King Arthur and Chess

by Bill Wall


Chess has been a part of the King Arthur legend since the 14th century.  The Dutch story Roman van Walewein was written around 1350.  It presents Walewein (Gawain), who is a nephew of King Arthur and one of the Knights of the Round Table, as the model of chivalric virtue.  The romance was begun, but left incomplete by an author called Penninc.  The ending was written later by Pieter Vostert. 


Walewein’s adventures begin when a chess set flies through the window of King Arthur’s court at Caerleon after the king and his knights of the Round Table (Lancelot, Perceval, Yvain, Duvengael, and Walewein) have finished their meal.  The magic chess set settles on the floor, all ready for anyone to play.  The knights are too surprised and too frightened to approach the chess set.  After settling for a time, it flies off again.  King Arthur wants someone to find this magic chess set and bring it back to him, but no one offers to do so until Arthur says he will pursue it himself.  King Arthur also promises that whoever returns the chess set will be heir to Arthur’s throne. 


To King Arthur, the chess set is connected with his succession, as appears in his promise of hisc crown and lands to whoever shall capture the chess set.


King Arthur says, “By my royal crown, that chess set seemed a splendid one, and there must be a reason why it appeared here.  Whoever shall set out in pursuit of that chess set and deliver it into my hands, shall have my land, and shall hold my crown as his own after my death.”


None of the knights dared go after the flying chess set.  They all sat there in silence.  King Arthur then said, “Whoever wished to be judged a noble knight in my court, must obtain this chess set for me.  If he let in slip away, no one will honor us again.”  Still, no knight volunteered.  Finally the king said, “By my royal crown and by the heavenly host, and by all the power that I have wielded by God’s grace, if no one will get the chess set for me, I shall ride after it myself.  I don’t intend to delay any longer or it will have flown far beyond my reach.  I am the one who desires it, so I shall either retrieve it before I return to Caerleon, if disaster or mishap do not prevent me, or I shall perish with this wish unfulfilled.”


Finally, Walewein, King Arthur’s nephew and foremost in knightly deeds of virtue, takes the challenge and leaves on horseback to find this magic chess set.  One of the stewards in the house, Kay, calls after Walewein that it would have been better if he had tied a cord to the chess board, for then it could not have escaped him.


The chess set is described as very expensive with an ivory board inlaid with precious stones, with a silver rim and gold legs.  The chess pieces are said to more valuable than King Arthur’s entire kingdom. 


The chess set keeps flying in front of Walewein for some time until it reaches a mountain and disappears into a crevice.


As he pursues the chess set, Walewein must fight a nest of baby dragons and their mother.  After killing all the dragons, he reaches the Castle of Wonders, where the King of Wonders and his son are playing a game of chess with the chess set he is pursuing.  Walewein asks for the chess set and the king agrees to give it to Walewein if he will bring him the Sword with Two Rings from King Amorean.  The sword can only be used  by a chosen knight as anyone else trying to use it will be cut in two by it.  After lots of adventures, he returns to the Castle of Wonders and Walewein is given the chess set.


In the Middle-Dutch translation of La Vengeance Raguidel, the Wake van Ragisel, beautiful Ydeine plays a game of chess with her lover, Walewein, a knight of the Round Table.  She does not recognize him, for Walewein is in disguise.  The stakes are a ‘one night stand.’  Ydeine loses the chess game and spends the night with ‘another man.’  Walewein finds out that she is not faithful to him.


Walewein’s exploits and pursuit of the chessboard provides the basis for the Dutch novel Het zwevende schaakboard (The Floating Chessboard), written by Louis Couperus in 1923.  In his version Gawain dies just after delivering the chessboard to King Arthur.


In other Arthurian legends, the chess pieces do not fly, but are capable of playing a game of chess against a human opponent by themselves.


In Lancelot en prose, an enchanted chess set is acquired by Sir Lancelot.  Lancelot is seen playing against a magic chess board which moves the pieces by itself.  He wins the game and thereby becomes the owner of chess chess board, which he sends to Guinevere.  In a Middle Dutch compilation of Lancelot, Walewein is a nephew of King Arthur.  Walewein meets the king of Scaveloen, who orders his sister to take good care of the knight from the Round Table.  When Walewein and the lady are making love, another knight recognizes Walewein as the murderer of the lady’s father.  Walewein and the lady is then attacked by the town citizens, during which Walewein uses a chess board as a shield and the lady throws the ivory chess pieces at the attackers.  The story is also found in Perceval in an episode sometimes referred to as “Gauvain in the Chessboard Castle.’


Sir Tristan, or Tristram in Old English, was a contemporary of King Arthur and a Knight of the Round Table.  In the Tristan saga, he is sent to Iceland by King Mark to fetch the king’s bride, Iseut (Isolde).    The two play chess on the journey back and fall in love after accidently drinking a love potion intended for Iseut and the king.  Around 1300, in the German version of Tristan, the chess pieces themselves have become romanticized as “the king and queen who sit lovingly next to one another.”


Owain was a knight of King Arthur’s court who played chess with King Arthur.  They became rivals, but they played chess while their armies fought on the field of battle.  A rider approached Arthur and Owein as they played chess.  He greeted Arthur and said that the ravens (Owein’s army) were killing the squires and pages.  Arthur looked at Owein and said, “Call off your ravens.”  Owein replied, “Your move, lord.”  They played on and finished their game and began another.  Another rider approached Arthur, saying that the ravens were killing the sons of the nobles.  Arthur again asked Owein to call off his ravens, and Arthur squeezed the gold men of the board until they were nothing but dust.  Owein ordered his men to lower the banner, and there was peace on both sides.  The story is found the 13th century Welch tale, “The Dream of Rhonabwy.”


In 1889, William Butler Yeats wrote a dramatic poem called ‘Time and the Witch Vivien.’ Vivien steals from Merlin a ring which can induce sleep and she uses it him.   Vivien encounters Time and wants to buy his hourglass.  Time refuses as he needs his hourglass.  She then tells Time that his beard is whiter than Merlin’s.  Time then agrees to gamble for the hourglass.  Vivien loses, but asks Time if she could “triumph in my many plots’.  They then play a game of chess to decide if she will get her wish.  Time warns her that defeat is death.  Time mates her and she dies.


In Pendragon’s Requite: King Arthur Triumphant! By Victor Brice, Merlin asks Guinevere to imagine a chess board, then produces a three-dimensional hologram of a chessboard and pieces.  He asks here what the most powerful piece is on the board.  She answers that it is the King.  Merlin replies that she is wrong.  It is the Queen, and her job is to protect the King.  From King Arthur’s perspective, when he looks at the chess board, the king piece is the sovereign territories.  The queen piece becomes the swords of power – war and peace.