An Arthurian Miscellany at sacred-texts.com
"BEOWULF AND ARTHUR AS ENGLISH IDEALS"
SARAH F. McNARY This essay first appeared in Poet-Lore: A Quarterly of World Literature 6.2 (1894), 528-36.
THE race-ideal is the product of race possibility, moulded into form by the shaping power which lies behind literature, and breathed into life by the divine spark of imagination. In the childhood of the nation the ideal has its birth. It struggles into life with the first urgings of self-consciousness. It grows as the organism grows, waxing greater and more spiritual as the light of imagination shines more gloriously upon it, waning if that heavenly glow be put to baser uses, and perishing utterly when the last faint glimmer fades into the light of common day. To know the successive ideals of a person and of a people is to know that man and race not only in actuality, but in possibility, -- to know the inmost recesses and the farthest outreachings of their natures; for with every people, as with every person, a succession of ideals appears, following the prevailing lines of trend in the nation's history. In the midst of the changes there is a frequent recurrence of one form, which establishes itself in time as the permanent national ideal.
As the race-ideal makes its appearance at an early period, so the earliest forms of literature remain the most fitting for its expression. The epic, with its large opportunities, its endless vista of deeds, is bounded only by the limits of a hero's life. If by its nature the epic claims this place in literature, its origin gives it a double right to claim the setting forth of the race-ideal as its inalienable function; for the singers of the old lays, and the shapers of the epics, had no original concepts to give to the world. They voiced the race-thought, the collective consciousness of the people. So, too, the ideal which sprang up in the old days, and had its roots in the very vitals of the nation, struck an ever deeper hold by virtue of continually added elements of strength. A character whose acts are plainly stamped upon scientifically verified history, who is limited by his actual deeds, who has defined himself to the world by his known relations to the real and the practical, does not readily become the universal, enduring ideal of a race; but if he looms up in the faint, far light of myth and legend, if his potentiality stretches out into an infinity of achievement, he so kindles the imagination that it gladly embraces him as the being in which it would realize itself. The conscious portrayal of the type in literature is of later beginnings and more rapid growth, -- the product of an observing, analytical, scientific age, when imagination has begun to run to seed.
In English literature two main streams -- the Celtic and the Teutonic -- are plainly discernible, though their waters have been mingled for many a century, and have been modified by the influx of many smaller tributaries. To examine the head-waters of these streams, and to see what they have contributed to the English ideal, is the purpose of this paper.
Whether the 'Beowulf' had its origin in nature, myth, or hero-worship, or sober history, or whether it is a combination of all three, is the province of the scholar to determine. The adoption of any one of these theories will not change the æsthetic or ethical aspect of the poem in its present form, nor will it in any degree modify the impress of Teutonism which it bears, the stamp of the Teutonic character and ideals. An analysis of the elements of this character will show how far the early ideal has been realized in the English people, and how long it has endured.
Over the whole poem broods the thought of Wyrd. The atmosphere is gray and misty, like the marsh home of Grendel, and through the grayness go stalking the huge dim forms of the giants and nickers of the northern cult. The gray gloom is a reflection of the conception these folk had of life, as well as a picture of the natural scenery which they daily looked upon. The conditions of life point always in the direction of tragedy. There is, however, no disposition to sit down and weep over the melancholy of it. Beowulf stands up bravely and looks the issue in the face, -- Fate must be fought against, whatever the odds. Brave before all else is this Beowulf, with the bravery of a young, strong, unsoftened people, the physical courage which not only meets an enemy unshrinkingly, but seeks him out to fight with him alone and weaponless. This is the very rapture and madness of bravery, the apotheosis of daring. It is almost imaginative -- rather, it so strips off and defies imagination as to capture that quality by the abnegation of it.
The love of praise and the desire for glory breathing through every utterance in the poem, are not the evidence of a vaulting ambition which seeks its goal through crooked ways, but rather the unrestrained outbreak of the longing for appreciated activity and power. Its root is in the instinct for the ruder kind of self-expression, the impulse to fight, to overcome obstacles by muscular force. Beowulf does not seek to conceal his desire for praise. He boasts of his exploits with a child's simplicity of enjoyment. His age is too far from civilization to have attained the virtue of modesty and the vice of hypocrisy. In spite of this large boastfulness, there is a temperance in his judgment of men and things, which predicates balance of temperament and strong wisdom in the race which produced him.
The spirit of loyalty that has already grown, in Beowulf's time, into a racial institution, is strongly impressed upon the poem. The duty of the thegn to his lord, a service resting upon sentiment as well as upon necessity, is performed heartily. The germ of feudalism and the prophecy of chivalry are here discovered, but it is only a germ as yet. Scarcely a hint of the love sentiment is to be found anywhere. Woman is seen in various relations, occupying always a position of dignity, and inspiring those feelings of respect, that sense of her inviolability, which is the great honor of the Teutonic race; but the tenderer feeling that nourished feudalism into chivalry is quite beyond the pale of Beowulf's experience.
In spite of the interpolations by a later Christian editor, the poem is pagan and of the essence of paganism. The old fragment touching the Passing of Scyld hints at the mystery of birth and death; but aside from this there is no looking beyond that after-mystery, no dwelling upon the possibilities of the hereafter. The whole work is an embodiment of the idea of practicality. Beowulf died, not to establish a principle, but to secure the golden hoard of the fire-drake, and therefore the funeral dirge of this hero knells him out of the memory of men. The history of Beowulf is the pathos of paganism and of the material. It has been said that this is a half-finished epos, benumbed in the midst of its growth. It lies frozen because it is the imperfect ideal of a single, unmixed race; because it is wanting in elements that lay hold upon the higher imagination; because it was never touched by that "natural magic," that divine spark which is of the essence of immortality. But though Beowulf, as a single concrete character, passed so early out of English thought, the elements of his being passed into the English people, and he lives to-day in enduring qualities. He appears in history and literature in varied forms. He lives the free life of law-abiding lawlessness with Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. His loyalty breathes again in Shakespeare's Faulconbridge, -- a loyalty deepened into reverence for the kingly office, and into love of race and country. He reaches England's heart through the kindly and kingly heartiness of Henry the Fifth. He stirs the English blood to go over seas on adventure in the great days of Elizabeth. He fights again with Nelson and the Iron Duke. Was his struggle with the dragons all in vain, when a dragon-slayer is patron saint of England? If Beowulf is no longer an ideal in the higher sense, it is because he has been lived into a type.
The course of thought in Anglo-Saxon times was comparatively simple, uniform, and continuous. The race was virtually a unit, in spite of transfer of abode, conquest by continual fighting, and the introduction of a new religion. The Germanic races are stable in quality, and do not easily change. With the Norman Conquest came a new spirit with a new people, -- a spirit of intellectual struggle and achievement, an impulse to search for new ideas and forms of expression, and to assimilate them with the old. The growing mind of the nation acquired an unwonted freedom of movement, the result of which is seen in the onward sweep of development of all phases of life. Then the literary ideals of the English people began to grow up into lusty youth. If among them all one can be found which appears and reappears; which out of small yet vigorous beginnings grows and changes and develops as the nation advances; which has in it an alluring element that haunts the imagination of poets, and lives on in the affections of the common people, -- this may be called the English ideal. Therefore it is that Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'Historia Britonum' forms perhaps the most significant achievement of the new time. This lover of legend and of folk-lore gathered from old writers of prose and verse, from legend, tradition, and myth, out of his own Celtic fancy as well, the tale of the deeds of the British kings from the remotest times to his own day. The richness of the Celtic material from which he drew, the intricate mazes of fancy opened up by recent investigations of that material, contrast strongly with the simpler forms of Teutonic legend. The earliest Arthur, from one point of view, suffers by comparison with Beowulf, for the morals in early Celtic literature will not always bear examination. What, then, is the secret of the charm? It is nothing else than the exuberance of the fancy, the brightness of the coloring, the invitation to boundless imaginative expansion, the germ of morality in the midst of unmorality, which gave it the possibility of endurance. The old dreams and memories which the deeds of Arthur and the prophesies of Merlin aroused in the conquered Celts, awakened into fresh stirrings and hopes, a keener intellectual life for the new-born English; and the Celts became conquerors of the Teutons in a higher sense than they knew, for they gave a hero not to the English only, but to all the world as well. It is beyond the province of this paper to trace the spread of the story over France and Germany and elsewhere. England has the sole claim upon our thought.
In the old Welsh tales Arthur appears, according to some scholars, first as a culture hero, or personification of a nature myth, then as a historic leader of the Britons, and conqueror of the Saxons in twelve battles. Later, when the Charlemagne cycle had come into England to influence British tradition, Arthur grew into a mighty king and world-conqueror, supernaturally endowed and guarded. The splendors of his court and the glorious achievements of his knights, the atmosphere of the marvellous and of the mysterious, as well as of the chivalric and the heroic, which surrounded him, fascinated England and France alike, and reaches down to our own day.
Soon after Geoffrey, Alfred of Beverley wrote the tales in Latin, Geoffrey Gannar put them into Anglo-Norman verse, and Wace followed with the account of the Round Table. Then came Walter Map, who gathered other tales into the Arthur cycle, added the Quest of the Graal, and thus emphasized the element of mysticism, the soul of Christian spiritualization.
It was Layamon who first brought Arthur into English verse, when, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, he drew from the oral traditions of the people on the borderland of Wales, united them with English legends and traces of ancient Germanic myths, made a foundation structure of the work of Wace, and built upon it a noble poem. In it Arthur is made a larger, more poetic, more spiritual character, and the stories about him are told with touches of fine imagination.
From this time rhymers and romancers were not long wanting, who told the old tales in their own fashion. At last came Sir Thomas Mallory, to put into strong prose the composite story, which holds one yet by the deathless power of true romance. From this time the treatment of Arthur in great poetry is not for the sake of the story only, but with the distinct acceptance of the ideal significance of the character, the product of centuries, from the age when the Celtic myths of Cloudland had their birth. Spenser brings him into the realm of Faerie, as the embodiment of the soul's ideal of itself. Divested of his old surroundings, and separated from his fellowship of knights, he seems unlike the Arthur we have known; but this shows in what fashion he has established himself in English thought, and how much more than the hero of myth, or legend, or romance, he has become. From this time he haunts the imagination of English poets. For years Milton held in his mind the Arthur cycle as the possible subject of his great epic, but was kept from it by the stern bent of a genius which drew away from humanity to deal with themes more remote and awful. Dryden contemplated the same subject when he too dreamed, as every poet does, of writing an immortal epic. And all the while 'Beowulf' lay covered with the dust of centuries, and without the power of life to claim a place in living literature.
Arthur has come into this century with a yet deeper significance. With all the old romantic coloring, with the splendor and the beauty of Celtic fancy, with the dash and daring of chivalric adventure, with the softening of the old mysticism, and with the allegorical spiritualism of Spenser humanized into flesh and blood, the King Arthur of Tennyson adds to all this the nineteenth-century conception of the meaning of life.
We have then set side by side the rude yet dignified figure of the Beowulf of the dim, half-savage age of continental Teutonism, and this Arthur who belongs to all time and is claimed by all peoples. Beowulf remains in his place because he is set in a narrower mould of nationalism; but Arthur has gone beyond his primitive race and country into a cosmopolitan realm. Beowulf towers and looms through the chill gray mist of the marshes; but the warm passionate smoke of mystical incense softens the noble and splendid figure of Arthur. Fate broods over Beowulf; the Christian notion of sin and atonement vitalizes the Arthurian literature. Merlin guides him with his counsel and occult power, and the Lady of the Lake is his help; but the counsellor that Beowulf knows best is the practical wisdom of his own mind. When a deed is to be done, the firm, well-proved strength of his own body must accomplish it; no mysterious hand holds out to him a supernatural weapon. Arthur fights with a charmed sword, and is protected from hurt by a magic talisman. In Beowulf is the magnifying of the practical; in Arthur is the concrete presentment of spiritual symbol. In the old story Arthur did not die, but sailed away to return again. In a deeper sense he cannot die, for he has touched the infinite issues of life and death.
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