King Arthur as an English Ideal
HOW ARTHUR CAME.
HOW ARTHUR CAME.
THESE words describe the fullest development of the ideal of perfect knighthood, of perfect gentle manhood; the latest touch that long experience of civilisation, long ages of Christian training, have given to the picture of King Arthur. How does it differ from, how, has it improved upon, the many portraits painted of this typical hero at long intervals of time, and in periods differing widely both in manners and in morals?
It does not matter, for our present purpose, how Arthur first came. Whether, in the morning of the world, the star Arcturus took form of flesh and dwelt among men; or whether Arthur can be resolved into a myth of the sun or of the spring. Such probably was his origin; he came earthwards on the long rays of the rising sun.
Nor is it of vital importance to discover whether some Keltic prince did actually so far tower above his fellows in beauty, courage, and virtue as to catch upon his shoulders the sunbright mantle, and wear on his golden hair the mythic starry crown, sending his name down 'like a roaring voice through all time,' to encourage the growth of heroes.
What is of interest just now, is to see what sort of Arthur the finer spirits of each succeeding age thought heroic, and whether the ideal of heroism has risen between the sixth and the nineteenth centuries. If not, then have the heroes fought and striven in vain, and the heirship of all the ages has come to nought. Each succeeding Arthur should teach the next one to surpass himself.
If Arthur, in flesh and blood, ever walked the earth, the probability, according to the latest criticism, is, that he lived in the sixth century, and was Pendragon, or chief ruler among the British tribes. The traditions point to the north, not to the west, of Britain as his early home. He fought with Picts and Scots, and 'shook the heathen through the north.' He also fought with the Saxon prince, Cerdic, was defeated by Modred, at Camlan, in Cornwall, and there slain. His body was taken by sea to Glastonbury, and there buried. His stone coffin is said to have been discovered by Henry II. The 'real' Arthur had the poetic instincts of his race, and was capable of devoted friendship; for the Welsh bard, Llywarch Hên, tells us that he composed an elegy on the death of his friend Geraint; so that, in the earliest tradition, he was something more than a rude warrior.
Be the facts as they may, such an Arthur, in myth or tradition, won a name so great that the old Welsh singers call the constellation known by us as the Great Bear, Arthur's Harp. In the Mabinogion and other contemporary songs and ballads, we may read of—
'that gray King, whose name, a ghost,
Streams like a cloud, man-shaped, from mountain peak.'
They tell us of Enid and Geraint, of Merlin's magic, of the blessed Isle of Avalon, and of some of Arthur's deeds of arms, and many details give flesh and blood to the 'gray ghost' of tradition. We hear how Arthur ruled his court merrily, played at chess, and was in all respects a 'goodly king.' We hear that 'his face shone in the mêlée;' and we may see how he wooed Guinevere, and how she received his wooing, in a curious fragment of Welsh poetry translated in Villemacque's 'La Table Ronde.'
Guinevere, or Guenivar, snubs Arthur as he tries to recommend himself to her.
'No,' she says, 'Arthur's black horse is nothing to boast of; Kay-the-Tall would easily beat him.'
Arthur modestly states that he thinks he could conquer Kay easily.
'Not unless Arthur is worth more than he looks; he would want a hundred men to help him.'
'Ah, Guinevere of the sweet eyes,' says Arthur, 'don't rail at me. I am little, but I can conquer a hundred warriors.'
'I think,' returns Guinevere, 'that I have seen you before in your black and yellow coat.'
'Yes—tell me where!'
'I saw a middle-sized man handing the wine-cup at table at Kellewig.'
Guinevere is scornful and haughty; already repaying Arthur's devotion with indifference. She is finally seduced by Modred, who, in all the earlier versions of the story, plays the part afterwards taken by Lancelot.
Neither the real nor the traditional Arthur succeeded finally in beating back the Saxon foe, before whose advance large bodies of Welsh and British Kelts at different times migrated to Armorica, to which they gave the name of Brittany. These Armorican Kelts were true to their national hero. His name is still preserved there in children's games, and was given to many places. They celebrated his conquests in sundry prose tales, and extended them to regions unknown in his native land; and, although his Round Table was not yet formed to be the 'image of the mighty world,' several of the knights who were hereafter to sit at it were already his companions.
Other influences now began to tell on his development. Eastern mysticism, brought to Brittany from Saracen and Spanish sources, coloured the story with a magic light more wonderful than Merlin ever knew. The Holy Grail can be traced through a long vista of mysterious legend, and the version of it made familiar to us in Wagner's opera of 'Parsival' is of Spanish origin, and doubtless derived from the East. In the hands of mediæval Churchmen, this mystical spirit took a definite shape. They deepened the religious aspect of the picture, and surrounded Arthur with saints as well as heroes. At the same time, French sentiment and French chivalry softened and cultivated, and, alas, also in some instances corrupted, the wild hero of the Welsh mountains.
About the middle of the twelfth century, Walter de Map, a native of the Welsh border, went to Paris to pursue his studies, and probably took with him some of the ancient Keltic traditions of Arthur's reign. Here, with the help of the Armorican tales and legends, he learned to give these traditions literary form: and, at a time when Cœur de Lion's exploits helped to make heroic ideals congenial, and his turn for minstrelsy and romance to make the narration of them fashionable, the works of Walter de Map, and other French-writing English romancers (of whom Geoffrey of Monmouth, with his translation of the history of Britain, said to have been found in Armorica, is perhaps the most famous) brought Arthur back again to his native land laden with the spoils of other nations.
His name had never probably been quite forgotten there, and before seeing what his story gained from the French prose romances, it would be well to consider what idea of him took root and flourished on English soil, what, in fact, were the earliest characteristics of the English hero. Coeval with, or close upon, his reintroduction by Walter de Map and his followers, we find numbers of English poems and ballads dealing with the story of King Arthur. His picture cannot be taken from any one source; it derives its impressiveness from the accumulated force of many details, of which the following are but a few specimens.
Robert of Gloucester, in the fourteenth century, speaks of him as—
'King Arthur, the noble man who ever worth understood.'
And in a poem entitled 'Arthur,' published in 1440, in which the sword 'Excalibur' bears the English name of 'Brownsteele,' we get the following description of a dignified and kingly figure given with much grace and charm—
'He was courteys, large and gent,
To all people verrament,
Beaute, might, amiable cheere
To alle men farre and neere.
His port, his giftes gentylle
Maked hym y loved welle,
Ech man was glad of his presence,
And drade to do him dyspleasaunce.
A stronger man of his hande
Was never founde in any lande,
As courteys as any mayde.'
We read also that he thought,
'That no man should sit above other,
Nor have indignation of his brother.'
not an unpromising germ out of which the Arthur who 'was as a conscience to his knights' should spring.
The 'Romance of the Round Table' put this speech into his mouth.
'"Nay," said Arthur, "Per De
That were against all kinde
A messenger for to binde, "'
showing that the English hero had a fine sense of honour.
But, besides the generally heroic outline here indicated, we recognise in the Arthur of these early times the capacity for strong attachment to all his faithful knights, and to one special friend, for whose loss his heart is half-broken.
Over and over again we read of his devotion to his knights, and of his passionate grief at parting with them.
Robert Thornton, in a poem written in the fifteenth century, makes him say of his lost followers:
'Who have given me guerdons by grace of themselves,
Maintained my manhood by right of their hands;'
fine words, as spoken by a king, and free from all tendency to take devotion as a royal right. Arthur was also already a person subject to mystical and spiritual impressions, and was of an anxious and sensitive nature.
We read constantly of his wakeful nights.
'Of whom that rest is nought,
But all the night surprised was with thought,'
that he mused on 'death and confusion,' and that curious dreams foretelling the future visited and puzzled him.
In considering this early Arthur, who possessed in germ so many of the qualities we now associate with his name, who was brave, truthful, religious, and tender, we find that his relation to his wife was a much slighter, less binding thing, than the moral sense of the nineteenth century permits in an ideal hero.
Although he loved and wooed Guinevere, and honoured her as his queen, still she was only a woman, and the warmth of his affection was bestowed upon his friend. The mediæval ideal of personal purity was the ascetic Galahad and not the married King; but it is quite true, as Mr. Ryland remarks in his interesting articles on the subject in the 'English Illustrated Magazine' for 1888, that the blot on Arthur's name, introduced in some of the French versions of his story, never took root or lived in the popular conception of him. With some few exceptions, to be hereafter noted, the Arthur of tradition and literature is distinctly a 'good hero,' leading a glorious life, not a penitent expiating his sins.1
Upon this national hero, who emerged by slow degrees from a confused mass of legends and traditions, and grew up, without an author for his literary being, just as a mystic uncertainty hangs over the author of his traditional existence, there came, complete and fully developed, the magnificent conception of the great Lancelot.
Every singer, every writer, every generation has added something to the conception of Arthur, but Lancelot with his sin and his sorrow, his passionate love, his weakness, his humility and his repentance, has gained little or nothing since he appeared first in the early French romances. His introduction is their great contribution to the Arthur story. His mere name, indeed, may have been found in the Welsh legends by Walter de Map, and chance mentions of him may occur in the Armorican tales; but his subtle and complex character is evidently the work of one author and not the outcome of a mass of traditions. Before his day, Modred was Arthur's betrayer, Gawayne his best beloved, but Lancelot soon took the chief place in all the forms of the story, and became at once the friend and the rival of the King; in Arthur's own estimation, his superior.
PART II.The writer who first put all the conflicting elements of the Arthur story into the form in which they have come down to the modern world was Sir Thomas Mallory, whose well-known 'Mort d'Arthur,' first printed by Caxton in 1485, has since been many times revised and re-edited.
SIR THOMAS MALLORY'S 'MORT D'ARTHUR.'
SIR THOMAS MALLORY'S 'MORT D'ARTHUR.'
Although this book has been called the English epic, it is really more a collection of narratives than a combination of them; there is much repetition, the parts are not always consistent with each other and vary much in merit and interest; the books concerning Sir Lancelot and those describing the Quest of the San Graal being much the most finished. We will take Arthur's feats of arms for granted, those of course were suitable to a national hero, while his conquests gratified the national ambition, without the slightest hindrance from time or space. His personal character is the subject of interest.
He is the son of Uther and Igerne, by the same means of disguise by which Zeus became the father of Heracles. After being brought up in seclusion, he emerges as an heroic youth and draws out the magic sword (not Excalibur), from the stone where it is fixed immovably, in the affectionate wish to provide his foster brother Sir Kay with a weapon.
After some opposition, based on his uncertain origin, he is crowned King, conquers his enemies, shewing a courtesy to them when unhorsed and wounded worthy of the Black Prince himself. Soon we read that 'Arthur had the first sight of Guinevere, and ever after he loved her,' marrying her 'because she was the fairest and most valiant lady in the world,' in spite of Merlin's warning that she would bring him trouble.
The adventures of the various knights crowd in upon the story, and somewhat swamp those of Arthur himself, his fame being already made; but, whenever we do hear of him, he is invariably generous, truthful and kind, all turn to him as an acknowledged superior, and all receive from him their just due.
Mystical dreams of his own, and of other knights concerning him appear occasionally in the story; sleepless nights and failures of health bring the hero within the sympathies of ordinary humanity. He shows a very proper regard for his religious duties; but does not appear especially as a devotee. When we come to the thirteenth book, containing 'the noble tale of the San Graal,' the interest deepens. Arthur's grief at parting from his knights, when they have vowed to go on the Quest is profound. Although, when the sunbeam seven times clearer than the day 'enters the great hall at Camelot' shewing each knight 'fairer to the other than ever he looked before,' and the San Graal, covered with white samite, is borne through the hall, the King 'thanks our Lord Jesu for that he hath shewed us to-day;' still, the tears fill his eyes for the great love he had to Lancelot and all his knights. He 'had no rest all that night for sorrow to think that that goodly fellowship should part for ever.' It is the simple grief of a loving heart at parting; he cannot speak, when they ride away, for weeping; for 'he had had an old custom to have them in his fellowship.'
As soon as the quest is over, and the knights have returned, Lancelot falls again into the sin of which he had, during his long wanderings, so bitterly repented. The Queen, half jealous and half remorseful, commands him to avoid the court, and, while he is absent, she is falsely accused of an attempt to poison one of the knights. 'And when Arthur heard of it, he was a passing heavy man.' But he is the King, his duty is to be a 'rightful judge,' and therefore, his position forbids him to come forward and do battle for his wife's honour. But where is Lancelot, his best of knights? Why cannot the Queen get him to fight for her? Arthur, after some enquiry, is certain of her innocence, and, Lancelot being absent, begs Sir Bors to do battle for her, 'else must she be burnt to death.'
This Sir Bors undertakes to do, 'since her lord and our lord is the man of most worship in the world, and most christened, and he hath ever worshipped us all, in all places.'
The Queen, however, is so unpopular that only loyal Sir Bors will take her part, till Lancelot returns in time, fights for her, and delivers her. Then the King and Queen kiss each other for joy, and Arthur thanks Lancelot with hearty grace, and entire unconsciousness of evil.
It is of course a curious situation; but it is manifestly impossible for the King to defend his wife himself, and his generous pleasure in Lancelot's success and glory is shown by the goodhumoured way in which, immediately afterwards, he furthers his little pretence when fighting in disguise for Elaine, and by his grief for the wound then received by Lancelot. When Sir Gareth leaves his own party to fight by the side of the disguised hero, Arthur says: 'For ever it is a worshipful knight's deed to help another worshipful knight when he seeth him in great danger, for ever a worshipful man will be loth to see a worshipful shamed, for always a good man will do even to another man as he would be done to himself.'
An ungrudging pleasure in the nobleness of others is a marked trait in Arthur's character.
Guinevere's sin with Lancelot is not only whispered about, but publicly mentioned, in the 'Mort d'Arthur.' The King, again prevented by his kingship from fighting on her side, calls on his trusted Lancelot to defend her against the charge in which he is himself concerned. Once more Lancelot saves her, but afterwards, Sir Agravaine and Sir Modred disclose their deep suspicion of Lancelot's treason, to the King's great distress, for by this time 'he had a deeming, but would not hear of it, for he loved Lancelot' (nothing is said of Guinevere) 'passing well.' However, he permits the proposed trap to be laid to prove or disprove the story, and Lancelot, discovered in the Queen's chamber, flies the court, and fears that Arthur will slay him if he returns according to promise to fight for the queen, who again demands a champion—slay him 'as Mark slew Tristram.' 'No,' says honest Bors, 'there never yet was any man that could prove Arthur untrue to his promise.' Upon this, Lancelot again agrees to endeavour to rescue her. 'Alas,' says Arthur, 'that Lancelot should be against me!' But he now feels his honour concerned, condemns Guinevere to be burnt to death, and, wrath at last with the friend he loves, declares that Lancelot shall never fight for her again. Lancelot, however, rescues her, and carries her off by main force, slaying Gawaine's brothers and many other knights. Then does Arthur weep and swoon with grief, 'but much more,' he says, 'am I sorrier for my good knights' loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.'
At the instance of Gawaine, who must revenge his brothers' deaths, he reluctantly consents to make war on Lancelot.
The figure of Arthur during this piteous close of his great career is not perhaps conventionally heroic, he is too uncertain and helpless, but it is extremely pathetic. Gawaine is his nephew, only less dear than Lancelot, and the sense of his wrongs make peace with Lancelot impossible; but the war, and the losses, and Lancelot's nobleness—he brings the king a horse and will not kill him in the battle—break Arthur's heart. He rides away in tears, he cannot fight, whether he believes Lancelot's oaths of the Queen's innocence or no, he longs to forgive, and the confusion that falls on his spirit in the struggle between kinsman and friend, honour and love, overpowers him, so that he falls sick with grief.
The Pope endeavours to make peace, and Lancelot restores the Queen with vows of her entire innocence. These, Arthur would fain believe; but Gawaine is implacable, and the war is renewed and continued until his death. Modred, left in charge of Queen and kingdom, turns traitor to both. The ghost of Gawaine warns Arthur of his approaching fate, and a terrible dream comes to him of sinking in dark water among frightful beasts. But, with renewed courage, he fights Modred, slays him, and is slain, or at least desperately wounded, carried away in a barge by weeping queens, having cast away Excalibur, and is buried at Glastonbury, though 'some men say King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu in another place.'
This most complete presentment of the mediæval Arthur has a kind of individuality and simplicity, which gives it the air of an imperfect history of a real person, the result, one may suppose, of the way in which the character is picked out from many legends and traditions. It is very remarkable that this ideal of the fierce middle ages is never cruel, never revengful, never blood-thirsty. This gentle and tender hero grew up in days when even the Black Prince was savage. Froissart's Chronicles are far more barbarous than the Mort d'Arthur, or the tales on which it is founded.
Neither the fiercer side of chivalry nor its vainglorious desire of personal fame is found in its English hero. The Arthur who took root in the English heart was modest, generous, truthful, full of enthusiastic admiration of others' merit, sensitive, and tenderly affectionate. Though the presentment of his great rival is imperfect, his conception would not have discredited Shakespere. Such love as Lancelot's is for all time, so alas, is such weakness, and his notions of honour are quite sympathetic to the received code of our own day. But to Mallory, as to the previous tellers of the story, Lancelot's repentance was rather a wonderful grace than his sin an exceptional blot, and the relation between husband and wife are still those of a different state of society from our own. The interest of the story is not that of love, but of a deep friendship for a treacherous, but an always loving friend, and the tragical crisis comes from the wrong done by Lancelot to Arthur's trust. It is this which brings about his failure and defeat, and it is this, not Guinevere's infidelity, which breaks his heart.
MANY FACETS OF THE DIAMOND.
It is now necessary to notice in passing that other view of Arthur's character and history, which comes oddly and incongruously into the French mediæval tales; but which had no place in the original conception of him, and which, as Mr. Ryland remarks in the interesting articles on the subject in the 'English Illustrated Magazine' for 1888, did not live or take root in the popular mind.
Whether the incident of Arthur's sin and subsequent punishment found its way into the story from some classical source, or whether it was invented by the French romancers, it was never worked out or fitted into the remaining legends.
Mallory tells us in some of his first books, how Arthur, in his early youth, set his love upon the wife of King Lot of Orkney, and how she afterwards bore to him Modred, who was at once his nephew and his son. Arthur, however, did not know that the lady was his half-sister by the mother's side until Merlin told him his early history, and prophesied that the child thus born should be his destruction. Arthur had terrible dreams and strange adventures, and was induced by Merlin to play the part of Herod, to send for all the children born on May Day, in the hope of killing Modred, a most uncharacteristic piece of savagery, which seems to belong to quite another conception of the gentle King. Modred, of course, escaped, and the fact that he was the King's son is occasionally mentioned afterwards, and given as a reason why he is put in charge of the kingdom when Arthur is absent on his war with Lancelot. His treachery is also the means of bringing about Arthur's final ruin, but the idea of a Divine retribution is never referred to again, though probably the facts did not strike the writers as so irreconcilable with the rest of Arthur's character as they must appear to us. His repentance for this early half-unconscious sin, and his confession of it, are very touchingly described in one of the poems published by the Early English Text Society.
But in the sixteenth century, one of those dramatists who were endeavouring to form the English drama on ancient models, perceived that a story as tragic as that of Ædipus was ready to his hand, and 'The Misfortunes of Arthur,' by Thomas Hughes, was played at Greenwich by the gentlemen of Gray's Inn in 1587.
Mr. Symonds calls it 'a truly Thyestean history of a royal house devoted for its crimes of insolence to ruin.' The story is intensified from the old legend, Arthur and Anne, children or Uther and Igerne, are actual twins; their son Modred seduces Guinevere, revolts against Arthur, and the father and son kill each other in battle.
Arthur is a fine and magnanimous hero, worthy of the Greek model which Hughes followed. He accepts with dignity the results of his sin, bears as long as possible with his villainous son, with something of the gentleness of the legendary—it is difficult not to say of the 'real'—Arthur, and he commands sympathy throughout the play.
And, painful as is this version of Arthur's story, it has its part to play in the Ideal development: sin, retribution, and repentance, are part of the human story through which we see the Ideal hero pushing his way.
Still the Arthur of tradition and literature is in the main a good hero, leading a glorious life, not a penitent expiating his sins.
When he flashes upon us, almost simultaneously with Hughes' tragedy, in the pages of 'The Faëry Queene', we find, indeed, no following of the letter of the old story, but the very quintessence of its spirit. Spenser says, in his letter of dedication to Sir Walter Raleigh, that when he wished to write a book, the end of which was to fashion a gentleman, or noble person, in virtuous and gentle discipline, he chose the history of King Arthur as most fit for the excellency of his person. Arthur, had the whole scheme been carried out, was to show, as a prince, the 'twelve private moral vertues of Aristotle,' and then, after he became king, the twelve 'Polliticke vertues.'
'In the person of King Arthur I sette forth magnificence in particular, which virtue. . . . is the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth them all.'
How Spenser would have set forth this magnificence, this magnanimity or splendid greatness of soul, how his fancy might have told the story of the Round Table, and read its lessons, if his design had been completed, we can only guess. In the seven extant books Arthur is still a knight-errant, a most brilliant vision, as he flashes now and again upon our view.
'His glitterand armour shined far away,
Like glauncing light of Phœbus brightest ray.
His haughtie helmet, horrid all with gold,
Both glorious brightnesse and great terrour bredd,
For all the crest a dragon did unfold
With greedie pawes, and over all did spread
His golden winges.' . . .
Here is the first appearance in visible shape of the 'dragon of the great Pendragonship.'
His warlike shield he kept closely covered, for it was—
'All of diamond, perfect, pure, and cleene,'
'So exceeding shone his glistering ray
That Phœbus' golden face it did attaint.
The "flying heavens" it could "affray,"'
and neither knight nor magician could stand before its dazzling purity.
This splendid and terrible personage constantly appears as Saviour and deliverer. He comes to Una in her troubles, and rescues her Redcrosse Knight with his sword Mordure:
'That flames like burning brand,'
defends Guyon against the Paynim knights, and in the House of Temperance studies the history of Britain down to the time of his father Uther with patriotic pride. He defends the castle of fair Alma from the insidious attacks of Maleager, against whom diamond shield and flaming sword are useless, so that he is only overcome when Arthur,
'Catching him 'twixt his puissant hands,'
flings him to the ground, but nearly dies himself of wounds and exhaustion.
Whenever he appears he is always brilliant, helpful, and successful, the connecting link of the whole fair company of virtuous knights, just as he is the bond that unites his own Round Table.
Had Spenser finished the 'Faëry Queene,' or still more, had Milton ever written that epic of King Arthur which he contemplated, declaring the national hero to be the fittest of all subjects for a great poem, we should have seen the old story coloured by other imaginations, and consecrated to another form of faith. What would the two great Puritans have made of the 'Quest of the San Grail?'
But Arthur slept, and never came again for at least a century and a half, till the Wizard of the North used his name to conjure with and took it very much in vain.
Why Sir Walter Scott, in his 'Bridal of Triermain,' took up the most frivolous side of the old legends, and represented Arthur as a sort of Charles II., is a curious fact in the great restorer of mediæval taste. Perhaps the old ideal was too mystical, and his surroundings too shadowy, for one whose heroes were always of flesh and blood, and were generally expected to explain themselves to the satisfaction of the common sense of the early nineteenth century. Arthur, in this pretty poem, is a jolly, cheerful, unscrupulous prince, the father, by a secret amour, of the fair heroine of the tale, and, in spite of the magic that surrounds him, by no means an ideal character.
He is still, however, noted for his truthfulness. Still he never 'went from his word.'
In Dean Milman's 'Siege of Jerusalem,' the boy Arthur flashes for a few moments upon our view in the midst of the battle, golden haired and bright faced, the signal of hope and comfort; but put into a quite new and imaginary setting.
In the first Lord Lytton's little remembered poem 'King Arthur,' we find a serious attempt to depict the ideal princely knight, as the author thought that he should be, and a very refined and graceful ideal he is, something like a water-colour by Richmond of a wavy-haired, open-collared young Etonian of the day.
The Welsh original legends and the French Fabliaux founded on them have both been carefully studied; but, as in the case of Spenser's, a new set of adventures have been invented for the hero. The story is placed in the period of his early youth, when he first comes to the throne.
We come now to a much more definite personal description of the ideal hero. After the curious touch of reality given to the very oldest mention of him by Guinevere's scorn of his 'middle size,' we only hear of his 'great beaute' in general terms, though an unsurpassable impression of flashing glory and splendour is conveyed by Spenser. But now we hear of the 'golden hair,' the 'frank and azure eyes' with which he has ever since been pictured.
He is roused by a vision from a joyous youth, and sets forth northward to seek adventures, in the course of which he is always gentle, generous, and chivalrous, if a trifle sentimental, and sets forth the Christian ideal of mercy and courtesy in many a combat with heathen foes. His dearest friend is Lancelot, young, fresh and innocent like himself, and the relation between them is very prettily described. He falls in love with a maiden named Aglé, who dies, to his great grief; but finally marries Guinevere, Lancelot winning another maiden called Ginevra. They woo these ladies with modem sentiment and devotion. The religious side of Arthur is much dwelt on. He is led by a mystic dove, and fights with a sort of incarnation of the spirit of heathenism, in a cave near the North Pole, about the only place to which the original Arthur never penetrated. The description of the adventure is really fine, a not unworthy imitation of the Cave of Mammon and other horrid and awesome places of trial for good knights.
'King Arthur' is a very long and rather tiresome poem; but it is a by no means unsuccessful attempt to depict the ideal hero. Arthur wears 'the white flower of a blameless life,' and is all through a pure and stainless gentleman. He is also, before all things, a Christian champion, for the ideal has now learned to devote himself to a cause in the abstract, apart from individual or national glory, or personal affection. He is more ideal and spiritual than Scott's heroes, and much more virtuous than those of Byron, but he belongs to their generation, to the courtly days of fine gentlemen.
The most notable verse in the poem is the old Bardic prophet's address to the young king—
'And thou, thyself, shalt live from age to age
A thought of beauty and a type of fame;
Not the faint memory of some mouldering page,
But by the hearths of men a household name;
Theme to all song, and marvel to all youth,
Beloved as Fable, yet believed as Truth.'
THE IDYLLS OF THE KING.
THE IDYLLS OF THE KING.
The heroic type develops, and Arthur has learned much and suffered much before he shines out on the present generation. Now, he is the 'heir of all the ages,' and more is required of him than of Keltic chief, mediæval knight, Elizabethan warrior-prince, or royal gentleman of fifty years or so since. If the ideal has not risen, it has broadened. It includes many more relations of life—
'This old, imperfect tale,
New-old, and shadowing sense at war with soul.'
Arthur, in the Idylls, has then an allegorical significance, and stands for something more than himself.
There is a hint of this idea flashing through The Faëry Queene and a germ of it latent in the old mediæval story, where we hear that 'Merlin made the Round Table in tokening of the roundness of the world,' and that 'By them which should be fellows of the Round Table, the truth of the Sancgreal should be well known.'
It is, therefore, most fitting that the head of that round table, which signified the whole round world, should be himself a type of ideal humanity. And, since, in the Sancgreal, the Christian faith, nay, Christ Himself, was revealed, King Arthur may well represent that Spiritual principle at war with the world, the flesh and the devil, which is for us embodied in the religion of Christ.
This allegorical significance must be remembered in treating of the latest presentment of Arthur; but it is of course only an undercurrent, rising occasionally to the surface, and the story is complete without it.
What manner of man, then, is this Ideal Hero,—this Power, who is to regenerate the world?
He has a Divine origin, doubted, and disbelieved. When the long wave that broke in flame and glory along the 'thundering shores of Bude and Bos,' flings the naked babe on the beach at Tintagel, from the shining dragon ship that sails the heavens, we see a development of the heavenly origin and mystic nature of Uther-of-the-Dragon's Head, as told us by the Welsh bard Taliesin.
From the glowing light of the setting sun came Arthur, and he trailed clouds of glory as he came, never losing that golden brightness, from the days when 'his face shone in the melée' of the old Cambrian battle, till Tristram saw
'His hair, a sun that ray'd from off a brow
Like hill-snow high in heaven, the steel-blue eyes,
The golden beard that clothed his lips with light,'
till his statue, gold winged and golden crowned, flamed in the sunrise over the hall at Camelot, till Guinevere beheld
'The Dragon of the Great Pendragonship
Blaze, making all the night a steam of fire,'
no—not till Bedivere, in the 'fresh beam of the springing east,' cast his last longing glances at
'The light and lustrous curls
That made his forehead like a rising sun.'
Bright and gracious, calm and serene, Arthur stands in the midst of his knights, still the same Arthur as of old, but seen in a clearer light.
He is still the man whom
'No man could prove untrue to his promise;'
but he has discovered a grand reason for this faithfulness,
'Man's word is God in man.'
He loves and rejoices in his noble knights, Lancelot is still especially dear to him, and to this friend he
'Sware on the field of death a deathless love,
Let chance what will, I trust thee to the death.'
He is still first in the combat, still he refuses the Roman tribute; but now, because
'The old order changeth, giving place to new,'
The heathen, after, slew the beast, and felled
The forest, letting in the sun, and made
Broad pathways for the hunter and the knight.'
All this he did of old: but now he does it 'as the purpose of his life.' He has a great cause and a great enthusiasm. When he gathers the 'fair order of his Table Round,' it is to
'Serve as model for the mighty world,
And be the fair beginning of a time.
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.'
In fact, he founded a great brotherhood in order that they might purify themselves first, and the whole world afterwards. His intense enthusiasm so impressed itself upon them, that when they
'Trembling laid their hands in his, and sware,
From eye to eye through all their Order flashed
A momentary likeness of the King.'
The ideal hero has then a noble and mighty purpose, to which he dedicates himself and his life. This is one development from the knight-errant, who took adventures as they came. Another is in the new love of which the always loving Arthur is now capable.
It was foretold in vision before he came, that,
'Could he find
A woman in her womanhood as great
As he was in his manhood, . . .
The twain together well might change the world.'
This helpmeet he seeks, for he knows
'Of no more subtle master under Heaven
Than is the maiden passion for a maid,'
and this helpmeet he believes himself to find in Guinevere. He longs for her with
'Travail and throes, and agonies of the life,
for without her the earth is hollow and vexed with dreams; he seems as nothing, he
'Cannot will his will, nor work his work,'
'Living with her as one life,'
'Have power on this dead world to make it live.'
So that when his hope of winning her grew strong, the world
'Was all so clear about him that he saw
The smallest rock far on the faintest hill,
And, even in high day, the morning star.'
Arthur and Guinevere are married[.] A perfect married life is the ideal of purity set forth by the modern English poet, and Arthur works his work in happy trust that the two wills are working together to a perfect end.
These great hopes are vain, and when the blow falls, there is for him not only the agony of waging bitter war with his trusted friend, it is not only that Guinevere has left his hall lonely, and that he has to take last leave of all he loves; but that she has spoiled the purpose of his life, broken up his glorious company, and by her example, lowered the tone of his knights so that his realm
'Reels back into the beast, and is no more.'
The purpose of his throne has failed, his helpmeet has been a hindrance to him, his life is spoiled. He can forgive and look for union in a purer world, but he cannot, as he would in the old story gladly have done, condone the sin and 'set her at his side again,' though his hearth is waste and his heart aching, and though, instead of the crystal clearness, through which, in hope and love, he once saw the morning star,
'A blind haze
Hath folded in the passes of the world.'
As Arthur's aims have been higher, his sufferings are more varied and deeper than of old.
To fit this larger conception into the frame of the old legend, is something of a pouring of new wine into old bottles. If the co-operation and sympathy of Guinevere were so much to Arthur, he must have missed what she entirely failed to give. So passionate a lover must have felt that he was not loved. The unsuspicious blindness is felt to be inconsistent with ideal devotion to the wife, and makes Arthur's character appear to some to be 'faultily faultless.'
The religious side, also, of Arthur's character is made to approve itself to the 'crowning common sense' of the English poet, who has elsewhere recorded his dislike to the 'blind hysterics of the Kelt.'
In the old story of the Quest of the Holy Grail, Arthur does not like the undertaking; he is miserable at losing his knights from his side; but that he thought their action wrong does not appear for a moment. Now, while the knights are seeking this great spiritual experience, he tells them that 'the chance of noble deeds will come and go.' Most of them will follow wandering fires, and, being neither Galahads nor Percivals, the quest was not for them. The King must guard
'That which he rules, and is but as the hind
To whom a space of land is given to plough,
Who may not wander from the allotted field,
Before his work is done.'
He will not leave human wrongs to right themselves for any visionary rapture. There is so much to do. How can the knights waste time in trying to see?
The King's ideal is that of an Englishman, it may almost be said of an English Churchman. It was, 'to do his duty in that state of life unto which it should please God to call him.'
It is not quite easy to reconcile this common sense and self-restraint with the mysticism which, an essential part of Arthur's original character, is much brought out and dwelt upon in the Idylls.
He also can see visions and dream dreams.
'Many a time they come,
Until this earth he walks on seems not earth.
This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,
This air that smites his forehead is not air
But vision; yea, his very hand and foot,
In moments when he feels he cannot die,
And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again.'
We cannot but feel that such an Arthur, in Arthur's day, must have seen the Grail, even if he did not purposely seek it. We feel that Lancelot was a higher creature, for that inconsistent year of tragic magnificent failure in the search for the vision he was unfit to see, than he would have been without it.
But the Arthur of the Idylls is 'Soul warring with Sense,' and, in the spirit, if not in the letter, he belongs to a day when many may feel that the vision of the Grail is after all a thing of the senses, and that in Arthur, when he found his God 'in the shining of the stars,' and in the 'flowering of the fields,' there dwelt a purer and a noble faith.
But on this modern Arthur, to complete the picture, there must fall a trial far more profound than he could formerly have conceived. Utter failure comes upon him, all on which he leaned, wife and friend, are false, his work is undone, his cause defeated. All his mind is clouded with a doubt. Can it be that even God is true? When he has worked and warred in vain; when his knights lie dead at his feet; when the battle is lost and the mists close in, and his day is so entirely done that he stands alone, without even the cry of an enemy in his ears; when he hears nothing but the great rolling voice of all the ages, unchanged and unchangeable by any system, let its day be as bright and as long as it may; when the very land he stands upon was upheaven from the abyss, to fall back into the abyss again?
From the great deep came Arthur, to the great deep shall he go?
No. He has done his work, and, when the Dragon helmet is cloven through, when Excalibur, the visible symbol of conquest, of power that can be seen and known, is flung away into the shining mere, we hear, through mist and above despair, the echo of Arthur's cry of faith—
'Nay, God my Christ—I pass but shall not die.'
Not from darkness to darkness, but from light to light, from the shining ship of Heaven that cast him on Tintagel shore, to the mystic barge that bore him into the dawn of the new year, beyond the limit of the world, on and on, till he vanished into light,
'Lest one good custom should corrupt the world,'
or one ideal limit its possibilities.
Out of the brightness of the sun, before the dawn of legend or of story, he whom we call Arthur came, and, as his mystic story is touched by successive hands, he comes again to shine upon the world and to light it for a little space.
So doubtless he, or that Ideal which he embodies, will come, again and yet again, till he climbs back once more to his Heavenly birthplace, and is lost in the brightness of the Sun of Righteousness Himself.