"A glorious company, the flower of men
To serve as model for the mighty world."
T HE story of King Arthur belongs to this period, when the barbarians were swarming over the Western world.
When the Romans left Britain to return to their falling capital, the heathen hosts poured over the seas and swept all before them in that fair island with its open tracts of country, its winding rivers, and its sheltering coast, till the inhabitants had to take refuge in the western part known as Wales.
And the Britons groaned for the Roman legions there again and Cæsar's eagle, till Arthur came.
Now so much story and fable hang round this mysterious King Arthur that it is hard to know what is history and what is romance. Perhaps it does not much matter in this case, for we can accept him as the poets have sung of him—as one of the noblest, purest, grandest of men, who will ever serve as a "model for the mighty world."
Let us hear the story as the poet Tennyson tells it, in all its beauty and in all its strength.
One night, as the old Welsh magician Merlin stood on the sea-shore, a wave washed to his feet an infant, who was none other than the future King Arthur.
"From the great deep to the great deep he goes."
Merlin took the babe, who grew to manhood in solitude, until the time came when he should be discovered and crowned King of Britain. But he had to conquer the barbarians, known as Saxons, many times before his people would believe in him.
Then he formed a brave band of knights to help him in his work, to break the heathen and uphold the Christ, to ride abroad redressing human wrongs, to fulfill the boundless purpose of their King. They were known as the Knights of the Round Table, because Arthur, not wishing to honour one above another, had a round table made at which all sat at meals.
It would take too long to tell of all the famous deeds wrought by the king and his knights: how Arthur was ever fighting, his armour shining with gold and jewels, his helmet glistening with a golden dragon at the top, his precious sword Excalibur ever in his right hand.
Again and again he waged war against the heathen tribes as well as against the evils of the times. The story of the Quest for the Holy Grail—a cup supposed to have been used by Christ—is one of the most beautiful in connection with King Arthur.
"Lords and fair knights," said the king one day when sitting at the Round Table, "as ye well know, there is a cup which hath ever been held the holiest treasure of the world. Heaven hath hidden it, none knows where. Yet somewhere in the world it still may be. And may be it is left to this noble order of the Table Round to find and bring it home. Many great quests and perilous adventures have ye all taken, but this high quest he only shall attain who hath clean hands and a pure heart, and valour and hardihood beyond all other men."
The knights set off on the quest for the Holy Grail, but only Sir Galahad—the bright boy-knight—Sir Percival, and one other among the many knights, were good enough and brave enough to see the vision.
This time-worn story has taken such hold upon the minds of men, that to this very day, in the little town of Bayreuth in the heart of Bavaria, the Quest for the Holy Grail is still acted, music and words being composed by Wagner, one of the world's great musicians.
But the day came when Arthur was wounded in that last dim, weird battle of the West, with a death-white mist sleeping over sand and sea—wounded unto death.
"So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea
Until King Arthur's Table, man by man,
One faithful knight, Sir Bedevere, was left; and finding his king was deeply wounded, he carried him to a little chapel near the battlefield.
It was evening, and the moon was full. Arthur felt he was dying. The men he had loved were sleeping their last sleep on the battlefield; never more should they all delight their souls with talk of knightly deeds. The time had come to part with the jewelled sword Excalibur. The story runs that this sword was the gift of a mysterious Lady of the Lake; that in the old days, one summer noon, an arm rose from out a lake holding the sword, which Arthur rowed across the water and took. Now Excalibur must be thrown back into the lake, and Sir Bedevere must do the deed.
Obedient to the king's commands the knight took the sword, and climbing by zigzag paths came on the lake. The beautiful jewels sparkled in the moonlight, and Bedevere could not make up his mind to throw it away, so he hid it among the reeds and returned to the king. But Arthur soon discovered his deceit and sent him again to do his bidding. Again Sir Bedevere went; again his courage failed; again he returned to the dying king.
"Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue, unknightly, traitor-hearted," cried Arthur; "authority forgets a dying king. Get thee hence, and if thou spare to fling Excalibur I will arise and slay thee with my hands."
Then the knight rose quickly, hastened to the lake, and shutting his eyes flung the good sword into the water. The arm rose up, grasped it firmly, brandished it three times, and drew it down into the water. Then Arthur was content. With the help of Sir Bedevere he managed to get to the lake himself. There a barge was waiting for him.
"I am going a long way," said the dying king to his weeping knight, "to the island valley of Avilion, where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, nor ever wind blows loudly, but it lies deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns, where I will heal me of my grievous wound."
Then the barge, with oar and sail, moved slowly away over the cold moonlit lake, and Sir Bedevere watched it till it was out of sight.
"The king is gone," he moaned at last. "From the great deep to the great deep he goes."
Such is the story the poet tells. It may not be true, but the fact remains that there once lived a king of early Britain who fought against the barbarians known as Saxons, and that though they finally conquered and gave their name to the new country, King Arthur did not live and fight in vain.