arthur lancelot british name geoffrey romances history century tristan achilles
MEDIEVAL ROMANCE - The oldest and certainly the most important of the cycles of raedival romance is that which passes under the name of King Arthur, or of the Round Table. The names, characters, and actions of its heroes have permeated modern literature throughout Europe ; yet so little do we know concerning the origines and the first authors of the tales 'which form the body of Arthurian romance that there are few subjects in literary history more obscure and undefined. It can only be said with assurance that from about the year 1150 several poems1 were composed by minstrels (a class of men recruited from all ranks of society) upon incidents and personages familiar to readers of what is called the iforte Arthur, a compilation of the second half of the 13th century. The Norte Arthur was not originally so called, and it was not a direct compilation from the ballads of the 12th century, but seems rather to have been a mere unskilful reduction into a single corpus of some five or six prose romances which had already grown out of the poems, and each of which professed to relate the adventures of nearly the same set of heroes. The first appearance of these stories in prose compositions is here our chief concern ; and it is, unfortunately, likewise our chief difficulty. The sources of information upon the subject are defective and vitiated to a singular degree ; and the light thrown by the investigations of recent writers is frequently of the nature of cross-lights. The following attempt at constructing a brief literary history of the Arthurian romances is not offered as a complete analysis of the work which has been done, but as a sum-mary of facts and probabilities.
The Roman conquests in Spain, Gaul, and Britain im-posed upon a large portion of the conquered peoples the necessity of using the Latin language, which thereby be-came, and for centuries remained, the medium of educated intercourse and the language of the towns and the centres of government in those countries. In common speech, naturally, it became depraved in course of time, and the pure lingua Latina of the high officials and the clergy existed side by side with the corrupt lingua Ronzana of the Romanized people. The latter was, however, ignored by polite literature, and probably never appeared in a written form till it was used for political purposes on the occa.sion of the celebrated partition of Charlemagne's empire among his grandsons. We may say that the literature of romance begins with popular poetry of the 10th or 11 th century ; but, as its subject-matter was derived to some extent from the more respectable lingua Latina, we must go back a few centuries earlier to find the origines. When the people of Rome became acquainted with the civilization and literature of Greece they framed a fabu-lous history to connect themselves with the superior race, and the ..(Eneid exhibits that pseudo-tradition in its most permanent and powerful embodiment. A similar desire affected the Romanized Britons, and we may confidently assume that before the end of the 3d century a poetical form had been given to the story of the Trojan Brutus who founded the kingdom of Britain, blended with some-thing of the real traditions of the Celtic race. No such form survives at present, but we may discern its traces and results in Nennius (sec. viii.-x.), Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154), and in all the subsequent chronicles.
In the 1 1 th century the Anglo-Saxons of England had their old Germanic stories of Beowulf, Sigfrid, and the Nibelungeu; the Britons of the west enjoyed their Celtic and Britanno-Celtic myths ; the Saxonized Britons of Wilt, shire and elsewhere combined the legends of both the , others ; and the best educated men amongst the clergy had an acquaintance with Virgil, Ovid, and Statius. Here was a rich material for the imagination, and the invasion of the Normans brought a fructifying element. In France, Roman, Franco-German, Celto-Breton, and Scandinavian traditions were alrea,dy intermingled ; and the reintroduc-tion into Saxonized England, from the south, of Celtic myths nearly identical with those which the Anglo-Normans found in Wales before the end of the 11 th century gave to the latter a fresh life and a distinct predominance over all the other traditions of the composite people. Hence arose the British cycle of romance, accepted partly as history, partly as fiction by the new people of Norman England. Bretons, Britons, Normans and French, the Saxonized Britons, the Franco-Gallicized Scandinavians, and the Dano-SaxOns all found a common basis of amalga-mation, and it is no mere metaphor to say that the publi-cation of Geoffrey of .Monmouth's fabulous chronicle formed a momentous era in the history of England.
When the Saxons entered Britain in the 5th century they found in the middle and the south a Romanized kingdom ruled by a monarch with a British or Cymric name. The vernacular tongue of Britain was then and for centuries afterwards much nearer in form to the Gaelic of Ireland and of western and northern Scotland, the Pictish of Scotland, and the Gaulish of France than the Cymric of Wales is now or was then. It was a long time before the Saxon conquests extended so far as to leave the Cymry or Welsh the sole distinct people of the original inhabitants of the country. In the meantime there had been con-flicts with the Pictish kings of the north, the Gaelic or Cambro-Gaelic kings of Strathclyde, and the princes of North and South Wales. Amongst their opposers the most successful and the most memorable was a prince or chief of Strathclyde, who is called 'by Nennius "Arthur dux bellorum," by the English " King Arthur," by the Welsh " the Emperor Arthur." After the departure of the Romans there were several independent monarchies or principalities in the island - that of the Romanized Britons occupying the centre, south, and south-east of the country; two Cymric principalities in Wales (North and South); the Cambro-Gaelic kingdom of Strathclyde, extending from the Clyde to Chester ; the unmixed Gaels in the north-west of Scotland ; the Pictish kingdom in the north-east ; and a Scandinavian population between the Firth of Forth and Norwich. It is now settled by scholars that the Pictish speech was a dialect, like Gallic, Gaelic, and Cymric, of the common Celtic language ; and in the early centuries of the Christian era the radical unity of all these tongues had not yet been effaced by the action of local varieties of pronunciation and arbitrary rules of orthography; consequently there was no such sentiment of national or racial distinction between the divisions of the Celtic race as is nowadays produced by political frontiers. The real Arthur, whoever he was, has been claimed by the Welsh as their own man, a champion of the beaten Celts retiring westward to the mountain-fastnesses before the victorious Saxons. They have lost sight of the fact that there were always Cymry in Wales, who must have re-garded their brothers in Loegria (England) much in the same way _as they did those of Strathclyde, namely, as kinsmen and allies sometimes, as fair game for attack and plunder more frequently. The struggle between the Celtic and Germanic race was a long one, and it can only have been after the power of the Romanized Britons of Loegria and of the .men of Strathclyde was broken, in the battles to which we may attach the name of Arthur, that the tide of war reached Wales along with the British fugitives who crowded. thither and to Brittany ; hence the appearance of Roman names among the British warriors. It may be surmised that Arthur is not a name but a title given to a Strathclyde warrior, corresponding to the Latin imperator.1 The traces of Roman occupation and of Roman culture were not wholly effaced for many centuries in the west of England, and, besides the Latin quasi-historical writings attributed to Gildas and Nennius, there must have been something like a British Livy and a British Virgil in existence between the time of Constantine and that of the pseudo-classical compositions of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Joseph of Exeter. It is quite certain that the work we call by the name of Nennius did not furnish all the sub-ject-matter of Geoffrey's Historia, and the mysterious old volume which his friend William of Wallingford brought to him from Brittany about 1130 must have contained poetic legends as well as prose pseudo-history. Another mysterious volume is the "Latin book " in the monas-tery at Salisbury, to which the romancists of 1160-1220 professed to have resorted for their narratives. In Geof-frey's Historia, compiled, as he say-s, from William of yallingford's book, we find three elements blended - (1) the epic of Brutus (which must have been written in Britain before 300); (2) a record of British kings down to the Saxon invasion (probably a corrupt version of the same real history that appears distorted and truncated in Nennius); (3) the lives of Arthur, Guenhumara, and Merlin (old British popular legends, wrought into union with a later Cymric tradition in which the British or Gadelic Arth-vaur, Art-vor, or Ard-tur had been converted into a Welsh king Arthur).
The Round Table romances had. their starting-point in Geoffrey's Historia, first published in 1138-39, revised and republished in its present form in 1147.2 Yet there is no 3.mention in Geoffrey of Lancelot and Tristan, two heroes of much greater importance in the romances than Arthur himself. It does not seem to have been observed before that there is a curious set of resemblances between the personages of the romances and those of the Homeric siege of Troy. The names of Arthur and Uter suggest Atrides (Menelaus and Agamemnon rolled into one); Mark, again, is Menelaus ; Guenhumara and Yseult are like Helen, Guenhumara also resembling Chryseis and Briseis ; Lancelot and Tristan are like Achilles and Paris. Lancelot becomes for a time the enemy of his king (Arthur Atrides) and stands aloof from him ; he is un-successful in his quest of the Grail, as Achilles dies before Troy is taken ; his son Galaad, like the Achilleid Neo-ptolemus, achieves the father's unfinished task. Lancelot (lanc-e-loc= child of the lake) is brought up in conceal-ment by the Lady of the Lake, just as Thetis (the goddess of the sea) brings up her son Achilles, disguised as a girl, in obscurity. Chiron, to whose care the young Achilles is at first entrusted by Thetis, resembles Merlin, the friend or lover of the Lady of the Lake, in his half divine, half human nature.3 Again, not only does Galaad by his name remind us of the hero of the Ach,illeidos (it must have been as usual to give this genitive name to the poem of Statius as that of Eneydos to Virgil's), but there are other curious similitudes. The name of King Perles or Pelles, by whose daughter Lancelot becomes the father of Galaad, is suggestive of, or may have been suggested by, the Grxco-Latin appellation of Achilles, Pelides son of Peleus. One of the meanings that has been suggested for the name of Lancelot is l'ancelot= the serving man, in refer. ence to one of the incidents of his story. Although a dif-ferent origin is hinted at above, it would not be inappro-priate to designate Achilles in his female disguise at Delos l'ancillet (=the male damsel, in attendance on Deidamia). As in the old Greek poems we have Atrides and Pelides contesting for Briseis, and the minor Atrides, Menelaus, similarly contending with Paris the ravisher of Helen, so in the romances we find Guenhumara the object of mutual strife between her lover Lancelot and her husband Arthur, son of Liter Pendragon, and Yseult the cause of war between King Mark and Tristan. Again, a resemblance is to be found in the incidents of fabulous birth between Arthur and Hercules, Arthur and Alexander the Great.
These observations are not intended to contradict the claims of the Cymric people to have furnished the romances with much of their material ; for it would be difficult to resist the evidence of such names as Tristan and Yseult, which indicate sufficiently their British or Breton origin, and even Lancelot might have been, as first suggested above, a Welsh or British translation of an epithet which would apply- to Achilles in connexion with the following words from Statius.4 Thetis says (as the Lady of the Lake might have said of Lancelot) - " Szpe ipsa (nefas !) sub inania natum hypothesis, which requires to be associated with the corol-lary that British tmnslations or adaptations were formed when the Roman influence began to wane, would account for the curious circumstance that some of the Greek and Oriental fictions are found in Anglo-Saxon versions of much greater antiquity than any that have survived in the other vernaculars of Europe. Direct transference of such works from classical codices can hardly be presumed to have been the custom of a rough and semi-barbarous nation of Teutonic invaders ; the medium must have been the existence of Brito-Latin and British poems among the conquered people.
The success of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia and of his Merlin brought indignant comment from some of the Anglo-Norman historians, but it inflamed the minds of other writers. already excited by the extraordinary events of the period. The result was the genesis of modern fiction. Within a. few years after Geoffrey's publication the Norman Wace translated the Historia Britonum into French verse (1155), making some additions ; and in his work entitled Roman de Brut we find the words - " King Ertur made the Round Table Of which Bretons tell many a fable " - from which we may infer that the Round Table stories, which led to the construction of the French romances, were derived directly from Brittany, just as Geoffrey de-clares his Historict to have been. Wace, as a Jersey man, could have made no confusion between the Waleis of Cambria and the Bretun of Armorica.
Recapitulating what has been already said, we may chronologically tabulate the first elements of Arthurian story thus - I. Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin (in Geoffrey), 1136-49 ; II. the Round Table (as shown by Wace), before 1155; III. Lancelot ; IV. the Grail ; and V. Tristan.
The original Tristan was earlier than the Lancelot, and was presumably a French poem (or prose work ?), written about 1160 by Luc de Gast, a trouvere of English birth t. who lived near Salisbury, and is said to have had access to the book of stories referred to in a previous paragraph. The poem (?) and the book have perished, and the Tristan story was written under the name of Le Bret (= the Breton), to distinguish it froni Le Brut (= the Briton) of Wace, at a later date, with so rnuch additional matter that it must be placed after the Lancelot. Walter MAP (q.v.) of Here-ford, who died archdeacon of Oxford in the year 1210, was a man of Welsh origin or kindred. In 1185 Hue de Rote-lande of Credenhill near Hereford wrote a French romantic poem, in which the names of the characters are all derived from the Thebais of Statius, but the incidents are wholly imaginative or derived from other sources. In it he speaks, in deprecation of any blame for his falsification of the truth of history, of Walter Map as being quite as great a romancer as himself. In connexion with statements fre-quently repeated in the early MSS. of the romances, this remark suffices to prove that before 1185 Walter Map had already published his Lancelot. We may fairly put the date before 1175, say about 1170 ; and it would be prob-ably correct to assume that the Lancelot was a French poem (or prose work ?) composed while the author was still young (1165-70). It has perished, like Luc de Gast's Tristan, and we can only conjecture that it had some similar connexion with the Achilles of Statius to that of Hue de Rotelande's poem with the Thebais. It was, how-ever, reduced to or rewritten in prose and amplified before 1200 in the form in which we now find it in several old MSS. (none earlier than the 13th century). It is certain that Rustighello or Rustieien of Pisa was employed about