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THE ROMANCE OF KING ARTHUR
AND HIS KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE
ABRIDGED FROM MALORY'S MORTE D'ARTHUR
ALFRED W. POLLARD
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
64-66. FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK
Published October, 1917.
THE story of King Arthur and his Knights is one of the greatest that men have ever made, greater by far than that of Charlemagne, which had come into fashion a little earlier, greater perhaps even than the Tale of Troy, already some two thousand years old, which for some centuries it eclipsed. It is through the fifteenth-century prose of Sir Thomas Malory, in which homeliness and nobility go hand-in-hand, that it holds its place in our hearts, but the story itself was the outcome of the second half of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth, the days in England of Henry II. and his three turbulent sons, Geoffrey, Richard Coeur de Lion, and John, the days in France of trouvčre and troubadour, the days in Italy of S. Francis of Assisi. and the worldliness against which he strove. Something of the spirit of all these entered into the story, together with some contemporary theology, while the stuff of which it was woven was largely derived from the Celtic borderland with which the Norman rulers of England had come in contact in Wales and Brittany.
In the days when the Arthurian romances were coming into existence, violence, cruelty, and luxury were rampant, and the story bears many traces of them; but the greatness of these evils called forth some great virtues to counter them, and the story bears traces of these also and strives gallantly to be true to its ideals, though when primitive notions, more especially the old belief in magic, crop up in it, it sometimes stumbles. Despite such stumblings, it is penetrated to its very core by the special virtues of days in which men were content to live dangerously (dangerously for themselves, not merely dangerously as against others), carrying their lives in their hands and willing to lay them down lightly rather than break the rules of the game or be faithless to word or friend.
A wandering knight challenges a great lord in a trial of skill, to be fought out to death or exhaustion, beneath the walls of the lord's castle. The wandering knight wins the day, and the lord becomes his vassal, takes him into his castle, feasts him, appoints a guard for his protection, and, when the victor bids him report himself at Arthur's court, comes on the appointed day attended by all his retinue. That the lord's men should interfere in the fight, or the lord himself break his promise, was unthinkable to these romancers; and on this simple basis of gallantry and good faith there was built up a code full of fine courtesies, such as those which forbade a great jouster to interfere with a lesser one on a day when he was outdoing himself, or a fresh knight to challenge one already tired with many victories.
The determination to live dangerously brought a strange and evil convention into the relations between knights and their ladies. A good knight held himself at the service of every woman who asked his help — to rescue a woman he must needs leave even his own brother in jeopardy — but he also owed a special service to the lady whose badge, if she so graced him, he wore, whose presence spurred him to excel himself, and whose pre-eminence over the ladies of other knights he maintained at the risk of his life. This lady might not be his own wife, if he had one, and she might quite properly be some one else's wife, her knight's homage be approved by her husband as a tribute to her worth, and the whole relation be treated as part of the great game of chivalry. But if it passed beyond a game and the husband hated to see his wife caring, more for another man than for himself, then it became dangerous, and because it was dangerous, although every one knew it was wrong, it made a story more exciting, and all the writers of these Arthurian romances chose this exciting subject as a literary fashion. In the story of Tristram and Isoud, which forms one section of this book, we see clearly how overmastering the fashion had become. Tristram had taken Isoud as his lady, while she was still unmarried; Isoud was (openly and humbly) in love with him; her father, the King of Ireland, was eager for the match; but the romancer thought that their marriage would spoil the story, so he made Tristram, after he had gained Isoud's love, woo her, not for himself, but for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and then made Tristram and Isoud drink, by mischance, a magic love-potion, to excuse them for loving each other ever after.
The literary fashion or convention which imposed itself in this way on the romancers was thoroughly bad; but the saving merit in this respect of the Arthurian romances is that, though they insist on this situation in order to show the hero daring all sorts of dangers, they make it perfectly clear that the situation was wrong and could not go unpunished. With one exception every knight who yielded to this sin is shown as paying for it with his life. The one exception is Sir Launcelot, and him we see maimed and marred by thus setting his love where he should not, and atoning for it, as much as a man may atone for wrecking the lives of others, by bitter repentance.
The story of the Arthurian romances is a great story, because it shows us the effect on many different characters of this obligation to live dangerously. The men and women who fill its pages are not just names or figures to which adventures are tacked on. They are men and women of real flesh and blood, no two of them alike (save when the, writer of one section deliberately copied another), each with his own virtues and failings. King Arthur himself is, as we say nowadays, a typical sportsman. He loves jousting — to take part in it, to see it, and to talk about it — more than anything else, as some men now love less dangerous games. He cares for the men with whom he shares his sport, but he cares for them as his fellow-jousters, and he never gets much further. He falls below lesser knights who had borne imprisonment rather than fight in a bad cause, for which he cheerfully does battle; he is so keen on his own side winning that he overrides the etiquette that forbade a strong knight to attack a good fighter tired by his own successes; he is weak in his own life and weak in suffering the outrages of his nephews. His great merit is that, though a king, he never spared to take his risks, and by that courage he held men's hearts, so that "all men of worship said it was merry to be under such a chieftain, that would put his person in adventure as other poor knights did." Also, to the very last, he could be trusted to keep his word.
Sir Launcelot is made of much finer stuff than Arthur. He is perhaps the most splendid study of a great gentleman in all our literature, generous to friend and foe, courteous to every one, eager to set himself ever harder adventures, unwilling to be praised above his fellows, always bearing himself with an easy dignity which lets him use very straight speech and yet is no whit impaired. He is more than a great gentleman; he is a very subtle study of a soul in which spirit and flesh, aspiration and evil habit, strive for the mastery, and now and again he is pourtrayed with a rare knowledge of the human heart. More wonderful even than the closing scenes with Guenevere seems to me the story of the coming of Sir Urre to have his wounds healed by "the best knight of the world," and how when all others in Arthur's court had failed Launcelot touched the wounds in all humility, and when his touch brought healing, while King Arthur and all the kings and knights gave thanks, "ever Sir Launcelot wept as he had been a child that had been beaten."
Sir Tristram is a curiously different study. Perhaps because of the love-potion, his fault sits lightly upon him; he has a most detailed memory for the services he renders, and is quite unconscious of there being any set off. But he is delightfully easy-tempered and forgiving, joyous and humorous, and deserves kindly remembrance for much else than his harping and his nicety of skill in ordering the technical terms of the chase, which so impressed his chroniclers. But he never touches greatness.
Tristram's assiduous opponent, Sir Palomides, the Saracen, is a rather laboured but quite successful portrait. Probably because he was a Saracen he is represented as not quite a gentleman, but pathetically anxious to become one. He is constantly doing things which Sir Launcelot, or even Sir Tristram, would have died sooner than do, and then he pulls himself together and apologises and tries manfully to play the game. His final appearance, when he is badly mauled by Sir Tristram as a preliminary to being christened, is singularly successful, none the less so for its touches of humour.
To attempt to study here others of the men and women who live in Malory's story would give to this preface too great a resemblance to the page in school magazines headed "Characters of the Team." It remains to say a brief word as to what has been done in this abridgment. There is good reason to believe that Sir Thomas Malory was a Lancastrian knight who himself knew the pains of sickness and imprisonment, as to which he wrote so feelingly. He had to make his compilation from such books as he could get (he apparently never obtained the last volume of the romance of Sir Tristram), and it is probable that when his version was made his life was drawing to a close, and that, even if he had the wish, he had not time or strength to revise it. That version is so great a book, written, as I have said, in a style in which homely charm and nobility are so closely interlinked, that to tamper with it may seem a crime. But during the last few years there have been many complete texts of the Morte d'Arthur — I have passed one through the press myself — and an invitation to act as Malory's abridger, even as Malory had abridged the romances themselves, found me daring enough to think that such a further abridgment would be a very interesting experiment. There is much repetition in the Morte d'Arthur, as Malory left it. How often Sir Breuse sans Pitié played his ugly tricks, or Tristram rescued Palomides, or minor knights met at adventure and emulated their betters, it is not easy to count. I have tried to clear away some of the underwoods that the great trees may be better seen, and though I know that I have cleared away some small timber that is fine stuff in itself, if the great trees stand out the better, the experiment may be forgiven. In attempting it I have introduced, I think, not more than a hundred words of my own, but in certain places I have taken over the readings devised half a century ago for the well-known Globe edition by Sir Edward Strachey, which has justified itself by passing through some twenty editions, and has probably brought Malory more readers than all other texts put together.
ALFRED W. POLLARD.
Of King Arthur
Of Sir Launcelot
Of Sir Gareth
How Beaumains blew a horn, and then the Knight of the Red Launds came to fight with him, and how Beaumains made him yield to the lady and go unto King Arthur's court and cry Sir Launcelot mercy, and of the troth plight of Beaumains and the lady
How Sir Gareth came to a castle where he was well lodged, and how he jousted with the lord of the castle, and how Sir Gareth and Sir Gawaine fought each against other and knew each other by the damosel Linet
How Sir Tristram went to Ireland to be healed of the poison of his wound and there was put to the keeping of La Beak Isoud, and how he won the degree at a tournament and made Sir Palomides bear no harness of war for a year
How Sir Tristram departed from Tintagil, and how he sorrowed and was so long in a forest till he was out of his mind, and it was noised that he was dead, and how La Beale Isoud would have slain herself
How Sir Tristram slew the giant Tauleas, and how King Mark found Sir Tristram naked, and caused him to be borne to Tintagil, and how he was known by a brachet and was banished from Cornwall for the term of ten years
How Sir Tristram and Sir Dinadan fought for Sir Launcelot against thirty knights, and how Sir Tristram rode to a tournament and lodged with an old knight named Sir Pellounes, and of the jousting before the tournament
Of the rage of Sir Palomides for despite of Sir Tristram, and how Sir Tristram, Sir Dinadan, and Sir Palomides lodged with Sir Darras, and how Sir Darras put them in his prison for the death of his sons, but at the last he let them go
How Sir Tristram met at the Peron with Sir Launcelot, and how they fought together unknown, and how Sir Launcelot brought Sir Tristram to the court, and of the great joy that the king and other made for the coming of Sir Tristram
How by treason Sir Tristram was brought to a tournament for to have been slain, and how he was put in prison, and how he and La Beale Isoud came to England and were lodged by Sir Launcelot at Joyous Gard
How on a day Sir Tristram departed unarmed and met with Sir Palomides, and how they smote each other, and how Sir Palomides forbare him, and how Sir Tristram gat harness of a hurt knight and overthrew Sir Palomides and made him be christened
Of Sir Lancelot and Dame Elaine
Of Sir Galahad and the Quest of the Holy Grail
How a damosel announced to King Arthur that the Sangreal should appear in his house, and how King Arthur had all his knights together for to joust or they departed, and how the Sangreal appeared as they sat at supper, and how all the knights took upon them the quest, and of the sorrow of the king and queen at their departing
How Sir Launcelot, half sleeping and half waking, saw a sick man healed with the Sangreal, and how a voice spake to Sir Launcelot, and how he was shriven, and how a good man gave him a hair shirt to wear, and how he was overcome at a jousting and at last came to a river
How when Sir Bors would not fight with him Sir Lionel would have slain him, and how he slew a hermit and Sir Colgrevance who would have saved Sir Bors, and how Sir Bors and Sir Lionel were parted by a cloud
How Sir Galahad gripped the sword, and of the custom of a castle, and how Sir Percivale's sister bled a dish full of blood for to heal a lady, wherefore she died; and how that her body was put in a ship
How after that Sir Launcelot had lain four-and-twenty days and nights as a dead man, it was told him that he had achieved all he might of the quest of the Sangreal, and he returned to King Arthur's court
How Galahad and his fellows were fed of the Holy Sangreal, and how our Lord appeared to them, and how Galahad anointed the maimed king, and how they departed and took ship and came to the city of Sarras, and found there the ship with the body of Percivale's sister
Of Launcelot, Guenever, and King Arthur
How Sir Launcelot answered for the queen, to wage battle against Sir Meliagrance; and how Sir Launcelot was taken in a trap, but was delivered of a lady, and how he fought with Sir Meliagrance, half unarmed, and slew him
How Sir Gawaine's ghost appeared to King Arthur, and warned him not to fight on the day assigned, and how by misadventure of an adder a battle began, where Mordred was slain and Arthur hurt to the death
How Sir Launcelot went with his eight fellows to Almesbury, and found there Queen Guenever dead, whom they brought to Glastonbury, and how Sir Launcelot sickened and died, and was borne to Joyous Gard for to be buried, and how Constantine reigned next after Arthur, and of the end of this book
ILLUSTRATIONSHow Arthur drew his sword Excalibur for the first time
Merlin and Nimue. How by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under the stone to let her wit of the marvels there:
and she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do
How Sir Launcelot slew the knight Sir Peris de Forest Savage that did distress ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen
How Beaumains defeated. the Red Knight, and always the damosel spake many foul words unto him
How Dame Lionesse came forth arrayed like a princess
How Tristram and Isoud drank the love drink
How Tristram was known by the little brachet in the garden of King Mark's castle
How at a great feast that King Mark made came Eliot the harper and sang the lay that Dinadan had made
The Questing Beast
How Sir Launcelot fought with a fiendly dragon
How at the Castle of Corbin a maiden bare in the Sangreal and foretold the achievements of Galahad
How Galahad drew out the sword from the floating stone at Camelot
How King Arthur and Queen Guenever went to see the barge that bore the corpse of Elaine the Fair Maiden of Astolat
How Sir Launcelot was shot by a gentlewoman hunting
How Queen Guenever rode a-Maying into the woods and fields beside Westminster
How Mordred was slain by Arthur and how by him Arthur was hurt to the death
IN BLACK AND WHITESo the child was delivered to Merlin
How Queen Morgan le Fay stole away the scabbard from Arthur
When she saw she must be overtaken, she shaped herself, horse and man, by enchantment unto a great marble stone
Sir Beaumains espied upon great trees how there hung full goodly armed knights by the neck
Dagonet, King Arthur's Fool
They saw on the other side a lady with a sperhawk on her hand
Sir Mordred went and laid a mighty siege about the Tower of London, and shot great guns