Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 159


There is much here that reminds us of Gnostic or Oriental thought. It is certainly very unlike Christian orthodoxy of the sixteenth century. As a product of the Cymric mind of that period the reader may take it for what it is worth, without troubling himself either with antiquarian theories or with their refutations.

Let us now turn to the really ancient work, which is not philosophic, but creative and imaginative, produced by British bards and fabulists of the Middle Ages. But before we go on to set forth what we shall find in this literature we must delay a moment to discuss one thing which we shall not.

[pg 336]

The Arthurian Saga

For the majority of modern readers who have not made any special study of the subject, the mention of early British legend will inevitably call up the glories of the Arthurian Saga—they will think of the fabled palace at Caerleon-on-Usk, the Knights of the Round Table riding forth on chivalrous adventure, the Quest of the Grail, the guilty love of Lancelot, flower of knighthood, for the queen, the last great battle by the northern sea, the voyage of Arthur, sorely wounded, but immortal, to the mystic valley of Avalon. But as a matter of fact they will find in the native literature of mediæval Wales little or nothing of all this—no Round Table, no Lancelot, no Grail-Quest, no Isle of Avalon, until the Welsh learned about them from abroad; and though there was indeed an Arthur in this literature, he is a wholly different being from the Arthur of what we now call the Arthurian Saga.


The earliest extant mention of Arthur is to be found in the work of the British historian Nennius, who wrote his “Historia Britonum” about the year 800. He derives his authority from various sources—ancient monuments and writings of Britain and of Ireland (in connexion with the latter country he records the legend of Partholan), Roman annals, and chronicles of saints, especially St. Germanus. He presents a fantastically Romanised and Christianised view of British history, deriving the Britons from a Trojan and Roman ancestry. His account of Arthur, however, is both sober and brief. Arthur, who, according to Nennius, lived in the sixth century, was not a king; his ancestry was less noble than that of many other British chiefs, who, nevertheless, [pg 337] for his great talents as a military Imperator, or dux bellorum, chose him for their leader against the Saxons, whom he defeated in twelve battles, the last being at Mount Badon. Arthur's office was doubtless a relic of Roman military organisation, and there is no reason to doubt his historical existence, however impenetrable may be the veil which now obscures his valiant and often triumphant battlings for order and civilisation in that disastrous age.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Next we have Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bishop of St. Asaph, who wrote his “Historia Regum Britaniæ” in South Wales in the early part of the twelfth century. This work is an audacious attempt to make sober history out of a mass of mythical or legendary matter mainly derived, if we are to believe the author, from an ancient book brought by his uncle Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, from Brittany. The mention of Brittany in this connexion is, as we shall see, very significant. Geoffrey wrote expressly to commemorate the exploits of Arthur, who now appears as a king, son of Uther Pendragon and of Igerna, wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, to whom Uther gained access in the shape of her husband through the magic arts of Merlin. He places the beginning of Arthur's reign in the year 505, recounts his wars against the Saxons, and says he ultimately conquered not only all Britain, but Ireland, Norway, Gaul, and Dacia, and successfully resisted a demand for tribute and homage from the Romans. He held his court at Caerleon-on-Usk. While he was away on the Continent carrying on his struggle with Rome his nephew Modred usurped his crown and wedded his wife Guanhumara. Arthur, on this, returned, and after defeating the traitor at Winchester slew [pg 338] him in a last battle in Cornwall, where Arthur himself was sorely wounded (A.D. 542). The queen retired to a convent at Caerleon. Before his death Arthur conferred his kingdom on his kinsman Constantine, and was then carried off mysteriously to “the isle of Avalon” to be cured, and “the rest is silence.” Arthur's magic sword “Caliburn” (Welsh Caladvwlch; see p. 224, note) is mentioned by Geoffrey and described as having been made in Avalon, a word which seems to imply some kind of fairyland, a Land of the Dead, and may be related to the Norse Valhall. It was not until later times that Avalon came to be identified with an actual site in Britain (Glastonbury). In Geoffrey's narrative there is nothing about the Holy Grail, or Lancelot, or the Round Table, and except for the allusion to Avalon the mystical element of the Arthurian saga is absent. Like Nennius, Geoffrey finds a fantastic classical origin for the Britons. His so-called history is perfectly worthless as a record of fact, but it has proved a veritable mine for poets and chroniclers, and has the distinction of having furnished the subject for the earliest English tragic drama, “Gorboduc,” as well as for Shakespeare's “King Lear”; and its author may be described as the father—at least on its quasi-historical side—of the Arthurian saga, which he made up partly out of records of the historical dux bellorum of Nennius and partly out of poetical amplifications of these records made in Brittany by the descendants of exiles from Wales, many of whom fled there at the very time when Arthur was waging his wars against the heathen Saxons. Geoffrey's book had a wonderful success. It was speedily translated into French by Wace, who wrote “Li Romans de Brut” about 1155, with added details from Breton sources, and translated from Wace's French into Anglo-Saxon by Layamon, who thus anticipated Malory's [pg 339] adaptations of late French prose romances. Except a few scholars who protested unavailingly, no one doubted its strict historical truth, and it had the important effect of giving to early British history a new dignity in the estimation of Continental and of English princes. To sit upon the throne of Arthur was regarded as in itself a glory by Plantagenet monarchs who had not a trace of Arthur's or of any British blood.

The Saga in Brittany: Marie de France

The Breton sources must next be considered. Unfortunately, not a line of ancient Breton literature has come down to us, and for our knowledge of it we must rely on the appearances it makes in the work of French writers. One of the earliest of these is the Anglo-Norman poetess who called herself Marie de France, and who wrote about 1150 and afterwards. She wrote, among other things, a number of “Lais,” or tales, which she explicitly and repeatedly tells us were translated or adapted from Breton sources. Sometimes she claims to have rendered a writer's original exactly:

“Les contes que jo sai verais
Dunt li Bretun unt fait les lais
Vos conterai assez briefment;
Et cief [sauf] di cest coumencement
Selunc la lettre è l'escriture.”

Little is actually said about Arthur in these tales, but the events of them are placed in his time—en cel tems tint Artus la terre—and the allusions, which include a mention of the Round Table, evidently imply a general knowledge of the subject among those to whom these Breton “Lais” were addressed. Lancelot is not mentioned, but there is a “Lai” about one Lanval, who is beloved by Arthur's queen, but rejects her because he has a fairy mistress in the “isle d'Avalon.” Gawain is [pg 340] mentioned, and an episode is told in the “Lai de Chevrefoil” about Tristan and Iseult, whose maid, “Brangien,” is referred to in a way which assumes that the audience knew the part she had played on Iseult's bridal night. In short, we have evidence here of the existence in Brittany of a well-diffused and well-developed body of chivalric legend gathered about the personality of Arthur. The legends are so well known that mere allusions to characters and episodes in them are as well understood as references to Tennyson's “Idylls” would be among us to-day. The “Lais” of Marie de France therefore point strongly to Brittany as the true cradle of the Arthurian saga, on its chivalrous and romantic side. They do not, however, mention the Grail.

Chrestien de Troyes

Lastly, and chiefly, we have the work of the French poet Chrestien de Troyes, who began in 1165 to translate Breton “Lais,” like Marie de France, and who practically brought the Arthurian saga into the poetic literature of Europe, and gave it its main outline and character. He wrote a “Tristan” (now lost). He (if not Walter Map) introduced Lancelot of the Lake into the story; he wrote a Conte del Graal, in which the Grail legend and Perceval make their first appearance, though he left the story unfinished, and does not tell us what the “Grail” really was. He also wrote a long conte d'aventure entitled “Erec,” containing the story of Geraint and Enid. These are the earliest poems [pg 341] we possess in which the Arthur of chivalric legend comes prominently forward. What were the sources of Chrestien? No doubt they were largely Breton. Troyes is in Champagne, which had been united to Blois in 1019 by Eudes, Count of Blois, and reunited again after a period of dispossession by Count Theobald de Blois in 1128. Marie, Countess of Champagne, was Chrestien's patroness. And there were close connexions between the ruling princes of Blois and of Brittany. Alain II., a Duke of Brittany, had in the tenth century married a sister of the Count de Blois, and in the first quarter of the thirteenth century Jean I. of Brittany married Blanche de Champagne, while their daughter Alix married Jean de Chastillon, Count of Blois, in 1254. It is highly probable, therefore, that through minstrels who attended their Breton lords at the court of Blois, from the middle of the tenth century onward, a great many Breton “Lais” and legends found their way into French literature during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. But it is also certain that the Breton legends themselves had been strongly affected by French influences, and that to the Matière de France, as it was called by mediæval writers—i.e., the legends of Charlemagne and his Paladins—we owe the Table Round and the chivalric institutions ascribed to Arthur's court at Caerleon-on-Usk.