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The collection of Arthurian story elaborated during
the Middle Ages was too notable and impressive
to be forgotten in the sixteenth century, when
the distinctively modern epoch of history began.
At the same time, the world had changed, and
the feeling that the subject was a great one was
for long unaccompanied by insight into where its
greatness lay. Hence for three centuries it rather
tantalised than satisfied the demands of the poetic
imagination ; and its history during that period is
very largely the record of tentative and irresolute
efforts to enter into its spirit once more. It has
found really sympathetic treatment only within the
last sixty or sixty-five years, and, in its collective
aspect, only at the hands of Tennyson.

These later fortunes of the legend are, of course,
much less important than its development during
the Dark and the Middle Ages, but they are in-
teresting and instructive in their own way. At
any rate, it seemed worth while to give a more


detailed account of them than, to my knowledge,
has hitherto been attempted. My difficulty in the
historical portion of my book (Chapters I. to V.)
has been that, working to a great extent without
predecessors, I have had for the most part to
gather my data from chance hints and general
reading. In the circumstances, I cannot hope to
have avoided grave omissions with respect both to
minor writers at home and abroad, and to the
minor works of important continental writers. I
shall be grateful for criticisms and suggestions.

With the chapters on Tennyson (VI. to IX.) the
case is very different. Here there is certainly no
reason to complain of any lack of material, and
the danger is rather of saying over again what has
been said already. My apology for adding another
criticism to the many that already exist, is that,
so far as I know, my interpretation is somewhat
different from those that have hitherto been offered.
And 1 cannot but think that much of the disparag-
ing comment on the Idylls of the King which we
have lately heard, is due to the neglect of their
allegoric character, or to the adoption of a false
allegoric clue. Rightly understood, they seem to
me to solve the problem of modern Arthurian
poetry, and to represent the climax of at least
the later development.

To the essay which forms the proper substance
of the book I have prefixed an introduction on
the earlier growth of the legend. Of course, the
more one makes oneself acquainted with Arthurian
literature, whether it be the romances themselves
or the dissertations of scholars, the more disinclined


one must feel to express a decided opinion about
the matter. Clear knowledge of the subject is still
in the making. The experts are by no means in
agreement with each other, and their most luminous
researches often serve chiefly to show how much
remains dark. Moreover, since the publication of
Mr. Nutt's Studies on the Holy Grail, in 1888,
the problem has shifted to the region of Celtic
philology, and my knowledge of Celtic literature,
even in translated form, is not wide enough to
entitle me to share in that part of the discussion.

Two reasons, however, have decided me, with much
reluctance and diffidence, to insert the preliminary
sketch. In the first place, it seemed right to state
the presuppositions on which my treatment of the
later development to a great extent rests. In the
second place, I did not know where else to refer
readers who are not Arthurian students for some
general idea of elder Arthurian story. I have
therefore endeavoured, so far as possible, to keep
to points on which the chief authorities are agreed
or at least in regard to which their views are
not irreconcilable, and clearly to mark as conjec-
tural what is not yet passed as proven.

My most important assumption is that there was a
Brythonic nucleus of largely mythic material for the
amplifications of romance. This theory, so far as the
Grail is concerned, has in later years been revived
and brought into prominence by Mr. Nutt in his
laborious and brilliant essay ; and after a careful
study of what a somewhat boisterous criticism has
urged on the other side, it seems to me that,
though some details ma)' need to be revised, and


though a very complex legend may not have
existed among the Celts, Mr. Nutt's main con-
tention still holds the field. A similar view for
a larger range of stories has been maintained with
immense knowledge and fertility of suggestion by
Professor Rhys. Whatever the ultimate decision
may be, it is difficult to see how some of the
cases of filiation he adduces can be controverted ;
and they would suffice to prove some sort of Celtic

For the rest, I do not think I have said
anything that cannot easily be reconciled with the
hypotheses of a British or of a Breton origin, of
the existence or the non-existence of an Anglo-
Norman literature, of the relative priority of the
verse, or, in a more primitive form, of the prose

In the Introduction, especially in Section IV.,
I have made use with many modifications of an
essay on The Three Cycles of Medieval Romance,
published by me in 1883. My book as a
whole is the outcome of many years' occupation
with the subject, and more immediately of a course
of lectures delivered by me in the University of
Sydney in 1 890-91.

The pleasant duty remains of acknowledging the
assistance which I have received from many friends.
My colleague, Professor J. T. Wilson of Sydney
University, Professor E. Caird, now Master of
Balliol, Professor John Nichol, formerly of Glasgow /
University, Professor Henry Jones of St. Andrews
University, Professor W. Paton Ker of University
College, London, have read the manuscript or


proofs, altogether or in part, and I owe them
many valuable suggestions. To the two last I am
especially indebted for criticism, both general and
minute, that has been of the greatest service. I
have also to thank Professor Ker for procuring
me information which at the time was inaccessible
to me, and for putting me on the track of things
which I should have missed. Other friends, too
numerous to mention, have laid me under deep
obligations by help of various kinds.

2nd January, 1894.



Introduction —

I. Plan of the Essay i

II. Arthur among the Celts .... 3

III. The Romantic Historians . . . . 21

IV. Chivalry and its Requirements . . 38
y V. The Verse and the Prose Romances . 58
/ VI. Malory's Compilation and the English

Ballads 85

From the Reformation to the Puritan Revolution 109

From the Restoration to the French Revolution 146

The Romantic Revivai 179




Tennyson's Contemporaries on the Continent . 214

Tennyson's Contemporaries at Home . . . 248

v' Tennyson as Arthurian Poet 289

y General Meaning of the Idylls . . . . 321

J The Idylls as a Series 355

The Idylls as a Series (Continued) . . .382


I. Blackmore's Epics on Arthur . . . 4'4

II. Sebastian Evans' Arthurian Poems . . 419

III. The Time Occupied by the Idylls . . 423

Index 429






TN modern literature the story of Arthur occu-
pies a somewhat peculiar position. On the
one hand, it is among the themes, consecrated by
a popularity long and wide, that the world cher-
ishes and will not willingly let die. Having its
first source in remote Celtic tradition, it worked
a channel to medieval France, where, fed by
tributary streams, it rose and swelled till it spread
into Britain and the Empire, and even more dis-
tant lands. Then, no doubt, it dwindled and
almost disappeared ; but, in the present century,
it flows once more, somewhat scantily, indeed, in
its old French bed, but all the more freely in Ger-
many and England. Nor among ourselves has it
ever been long lost from view. It has been ab-
solutely neglected only when the poetic spirit was
languishing ; in periods of imaginative energy it
has never wanted its witnesses, and has never
failed to attract great minds.

In so far, it might be compared with con-
ceptions like the medieval visions of a future



state, or the Reformation legend of Dr. Faustus,
or the typical embodiments in sculpture of the
various Greek divinities, all of which were similarly
dear to generations of men and passed through
a development in which many successive minds
co-operated. But, on the other hand, the Arthur-
ian story has never produced an entirely perfect
fruit, or, to put this in a slightly different way, no
quite supreme genius has ever dedicated himself
to its treatment. It has not found its Dante or
its Goethe or its Pheidias. It is noticeable that
Chaucer and Shakespeare, chief among our poets
for broad and realistic humanity, pass it by with-
out ever seeming to think of using it, save for casual
allusions, mostly of a humorous kind. Spenser
borrows Arthur's name, but profoundly alters the
Arthurian legend. Milton, like Dryden, takes it up
to let it fall. Only when we come to Tennyson do
we find a poet of acknowledged power busying him-
self in earnest with the stories of the Table Round.
And though none would deny that Tennyson is a
very great poet, and few that the Idylls are very
noble poetry, still he and they hardly occupy a first
place in the literature of the world like Dante and
Goethe with their greatest works.

Nevertheless, in the Idylls is probably t© be
found the finest development that the cycle of
Arthurian story has as yet attained, or will for
long attain. Perhaps it might even be said, that
they deliver the classic version of that story as a
whole, and present it in the highest perfection of
which it is capable. It may be maintained that
its peculiar merits and defects correspond so


closely with the inherent limitations and excel-
lences of Tennyson's genius, that in him it found
its unique predestined interpreter. It is from
this point of view that the present essay is
written, and it aims at tracing the history of the
legend after it had crystallised into its typical form,
discussing its characteristic peculiarities, noting the
more significant instances of its acceptance, its
modification and its neglect, and showing how
these in a manner lead up to a truer comprehen-
sion of its spirit, till in the fulness of days Tenny-
son comes to make the heritage his own.



SHORTLY after the publication of Lady Char-
lotte Guest's collection of Welsh tales, which
she entitled the Mabinogion (i 837-1 849), Renan
made it the chief basis for a very interesting and
sympathetic article on the Poetry of the Celtic
Races. Recognising the comparative lateness of
the stories in their existing form, Renan was yet
more impressed with the primitive character of
much that they narrate. " Christianity hardly ap-
pears " ; he writes, " not that one is not occasion-
ally aware of its vicinity, but it in no wise alters
the purely naturalistic medium in which every-
thing occurs." Further on he explains what he
means by the term naturalistic : " Among the
Cymry, the idea of the marvellous lies in nature
herself, in her secret processes, in her inexhaustible


productivity. It is a mysterious swan, a pro-
phetic bird, the sudden apparition of a hand,
a giant, a black tyrant, a magic mist, a cry
that is heard and makes men die for frieht,
an object with extraordinary attributes. There is
nothing of the monotheistic conception, according
to which the marvellous is only a miracle, a dero-
gation from established laws. Here, there is the
perfect naturalism, the undefined faith in the pos-
sible, the belief in the existence of independent
beings that bear in themselves the principle of
their own mysterious power." 1 A dozen years
later, Matthew Arnold expressed himself to the
same effect in his lectures on The Study of Celtic
Literature? After enumerating some of the strange
agents in the Mabinogion, he exclaims : " These
are no medieval personages ; they belong to an
older, pagan, mythological world. The first thing
that strikes one in reading the Mabinogion is how
evidently the medieval story-teller is pillaging an
antiquity of which he does not fully possess the
secret : he is like a peasant building his hut on
the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus ; he builds,
but what he builds is full of materials of which
he knows not the history, or knows by glimmer-
ing tradition merely : stones ' not of this building,'
but of an older architecture, greater, cunninger,
more majestical."

Such were the impressions which the Welsh
stories left on the minds of two men of genius,
both of them scholars, and both with a singularly

1 Revue des Deux Mondes, 1854.
■ Published in 1867.


wide range of literary knowledge and culture.
Their testimony shows that the world of ancient
belief submerged in the medieval narrative is not
perceptible to the philological specialist alone, but
is visibly present for such as have eyes to see.
The tenacious character of the race that owned
the legends, and its seclusion from the outer world,
have preserved much of its ancient lore, slightly
disguised but perfectly recognisable under a more
recent form.

Meanwhile, the specialist, too, had already been
busy with these and other data, and in subsequent
years has exploited them on more scientific prin-
ciples, to reconstruct, if it be possible, the edifice
of Welsh and of Celtic heathendom. Nor for
this is there any lack of material, though it can be
utilised only by those who are thoroughly equipped
in Celtic scholarship, and by them only with ex-
treme caution and after laborious research. Thus
there are the statements of Latin and Greek ob-
servers, and the votive inscriptions on temples and
altars ; but both are rendered dubious by the tend-
ency which then prevailed to seek everywhere for bar-
barous counterparts of the classic pantheon, and to
romanise the national gods. Then there are the
possibly primitive elements, embedded in the litera-
ture of Wales and Ireland, which was committed
to writing during the earlier or later Middle Ages,
and also perhaps in medieval histories like those
of Nennius and Geoffrey, and even in the chival-
rous romances that profess to deal with the matter
of Britain. But in all these cases it is difficult,
and sometimes impossible, to say whether a thing


belongs to the original stock, or whether it is a
later addition ; and the difficulty is, of course, in-
creased when recourse is had to the utterances of
modern folklore, with its innumerable possibilities of
further contamination. Last and chief is the evi-
dence of scientific philology, which presides over the
whole inquiry, and, by the analysis of Celtic names
and words, makes large contributions of its own ;
but though many of its results are established,
many, too, are still conjectural. The materials are
thus ample enough, but the task of examining them
is beset with doubts and dangers, and those whose
knowledge is most are least dogmatic in their as-

Some points in these investigations that bear on
the story of Arthur may be illustrated from Pro-
fessor Rhys's Lectures on Celtic Heathendom, and
Studies in the Arthurian Legend ; but it should be
premised that the illustrations lose a great deal of
their cogency when the arguments are curtailed and
deprived of the cumulative support supplied by the
whole body of his researches.

One of the most interesting inscriptions which
he cites, mentions a Mercurius Artaius} in which,
according to a usual practice, the proper noun gives
the god under his Roman name, and the adjective
preserves one of his Celtic designations. Now the
epithet Artaius admits of being derived from the
Aryan root, which, indeed, exists in the word Aryan,
meaning to plough, so that Mercurius Artaius would
be equivalent to the pure Latin, Mercurius Cultor,
as he is termed in another inscription. Can any

1 Celtic Heathendom, page 6. Arthurian Legend, page 40.


personage be found in Celtic legend with a similar
name or function ? In old Irish story a certain
Airem occurs whose name has the same etymology
and who learned from watching the fairies how to
yoke oxen at the neck and shoulders. In the very
primitive Welsh story of Kulhwch and Olwen y
Arthur, whose name is possibly equivalent to the
Latin arator (or artor, if there were a strong verb
arere), is associated with the clearing, trenching,
ploughing of a vast hill, and with the processes of
agriculture generally. So this would suggest his
identification with the mysterious Gallic Mercury,
who presided over culture.

Further, the wife of the Airem mentioned above
was known as Be Find, the white woman, and
Arthur's wife as Gwenhwyvar, the white shadow or
phantom. Each lady is carried away from her
husband : the Irish one by Mider, king of the
fairies, who were considered the denizens of Hades;
the British one by Medrawd, the Welsh form of
Modred and a derivative from the same root as
Mider ; and in both cases the husband makes war
against the ravisher. This was not the only ab-
duction of which Guinevere was the victim. In
the Life of Gi/das, she is carried away by Mel was,
the Meleaguanz or Mellyagraunce of later romance,
where the place of her captivity is said to be the
country " whence no stranger ever returns," a trans-
parent description of the world of the shades. 1
She would thus seem to be one of the numerous
goddesses of the dusk or the dawn, who, like
Helen of Greece, were considered now on the

1 Arthurian Legend, pages 51-52.


side of the deities of light, now on the side of
the deities of darkness ; and war is waged on
her account between the rival powers.

A reminiscence of this hostility survives elsewhere.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his account of Arthur,
makes him not only rescue Britain from the Saxons,
but lead victorious expeditions into Scandinavia and
other foreign realms ; and this has often been
considered one of the historian's most shameless
inventions. But there seems good reason to suppose
that such conquests originally had a mythic sense,
and referred to the invasion by the culture-hero of
the world of the shades. This was often associated
by the Celts with a tract of waters, and was some-
times placed beyond the sea. Thus the well-known
story of Procopius tells how Brittia was regarded
by the Gauls as the abode of the dead, and how the
souls of the departed were ferried across in a
phantom boat to its misty cliffs ; and there is
ground for believing that Ireland, Spain, the
Western Isles, the far side of some river, were all in
various ways identified with the home of Hades.
In earlier times, however, this fabulous country seems
to have been placed not beyond but beneath the
waters. The memory of it survives in the famous
sunken land of Lyonesse, which would mean the
land of Llion, or, as she is called in Irish, Liban, I
noted personage, who was afterwards to become the
Lady of the Lake, and was probably at first a
goddess of the Nether World. It survives, too, in
the stories of submerged cities and villages so
common in modern Wales ; and a hostile mythic race
of early Ireland, with whom the Aryan colonists had


to contend, are called the Fomori, the Submarine
Ones. Now, the name for Norway in Welsh and
Irish is Llychlyn and Lochlann respectively ; but
" before it came to mean the home of the Norsemen
it denoted a mysterious country in the lochs or the
sea." 1 A flood of light is thus thrown on the
conquest by Arthur, not only of Scandinavia, but of
Ireland and Scotland, which seem to have a similar
meaning. Thus he makes Arawn king of the latter,
and Arawn is known in Welsh story only as the
Head of Hades.

The under world was conceived in many myth-
ologies as a realm of wealth and knowledge, and
the object of the culture-hero, in invading it, was to
procure some of its blessings for men. And there
are traces of this conception in the tales of Arthur ;
for in one story he is represented as bringing back
a cauldron of money from Ireland, and in the book
of Taliessin he succeeds in carrying away the
cauldron of Hades. This cauldron, which will not
cook for a coward, and from which mysterious utter-
ances issue, is one of a numerous class in Celtic
legend that are highly prized and are endowed with
wonderful properties. Thus the Irish tales have a
cauldron from which no company, however large,
went away unsatisfied ; and there are many allusions
in Gaelic folklore to basins with strange nutritive
and healing powers. Professor Rhys interprets this
as a reference " to some primitive drink brewed by
the early Aryan " ; and the sacred vessel, supposed,
like other boons, to be derived from the other world
by the medicine man, would be regarded as the

1 Celtic Heathendom, page 355. See, too, Arthurian Legend, it.


source of ecstasy, of poetry, of renewed vigour and
life. And there is a kindred story, into connection
with which the stories of the cauldrons have been
brought, the very early Mabinogi of Branwen. A
British saint of gigantic size, called Bran the Blessed,
wades across to Ireland, his followers accompanying
him in ships, and afterwards makes his body a
bridge over a river, on which they pass to the other
side. Eventually he is wounded with a poisoned
dart in a contest that is very unequal ; for all his
slain foes are every night restored to life by being
thrown into a wondrous cauldron. Feeling his death
approach, he bids his followers cut off his head and
bear it with them to Britain ; they will want for
nothing while it is in their company. And the
promise comes true. For seven years they sit
feasting at Harlech, for eighty years in Gwales,
oblivious of all else amid the good cheer and enter-
tainment that the presence of the friendly head
provides. It is in these fancies that we probably
have the origin of the Holy Grail. The cauldron of
Hades, like the Sacred Cup, is associated with
Carbonek, and its peculiarity that it would not cook
for a coward may be considered a rough draught of
the conception that the Grail is only to be attained
by the pure in heart. Further, Bran, who, from his
association with Ireland, may be taken as one of the
dark divinities (for he is like no other saint in the
Calendar, and his epithet of Blessed possibly refers
less to spiritual beatitude than to the plenty of the
under world), seems identical with the Bron, 1 who, in

1 This, of course, is only one explanation among several ; for
in no portion of this subject is there complete agreement among


some later stones, is one of the early guardians of
the Grail, and who also conducts a miraculous
expedition across the sea. No mention is made of a
dish in connection with the head of Bran ; but
Professor Rhys remarks that it must have been
carried about in some vessel, and suggests that
Bran's head on a dish and the poisoned spear with
which he was wounded formed the originals of the
Bleeding Lance and the head in the dish which
appear in the Grail Legends. And the strange
virtue which Bran's head possessed of feeding those
around with the choicest delicacies, just as the Irish
cauldron sent none away unsatisfied, remained a
characteristic of the Grail down to the time of
Malory. " Thenne ther entred into the halle the
Holy Graile, couerd with whyte samyte, but ther
was none myghte see hit nor who bare hit. And
there was al the halle fulfylled with good odoures,
and every knyght had suche metes and drynkes as
he best loued in this world ; and whan the Holy
Grayle had be borne through the hall, thenne the
holy vessel departed sodenly that they wyste not
where hit becam." 1

But the culture-hero, besides his own exploits for
the benefit of men, is generally associated with a
younger sun-god who is his protege and dependent,

Online LibraryMungo William MacCallumTennyson's Idylls of the King and Arthurian story from the XVIth century → online text (page 1 of 28)