Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

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."* 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.t Mr Rees, though conceding him a place in history, repudiates him as a countryman; he 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.‡ 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.

* Telyn Arthur.

REES'S Welsh Saints, p. 185.

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 Landavensis, as from an MS. Chronicon Ecclesia 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, couronnés de goules, contréles, 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 trouveurs 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

+ Attribute to the Hon. Algernon Herbert.

[ocr errors]

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),* or at Caerleonon-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 Cymric, 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 ob

serving 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 Greek.t "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 Valle Crucis (1450), sends a poetical epistle to a friend, to ask the loan of the book that he "loved more than gold or gems,"

* Myryrian Arch. i. 175. Gelli wic, or Kelliwig, has been supposed to le Callington, or Kellington, in Cornwall.

+ Warton quotes Crusius to the effect that at Padua there was a work in modern Greek called Adaxai Regis Arturi; but he seems to have been misled by the title of a book of homilies, Adaxa Rarturi.-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.

VOL. LXXXVIII.-NO. DXXXIX,

"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 Welch, 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, greatgrandson 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 cotemporary 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 Villemarqué 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 Cymric 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 twentyone 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,

[ocr errors]

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 gorlasar; 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 obtains 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

[ocr errors]

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 writing

Kerve steel and yren and al thing." 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.* 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 Llen), 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 Galatine †) as having been the work of Galant, or Wieland, the smith. From that cunning hand is said to

*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. + Vol. i. p. 180.

« AnteriorContinuar »