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(Part 28)


Arthurian Romance

The second class of early French epics consists of the Arthurian cycle, the earliest compositions of which are at least a century junior to the earliest chanson de geste, but which soon succeeded the chansons in popular favour, and obtained a vogue both wider and far more enduring. It is not easy to conceive a greater contrast in form, style, subject, and sentiments than is presented by the two classes. In both the religious sentiments is prominent, butt he religion of the chansons is of the simplest, not to say of the most savage character. To pray to God and to kill his enemies constitutes the whole duty of man. In the romances the mystical element becomes on the contrary prominent, and furnished in the Holy Grail one of the most important features. In the Carlovingian knight the courtesy and clemency which we have learnt to associate with chivalry are almost entirely absent. The gentix bér contradicts, jeers at, and execrates his sovereign and his fellows with the utmost freedom. He thinks nothing of striking his cortoise moullier so that the blood runs down her cler vis. If a servant or even an equal offends him, he will throw the offender into the fire, knock his brains out, or set his whiskers ablaze. The Arthurian knight is far more of the modern model in these respects. But his chief difference from his predecessor is undoubtedly in his amorous devotion to his beloved, who, if not morally superior to Bellicent, Floripas, Esclairmonde, and the other Carlovingin heroines, is somewhat less forward. Even in minute details the difference is strongly marked. The romances are in octosyllabic couplets or in prose, and their language is different from that of the chansons, and contains much fewer of the usual epic repetitions and stock phrases. A voluminous controversy has been held respecting the origin of these differences, and of the story or stories which were destined to receive such remarkable attention. It is sufficient to say here that the attempted production of early Breton originals is open to the gravest suspicion, and that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of his Armorican text-book meets with little credence. M. Paulin Paris seems to have clearly proved that nothing older than Nennius can be produced, and that this and nothing else was Geoffrey’s authority, so far as he had any. What we are at present concerned with, however, is a body of verse and prose composed in the latter part of the 12th century and later. The earliest romances bear the names of Walter Map and Robert de Borron, which are undoubtedly authentic. Later, we have the names of Helie de Borron, Luce de Gast, &c., which are probably fictitious. Walter Map is responsible for the Saint Graal and the Quéle du Saint Graal, Robert de Borron for Joseph d’arimathie and Merlin. Artus and part at least of Lancelot du Lac (the whole of which has been attributed to Walter map) appear to be due to unknown authors. Tristan came later, and has a stronger mixture of Celtic tradition. Latest of all came the great Arthurian miscellany of Giron le Courtois. Most of these works, though not all, are in prose. At the same time as Walter Map, or a little later, Chrétien de Troyes threw the legends of the Round Table into octosyllabic verse of a singularly spirited and picturesque character. The chief poems attributed to him are the Chevalier au Lyon (Sir Ewain of Wales), the Chevalier á la Charette (one of the episodes of Lancelot), Eric et Enide, Tristan, and Percivale. These poems, independently of their merit, which is great, had an extensive literary influence. They were translated by the German minnesingers, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried of Strasburg, and others. With the romances already referred to, which were mostly written in England and at the English court, Chrétien’s poems complete the early forms of the Arthurian story, and supply the matter of it as it is best known to English readers in Malory’s book. Nor does that book, though far later than the original forms, conveys a very false impression of the characteristics of the older romances. Indeed, the Arthurian knight, his character and adventures, are so much better known than the heroes of the Carlovingian chanson that there is less need to dwell upon them. They had, however, as has been already pointed out, great influence upon their rivals, and their comparative fertility of invention, the much larger number of their dramatis personoe, and the greater variety of interests to which they appealed, sufficiently explain their increased popularity. The ordinary attractions of poetry are also more largely present in them than in the chansons; there is more description, more life, and less of the mere chronicle. They have been accused or relaxing morality, and there is perhaps some truth in the charge. But the change is after all one rather of manners than of morals, and what is lost in simplicity is gained in refinement. Doon de Mayence is a late chanson, and Lancelot du Lac is an early romance. But the two beautiful scenes in the former between Doon and Nicolette, in the latter between Lancelot, Galahault, Guinevere, and the Lady of Malehaut, may be compared as instances of the attitude of the two classes of poets towards the same subject.

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