It is not, however, by such fragments of legend that Arthur is best known to English readers. Not Arthur the god, but Arthur the "blameless king", who founded the Table Round, from which he sent forth his knights "to ride abroad redressing human wrongs", 1 is the figure which the name conjures up. Nor is it even from Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur that this conception comes to most of us, but from Tennyson's Idylls of the King. But Tennyson has so modernized the ancient tradition that it retains little of the old Arthur but the name. He tells us himself that his poem had but very slight relation to
but that he merely used the legend to give a substantial form to his ideal figure of the perfect English gentleman--a title to which the original Arthur could scarcely have laid claim. Still less does there remain in it the least trace of anything that could suggest mythology.
As much as this, however, might be said of
[paragraph continues] Malory's book. We may be fairly certain that the good Sir Thomas had no idea that the personages of whom he wrote had ever been anything different from the Christian knights which they had become in the late French romances from which he compiled his own fifteenth-century work. The old gods had been, from time to time, very completely euhemerized. The characters of the "Four Branches of the Mabinogi" are still recognizable as divine beings. In the later Welsh stories, however, their divinity merely hangs about them in shreds and tatters, and the first Norman adapters of these stories made them still more definitely human. By the time Malory came to build up his Morte Darthur from the foreign romances, they had altered so much that the shapes and deeds of gods could only be recognized under their mediæval knightly disguises by those who had known them in their ancient forms.
We have chosen Malory's Morte Darthur, as almost the sole representative of Arthurian literature later than the Welsh poems and prose stories, for three reasons. Firstly, because it is the English Arthurian romance par excellence from which all later English authors, including Tennyson, have drawn their material. Secondly, because the mass of foreign literature dealing with the subject of Arthur is in itself a life-study, and could not by any possibility be compressed within the limits of a chapter. Thirdly, because Malory's fine judgment caused him to choose the best and most typical foreign tales to weave into his own romance; and hence it is that we find most of our old British gods--both
those of the earlier cycle and those of the system connected with Arthur--striding disguised through his pages.
Curiously enough, Sir Edward Strachey, in his preface to the "Globe" edition of Caxton's Morte Darthur, uses almost the same image to describe Malory's prose-poem that Matthew Arnold handled with such effect, in his Study of Celtic Literature, to point out the real nature of the Mabinogion. "Malory", he says, "has built a great, rambling, mediæval castle, the walls of which enclose rude and even ruinous work of earlier times." How rude and how ruinous these relics were Malory doubtless had not the least idea, for he has completely jumbled the ancient mythology. Not only do gods of the older and newer order appear together, but the same deities, under very often only slightly varying names, come up again and again as totally different characters.
Take, for example, the ancient deity of death and Hades. As King Brandegore, or Brandegoris (Brân of Gower), he brings five thousand mounted men to oppose King Arthur; 1 but, as Sir Brandel, or Brandiles (Brân of Gwales 2), he is a valiant Knight of the Round Table, who dies fighting in Arthur's service. 3 Again, under his name of Uther Pen-dragon (Uther Ben), he is Arthur's father; 4 though as King Ban of Benwyk (the "Square Enclosure", doubtless the same as Taliesin's Caer Pedryvan and
[paragraph continues] Malory's Carbonek), he is a foreign monarch, who is Arthur's ally. 1 Yet again, as the father of Guinevere, Ogyrvran has become Leodegrance. 2 As King Uriens, or Urience, of Gore (Gower), he marries one of Arthur's sisters, 3 fights against him, but finally tenders his submission, and is enrolled among his knights. 4 Urien may also be identified in the Morte Darthur as King Rience, or Ryons, of North Wales, 5 and as King Nentres of Garloth; 6 while, to crown the varied disguises of this Proteus of British gods, he appears in an isolated episode as Balan, who fights with his brother Balin until they kill one another. 7
One may generally tell the divinities of the underworld in these romances by their connection, not with the settled and civilized parts of England, but with the wild and remote north and west, and the still wilder and remoter islands. Just as Brân and Urien are kings of Gower, so Arawn, under the corruptions of his name into "Anguish" and "Anguissance", is made King of Scotland or Ireland, both countries having been probably confounded, as the same land of the Scotti, or Gaels. 8 Pwyll, Head of Annwn, we likewise discover under two disguises. As Pelles, "King of the Foreign Country" 9 and Keeper of the Holy Grail, he is a personage of great mythological significance, albeit the real nature of him and his surroundings has been overlaid with a Christian veneer as foreign to the
original of Pelles as his own kingdom was to Arthur's knights. The Chief of Hades figures as a "cousin nigh unto Joseph of Arimathie", 1 who, "while he might ride supported much Christendom, and holy church". 2 He is represented as the father of Elayne (Elen 3), whom he gives in marriage to Sir Launcelot, bestowing upon the couple a residence called "Castle Bliant", 4 the name of which, there is good evidence to show, is connected with that of Pwyll's vassal called Teirnyon Twryf Vliant in the first of the Mabinogi. 5 Under his other name of "Sir Pelleas"--the hero of Tennyson's Idyll of Pelleas and Ettarre--the primitive myth of Pwyll is touched at a different point. After his unfortunate love-passage with Ettarre (or Ettard, as Malory calls her), Pelleas is represented as marrying Nimue, 6 whose original name, which was Rhiannon, reached this form, as well as that of "Vivien", through a series of miscopyings of successive scribes. 7
With Pelles, or Pelleas, is associated a King Pellean, or Pellam, his son, and, equally with him, the Keeper of the Grail, who can be no other than Pryderi. 8 Like that deity in the Mabinogi of Mâth, he is defeated by one of the gods of light. The dealer of the blow, however, is not Arthur, as successor to Gwydion, but Balin, the Gallo-British sun-god Belinus. 9
Another dark deity, Gwyn son of Nudd, we discover under all of his three titles. Called variously "Sir Gwinas", 1 "Sir Guynas", 2 and "Sir Gwenbaus" 3 by Malory, the Welsh Gwynwas (or Gwyn) is altogether on Arthur's side. The Cornish Melwas, split into two different knights, divides his allegiance. As Sir Melias, 4 or Meleaus, 5 de Lile ("of the Isle"), he is a Knight of the Round Table, though, on the quarrel between Arthur and Launcelot, he sides with the knight against the king. But as Sir Meliagraunce, or Meliagaunce, it is he who, as in the older myth, captures Queen Guinevere and carries her off to his castle. 6 Under his Somerset name of Avallon, or Avallach, he is connected with the episode of the Grail. King Evelake 7 is a Saracen ruler who was converted by Joseph of Arimathea, and brought by him to Britain. In his convert's enthusiasm, he attempted the quest of the holy vessel, but was not allowed to succeed. 8 As a consolation, however, it was divinely promised him that he should not die until he had seen a knight of his blood in the ninth degree who should achieve it. This was done by Sir Percivale, King Evelake being then three hundred years old. 9
Turning from deities of darkness to deities of light, we find the sky-god figuring largely in the Morte Darthur. The Lludd of the earlier mythology is Malory's King Loth, or Lot, of Orkney, 10
through an intrigue with whose wife Arthur becomes the father of Sir Mordred. Lot's wife was the mother also of Sir Gawain, whose birth Malory does not, however, attribute to Arthur, though such must have been the original form of the myth. 1 Sir Gawain, of the Arthurian legend, is the Gwalchmei of the Welsh stories, the successor of the still earlier Lieu Llaw Gyffes, just as Sir Mordred--the Welsh Medrawt--corresponds to Lieu's brother Dylan. As Sir Mordred retains the dark character of Medrawt, so Sir Gawain, even in Malory, 2 shows the attributes of a solar deity. We are told that his strength increased gradually from dawn till high noon, and then as gradually decreased again--a piece of pagan symbolism which forms a good example of the appositeness of Sir Edward Strachey's figure; for it stands out of the mediæval narrative like an ancient brick in some more modern building.
The Zeus of the later cycle, Emrys or Myrddin, appears in the Morte Darthur under both his names. The word "Emrys" becomes "Bors", and King Bors of Gaul is made a brother of King Ban of Benwyck 3--that is, Brân of the Square Enclosure, the ubiquitous underworld god. Myrddin we meet under no such disguise. The ever-popular Merlin still retains intact the attributes of the sky-god. He remains above, and apart from all the knights, higher even in some respects than King Arthur, to whom he stands in much the same position as Mâth does to Gwydion in the Mabinogi. 4 Like
Click to enlarge
THE BEGUILING OF MERLIN
From the Picture by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
By permission of Frederick Hollyer.
[paragraph continues] Mâth, he is an enchanter, and, like Mâth, too, who could hear everything said in the world, in however low a tone, if only the wind met it, he is practically omniscient. The account of his final disappearance, as told in the Morte Darthur, is only a re-embellishment of the original story, the nature-myth giving place to what novelists call "a feminine interest". Everyone knows how the great magician fell into a dotage upon the "lady of the lake" whom Malory calls "Nimue", and Tennyson "Vivien"--both names being that of "Rhiannon" in disguise. "Merlin would let her have no rest, but always he would be with her . . . and she was ever passing weary of him, and fain would have been delivered of him, for she was afeard of him because he was a devil's son, and she could not put him away by no means. And so on a time it happed that Merlin showed to her in a rock whereas was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone. So, by her subtle working, she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he never came out for all the craft that he could do. And so she departed and left Merlin." 1
Merlin's living grave is still to be seen at the end of the Val des Fées, in the forest of Brécilien, in Brittany. The tomb of stone is certainly but a prosaic equivalent for the tower of woven air in which the heaven-god went to his rest. Still, it is not quite so unpoetic as the leather sack in which
[paragraph continues] Rhiannon, the original of Nimue, caught and imprisoned Gwawl, the earlier Merlin, like a badger in a bag. 1
Elen, Myrddin's consort, appears in Malory as five different "Elaines". Two of them are wives of the dark god, under his names of "King Ban" 2 and "King Nentres". 3 A third is called the daughter of King Pellinore, a character of uncertain origin. 4 But the two most famous are the ladies who loved Sir Launcelot--"Elaine the Fair, Elaine the lovable, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat", 5 and the luckier and less scrupulous Elaine, daughter of King Pelles, and mother of Sir Launcelot's son, Galahad. 6
But it is time, now that the most important figures of British mythology have been shown under their knightly disguises, and their place in Arthurian legend indicated, to pass on to some account of the real subject-matter of Sir Thomas Malory's romance. Externally, it is the history of an Arthur, King of Britain, whom most people of Malory's time considered as eminently a historical character. Around this central narrative of Arthur's reign and deeds are grouped, in the form of episodes, the personal exploits of the knights believed to have supported him by forming a kind of household guard. But, with the exception of a little magnified and distorted legendary history, the whole cycle of romance may
be ultimately resolved into a few myths, not only retold, but recombined in several forms by their various tellers. The Norman adapters of the Matière de Bretagne found the British mythology already in process of transformation, some of the gods having dwindled into human warriors, and others into hardly less human druids and magicians. Under their hands the British warriors became Norman knights, who did their deeds of prowess in the tilt-yard, and found their inspiration in the fantastic chivalry popularized by the Trouveres, while the druids put off their still somewhat barbaric druidism for the more conventional magic of the Latin races. More than this, as soon as the real sequence and raison d’être of the tales had been lost sight of, their adapters used a free hand in reweaving them. Most of the romancers had their favourite characters whom they made the central figure in their stories. Sir Gawain, Sir Percival, Sir Tristrem, and Sir Owain (all of them probably once local British sun-gods) appear as the most important personages of the romances called after their names, stories of the doughty deeds of christened knights who had little left about them either of Briton or of pagan.
It is only the labours of the modern scholar that can bring back to us, at this late date, things long forgotten when Malory's book was issued from Caxton's press. But oblivion is not annihilation, and Professor Rhys points out to us the old myths lying embedded in their later setting with almost the same certainty with which the geologist can
show us the fossils in the rock. 1 Thus treated, they resolve themselves into three principal motifs, prominent everywhere in Celtic mythology: the birth of the sun-god; the struggle between light and darkness; and the raiding of the underworld by friendly gods for the good of man.
The first has been already dealt with. 2 It is the retelling of the story of the origin of the sun-god in the Mabinogi of Mâth, son of Mâthonwy. For Gwydion we now have Arthur; instead of Arianrod, the wife of the superannuated sky-god Nwyvre, we find the wife of King Lot, the superannuated sky-god Lludd; Lleu Llaw Gyffes rises again as Sir Gawain (Gwalchmei), and Dylan as Sir Mordred (Medrawt); while the wise Merlin, the Jupiter of the new system, takes the place of his wise prototype, Mâth. Connected with this first myth is the second--the struggle between light and darkness, of which there are several versions in the Morte Darthur. The leading one is the rebellion of the evilly-disposed Sir Mordred against Arthur and Sir Gawain; while, on other stages, Balan--the dark god Brân--fights with Balin--the sun-god Belinus; and the same Balin, or Belinus, gives an almost mortal stroke to Pellam, the Pryderi of the older mythology.
The same myth has also a wider form, in which the battle is waged for possession of a maiden. Thus (to seek no other instances) Gwynhwyvar was contended for by Arthur and Medrawt, or, in an
earlier form of the myth, by Arthur and Gwyn. In the Morte Darthur, Gwyn, under the corruption of his Cornish name Melwas into "Sir Meliagraunce", still captures Guinevere, but it is no longer Arthur who rescues her. That task, or privilege, has fallen to a new champion. It is Sir Launcelot who follows Sir Meliagraunce, defeats and slays him, and rescues the fair captive. 1 But Sir Launcelot, it must be stated--probably to the surprise of those to whom the Arthurian story without Launcelot and Queen Guinevere must seem almost like the play of "Hamlet with Hamlet left out",--is unknown to the original tradition. Welsh song and story are silent with regard to him, and he is not improbably a creation of some Norman romancer who calmly appropriated to his hero's credit deeds earlier told of other "knights".
But the romantic treatment of these two myths by the adapters of the Matière de Bretagne are of smaller interest to us at the present day than that of the third. The attraction of the Arthurian story lies less in the battles of Arthur or the loves of Guinevere than in the legend that has given it its lasting popularity--the Christian romance of the Quest of the Holy Grail. So great and various has been the inspiration of this legend to noble works both of art and literature that it seems almost a kind of sacrilege to trace it back, like all the rest of Arthur's story, to a paganism which could not have even understood, much less created, its mystical beauty. None the less is the whole story
directly evolved from primitive pagan myths concerning a miraculous cauldron of fertility and inspiration.
In the later romances, the Holy Grail is a Christian relic of marvellous potency. It had held the Paschal lamb eaten at the Last Supper; 1 and, after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea had filled it with the Saviour's blood. 2 But before it received this colouring, it had been the magic cauldron of all the Celtic mythologies--the Dagda's "Undry" which fed all who came to it, and from which none went away unsatisfied; 3 Brân's cauldron of Renovation, which brought the dead back to life; 4 the cauldron of Ogyrvran the Giant, from which the Muses ascended; 5 the cauldrons captured by Cuchulainn from the King of the Shadowy City, 6 and by Arthur from the chief of Hades; 7 as well as several other mythic vessels of less note.
In its transition from pagan to Christian form, hardly one of the features of the ancient myth has been really obscured. We may recount the chief attributes, as Taliesin tells them in his "Spoiling of Annwn", of the cauldron captured by Arthur. It was the property of Pwyll, and of his son Pryderi, who lived in a kingdom of the other world called, among other titles, the "Revolving Castle", the "Four-cornered Castle", the "Castle of Revelry", the
Click to enlarge
THE CAULDRON OF INSPIRATION
From the Drawing by E. Wallcousins.
[paragraph continues] "Kingly Castle", the "Glass Castle", and the "Castle of Riches". This place was surrounded by the sea, and in other ways made difficult of access; there was no lack of wine there, and its happy inhabitants spent with music and feasting an existence which neither disease nor old age could assail. As for the cauldron, it had a rim of pearls around its edge; the fire beneath it was kept fanned by the breaths of nine maidens; it spoke, doubtless in words of prophetic wisdom; and it would not cook the food of a perjurer or coward. 1 Here we have considerable data on which to base a parallel between the pagan cauldron and the Christian Grail.
Nor have we far to go in search of correspondences, for they are nearly all preserved in Malory's romance. The mystic vessel was kept by King Pelles, who is Pwyll, in a castle called "Carbonek", a name which resolves itself, in the hands of the philologist, into Caer bannawg, the "square" or "four-cornered castle"--in other words, the Caer Pedryvan of Taliesin's poem. 2 Of the character of the place as a "Castle of Riches" and a "Castle of Revelry", where "bright wine was the drink of the host", we have more than a hint in the account, twice given, 3 of how, upon the appearance of the Grail--borne, it should be noticed, by a maiden or angel--the hall was filled with good odours, and every knight found on the table all the kinds of meat and drink he could imagine as most
desirable. It could not be seen by sinners, 1 a Christian refinement of the savage idea of a pot that would not cook a coward's food; but the sight of it alone would cure of wounds and sickness those who approached it faithfully and humbly, 2 and in its presence neither old age nor sickness could oppress them. 3 And, though in Malory we find no reference either to the spot having been surrounded by water, or to the castle as a "revolving" one, we have only to turn from the Morte Darthur to the romance entitled the Seint Greal to discover both. Gwalchmei, going to the castle of King Peleur (Pryderi), finds it encircled by a great water, while Peredur, approaching the same place, sees it turning with greater speed than the swiftest wind. Moreover, archers on the walls shoot so vigorously that no armour can resist their shafts, which explains how it happened that, of those that went with Arthur, "except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi". 4
It is noticeable that Arthur himself never attempts the quest of the Grail, though it was he who had achieved its pagan original. We find in Malory four competitors for the mantle of Arthur--Sir Pelleas, 5 Sir Bors, Sir Percivale, and Sir Galahad. 6 The first of these may be put out of court at once, Sir Pelleas, who, being himself Pelles,
Click to enlarge
From the Picture by G. F. Watts, R.A.
By permission of Frederick Hollyer.
or Pwyll, the keeper of it, could have had no reason for such exertions. At the second we may look doubtfully; for Sir Bors is no other than Emrys, or Myrddin, 1 and, casting back to the earlier British mythology, we do not find the sky-god personally active in securing boons by force or craft from the underworld. The other two have better claims--Sir Percivale and Sir Galahad. "Sir Percivale" is the Norman-French name for Peredur, 2 the hero of a story in the Red Book of Hergest 3 which gives the oldest form of a Grail quest we have. It is anterior to the Norman romances, and forms almost a connecting-link between tales of mythology and of chivalry. Peredur, or Sir Percivale, therefore, is the oldest, most primitive, of Grail seekers. On the other hand, Sir Galahad is the latest and youngest. But there is reason to believe that Galahad, in Welsh "Gwalchaved", the "Falcon of Summer", is the same solar hero as Gawain, in Welsh "Gwalchmei", the "Falcon of May". 4 Both are made, in the story of "Kulhwch and Olwen", sons of the same mother, Gwyar. Sir Gawain himself is, in one Arthurian romance, the achiever of the Grail. 5 It is needless to attempt to choose between these two. Both have the attributes of sun-gods. Gwalchmei, the successor of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and Peredur Paladrhir, that is to say, the "Spearman with the Long
[paragraph continues] Shaft", 1 may be allowed to claim equal honours. What is important is that the quest of the Grail, once the chief treasure of Hades, is still accomplished by one who takes in later legend the place of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Lugh Lamhfada in the earlier British and Gaelic myths as a long-armed solar deity victorious in his strife against the Powers of Darkness.
354:1 Tennyson's Idylls of the King; Guinevere.
354:2 Ibid. To the Queen.
356:1 Morte Darthur, Book I, chap. X.
356:2 Gresholm Island, the scene of "The Entertaining of the Noble Head".
356:3 Morte Darthur, Book XX, chap. VIII.
356:4 Ibid., Book I, chap. III.
357:1 Morte Darthur, Book I, chap. VIII.
357:2 Ibid., Book I, chap. XVI.
357:3 Ibid., Book I, chap. II.
357:4 Ibid., Book IV, chap. IV.
357:5 Ibid., Book I, chap. XXIV.
357:6 Ibid., Book I, chap. II.
357:7 Ibid., Book II, chap. XVIII.
357:8 Ibid., Book V, chap. II; Book VIII, chap. IV; Book XIX chap. XI.
357:9 Ibid., Book XI, chap. II.
358:1 Morte Darthur, Book XI, chap. II.
358:2 Ibid., Book XVII, chap. V.
358:3 Ibid., Book XI, chap. II.
358:4 Ibid., Book XII, chap. V.
358:5 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 283.
358:6 Morte Darthur, Book IV, chap. XXIII.
358:7 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 284 and note.
358:8 The subject is treated at length by Professor Rhys in his Arthurian Legend chap. XII--"Pwyll and Pelles".
358:9 Morte Darthur, Book II, chap. XV.
359:1 Marie Darthur, Book I, chap. XII.
359:2 Ibid., Book I, chap. XV.
359:3 Ibid., Book I, chap. IX.
359:4 Ibid., Book XIII, chap. XII.
359:5 Ibid., Book XIX, chap. XI.
359:6 Ibid., Book XIX, chap. II.
359:7 Ibid., Book XIII, chap. X.
359:8 Ibid., Book XIV, chap. IV.
359:9 Morte Darthur, Book XIV, chap. IV.
359:10 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. II.
360:1 Op. cit., pp. 21-22.
360:2 Morte Darthur, Book IV, chap. XVIII.
360:3 Ibid., Book I, chap. VIII.
360:4 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 23.
361:1 Morte Darthur, Book IV, chap. I.
362:1 See chap. XVII--"The Adventures of the Gods of Hades".
362:2 Morte Darthur, Book IV, chap. I.
362:3 Ibid., Book I, chap. II.
362:4 Ibid., Book III, chap. XV.
362:5 Whose story is told by Tennyson in the Idylls, and by Malory in Book XVIII of the Morte Darthur.
362:6 Morte Darthur, Book XI, chaps. II and III.
364:1 See his Studies in the Arthurian Legend.
364:2 See chap. XXI--"The Mythological 'Coming of Arthur'".
365:1 Morte Darthur, Book XIX, chaps. I-IX.
366:1 Morte Darthur, Book XVII, chap. XX.
366:2 Ibid., Book II, chap. XVI; Book XI, chap. XIV.
366:3 See chap. V--"The Gods of the Gaels".
366:4 See chap. XVIII--"The Wooing of Branwen and the Beheading of Brân"
366:5 See chap. XXI--"The Mythological 'Coming of Arthur'".
366:6 See chap XII--"The Irish Iliad".
366:7 Chap XXI--"The Mythological 'Coming of Arthur'".
367:1 Chap. XXI--"The Mythological 'Coming of Arthur'".
367:2 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 305.
367:3 Morte Darthur, Book XI, chaps. II and IV.
368:1 Morte Darthur, Book XVI, chap. V.
368:2 Ibid., Book XI, chap. XIV; Book XII, chap. IV; Book XIII, chap. XVIII.
368:3 Not mentioned by Malory, but stated in the romance called Seint Greal.
368:4 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, pp. 276-277; 302.
368:5 Morte Darthur, Book IV, chap. XXIX.
368:6 Ibid., Book XVII, chap. XX, in which Sir Bors, Sir Percivale, and Sir Galahad are all fed from the Sangreal.
369:1 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 162.
369:2 Ibid., p. 133.
369:3 Translated by Lady Guest in her Mabinogion, under the title of Peredur, the Son of Evrawc.
369:4 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 169. But see whole of chap. VIII--"Galahad and Gwalchaved".
369:5 The German romance Diu Krône, by Heinrich von dem Tûrlin.
370:1 Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 71.