Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

This is the first of two volumes of classical Arthurian legends, retold from the original works by a master story teller. This volume includes they stories of Arthur, the Sword and the Round table, the Deeds of Balin, the Treason of Morgan Le Fay, the story of Lancelot, the Adventures of Beaumains, and Tristram and Isolde

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[Book Cover] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris
[Frontispiece] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


[Title Page] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris
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Geoffrey of Monmouth, the famous chronicler of legendary British history, tells us, in reference to the time when the Celtic kings of Britain were struggling against the Saxon invaders, that "there appeared a star of wonderful magnitude and brightness, darting its rays, at the end of which was a globe of fire in the form of a dragon, out of whose mouth issued two rays; one of which seemed to stretch itself beyond the extent of Gaul, the other towards the Irish Sea, and ended in two lesser rays." He proceeds to say, that Merlin, the magician, being called on to explain this portent, declared that the dragon represented Uther, the brother of King Ambrose, who was destined himself soon to become king; that the ray extending towards Gaul indicated a great son, who should conquer the Gallic Kingdoms; and that the ray with two lesser rays indicated a daughter, whose son and grandson should successively reign over Britain. Uther, in consequence, when he came to the throne, had two gold dragons made, one of which he placed in the cathedral of Winchester, which it brightly illuminated; the other he kept, and from it gained the name of Pendragon. The powerful ray represented his great son Arthur, destined to become the flower of chivalry, and the favorite hero of mediaeval romance.

This is history as Geoffrey of Monmouth understood it, but hardly so in the modern sense, and Arthur remains as mystical a figure as Achilles, despite the efforts of various writers to bring him within the circle of actual kings. After the Romans left Britain, two centuries passed of whose history hardly a coherent shred remains. This was the age of Arthur, one of the last champions of Celtic Britain against the inflowing tide of Anglo-Saxon invasion. That there was an actual Arthur there is some, but no very positive, reason to believe. After all the evidence has been offered, we still seem to have but a shadowy hero before us, "a king of shreds and patches." whose history is so pieced out with conjecture that it is next to impossible to separate its facts from its fancies.

The Arthur of the legends, of the Welsh and Breton ballads, of the later Chansons de Geste, of Malory and Tennyson, has quite stepped out of the historic page and become a hero without time or place in any real world, a king of the imagination, the loftiest figure in that great outgrowth of chivalric romance which formed the favorite fictitious literature of Europe during three or four of the mediaeval centuries. Charlemagne, the leading character in the earlier romances of chivalry, was, in the twelfth century, replaced by Arthur, a milder and more Christian-like hero, whose adventures, with those of his Knights of the Round Table, delighted the tenants of court and castle in that marvel-loving and uncritical age. That the stories told of him are all fiction cannot be declared. Many of them may have been founded on fact. But, like the stones of a prehistoric wall, their facts are so densely enveloped by the ivy of fiction that it is impossible to delve them out.

The ballads and romances in which the King Arthur of mediaeval story figures as the hero, would scarcely prove pleasant and profitable reading to us now, however greatly they delighted our ancestors. They are marked by a coarseness and crudity which would be but little to our taste. Nor have we anything of modern growth to replace them. Milton entertained a purpose of making King Arthur the hero of an epic poem, but fortunately yielded it for the nobler task of "Paradise Lost." Spenser gives this hero a minor place in his "Fairie Queen." Dry den projected a King Arthur epic, but failed to write it. Eecently Bulwer has given us a cumbersome "King Arthur," which nobody reads; and Tennyson has handled the subject brilliantly in his "Idyls of the King," splendid successes as poems, yet too infiltrated with the spirit of modernism to be acceptable as a reproduction of the Arthur of romance. For a true rehabilitation of this hero of the age of chivalry we must go to the "Morte Darthur "of Sir Thomas Malory, a writer of the fifteenth century, who lived when men still wore armor, and so near to the actual age of chivalry as to be in full sympathy with the spirit of its fiction, and its pervading love of adventure and belief in the magical.

Malory did a work of high value in editing the confused mass of earlier fiction, lopping off its excrescences and redundancies, reducing its coarseness of speech, and producing from its many stories and episodes a coherent and continuous narrative, in which the adventures of the Round Table Knights are deftly interwoven with the record of the birth, life, and death of the king, round whom as the central figure all these knightly champions revolve. Malory seems to have used as the basis of his work perhaps one, perhaps several, old French prose romances, and possibly also material derived from Welsh and English ballads. Such material in his day was doubtless abundant. Geoffrey had drawn much of his legendary history from the ancient Welsh ballads. The mass of romantic fiction which he called history became highly popular, first in Brittany, and then in France, the Trouveres making Arthur, Lancelot, Tristram, Percival, and others of the knightly circle the heroes of involved romances, in which a multitude of new incidents were invented. The Minnesingers of Germany took up the same fruitful theme, producing a "Parzivale," a "Tristan and Isolt," and other heroic romances. From all this mass of material, Malory wrought his "Morte Darthur," as Homer wrought his "Iliad y from the preceding warlike ballads, and the unknown compiler of the "Nibelungenlied" wrought his poem from similar ancient sources.

Malory was not solely an editor. He was in a large sense a creator. It was coarse and crude material with which he had to deal, but in his hands its rude prose gained a degree of poetic fervor. The legends which he preserves he has in many cases transmuted from base into precious coin. There is repulsive matter in the old romances, which he freely cuts out. To their somewhat wooden heroes he gives life and character, so that in Lancelot, Gawaine, Dinadan, Kay, and others we have to deal with distinct personalities, not with the nonindividualized hard-hitters of the romances. And to the whole story he gives an epic completeness which it lacked before. In the early days of Arthur's reign Merlin warns him that fate has already woven its net about him and that the sins of himself and his queen will in the end bring his reign to a violent termination, and break up that grand fellowship of the Eound Table which has made Britain and its king illustrious. This epic character of Malory's work is pointed out in the article "Geoffrey of Monmouth "in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," whose writer says that the Arthurian legends "were converted into a magnificent prose poem by Sir Thomas Malory in 1461. Malory's Morte Darthur is as truly the epic of the English mind as the Iliad is the epic of the Greek mind."

Yet the "Morte Darthur," if epic in plan and treatment, is by no means free from the defects of primitive literature. It was written before the age of criticism, and confusion reigns supreme in many of its pages, a confusion which a very little critical supervision might have removed. As an instance, we find that Galahad, two years after his birth, is made a knight, being then fifteen years old. In like manner the "seat perilous' 1 at the Eound Table is magically reserved for Galahad, the author evidently forgetting that he had already given it to Percivale. King Mark's murder of his brother Baldwin is revenged by Baldwin's grandson, thirty or forty years afterward, though there is nothing to show that the characters had grown a year older in the interval. Here a knight finds one antagonist quite sufficient for one man; there he does not hesitate to attack fifty at once; here a slight wound disables him; there a dozen deep wounds are fully healed by a nighfs rest. Many similar instances might be given, but these will suffice. The discrepancies here indicated were perhaps due to the employment of diverse legends, without care to bring them into accordance, but they lay the work open to adverse criticism.

This lack of critical accuracy may have been a necessary accompaniment of the credulous frame of mind that could render such a work possible. It needed an artlessness of mental make-up, a full capacity for acceptance of the marvellous, a simpleminded faith in chivalry and its doings, which could scarcely exist in common with the critical temperament. In truth, the flavor of an age of credulity and simplicity of thought everywhere permeates this quaint old work, than which nothing more artless, simple, and unique exists in literature, and nothing with a higher value as a presentation of the taste in fiction of our mediaeval predecessors.

Yet the "Morte Darthur "is not easy or attractive reading, to other than special students of literature. Aside from its confusion of events and arrangement, it tells the story of chivalry with a monotonous lack of inflection that is apt to grow wearisome, and in a largely obsolete style and dialect with whose difficulties readers in general may not care to grapple. Its pages present an endless succession of single combats with spear and sword, whose details are repeated with wearisome iteration. Knights fight furiously for hours together, till they are carved with deep wounds, and the ground crimsoned with gore. Sometimes they are so inconsiderate as to die, sometimes so weak as to seek a leech, but as often they mount and ride away in philosophical disregard of their wounds, and come up fresh for as fierce a fight the next day.

As for a background of scenery and architecture, it scarcely exists. Deep interest in man and woman seems to have shut out all scenic accessories from the mind of the good old knight. It is always but a step from the castle to the forest, into which the knights-errant plunge, and where most of their adventures take place; and the favorite restingand jousting-place is by the side of forest springs or wells, as in the text. We have mention abundant of fair castles, fair valleys, fair meadows, and the like, the adjective "fair ' going far to serve all needs of description. But in his human characters, with their loves and hates, jousts and battles, bewitchments and bewilderments, the author takes deep interest, and follows the episodical stories which are woven into the plot with a somewhat too satisfying fulness. In evidence of the dramatic character of many of these episodes we need but refer to the "Idyls of the King." whose various romantic and tragic narratives are all derived from this quaint "old master" of fictitious literature.

With all its faults of style and method, the "Morte Darthur ' is a very live book. It never stops to moralize or philosophize, but keeps strictly to its business of tale-telling, bringing up before the reader a group of real men and women, not a series of lay-figures on a background of romance, as in his originals.

Kay with his satirical tongue, Dinadan with his love of fun, Tristram loving and noble, Lancelot bold and chivalrous, Gawaine treacherous and implacable, Arthur kingly but adventurous, Mark cowardly and base-hearted, Guenever jealous but queenly, Isolde tender and faithful, and a host of other clearly individualized knights and ladies move in rapid succession through the pages of the romance, giving it, with its manners of a remote age, a vital interest that appeals to modern tastes.

In attempting to adapt this old masterpiece to the readers of our own day, we have no purpose to seek to paraphrase or improve on Malory. To remove the antique flavor would be to destroy the spirit of the work. We shall leave it as we find it, other than to reduce its obsolete phraseology and crudities of style to modern English, abridge the narrative where it is wearisomely extended, omit repetitions and uninteresting incidents, reduce its confusion of arrangement, attempt a more artistic division into books and chapters, and by other arts of editorial revision seek to make it easier reading, while preserving as fully as possible those unique characteristics which have long made it delightful to lovers of old literature.

The task here undertaken is no light one, nor is success in it assured. Malory has an individuality of his own which gives a peculiar charm to his work, and to retain this in a modernized version is the purpose with which we set out and which we hope to accomplish. The world of to-day is full of fiction, endless transcripts of modern life served up in a great variety of palatable forms. Our castle-living forefathers were not so abundantly favored. They had no books, and could not have read them if they had, but the wandering minstrel took with them the place of the modern volume, bearing from castle to court, and court to castle, his budget of romances of magic and chivalry, and delighting the hard-hitting knights and barons of that day with stirring ballads and warlike tales to which their souls rose in passionate response.

In the "Morte D'arthur" is preserved to us the pith of the best of those old romances, brought into a continuous narrative by one who lived when chivalry yet retained some of its vital hold on the minds of men, and who, being a knight himself, could enter with heartfelt sympathy into the deeds of the knights of an earlier age. Certainly many of the readers of modern fiction will find a pleasure in turning aside awhile from the hot-pressed thought of the nineteenth-century novel to this fresh and breezy outcrop from the fiction of an earlier day; with the double purpose of learning on what food the minds of our ancestors were fed, and of gaining a breath of wild perfume from the far-off field of the romance of chivalry. That the story of Arthur and his Knights can arouse in modern readers the intense interest with which it was received by mediaeval auditors is not to be expected. We are too far removed in time and manners from the age of knight-errantry to enter deeply into sympathy with its unfamiliar ways. Yet a milder interest may still be awakened in what gave our predecessors such enthusiastic delight, and some at least may turn with pleasure from the most philosophic of modern novels to wander awhile through this primitive domain of thought.

To such we offer this work, which we have simply sought to make easy reading, with little further liberty with Malory's quaint prose than to put it into a modern dress, and with the hope that no such complete divorce exists between the world of the present and that of the past as to render the exploits of King Arthur and his Eound Table Knights dull, wearisome, and profitless reading, void of the human interest which they once possessed in such large and satisfying measure.

[Contents, Page 1 of 2] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris
[Contents, Page 2 of 2] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris
[Illustrations] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris