King Arthur and His Round Table
1 A review of La Mort d'Arthure. 3 Vols. J. RUSSEL SMITH. 1859.
Les Romans de la Table Ronde. Par M. le Vicomte H. DE LA VILLEMARQUÉ. Paris, 1860.
2 The late Rev. Thomas Price.
3These MSS., on the death of Sir Robert Vaughan, passed into the possession of W. W. E. Wynne, Esq. of Peniarth.
4 VILLEMARQUÉ, Romans de la Table Ronde, p. 78.
5 Myvyrian Archæology, i. 178.
6 Telyn Arthur.
7 Attributed to the Hon. Algernon Herbert.
8 REES'S Welsh Saints, p. 185.
9 Myvyrian Arch. i. 175. Gelli wic, or Kelliwig, has been supposed to be Callington, or Kellington, in Cornwall.
10 Warton quotes Crusius to the effect that at Padua there was a work in modern Greek called Διδαχαι Regis Arthuri; but he seems to have been misled by the the title of a book of homilies, Διδαχαι Rarluri —See Quarterly Review, No. xxiii. p. 158, note. But there is in the Vatican a poem of the twelfth century in that language apparently a translation from the Italian.—Price's Remains, i. 271.
11 It had belonged to his uncle, Charlemagne, and had been won by him from the Emir Braymont (Braymont l'Admiral). La Fleur de Battailes. Paris, 1501.
12 Vol. i. p. 180.
13 JONES'S Bardic Museum.
14 This Urience is evidently the same as the Urien Réghed frequently mentioned by Welsh bards (Myvyr. Archæol., i. 53, &c.). M. Villemarqué adopts the opinion that his domination of Réghed was in the north of England, comprising Cumberland and the neighbouring districts; but more probably it lay in South Wales: Geoffrey of Monmouth makes him king of the Murefenses (Moray) in Scotland. He is unquestionably an historical personage. He was the great patron of the prince and bard Llywarch Hên, who had been driven from his paternal dominion of Argoed in Cumberland. IN the pedigree of the Vale of Towy family (Tylwyth Ystrad Tywi) he is styled "Toparch of Scotland, King of Gower (in Glamorgan), Lord of Iscenen, Carn y Wyllion, and Kidwelly" (Carmarthenshire): Forming together the district called Réghed. His castles are said to have been at Carreg Cennin, Carmarthenshire, and at Llychwr, in Gower. Mr. Wright strangely places Gower in North Wales.
15 The story of the mantle of royal beards, whencesoever derived, is common property with the romance writers. It appears again, in the course of a few pages, in this very collection (vol. i. p. 167), where the fancy is attributed to the giant of St. Michael's Mount. Spencer adopts it, Faery Queen, vi. 1, 13. It may be seen in the original Welsh Iolo MSS., p. 193.
16 "Gwenhyfar, daughter of Gogyrfan the tall—wicked when little, worse when big."
17 Mort d[']Arthure vol. iii. p. 88.
18 Brennius, we suppose, is our classical acquaintance Brennus (W. brenhin, king), whom Arthur here claims as a countryman. Belinus is probably Beli Mawr, the famous warrior mentioned in "Y Gododin," stanza 39, and elsewhere; "Emperor of the Isle of Britain," as he is sometimes styled (Iolo MSS., p. 521, &c.). To him the Welch chieftains loved to trace their pedigree.
19 Chrestien de Troyes, romance of Percival le Gallois, quoted by M. de la Villamarqué, Notes, p. 414.
20 Warton's derivation, "Sanguis realis," is quite untenable; it is the Cymric Grasal Latin Gradale—a vessel for mixed meats.
21 La Mort d'Arthure, vol. iii. chap. lxxxvi.
22 Ibid., vol. i. chap. xl.
23 Vol. iii. chap. c.
24 Vol. iii. chap. li. cii.
25 See vol. iii. ch. ii. xiv. xviii.
26 Vol. iii. ch. xcv. xcvi.
27 Mr. Peter Roberts (Collect. Camb. vol. i. p. 309) suggests that was the divining-cup of the Druids. It was said to be kept at St. David's, and to have been carried thence to Glastonbury (which, from that circumstance, took its name of Ynys Wytryn island of the little glass), and to have been restored to its original locality by King Arthur. He holds it be the same as the Santo Catino (a cup of great beauty made of some composition of an emerald colour) carried off from Florence (?) by Napoleon; but restored, and still to be seen in five francs in the cathedral at Genoa, according to a writer in Notes and Queries. The history of its travels seems rather obscure.
28 M. Villemarqué quotes the Lyfr Taliesin, an MS. in the Hengwert library.
29 Vol. iii. p. 185.
30 Vol. iii. p. 14.
31 Vol. iii. ch. xxxvii., &c.
32 Vol. iii. ch. lxxxiv., &c.
33 Vol. iii. ch. xxxvii.
34 Vol. iii. ch. cii.
35 Vol. iii. ch. lxxxvi. xliii. xl. xcix.
36 Sarras appears in the romance to be somewhere "in the parts of Babylon." Mr. Wright thinks it may be intended for Charræ (Heran). There seems an allegorical allusion to the "New Jerusalem."
37 This has been said to be Berwick; but the Bretons show it near Brest.
38 Mabinogion, i. 91.
39 Romans de la Table Ronde p. 58, &c.
40 Mort d' Arthure, i. 285, 289; iii. 242.
41 From this circumstance, Dafydd ab Gwilym calls him Melwas yn glâs gôg—"in the green cloak".
42 See REES'S Welsh Saints, p. 179. The names of "Lawnslot du Lac," and "Galath ab Llawnslot," appear in some of the Triads; but these are evidently of later date, and the names of French origin. It is difficult to fix the dates of the Triads with any certainty, as they were not collected until the twelfth century.
43 According to the Welsh legend, three warriors escape from the battle; Morvran, son of Tegid, "whom none struck by reason of his ugliness—all thought he was a helping devil;" Sandde Bryd Angel, who escaped untouched because of his beauty—"all thought he was a ministering angel;" and Kynwyl Sant, the last who parted from Arthur. (Mabin, Kilhwch, and Olwen.)
44 See LELAND'S Collect., v. 51. He quotes for these particulars a monk of Glastonbury, whom he calls Sylvester. He remarks (Collect. ii. 12) that the words within brackets in the inscription were interpolated by him.
45 Arthur is said to have had three wives, all named Guenever.
46 Chron. Joh. Brompton, c. 1195.
47 Hist. de Bretagne, p. 172.
48 See GILBERT'S Cornwall, ii. 236. There are said to be nearly six hundred localities in our own island which bear the name of Arthur. They corroborate the fact that the traditions are confined [exclusively, so far as we have been able to trace) to districts to which the Celtic race clung the last. The South Wales legend of Arthur's sleep runs as follows:— A Welsh famer, selling cattle on London Bridge, was accosted by a wizard, who after some conversation respecting a hazel stick which he carried, led him to the place where it had grown.—Craig-y-dinas in Morganwo. There, under a flat stone, he showed him the entrance to a vast cavern, into which they descended. Midway in the passage hung a bell, which the wizard warned his companion not to touch. Below lay a circle of sleeping warriors, all in bright armour, which filled the cavern with a flashing light; one distinguished from the rest by a jewelled crown. Two heaps, of gold and silver, lay in the midst; the wizard bid the other take what he would, remarking that to himself knowledge was worth more than gold. In his way out, the Welshman touched the bell; one of the warriors raised his head, and asked, "Is it day?" "No," said the intruder, prompted by his guide&mdash"not yet." He got safe out to the daylight with his treasure, and was warned not to repeat his visit. But the lust of gold was too strong—he returned again; again awoke the sleeping warriors, and in his confusion forgot the proper answer. They started up, and cast him forth from the cavern so bruised and beaten that he remained a cripple for life; and from that day no man could ever again find the entrance.
49 "Deinde reverterentur cives in insulam:—niveus quoque senex in nive equo fluvium Perironis divertet." —Prophetia Anglicana, &c., Frankfurt, 1603, p. 96.
50 Morgan, in the Welsh legend, is Arthur's physician—Morgan-hud—not his sister the queen. A legend somewhat similar to that of the Fata Morgana is told in Pembrokeshire; buildings are seen out at sea, which are said to be the abodes of the Plant Rhys Dwfn—a lost race of pigmies.
51 Collect., v. 47.
Yet, probably, to the great body of his admirers, the outline of this favourite hero is very dim and indistinct. They see little more of him than Guenever saw at their last parting—
"The moony vapour rolling round the KingMr. Tennyson's "Idylls," and the graceful presentations of Sir Lancelot and Sir Gala[h]ad, and their companions of the Round Table, which now crowd upon us everywhere in prose and poetry, produce, we very much suspect, upon the minds of the reading public in general, much the same tantalising and half-disappointing effect, as those snatches of tempting scenery which flash upon our eyes at intervals between the cuttings of the railway and the smoke of the engine—informing us of a pleasant and interesting country close at hand, but with which we have no present means of making further acquaintance. For the early English and French romances which contain the story at large are not very easily accessible; the MSS. themselves not to be thought of except by professed antiquarians; the printed editions few and scarce, and their quaint wording and orthography, so charming in the eyes of their true lovers, presenting rather a forbidding front to mere passing acquaintances. Even the most accessible and most readable of all—"the noble and joyous hystorye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng Arthur"—first printed by Caxton, and several times reprinted since with more or less accuracy, had become in all its editions comparatively scarce; and it may fairly be doubted whether the late reprint, with all the advantage of an attractive typography, is likely to become a popular book. Southey spoke indeed quite truly when he said it had a marvellous attraction for boys. It was so in his youthful days; it was so, we can ourselves testify, a generation later, in at least one large public school, when a solitary copy in two disreputable little paper-bound volumes, claiming to belong to "Walker's British Classics" (even that wretched edition must have been scarce), was passed from hand to hand, and literally read to pieces, at all hours, lawful and unlawful. And the spell works to this day; boys seize upon the volumes still, wherever they fall in their way, and sit absorbed in them as did their forefathers. They will tell you more of Sir Bagdemagus and King Pellinore in a week, than they can of Diomed and Hector at the end of a school half-year. The taste is a genuine one on their part, wholly independent of Mr. Tennyson and his fellow-poets, explain it how we will. The truth is, that the style of these romances recommends itself at once to the schoolboy mind, healthfully active and energetic; with very little love-making, few of the finer flights of fancy, and no moral reflections, there are plenty of terrific encounters and hard blows. The interest, such as it is, never flags; incident crowds on incident, adventure succeeds adventure; the successful champion disposes of one antagonist just in time to be ready for another—the discomfited knight is either despatched forthwith to make room for some new aspirant, or is healed of his wound with marvellous rapidity by some convenient hermit, and fights as well, or better, than ever. The plot and machinery are of the simplest kind, most intelligible to the schoolboy mind, and appealing strongly to his sympathies, fresh from foot-ball. Everybody runs full tilt at everybody he meets, is the general stage direction. Whether the antagonist be friend or foe by right, is quite a secondary consideration; these kind of questions are generally asked afterwards, being considered rather a waste of precious time beforehand. "It doth them good to feel each other's might." There you have the key-note of Round Table philosophy; and young England thoroughly appreciates it. True, there is a wonderful sameness in the heroes and their achievements; Sir Tristram's performances are precisely like Sir Lancelot's. In the encounters with which almost every page is filled, there is not even the graphic variety of Homer's wounds; commonly, the knight who is worsted goes "over his horse's croupe;" occasionally, by way of change, we find that his opponent has "gate him by the necke, and pulled him cleane out of his saddle." But to the admiring readers in question this never seems to occur as an objection; sufficient for them that the action of the piece never stands still for an instant; Sir Ban or Sir Bors, or whoever may be the hero of the hour, has no sooner overthrown the knight with the black shield, than he "fewtres his spear afresh, and hurles him" straightway at him of the red shield. The "disport" is fast and furious. And when half-a-dozen champions are unhorsed in the space of a single page, it would be unreasonable to expect that each should fall in different fashion.
Who seemed the phantom of a giant in it."
This kind of repetition, however, vigorous as it is, must be confessed to pall occasionally upon less voracious appetites. One gets tired of reading for ever of "fortemque Gyan, fortemque Cloanthum;" and we call readily imagine the disappointment of those gentle and enthusiastic readers, who, with the grand chant of the Laureate or of the classic rhyme of Bulwer still in their ears, turn to the volumes of the Mort d'Arthure as their fount of inspiration. The gentle Enid they will not find there. Such passages as the love of the fair maid of Astolat are rare indeed; and even Arthur and Lancelot, like living mortal heroes, lose something of their herohood on more familiar acquaintance. They will hardly be consoled by a succession of chapters recording "how Sir Lamoracke justed with Sir Palomides, and hurt him grievously;" and "how Sir Tristram smote down Sir Sagramore le Desirous and Sir Dodinas le Savage." Yet these tales of chivalry, though they threaten to be wearisome to the general reader when encountered at full length, have a very deep interest both in a literary and an antiquarian point of view; the more so, because now for the first time there appears a general consent as to the real sources of their origin, while they have sprung afresh into the full sunshine of popular favour, after centuries of comparative obscurity, by one of the most remarkable resurrections in the history of fiction. We will endeavour here to lay before our readers some sketch of that great cycle of romance which for ages was the literature par excellence of Christendom, and which has once more become the treasure-house from which poet and painter draw subjects for their pictures, and in which essayists—wearied of the old heathen classics—seek for illustrations and allusions.
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries had an Iliad of their own. Like the great classical epic, it reigned undisputed in the literary firmament, and absorbed all minor bards into satellites or imitators. Like that, too, it has outlived the personal fame of its authors. We can no more tell the names of those old bards who first sung of Arthur and his Round Table, than we can be sure at this day whether the Iliad and the Odyssey are the work of one or many. Like the Iliad, these lays had a certain unity; their central personality was the "King of Men;" their episodes, the acts of his knight companions. The resemblance was even more striking in this—that in both, the Great King is not the real hero. Sir Lancelot and Achilles are the peerless knights; and the fatal estrangement between Lancelot and his king works more irretrievable woe than even the wrath of Achilles. But whether the glorious romance of the Greeks sprung forth in full panoply from some one god-like brain or no, we at least have no means of tracing its infancy or its growth. With these Arthurian epos it is quite otherwise. Nearly every stage in its development is open to us. We can trace it, indistinctly but certainly, rolling on from age to age, assimilating and incorporating, from the manners and the taste of each, fresh elements of strength or weakness—ever changing, yet still the same.
On its earliest origin, indeed, considerable learning and research, and very many ingenious conjectures, would appear to have been wasted. Mallet and Percy (and Count de Tressan agrees with them) would trace it to the northern Skalds, who, accompanying the army of Rollo, "the ganger," in his warlike migration southward, carried with them the lays of their own mythology, but replaced the Pagan heroes by Christian kings and warriors. Another theory, originated by the learned Claude Saumaise (Salmasius) and adopted enthusiastically by Warton, ascribes all the germs of romantic fiction to the Saracens or Arabians, and suggests its probable introduction into Europe to the effects of the Crusades; or, according to Warton, to the Arab conquests in Spain; that from thence they passed into France, and took deepest root in Brittany. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Chronicle, the earliest form of these tales with which the learned of his day had made acquaintance, he considers to consist entirely of Arabian fancies. Even if the giants and dragons of romance were introduced into southern Europe more immediately by the Skalds, still he would assert that the northern poets themselves owed them in the first place to immigrations from the East. Others, again, have seen in the tales of chivalry only a new development of the classic legends of Greece and Italy. As Christianity unquestionably borrowed and modified to its own use many of the outward ceremonies of Paganism, so they held that the Christian trouveur only adopted and transmuted the heroes of classical poetry. There certainly is some apparent foundation for this theory. It is not hard to trace in the incidents of Arthurian romance the same kind of resemblance, real or fanciful, which has been remarked by those who love to find in the legends of heathendom types or foreshadowings of Christian truth. The knights errant have their classic prototypes in Hercules, Bacchus, and Theseus; the sorceress is Circe or Calypso; the giant is Polyphemus; the rescued maiden, Andromeda; monsters like the "Twrch Trwyth," and the "questing beast," are cognate genera to Scylla and the Minotaur. Nay, even the personal characters of the Romaunt, viewed in this light, seem only reproductions; Merlin is Proteus; the tale of Uther and Iguerne is the old story of the loves of Jupiter and Alemena; and Arthur's death and disappearance is but a modern copy of Sarpedon's. There is also a marked resemblance in the moral tone of these two great cycles of fiction. It is scarcely higher, we are sorry to say, in the romance of Christendom than in the heathen myths. Robbery is accounted honourable; illegitimacy, instead of being a moral bar sinister, is rather an augury of the hero's future fame; and maidens, by the grace of supernatural lovers, enjoy the privileges of maternity without compromising their reputation.
But whatever there may be in the romances of chivalry which is common to Skald, or Arab, or ancient Pagan, there can be no reasonable doubt but that the true theory as to their origin is that originally advanced by Leyden, maintained by Douce, Sharon Turner, and others, and lately reduced to all but demonstration by Lady Charlotte Schreiber and the Count Villemarqué. They are Cymric or Armorican, or both. With a self-denying honesty, which is too seldom a characteristic of literary antiquarians, M. de la Villemarqué gracefully concedes the honour of parentage to the Britons of Wales, as the elder branch of the great Cymric race; while the fair champion, to whom the Welsh are so deeply indebted, appears willing to share the claim on their behalf with their brethren across the Channel. But the claim thus made seems indisputable; the only wonder is that it should have been in abeyance so long. The explanation lies in the fact, that the wealth of the old Cymric literature in this particular respect was never even suspected, except perhaps by a few enthusiastic Welsh antiquarians; and they, with some honourable exceptions, were usually too busy in crowning each other at Eisteddfodau, and writing Englynion in each other's praise (when they were not quarrelling) under unpronounceable bardic names, to turn their attention to a question which was of real interest to the literature of Europe, and to the solution of which they really held the key. It was not until Lady Charlotte Schreiber, with the aid of an eminent Welsh scholar,2 brought to light in their original form, accompanied by an English version, the collection of early Cymric tales, known as the Mabinogion, contained chiefly in an ancient manuscript—"the Red Book of Hergest"—belonging to the national College in Oxford, that the true sources of the romances of the Round Table were disclosed, and what had been heretofore one of many plausible conjectures became a certainty. Even now the evidence on this point is probably very incomplete. Not to speak of unnoticed Welsh manuscripts which may exist elsewhere, it is known that a collection of earlier date, and probably equal value with the "Red Book" of Jesus College (which appears to be a copy from it), exists in the library of the Vaughans at Hengwrt,3 to which the editor of the Mabinogion was unfortunately unable to obtain access. Dr. Owen is said to have seen an ancient Welsh manuscript containing the story of Sir Tristram (who does not appear in the published Mabinogion), but which he was unable to obtain;4 and a version of the "Quest of the San Graal," in the same language, is said to have been known to exist, and may probably exist still. M. de la Villemarqué, for his own side of the Channel, not only confirms Lady C. Schreiber's evidence, which he seems, indeed, in some degree to have anticipated, but brings forward additional items of proof, slight, but sufficiently convincing, from fragments of Breton songs and poems, that the roots of these renowned, fictions lie deep in their literature also. Their very form—the eight-syllabled rhyme, in which the French metrical version is written—he claims, and apparently with justice, as Cymric.
It is true—it would be impossible to suppose that it could be otherwise—that these original materials were greatly modified and amplified by the successive hands through which they passed. In the first place, the new faith, while it adopted in this as in other cases the work of the heathen, moulded it as far as possible to its own type. The result in the Arthurian romances is, as we shall endeavour to show hereafter, the strangest conceivable mixture of Pagan sentiment with the formal language of Christianity, and sometimes with some of its most mystical doctrines. All the glitter of mediævalism spread itself by degrees over the old rude metal of British fable; but there it lay still beneath, to be recognised hereafter by those who had sufficient curiosity and penetration to look deep enough. The mysterious Arthur, the demigod of the Cymric bards, thus became in the hands of his adopters the preux chevalier of the romancier; while to form his court the spirit of chivalry made knights of the old Cymric robber-chieftains—for we fear these early heroes were little better. Assuredly none would have been more startled to recognise them under their new dress, than the old British or Armorican poet who had first made them the subjects of song.
The central figure, round whom all the heroes of this cycle of romance revolve, is Arthur, King or Pendragon of Britain. His court it is from which all the champions set out upon their adventures, or to which they finally repair; his dominions and his conquests are limited rather by the fancy of the narrator than by any geographical probabilities. So dazzling, indeed, is the halo which romance has shed round his name, that, by a not uncommon result, his actual personality has become obscured. Historians, unable to distinguish satisfactorily the myth from the fact, have come to doubt whether there be any groundwork of fact at all. Arthur has been the hero of fable so generally, that he has become little more than a shadow in history. Bede seems to deny his existence; Milton doubts it; and these were ages in which critical scepticism had not yet taken rank as a fashionable science. Gildas and Aneurin, who should have been his cotemporaries, make no mention of him; and his earliest appearance in the page of history is in Nennius, A.D. 850, where his exploits and his attributes are largely tinged with the marvellous, and are referred to as a traditio veterum5. Of his Welsh compatriots, Dr. Owen Pugh considers him altogether mythological, and to be identical with the constellation Ursa Major; for which, indeed, he appears to have some authority in the Welsh triads,—which, after good classical precedents, carry their hero as a star into the heavens after his disappearance from earth,—and in the still popular name of Arthur's Wain; others have considered him to be identical with Nimrod, or, with more probability, Belus or Apollo; the latter opinion being also supported by a fact in astronomical nomenclature, the star Lyra being known to the Welsh as "Arthur's Harp."6 This theory of his exclusively mythological existence, and his identity with Apollo Belenus, has been supported by very ingenious arguments, and at the expense of some considerable researches in the unpromising fields of bardic history by the author of Britannia after the Romans.7 Mr. Rees, though conceding him a place in history, repudiates him as a countryman; be holds him to have been a native of Devon or Cornwall (which is made the seat of his kingdom in the older Mabinogi), and his connection with the Cymry of Wales and of North Britain to have been wholly of an intrusive kind.8 A great difficulty in the attempt to separate the mythic from the historic in the traditions of the Great King arises from the fact that Welsh literature seems to recognise, as M. de Villemarqué shows (and as has been before noticed), both a mythological and a real Arthur; and that in the triads of later date the latter has been tricked out in some of the ornaments of the former. This apparent plurality has made some conjecture that the name Arthur was an appellative only, and that even in history there may have been more Arthurs than one. Probably Lord Bacon was as near the truth on this point as we are now likely to arrive—"There was truth enough in his story to make him famous, besides that which was fabulous." If he lived at all, he was probably a prince of the Silures, who became king of Britain, and was cotemporary with Clovis of France. The most circumstantial statement of his date and history, and perhaps as little suspicious as any, is that which will be found quoted in the Appendix to the Liber Landavenis, as from a MS. Chronicon Ecclesiæ Landavensis in the British Museum; where he is said to have been crowned king at Cirencester, A.D. 506, in the fifteenth year of his age, by Dubricius, Bishop of Caerleon, and to have afterwards kept Whitsuntide with great pomp at Caerleon.
He is said to have been the son of Uther or Uter, the Pendragon of Britain, and to have defeated the Saxons in thirteen pitched battles, the last on Mount Badon. That zealous herald Upton goes so far as to give us Uther Pendragon's armorial bearings; "Vert, a plain cross argent; in the dexter quarter an image of the B. V. Mary, holding the image of her blessed Son in her right hand, proper. Also he gave for his cognisance of Britain, d'or, deux dragons verds, contronnés de goules, coutréles, or endorsed." Arthur himself, in testimony of his thirteen victories, bore also, in a field azure, thirteen imperial crowns; or, with the motto, "Moult de couronnes, plus de vertus."
It is remarkable, however, that nowhere in the cycle of fiction does Arthur appear as the champion of the Britons against the invading Saxons. We find him traversing half Europe as a conqueror, rather than defending his own shores. In the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion, his enemies, when they are not supernatural, have no very definite national or geographical relations. If it be the Arthur of history, he preserves little besides the name. It is perhaps this very indistinctness of the hero as a historical personage that explains the ready adoption of his name and reputed exploits by the poets of another race. The troveurs of southern Christendom might not have cared to hand on from generation to generation the fame of the mere national champion of a defeated people. Arthur and his deeds might still have been sung in the mountain-fastnesses of Wales, on the hills and moors of Cumberland, or on the kindred shores of Cornwall and Brittany; but the tale would scarcely have found favour in the eyes of a Frank or Norman king; still less would the Celtic prince and his court have become the centre point of their national fiction[.] But in the glories and triumphs of Arthur there is no element of race; there is no national vanity to be flattered, or national jealousies to be stirred. This alone can account for the fact, that while the French romancers built all kinds of fancies of their own on the foundations of these Celtic stories, they uniformly retained both the name and the nationality of the central hero. Always he is Arthur of Britain. Wherever he is said to hold his court, it is always somewhere within those limits where the Celtic race still predominated. Whether he reigns, as in the earlier Welsh legends at "Kelliwig in Dyfnaint" (Devon),9 or at Caerleon-on-Usk—far north as merry Carlisle, or far south as Kerduel in Brittany—all these three last claiming to be the "Carduel" of the romances—he still stands on ground occupied by some of the branches of that great race, which, whether Cimric, Breton, or Gael, is still of common origin. Driven as they were by the northern conquerors from the lordship of the soil, and only holding on by an unquenchable vitality to such corners of the earth as Cambria, and Cumbraland, and Little Britain across the Channel,— in one sense, like Greece in her decline, they took their conquerors captive; their songs and their traditions were the material out of which sprang what was for nearly four centuries the literature of Christian Europe. It seems strange that the writers who have shown so much interest in investigating the sources of this body of fiction, should not have been led at once, by observing this invariable limitation of the Arthurian story in all its forms to a few special localities all known to be Celtic, to the conclusion which we now recognise as the truth.
The repute in which these romances were held throughout all Christendom, from 1150 to 1500, can hardly be measured by our modern notions of popular poets, or popular writers of fiction. If the trouveur found a less profitable trade in those days than in ours, at least he could depend upon a less critical and far more enthusiastic audience. Before what Mr. Carlyle calls "the miraculous art of reading and writing" had ceased to be a miracle, when as yet publishers were not, and a printer ran an even chance of being burnt for a wizard,—to be a favourite with the reading, or rather the listening, world, was fame indeed. To be read in lady's bower, to be chanted at feast and watchfire, to be conned in studious chamber by churchman and philosopher,— such was the glorious meed of those bards whose names and memories had perished, but who lived still in those lays, which, however changed and modified, were still known as Tales of Arthur. They were most popular in France, but their sound was in all lands. They were translated into nearly every language in Christendom. There is said to be an MS. in Hebrew of "King Arthur's History," out of the Spanish version, existing to this day in the Vatican. There is also a version in modern Greek10 "Norunt Arabes—Bosphorus exclusa non tacet" ("the Arabians and the Bosphorus had heard of him"), saith Alan de l'Isle. However that might be, we have evidence enough of the enthusiastic admiration in which they were held in our own island. David, Abbot of Vale Crucis (1450), sends a poetic epistle to a friend, to ask the loan of the book that he "loved more than gold or gems,"—"the goodly Graal, the book of the heroes." "I know," says Roger Ascham, "when God's Bible was banished the court, and Morte d' Arthur received into the prince's chamber." How much the modern poets have borrowed from them has been frequently remarked, and we may take occasion to point out some of the chief instances hereafter.
M. de la Villemarqué considers, and certainly shows good ground for his opinion, that the original legends of Arthur found their way across the channel to the Britons of Armorica. There they were collected with others into the Brut y Brenhined ("Legend of the Kings"), sometimes known as Brut Tysilio, from having been erroneously attributed to the saint of that name. Of the original Armorican collection no copy is known to exist; but in the year 1125 they were translated into Welsh, and a few years later Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who claimed descent by his mother's side from the British kings, appears as the patron of a Latin translation, made by Geoffrey of Monmouth—Gruffydd ap Arthur—under the title of Historia Britonum. This purports to contain the history of the Welsh kings from Brutus, great-grandson of Æneas of Troy, down to Cadwallader, the Saxon Ceadwalla, in 688. What is more to our present purpose, it contained the history of Arthur and his knights, modified no doubt from the old British legends, and still more to be modified by the inventions of subsequent writers, but still the same Arthur who charmed the world in both. In its new form, the story acquired at once the greatest interest and popularity, and appears to have been immediately versified, under different forms, and with considerable licence, by contemporary poets. Henry II. was enamoured of it, and it is said to have been at his request that Robert or Richard Wace, in 1155, gave to the world his Brut d' Angleterre, in rhymed octo-syllabic French, or rather romance verse, which appears to be the earliest in date of the French Romances of the Round Table. From that time forth it took all shapes and languages.
Taking Wace's poem as the original of the Anglo-Norman metrical versions of the central Romance we find there the main facts in the history of Arthur; the strange story of his birth, his magic sword, his conquests of Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and France, his invasion of Italy at the head of 183,000 knights, the renown of his court, to which every "good knight" of Christendom held himself bound to resort, the treason of Mordred, the falsehood of Guenever, the battle of Camlan, and the mysterious transportation to the Isle of Avalon. M. de la Villemarqé quotes from the Welsh bard Taliesin, and from other remains of Welsh literature of earlier date than the Brut y Brenhined, fragments which tell the same story with but little variation; and though the Armorican ballads and legends which he has collected afford a narrower field for comparison, they bear witness to the existence of the same traditions amongst this younger branch of the Cimric family.
The form, however, in which these romances are far more accessible to general readers than Welsh MSS. or Norman fabliaux, is that which stands at the head of this article as "Mort d'Arthure," or "The Booke of King Arthur," as Wynkyn de Worde more correctly entitles it—a compilation made in the year 1469 by a Sir Thomas Mallory "out of certayne bookes of Frensshe," as he tells us, and first printed by Caxton in 1485 at the request of "noble and dyvers gentlymen." Who this Sir Thomas Mallory was is not known; the Welsh antiquaries of course claim him as a countryman. His work is but a piece of patchwork, not always very cleverly put together; but its terse idiomatic language has been said to be the purest English extant next to the Bible. It appears to have been founded chiefly on the great prose romances of Merlin and the St. Graal, written by Robert de Borron aforesaid—the "Mort Artus," "Lancelot du Lac," and the "Queste de St. Graal," all commonly ascribed to Walter Mapes—and the two romances of" Sir Tristram," by Lucas de Gast and Helie de Borron. These three last sources are said by Southey to have supplied two-thirds of the whole compilation; they supply, in fact, more; unless portions of what forms the third volume in the present edition are taken, as seems most probable, from a separate romance known to have existed, of which Sir Galahad was the hero. There would appear also, from the arrangement of the earlier portions of the book, to have been a distinct romance of Balin le Savage, and another of Sir Gareth of Orkney, which Mallory has either worked in bodily, or upon which he drew largely for materials. The result is a not very harmonious whole, somewhat confusing to the reader who has no previous acquaintance with these heroes of chivalry. He will find constant allusions to circumstances not recorded in the work itself, and anticipations of characters and incidents which are not introduced until long after. But Sir Thomas, it must be remembered, was addressing himself to those who might fairly be supposed to be already more or less familiar with the subject which he was reproducing. To imagine a knight or gentleman of' the days of Edward IV. to be unacquainted with the history (true or fabulous) of Arthur, and Merlin, and Lancelot, would have been as strange as to suppose an educated Englishman of the present day to know nothing of Wellington or Napoleon. We think, however, that Mr. Wright, who edits the present volumes, would have consulted the reader's comfort more, and given him a better chance, as Caxton wished, "to understande bryefly the contente," if he had preserved the old printer's original division into twenty-one books (the headings of which supply a very useful clue), instead of following the edition of 1634 in its more arbitrary arrangement into three parts. To attempt to give any continuous outline of what is in fact seven or eight separate stories, would be tedious, if it were not almost impossible; but a slight sketch of the principal heroes, as they appear here and in the Welsh legends, may not be uninteresting. And to begin with the Hero-King himself.
The birth of Arthur, like that of more than one favourite of chivalry, is illegitimate. His father Uther, Pendragon of Britain, is said in the British legend to have deceived Igraine, wife of the king of Cornwall, by taking (with the help of Merlin) the form of a cloud—in Welsh, gorlas or gortasar; in the English romance before us, he is said to have visited her in the likeness of the king her husband, whose name is Gorlois. The latter is killed in battle, and Uther is free to wed the object of his passion. In due time Arthur is born, and by Merlin's advice is brought up in secret at a distance from Uther's court. By the advice of the same counsellor, upon Uther's death the Archbishop of' Canterbury holds solemn meeting of "all the lords of the realm and gentlemen of armes" in the greatest church in London ("whether it were Powlis or not," says the conscientious Sir Thomas, "the Frensshe booke maketh no mention") to pray that Heaven would "show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realme." There appears after mass, against the high altar, "a great stone four square, like to a marble stone, and in the midest thereof was an anvile of steele a foote of height, and therein stooke a fair sword, naked, by the point, and letters of gold were written about the sword that said thus—'Who so pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvile, is rightwise king borne of England.''' The more ambitious of the knights and nobles present—"such as would have been king"—essay the trial. But "none might stir the sword, or move it;" and it is committed to the safe guardianship of ten knights till the rightful claimant shall come. At a great joust held on New Year's day, the young Sir Kay, Arthur's foster-brother, finds himself without a sword; and Arthur, unable to obtain one for him elsewhere, rides to the churchyard, finds the guardian knights absent at the jousting, and "lightly and fiersly" pulls the charmed weapon from the stone, and brings it to Sir Kay, who recognises it at once, and comes to the very hasty and erroneous conclusion that he "must be king of this land." The true king, however, is of course, Arthur himself; who, after many delays and difficulties from the natural jealousy of the lords of the kingdom to "be governed with a boy of no bloode borne," repeats the test of sovereignty in presence of them all at the great feasts of Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost successively, and is acknowledged to be "rightwise king." At his coronation at Caerleon, the neighbouring kings who came to the feast were sore disgusted; they said "they had no joy to receive gifts of a berdless boy, that was come of low blood; and sent him word that they would have none of his gifts, and that they were come to give him gifts with hard swords betweene the neck and the shoulders." In vain does Merlin, Arthur's ever-ready counsellor, disclose to them the secret of his birth, that he is "King Uther-Pendragon's son, born in wedlock." Even Merlin's eloquence fails to put the facts of the case in a very favourable light, and the kings are not satisfied. They besiege Arthur in his tower, where happily he was "well vitaled." By the help of his magic sword, Excalibur, he succeeds in defeating them for a while. "It was so bright in his enemies' sight that it gave light like thirty torches; and therewith he put them back, and slew much people." This sudden introduction into the story of the enchanted sword is one of the many instances in which the compiler of the English romance has done his work with very little regard to the unities; for he represents Arthur as first obtaining this miraculous weapon at a subsequent period of his story. Merlin there leads him to the banks of a lake, "which was a faire water and a broade, and in the middes of the lake King Arthur was ware of an arme clothed in white samite, that held a faire sword in the hand." This sword the king obtained as a gift from the damosel of the lake, who dwells there on a rock, wherein is "as faire a place as any is on earth, and as richly beseene," and whom we afterwards find to be apparently the Fairy Nimue, Nineve, or Viviane—for she is called by all these names. She is the Chwblian or Vivlian of the Welsh bards, and plays no inconsiderable part in the body of romances before us. This good sword Excalibur, or Calibourn has become quite a proverbial weapon, and a synonyme for everything that is heroic amongst instruments. We ourselves can well remember, in the days of that little thumbed and dogeared two-volume romance we spoke of, a cricket-bat of (as was then thought) immortal reputation, which bore that redoubted name. The note to the French romance of "Merlin" tells us that it is "un nom Ebrieu," and that the corresponding phrase in French is Très cher fer et acier." The English metrical version of the same romance gives us the following two lines in explanation—
"On Inglis is this writlng—And Sir Thomas Mallory himself tells us, "it is as much to say as cuttesteele." In the Brut y Brenhined, it is paraphrased by Dure Entaille, and hence, no doubt, Count Roland's sword, in the romances of Godefroi de Bouillon and Huon de Bordeaux, borrows its name of Durendal.11 Spenser, in his "Faery Queen," calls it by the equivalent of Mordure. According to Lady C. Schreiber and M. de la Villemarqué, the original of the name is Welsh; and Calybourne (under which form it appears in Robert of Gloucester) is only a pardonable attempt of Saxon organs to render such an impossible combination as Caledvwlch ("hard notch"), the original name of the good weapon in one of the tales of the Mabinogion, where it is placed in the list of the king's inestimable treasures in company with his lance Rhongomyant, his dagger Carnwenhau, his ship Prydwen, his shield Wynebgwrthucher, his mantle Gwen (or Llene), and his wife Guenhwyvar—who is placed last, and was certainly a very questionable treasure. These named swords are common in the romances of chivalry, and are usually recorded (as in the case of Sir Gawaine's sword Galatine12) as having been the work of Galant, or Wieland, the smith. From that cunning hand is said to have come Charlemagne's sword Joyeuse. In the romance of "Huon de Bordeaux" he is said to have forged but three: Huon's sword Durendal, which belonged to Roland; and Courtain—which, we conclude, may be seen to this day in the Tower jewel-room as the Confessor's sword Curtana; but there is at least one other mentioned in the same romance, whose fame is more historical, if not so romantic, as that of Excalibur itself; it was forged originally by one Israhels, and seems to have been—as we should perhaps have guessed from the name of the manufacturer—of doubtful quality; but Galant the smith spent a year in re-tempering it, named it Recuite, and it went in succession through the bands of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, Judas Maccabeus, Vespasian, and two less widely known heroes, Comumarans and his son Corbada. The last of this race of weapons must have been Ancient Pistol's redoubtable Hiren, which was a namesake of the sword of Amadis de Gaul; but even this is claimed by a zealous Welsh antiquary as of Celtic extraction; hirian in the old British language signifying "a long slashing sword."13
Kerve steel and yren and al thing."
Priceless as was the sword Excalibur, the scabbard had qualities of even more value. "The scabbard is worth ten of the sword," said Merlin, "for while ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall leese no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keepe well the scabbard alway with you." King Arthur, however, does not take such good care of either sword or scabbard as he should have done. His evil genius in these romances is his half-sister, Morgan la Faye, wife to King Urience of Gore14 who acts the part of the wicked fairy throughout, as Nimue or Viviane does that of the benevolent one. In the romance of Merlin we are told that she had been educated in a nunnery, where she had learned (of all things) magic, which she applies to all kinds of evil purposes. She is a very incarnation of wickedness; only the prompt interference of her son, Sir Ewaine, prevents her from stabbing her husband while he is asleep; insomuch that Sir Ewaine is constrained to say of this amiable parent, "Men say that Merlin was begotten of a divell, but I may say an earthly divell bare me." From pure malice, as it would seem—at least from no cause here assigned—she sets on one Sir Accolon, armed with Excalibur, which by some means she has got into her possession, to fight with and slay Arthur, in whose hand has been substituted a weapon "false, counterfeit, and brittle." Long the king fights against these terrible odds, and is fainting with loss of blood, when the damosel of the lake, who "ever did great goodness to King Arthur and all his knights, by her sorcery and enchantments," appears at the critical moment, restores the good sword to the band of its true owner, and enables him to overcome his adversary, who professes great remorse when he finds that he has unconsciously gone so near to slay his "soveraigne liege the king." Sir Accolon, in spite of "surgions and leeches," dies of his wounds, and King Arthur sends his dead body to his false sister "for a present." Ever after he adopts, it would seem, the uncomfortable fashion of sleeping with "Excalibur in his right hand naked;" in that position, at least, Morgan la Faye finds him when she makes her next attempt to rob him of it, and is obliged to content herself with carrying off the enchanted scabbard "under her mantle," and throwing it into the depths of a lake. King Arthur never sees it more.
Arthur's chief counsellor, as we have already seen, is Merlin, who in this compilation of Sir Thomas's is brought upon the stage without any kind of introduction, as a personage with whom the literary world of that day was supposed to be already well acquainted. We may soon learn enough about him, at all events, for our present purpose. The earliest of the French metrical legends of which he is the hero forms part of Wace's Brut. Robert de Borron amplified it in French prose; and there is also an English metrical romance which bears his name. He is a wondrous child from his infancy—born, as was said, from a nun and an evil spirit, in pursuance of a design thus to counteract the great scheme of human redemption; but Nennius tells us that his father was no worse than a Roman consul. We find him, however— indeed, we find two of his name—in the fragments of bardic lays and in the Triads, at least five centuries before the Norman romance was put together. The chief traditionary features of his character, and his supernatural powers, are found in both. He is the mystical philosopher and magician of his age; a real personage, we may be almost sure, but with a history which conceals him in a cloud of fable. In the compilation before us, he presents much the same contradictory character as modern philosophers are too apt to do. He can counsel others better than himself; he has learnt every secret but that of his own weakness. "He knoweth all things," says one of the knights, "by his divell's craft." One thing alone his craft is no match for. Alas! it has been a weak point with the wisest of men, before and since Merlin's day. Need it be said—even if Mr. Tennyson had not made it public—that it was a woman? It is this Nimue, or Viviane, the damosel of the lake, with whom the seer, to whom the powers of nature are subject, finds himself "so sore asotted." The symptoms were the usual ones. That "old, old story" was old even in Merlin's day. The early romancer is scarcely so merciful to him as the Laureate has been. It was not the lady's fault; he "would let her have no rest, but always he would be with her in every place." She "was passing weary of him," but was afraid of him, "because he was a divell's sonne." To rid herself of so troublesome a lover, she enticed him at last under a great stone, "which a hundred men could not lift," and left him there, for ever, it would appear—"he never came out for all the craft that he could doe." Long after, Sir Bagdemagus happening to ride that way, "heard him make great moane, and would have holpen him," but Merlin "bade him leave his labour, for all was in vaine, and he might never be holpen but by her who put him there." Which allegory scarcely needs an exposition to show the hopelessness of all interference by third parties in such desperate cases. It is fair to say, however, that there is more than one version of the story. One romancer says that the fair one only did it by way of experiment—to try her power, we may conclude—and was very sorry when she found that she could not get him out again. Another account is that her object was to keep him with her always. Evidently, in some shape, we have here his story and her story; "elle et lui"—"lui et elle." The original legend, in the fragments of it which yet remain to us in the Welsh Archæology, is certainly grander. The great magician there enters into his "floating house of crystal for the love of his lady," and disappears for ever. By this image, the expounders of bardic lore tell us, is signified death: some have held that the "floating house" of crystal is none other than Ynys-witrine—the Isle of Glass; and that Merlin's mysterious disappearance, like Arthur's, is but another image of the covering up from the profane eyes of the invader with his new creed the mystic rights of the old Druidical religion in the sacred island of Glastonbury—to burst forth again into daylight, if ever the hour should come for the land to rid herself of the gods of the stranger. So certainly, whenever we look below the surface of these tales of romance, we find a region of mythology opening upon us to which nearly every clue is lost; and under the thin veil of Christianity which the Anglo-Norman trouveurs, most of them probably churchmen, strove to throw over them, we detect the old pagan superstitions,—just as the character of sadness, which has been remarked as pervading all Celtic poetry, is ill concealed even by the lighter tone—more refined, but less moral—which they have borrowed from their reproducers in the south.
But we have somewhat anticipated the course of the main narrative, if narrative that can be called which is at best but a conglomerate of disjointed legends.
The confederate kings, who had been discontented at Arthur's accession to the throne of his reputed father, rally their forces after their first defeat, and with larger aids make war upon him afresh. They are defeated, however, by the help of King Ban and King Bors, whom Arthur has called in from "over sea." His next enemy is King Ryance of North Wales and Ireland, who sends him what Arthur fairly calls "the most villanous and lewdest message that ever man heard sent to a king." He had a taste to "purfle his mantle" with kings' beards, of which he had already obtained eleven, having overcome their owners in fair fight, and claimed this as their homage. One more was wanting to complete the pattern; and this, he had made up his mind, should be Arthur's. In reply to King Ryance's messenger, Arthur bid him observe, in the first place, that his beard was "full young yet for to make a purfell of;" secondly, with an emphasis of which modern grammar is incapable, that for this "most shamefulest" message his master should do him homage "on both his knees," or that he, Arthur, will have of him not beard only, but the head on which it grows; a threat which two of his knights, the brothers Balin and Balan, would have accomplished for him without fail, but for King Ryance's submission. Lady C. Schreiber is undoubtedly right in her identification of this personage with the Rhitta Gawr (the giant), who appears in the Welsh legends with a similar story attached to him, and who is mentioned in the Triads as one of the three "regulators" of Britain. A hill near Towyn in Merionetshire still bears the name of Rhiw y Barfau—"hill of the Beards"—where the giant is said to have been slain.15 But Arthur's barons "will let him have no rest" until he takes a wife. In evil hour he sets his affections on Guenever, Gwynhyfar, or Guanhumara, as Geoffrey calls her, daughter of King Leodegraunce of Camelyard. He had very little rest afterwards. This lady did her best throughout her wedded life to justify the character given her in the old Welsh distich, said to be still current—
"Gwenhyfar merch Gogyrfan gawr,Merlin, with a prophetic insight into the fact that she was "not wholesome" for the king to take to wife, would have had him choose better; but is fain to let him have his own way, with the admission that "whereas a man's heart is set, he will be loth to return." The sole dowry, besides her fatal beauty, which Guenever brings with her, is the world-renowned Round Table. It had belonged to Uther Pendragon, and had been given by him to Leodegraunce. Merlin had made it, as we learn from the romance which bears his name, "in the likeness of the world:" if we are to take the romance of Tristan as any authority, it turned round like the world itself. That such was its construction appears probable from the etymology of the terms tournoi and tournament, applied to the military games which followed the repast of the warriors at their Round Table. It is possible that it was an invention of Norman chivalry, for M. de la Villemarqué has been unable to trace any allusion to it in either Welsh or Breton legends; it does not appear even in the Brut y Brenhined, and the earliest mention of it is in Wace's Brut; but M. de la Villemarqué quotes from Posidonius of Apamæa a passage which seems to prove that such a custom—of ranging themselves round a circular table at their feasts, and engaging in friendly combat afterwards—existed amongst the Celts of Gaul before the Christian era. It seems indeed highly probable, though it does not appear to have struck the zealous and intelligent champion of Celtic antiquities, that this Round Table, whatever transformations it may have undergone in the hands of the French romance writers, was of Druidical origin, and was one of those circular arrangements of stones which to this day interest and puzzle the most learned antiquaries, but were probably connected with their worship of Bel, the sun god, whom the mythological Arthur is said to represent. That it had some hidden signification, connected with the old religion, seems almost certain even from an expression in these romances,—"By it the world is signified of right.'"17 The table here said to have been constructed by Merlin, and which is solemnly blessed, after it comes into Arthur's possession, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, had seats for a hundred and fifty knights, a number always to be made up at the feast of Pentecost, when they were sworn to do no outrage, to be loyal and merciful, to succour all women in distress, and to fight in no unjust quarrel, "upon paine of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur forevermore." The "sieges" of the knights are "written all about with letters of gold," setting forth the names of the several occupants; but one place is left always vacant. It is called the "siege perilous:" it is said in some of the romances to be reserved for the Saint Graal; but rather, as in Mallory's compilation, for the knight to come who was to achieve that wondrous "quest," of which we shall have more hereafter. One intention of the Round Table companionship seems to have been that there should be a perfect equality between the knights who had seats there—a peerage of valour, as it were, in which all should rank alike. Twice at least in English history attempts were made to revive at least the name; first by Roger, Earl of Mortimer, who set one up at Kenilworth, which is said to have had "three feet of perfect gold;" and again by Edward III., who had one made with places for twenty-four knights at Windsor.
Drwg yn fechan, gwaeth yn fawr."16
From the date of Arthur's marriage, the compilation before us is little more than an unconnected series of adventures, ascribed to the king and his knights, until it breaks into what are, in fact, separate romances, containing the achievements of Sir Tristram, Sir Galahad, Sir Percival, and Sir Lancelot. Again does Arthur's evil sister, Queen Morgan la Faye, aim at his life, by the gift of a poisoned mantle, and again he is preserved by his tutelary genius, the Lady of the Lake. Enraged at such treachery, he banishes from his court her son, Sir Ewaine, in the belief that he is privy to her treason, and his cousin, Sir Gawaine, elects to share his exile. They ride forth together in quest of adventures; and falling in with one Sir Marhaus (or Morolt) of Ireland, they make his acquaintance after the usual fashion of the Arthurian chivalry. Sir Marhaus first unhorses and defeats them both, and then "they took off their helmes, and either kissed other, and then they swore together either to love other as brethren." Their subsequent adventures are a fair specimen of the lighter parts of these romances. On their way they meet with three "damosels;" the eldest, indeed, could only bear that name by courtesy, for she "had threescore winters of age, or more," with "a garland of gold" about her head, and "her haire white under the garland." The second was thirty years old; the third but fifteen, and she wore a garland of flowers. They proceed to choose—for the ladies inform them that they are appointed specially "to teach errant knights strange adventures"—and Sir Ewaine, the youngest knight, with a self-denying gallantry most uncommon in young knights of modern date, a modesty and forethought perhaps still more uncommon, chooses (let us hope the "garland of gold" had nothing to do with it) the ancient damosel of sixty; "for she hath seen much," he says, "and can helpe me best when I have need." The maiden of fifteen is left to the last, and falls to the lot of Sir Gawaine. "Then every damosel tooke her knight by the raine of the bridle, and brought them to the three wayes, and there was their oath made to meete at the fountain that day twelvemoneth an they lived. So they kist and departed, and each knight took his lady behind him." With these queer incumbrances they ride north, south, and west. Sir Gawaine, amongst other adventures, arbitrates in a dispute between a knight and a dwarf for the love of a lady, by the simple expedient of leaving it to the lady's own decision; and she, with a perverseness occasionally found in her sex, chooses the dwarf, who had, the romancer tells us, "a great mouth and a short nose." His own damosel of fifteen, however, leaves him; for which, if all tales be true of him that we hear afterwards, she was not much to be blamed. Sir Ewaine and Sir Marhaus, after divers adventures on their parts, return to their tryst, bringing their more staid damosels safe behind them. "And so they came to Camelot."
The compiler dashes off at once into a new romance, the main features of which exist in Geoffrey of Monmouth's work, on the subject of Arthur's triumphant expedition against the Emperor of Rome; which, if of British origin, as has been shown to be most probable, must be taken as a poetical retribution for Julius Cæsar's invasion. For centuries, the British hero's conquest seems to have been as firmly believed in as the Roman's, and its details probably much more familiar to the popular ear. Twelve ancient men bearing branches of olives, are sent from the Emperor Lucius to demand from Arthur "truage" for his realm of Britain. Arthur refuses, claiming rather on his part truage from the Emperor, inasmuch as "Belinus and Brennius,18 knights of Britain, had the Empire in their hands many dayes." Summoning all his powers, he takes ship at Sandwich and proceeds to meet his enemy; Queen Guenever, like other dames who are easily comforted, making "great sorrow and lamentation at the departing of her lord." The Emperor is already in Burgundy, intending to lay waste "Little Britaine," or Armorica, having arrayed against his rebellious vassal a host that covered "threescore miles in breadth." He brings with him not only the forces of "Pounte, Pampoille, Hermony, and Surry" (under which the reader recognises with some difficulty Pontus, Pamphylia, Armenia, and Syria), but also supernatural aid, in the shape of "fifty gyants engendered of fiends," "to break the front of the battail." One of these remarkable grenadier-guards was Galapas, "a man of mervailous quantity," whom King Arthur in the fight "shortened" by cutting off "both his legs by the knees," remarking that now he was "better of a size to deal with." Smiting with his good sword Excalibur, "ever where the Romaines were thickest," though wounded himself "athwart the visage," he cleaves Lucius from head to breast, and routs the Romans with terrible slaughter. There are found dead on the field twenty kings and threescore senators of Rome, whose bodies King Arthur "did embalme and gumme with good aromatike gummes," and sent them to Rome in payment of the tribute demanded—sufficient, he thinks, "for Britain, Ireland, and all Almaine with Germany." He pursues his triumphant march, taking cities as he goes, to Rome itself (when the government at this time appears to have been rather peculiar, consisting of an "emperour or dictatour," a pope and cardinals, and a podesta), is crowned emperor with all solemnity by the pope, and returns with great glory to England.
Sir Gawaine, in this campaign, does knightly execution upon the "Sarrasins" with his good sword Galatine. Amongst the enemies' ranks he meets with some strange dignitaries, such as the "Duke of Duchmen" and the "Marques of Moises' Land;" but the most remarkable of all is one Sir Priamus, who is "lineally descended of Alexander and Hector by right line," and claims also "Duke Josue and Machabeus" amongst his kindred, and is "right inheritor of Alexandry and Affrike, and all the out isles." This pagan knight Sir Gawaine overcomes after a terrific combat; Sir Priamus then stanches his adversary's wound with a vial "full of the four waters that came out of paradise," and requests to be made a Christian. These victories are not won without the loss of some of the good knights of the Round Table, for whose fall, we are told, King Arthur "wept, and dried his eyes with a handkercher"—a touch of the genuine realistic which we commend to the notice of our modern novelists.
It is time that we should turn our attention to some of the more renowned of the heroes of the Round Table. The two who may be considered as having the most undoubted claim to be of British origin are Sir Kay and Sir Bedver, or Bedivere. Their names stand at the head of the long list of Arthur's warriors in the Welsh romance of Kilhwch and Olwen, the only two whom we can certainly identify among the knights of the French romances. It is in exact conformity with this pre-eminence in the Mabinogi, that we find them holding offices of high trust about the royal person. Sir Kay,—the "Cai ap Kynyr" of the Welsh legends, the "Messire Queux" of the French romance,—is Arthur's foster-brother, the young prince having been intrusted by Merlin to the materna1 offices of the lady of his father Sir Ector. He is the chief cook or cellarer of Arthur in the Welsh tales, this office, by the laws of Hoel Dha, the British Justinian, holding the third place among the high functionaries of the court. The Brut calls him "sénéchal," which seems to have been an office of much the same nature. In Mallory's book he is said to have been made by the king "seneschal of England." He is always about Arthur's person, and seems to have had some admirable qualifications for a royal companion in those stirring days. "He drank like four," says an old Welsh bard "and fought like a hundred." In the collection before us he does not appear to have been so popular amongst his fellow-knights as this jovial spirit would have seemed to imply. "The proud Kay," they call him. "He weeneth no knight so good as be, and the contrary is often proved." To do him justice, he is always ready to fight, but does not always come off with credit, nor does this result seem altogether unsatisfactory to the rest of the Round Table. There is a Thersites-like vein about his discourse at times, which might perhaps account for this. He is, as Sir Tristram complains, "passing overthwart of his tongue;" having a trick, moreover, of bestowing nicknames not always the most complimentary, calling Sir Gareth "Fine-hands," and Sir Brewnor "the knight of the ill-cut coat" (La cote male taille). These peculiarities of temperament are excused by one of the romancers on the ground of his having been so unfairly deprived of his mother's attentions in his infancy for the benefit of Prince Arthur.
Sir Bedivere, who is found in the Mabinogi of Gheraint, as the house-steward of the king, appears also in Wace's Brut as his cupbearer. Wace makes him an Angevin; according to some of the Welsh authorities, Arthur created him Duke of Normandy. A fragment in the Welsh Archæology records him as a British warrior, who died in defence of his country. He appears but seldom in these present romances, but is one of the few who is present with Arthur at the last.
Sir Percival, "the noble knight and God's knight," whose seat is on the right hand of the siege perilous, plays a very considerable part in his last division of Mallory's book. He seems to be fairly identified by Lady C. Schreiber and M. de la Villemarqué with a hero of British legend, Peredur son of Evrok. One of the tales of the Mabinogion bears his name. He there appears as the son of a widow, who, having lost her husband Earl Evrock, and six tall sons, in battle, brings up this last in a remote solitude, where he may never hear of arms. "None dare name a horse or a weapon in his presence." But the usual result of a struggle against nature follows. He meets one day in the forest three knights of Arthur's court. Struck with their gallant appearance, he questions his mother, who tells him that they are "angels;" nothing henceforth will serve him but he must be an angel too. He sets off at last on his adventures, on a bony piebald horse, with many tears and a few parting maxims of advice on his mother's part; never to pass a church without going in to say his prayers, or good meat and drink without helping himself if he is hungry, or a jewel without picking it up, or a pretty woman without paying his court to her—whether she give him permission or no. The youth—who is represented as partaking in some measure of that character of "innocent" which in all Celtic nations is considered as the favourite of heaven—acts upon these maternal injunctions with more zeal than discretion. He enters a lady's pavilion, mistaking it for a church, eats half her dinner, and begs a jewel from her finger. According to the French version of the story, he also carries out very literally the last of his mother's maxims—he kisses the lady, in spite of her very proper resistance, "vingt fois"—pleading like a dutiful son,
"Si com'ma mere l'aprit'But of this act of filial obedience we are bound to say that the Welsh original makes no mention. The same hero appears also in an ancient Breton legend, quoted by M. de la Villemarqué, under the name of Peronik. Both names are traced by him to the same derivation; per being an old British word signifiying bowl or basin; and the romance from of the name, Percival (per eufaill), is by the same authirty held to be nothing more than the equivalent to Peredur (per kedar or edar)—both signifying "companion of the basin." This magic basin or bowl, which is a prominent feature in both the Welsh and the Breton legends, and appears also in an earlier poem attributed to Taliesin in the Welsh Archæology, is none other than the original of the Saint Graal,—a term of which the etymology has been long disputed,20 the mystic secret which is the subject of a cycle of romance as renowned and far more intricate than the genuine Arthurian legends, with which it has become inseparably connected, though we think that M. de la Rue is unquestionably right in attributing it to a distinct and separate origin. To investigate the sources of this remarkable legend, and to trace the various changes and modifications which it has undergone in the hands of the romanciers, although a task not without interest, would be to enter upon a "quest" almost as hopeless as that which is said to have engaged so long the chevaliers of King Arthur. The Holy Graal, or Greal, is the name given to the vessel from which the Saviour drank at the last supper, and afterwards said to have been filled with the Blood from the Crucifixion, collected by Joseph of Arimathæa, who carried it with him into Britain. With it came also a sacred lance, said to have been that of Longus the centurion, with which he pierced the Sacred Side, and which ever after dropped blood. These treasures were left by Joseph to his successors, with the charge that one of them should always act as their special guardian, and in reverence for so high a trust, should scrupulously maintain his chastity. Alain the son of Bron, to whom the trust descends in turn, breaks this obligation, though in look only; he is immediately wounded by the lance through both thighs, becomes a cripple, and ever after passes his life in fishing. He is known as "Le Roi Pêcheur" and as the "maimed king." The Holy Graal from that time disappears from human sight, or is only seen and tasted occasionally by the faithful few; and it is foretold by Merlin that the King's wound may never be healed, nor the Holy Vessel rediscovered, until one of Joseph's lineage shall appear on earth, a pure and stainless knight, who shall take that vacant place at the Round Table which no mortal knight has yet ventured to fill—"he shall sit in the Siege Perillous, and he shall win the Santgreal." This, then, becomes the object of ambition to all good knights of Arthur's court; and the "Quest of the Saint Graal," accordingly, is taken up by the most renowned amongst them; and it is a portion of these adventures, adapted from the romances which bore the name, which fills nearly the whole of the third volume of Mallory's compilation. But the sketch which we have given of the history of the Graal has been altered and amplified by the Anglo-Norman writers, until it has become a puzzling mass of contradictions. The "maimed king" is sometimes called Pellam or Pellas of Lystenoise, and is said to have been wounded by the lance for attempting to draw a sword which "no man might begripe but one;"21 or again, the wound is said to have been inflicted by a knight named Balin, who seizes the lance in self-defence, and so smites what passes into a proverb as "the dolorous stroke;"22 sometimes Joseph himself is spoken of as having been "smitten through the thigh;"23 sometimes the maimed king, who is to be healed by the Sangreal, would appear to be one King Evelake, who lies in a bed—"three hundred winter old."24 These incongruities may serve as additional evidence of the looseness with which Mallory blended his materials. In the hands of the ecclesiastics who, like Walter Mapes and the brothers De Borron, became romancers—employed or at least patronised by Henry II.—the legend of the Saint Graal grew in mystery and splendour. They even went so far as to assert that the Latin original was written by "le vrai Crucifix"—Christ himself. The cup is formed from a diamond that fell from the crown of Satan in his contest with St. Michael; it is located in a temple of its own upon "Mount Salvage," a dome of sapphire, round which rise thirty-six towers surmounted by crosses of crystal; knights "Templistes," all armed, keep watch about it day and night, but it is visible only to the pure in flesh and spirit. In this compilation of Mallory's it appears as a "vessel of gold," borne by a maiden, emitting "all manner of sweetness and savour," healing the wounds of those who approach it; but it may not be seen "but by a perfect man."25 Sir Percival has "a glimmering" of it, because he is a maiden knight. Or it stands upon a "table of silver," "many angles about it," in King Pelles's castle of Corbin or Corboneck—called elsewhere the "castle adventurous," or Chateau de Merveilles; lions guard the entrance, and the chamber which contains the holy vessel is "as bright as though all the torches in the world had been there.26 All the mystical fancies of a half-idolatrous Christianity are here combined with the picturesque painting of mediæval chivalry. In fact, as will be seen, these romances of the Graal are of a totally different colouring from the genuine tales of Arthur; the personages introduced into the action are the same, but the parts allotted to them are rather those of armed pilgrims than knights adventurous.
Ma mere m'enseigna et dit,
Que les pucelles saluasse
En quel lieu que je les trovasse."19
But the Holy Vessel and the Bleeding Lance, though they fall into their places so easily and naturally amongst the regalia of a fanciful Christianity, are indisputably of pagan origin. The first has long been claimed by Welsh antiquaries as a Druidical symbol.27 The author of Britannia after the Romans, whose researches in bardic theology entitle his opinion to considerable weight, speaks very confidently on the subject. "It is no romance," he says, "but a blasphemous imposture, more daring than any on record, in which it is endeavoured to pass off the mysteries of bardism for the inspirations of the Holy Ghost." It is certain that in the Welsh legend of Peredur, the undoubted original of Sir Percival, a wondrous bowl and lance are to be found, which make no claim to Christian origin. The bowl has within it the fearful sight of a human head swimming in blood; the lance's point distils three drops of gore. There, too, we find the "Fisher-King;" a white-haired old man, lame, fishing with his attendants in a lake; the whole of the properties of the ecclesiastical legend in a ruder form. M. de la Villemarqué alos speaks of a Breton legend, in which a marvellous vessel of similar character appears, which, like the Graal, has the property of filling itself with all kinds of delicious meats according to the taste of the partaker. Still earlier than these, M. de la Villemarqué quotes fragments from Taliesin which speak of a magic bowl which contained the mysteries of the world, and, like the Graal of the romances, had the power to heal mortal wounds, and even to bring the dead to life. Such a bowl formed one of the thirteen treasures of the isle of Britain, which Merlin bore away in his "ship of crystal" to the Isle of Avalon; thus disappearing, like the Graal, from human view. The bloody lance appears also in a prophecy attributed to Taliesin, in which it is foretold that "the realm of Logres" (the Saxon England) "shall fall by a bleeding lance,"28 which became to the Britons from that time forth the symbol of liberty and deliverance.
Foremost amongst the knights-companions who engage in the holy Quest is Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Son of King Ban of Benwicke (probably Benoit in Brittany), he is carried away in his infancy by the fairy Viviane, and brought up in her enchanted island. In him we have the romanciers' ideal of chivalry; so noble and so fascinating is his character in many points, that we can scarcely wonder if we see it exercising even at this day a dangerous influence in the pages of modern literature. But for one thing, Lancelot had been indeed the knight "sans peur et sans reproche;" and unhappily his one fault—coupled, too, as it is in his case, with a certain truth and loyalty, though to an unworthy cause—is of that nature which wins pardon easiest from the young and passionate. We need no more than to allude to his amour with Queen Guenever, the blot on his escutcheon which the poets of the "Courts of Love" were not ashamed to blazon into a virtue. In the eyes of the Norman gestours, from whom Mallory draws in the earlier portion of these volumes, he "has not his peer of any earthly sinful man." "At no time was he overcome, but it were by treason or enchantment." Brave, gentle, and true, he wins honour and love from knights and ladies. To him alone the haughtiest champions of Arthur's court are content to yield the prize of the tournament without a murmur; defeat from such a hand confers almost as much honour as victory over others. Even Arthur, whom he has so deeply wronged, feels the spell upon him; he bursts into tears, when Lancelot assists him to remount—thinking on the great courtesie that was in Sir Lancelot more than in any other man." So successful was the portrait which they had drawn of all that was noble and admirable—writing as they did for a licentious age and a corrupt court—that it was only left for the later mythists of the Graal to point out how one deadly sin disqualifies the flower of chivalry from approaching the church's mysteries. "Had he not been in his privy thoughts and in his mind set inwardly to the queen, as he was in outward seeming unto God, there had no knight passed him in the Quest of the Saint Graal."29 "It had been most convenient for him of all earthly knights, but sin is so foul in him that he may not achieve such noble deeds."30 Once, indeed, he wins his way to a sight of the Holy Vessel; before it a priest elevates the Host, with the miraculous weight of which he seems to stagger; Lancelot puts forth a sacrilegious hand, like Uzzah, to help him; and is struck down in a swoon which lasts for twenty-four days—in punishment, as he learns afterwards, for as many years of sin. Weary and dispirited, he returns to Camelot, to find half the companions of the Round Table slain. Knights "of evil faith and poor of belief," their presumptuous quest has been fatal to them.
Three there are, however, to whom success is foretold—Sir Percival, Sir Bors de Ganis, and Sir Galahad. The first and the last are pure and maiden knights; Sir Bors has never sinned but once. Sir Galahad is the beautiful creation of the later fictions. He belongs to the romance of the Graal, and would be quite out of place in the earlier Arthurian story. He is the son of Sir Lancelot and King Pelles's daughter; his birth is illegitimate, but it has been brought about by enchantment. He is introduced suddenly by an old man amongst the assembled knights, and placed in the "siege perilous." The knights all marvel that he "durst sit there, that was so tender of age;" but his name is found written there in letters of gold, and he is acknowledged as the rightful occupant that "shall win the Saint Graal." It is hopeless to trace any connected allegory in the long train of adventures which follow, in which the mystical sometimes descends to absurdity, and sometimes rises to the sublime: we have probably here, as in the other portions of Mallory's book, a rude attempt to combine portions of separate romances into a connected story. But Galahad is the type of a spiritual knighthood, and a member of a higher companionship than King Arthur's. He wears no lady's favour, or blazon of man's device; a white shield, crossed with blood, which has a marvellous history,31 the sword of King David,32 with a scabbard made in part out [of] "the tree of life," a white steed brought to him "in the Lord's behalfe" by the White Knight, "whose name is for none earthly to know"33—these are the accoutrements of the Champion of Heaven; and the crown he seeks is—Death, and Life Eternal. "Sir Galahad fell in his prayers long time unto our lord, that at what time he asked he might passe out of the world. And so much he prayed, till at the last a voice said to unto him, 'Galahad, thou shalt have thy request, and when thou askest they death of thy body thou shalt have it, and thou shalt find the life of thy soul."34 Brief, but glorious is his career; no wonder that before him, not only evil and cruel knights, but even the noble Percival and Lancelot the peerless, when they encounter him in his disguise, go down, horse and man. The strange allegory, indeed, scarcely escapes the charge of irreverence; for in some passages Galahad is plainly the representation of One who is man, and yet more than man. Solomon is said to have had prevision of his coming; he is the child of prophecy, who is to find again the immortal privileges which have been lost so long; he drives out the seven evil knights ("which betoken the seven deadly sins") from the Castle of Maidens, where were so many people "that he might not number them," who had "long abidden their deliverance;" he exorcizes the fiend, who recognizes him as the "Servant of God," and cries out in terror at his approach, "for thou shalt make me goe againe there, where I have been so long;" he descends into a cave to deliver a spirit that has dwelt in fire "three hundred and four and fifty years."35 The source from whence these adventures are drawn cannot be mistaken.
With Sir Bors and Sir Percival, who have also gone through special trials and temptations of their own, Galahad enters the ship of Faith, made by Solomon—"so perfect that it will suffer no sinne in it"—and after adventures cast in the wildest type of religious allegory, he is blest with the sight, and fed with the miraculous dainties, of the Graal. With the blood of the spear he heals the maimed king, and then departs with his mysterious trophies to the "holy city" of Sarras.36 Here he is made king; for a year he wears the "crown of gold;" and then his prayer is granted, and "a multitude of angels bear up his soul to heaven." A Hand out of the clouds—"but they saw not the body"—bears away Vessell and Lance; and "sithence was no man so hardy as to say that he had seen the Sancgreal." Sir Percival takes a religious habit, and dies; Sir Bors buries him "in the spiritualities," and returns, with an account of the achievement of the Quest, to Arthur's court at Camelot.
Thither, somewhat unwillingly, we return too. The tangled web of adventure begins afresh (in fact, it is a new romance), and Lancelot is again the hero. In vain for him have been his own resolve to lead henceforth a pure life, and Galahad's parting charge to him by Sir Bors's mouth, "to remember this unsteadfast world;" he "began to resort unto Queen Guenever again, and forgat the promise and the profession that he had made in the Quest." Their guilty love runs its course, only interrupted by the pathetic tale of Elaine la Blaunche, the maid of Astolat, of whose scarlet sleeve, worn by Lancelot at the tournament, the queen is jealous, and who floats down dead, in her barge, "covered with black samite," amongst all the gay company "at Westminster." Twice the queen is detected, and condemned to the stake; and twice Lancelot delivers her; the last time, at the expense of the lives of Sir Gareth and many of his companions of the Round Table. Concealment from this time is hopeless; yet such is his renown and popularity that his nephew Sir Bors, with many other of the knights-companions, who "will take the woe with the wealth," espouse his cause, and he carries off Guenever to his castle of Joyous Garde,37 until the king's wrath cool. On some strange principle, wholly repugnant to our modern feelings, the Pope charges Arthur to receive his queen back again "on pain of interditing all England;" and she is restored to him in a sort of triumphal procession—"in white cloth of gold tissue"—a sentimental display which is represented by the trouveurs as affecting the bold knights who were there present even to tears. But "King Arthur sate still, and spake not one word."
Sir Lancelot also has been claimed by M. de la Villemarqué and by Lady C. Schreiber as a British hero. The latter sees in his name nothing more than a translation of Paladr-ddelt, "splintered spear"—a chief who is celebrated in the Triads.38 But this is somewhat weak evidence, as no legends appear to identify him in any way with Lancelot's story, and he is said to be the son of the "King of India." M. de la Villemarqué,39 with more plausibility, remarks that the true orthography of the name is L'Ancelot—or simily Ancelot, as it appears in the romance of Ogier the Dane; and that this is the diminutive of the word Ancel, which in the romance language signified "vassal," or "servant." This, he holds, is the exact translation of the Welsh Mael, a name borne by a Celtic chief (sometimes called also Mael-was or Mael-gun) celebrated by the Welsh bards and in the Triads, who is said to have been a lover of Guenever, to have laid wait for her in a wood, and to have carried her off into his kingdom (which, according to Caradoc, was in Scotland), where he was long besieged by Arthur. But we conceive that the Celtic hero Mael-gun is to be found in this very compilation of Mallory's, not as Lancelot, but as Melioganus,40 or Meliograunce, who is frequently mentioned as a lover of the queen's, who lays an ambuscade for her in the wood,41 as she rides "a-Maying, clothed all in green," and from whom Lancelot himself delivers her. As yet, the Welsh or Briton claimants in this cause of Lancelot must rest content with a verdict of "not proven." But will they not lciam Sir Galahad as the "holy knight Iltud" of the Triads—"on who guarded the Graal"— Iltud Farchog, "the knight," par excellence, "devoted to the law of God and faith in Christ"?42
The breach between Lancelot and his king is now past even the Church's healing. The noble companionship of the Round Table is broken up for ever. Lancelot, with the knights who still cleave to him, goes over sea to France in a half-voluntary exile—"for Sir Lancelot and his nephews were lords of all the realme of France"—and while Arthur carries the war there against him with three thousand knights, the false Sir Mordred (his own son by an incestuous connection formed in ignorance with his half-sister), whom he has left in charge of the realm, spreads a report of his death, gets himself crowned at Canterbury, and even endeavours to force the queen to marry him. Long ago, at Mordred's birth, Merlin had foretold that the child of sin should be its avenger; and Arthur had sought to avert the coming evil by a copy of Herod's policy—he had all the children slain that were born on a certain May-day. But Mordred had escaped; and now, with the shadow of his doom already dark upon him, Arthur moves to meet him on the fatal field of Camlan—the Gilboa of Welsh bards— and there, amidst piles of dead, when but two of the king's knights are left alive,43 father and son fall by each other's hand.
Arthur leaves the stage of his mortal glory in right royal fashion. The passage which records his disappearance, and which has given the name of Mort d'Arthure to the whole of this body of legend, may claim to stand almost unrivalled, for the grand simplicity of its conception and language, amongst the masterpieces of English prose. It is too well known to justify extraction here. How the brothers Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere, sole survivors of that deadly fight, left the king to carry him "to some toune;" how, in the effort, Sir Lucan, wounded as he is to the death, swoons and falls—"and his noble heart brast;" how Arthur, knowing that "his time hieth fast," bids Sir Bedivere take Excalibur, his good sword, and cast it into the water, and bring him word of what he shall see there; how Sir Bedivere, as he looks upon the "pummel and haft of all precious stones," thinks it "sinne and shame to throw away that noble sword," and twice hides it, and returns answer to the dying king's inquiry, that he had done his bidding, but had seen nothing but "water wap, and waves waune;" and how at the last, after stern chiding for his faithlessness, he "threw the sword into the water as far as he might, and there came an arme and a hand above the water and met it and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished; and then the hand vanished away with the sowrd in the water"—is not all this written the chronicles of a thousand memories?
So Sir Bedivere carries his lord down to the water-side, where there waits a barge with many fair ladies—amongst them the royal sorceress, Morgan la Fay—no longer, as it would seem, her brother's enemy—the Queen of North Wales, the queen of the waste-lands, and Nimue, "chief lady of the lake;" and they bear him away to Glastonbury, where an aged hermit, "that had some time been Archbishop of Canterbury," buries him at midnight.
At Glastonbury, it was said and long believed, his tomb was found in the year 1191; King Henry II. having obtained the clue to the locality (always preserved in bardic tradition) from a Welsh bard at Pembroke; and certainly, if the most minute circumstantial evidence even of some who professed to be eye-witnesses could be taken as sufficient proof, it was not wanting in this instance. Giraldus Cambrensis and Matthew Paris both relate that between two pyramidal stones, sixteen feet deep in the earth, the diggers came to a hollow oak which contained the bones of the King; his thigh-bone of gigantic dimensions, with ten or more wounds on the head—one large one, supposed to be the cause of death. Beside him lay Queen Guenever, a lock of whose hair was found still yellow and beautiful, plaited with wondrous art, "which a monk lifted up, and it crumbled into dust."44 Above lay a leaden cross ("nos quoque vidimus et tractavimus"— "we ourselves have seen and handled it," says Giraldus) which bore the following inscription:—Hic jacet inclytus rex Arturus [cum Weneveria uxore sua secunda 45] in insula Avalonia." The monks removed both bodies into the church, and erected over them a noble mausoleum, with this epitaph—
"Hic jacet Arthurs, flos regum, gloria regni,with which Leland being dissatisfied, wrote a longer one himself, which we will spare the reader. Richard Cœur de Lion is said to have visited this tomb at Glastonbury, and to have been presented by its guardians with the actual sword Excalibur, which he subsequently transferred to Tancred of Sicily.46 After an intermediate translation (according to the Glastonbury story), Edward I. and his queen made a pilgrimage to the spot in 1276, saw the bodies, which had been deposited in two chests, with the pictures of both, and their arms painted on the lids—"the queen crowned"—the king, "with the abscission of the left ear, and the marks of his mortal wound"—and removed them to the front of the high altar, with an inscription recording the fact. Even so they were not to rest; for in Edward III.'s time, in 1368, they are said to have been moved again. Leland himself appears to have seen nothing more than the leaden cross—"one foot long, more or less"—but even this had a powerful effect upon that enthusiastic antiquary. "I beheld it," he says, "with most curious eyes, and handled it with joints that trembled ine very part."
Quem mores, probitas, commendant laude perenni;"
That the whole story was an imposture—that it was either a clever invention of the brethren of Glastonbury to rise the importance of their house in the eyes of their royal visitors, or a politic ruse of the Plantagenet kings to secure their sovereignty over the old Cymric nation—can scarcely at this day be doubted, though many antiquaries, Dr. Whitaker amongst the number, have treated it as a historical fact. The pretended discovery of the hero's bones had at least some effect, as Father Lobineau tells us, in discouraging the hopes entertained of his reappearance amongst the Bretons; 47 and it was possibly with a view to some such effect upon their kinsmen in Wales that, in 1289, Arthur's crown was said to have been discovered, and tendered to Edward I. at Carnarvon.
The Welsh bards, at least, would admit of no such sepulture. The national pride which, in the "Graves of the Heroes," points to each cromlech where the chiefs of song lie buried, claims no such record for the mightiest of them all. "No"—says Taliesin—
"Anoeth byth bed y Arthur"—("The mystery of the world is the grave of Arthur.")The Cornishmen, with more circumstance but less poetry, preserve traditions of the spot. At Camelford a stone used to be shown, bearing the letters ATRY, which was said to mark the place of his death or burial.48 A similar memorial—"a single stone laid across a stream, with having some letters cut on its lower surface"— exists, or did exist, "in front of the house of Worthy-Vale, near Minster;" and Warbstow-barrow, near Launceston, maintains a rival claim to be his last resting-place.
But the Arthur of legend and song fills no grave at Glastonbury or in Cornwall. The last words which the romancers put in his mouth contradict their own story of the midnight burial—"I will to the isle of Avallon, to heal me of my deadly wound." "Men say that he will come gain and win the holy cross." The popular belief in this second advent is perhaps the strongest evidence of his historical existence. Like all the darlings of a people—like Frederick Barbarossa, like Sebastian of Portugal, like "the three Tells" of Switzerland, like the last Duke of Burgundy, like the first Napoleon—men could not believe in his death. The noble heart can never die. "He is the king y-crowned in faery;" somewhere in those enchanted halls, he is yet Arthur of Britain. Again shall come, if Merlin spoke true, "the snow-white chief upon the snow-white horse," 49 to rally his countrymen. He only sleeps; in the fairy palace of Morgan la Faye50—seen sometimes on the coasts of Sicily as the "Fata Morgana"—he rests "upon a couch of royal furniture," his wound healed by her arts year after year, but ever bleeding afresh, till his hour come; or in the cavern under the roots of the hazel on Craig-y-dinas in Eryri, "all in a circle, their heads outward, every man in his armour, his sword, and shield, and spear by him," he and his knights-companions sleep; to awake when "the black eagle and the golden eagle shall go to war," to lead the chivalry of the Cymry in triumph through their native island. Or under Richmond Hill in Yorkshire, deep in the bowels of the earth, they wait only the man and the hour to start to life. There hangs at the cave's mouth the magic sword and horn; boldly draw the sword, and rightly blow the horn, and those enchanted warriors shall start to life once more. Once—so the legend runs—the entrance to that cave was found by mortal wight; he gazed on the sword, but his heart failed him to grasp it; but he sounded the horn; and as the sleeping kings started to their feet, roof and cave fell in, while unearthly voices shouted "woe to the coward" who had missed so wondrous an adventure. "Go into Brittany," said Alan de l'Isle in his day, "and dare to say that Arthur is dead—the very children will stone you." Even yet they show you where he sleeps, opposite his old stronghold of Kerduel, in the bleak and lonely isle of Agalon. Long they believed that before every battle Arthur and his host might be seen at early dawn marching along the mountain-tops through the mist; and still they sing his war-song, and as the peasant listens to the distant sounds of hound and horn winding through the forest under the full moon, he predicts fine weather, for he hears the "Chasse Arthur."
Of the ends of Guenever and Lancelot we do not care to say much. Both pass, according to the due course of religious and poetical justice of the time, from the worst vanities of the world into the purest odour of sanctity. Guenever takes the veil at Amesbury, and in time becomes abbess there. Of the beautiful parting scene between her and Arthur, where we almost lose the sense of her guilt in the reality of her repentance, it is but just to Mr. Tennyson to say that it is wholly a fair creation of his own. Very different is the spirit in which these romances part from her; "while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end." Lancelot, who has meanwhile also taken the religious habit, sees her buried with Arthur at Glastonbury, and after six weeks of "grovelling and praying" on the tomb, he too is found dead. But there is no sound of penitence in the grand proud words pronounced over him by his comrade Sir Bors; after a life of falsehood to his king and his friend, red with the blood of unarmed companions slain in an unhallowed quarrel, faithful only to an adulterous love, he goes to his grave with that well-known eulogy, whose magnificent language has blinded many an admiring reader to its perilous application.
But such is the morality of these romances throughout; an evil imported into them by their Anglo-Norman adapters, for the tales of the Mabinogion are free from it. It is not that we find here the seductive licence of the Italian novelist; it might be hard to point even to a licentious passage; but intrigue and unchastity are treated as the boldest matters of fact, and the writers appear utterly unconscious of even a moral rule in such cases. The two love-tales are adulteries, for the relations of Tristram and Iseult are but a repetition of those of Lancelot and Guenever; the preux chevaliers are disloyal, both as friends and as subjects, in that which is rightly held to be the very soul of modern honour. Even Arthur himself, in whom M. de la Villemarqué sees the model of Christian chivalry, is here neither saint nor hero: to say nothing of his massacre of the innocents already alluded to, or his unintentional incest, he is habitually faithless in his own conjugal relations. We can feel little interest in his own wrongs, when he congratulates Tristram and Iseult on being safe from King Mark in Joyous Gard, and says that "they are right well beset together." Such, indeed, is the line in which the reader's sympathies are always directed; King Mark's aims at avenging himself by taking Tristram's life, are always denounced as "treason;" when King Lot's wife is slain in adultery, Arthur and Lancelot hold it "a felonious treason;" and when King Mark, for the most excellent reasons, banishes Tristram from his court for ten years, he is denounced by the hero—in the apparent conviction that he is expressing a popular sentiment,—as "very ungrateful." But enough of such instances; is it too much to exclaim with old Leland—honest, even if he was credulous—"O scelera, O mores, O corrupta tempora!"51
The religion—in all but the latter portion, the Quest of the Graal—is a mere parergon, though we have abundance of its phraseology. In all essentials it is at least as much pagan as Christian. There are strong proofs how long the old heathen belief survived,—a blind unreasoning fear of the mysterious powers of nature, a very worship of the groves and rocks. Morgan la Faye, who can turn herself and followers into stones at pleasure, is a far more awful personage than the Archbishop of Canterbury, who appears in strange conjunction almost on the same page. Nature and art are alike inexplicable, except on supernatural principles. The works of the latter are miracles, as in the instance of Excalibur. The powers of the former are magnified into prodigies. We have an example in that strange creation, the "Questing Beast," or the "Beast glatisant," the undoubted original of the "Blatant Beast" of Spenser; which, introduced as it is abruptly into the narrative, is evidently supposed to be already well known. It has "a noise as of questing hounds in its belly"—"a marvellous beast and a great signification," of which "Merlin prophesied much;" some of the most renowned knights of Arthur's companionship follow it successively, apparently without success. The "great signification" we confess ourselves unable to explain; but the legend, like so many of the rest, is Cymric. It is undoubtedly the Twrch Twyth, the wild-boar king, of the tale called "Kilhwch and Olwen," the wildest and perhaps most curious of the Mabinogion. Once a king, he has been transformed into a boar for his sins; he has seven young pigs or princes, the eldest of which rejoices in the name of Grugyn Gwrych Ereint, of very porcine etymology, "whose bristles were of silver wire, and you could trace him through the woods by their shining." The Boar-king carries between his ears a comb and scissors, and these must be won by Kilhwch before he can wed with Olwen, whose father, Yapaddaden Penkawr, cannot arrange his hair without them. Kilhwch obtains the aid of Arthur and his companions in the hunt; but nine days and nine nights the royal beast and his brood defy the whole Round Table. They hunt him from Ireland through Pembrokeshire, Cardigan, over the Brecknock mountains, across the Severn into Cornwall, where he takes the sea, and is never seen more.
It will be seen that our estimate of these romances is scarcely the popular one. The remarkable interest which attaches to them seems to us independent of, and far beyond, their intrinsic merit. As to the life and morals which they paint, the most satisfactory reflection is, that it was never real. There was no golden age of chivalry, whatever Sir Bulwer Lytton may try to persuade us—
"When what is now called poetry was life."Few of these heroes wore in their hearts the noble motto, which one of them—Gyron le Courtois—bore upon his sword, "Loyaulté passe tout, et faulseté honnet tout." This would-be heroic and chivalric age was very mean and poor in some of its phases. Even its good, such as it was, was all for the knight and noble; the "churl" is only introduced for their disport and mockery. "Then were they afraid when they saw a knight." What a picture of social relations!
After all, this antiquarian hero-worship is unreal. Nobler, even if more self-assertive,—more fertile in present deeds, even if it deal less in reverence for the past,—is the conscious boast of Diomed, which breathes so much of the modern English spirit—
"Ημεις τοι πατερων μεγ αμεινονες' εχομεθ' ειναι"They were not the giants that they seem, looming through the mist of ages. If we lay our bones beside their bones, they hardly suffer by the comparison; nerve and sinew have not degenerated. The ancient armour which had borne the brunt of actual tourney, was found somewhat scant of girth for the limbs that jousted in sport at Eglington. The gentlemen of modern England, who, instead of sitting at home at ease, ride across the stiffest country they can find, or climb Monte Rosa and the Wetterhorn for pure amusement, are at least king Arthur's equals in this,—they "will not go to meat till they have seem some great adventure." And if it come to what the romancers call "derring-do," we can fight as well as they did; though the sober columns of the modern "correspondent" have not the grand faculty of lying that was accorded to the trouveur of old, our poor prosaic annals can tell their story too. The lads that stood back to back at the Alma—the men who rode at Balaclava—the raw recruits, "churls" though they were, who fired their own death-volley as they went down in their ranks on board the Birkenhead—were truer heroes than any knight of the Round Table.