How the Story of Arthur Was Written in English
EOFFREY OF MONMOUTH had written his stories so well, that
although he warned people not to write about the British kings,
they paid no heed to his warning. Soon many more people began to
write about them, and especially about Arthur.
In 1155 Geoffrey died, and that year a Frenchman, or Jerseyman
rather, named Robert Wace, finished a long poem which he called
Li Romans de Brut or the Romances of Brutus.
This poem was
founded upon Geoffrey's history and tells much the same story, to
which Wace has added something of his own. Besides Wace, many
writers told the tale in French. For French, you must remember,
was still the language of the rulers of our land. It is to these
French writers, and chiefly to Walter Map, perhaps, that we owe
something new which was now added to the Arthur story.
Walter Map, like so many of the writers of this early time, was a
priest. He was chaplain to Henry II., and was still alive when
John, the bad king, sat upon the throne.
The first writers of the Arthur story had made a great deal of
manly strength: it was often little more than a tale of hard
knocks given and taken. Later it became softened by the thought
of courtesy, with the idea that knights might give and take these
hard knocks for the sake of a lady they loved, and in the cause
of all women.
Now something full of mystery was added to the tale. This was
the Quest of the Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail was said to be a dish used by Christ at the Last
Supper. It was also said to have been used to hold the sacred
blood which, when Christ hung upon the cross, flowed from his
wounds. The Holy Grail came into the possession of Joseph of
Arimathea, and by him was brought to Britain. But after a time
the vessel was lost, and the story of it even forgotten, or only
remembered in some dim way.
And this is the story which the poet-priest, Walter Map, used to
give new life and new glory to the tales of Arthur. He makes the
knights of the round table set forth to search for the Grail.
They ride far away over hill and dale, through dim forests and
dark waters. They fight with men and fiends, alone and in
tournaments. They help fair ladies in distress, they are tempted
to sin, they struggle and repent, for only the pure in heart may
find the holy vessel.
It is a wonderful and beautiful story, and these old
story-tellers meant it to be something more than a fairy tale. They
saw around them many wicked things. They saw men fighting for
the mere love of fighting. They saw men following pleasure for
the mere love of pleasure. They saw men who were strong oppress
the weak and grind down the poor, and so they told the story of
the Quest of the Holy Grail to try to make them a little better.
With every new writer the story of Arthur grew. It seemed to
draw all the beauty and wonder of the time to itself, and many
stories which at first had been told apart from it came to be
joined to it. We have seen how it has been told in Welsh, in
Latin, and in French, and, last of all, we have it in English.
The first great English writer of the stories of Arthur
Layamon. He, too, was a priest, and, like Wace, he wrote in
Like Wace, Layamon called his book the Brut, because it is the
story of the Britons, who took their name from Brutus, and of
Arthur the great British hero. This book is known, therefore, as
Layamon's Brut. Layamon took Wace's book for a foundation, but
he added a great deal to it, and there are many stories in
Layamon not to be found in Wace. It is probable that Layamon did
not make up these stories, but that many of them are old tales he
heard from the people among whom he lived.
Layamon finished his book towards the end of the twelfth century
or the beginning of the thirteenth. Perhaps he sat quietly
writing it in his cell when the angry barons were forcing King
John to sign the Magna Charta. At least he wrote it when all
England was stirring to new life again. The fact that he wrote
in English shows that, for Layamon's Brut is the first book
written in English after the Conquest. This book proves how
little hold the French language had upon the English people, for
although our land had been ruled by Frenchmen for a hundred and
fifty years, there are very few words in Layamon that are French
or that are even made from French.
But although Layamon wrote his book in English, it was not the
English that we speak to-day. It was what is called Early
English or even sometimes Semi-Saxon. If you opened a book of
Layamon's Brut you would, I fear, not be able to read it.
We know very little of Layamon; all that we do know he tells us
himself in the beginning of his poem. "A priest was in the
land," he says:
"Layamon was he called.
He was Leouenathe's son, the Lord to him be gracious.
He lived at Ernleye at a noble church
Upon Severn's bank. Good there to him it seemed
Fast by Radestone, where he books read.
It came to him in mind, and in his first thoughts,
That he would of England the noble deeds tell,
What they were named and whence they came,
The English land who first possessed
After the flood which from the Lord came.
Layamon began to journey, far he went over the land
And won the noble books, which he for pattern took.
He told the English book that Saint Beda made.
Another he took in Latin which Saint Albin made,
And the fair Austin who baptism brought hither.
Book the third he took laid it in the midst
That the French clerk made. Wace he was called,
He well could write.
Layamon laid these books down and the leaves turned.
He them lovingly beheld, the Lord to him be merciful!
Pen he took in fingers and wrote upon a book skin,
And the true words set together,
And the three books pressed to one."
That, in words such as we use now, is how Layamon begins his
poem. But this is how the words looked as Layamon wrote them:—
"An preost wes on leoden: lazamon wes ihoten.
he wes Leouenaóes sone: lióe him beo drihte."
You can see that it would not be very easy to read that kind of
English. Nor does it seem very like poetry in either the old
words or the modern. But you must remember that old English
poetry was not like ours. It did not have rhyming words at the
end of the lines.
Anglo-Saxon poetry depended for its pleasantness to the ear, not
on rhyme as does ours, but on accent and alliteration.
Alliteration means the repeating of a letter. Accent means that
you rest longer on some syllables, and say them louder than
others. For instance, if you take the line "the way was long,
the wind was cold," way, long, wind, and cold are accented. So
there are four accents in that line.
Now, in Anglo-Saxon poetry the lines were divided into two half-lines.
And in each half there had to be two or more accented
syllables. But there might also be as many unaccented syllables
as the poet liked. So in this way the lines were often very
unequal, some being quite short and others long. Three of the
accented syllables, generally two in the first half and one in
the second half of the line, were alliterative. That is, they
began with the same letter. In translating, of course, the
alliteration is very often lost. But sometimes the Semi-Saxon
words and the English words are very like each other, and the
alliteration can be kept. So that even in translation we can get
a little idea of what the poetry sounded like. For instance, the
line "wat heo ihoten weoren: and wonene heo comen," the
alliteration is on w, and may be translated "what they called
were, and whence they came," still keeping the alliteration.
Upon these rules of accent and alliteration the strict form of
Anglo-Saxon verse was based. But when the Normans came they
brought a new form of poetry, and gradually rhymes began to take
the place of alliteration. Layamon wrote his Brut more than a
hundred years after the coming of the Normans, and although his
poem is in the main alliterative, sometimes he has rhyming lines
such as "mochel dal heo iwesten: mid harmen pen mesten," that
"Great part they laid waste:
With harm the most."
Sometimes even in translation the rhyme may be kept, as:—
"And faer forh nu to niht:
In to Norewaieze forh riht."
which can be translated:—
"And fare forth now to-night
Into Norway forth right."
At times, too, Layamon has neither rhyme nor alliteration in his
lines, sometimes he has both, so that his poem is a link between
the old poetry and the new.
I hope that you are not tired with this long explanation, for I
think if you take the trouble to understand it, it may make the
rest of this chapter more interesting. Now I will tell you a
little more of the poem itself.
Layamon tells many wonderful stories of Arthur, from the time he
was born to his last great battle in which he was killed,
fighting against the rebel Modred.
This is how Layamon tells the story of Arthur's death, or rather
of his "passing":
"Arthur went to Cornwall with a great army.
Modred heard that and he against him came
With unnumbered folk. There were many of them fated.
Upon the Tambre they came together,
The place was called Camelford, evermore has that name lasted.
And at Camelford were gathered sixty thousand
And more thousands thereto. Modred was their chief.
Then hitherward gan ride Arthur the mighty
With numberless folk fated though they were.
Upon the Tambre they came together,
Drew their long swords, smote on the helmets,
So that fire sprang forth. Spears were splintered,
Shields gan shatter, shafts to break.
They fought all together folk unnumbered.
Tambre was in flood with unmeasured blood.
No man in the fight might any warrior know,
Nor who did worse nor who did better so was the conflict mingled,
For each slew downright were he swain were he knight.
There was Modred slain and robbed of his life day.
In the fight
There were slain all the brave
Arthur's warriors noble.
And the Britons all of Arthur's board,
And all his lieges of many a kingdom.
And Arthur sore wounded with war spear broad.
Fifteen he had fearful wounds.
One might in the least two gloves thrust.
Then was there no more in the fight on life
Of two hundred thousand men that there lay hewed in pieces
But Arthur the king alone, and of his knights twain.
But Arthur was sore wounded wonderously much.
Then to him came a knave who was of his kindred.
He was Cador's son the earl of Cornwall.
Constantine hight the knave. He was to the king dear.
Arthur him looked on where he lay on the field,
And these words said with sorrowful heart.
Constantine thou art welcome thou wert Cador's son,
I give thee here my kingdom.
Guard thou my Britons so long as thou livest,
And hold them all the laws that have in my days stood
And all the good laws that in Uther's days stood.
And I will fare to Avelon to the fairest of all maidens
To Argente their Queen, an elf very fair,
And she shall my wounds make all sound
All whole me make with healing draughts,
And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom
And dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.
Even with the words that came upon the sea
A short boat sailing, moving amid the waves
And two women were therein wounderously clad.
And they took Arthur anon and bare him quickly
And softly him adown laid and to glide forth gan they.
Then was it comewhat Merlin said whilom
That unmeasured sorrow should beat Arthur's forth faring.
Britons believe yet that he is still in life
And dwelleth in Avelon with the fairest of all elves,
And every Briton looketh still when Arthur shall return.
Was never the man born nor never the lady chosen
Who knoweth of the sooth of Arthur to say more.
But erstwhile there was a wizard Merlin called.
He boded with words the which were sooth
That an Arthur should yet come the English to help."
You see by this last line that Layamon has forgotten the
difference between Briton and English. He has forgotten that in
his lifetime Arthur fought against the English. To him Arthur
has become an English hero. And perhaps he wrote these last
words with the hope in his heart that some day some one would
arise who would deliver his dear land from the rule of the
stranger Normans. This, we know, happened. Not, indeed, by the
might of one man, but by the might of the English spirit, the
strong spirit which had never died, and which Layamon himself
showed was still alive when he wrote his book in English.