God's Englishmen: I. Arthur, the Mythic King.

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God's Englishmen: I. Arthur, the Mythic King.

from: Good Words (Pp. 463 - 467)  1884

I.—Arthur, the Mythic King

More than six hundred years ago, an old monk connected with the Abbey of St. Albans, sitting down to write his History of the English, complained that he was much vexed by the question, put either by some foolish or some envious critic, as to whether the record of merely secular history was worthy of the labour and the study of a Christian man. Full of the lofty consciousness of the value and the value and the sacredness of historical learning, Matthew Paris justified the task he had undertaken, first by an appeal to the highest instincts of man, and then by a quotation of the words of the Psalmist, "The just shall be had in everlasting remembrance." "A man," he said, "who is without learning, and with no care for the memory of his forefathers, will surely sink to the level of the beasts. It is upon such a one that the curse of the Psalmist will rest. 'The memory of the wicked shall be cut off from the earth . . . but the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance. If though forgettest and despisest the departed of past generations, who will remember thee?'" "It was to keep alive," he adds, "the memory of the good, and to teach us to abhor the bad, that all the sacred historians, Moses, Joseph, Cyprian, Eusebius, Bæda, Propser, Marianus Scotus, and other deep-souled writers, have handed down to us their chronicles."

I think it was Carlyle who once said that "a nation's true Bible was its own history." However that may be, of this, at any rate, I am sure, that, in taking the subject of these papers from the records of English history, I shall be doing no dishonour to that greater Bible which rightly we reverence as the very Word of God, if only I can make any one realise the religious sense of all history, if only I can can succeed in bringing home the fact of which Matthew Paris was one of the earliest witnesses among English historians, and which, thank God, has never wholly died out from amongst us, that God is not less a King over England than He was over Judæa, that every advance in righteousness and good citizenship among our people is but another step forward towards the fulness of the time when the kingdoms of this world shall have become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ. All through the history of the Jewish people, the haunting sense of a great idea, of the divine mission of the nation, is never absent from their records. In the Genesis, the Exodus, and Deuteronomy, in the Chronicles of their Judges, Kings, and Prophets, continually we may hear the echo of the words—the refrain, as it were, of a great national anthem—"We are thy people, O God!"

But England has had also her sacred mission in the world. Our country has had her divine Genesis and Exodus, her Chronicles of Kings and Prophets. And surely some of us, at any rate, as we have lately read the story anew, in the pages of Mr. Green's "Making of England," and his "History of the English People," cannot but have felt that we, too, as well as the Jews of old, have been a "chosen people," that Milton was right after all when he spoke of "God's Englishmen," and that we, each one of us, are only worthy of our great national heritage in so far as we show ourselves conscious of the divine sanction which lies behind it.

I begin this series of sketches of the prophets and kings of England with King Arthur. I could not well begin with any other name than his. It is true that there is small probability, and very little historical foundation, for all the stories of heroic deeds which have gathered round his name. History, indeed, only tells us that he was a petty prince of Devon, whose wife, the Guinevere of romance, was carried off by a king of North Wales, and scarcely recovered by treaty after a year's fighting; that he was murdered by his nephew and buried at Glastonbury, and that his remains were supposed to have been discovered there in the time of Henry II. Still one cannot but believe that there must have been some noblenesses in a character which have given him a life beyond the grave, the memory of which has lingered on in the imaginations of bards and minstrels, to become to after generations of his countrymen the true type of all kingly and knightly virtues.

We are all familiar in these days with Mr. Tennyson's great epic poem, "The Idylls of the King," where under the semblance of Arthurian legends, the Poet Laureate has told us the Parable of the Human Soul, its conflicts, temptations, victories, and final goal. But it is in "The Book of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table," arranged and modelled into epic form from contemporary French and English ballads and stories, by Sir Thomas Malory, in the reign of Edward IV., that the true hero and ideal King of English Middle Age Romance may best be known. How great was the influence of that great epic, not only in nourishing the imagination but also in fashioning the manners of English gentlemen in the times of the Tudors, we may gain some hint from the terms in which Caxton, our great English printer, speaks of it in the preface to his first printed edition in the year 1488.
"I have set it down in print," he says, "to the intent that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in those days, by which they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished and oft put to shame and rebuke; humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies, with all other estates of what estate or degree they been of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same. Wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry , courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good, and leave the evil."
I cannot of course here re-tell the main incidents of the romance. The legend is far too long for that. Two episodes, however, upon which, in effect, the whole scheme of the poem turns, I may briefly indicate. The story of the "Founding of the Order of the Table Round," and "the Quest of the Sangreal," are not without their appropriate lesson even for our practical and apparently unheroic nineteenth century life.

I. In the legend of the Knights of the Round Table, we have symbolised, no doubt, the good work which was done for the world of the Middle Ages by the social institutions of feudalism.

It was to that system that we owe the recommencement of social life in Europe after the total breakdown of Roman civilisation under the repeated inroads of the the Teutonic nations. For although feudalism was undoubtedly in its main feature antagonistic to one of the chief elements of social order, yet we cannot forget that as a first step out of barbarism, the spirit of war was necessary for the very establishment of that civilisation, whose chief aim ultimately it would be to make the appeal to that spirit unnecessary.

During the reign of Charlemagne, for example, wars were not less, but perhaps more, frequent than usual; but then, for the first time in modern European history, they were wars undertaken upon, more or less, fixed principles, and with a direct end in view. They were no longer the wilful expeditions of a powerful ruler, prompted simply by the lust of conquest. They were the determined endeavour of one who thought he had the power to effect what he designed, to suppress, by the means which in those days were the most natural and the most effective, those elements of disorder which he recognised as fatal to the well-being of society. His method was probably the only one by which in those days he could have accomplished his design, and certainly it bore the merit of success. By slow degrees the spirit of order makes itself felt throughout modern Europe. The Feudal system, which with all its faults had at least the supreme merit of being a system, gradually arose out of the bosom of barbarism. In many things, as I have said, it was undoubtedly hostile to social well-being, but as being the first instance of a visible organization, it educated the individual in those ideas of loyalty, veracity, and justice, of union and confederation, in all those qualities, in fact, which we sum up in the one word "chivalry," which alone made the next step in civilisation possible.

This process of calling social order out of disorder, and the exhibition of the moral qualities which alone made that process possible, is very vividly pictured for us by Mr. Tennyson in the noble words which he puts into King Arthur's mouth when describing to Queen Guinevere the purpose of his life.
"For when the Roman left us, and their law
Relax'd its hold upon us, and the ways
Were filled with rapine, here and there a deed
Of prowess done redressed a random wrong.
But I was first of all the kings who drew
The knighthood errand of this realm and all
The realms together under me, their Head,
In that fair order of my Table Round,
A glorious company, the flower of men,
To serve as model for the mighty world,
And be the fair beginning of a time.
I made them lay their hands in mine and swear
To reverence the king, as if he were
Their conscience, and their conscience as their king,
To break the heathen and uphold the Christ,
To ride abroad redressing human wrongs,
To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it,
To honour his own word as if his God's,
To lead sweet lives in purest chastity,
To love one maiden only, cleave to her,
And worship her by years of noble deeds,
Until they won her; for indeed I knew
Of no more subtle master under heaven
Than is the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,
But teach high thought, and amiable words
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And love of truth, and all that makes a man."
This ideal of noble manliness one is glad to think is not confined to any one age or time. True, the conditions of life in England have all changed since the days when Sir Thomas Malory drew his picture of the ideal Arthur, for the nobles and gentlemen of the court of Edward IV., or even since those later times when, "in the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth," the "Morte d'Arthur" nourished the souls of that brilliant and high-tempered generation, of which Raleigh and Sidney, and Howard and Grenville were the conspicuous types, in all chivalrous and gentle discipline.
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways."
The special age of chivalry has passed away, but chivalry itself has only changed the outward expression of its character. For the spirit of chivalry, for all those qualities of knightly character, for all the nobleness of nature, all the love of truth and honour, all the sympathy with human distress, all the eagerness to champion the just though weaker cause, all the gentle courtesy of disposition which ever graced a knight of old, there is still need to-day in England. A new order of knighthood, vowed like the knights of Arthur's table,
"To ride abroad redressing human wrongs,"
would still have their work to-day in England. We may not have our enchanters, or giants, or dragons as of old, but our nineteenth-century world is not without its powers of evil quite as monstrous and devastating as any of those of the Middle Ages. For indeed, I trust, there are few men who would dare to say quite as boldly as did a leading parliamentary orator the other day, "England is not Utopia. The English are a practical people bound to look well after their own interests, who have no roving commission of knight-errantry 'to ride abroad redressing human wrongs.'" No! it is true that England may not be Utopia, but it is still truer that that will be an ill day for England when chivalry of spirit, that noble inheritance won for us by the knights of old, shall be sneered at without protest, as unworthy of the thoughts of practical Englishmen.

II. To return, however, to the Arthurian legend. In Malory's Epic, as in Mr. Tennyson's Idylls, the story of the Quest of the Sangreal is no doubt the central incident of the great romance. While the glory of Arthur as the chivalric ideal of kingliness is yet only its early dawn, the King is warned by the seer Merlin, how in all the fair promise of his order there still lies the seeds of death. The heroes who as "earthly knights and lovers," in the fields of worldly chivalry have won for the most part victories both glorious and easy, fail lamentably when tried by other tests, as the struggle changes from an earthly to a spiritual combat, by which the coming kingdom of true chivalry can alone be established.

The Quest for the Sangreal brings about the final severance between good and evil. The Sangreal, or Holy Grail, according to the legend, is the dish which held the Pascal lamb at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea, it was said, had gone into the house when the supper had been eaten, had taken away the dish, and in it, at the time of the crucifixion, had received the blood from the spear wound of Jesus. This dish, "with part of the blood of our Lord," he had brought with him to England, and deposited there in the abbey which he founded at Glastonbury. There for many years it had remained an object of pilgrimage and adoration. Finally, however, "for the evil of the times," it had been caught away into the heavens, and only appeared from time to time in vision to "virgin hearts in work and will."

The Quest in fact is achieved by the holy knights alone, one, Sir Galahad—
"The virgin knight in work and will
"Whose strength is as the strength of ten
Because his heart is pure,"
alone attaining to the Perfect vision,
—"and in the strength of this,
Shattering all evil customs everywhere."
Launcelot, after Arthur, the noblest character in the romance, pre-eminent among the knights, attains also to the vision, but on account of his one great sin, for him the holy vessel was veiled and covered, so that afterwards hardly will he believe he saw it—for, as he tells the king on his return,
     " In me lived a sin
So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure,
Noble, and knightly in me twined and clung
Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower
And poisonous grew together, each as each
Not to be plucked asunder. . .
. . . and what I saw was veil'd
And cover'd; and this Quest was not for me."
Such are Mr. Tennyson's words. These are Sir Thomas Malory's, which I am sure are not less worth quoting:—
"Then anon Sir Launcelot waked and got him up and bethought him what he had seen there, and whether it were dreams or not. Right so heard he a voice that said, 'Sir Launcelot, more harder than is the stone, and more bitter than is the wood, and more naked and barer than is the leaf of the fig tree, therefore go thou from hence, and withdraw thou from this holy place.' And when Sir Launcelot heard this he was passing heavy, and wist not what to do, and so departed, sore weeping, and cursed the time that he was born. For then he deemed never to have had worship more. For those words went to his heart till that he knew wherefore he was called so. Then Sir Launcelot went to the Cross, and found his helm, his sword taken away. And then he called himself a very wretch, and most unhappy of all knights; and then he said, 'My sin and my wickedness have brought me unto great dishonour. For when I sought worldly adventures for worldly desires I ever achieved them, and had the better in every place, and never was I discomfit in no quarrel, were it right or wrong. And now I take upon me the adventure of holy things, and now I see and understand that mine old sin hindereth me, and shameth me so that I had no power to stir nor to speak when the holy blood appeared before me.' So thus he sorrowed till it was day, and heard the fowls sing, then somewhat he was comforted. But when Sir Launcelot missed his horse and his harness then he wist well God was displeased with him. Then he departed from the Cross on foot into the forest, and so by prime he came to an high hill, and found an hermitage, and an hermit therein, which was going unto mass. And then Launcelot kneeled down and cried on our Lord mercy for his wicked works. So when mass was done Launcelot called him and prayed him for charity to hear his life. 'With a good will,' said the good man. 'Sir,' said he, 'be ye of King Arthur's court and of the fellowship of the Round Table?' 'Yea, forsooth, and my name is Sir Launcelot du Lake, that hath been right well said of, and now my good fortune is changed, for I am the most wretch of the world.' The hermit beheld him and had marvel how he was so abashed. 'Sir,' said the hermit, 'ye ought to thank God more than any knight living; for He hath caused you to have more worldly worship than any knight that now liveth. And for your presumption to take upon you in deadly sin for to be in His presence, where His flesh and His blood was, that caused you ye might not see it with worldly eyes, for He will not appear where such sinners be, but if it be unto their great hurt, and unto their great shame. And there is no knight now living that ought to give God so great thanks as ye; for He hath given you beauty and seemliness, and great strength above all other knights, and therefore ye are all the more beholding unto God than any other man to love Him and dread Him; for your strength and manhood will little avail you and God be against you.'"
Of the rest of the knights who went upon the Quest, the King was a true prophet when he said:
"That most of them would follow wandering fires
Lost in the quagmire: lost to me and gone,
And left me gazing at a barren board,
And a lean Order—scarce return'd a tithe."
And what, we ask, is the interpretation of the parable? How was it that the Quest of the Holy Grail should have become "a sign to maim the order of the king?"

It has been suggested that in the Quest of the Sangreal is set forth the misleading power of superstition in contrast with the sober practical religion of Arthur himself. The knights who else might have fulfilled "the boundless purpose of the king" and saved the common-weal "with crowning common sense," in the search for the Grail became slaves of illusion and seekers after mere fantastic shapes of superstition. I confess this does not seem to me quite the true drift of the parable.

In the Quest of the Grail I would rather see symbolised that enthusiastic longing for an ideal life, that craving for something beyond the mere material satisfaction of "earthly things" or of the purely personal interests which is never, probably, quite absent from any human soul, and which, after all, is the animating principle of all true religion.

That such a quest should, in the first instance at any rate, have a disintegrating effect on existing social conditions, is in accord with the experience of all history. It is but a commentary on the words of Christ himself: "Suppose ye that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." We acknowledge love, brotherhood, good-will amongst men, to have been the master-note of His gospel. We cannot, however, conceal from ourselves that one result of that message has often been disunited households, broken friendships, religious hatred, discord, disunion, division of all kinds. Yet here we know the sword was the sign of peace. If the message of Christ divided men, it was at least a sign that some men were in earnest about it. If it brought division into a house, it also brought energy and activity, it put an end to the fatal lethargy, to the numbing stupor of indifference which was eating out the life of men's souls.

And so with the Quest of the Grail. Religious enthusiasm stirring into nobleness the highest and purest natures, the Galahads and Percivals, is also, because of its effects on the meaner spirits, the Gareths and the Gawains, a disturbing influence in human affairs: that no doubt is one chief lesson of the old romance. But the higher lesson still remains. For us, at any rate, in these modern days the Quest of the Holy Grail can only be another name for the Higher Life, the life of the soul, the perception of the reality of ideals and the value of enthusiasm. And indeed is not that the lesson we most need to learn just now? Is it not with "the spirit of secularity," that especially our English Christianity needs to combat?
"We have been perhaps little aware of it"—I quote the words of a wise and eloquent writer*—"as one is usually little aware of the atmosphere one has long breathed. We have been aware only of energetic industrialism. We have been proud of our national 'self-help,' of our industry and solvency, and have taken as but the due reward of these virtues our good fortune in politics and colonisation. We have even framed for ourselves a sort of Deuteronomic religion which is a great comfort to us; it teaches, because we are honest and peaceable and industrious, therefore our Jehovah gives us wealth in abundance, and our exports and imports swell and our debt diminishes, and our emigrants people half the globe. The creed is too primitive! Ought well-being to be so absolutely confounded with wealth? Is life but livelihood? We may no doubt think ourselves happy in not being misled, like so many nations, by false ideals. On the other hand have we any ideal at all? Does not this eternal question of a livelihood keep us at a level from which no ideal is visible? In old biographies we read of high and generous feelings, the love of fame, the ambition of great achievements, not to speak of higher feelings yet. We neither have such feelings, nor yet any bitter regret to think that we cannot have them."
Alas! I fear that that is only too true a picture of one side of our English character. But, thank God, there is another side of which it is quite as untrue. We have still left among us something more than the memory of the old heroic blood. We need not go, as Professor Seeley says, to the old biographies to read of "high and generous feelings, the love of fame, the ambition of great achievements, not to speak of higher feelings yet." Who that has read lately the life of Lord Lawrence—to take an example from only the latest of English biographies—can doubt it ? "Here lies Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty."—"Here lies John Lawrence who did his duty to the last,"—are epitaphs—one, the actual words on the elder brother's simple grave in front of the Lucknow Residency; the other, words, not inappropriately suggested, for the younger brother's tomb in Westminster Abbey—which may surely serve to remind us, with all the memories they recall of heroic endeavour and knightly service, of loyal sense of honour and reverent protection of weakness, that we have still left among us salt enough of ardent and chivalric ideal to keep the national heart sound.

No! "God is still in the midst of us," God's Englishmen have not yet died out,
"Not once or twice in our rough island story
Has path of duty been the way to glory."
And for the rest may I not end with Mallory ?
"Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown. . . . . All is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to exercise and follow virtue, by the which we may come and attain to good fame and renown in this life, and after this short and transitory life to come unto everlasting bliss in heaven, the which He grant us that reigneth in heaven, the blessed Trinity.—Amen."



* Professor Seeley, "Natural Religion," p. 133.
Additional Information:
Subtitled: Historical Monographs on the Prophets and Kings of England.