he will turn his domain into a hospice if Owain spares his life. Owain agrees.
The following day Owain takes the 24 women, their goods, jewels and horses, to Arthur's court. There he finally settles as head of the household.