J.M. Stone.

Studies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries online

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friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate,
virtue, sin. Do after the good, and leave the evil, and it shall bring
you to good fame and renommee."

The Norte d'Arthur was finished in the ninth year of Edward IV., that
is in 1470, and Caxton printed the first edition of the book in black
letter, in 1485. Of this edition, now almost priceless, only two copies
are known to exist, both of which are in private collections. One of
these is in the United States, the other, slightly defective, is in the
possession of Lord Spencer, who has also in his library at Althorp the
only known copy of the second edition, printed in 1498 by Wynkyn de
Worde, who took over Caxton's presses at his death. Of the third
edition (1529), also printed by Wynkyn de Worde, a copy is in the
British Museum. It is incomplete inasmuch as the title, preface, and
part of the table of contents are wanting.

The British Museum possesses two other copies, one printed by William
Copland in 1557, the other a folio without date, published by East. All
these editions are in black letter.

Whether we agree with Caxton that "it might full well be aretted great
folly and blindness to say or think that there was never such a king
called Arthur," or whether we are of those "divers men who hold opinion
that all such books as be made of him be but fayne matters and fables,
because that some chronicles make of him no mention, nor remember him
nothing, nor of his knights," we must admit that at least incidentally,
the Morte d'Arthur is a picture of British faith and pious practices.
Its composition is mediaeval, and represents the tone of thought common
in the world as distinct from the cloister, in the Middle Ages; but it
is also a true exponent of an earlier period still, when Lucius, the
British chief, sent messengers to home to beg Pope Eleutherius to admit
him into the Fold of Christ, and to send missionaries to instruct his
people in the Faith. Comparing the Idylls of the King with Malory's
book, we are irresistibly reminded of certain Catholic books of
devotion "expurgated" or "adapted" for members of the Church of
England. All that savours too much of popery is left out. There is, no
doubt, a strong Protestant prejudice in Tennyson, struggling with his
sense of artistic beauty, and repeatedly Protestantism wins the day. We
cannot always quarrel with him for his selection, because, although the
modern mind is not a whit cleaner than the mediaeval mind, there is an
unwritten convention, that at all events a spade shall not now be
called a spade, at least in polite society, and Tennyson wrote
exclusively for the polite. In the Middle Ages evil was spoken of
plainly as in Scripture; there was no blinking of facts, no dressing-up
of vice to make it look like virtue, and consequently much
"bowdlerising" was necessary before Malory's outspoken language should
be sufficiently veiled to suit the susceptibilities, to which we have a
perfect and legitimate right in so far as they are genuine, and no
cloak for an hypocrisy that delights in the loathsome indecencies and
disgusting suggestiveness of the modern problem novel.

But what we do regret is that apart from the coarseness, and even from
a mere dramatic point of view, much that Tennyson rejected is finer
than anything he took. His Lancelot is a grand conception, as
mournfully, but with noble self-abasement, he says:

". . . . in me there dwells
No greatness, save it be some far-off touch
Of greatness to know well I am not great."

He is the very knight of courtesy, in chivalry above all other knights
save Arthur - so strong that "whom he smote he overthrew"; he is brave,
noble, scornful, and "falsely true," but he is not the Lancelot of the
Morte d'Arthur.

The story of Lancelot is incomplete in the Idylls, and by
incompleteness we do not mean only that it is deprived of its
denouement, of the climax up to which it has been working from the
beginning, but that there is also to be noted the conspicuous absence
of a refrain that should be there throughout. It is true that at the
end of "Lancelot and Elaine," one single line hints vaguely at the
penance that was to atone for his sad and sin-stained life, where he is
described as

"Not knowing he should die a holy man."

And in another place the long account of his confession, absolution,
contrition, and the exhortation of the priest is slurred over in these
words relating to the poisonous weeds that twined and clung round the
wholesome flowers of his life:

"Then I spake
To one most holy saint, who wept and said
That save they could be plucked asunder all
My quest were but in vain; to whom I vowed
That I would work according as he willed."

If we compare this with what Malory said, we shall see the total
inadequacy of Tennyson's treatment of the episode which left out the
whole root of the matter: -

How Sir Lancelot was shriven, and what sorrow he made, and of the good
examples that were showed him.

Then Sir Lancelot wept with heavy cheer and said, "Now I know well ye
say me sooth." "Sir," said the good man, "hide none old sin from me."
"Truly," said Sir Lancelot, "that were me full loth to discover. For
this fourteen years I never discovered one thing that I have used and
to that may I now blame my shame and my misadventure." And then he told
there, that good man, all his life, and how he had loved a queen
unmeasurably, and out of measure long; - "and all my great deeds of arms
that I have done I did the most part for the queen's sake, and for her
sake would I do battle, were it right or wrong, and never did I battle
all only for God's sake, but for to win worship and to cause me to be
the better beloved, and little or nought I thanked God of it." Then Sir
Lancelot said, "I pray you counsel me." "I will counsel you," said the
hermit, "if ye will ensure me that ye will never come in that queen's
fellowship, as much as ye may forbare." And then Sir Lancelot promised
him he would not, by the faith of his body. "Look that your heart and
your mouth accord," said the good man, "and I shall ensure you ye shall
have more worship than ever ye had." . . . Then the good man enjoined
Sir Lancelot such penance as he might do, and to sue knighthood, and so
he assoiled him, and prayed Sir Lancelot to abide with him all that
day. "I will well," said Sir Lancelot, "for I have neither helm, nor
horse, nor sword." "As for that," said the good man, "I shall help you
to-morn at even of an horse and all that longeth unto you." And then
Sir Lancelot repented him greatly.

After this he meets with another hermit who gives him a hair shirt to
wear as a penance, and riding on in pursuit of his quest, the Holy
Grail, Lancelot next comes to a Cross, "and took that for his host as
for that night. And so he put his horse to pasture, and did off his
helm and his shield, and made his prayers unto the Cross that he never
fall in deadly sin again. And so he laid him down to sleep." Further
on, we are told, as a sign of his sincerity and perseverance that "the
hair pricked so Sir Lancelot's skin that it grieved him full sore, but
he took it meekly and suffered the pain."

Tennyson records no fights with conscience, no turning towards the
light, no sorrowful confessions at all. He has given us a great deal,
but it is not too much to say that what he rejected, a Catholic poet
would have seized with delight as the purplest patches of his epic, and
the climax to which the whole story led.

The same remarks do not altogether apply to Tennyson's conception of
Arthur's character. Although there is much that is fine and beautiful
in him, as he is portrayed in the older legends, although, when pierced
with many wounds, he fought on valiantly, because he was "so full of
knighthood that knightly he endured the pain," it is Tennyson who has
exalted him into "the blameless king," "the highest creature here," and
if it had only been for what he has given us in King Arthur, the Idylls
would have been worth writing. Still even here he leaves out all those
Catholic touches which went to make up the life and soul of British
Christianity, the custom of beginning each day with the hearing of
Mass, the frequent allusions to the Pope as the Head of Christendom,
the mention of prayers for the dead, of penance, and so on.

When Arthur had defied the Roman Emperor, who had sent to claim
tribute, and had carried his victorious arms to the gates of the
Eternal City, the legend says that senators and cardinals came out and
sued for peace. They invited him in, and there he was crowned emperor
"with all the solemnity that could be made, and by the Pope's own
hands." King Mark of Cornwall, for reasons of his own, wanted to rid
himself of Tristram, and set about it in this wily manner:

He let do counterfeit letters from the Pope, and made a strange clerk
for to bear them unto King Mark, the which letters specified that King
Mark should make him ready upon pain of cursing, with his host for to
come to the Pope, to help to go to Jerusalem for to make war upon the

Mark, pretending that he could not leave home, proposed that Sir
Tristram should go in his place, since the command of the Pope must be
obeyed. "But," said Sir Tristram, "sythen the apostle Pope hath sent
for him, bid him go thither himself." "Well," said King Mark, "yet
shall he be beguiled," and counterfeited other letters, and the letters
specified that the Pope desired Sir Tristram to come himself to make
war upon the Saracens. But Tristram began to suspect the King of
Cornwall of treachery, and at last Mark was obliged to walk into the
trap which he had set for his enemy, and to take an oath "that he would
go himself unto the Pope of Rome for to war upon the Saracens."

Malory's book abounds in such illustrations and side lights as these,
but enough has been said to show how entirely the modern poet has
suppressed the part played by the Pope in the lives of Englishmen, at
least, up to the time of Edward IV.

One other instance of this pre-reformation doctrine belongs to the
story of Lancelot, and will be given in its proper place. We may remark
here that whatever the shortcomings of some of Arthur's knights, they
one and all evinced a lively faith, profound veneration for holy
things, and a truly Catholic desire for reconciliation with God,
through the reception of the Sacraments, whenever they fell into sin.
Thus, the knights who were convened to assist at Arthur's coronation
"made them clean of their lives, that their prayers might be the more
acceptable unto God." And when Balan fought with his brother, Balyn, by
mistake, and both were mortally wounded, Balan entreated the lady of
the Tower to send for a priest: "Yea," said the lady, "it shall be
done," and so she sent for a priest to give them their rights. "Now,"
said Balyn, "when we are buried in one tomb, and the mention made over
us how two brethren slew each other, there will never good knight nor
good man see our tomb but they will pray for our souls."

Wherever the knights-errant slept, they never set out on their journey
on the morrow without first hearing Mass; and if they had been riding
all night and came to a chapel in the morning they "avoided their
horses and heard Mass." There are many allusions to devotion to the
Blessed Virgin, and on one occasion a tournament was proclaimed in
honour of her Assumption.

In the poem "Lancelot and Elaine," Tennyson has followed closely on the
lines of the original story, both as to general design and detail. The
idyll "Geraint and Enid" does not, of course, belong to this history at
all, but is taken from the "Mabinogian," a collection of Welsh legends
translated into English by Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Guest.

The "Coming of Arthur," as related in the idyll, is throughout an
invention of Tennyson's, or culled from other sources, and differs
entirely from the story of Arthur's origin as told by Malory.

But the legend that has suffered the most from poetical license is that
of the "Holy Grail."

When the young Galahad, Lancelot's son, had been brought to Arthur's
court, had been dubbed knight, and had sat in the mystical "siege
perilous," fashioned by the wizard Merlin, he drew the sword from the
magic stone that hovered over the water, and which no other knight
could take. Then the queen, hearing of these marvels, and of his great
exploits and chivalry, desired greatly to see Sir Galahad, and as he
was riding by, "the king, at the queen's request, made him to alight
and to unlace his helm, that Queen Guinevere might see him in the
visage. And when she beheld him she said: Sothely, I dare well say that
Sir Lancelot begat him, for never two men resembled more in likeness.
Therefore it is no marvel though he be of great prowess. So a lady that
stood by the queen said, Madam, for God's sake, ought he of right to be
so good a knight? Yea, forsooth, said the queen, for he is of all
parties come of the best knights of the world, and of the highest
lineage. For Sir Lancelot is comen of the eighth degree from our Lord
Jesu Christ, and Sir Galahad is of the ninth degree, therefore I dare
well say that they ben the greatest gentlemen of all the world."

After the meeting between Sir Galahad and the queen, the book goes on
to say that the king and all the estates went home to Camelot, and that
as they sat at Supper, the Holy Grail appeared.

Tennyson relates the vision almost in Malory's own words.

Sir Perceval, having retired from the world, tells the monk, Ambrosius,
the history of the quest:

"And all at once, as there we sat, we heard
A cracking and a riving of the roofs,
And rending, and a blast, and overhead
Thunder, and in the thunder was a cry.
And in the blast there smote along the hall
A beam of light seven times more clear than day
And down the long beam stole the Holy Grail,
All over covered with a luminous cloud,
And none might see who bare it, and it past.
But every knight beheld his fellow's face.
As in a glory, and all the knights arose,
And staring each at other like dumb men
Stood, till I found a voice and sware a vow.
I sware a vow before them all that I,
Because I had not seen the Grail would ride
A twelvemonth and a day in quest of it,
Until I found and saw it, as the nun
My sister saw it; and Galahad sware the vow,
And good Sir Bors, our Lancelot's cousin sware,
And Lancelot sware, and many among the knights,
And Gawayn sware, and louder than the rest."

It was, in fact, Sir Gawayn who spoke first:

"Certainly [said he] "we ought greatly to thank our Lord Jesu Christ,
for that he hath shewed us this day of what meats and drinks we thought
on, but one thing beguiled us, we might not see the Holy Grail, it was
so preciously covered. Wherefore I will make here a vow, that
to-morrow, without any longer abiding, I shall labour in the quest of
the Sancgreall, that I shall hold me out a twelvemonths and a day, and
more if need be, and never shall I return again unto the court, till I
have seen it more openly than it hath been seen here." When they of the
Round Table heard Sir Gawayn say so, they arose, the most part of them,
and avowed the same.

As the knights rode out of Camelot to begin their quest there was
weeping of the rich and of the poor at their departure. "The queen made
great moan and wailing, and the king might not speak for weeping."
After some adventures Sir Perceval comes to a chapel to hear Mass, and
there he sees a sick king lying on a couch behind the altar; and he was
covered with wounds:

"Then he left his looking and heard his service, and when it came to
the sacring, he that lay within the perclose dressed him up and
uncovered his head. And then him beseemed a passing old man, and he had
a crown of gold on his head, and ever he held up his hands and said on
high: Fair, sweet father, Jesu Christ, forget not me. And so he laid
him down. But always he was in his prayers and orisons. And when the
Mass was done, the priest took our Lord's body and bare it unto the
sick king. And when he had received it he did off his crown, and he
commanded the crown to be set on the altar."

This king's name was Evelake. He had been converted by Saint Joseph of
Arimathwa, who was sent by our Lord "to preach and teach the Christian
faith." "Evelake," says the legend, "followed Joseph of Arimathaea into
England, to which country he brought the Holy Grail, the cup in which
our Lord celebrated the institution of the Blessed Sacrament." This cup
or chalice is said to have contained some drops of the Precious Blood.

And ever Evelake was busy to be there as the Sancgreall was. And upon a
time he nighed it so nigh that our Lord was displeased with him. But
ever he followed it more and more, till that God struck him almost
blind. Then this king cried mercy, and said: "Fair Lord, let me never
die till that the good knight of my blood of the ninth degree be comen,
that I may see him openly, when he shall achieve the Sancgreall, that I
may once kiss him."

This "good knight" was, of course, Sir Galahad. Meanwhile, "Sir
Lancelot rode overthwart and endlong in a wild forest, and held no path
but as wild adventure led him. And at the last he came to a stony Cross
which departed two ways in waste land, and by the Cross was a stone
that was of marble, but it was so dark that Sir Lancelot might not wit
what it was. Then Sir Lancelot looked by him, and saw an old chapel,
and there he wend to have found people. And Sir Lancelot tied his horse
till a tree, and there he did off his shield and hung it upon a tree.
And then he went to the chapel door, and found it waste and broken. And
within he found a fair altar full richly arrayed with cloth of clean
silk, and there stood a fair clean candlestick which bare six great
candles, and the candlestick was of silver. And when Sir Lancelot saw
this light he had great will for to enter into the chapel, but he could
find no place where he might enter; then was he passing heavy and
dismayed. Then he returned and came to his horse, and did off his
saddle and bridle, and let him pasture; and unlaced his helm, and
ungirded his sword, and laid him down to sleep upon his shield tofore
the Cross. And so he fell on sleep, and half waking and half sleeping
he saw, come by him, two palfreys all fair and white, the which bare a
litter, therein lying a sick knight. And when he was nigh the Cross he
there abode still. All this Sir Lancelot saw and beheld, for he slept
not verily, and he heard him say: Oh sweet Lord, when shall this sorrow
leave me, and when shall the holy vessel come by me, wherethrough I
shall be blessed, for I have endured thus long for little trespass. And
thus a great while complained the knight, and always Sir Lancelot heard
it. With that Sir Lancelot saw the candlestick with the six tapers come
before the Cross, but he could see nobody that brought it. And then
came a table of silver, and the holy vessel of the Sancgreall, the
which Sir Lancelot had seen tofore. And there withal the sick knight
set him upright and held up both his hands and said: Fair, sweet Lord,
which is here within this holy vessel, take heed to me that I may be
whole of this great malady. And therewith, upon his hands and upon his
knees, he went so nigh that he touched the holy vessel and kissed it.
And anon he was whole, and then he said: - Lord God, I thank thee for I
am healed of this malady. So when the holy vessel had been there a
great while, it went unto the chapel again with the candlestick and the
light, so that Sir Lancelot wist not where it became, for he was
overtaken with sin that he had no power to arise against the holy
vessel. Wherefore afterwards many men said of him shame. But he took
repentance afterwards.

"Then the sick knight dressed him upright and kissed the Cross. Then
anon his squire brought his arms, and asked his lord how he did.
Certes, said he, I thank God right well through the holy vessel I am
healed. But I have great marvel of this sleeping knight which hath
neither had grace nor power to awake during the time that this holy
vessel hath been here present. I dare it right well say, said the
squire, that this knight is defouled with some manner of deadly sin,
whereof he was never confessed. By my faith, said the knight,
whatsoever he be, he is unhappy, for, as I deem, he is of the noble
fellowship of the Round Table, the which is entered into the quest of
the Sancgreall. Sir, said the squire, here I have brought you all your
arms save your helm and your sword, and therefore, by mine assent now
may ye take this knight's helm and his sword, and so he did. And when
he was clean armed he took Sir Lancelot's horse, for he was better than
his own, and so they departed from the Cross.

"Then anon Sir Lancelot awaked and sat himself upright, and bethought
him what he had there seen, and whether it were dreams or not. Right so
heard he a voice that said, Sir Lancelot, 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
thee from this holy place. And when Sir Lancelot 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 Lancelot went to the Cross, and found his helm, his sword,
and his horse taken away. And then he called himself a very wretch, and
most unhappy of all knights. And there 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 discomfited 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 hindreth me and
shameth me, so that I had no power to stir nor to speak when the holy
blood appeared afore me. So thus he sorrowed till it was day, and heard
the fowls of the air sing. Then was he somewhat comforted, and departed
from the Cross on foot in a wild forest, and there he found a
hermitage, and a hermit therein that was going to Mass. And then Sir
Lancelot kneeled down on both his knees, and cried our Lord mercy for
his wicked works that he had done. When Mass was done, Sir Lancelot
called the hermit to 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 Lancelot du Lake that hath been right well
said of, and now my good fortune is changed, for I am the most wretched
and caitiff of the world.

"Then the hermit beheld him, and had great marvel how he was so sore
abashed. Sir, said the good man, ye ought to thank God more than any
knight living, for He hath caused you to have more worldly worship than
any, 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 your worldly eyes. For He will not appear where
such sinners be, but it be unto their great hurt and shame. And there
is no knight living now that ought to give unto God so great thank as
ye. For He hath given to you beauty, seemliness, and great strength
above all other knights, and, therefore, ye are the more beholden to
God than any man, to love Him and to dread Him; for your strength and
manhood will little avail you, and God be against you."

Then Lancelot makes his confession to the hermit as we have already
related, is assoiled, and repents him greatly. He remained three days
with the hermit, and being then newly provided with a horse, helmet,
and sword, he took his leave and rode away. After this occurs the
episode at the Cross, and his receiving the hair shirt. On the morrow
he jousted with many knights, and for the first time was thrown and
overcome, all which he endured patiently as penance for his sins. That
night he laid himself down to sleep under an apple-tree and dreamed a
strange dream. At dawn he arose, armed himself and went on his way. He
next came to a chapel "where was a recluse which had a window that she
might look up to the altar, and all aloud she called Sir Lancelot, and
asked him whence he came, what he was, and what he went to seek." He
told her all his dreams and visions, which she expounded, and gave him
pious counsel, but told him that he was " of evil faith and poor

About this time he met Sir Galahad, and knew that he was his son. Then,

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Online LibraryJ.M. StoneStudies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries → online text (page 18 of 28)