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Fraser's Scottish Annual
A Study in the Growth of Legends


BY D. S. GREGORY, D.D., LL.D.

THOSE of the living whose locks have been somewhat touched with the snow of years will readily recall the sensation produced in the English- speaking world by the publication of Tennson's "Idylls of the King." But probably only the fewest know that back of this allegorical epic there is clearly traceable a legendary growth perhaps the most remarkable in human history.

The purpose here is to sketch the course of this growth and development, of what is popularly known as the Arthurian Romance, from its source to the latest and completest embodiment. No better illustration could be furnished of the way in which the popular heart cherishes and the popular imagination touches, moulds, and supplements these masses of legendary lore.

The Welsh or Celtic Starting Point.—Some of the raw material found embodied in Tennyson's finished product may be traced back directly twelve hundred years or more. Its first elements seem to have originated among the Welsh or Old Britons, and to have taken shape as early as 700 A.D. To the same people—.rich in imagination—have been traced the story of Queen Mab, much of the English fairy mythology and of the material of Chaucer and Spenser, and the legends that formed the ground-work of "King Lear" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." About the middle of the tenth century, Wennius, in his " History of the Britons," gathered and gave permanent form to what was to figure so largely in later romance and poetry. Brutus, grandson of AEneas the Trojan, the mythical founder of Britain, and King Arthur, he of the Round Table, figured largely in the work of Nennius. In fact, he sketches the mythical origin of the Britons and Scots, the occupation of Britain by the Romans, the reign of Vortigem, the successive settlements of the Saxons, and the twelve battles in which King Arthur, in the sixth century, is said to have defeated the Saxons.

The Anglo-Norman Stage.— When the Norman came in with his new needs and notions, it became necessary, in order to reach him, to put this romantic material into suitable Latin and French forms. This marks the second stage in the legendary growth.

It was about 1147 A.D. that Geoffrey of 1'Ionmout/i sent out in Latin form his "History of the Britons" ("Historia Britonum"). He was familiar with the works of Gildas and Bede; and while meditating on their failure to give an account of the origin of the Britons, of their early kings, and especially of Arthur, Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, offered him "a very ancient book in the British tongue, which, in a continued, regular story and elegant style, related the actions of them all, from Brutus, the first king of the Britons, down to Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo." Geoffrey's book purports to have been a translation of this. But however that may be, his work revived the old legends of Nennius, added new elements, and made what in that age was a great story out of the whole. He called it "history," it is true, but it was in fact made up of the story of Brutus, the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the story of Merlin drawn from Persian and Indian sources. The inspiring influence of this beginning of English story-telling has remained as a permanent source of literary inspiration.

Soon after Geoffrey's work appeared it was given a French form, to meet the needs of the plainer people, who did not know Latin, and of the Court, which was more at home in the French tongue. Its legends were put into French verse by Geoffrey Gaimar, about 1154. He drew the introductory portion directly from a Latin work, itself a translation from the Welsh original that Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, had given to Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the history proper is found the story of Havelok the Dane.

Then came the most famous of these early writers of romance verse, Master Wace, a native of Jersey and a son of a Norman baron, who wrote about i i8o for Henry II., expanding the legends to more than fifteen thousand octo-syllabic lines. His production had a wide circulation, and still exists in manuscript and in printed form.

It was left to his contemporary, Walter Mapes, or Map, to infuse a poetic soul into the legendary mass, and greatly to enlarge it.

One of the new elements now to be incorporated in the romance was the story of the Saint Greal. The popularity of the romance literature at this time seems to have left the priests and the Church almost without a hearing; hence arose out of the demands of the situation "the original romances on the quest of the Saint Greal, or Saint Graal, which are to be considered as forming a distinct body of fiction from those relating to the Round Table." According to the common account in the British romances, which appear to be derived from the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus, the Saint Greal is "the plate from which Christ ate His last supper, and which is said to have been appropriated by Joseph of Arimathea, and to have been afterward used by him to collect the blood that flowed from the wounds of the Redeemer." Later it was brought to Britain and lost ; hence the search for it. Some would trace the legend back to an original Welsh book by the bard Tysilio; but the oldest verse romance on the subject was probably that composed by Chrétien de Troyes about 1170 A.D., of which fragments still remain. The monkish versions greatly enlarged the original.

It was a stroke of genius on the part of Mapes to seize upon the legend, incorporate it with the Arthurian Romance proper, and dedicate it to Henry II. It was his task to transform and elaborate the whole, and to add many new elements, until his story by its supreme fascination left the priests again without auditors.

When Mapes had completed his work it embraced most of the factors that appear in Tennyson. He had interwoven the story of the Saint Greal with the old Arthurian material and the separate legends of Lancelot, Gawain, Percival and Tristan, so as to make them all seem parts of one great cycle. This was naturally and practically the closing of the Norman development of these legends.

The Early English Stage.—With Magna Charta and the withdrawal from the Continent came the full birth of the English nation. The new language, with its infections levelled or being levelled, required that the legends should be given a new form in order to reach the people.

Layarnon, a priest of Ernley, on the western bank of the Severn, made the first essay toward meeting this need, in his "Brut" or "Chronicle of Britain."

The new book, however, was principally a translation of Wace's "Brut d'Angleterre," with large additions from other sources. Its genealogy reaches back through Wace's book to Geoffrey of Monmouth's " Historia Britonum," which Wace translated and added to, and again to the Welsh or Breton original, which was the starting- point. How large the additions made by Layamon were appears from the fact that his work extended to 32,250 lines. It appeared opportunely soon after 1200 A.D., opening to the imagination of the English people the past history of the island, and furnishing a common bond of interest for Saxon and Norman. It was adapted to the common people, and how thoroughly English, or Saxon, they were in their speech is shown by the fact that not more than fifty Latin and French words are found in the entire production. It is everywhere touched with the Anglo-Saxon spirit. The features that strike one are, the presence of creative and poetic power of no mean order, and the generous additions of purely imaginative elements without touch of fact or history.

Almost a century later—some time after 1297—Robert of Gloucester, a monk, produced his metrical "Chronicle," by translating and versifying Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Britons." It is of little interest, except as forming one more link in the succession by which the legends have, through the activity of the popular imagination, connected themselves with the present time.

It was reserved for the close of the fifteenth century to give distinct artistic shaping to the material that heretofore, except perhaps by Mapes, had been little more than touched by the higher, creative imagination. Sir Thomas Malory, knight—so the tradition runs— finished his epic, "Morte Darthur," about the ninth year of King Edward IV., and took it to Caxton, the famous printer, who published it in 1485. Caxton says that Malory "took his work 'out of certain books of French, and reduced it into English.'" But it is furthest possible from being a mere translation or compilation; its special advance upon former treatments of the English legends is in artistic construction. Although prose in form, it is epic and poetic in matter and spirit.

To Tennyson was left the needed final transformation and complete artistic embodiment of the English legends, with the Brutus and other unessential parts dropped out, in his epic, "The Idylls of the King." By Tennyson a new organic idea is introduced, or, perhaps it is better to say, brought out of the material by the intuition of a seer, and the whole becomes an allegorical epic delineating "The War of the Soul with Sense." The cycles in the movement of the deadly struggle appear, as the choicest of the old material is wrought together with the poet's added lore and genius, in an epilogue and eight idylls. It is not the purpose here to trace these cycles, but merely to note the completion of the artistic work of the national imagination, ending in the dropping out of nearly all the fact and history.

This rapid survey has perhaps sufficiently sketched an accessible line for the study of a great legendary growth under the shaping imagination of a people.

The Arthurian Romance in its present form came from the gathering up of many and heterogeneous fragments of imaginative lore, to which a succession of men of genius gave their successive additions and touches, for the purpose of catching the fancy of many generations of hearers and readers - the final product of Tennyson being pure fancy still. The final organic idea of Tennyson was not in any way in the original, or in any of the forms given to it later. In fine, the process of development, as seen in the Arthurian Romance, is that of a people putting artistic ideas, by the work of its men of genius, into an incoherent and impossible legendary mass, replacing older fancy by newer, until the supreme genius came who sifted the whole and transformed it into a creative literary product.


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