Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Arthurian Legends (Eighth to Twelfth Centuries)
Critical Introduction by Richard Jones (1855–1923)
FOR nearly a thousand years, the Arthurian legends, which lie at the basis of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King,’ have furnished unlimited literary material, not to English poets alone, but to the poets of all Christendom. These Celtic romances, having their birthplace in Brittany or in Wales, had been growing and changing for some centuries, before the fanciful ‘Historia Britonum’ of Geoffrey of Monmouth flushed them with color and filled them with new life. Through the version of the good Benedictine they soon became a vehicle for the dissemination of Christian doctrine. By the year 1200 they were the common property of Europe, influencing profoundly the literature of the Middle Ages, and becoming the source of a great stream of poetry that has flowed without interruption down to our own day.  1
  Sixty years after the ‘Historia Britonum’ appeared, and when the English poet Layamon wrote his ‘Brut’ (A.D. 1205), which was a translation of Wace, as Wace was a translation of Geoffrey, the theme was engrossing the imagination of Europe. It had absorbed into itself the elements of other cycles of legend, which had grown up independently; some of these, in fact, having been at one time of much greater prominence. Finally, so vast and so complicated did the body of Arthurian legend become, that summaries of the essential features were attempted. Such a summary was made in French about 1270, by the Italian Rustighello of Pisa; in German, about two centuries later, by Ulrich Füterer; and in English by Sir Thomas Malory in his ‘Morte d’Arthur,’ finished “the ix. yere of the reygne of kyng Edward the Fourth,” and one of the first books published in England by Caxton, “emprynted and fynysshed in th’abbey Westmestre the last day of July, the yere of our Lord MCCCCLXXXV.” It is of interest to note, as an indication of the popularity of the Arthurian legends, that Caxton printed the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ eight years before he printed any portion of the English Bible, and fifty-three years before the complete English Bible was in print. He printed the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ in response to a general “demaund”; for “many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of England camen and demaunded me many and oftymes wherefore that I have not do make and enprynte the noble hystorye of the saynt greal, and of the moost renomed crysten kyng, fyrst and chyef of the thre best crysten and worthy, kyng Arthur, whyche ought moost to be remembred emonge us Englysshe men tofore al other crysten kynges.”  2
  Nor did poetic treatment of the theme then cease. Dante, in the ‘Divine Comedy,’ speaks by name of Arthur, Guinevere, Tristan, and Launcelot. In that touching interview in the second cycle of the Inferno between the poet and Francesca da Rimini, which Carlyle has called “a thing woven out of rainbows on a ground of eternal black,” Francesca replies to Dante, who was bent to know the primal root whence her love for Paolo gat being:—
                          “One day
For our delight, we read of Launcelot,
How him love thralled. Alone we were, and no
Suspicion near us. Oft-times by that reading
Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue
Fled from our altered cheek. But at one point
Alone we fell. When of that smile we read,
The wished smile, rapturously kissed
By one so deep in love, then he, who ne’er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kissed. The book and writer both
Were love’s purveyors. In its leaves that day
We read no more.”
  This poetic material was appropriated also by the countrymen of Dante, Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso, by Hans Sachs in Germany, by Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton in England. As Sir Walter Scott has sung:—
  “The mightiest chiefs of British song
Scorned not such legends to prolong.”
  Roger Ascham, it is true, has, in his ‘Scholemaster’ (1570), broken a lance against this body of fiction. “In our forefathers’ tyme,” wrote he, “whan Papistrie, as a standyng poole, couered and ouerflowed all England, fewe bookes were read in our tong, sauyng certaine bookes of Cheualrie, as they sayd, for pastime and pleasure, which, as some say, were made in Monasteries, by idle Monkes, or wanton Chanons; as one for example, ‘Morte Arthure’: the whole pleasure of which booke standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open mans slaughter, and bold bawdrye: in which booke those be counted the noblest Knights, that do kill most men without any quarrell, and commit foulest aduoulteries by sutlest shiftes.”  5
  But Roger’s characterization of “the whole pleasure of which booke” was not just, nor did it destroy interest in the theme. “The generall end of all the booke,” said Spenser of the ‘Faerie Queene,’ “is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline;” and for this purpose he therefore “chose the historye of King Arthure, as most fitte for the excellency of his person, being made famous by many men’s former workes, and also furthest from the daunger of envie, and suspition of present tyme.”  6
  The plots for Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ and ‘Cymbeline’ came from Geoffrey’s ‘Historia Britonum,’ as did also the story of ‘Gorboduc,’ the first tragedy in the English language. Milton intended at one time that the subject of the great poem for which he was “pluming his wings” should be King Arthur, as may be seen, in his ‘Mansus’ and ‘Epitaphium Damonis.’ Indeed, he did touch the lyre upon this theme,—lightly, it is true, but firmly enough to justify Swinburne’s lines:—
  “Yet Milton’s sacred feet have lingered there,
His lips have made august the fabulous air,
His hands have touched and left the wild weeds fair.”
But his duties as Latin Secretary to the Commonwealth diverted him from poetry for many years, and when the Restoration gave him leisure once more to court the Muse, he had come to doubt the existence of the Celtic hero-king; for in ‘Paradise Lost’ (Book i., line 579) he refers to
                  “what resounds
In fable or romance of Uther’s son;”
and in his ‘History of Britain’ (1670 A.D.) he says explicitly:—“For who Arthur was, and whether ever any such reign’d in Britan, hath bin doubted heertofore, and may again with good reason.”
  Dryden, who composed the words of an opera on King Arthur, meditated, according to Sir Walter Scott, a larger treatment of the theme:—
  “And Dryden in immortal strain
Had raised the Table Round again,
But that a ribald King and Court
Bade him toil on to make them sport.”
Sir Walter himself edited the old metrical romance of ‘Sir Tristram,’ and where the manuscript was defective, composed a portion after the manner of the original, the portion in which occur the lines,

  “Mi schip do thou take,
  With godes that bethe new;
Two seyles do thou make,
  Beth different in hewe:
*        *        *        *        *
“Ysoude of Britanye,
  With the white honde,
The schip she can se,
  Seyling to londe;
The white seyl tho marked sche.
*        *        *        *        *
“Fairer ladye ere
  Did Britannye never spye,
Swiche murning chere,
  Making on heighe;
On Tristremes bere,
  Doun con she lye;
Rise ogayn did sche nere,
  But thare con sche dye
            For woe.
  Swiche lovers als thei
Never schal be moe.”
  Of the poets of the present generation, Tennyson has treated the Arthurian poetic heritage as a whole. Phases of the Arthurian theme have been presented also by his contemporaries and successors at home and abroad,—by William Wordsworth, Lord Lytton, Robert Stephen Hawker, Matthew Arnold, William Morris, Algernon Charles Swinburne, in England; Edgar Quinet in France; Wilhelm Hertz, L. Schneegans, F. Roeber, in Germany; Richard Hovey in America. There have been many other approved variations on Arthurian themes, such as James Russell Lowell’s ‘Vision of Sir Launfal,’ and Richard Wagner’s operas, ‘Lohengrin,’ ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ and ‘Parsifal.’ Of still later versions, we may mention the ‘King Arthur’ of J. Comyns Carr, which has been presented on the stage by Sir Henry Irving; and ‘Under King Constantine,’ by Katrina Trask, whose hero is the king whom tradition names as the successor of the heroic Arthur, “Imperator, Dux Bellorum.”  9
  This poetic material is manifestly a living force in the literature of the present day. And we may well remind ourselves of the rule which should govern our verdict in regard to the new treatments of the theme as they appear. This century-old ‘Dichterstoff,’ this poetic treasure-store through which speaks the voice of the race, this great body of accumulated poetic material, is a heritage; and it is evident that whoever attempts any phase of this theme may not treat such subject-matter capriciously, nor otherwise than in harmony with its inherent nature and spirit. It is recognized that the stuff whereof great poetry is made is not the arbitrary creation of the poet, and cannot be manufactured to order. “Genuine poetic material,” it has been said, “is handed down in the imagination of man from generation to generation, changing its spirit according to the spirit of each age, and reaching its full development only when in the course of time the favorable conditions coincide.” Inasmuch as the subject-matter of the Arthurian legends is not the creation of a single poet, nor even of many poets, but is in fact the creation of the people,—indeed, of many peoples widely separated in time and space, and is thus in a sense the voice of the race,—it resembles in this respect the Faust legends, which are the basis of Goethe’s world-poem; or the mediæval visions of a future state, which found their supreme and final expression in Dante’s ‘Divina Commedia,’ which sums up within itself the art, the religion, the politics, the philosophy, and the view of life of the Middle Ages.  10
  Whether the Arthurian legends as a whole have found their final and adequate expression in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King,’ or whether it was already too late, when the Laureate wrote, to create from primitive ideas so simple a poem of the first rank, is not within the province of this essay to discuss. But manifestly, any final judgment in regard to the treatment of this theme as a whole, or any phase of the theme, is inadequate which leaves out of consideration the history of the subject-matter, and its treatment by other poets; which, in short, ignores its possibilities and its significance. With respect to the origin and the early history of the Arthurian legend, much remains to be established. Whether its original home was in Wales, or among the neighboring Celts across the sea in Brittany, whither many of the Celts of Britain fled after the Anglo-Saxon invasion of their island home, no one knows. But to some extent, at least, the legend was common to both sides of the Channel when Geoffrey wrote his book, about 1145. As a matter of course, this King Arthur, the ideal hero of later ages, was a less commanding personage in the early forms of the legend than when it had acquired its splendid distinction by borrowing and assimilating other mythical tales.  11
  It appears that five great cycles of legend,—(1) the Arthur, Guinevere, and Merlin cycle, (2) the Round Table cycle, (3) the Holy Grail cycle, (4) the Launcelot cycle, (5) the Tristan cycle,—which at first developed independently, were, in the latter half of the twelfth century, merged together into a body of legend whose bond of unity was the idealized Celtic hero, King Arthur.  12
  This blameless knight, whose transfigured memory has been thus transmitted to us, was probably a leader of the Celtic tribes of England in their struggles with the Saxon invaders. His victory at Mount Badon, described by Sir Launcelot to the household at Astolat,—
  “Dull days were those, till our good Arthur broke
The pagan yet once more on Badon Hill,”—
this victory is mentioned by Gildas, who wrote in the sixth century. Gildas, however, though he mentions the occasion, does not give the name of the leader. But Nennius, who wrote in the latter part of the eighth century, or early in the ninth, makes Arthur the chieftain, and adds an account of his great personal prowess. Thus the Arthur legend has already begun to grow. For the desperate struggle with the Saxons was vain. As the highly gifted, imaginative Celt saw his people overwhelmed by the kinsmen of the conquerors of Rome, he found solace in song for the hard facts of life. In the fields of imagination he won the victories denied him on the field of battle, and he clustered these triumphs against the enemies of his race about the name and the person of the magnanimous Arthur. When the descendants of the Saxons were in their turn overcome by Norman conquerors, the heart of the Celtic world was profoundly stirred. Ancient memories awoke, and, yearning for the restoration of British greatness, men rehearsed the deeds of him who had been king, and of whom it was prophesied that he should be king hereafter. At this moment of newly awakened hope, Geoffrey’s ‘Historia’ appeared. His book was not in reality a history. Possibly it was not even very largely founded on existing legends. But in any case the chronicle of Geoffrey was a work of genius and of imagination. “The figure of Arthur,” says Ten Brink, “now stood forth in brilliant light, a chivalrous king and hero, endowed and guarded by supernatural powers, surrounded by brave warriors and a splendid court, a man of marvelous life and a tragic death.”
  Geoffrey’s book was immediately translated into French by Robert Wace, who incorporated with the legend of Arthur the Round Table legend. In his ‘Brut,’ the English poet-priest Layamon reproduced this feature of the legend with additional details. His chronicle is largely a free translation of the ‘Brut d’Engleterre’ of Wace, earlier known as ‘Geste des Bretons.’ Thus as Wace had reproduced Geoffrey with additions and modifications, Layamon reproduced Wace. So the story grew. In the meantime, other poets in other lands had taken up the theme, connecting with it other cycles of legend already in existence. In 1205, when Layamon wrote his ‘Brut,’ unnumbered versions of the history of King Arthur, with which had been woven the legend of the Holy Grail, had already appeared among the principal nations of Europe. Of the early Arthurian poets, two of the more illustrious and important are Chrestien de Troyes, in France, of highest poetic repute, who opened the way for Tennyson, and Wolfram von Eschenbach, in Germany, with his ‘Parzival,’ later the theme of Wagner’s greatest opera. The names of Robert de Borron in France, Walter Map in England, and Heinrich von dem Türlin in Germany, may also be mentioned.  14
  In divers lands, innumerable poets with diverse tastes set themselves to make new versions of the legend. Characteristics of the Arthurian tale were grafted upon an entirely different stock, as was done by Boiardo in Italy, making confusion worse confounded to the modern Arthurian scholar. Boiardo expressly says in the ‘Orlando Innamorato’ that his intention is to graft the characteristics of the Arthurian cycle upon the Carlovingian French national epic stock. He wished to please the courts, whose ideal was not the paladins, but Arthur’s knights. The “peers” of the Charlemagne legend are thus transformed into knights-errant, who fight for ladies and for honor. The result of this interpenetration of the two cycles is a splendid world of love and cortesia, whose constituent elements it defies the Arthurian scholar to trace. Truly, as Dr. Sommer has said in his erudite edition of Malory’s ‘La Morte d’Arthur,’ “The origin and relationship to one another of these branches of romance, whether in prose or in verse, are involved in great obscurity.” He adds that it would almost seem as though several generations of scholars were required for the gigantic task of finding a sure pathway through this intricate maze. And M. Gaston Paris, one of the foremost of living Arthurian scholars, has written in his ‘Romania’: “Some time ago I undertook a methodical exploration in the grand poetical domain which is called the cycle of the Round Table, the cycle of Arthur, or the Breton cycle. I advance, groping along, and very often retracing my steps twenty times over, I become aware that I am lost in a pathless maze.”  15
  There is a question, moreover, whether Geoffrey’s book is based mainly upon inherited poetical material, or is largely the product of Geoffrey’s individual imagination. The elder Paris, M. Paulin Paris, inclined to the view that Nennius, with hints from local tales, supplied all the bases that Geoffrey had. But his son, Professor Gaston Paris, in his ‘Littérature Française au Moyen Age,’ emphasizes the importance of the “Celtic” contribution, as does also Mr. Alfred Nutt in his ‘Studies in the Arthurian Legend.’ The former view emphasizes the individual importance of Geoffrey; the latter view places the emphasis on the legendary heritage. Referring to this so-called national poetry, Ten Brink says:—
          “But herein lies the essential difference between that age and our own: the result of poetical activity was not the property and not the production of a single person, but of the community. The work of the individual singer endured only as long as its delivery lasted. He gained personal distinction only as a virtuoso. The permanent elements of what he presented, the material, the ideas, even the style and metre, already existed. The work of the singer was only a ripple in the stream of national poetry. Who can say how much the individual contributed to it, or where in his poetical recitation memory ceased and creative impulse began! In any case the work of the individual lived on only as the ideal possession of the aggregate body of the people, and it soon lost the stamp of originality.”
  When Geoffrey wrote, this period of national poetry was drawing to a close; but it was not yet closed. Alfred Nutt, in his ‘Studies in the Legend of the Holy Grail,’ speaking of Wolfram von Eschenbach, who wrote his ‘Parzival’ about the time that the ‘Nibelungenlied’ was given its present form (i.e., about a half-century after Geoffrey), says:—“Compared with the unknown poets who gave their present shape to the ‘Nibelungenlied’ or to the ‘Chanson de Roland,’ he is an individual writer; but he is far from deserving this epithet even in the sense that Chaucer deserves it.” Professor Rhys says, in his ‘Studies in the Arthurian Legend’:—“Leaving aside for a while the man Arthur, and assuming the existence of a god of that name, let us see what could be made of him. Mythologically speaking, he would probably have to be regarded as a Culture Hero,” etc.  17
  To summarize this discussion of the difficulties of the theme, there are now existing, scattered throughout the libraries and the monasteries of Europe, unnumbered versions of the Arthurian legends. Some of these are early versions, some are late, and some are intermediate. What is the relation of all these versions to one another? Which are the oldest, and which are copies, and of what versions are they copies? What is the land of their origin, and what is the significance of their symbolism? These problems, weighty in tracing the growth of mediæval ideals,—i.e., in tracing the development of the realities of the present from the ideals of the past,—are still under investigation by the specialists. The study of the Arthurian legends is in itself a distinct branch of learning, which demands the lifelong labors of scholarly devotees.  18
  There now remains to consider the extraordinary spread of the legend in the closing decades of the twelfth century and in the century following. Though Tennyson has worthily celebrated as the morning star of English song—
  “Dan Chaucer, the first warbler, whose sweet breath
  Preluded those melodious bursts that fill
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
        With sounds that echo still.”
yet the centuries before Chaucer, far from being barren of literature, were periods of rich poetical activity both in England and on the Continent. Eleanor of Aquitaine, formerly Queen of France,—who had herself gone on a crusade to the Holy Land, and who, on returning, married in 1152 Henry of Anjou, who became in 1155 Henry II. of England,—was an ardent patroness of the art of poetry, and personally aroused the zeal of poets. The famous troubadour Bernard de Ventadorn—“with whom,” says Ten Brink, “the Provençal art-poesy entered upon the period of its florescence”—followed her to England, and addressed to her his impassioned verse. Wace, the Norman-French trouvere, dedicated to her his ‘Brut.’ The ruling classes of England at this time were truly cosmopolitan, familiar with the poetic material of many lands. Jusserand, in his ‘English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare,’ discussing a poem of the following century written in French by a Norman monk of Westminster and dedicated to Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III., says:—“Rarely was the like seen in any literature: here is a poem dedicated to a Frenchwoman by a Norman of England, which begins with the praise of a Briton, a Saxon, and a Dane.”
  But the ruling classes of England were not the only cosmopolitans, nor the only possessors of fresh poetic material. Throughout Europe in general, the conditions were favorable for poetic production. The Crusades had brought home a larger knowledge of the world, and the stimulus of new experiences. Western princes returned with princesses of the East as their brides, and these were accompanied by splendid trains, including minstrels and poets. Thus Europe gathered in new poetic material, which stimulated and developed the poetical activity of the age. Furthermore, the Crusades had aroused an intense idealism, which, as always, demanded and found poetic expression. The dominant idea pervading the earlier forms of the Charlemagne stories, the unswerving loyalty due from a vassal to his lord,—that is, the feudal view of life,—no longer found an echo in the hearts of men. The time was therefore propitious for the development of a new cycle of legend.  20
  Though by the middle of the twelfth century the Arthurian legend had been long in existence, and King Arthur had of late been glorified by Geoffrey’s book, the legend was not yet supreme in popular interest. It became so through its association, a few years later, with the legend of the Holy Grail,—the San Graal, the holy vessel which received at the Cross the blood of Christ, which was now become a symbol of the Divine Presence. This holy vessel had been brought by Joseph of Arimathea from Palestine to Britain, but was now, alas, vanished quite from the sight of man. It was the holy quest for this sacred vessel, to which the knights of the Round Table now bound themselves,—this “search for the supernatural,” this “struggle for the spiritual,” this blending of the spirit of Christianity with that of chivalry,—which immediately transformed the Arthurian legend, and gave to its heroes immortality. At once a new spirit breathes in the old legend. In a few years it is become a mystical, symbolical, anagogical tale, inculcating one of the profoundest dogmas of the Holy Catholic Church, a bearer of a Christian doctrine engrossing the thought of the Christian world. And inasmuch as the transformed Arthurian legend now taught by implication the doctrine of the Divine Presence, its spread was in every way furthered by the great power of the Church, whose spiritual rulers made the minstrel doubly welcome when celebrating this theme.  21
  For there was heresy to be combated; viz., the heresy of the scholastic theologian Berengar of Tours, who had attacked the doctrine of the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ. Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the most brilliant of the Middle Age theologians, felt impelled to reply to Berengar, who had been his personal friend; and he did so in the ‘Liber Scintillarum,’ which was a vigorous, indeed a violent, defense of the doctrine denied by Berengar. Berengar died in 1088; but he left a considerable body of followers. The heretics were anathematized by the Second Lateran Ecumenical Council held in Rome in 1139. Again, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council declared transubstantiation to be an article of faith, and in 1264 a special holy day, Corpus Christi,—viz., the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday,—was set apart to give an annual public manifestation of the belief of the Church in the doctrine of the Eucharist.  22
  But when the Fourth Lateran Ecumenical Council met in 1215, the transformation of the Arthurian legend by means of its association with the legend of the Holy Grail was already complete, and the transformed legend, now become a defender of the faith, was engrossing the imagination of Europe. The subsequent influence of the legend was doubtless to some extent associated with the discussions which continually came up anew respecting the meaning of the doctrine of the Eucharist; for it was not until the Council of Trent (1545–63) that the doctrine was finally and authoritatively defined. In the meantime there was interminable discussion respecting the nature of this “real presence,” respecting transubstantiation and consubstantiation and impanation, respecting the actual presence of the body and blood of Christ under the appearance of the bread and wine, or the presence of the body and blood together with the bread and wine. The professor of philosophy in the University of Oxford, who passes daily through Logic Lane, has said that there the followers of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas were wont to come to blows in the eagerness of their discussion respecting the proper definition of the doctrine. Nor was the doctrine without interest to the Reformers. Luther and Zwingli held opposing views, and Calvin was involved in a long dispute concerning the doctrine, which resulted in the division of the evangelical body into the two parties of the Lutherans and the Reformed. Doubtless the connection between the Arthurian legend and the doctrine of the Divine Presence was not without influence on the unparalleled spread of the legend in the closing decades of the twelfth century, and on its prominence in the centuries following.  23
  A suggestion has already been given of the vast development of the Arthurian legends during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, and of the importance of the labors of the specialists, who are endeavoring to fix a date for these versions in order to infer therefrom the spiritual ideals of the people among whom they arose. To perceive clearly to what extent ideals do change, it is but necessary to compare various versions of the same incident as given in various periods of time. To go no farther back than Malory, for example, we observe a signal difference between his treatment of the sin of Guinevere and Launcelot, and the treatment of the theme by Tennyson. Malory’s Arthur is not so much wounded by the treachery of Launcelot, of whose relations to Guinevere he had long been aware, as he is angered at Sir Modred for making public those disclosures which made it necessary for him and Sir Launcelot to “bee at debate.” “Ah! Agravaine, Agravaine,” cries the King, “Jesu forgive it thy soule! for thine evill will that thou and thy brother Sir Modred had unto Sir Launcelot hath caused all this sorrow…. Wit you well my heart was never so heavie as it is now, and much more I am sorrier for my good knights losse than for the losse of my queene, for queenes might I have enough, but such a fellowship of good knightes shall never bee together in no company.” But to the great Poet Laureate, who voices the modern ideal, a true marriage is the crown of life. To love one maiden only, to cleave to her and worship her by years of noblest deeds, to be joined with her and to live together as one life, and, reigning with one will in all things, to have power on this dead world to make it live,—this was the high ideal of the blameless King.
  “Too wholly true to dream untruth in thee.”
And his farewell from her who had not made his life so sweet that he should greatly care to live,—
  Lo! I forgive thee, as Eternal God
And so thou lean on our fair father Christ,
Hereafter in that world where all are pure
We two may meet before high God, and thou
Wilt spring to me, and claim me thine,”—
this is altogether one of the noblest passages in modern verse.
  A comparison of the various modern treatments of the Tristram theme, as given by Tennyson, Richard Wagner, F. Roeber, L. Schneegans, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, F. Millard, touching also on the Tristan of Hans Sachs, and the Tristram who, because he is true to love, is the darling of the old romances, and is there—notwithstanding that his love is the wedded wife of another—always represented as the strong and beautiful knight, the flower of courtesy, a model to youth,—such a comparison would reveal striking differences between mediæval and modern ideals.  25
  In making the comparison, however, care must be exercised to select the modern treatment of the theme which represents correctly the modern ideal. The Middle Age romances, sung by wandering minstrels, before the invention of the printing press, doubtless expressed the ideals of the age in which they were produced more infallibly than does the possibly individualistic conception of the modern poet; for, of the earlier forms of the romance, only those which found general favor were likely to be preserved and handed down. This inference may be safely made because of the method of the dissemination of the poems before the art of printing was known. It is true that copies of them were carried in manuscript from country to country; but the more important means of dissemination were the minstrels, who passed from court to court and land to land, singing the songs which they had made or heard. In that age there was little thought of literary proprietorship. The poem belonged to him who could recall it. And as each minstrel felt free to adopt whatever poem he found or heard that pleased him, so he felt free also to modify the incidents thereof, guided only by his experience as to what pleased his hearers. Hence the countless variations in the treatment of the theme, and the value of the conclusions that may be drawn as to the moral sentiment of an age, the quality of whose moral judgments is indicated by the prevailing tone of the songs which persisted because they pleased. Unconformable variations, which express the view of an individual rather than the view of a people, may have come down to us in an accidentally preserved manuscript; but the songs which were sung by the poets of all lands give expression to the view of life of the age, and reveal the morals and the ideals of nations, whose history in this respect may otherwise be lost to us. What some of these ideals were, as revealed by this rich store of poetic material which grew up about the chivalrous and spiritual ideals of the Middle Ages, and what the corresponding modern ideals are,—what, in brief, some of the hitherto dimly discerned ethical movements of the past seven hundred years have in reality been, and whither they seem to be tending,—surely, clear knowledge on these themes is an end worthy the supreme endeavor of finished scholars, whose training has made them expert in interpreting the aspirations of each age, and in tracing the evolution of the ideals of the past into the realities of the present. And though, as M. Gaston Paris has said, the path of the Arthurian scholar seems at times to be an inextricable maze, yet the value of the results already achieved, and the possibility of still greater results, will doubtless prove a sufficient encouragement to the several generations of scholars which, as Dr. Sommer suggests, are needed for the gigantic task.  26

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.