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The Arthurian cycle consists in a number of epics or romances about King Arthur, the knights of his Round Table, or the ladies of his court. The Anglo-Norman trouvères arranged these tales in graduated circles around their nucleus, the legend of the Holy Grail. Next in importance to this sacred theme, and forming the first circle, were the stories of Galahad and Percival who achieved the Holy Grail, of Launcelot and Elaine who were favored with partial glimpses of it, and of Bors who accompanied Galahad and Percival in their journey to Sarras. The second circle included the stories of Arthur and Guinevere, of Geraint and Enid, of Tristan and Isolde, of Pelleas and Ettarre, of Gareth and Lynette, of Gawain, and of Bedevere. The third and last circle dealt with the epics of Merlin and Vivien, Uther and Igerne, Gorlois, and Vortigern.

To give a complete outline of the adventures which befell all these knights and ladies in the course of seventeen epics and romances,—of which many versions exist, and to which each new poet added some episode,—would require far more space than any one volume would afford. A general outline will therefore be given of the two principal themes, the Quest of the Holy Grail and King Arthur and his Round Table, mentioning only the main features of the other epics as they impinge upon these two great centres.

Some of the greatest writers of the Arthurian cycle have been Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Robert de Borron, Marie de France, Layamon, Chrestien de Troyes, Benoit de St. Maur, Gaucher, Manessier, Gerbert, Knot de Provence, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried von Strassburg, Hartmann von der Aue, Malory, Tennyson, Swinburne, Howard Pyle, Matthew Arnold, and Wagner. Still, almost every writer of note has had something to say on the subject, and thus the Arthuriana has become almost as voluminous as the Shakespeariana. The legend of Arthur, almost unknown before the twelfth century, so rapidly became popular all over Europe, that it was translated into every language and recited with endless variations at countless firesides.

Robert de Borron is said to be mainly responsible for the tale of Merlin, the real poet of that name having been a bard at the court, first of Ambrosius Aurelianus and then of King Arthur. The Merlin of the romances is reported to have owed his birth to the commerce of a fiend with an unconscious nun. A priest, convinced of the woman's purity of intention, baptized her child as soon as born, thus defeating the plots of Satan, who had hoped the son of a fiend would be able to outwit the plans of the Son of Man for human redemption. In early infancy, already, this Merlin showed his miraculous powers, for he testified in his mother's behalf when she was accused of incontinency.

Meantime Constance, King of England, had left three sons, the eldest of whom, Constantine, had entered a monastery, while the two others were too young to reign. Drawn from his retirement to wear a crown, Constantine proved incapable to maintain order, so his general, Vortigern, with the aid of the Saxon leaders Hengist and Horsa, usurped his throne. Some time after, wishing to construct an impregnable fortress on Salisbury Plain, Vortigern sent for a host of masons, who were dismayed to see the work they had done during the day destroyed every night.

On consulting an astrologer, Vortigern was directed to anoint the stones with the blood of a boy of five who had no human father. The only child corresponding to this description was Merlin, who saved himself from untimely death by telling the king that, if he dug down and drained the lake he would find, he would discover broad stones beneath which slept two dragons by day, although they fought so fiercely at night that they caused the tremendous earthquakes which shattered his walls. These directions were followed, the dragons were roused, and fought until the red one was slain and the two-headed white one disappeared. Asked to explain the meaning of these two dragons, Merlin—the uncanny child—declared the white dragon with two heads represented the two younger sons of King Constance, who were destined to drive Vortigern away. Having said this, Merlin disappeared, thus escaping the wrath of Vortigern, who wished to slay him.

Soon after, the young princes surprised and burned Vortigern in his palace, and thus recovered possession of their father's throne. Then, one of them dying, the other, assuming both their names, became Uther Pendragon, king of Britain. Such was his bravery that during his reign of seven years he became overlord of all the petty kings who had meantime taken possession of various parts of England. He was aided in this work by his prime-minister, Merlin, whose skill as a clairvoyant, magician, inventor, and artificer of all kinds of things—such as armor which nothing could damage, a magic mirror, round table, ring, and wonderful buildings—was of infinite service to his master and fired the imagination of all the poets.

There are various accounts of Arthur's birth; according to one, Uther fell in love with Gorlois' wife Igerne, who was already mother of three daughters. Thanks to Merlin's magic arts, Uther was able to visit Igerne in the guise of her husband, and thus begot a son, who was entrusted to Merlin's care as soon as born. Another legend declares that, after Gorlois' death, Uther Pendragon married Igerne, and that Arthur was their lawful child. Feeling he was about to die, and fearing lest his infant son should be made away with by the lords he had compelled to obedience, Uther Pendragon bade Merlin hide Arthur until he was old enough to reign over Britain. Merlin therefore secretly bore the babe, as soon as born, to Sir Ector, who brought Arthur up in the belief he was the younger brother of his only son, Sir Kay.

Arthur had just reached eighteen when the Archbishop of Canterbury besought Merlin to select an overlord who would reduce the other kings to obedience, and thus restore peace, law, and order in Britain. Thereupon Merlin promised him a king would soon appear whose rights none would be able to dispute. Shortly after, on coming out of the cathedral one feast-day, the archbishop saw a huge block of stone, in which was imbedded an anvil, through which was thrust a beautiful sword. This weapon, moreover, bore an inscription, stating that he who pulled it out and thrust it back would be the rightful heir to the throne.

Meantime a tournament had been proclaimed, and Sir Kay, having broken his sword while fighting, bade his brother Arthur get him another immediately. Unable to find any weapon in their tent, Arthur ran to the anvil, pulled out the sword, and gave it to Sir Kay. Seeing it in his son's hand, Sir Ector inquired how it had been obtained, and insisted upon Arthur's thrusting it back and taking it out repeatedly, before he would recognize him as his king. As none of the other lords could move the sword, and as Arthur repeatedly proved his claim to it on the great feast-days, he became overlord of all the petty kings. At Sir Ector's request he appointed Sir Kay as steward of his palace, and, thanks to the help of Merlin and of his brave knights, soon subdued the rebels, and became not only master of all England, but, if we are to believe the later romances, a sort of English Alexander, who, after crossing the Alps, became Emperor of the World!

During his reign Arthur fought twelve memorable battles, and, not content with this activity, often rode out like other knights-errant in quest of adventure, challenging any one who wanted to fight, rescuing captives, and aiding damsels in distress. In these encounters Arthur wore the peerless armor made by Merlin, and sometimes carried a shield so brilliant that it blinded all who gazed upon it. It was, therefore, generally covered with a close-fitting case, which, like Arthur's helmet, bore as emblem a two-headed dragon. Having lost his divine sword in one encounter, Arthur was advised by Merlin to apply for another to Nimue, or Nymue, the Lady of the Lake. She immediately pointed out an arm, rising from the middle of the lake, brandishing a magnificent sword. Springing into a skiff near by, Arthur was miraculously ferried to the centre of the lake, where, as soon as he touched the sword, the mystic arm disappeared. Merlin now informed Arthur that, fighting with Excalibure, his wonderful sword, he could never be conquered, and that as long as its scabbard hung by his side he could not be wounded. Later on in the story, Arthur, having incurred the anger of one of his step-sisters, Morgana the Fay, she borrowed Excalibure under pretext of admiring it, and had so exact a copy of it made that no one suspected she had kept the magic sword until Arthur was wounded and defeated. He, however, recovered possession of Excalibure—if not of the scabbard—before he fought his last battle.

Arthur was not only brave, but very romantic, for, Guinevere having bent over him once when he lay half unconscious from a wound, he fell so deeply in love with her that he entered her father's service as garden boy. There Guinevere discovered his identity, and, guessing why he had come, teased him unmercifully. Shortly after, a neighboring, very ill-favored king declared Guinevere's old father would be deprived of his kingdom unless she would consent to marry him, and defied in single combat any one who ventured to object to this arrangement.

Arthur, having secretly provided himself with a white horse and armor, defeated this insolent suitor, and, after a few more thrilling adventures, arranged for his marriage to Guinevere in the fall. By Merlin's advice he also begged his future father-in-law to give him, as wedding present, the Round Table Merlin had made for Uther Pendragon. This was a magic board around which none but virtuous knights could sit. When led to a seat, any worthy candidate beheld his name suddenly appear on its back, in golden letters, which vanished only at his death, or when he became unworthy to occupy a seat at the Round Table. Besides, on one side of Arthur's throne was the Siege Perilous, which none could occupy, under penalty of destruction, save the knight destined to achieve the Holy Grail.

We are informed that Arthur sent his best friend and most accomplished knight, Launcelot, to escort Guinevere to Caerleon on Usk, where the wedding and first session of the Round Table were to take place on the self-same day. It seems that, when this Launcelot was a babe, his parents had to flee from a burning home. Overcome by sorrow and wounds, the poor father soon sank dying beside the road, and, while the mother was closing his eyes, the Lady of the Lake suddenly rose from her watery home, seized the babe, and plunged back with him into its depths. The widowed and bereft woman therefore entered a convent, where she was known as the Lady of Sorrows, for little did she suspect her son was being trained by Pellias—husband of the Lady of the Lake—to become the most famous knight of the Round Table. At eighteen the Lady of the Lake decided it was time Launcelot should be knighted. So, on St. John's eve—when mortals can see fairies—King Arthur and Sir Ector were led, by a mysterious damsel and dwarf, to a place where Pellias and the Lady of the Lake begged them to knight their protégé and pupil, who was henceforth to be known as Launcelot of the Lake. Not only did Arthur gladly bestow the accolade upon the young man, but he took him with him to Camelot.

It was as supreme honor and mark of confidence that Arthur sent Launcelot to get Guinevere. Some legends claim these two already loved each other dearly, others that they fell in love during the journey, others still that their guilty passion was due to a love potion, and a few that Guinevere, incensed by the behavior of Arthur,—whom some of the epics do not depict as Tennyson's "blameless king,"—proved faithless in revenge later on. All the versions, however, agree that Launcelot cherished an incurable, guilty passion for Guinevere, and that she proved untrue to her marriage vows. Time and again we hear of stolen meetings, and of Launcelot's deep sorrow at deceiving the noble friend whom he continues to love and admire. This is the only blemish in his character, while Guinevere is coquettish, passionate, unfeeling, and exacting, and has little to recommend her aside from grace, beauty, and personal magnetism. At court she plays her part of queen and lady of the revels with consummate skill, and we have many descriptions of festivities of all kinds. During a maying party the queen was once kidnapped by a bold admirer and kept for a time in durance vile. Launcelot, posting after her, ruthlessly cut down all who attempted to check him, and, his horse falling at last beneath him, continued his pursuit in a wood-chopper's cart, although none but criminals were seen in such a vehicle in the Middle Ages. The Knight of the Cart was, however, only intent upon rescuing the queen, who showed herself very ungrateful, for she often thereafter taunted him with this ride and laughed at the gibes the others lavished upon him. Twice Guinevere drove Launcelot mad with these taunts, and frequently she heartlessly sent him off on dangerous errands.

Launcelot, however, so surpassed all the knights in courage and daring that he won all the prizes in the tournaments. A brilliant series of these entertainments was given by the king, who, having found twelve large diamonds in the crown of a dead king, offered one of them as prize on each occasion. Launcelot, having secured all but the last, decided to attend the last tournament in disguise, after carefully informing king and queen he would not take part in the game.

Pausing at the Castle of Astolat, he borrowed a blank shield, and left his own in the care of Elaine, daughter of his host, who, although he had not shown her any attention, had fallen deeply in love with him. As further disguise, Launcelot also wore the favor Elaine timidly offered, and visited the tournament escorted by her brother. Once more Launcelot bore down all rivals, but he was so sorely wounded in the last encounter that he rode off without taking the prize. Elaine's brother, following him, conveyed him to a hermit's, where some poets claim Elaine nursed him back to health. Although there are two Elaines in Launcelot's life, i.e., the daughter of Pelles (whom he is tricked into marrying and who bears him Galahad) and the "lily maid of Astolat,"—some of the later writers fancied there was only the latter. According to some accounts Launcelot lived happily with the first Elaine in the castle he had conquered,—Joyous Garde,—until Queen Guinevere, consumed by jealousy, summoned them both to court. There she kept them apart, and so persecuted poor Elaine that she crept off to a convent, where she died, after bringing Galahad into the world and after predicting he would achieve the Holy Grail.

The other Elaine,—as Tennyson so beautifully relates, a dying of unrequited love, bade her father and brothers send her corpse down the river in charge of a dumb boatman. Everybody knows of the arrival of the funeral barge at court, of the reading of the letter in Elaine's dead hand, and of Launcelot's sorrow over the suffering he had unwittingly caused.

Launcelot and Guinevere are not the only examples in the Arthurian Cycle of the love of a queen for her husband's friend, and of his overwhelming passion for the wife of his master. Another famous couple, Tristram and Iseult, [23] also claims our attention.

The legend of Tristram was already known in the sixth century, and from that time until now has been periodically rewritten and embellished. Like most mediaeval legends, it begins with the hero's birth, gives in detail the whole story of his life, and ends only when he is safely dead and buried!

The bare outline of the main events in Tristram's very adventurous career are the elopement of his mother, a sister of King Mark of Cornwall. Then, while mourning for her beloved, this lady dies in giving birth to her son, whom she names Tristram, or the sad one.

Brought up by a faithful servant,—Gouvernail or Kurvenal,—Tristram learns to become a peerless hunter and musician. After describing sundry childish and youthful adventures in different lands, the various legends agree in bringing him to his uncle's court, just as a giant champion arrives from Ireland, claiming tribute in money and men unless some one can defeat him in battle. As neither Mark nor any of his subjects dare venture to face the challenger, Morolt, Tristram volunteers his services. The battle takes place on an island, and, after many blows have been given and received and the end has seemed doubtful, Tristram (who has been wounded by his opponent's poisoned lance) kills him by a blow of his sword, a splinter of which remains embedded in the dead giant's skull. His corpse is then brought back to Ireland to receive sepulchre at the hands of Queen Iseult, who, in preparing the body for the grave finds the fragment of steel, which she treasures, thinking it may some day help her to find her champion's slayer and enable her to avenge his death.

Meanwhile Tristram's wound does not heal, and, realizing Queen Iseult alone will be able to cure him, he sails for Ireland, where he presents himself as the minstrel Tramtris, and rewards the care of the queen and her daughter—both bearing the name of Iseult—by his fine music.

On his return to Cornwall, Tristram, who has evidently been impressed by Princess Iseult's beauty, sings her praises so enthusiastically that King Mark decides to propose for her hand, and—advised by the jealous courtiers, who deem the expedition perilous in the extreme—selects Tristram as his ambassador.

On landing in Ireland, Tristram notices ill-concealed excitement, and discovers that a dragon is causing such damage in the neighborhood that the king has promised his daughter's hand to the warrior who would slay the monster.

Nothing daunted, Tristram sets out alone, and beards the dragon in his den to such good purpose that he kills him and carries off his tongue as a trophy. But, wounded in his encounter, Tristram soon sinks by the roadside unconscious. The king's butler, who has been spying upon him and who deems him dead, now cuts off the dragon's head and lays it at the king's feet, claiming the promised reward.

Princess Iseult and her mother refuse, however, to believe that this man—a notorious coward—has performed any such feat, and hasten out to the battle-field. There they find not only the headless dragon, but the unconscious Tristram, and the tongue which proves him the real victor. To nurse him back to health is no great task for these ladies, who, like many of the heroines of the mediaeval epics and romances, are skilled leeches and surgeons.

One day, while guarding their patient's slumbers, the ladies idly examine his weapons, and make the momentous discovery that the bit of steel found in Morolt's head exactly fits a nick in Tristram's sword.

Although both had sworn vengeance, they decide the service Tristram has just rendered them and their country more than counterbalances the rest, and therefore let him go unscathed.

Fully restored to health, Tristram proves the butler had no right to Iseult's hand, and, instead of enforcing his own claim, makes King Mark's proposals known. Either because such an alliance flatters their pride or because they dare not refuse, Iseult's parents accept in their daughter's name and prepare everything for her speedy departure. The queen, wishing to save her daughter from the curse of a loveless marriage, next brews a love-potion which she bids Brengwain—her daughter's maid and companion—administer to King Mark and Iseult on their wedding night.

During the trip across the Irish Channel, Tristram entertains Princess Iseult with songs and tales, until he becomes so thirsty that he begs for a drink. By mistake the love-potion is brought, and, as Iseult graciously dips her lips in the cup before handing it to her entertainer, it comes to pass both partake of the magic draught, and thus become victims of a passion which naught can cure. Still, as their intentions remain perfectly honorable, they continue the journey to Cornwall, and, in spite of all he suffers, Tristram delivers the reluctant bride into his uncle's hands.

Some legends claim that Iseult made her maid Brengwain take her place by the king's side on their wedding night, and that, although the Irish princess dwelt in the palace at Cornwall, she never proved untrue to her lover Tristram. The romances now give us stolen interviews, temporary elopements, and hair-breadth escapes from all manner of dangers. Once, for instance, Iseult is summoned by her husband to appear before the judges and clear herself from all suspicion of infidelity by taking a public oath in their presence. By Iseult's directions, Tristram, disguised as a mendicant, carries her ashore from the boat, begging for a kiss as reward. This enables the queen to swear truthfully that she has never been embraced by any man save King Mark and the mendicant who carried her ashore!

Tristram—like Launcelot—deeply feels the baseness of his conduct toward his uncle and often tries to tear himself away, but the spell of the magic potion is too powerful to break. Once remorse and shame actually drive him mad, and he roams around the country performing all manner of crazy deeds.

He too, when restored to his senses, visits Arthur's court, is admitted to the Round Table, and joins in the Quest for the Holy Grail, which, of course, he cannot achieve. Then he does marvels in the matter of hunting and fighting, and, having received another dangerous wound, wonders who besides Iseult of Cornwall can cure it? It is then he hears for the first time of Iseult of Brittany (or of the White Hands), whose skill in such matters is proverbial, and, seeking her aid, is soon made whole. But meantime the physician has fallen in love with her patient, and fancies her love is returned because every lay he sings is in praise of Iseult!

Her brother, discovering her innocent passion, reveals it to Tristram, who, through gratitude or to drive the remembrance of his guilty passion out of his mind, finally marries her. But even marriage cannot make him forget Iseult of Cornwall. The time comes when, wounded beyond the power of his wife's skill to cure, Tristram sends for Iseult of Cornwall, who, either owing to treachery or to accident, arrives too late, and dies of grief on her lover's corpse.

Some legends vary greatly in the manner of Tristram's death, for he is sometimes slain by King Stark, who is justly angry to find him in his wife's company. Most of the versions, however, declare that the lovers were buried side by side, and that creepers growing out of their respective graves twined lovingly around each other.

Other beautiful episodes which are taken from old Welsh versions of the Arthurian legends are the stories of Geraint and Enid, of Pelleas and Ettarre, of Gareth and Lynette, which have received their latest and most beautiful setting at the hands of the poet-laureate Tennyson, and the very tragic and pathetic tale of the twin brothers Balin and Balan, who, after baleful happenings galore, failing to recognize each other, fight until one deals the "dolorous stroke" which kills his brother.

Were any one patient enough to count the characters, duels, and hair-breadth escapes in Malory's Morte d'Arthur, the sum might well appall a modern reader. Magic, too, plays a prominent part in the Arthurian cycle, where Merlin, by means of a magic ring given by the Lady of the Lake to her sister Vivien, becomes so infatuated with the latter lady, that she is able to coax from him all his secrets, and even to learn the spell whereby a mortal can be kept alive although hidden from all eyes. Having obtained the magic formula by bringing all her coquettish wiles to bear upon besotted old Merlin, Vivien is said to have decoyed the wizard either to an enchanted castle, where she enclosed him in a stone sepulchre, or into the forest of Broceliande, in Brittany, where she left him, spellbound in a flowering thorn-bush. Another legend, however, claims that, having grown old and forgetful, Merlin absent-mindedly attempted to sit down in the Siege Perilous, only to be swallowed up by the yawning chasm which opened beneath his feet.

It was at the height of Arthur's prosperity and fame that the knights of the Round Table solemnly pledged themselves to undertake the Quest of the Holy Grail, as is described in the chapter on that subject. Their absence, the adultery of the queen, and the king's consciousness of past sins cast such a gloom over the once brilliant reunions of Camelot and Caerleon, as well as over the whole land, that Arthur's foes became bolder, and troubles thickened in an ominous way. Finally, most of the knights returned from the Quest sadder and wiser men, Launcelot was banished by the king to Joyous Garde, and was therefore not at hand when the last great fight occurred. Mordred, the Judas of the Arthurian cycle—whom some poets represent as the illegitimate and incestuous son of Arthur, while others merely make him a nephew of the king—rebels against Arthur, who engages in his last battle, near the Castle of Tintagel, where he was born.

In this encounter all are slain on both sides, and Arthur, having finally killed the traitor Mordred, after receiving from him a grievous wound, finds no one near to help or sustain him save Sir Bedevere. Knowing his wonderful blade Excalibure must return to its donor ere he departs, Arthur thrice orders his henchman to cast it into the mere. Twice Sir Bedevere hides the sword instead of obeying, but the third time, having exactly carried out the royal orders, he reports having seen a hand rise out of the Lake, catch and brandish Excalibure, and vanish beneath the waters with it! Arthur is next carried by Sir Bedevere down to the water's edge, where a mysterious barge receives the almost dying king. In this barge are three black-veiled queens,—the king's step-sisters,—and, when Arthur's head has been tenderly laid in the lap of Morgana the Fay, he announces he is about to sail off to the Isle of Avalon "to be healed of his wound." Although the Isle of Avalon was evidently a poetical mediaeval version of the "bourne whence no man returns," people long watched for Arthur's home-coming, for he was a very real personage to readers of epics and romances in the Middle Ages.

Guinevere—her sin having been discovered by her hitherto fabulously blind husband—took refuge in a nunnery at Almesbury, where she received a farewell visit from Arthur and an assurance of his forgiveness, before he rode into his last fight.

As for Launcelot, he, too, devoted his last days to penance and prayer in a monastery. There he remained until warned in a vision that Guinevere was dead. Leaving his cell, Launcelot hastened to Almesbury, where, finding Guinevere had ceased to breathe, he bore her corpse to Glastonbury—where according to some versions Arthur had been conveyed by the barge and buried—and there laid her to rest at her husband's feet.

Then Launcelot again withdrew to his cell, where he died after six months' abstinence and prayer. It was his heir, Sir Ector, who feelingly pronounced the eulogy of the knight par excellence of the mediaeval legends in the following terms: "'Ah, Sir Lancelot,' he said, 'thou were head of all Christian knights; and now I dare say,' said Sir Ector, 'that, Sir Lancelot, there thou liest, thou were never matched of none earthly knight's hands; and thou were the courtliest knight that ever bare shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword; and thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights; and thou were the meekest man, and the gentlest, that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in rest.'"


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