A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1 - From the Beginning to 1800
by George Saintsbury
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And so he called in Love to reinforce War and Religion and to do its proper office of uniting, inspiring, and producing Humanity. He effected, by the union of the three motives, the transformation of a mere dull record of confused fighting into a brilliant pageant of knightly adventure. He made the long-winded homilies and genealogies of the earlier Graal-legend at once take colour from the amorous and war-like adventures, raise these to a higher and more spiritual plane, and provide the due punishment for the sins of his erring characters. The whole story—at least all of it that he chose to touch and all that he chose to add—became alive. The bones were clothed with flesh and blood, the "wastable country verament" (as the dullest of the Graal chroniclers says in a phrase that applies capitally to his own work) blossomed with flower and fruit. Wars of Arthur with unwilling subjects or Saxons and Romans; treachery of his wife and nephew and his own death; miracle-history of the Holy Vessel and pedigree of its custodians; Round Table; these and many other things had lain as mere scraps and orts, united by no real plot, yielding no real characters, satisfying no real interest that could not have been equally satisfied by an actual chronicle or an actual religious-mystical discourse. And then the whole was suddenly knit into a seamless and shimmering web of romance, from the fancy of Uther for Igerne to the "departing of them all" in Lyonnesse and at Amesbury and at Joyous Gard. A romance undoubtedly, but also incidentally providing the first real novel-hero and the first real novel-heroine in the persons of the lovers who, as in the passage above translated, sometimes "made great joy of each other for that they had long caused each other much sorrow," and finally expiated in sorrow what was unlawful in their joy.

Let us pass to these persons themselves.

[Sidenote: Especially in the characters and relations of Lancelot and Guinevere.]

The first point to note about Lancelot is the singular fashion in which he escapes one of the dangers of the hero. Aristotle had never said that a hero must be faultless; indeed, he had definitely said exactly the contrary, of at least the tragic hero. But one of the worst of the many misunderstandings of his dicta brought the wrong notion about, and Virgil—that exquisite craftsman in verse and phrase, but otherwise, perhaps, not great poet and very dangerous pattern—had confirmed this notion by his deplorable figurehead. It is also fair to confess that all except morbid tastes do like to see the hero win. But if he is to be a hero of Rymer, not merely

Like Paris handsome[34] and like Hector brave,

but as pious as Aeneas; "a rich fellow enough," with blood hopelessly blue and morals spotlessly copy-bookish—in other words, a Sir Charles Grandison—he will duly meet with the detestation and "conspuing" of the elect. Almost the only just one of the numerous and generally silly charges latterly brought against Tennyson's Arthurian handling is that his conception of the blameless king does a little smack of this false idea, does something grow to it. It is one of the chief points in which he departed, not merely from the older stories (which he probably did not know), but from Malory's astonishing redaction of them (which he certainly did).

[Sidenote: Lancelot.]

But Lancelot escapes this worst of fates in the Idylls themselves, and much more does he escape it in the originals. In the first place, though he invariably (or always till the Graal Quest) "wins through," he constantly does not do so without intermediate hairbreadth escapes, and even not a few adventures which are at first not escapes at all. And just as his perpetual bafflement in the Quest salts and seasons his triumphs in the saddle, so does the ruling passion of his sin save, from anything approaching mawkishness,[35] his innumerable and yet inoffensive virtues; his chastity, save in this instance, which chastity itself, by a further stroke of art, is saved from niaiserie by the plotted adventures with Elaine; his courtesy, his mercifulness, his wonderfully early notion of a gentleman (v. inf.), his invariable disregard of self, and yet his equally invariable naturalness. Pious Aeneas had not the least objection to bringing about the death of Dido, as he might have known he was doing (unless he was as great a fool as he is a prig); and he is probably never more disgusting or Pecksniffian than when he looks back on the flames of Dido's pyre and is really afraid that something unpleasant must have happened, though he can't think what the matter can be. But he, one feels sure, would never have lifted up his hand against a woman, unless she had richly deserved it on the strictest patriotic scores, as in the case of Helen, when his mamma fortunately interfered. On the other hand, Lancelot was "of the Asra who die when they love" and love till they die—nay, who would die if they did not love. But it is certain (for there is a very nice miniature of it reproduced from the MS. in M. Paulin Paris's abstract) that, for a moment, he drew his sword on Elaine to punish the deceit which made him unwittingly false to Guinevere. It is very shocking, no doubt, but exceedingly natural; and of course he did not kill or even (like Philaster) wound her, though nobody interfered to prevent him. Many of the incidents which bring out his character are well known to moderns by poem and picture, though others, as well worth knowing, are not. But the human contrasts of success and failure, of merit and sin, have never, I think, been quite brought out, and to bring them out completely here would take too much room. We may perhaps leave this other—quite other—"First Gentleman in Europe" with the remark that Chrestien de Troyes gives only one side of him, and therefore does not give him at all. The Lancelot of board and bower, of travel and tournament, he does very fairly. But of the Lancelot of the woods and the hermitage, of the dream at the foot of the cross, of the mystic voyage and the just failing (if failing) effort of Carbonek, he gives, because he knows, nothing.

[Sidenote: Guinevere.]

Completed as he was, no matter for the moment by whom, he is thus the first hero of romance and nearly the greatest; but his lady is worthy of him, and she is almost more original as an individual. It is true that she is not the first heroine, as he is, if not altogether, almost the first hero. Helen was that, though very imperfectly revealed and gingerly handled. Calypso (hardly Circe) might have been. Medea is perhaps nearer still, especially in Apollonius. But the Greek romancers were the first who had really busied themselves with the heroine: they took her up seriously and gave her a considerable position. But they did not succeed in giving her much character. The naughty not-heroine of Achilles Tatius, though she has less than none in Mr. Pope's supposed innuendo sense, alone has an approach to some in the other. As for the accomplished Guinevere's probable contemporary, the Ismene or Hysmine of Eustathius Macrembolites (v. sup. p. 18), she is a sort of Greek-mediaeval Henrietta Temple, with Mr. Meredith and Mr. Disraeli by turns holding the pen, though with neither of them supplying the brains. But Guinevere is a very different person; or rather, she is a person, and the first. To appreciate her she must be compared with herself in earlier presentations, and then considered fully as she appears in the Vulgate—for Malory, though he has given much, has not given the whole of her, and Tennyson has painted only the last panel of the polyptych wholly, and has rather over-coloured that.[36]

In what we may call the earliest representations of her, she has hardly any colour at all. She is a noble Roman lady, and very beautiful. For a time she is apparently very happy with her husband, and he with her; and if she seems to make not the slightest scruple about "taking up with" her nephew, co-regent and fellow rebel, why, noble Roman ladies thought nothing of divorce and not much of adultery. The only old Welsh story (the famous Melvas one so often referred to) that we have about her in much detail merely establishes the fact, pleasantly formulated by M. Paulin Paris, that she was "tres sujette a etre enlevee," but in itself (unless we admit the Peacockian triad of the "Three Fatal Slaps of the Isle of Britain" as evidence) again says nothing about her character. If, as seems probable if not certain, the Launfal legend, with its libel on her, is of Breton origin, it makes her an ordinary Celtic princess, a spiritual sister of Iseult when she tried to kill Brengwain, and a cross between Potiphar's wife and Catherine of Russia, without any of the good nature and "gentlemanliness" of the last named. The real Guinevere, the Guinevere of the Vulgate and partly of Malory, is freed from the colourlessness and the discreditable end of Geoffrey's queen, transforms the promiscuous and rather louche Melvas incident into an important episode of her epic or romantic existence, and gives the lie, even in her least creditable or least charming moments, to the Launfal libel. As before in Lancelot's case, details of her presentation had in some cases best be either translated in full or omitted, but I cannot refuse myself the pleasure of attempting, with however clumsy a hand, a portrait of our, as I believe, English Helen, who gave in French language to French, and not only French literature, the pattern of a heroine.

There is not, I think, any ancient authority for the rather commonplace suggestion, unwisely adopted by Tennyson, that Guinevere fell in love with Lancelot when he was sent as an ambassador to fetch her; thus merely repeating Iseult and Tristram, and anticipating Suffolk and Margaret. In fact, according to the best evidence, Lancelot could not have been old enough, if he was even born. On the contrary, nothing could be better than the presentation of her introduction to Arthur and the course of the wooing in the Vulgate—the other "blessed original." She first sees Arthur as a foe from the walls of besieged Carmelide, and admires his valour; she has further occasion to admire it when, as a friend, he rescues her father, showing himself, as what he really was in his youth, his own best knight. The pair are genuinely in love with each other, and the betrothal and parting for fresh fight are the most gracious passages of the Merlin book, except the better version (v. sup.) of the love of Merlin himself and the afterwards libelled Viviane. Anyhow, she was married because she fell in love with him, and there is no evidence to show that she and Arthur lived otherwise than happily together. But, if all tales were true, she had no reason to regard him as a very faithful husband or a blameless man. She may not have known (for nobody but Merlin apparently did know) the early and unwitting incest of the King and his half-sister Margause; but the extreme ease with which he adopted her own treacherous foster-sister, the "false Guinevere," and his proceedings with the Saxon enchantress Camilla, were very strong "sets off" to her own conduct. Also she had a most disagreeable[37] sister-in-law in Morgane-la-Fee. These are not in the least offered as excuses, but merely as "lights." Indeed Guinevere never seems to have hated or disliked her husband, though he often gave her cause; and if, until the great repentance, she thought more lightly of "spouse-breach" than Lancelot did, that is not uncharacteristic of women.[38] In fact, she is a very perfect (not of course in the moral sense) gentlewoman. She is at once popular with the knights, and loses that popularity rather by Lancelot's fault than by her own, while Gawain, who remains faithful to her to the bitter end, or at least till the luckless slaughter of his brethren, declares at the beginning that she is the fairest and most gracious, and will be the wisest and best of queens. She shows something very like humour in the famous and fateful remark (uttered, it would seem, without the slightest ill or double meaning at the time) as to Gawain's estimate of Lancelot.[39] She seems to have had an agreeable petulance (notice, for instance, the rebuke of Kay at the opening of the Ywain story and elsewhere), which sometimes, as it naturally would, rises to passionate injustice, as Lancelot frequently discovered. She is, in fact, always passionate in one or other sense of that great and terrible and infinite[40] word, but never tragedy-queenish or vixenish. She falls in love with Lancelot because he falls in love with her, and because she cannot help it. False as she is to husband and to lover, to her court and her country,[41] it can hardly be said that any act of hers, except the love itself and its irresistible consequences, is faulty. She is not capricious, extravagant, or tyrannical; in her very jealousy she is not cruel or revengeful (the original Iseult would certainly have had Elaine poisoned or poniarded, for which there was ample opportunity). If she torments her lover, that is because she loves him. If she is unjust to him, that is because she is a woman. Her last speech to Lancelot after the catastrophe—Tennyson should have, as has been said, paraphrased this as he paraphrased the passing of her husband, and from the same texts, and we should then have had another of the greatest things of English poetry—shows a noble nature with the [Greek: hamartia] present, but repented in a strange and great mixture of classical and Christian tragedy. There is little told in a trustworthy fashion about her personal appearance. But if Glastonbury traditions about her bones be true, she was certainly (again like Helen) "divinely tall." And if the suggestions of Hawker's "Queen Gwennyvar's Round"[42] in the sea round Tintagel be worked out a little, it will follow that her eyes were divinely blue.

[Sidenote: Some minor points.]

When such very high praise is given to the position of the (further) accomplished Arthur-story, it is of course not intended to bestow that praise on any particular MS. or printed version that exists. It is in the highest degree improbable that, whether the original magician was Map, or Chrestien, or anybody else (to repeat a useful formula), we possess an exact and exclusive copy of the form into which he himself threw the story. Independently of the fact that no MS., verse or prose, of anything like the complete story seems old enough, independently of the enormous and almost innumerable separable accretions, the so-called Vulgate cycle of "Graal-Merlin-Arthur-Lancelot-Graal-Quest-Arthur's-Death" has considerable variants—the most important and remarkable of which by far is the large alteration or sequel of the "Vulgate" Merlin which Malory preferred. In the "Vulgate" itself, too, there are things which were certainly written either by the great contriver in nodding moods, or by somebody else,—in fact no one can hope to understand mediaeval literature who forgets that no mediaeval writer could ever "let a thing alone": he simply must add or shorten, paraphrase or alter. I rather doubt whether the Great Unknown himself meant both the amours of Arthur with Camilla and the complete episode of the false Guinevere to stand side by side. The first is (as such justifications go) a sufficient justification of Guinevere by itself; and the conduct of Arthur in the second is such a combination of folly, cruelty, and all sorts of despicable behaviour that it overdoes the thing. So, too, Lancelot's "abscondences," with or without madness, are too many and too prolonged.[43] The long and totally uninteresting campaign against Claudas, during the greater part of which Lancelot (who is most of all concerned) is absent, and in which he takes no part or interest when present, is another great blot. Some of these things, but not all, Malory remedied by omission.

To sum up, and even repeat a little, in speaking so highly of this development—French beyond all doubt as a part of literature, whatever the nationality, domicile, and temper of the person or persons who brought it about—I do not desire more to emphasise what I believe to be a great and not too well appreciated truth than to guard against that exaggeration which dogs and discredits literary criticism. Of course no single redaction of the legend in the late twelfth or earliest thirteenth century contains the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story as I have just outlined it. Of course the words used do not apply fully to Malory's English redaction of three centuries later—work of genius as this appears to me to be. Yet further, I should be fully disposed to allow that it is only by reading the posse into the esse, under the guidance of later developments of the novel itself, that the estimate which I have given can be entirely justified. But this process seems to me to be perfectly legitimate, and to be, in fact, the only process capable of giving us literary-historical criticism that is worth having. The writer or writers, known or unknown, whose work we have been discussing, have got the plot, have got the characters, have got the narrative faculty required for a complete novel-romance. If they do not quite know what to do with these things it is only because the time is not yet. But how much they did, and of how much more they foreshadowed the doing, the extracts following should show better than any "talk about it."

[Lancelot, still under the tutelage of the Lady of the Lake and ignorant of his own parentage, has met his cousins, Lionel and Bors, and has been greatly drawn to them.]

[Sidenote: Illustrative extracts translated from the "Vulgate." The youth of Lancelot.]

Now turns herself the Lady back to the Lake, and takes the children with her. And when she had gone[44] a good way, she called Lancelot a little way off the road and said to him very kindly, "King's son,[45] how wast thou so bold as to call Lionel thy cousin? for he is a king's son, and of not a little more worth and gentry than men think." "Lady," said he, who was right ashamed, "so came the word into my mouth by adventure that I never took any heed of it." "Now tell me," said she, "by the faith thou owest me, which thinkest thou to be the greater gentleman, thyself or him?" "Lady," said he, "you have adjured me strongly, for I owe no one such faith as I owe you, my lady and my mother: nor know I how much of a gentleman I am by lineage. But, by the faith I owe you, I would not myself deign to be abashed at that for which I saw him weep.[46] And they have told me that all men have sprung from one man and one woman: nor know I for what reason one has more gentry than another, unless he win it by prowess, even as lands and other honours. But know you for very truth that if greatness of heart made a gentleman I would think yet to be one of the greatest." "Verily, fair son," said the Lady, "it shall appear. And I say to you that you lose nothing of being one of the best gentlemen in the world, if your heart fail you not." "How, Lady!" said he, "say you this truly, as my lady?" And she said, "Yes, without fail." "Lady," said he, "blessed be you of God, that you said it to me so soon [or as soon as you have said it]. For to that will you make me come which I never thought to attain. Nor had I so much desire of anything as of possessing gentry."

[The first meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere. The Lady of the Lake has prevailed upon the King to dub Lancelot on St. John's Day (Midsummer, not Christmas). His protectress departing, he is committed to the care of Ywain, and a conversation arises about him. The Queen asks to see him.]

[Sidenote: The first meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere.]

Then bid he [the King] Monseigneur[47] Ywain that he should go and look for Lancelot. "And let him be equipped as handsomely as you know is proper: for well know I that he has plenty." Then the King himself told the Queen how the Lady of the Lake had requested that he would not make Lancelot knight save in his own arms and dress. And the Queen marvelled much at this, and thought long till she saw him. So Messire Ywain went to the Childe [vallet] and had him clothed and equipped in the best way he could: and when he saw that nothing could be bettered, he led him to Court on his own horse, which was right fair. But he brought him not quietly. For there was so much people about that the whole street was full: and the news was spread through all the town that the fair Childe who came yester eve should be a knight to-morrow, and was now coming to Court in knightly garb. Then sprang to the windows they of the town, both men and women. And when they saw him pass they said that never had they seen so fair a Childe-knight. So he came to the Court and alighted from his horse: and the news of him spread through hall and chamber; and knights and dames and damsels hurried forth. And even the King and the Queen went to the windows. So when the Childe had dismounted, Messire Ywain took him by the hand, and led him by it up to the Hall.

The King and the Queen came to meet him: and both took him by his two hands and went to seat themselves on a couch: while the Childe seated himself before them on the fresh green grass with which the Hall was spread. And the King gazed on him right willingly: for if he had seemed fair at his first coming, it was nothing to the beauty that he now had. And the King thought he had mightily grown in stature and thews.[48] So the Queen prayed that God might make him a man of worth, "for right plenty of beauty has He given him," and she looked at the Childe very sweetly: and so did he at her as often as he could covertly direct his eyes towards her. Also marvelled he much how such great beauty as he saw appear in her could come: for neither that of his lady, the Lady of the Lake, nor of any woman that he had ever seen, did he prize aught as compared with hers. And no wrong had he if he valued no other lady against the Queen: for she was the Lady of Ladies and the Fountain of Beauty. But if he had known the great worthiness that was in her he would have been still more fain to gaze on her. For none, neither poor nor rich, was her equal.

So she asked Monseigneur Ywain what was the Childe's name, and he answered that he knew not. "And know you," said she, "whose son he is and of what birth?" "Lady," said he, "nay, except I know so much as that he is of the land of Gaul. For his speech bewrayeth him."[49] Then the Queen took him by the hand and asked him of whom he came. And when he felt it [the touch] he shuddered as though roused from sleep, and thought of her so hard that he knew not what she said to him. And she perceived that he was much abashed, and so asked him a second time, "Tell me whence you come." So he looked at her very sheepishly and said, with a sigh, that he knew not. And she asked him what was his name; and he answered that he knew not that. So now the Queen saw well that he was abashed and overthought.[50] But she dared not think that it was for her: and nevertheless she had some suspicion of it, and so dropped the talk. But that she might not make the disorder of his mind worse, she rose from her seat and, in order that no one might think any evil or perceive what she suspected, said that the Childe seemed to her not very wise, and whether wise or not had been ill brought up. "Lady," said Messire Ywain, "between you and me, we know nothing about him: and perchance he is forbidden[51] to tell his name or who he is." And she said, "It may well be so," but she said it so low that the Childe heard her not.

[Here follows (with a very little surplusage removed perhaps) the scene which Dante has made world-famous, but which Malory (I think for reasons) has "cut." I trust it is neither Philistinism nor perversity which makes me think of it a little, though only a little, less highly than some have done. There is (and after all this makes it all the more interesting for us historians) the least little bit of anticipation of Marivaudage about it, and less of the adorable simplicity such as that (a little subsequent to the last extract given) where Lancelot, having forgotten to take leave of the Queen on going to his first adventure, and having returned to do so, kneels to her, receives her hand to raise him from the ground, "and much was his joy to feel it bare in his." But the beauty of what follows is incontestable, and that Guinevere was "exceeding wise in love" is certain.]

[Sidenote: The scene of the kiss.]

"Ha!" said she then, "I know who you are—Lancelot of the Lake is your name." And he was silent. "They know it at court," said she, "this sometime. Messire Gawain was the first to bring your name there...." Then she asked him why he had allowed the worst man in the world to lead him by the bridle. "Lady," said he, "as one who had command neither of his heart nor of his body." "Now tell me," said she, "were you at last year's assembly?" "Yes, Lady," said he. "And what arms did you bear?" "Lady, they were all of vermilion." "By my head," said she, "you say true. And why did you do such deeds at the meeting the day before yesterday?" Then he began to sigh very very deeply. And the Queen cut him short as well, knowing how it was with him.

"Tell me," she said, "plainly, how it is. I will never betray you. But I know that you did it for some lady. Now, tell me, by the faith you owe me, who she is." "Ah, Lady," said he, "I see well that it behoves me to speak. Lady, it is you." "I!" said she. "It was not for me you took the spears that my maiden brought you. For I took care to put myself out of the commission." "Lady," said he, "I did for others what I ought, and for you what I could." "Tell me, then, for whom have you done all the things that you have done?" "Lady," said he, "for you." "How," said she, "do you love me so much?" "So much, Lady, as I love neither myself nor any other." "And since when have you loved me thus?" "Since the hour when I was called knight and yet was not one."[52] "Then, by the faith you owe me, whence came this love that you have set upon me?" Now as the Queen said these words it happened that the Lady of the Puy of Malahault[53] coughed on purpose, and lifted her head, which she had held down. And he understood her now, having oft heard her before: and looked at her and knew her, and felt in his heart such fear and anguish that he could not answer the Queen. Then began he to sigh right deeply, and the tears fell from his eyes so thick, that the garment he wore was wet to the knees. And the more he looked at the Lady of Malahault the more ill at ease was his heart. Now the Queen noticed this and saw that he looked sadly towards the place where her ladies were, and she reasoned with him. "Tell me," she said, "whence comes this love that I am asking you about?" and he tried as hard as he could to speak, and said, "Lady, from the time I have said." "How?" "Lady, you did it, when you made me your friend, if your mouth lied not." "My friend?" she said; "and how?" "I came before you when I had taken leave of my Lord the King all armed except my head and my hands. And then I commended you to God, and said that, wherever I was, I was your knight: and you said that you would have me to be your knight and your friend. And then I said, 'Adieu, Lady,' and you said, 'Adieu, fair sweet friend.' And never has that word left my heart, and it is that word that has made me a good knight and valiant—if I be so: nor ever have I been so ill-bested as not to remember that word. That word comforts me in all my annoys. That word has kept me from all harm, and freed me from all peril, and fills me whenever I hunger. Never have I been so poor but that word has made me rich." "By my faith," said the Queen, "that word was spoken in a good hour, and God be praised when He made me speak it. Still, I did not set it as high as you did: and to many a knight have I said it, when I gave no more thought to the saying. But your thought was no base one, but gentle and debonair; wherefore joy has come to you of it, and it has made you a good knight. Yet, nevertheless, this way is not that of knights who make great matter to many a lady of many a thing which they have little at heart. And your seeming shows me that you love one or other of these ladies better than you love me. For you wept for fear and dared not look straight at them: so that I well see that your thought is not so much of me as you pretend. So, by the faith you owe the thing you love best in the world, tell me which one of the three you love so much?" "Ah! Lady," said he, "for the mercy of God, as God shall keep me, never had one of them my heart in her keeping." "This will not do," said the Queen, "you cannot dissemble. For many another such thing have I seen, and I know that your heart is there as surely as your body is here." And this she said that she might well see how she might put him ill at ease. For she thought surely enough that he meant no love save to her, or ill would it have gone on the day of the Black Arms.[54] And she took a keen delight in seeing and considering his discomfort. But he was in such anguish that he wanted little of swooning, save that fear of the ladies before him kept him back. And the Queen herself perceived it at the sight of his changes of colour, and caught him by the shoulder that he might not fall, and called to Galahault. Then the prince sprang forward and ran to his friend, and saw that he was disturbed thus, and had great pain in his own heart for it, and said, "Ah, Lady! tell me, for God's sake, what has happened." And the Queen told him the conversation. "Ah, Lady!" said Galahault, "mercy, for God's sake, or you may lose me him by such wrath, and it would be too great pity." "Certes," said she, "that is true. But know you why he has done such feats of arms?" "Nay, surely, Lady," said he. "Sir," said she, "if what he tells me is true, it was for me." "Lady," said he, "as God shall keep me, I can believe it. For just as he is more valiant than other men, so is his heart truer than all theirs." "Verily," said she, "you would say well that he is valiant if you knew what deeds he has done since he was made knight," and then she told him all the chivalry of Lancelot ... and how he had done it all for a single word of hers [Galahault tells her more, and begs mercy for L.]. "He could ask me nothing," sighed she, "that I could fairly refuse him, but he will ask me nothing at all."... "Lady," said Galahault, "certainly he has no power to do so. For one loves nothing that one does not fear." [And then comes the immortal kiss, asked by the Prince, delayed a moment by the Queen's demur as to time and place, brought on by the "Galeotto"-speech. "Let us three corner close together as if we were talking secrets," vouchsafed by Guinevere in the words, "Why should I make me longer prayer for what I wish more than you or he?" Lancelot still hangs back, but the Queen "takes him by the chin and kisses him before Galahault with a kiss long enough" so that the Lady of Malahault knows it.] And then said the Queen, who was a right wise and gracious lady, "Fair sweet friend, so much have you done that I am yours, and right great joy have I thereof. Now see to it that the thing be kept secret, as it should be. For I am one of the ladies of the world who have the fairest fame, and if my praise grew worse through you, then it would be a foul and shameful thing."

[Sidenote: Some further remarks on the novel character of the story.]

A little more comment on this cento, and especially on the central passage of it, can hardly be, and ought certainly not to be, avoided in such a work as this, even if, like most summaries, it be something of a repetition. It must surely be obvious to any careful reader that here is something much more than—unless his reading has been as wide elsewhere as it is careful here—he expected from Romance in the commoner and half-contemptuous acceptation of that word. Lancelot he may, though he should not, still class as a mere amoureux transi—a nobler and pluckier Silvius in an earlier As Yon Like It, and with a greater than Phoebe for idol. Malory ought to be enough to set him right there: he need even not go much beyond Tennyson, who has comprehended Lancelot pretty correctly, if not indeed pretty adequately. But Malory has left out a great deal of the information which would have enabled his readers to comprehend Guinevere; and Tennyson, only presenting her in parts, has allowed those parts, especially the final and only full presentation, great as it is, to be too much influenced by his certainly unfortunate other presentation of Arthur as a blameless king.

I do not say that the actual creator of the Vulgate Guinevere, whoever he was, has wrought her into a novel-character of the first class. It would have been not merely a miracle (for miracles often happen), but something more, if he had. If you could take Beatrix Esmond at a better time, Argemone Lavington raised to a higher power, and the spirit of all that is best and strongest and least purely paradoxical in Meredith's heroines, and work these three graces into one woman, adding the passion of Tennyson's own Fatima and the queenliness of Helen herself, it might be something like the achieved Guinevere who is still left to the reader's imagination to achieve. But the Unknown has given the hints of all this; and curiously enough it is only of English novel-heroines that I can think in comparison and continuation of her. This book, if it is ever finished, will show, I hope, some knowledge of French ones: I can remember none possessing any touch of Guineveresque quality. Dante, if his poetic nature had taken a different bent, and Shakespeare, if he had only chosen, could have been her portrayers singly; no others that I can think of, and certainly no Frenchman.

[Sidenote: And the personages.]

But here Guinevere's creator or expounder has done more for her than merely indicate her charm. Her "fear for name and fame" is not exactly "crescent"—it is there from the first, and seems to have nothing either cowardly or merely selfish in it, but only that really "last infirmity of noble minds," the shame of shame even in doing things shameful or shameless. I have seldom seen justice done to her magnificent fearlessness in all her dangers. Her graciousness as a Queen has been more generally admitted, but, once again, the composition and complexity of her fits of jealousy have never, I think, been fully rationalised. Here, once more, we must take into account that difference of age which is so important. He thinks nothing of it; she never forgets it. And in almost all the circumstances where this rankling kindles into wrath—whether with no cause at all, as in most cases, or with cause more apparent than real, as in the Elaine business—study of particulars will show how easily they might be wrought out into the great character scenes of which they already contain the suggestion. This Guinevere would never have "taken up" (to use purposely a vulgar phrase for what would have been a vulgar thing) with Mordred,[55] either for himself or for the kingdom that he was trying to steal. And I am bound to say again that much as I have read of purely French romance—that is to say, French not merely in language but in certain origin—I know nothing and nobody like her in it.

That Guinevere, like Charlotte, was "a married lady," that, unlike Charlotte, she forgot the fact, and that Lancelot, though somewhat Wertheresque in some of his features, was not quite so "moral" as that very dull young man, are facts which I wish neither to suppress nor to dwell upon. We may cry "Agreed" here to the indictment, and all its consequences. They are not the question.

The question is the suggesting of novel-romance elements which forms the aesthetic solace of this ethical sin. It should be seen at once that the Guinevere of the Vulgate, and her fault or fate, provide a character and career of no small complexity. It has been already said that to represent her as after a fashion intercepted by love for Lancelot on her way to Arthur, like Iseult of Ireland or Margaret of Anjou, is, so to speak, as unhistorical as it is insufficiently artistic. We cannot, indeed, borrow Diderot's speech to Rousseau and say, "C'est le pont aux anes," but it certainly would not have been the way of the Walter whom I favour, though I think it might have been the way of the Chrestien that I know. Guinevere, when she meets her lover, rescuer, and doomsman, is no longer a girl, and Lancelot is almost a boy. It is not, in the common and cheap misuse of the term, the most "romantic" arrangement, but some not imperfect in love-lore have held that a woman's love is never so strong as when she is past girlhood and well approaching age, and that man's is never stronger than when he is just not a boy. Lancelot himself has loved no woman (except his quasi-mother, the Lady of the Lake), and will love none after he has fulfilled the Dead Shepherd's "saw of might." She has loved; dispute this and you not only cancel gracious scenes of the text, but spoil the story; but she has, though probably she does not yet know it, ceased to love,[56] and not without some reason. To say no more about Arthur's technical "blamelessness," he has, by the coming of Lancelot, ceased to be altogether heroic. Though never a mere petulant and ferocious dotard as the Chansons too often represent Charlemagne, he is very far from being a wise ruler or even baron. He makes rash promises and vows, accepts charges on very slight evidence, and seems to have his knights by no means "in hand." So, too, though never a coward or weakling, he seems pretty nearly to have lost the pluck and prowess which had won Guinevere's love under the walls of Carmelide, and of which the last display is in the great fight with his sister's lover, Sir Accolon. All this may not excuse Guinevere's conduct to the moralist; it certainly makes that conduct artistically probable and legitimate to the critic, as a foundation for novel-character.

Her lover may look less promising, at least at the moment of presentation; and indeed it is true that while "la donna e immobile," in essentials and possibilities alike, forms of man, though never losing reality and possibility, pass at times out of possible or at least easy recognition. Anybody who sees in the Lancelot of the foregoing scene only a hobbledehoy and milksop who happens to have a big chest, strong arms, and plenty of mere fighting spirit, will never grasp him. Hardly better off will be he who takes him—as the story does give some handles for taking him—to be merely one of the too common examples of humanity who sin and repent, repent and sin, with a sort of Americanesque notion of spending dollars in this world and laying them up in another. Malory has on the whole done more justice to the possibilities of the Vulgate Lancelot than he has to Guinevere, and Tennyson has here improved on Malory. He has, indeed, very nearly "got" Lancelot, but not quite. To get him wholly would have required Tennyson for form and Browning for analysis of character; while even this mistura mirabilis would have been improved for the purpose by touches not merely of Morris and Swinburne, but of lesser men like Kingsley and even George Macdonald. To understand Lancelot you must previously understand, or by some kind of intuition divine, the mystical element which his descent from the Graal-Wardens confers; the essential or quintessential chivalric quality which his successive creators agreed in imparting to him; the all-conquering gift so strangely tempered by an entire freedom from the boasting and the rudeness of the chanson hero; the actual checks and disasters which his cross stars bring on him; his utter loyalty in all things save one to the king; and last and mightiest of all, his unquenchable and unchangeable passion for the Queen.

Hence what they said to him in one of his early adventures, with no great ill following, "Fair Knight, thou art unhappy," was always true in a higher sense. He may have been Lord of Joyous Gard, in title and fact; but his own heart was always a Garde Douloureuse—a cor luctificabile—pillowed on idle triumphs and fearful hopes and poisoned satisfactions, and bafflements where he would most fain have succeeded. He has almost had to have the first kiss forced on him; he is refused the last on grounds of which he himself cannot deny the validity. Guinevere is a tragic figure in the truest and deepest sense of the term, and, as we have tried to show, she is amply complex in character and temperament. But it is questionable whether Lancelot is not more tragic and more complex still.

[Sidenote: Books.]

It may perhaps without impropriety be repeated that these are not mere fancies of the writer, but things reasonably suggested by and solidly based upon "the French books," when these later are collated and, so to speak, "checked" by Malory and the romances of adventure branching off from them. But Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot by no means exhaust the material for advanced and complicated novel-work—in character as well as incident—provided by the older forms of the Legend. There is Gawain, who has to be put together from the sort of first draft of Lancelot which he shows in the earlier versions, and the light-o'-love opposite which he becomes in the later, a contrast continued in the Amadis and Galaor figures of the Spanish romances and their descendants. There is the already glanced at group of Arthur's sisters or half-sisters, left mere sketches and hints, but most interesting. Not to be tedious, we need not dwell on Palomides, a very promising Lancelot unloved; on Lamoracke, left provokingly obscure, but shadowing a most important possibility in the unwritten romance of one of those very sisters; Bors, of whom Tennyson has made something, but not enough, in the later Idylls; and others. But it is probably unnecessary to carry the discussion of this matter further. It has been discussed and illustrated at some length, because it shows how early the elements, not merely of romance but of the novel in the fullest sense, existed in French literature.

[Here follows the noble passage above referred to between Lancelot and King Bagdemagus after the death of Meleagraunce, whose cousin Lancelot has just slain in single combat for charging him with treason. He has kept his helm on, but doffs it at the King's request.]

And when the King saw him he ran to kiss him, and began to make such joy of him as none could overgo. But Lancelot said, "Ah, Sir! for God's sake, make no joy or feast for me. Certainly you should make none, for if you knew the evil I have done you, you would hate me above all men in the world." "Oh! Lancelot," said he, "tell it me not, for I understand[57] too well what you would say; but I will know[57] nothing of it, because it might be such a thing" as would part them for ever.


[14] The subdivision of the gestes does not matter: they were all connected closely or loosely—except the Crusading section, and even that falls under the Christian v. Saracen grouping if not under the Carlovingian. The real "outside" members are few, late, and in almost every case unimportant.

[15] There are comic episodes elsewhere; but almost the whole of this poem turns on the gabz or burlesque boasts of the paladins.—It may be wise here to anticipate an objection which may be taken to these remarks on the chansons. I have been asked whether I know M. Bedier's handling of them; and, by an odd coincidence, within a few hours of the question I saw an American statement that this excellent scholar's researches "have revised our conceptions" of the matter. No one can exceed me in respect for perhaps the foremost of recent scholars in Old French. But my "conception" of the chansons was formed long before he wrote, not from that of any of his predecessors, but from the chansons themselves. It is therefore not subject to "revisal" except from my own re-reading, and such re-reading has only confirmed it.

[16] It is not of course intended to be preferred to the far more widely known tale in which the heroine bears the same name, and which will be mentioned below. But if it is less beautiful such beauty as it has is free from the slightest morbidezza.

[17] And to this introduction our dealings with it here may be confined. The accounts of the siege itself are of much less interest, especially in connection with our special subject.

[18] A sort of companion handbook to the first part of this volume will be found in the present writer's sketch of twelfth and thirteenth century European literature, under the title of The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, in Messrs. Blackwood's Periods of European Literature (Edinburgh and London, 1897), and another in his Short History of French Literature (Oxford, 7th ed. at press).

[19] It is scarcely rash to say that Cressid is the first representative of this dread and delightful entity, and the ancestress of all its embodiments since in fiction, as Cleopatra seems to have been in history. No doubt "it" was of the beginning, but it lacked its vates. Helen was different.

[20] Faerie Queene, v. iv. 1-20.

[21] I hope I may be allowed to emphasise the disclaimer, which I have already made more than once elsewhere, of the very slightest disrespect to this admirable scholar. The presumption and folly of such disrespect would be only inferior to its ingratitude, for the indulgence with which M. Paris consistently treated my own somewhat rash adventures in Old French was extraordinary. But as one's word is one's word so one's opinion is one's opinion.

[22] Sometimes de, but a seems more analogical.

[23] Chrestien was rather like Chaucer in being apt not to finish. Even the Charette owes its completion (in an extent not exactly determinable) to a certain Godfrey de Lagny (Laigny, etc.).

[24] Of course it is easy enough to assign explanations of it, from the vehicle of criminals to the scaffold downwards; but it remains a convention—very much of the same kind as that which ordains (or used to ordain) that a gentleman may not carry a parcel done up in newspaper, though no other form of wrapping really stains his honour.

[25] Neither he nor Malory gives one of the most gracious parts of it—the interview between Lancelot and King Bagdemagus, v. inf. p. 54.

[26] Material (chamois skin)? or garment? Not common in O.F., I think, for camisia; but Spenser (Faerie Queene, II. iii. xxvi.) has (as Prof. Gregory Smith reminds me) "a silken camus lilly whight."

[27] As does Pyramus's—or Bottom's—objection to the wall.

[28] This part of the matter has received too little attention in modern studies of the subject: partly because it was clumsily handled by some of the probably innumerable and certainly undiscoverable meddlers with the Vulgate. The unpopularity of Lancelot and his kin is not due merely to his invincibility and their not always discreet partisanship. The older "Queen's knights" must have naturally felt her devotion to him; his "undependableness"—in consequence not merely of his fits of madness but of his chivalrously permissible but very inconvenient habit of disguising himself and taking the other side—must have annoyed the whole Table. Yet these very things, properly managed, help to create and complicate the "novel" character. For one of the most commonly and not the least justly charged faults of the average romance is its deficiency in combined plot and character-interest—the presence in it, at most, of a not too well-jointed series of episodes, possibly leading to a death or a marriage, but of little more than chronicle type. This fault has been exaggerated, but it exists. Now it will be one main purpose of the pages which follow to show that there is, in the completed Arthuriad, something quite different from and far beyond this—something perhaps imperfectly realised by any one writer, and overlaid and disarranged by the interpolations or misinterpretations of others, but still a "mind" at work that keeps the "mass" alive, and may, or rather surely will, quicken it yet further and into higher forms hereafter. (Those who know will not, I hope, be insulted if I mention for the benefit of those who do not, that the term "Vulgate" is applied to those forms of the parts of the story which, with slighter or more important variations, are common to many MSS. The term itself is most specially applied to the Lancelot which, in consequence of this popularity throughout the later Middle Ages, actually got itself printed early in the French Renaissance. The whole has been (or is being) at last most fortunately reprinted by Dr. Sommer. See Bibliography.)

[29] This is another point which, not, I suppose, having been clearly and completely evolved by the first handler, got messed and muddled by successive copyists and continuators. In what seems to be the oldest, and is certainly the most consistent and satisfactory, story there is practically nothing evil about Viviane—Nimiane—Nimue, who is also indisputably identical with the foster-mother of Lancelot, the occasional Egeria (always for good) of Arthur himself, and the benefactress (this is probably a later addition though in the right key) of Sir Pelleas. For anybody who possesses the Power of the Sieve she remains as Milton saw her, and not as Tennyson mis-saw part of her. The bewitching of Merlin (who, let it be remembered, was an ambiguous person in several ways, and whose magic, if never exactly black, was sometimes a rather greyish or magpied white) was not an unmixed loss to the world; she seems to have really loved him, and to have faithfully kept her word by being with him often. He "could not get out" certainly, but are there many more desirable things in the outside world than lying with your head in the lap of the Lady of the Lake while she caresses and talks to you? "J'en connais des plus malheureux" as the French poet observed of some one in less delectable case. The author of the Suite de Merlin seems to have been her first maligner. Tennyson, seduced by contrast, followed and exaggerated the worst view. But I am not sure that the most "irreligious" thing (as Coleridge would have said) was not the transformation of her into a mere married lady (with a chateau in Brittany, and an ordinary knight for her husband) which astounds us in one of the dullest parts of the Vulgate about Lancelot—the wars with Claudas.

[30] I have always thought that Spenser (whose dealings with Arthuriana are very curious, and have never, I think, been fully studied) took this function of Lancelot to suggest the presentation of his Arthur. But Lancelot has no—at least no continuous—fairy aid; he is not invariably victorious, and he is thoroughly human. Spenser's Prince began the "blamelessness" which grew more trying still in Tennyson's King. (In the few remarks of this kind made here I am not, I need hardly say, "going back upon" my lifelong estimate of Tennyson as an almost impeccable poet. But an impeccable poet is not necessarily an impeccable plot- and character-monger either in tale-telling or in drama.)

[31] Of this we have unusually strong evidence in the shape of MS. interlineations, where the name "Percevale" is actually struck out and that of "Gala[h]ad" substituted above it.

[32] I do not say that this is their only character.

[33] Brittany had much earlier and much more tradition of chivalry than Wales.

[34] The only fault alleged against Lancelot's person by carpers was that he was something "pigeon"—or "guardsman"—chested. But Guinevere showed her love and her wit, and her "valiancy" (for so at least on this occasion we may translate vaillant) by retorting that such a chest was only big enough—and hardly big enough—for such a heart.

[35] Some of the later "redactors" of the Vulgate may perhaps have unduly multiplied his madnesses, and have exaggerated his early shyness a little. But I am not sure of the latter point. It is not only "beasts" that, as in the great Theocritean place, "go timidly because they fear Cythera"; and a love charged with such dread consequences was not to be lightly embarked upon.

[36] The early Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, though only external, is perfect. Many touches in the Idylls other than the title-one are suitable and even subtle; but the convertite in that one is (as they say now) "unconvincing." The simpler attitude of the rejection of Lancelot in the verse Morte and in Malory is infinitely better. As for Morris's two pieces, they could hardly be better in themselves as poems—but they are scarcely great on the novel side.

[37] Disagreeable, that is to say, as a sister and sister-in-law. There must have been something attractive about her in other relations.

[38] Compare one of the not so very many real examples of Ibsen's vaunted psychology, the placid indifference to her own past of Gina in the Wild Duck.

[39] He had said that if he were a woman he would give Lancelot anything he asked; and the Queen, following, observes that Gawain had left nothing for a woman to say.

[40] Nos passions ont quelque chose d'infini, says Bossuet.

[41] [Greek: helandros, heleptolis]. She had no opportunity of being [Greek: helenaus].

[42] Hawker's security as to Cornish men and things is, I admit, a little Bardolphian. But did he not write about the Quest? (This sort of argument simply swarms in Arthurian controversy; so I may surely use it once.) Besides there is no doubt about the blueness of the sea in question; though Anthony Trollope, in Malachi's Cove, has most falsely and incomprehensibly denied it.

[43] That this is a real sign of decadence and unoriginality, the further exaggeration of it in the case of the knights of the Amadis cycle proves almost to demonstration.

[44] After the opening sentence I have dropped the historic present, which, for a continuance, is very irritating in English.

[45] Lancelot himself has told us earlier (op. cit. i. 38) that, though he neither knew nor thought himself to be a king's son, he was commonly addressed as such.

[46] Lionel (very young at the time) had wept because some one mentioned the loss of his inheritance, and Lancelot (young as he too was) had bidden him not cry for fear of landlessness. "There would be plenty for him, if he had heart to gain it."

[47] This technical title is usually if not invariably given to Ywain and Gawain as eldest sons of recognised kings. "Prince" is not used in this sense by the older Romancers, but only for distinguished knights like Galahault, who is really a king.

[48] There is one admirable word here, enbarnis, which has so long been lost to French that it is not even in Littre. But Dryden's "burnish into man" probably preserves it in English; for this is certainly not the other "burnish" from brunir.

[49] "Car moult en parole diroit la parole."

[50] Puzzled by the number of new thoughts and emotions.

[51] Ywain suggests one of the commonest things in Romance.

[52] Arthur had, by a set of chances, not actually girded on Lancelot's sword.

[53] Whose prisoner Lancelot had been, who had been ready to fall in love with him, and to whom he had expressly refused to tell his own love. Hence his confusion.

[54] The day when Lancelot, at her request, had turned against the side of his friend Galahault and brought victory to Arthur's.

[55] By the way, the Vulgate Mordred is a more subtle conception than the early stories gave, or than Malory transfers. He is no mere traitor or felon knight, much less a coward, from the first; but at that first shows a mixture of good and bad qualities in which the "dram of eale" does its usual office. Here once more is a subject made to the hand of a novelist of the first class.

[56] Some poet or pundit, whether of East or West, or of what place, from Santiago to Samarcand, I know not, has laid it down, that men can love many, but without ceasing to love any; that women love only one at once, but can (to borrow, at fifty years' memory, a phrase of George Lawrence's in Sans Merci) "drop their lovers down oubliettes" with comparative ease.

[57] It is excusable to use two words for the single verb savoir to bring out the meaning. King Bagdemagus does not "know" as a fact that Lancelot has slain his son, though he fears it and feels almost sure of it.



[Sidenote: Variety of the present groups.]

On the whole, however, the most important influence in the development of the novel originally—that of the nouvelle or novella in French, and Italian taking the second place in order of time—must be assigned to the very numerous and very delightful body of compositions (not very long as a rule,[58] but also never exactly short) to which the name Romans d'aventures has been given with a limited connotation. They exist in all languages; our own English Romances, though sometimes derived from the chansons and the Arthurian Legend, are practically all of this class, and in every case but one it is true that they have actual French originals. These Romans d'aventures have a habit, not universal but prevailing, of "keying themselves on" to the Arthurian story itself; but they rarely, if ever, have much to do with the principal parts of it. It is as if their public wanted the connection as a sort of guarantee; but a considerable proportion keep independence. They are so numerous, so various, and with rare exceptions so interesting, that it is difficult to know which to select for elaborate analysis and translated selection; but almost the entire corpus gives us the important fact of the increased freedom of fiction. Even the connection with the Arthurian matter is, as has been said, generally of the loosest kind; that with the Charlemagne cycle hardly exists. The Graal (or things connected with its legends) may appear: Gawain is a frequent hero; other, as one might call them, sociable features as regards the older stories present themselves. But as a rule the man has got his own story which he wants to tell; his own special hero and heroine whom he wants to present. Furthermore, the old community of handling, which is so noticeable in the chansons more particularly, disappears almost entirely. Nothing has yet been discovered in French, though it may be any day, to serve as the origin of our Gawain and the Green Knight, and some special features of this are almost certainly the work of an Englishman. Our English Ywain and Gawain is, as has been said, rather better than Chrestien's original. But, as a rule, the form, which is French form in language (by no means always certainly or probably French in nationality of author), is not only the original, but better; and besides, it is with it that we are busied here, though in not a few cases English readers can obtain an idea, fairly sufficient, of these originals from the English versions. As these, however, with the exception of one or two remarkable individuals or even groups, were seldom written by men of genius, it is best to go to the sources to see the power and the variety of fictitious handling which have been mentioned.

[Sidenote: Different views held of it.]

The richness, indeed, of these Romans d'aventures is surprising, and they very seldom display the flatness and triviality which mar by no means all but too many of their English imitations. Some of the faults which are part cause of these others they indeed have—the apparently irrational catalogues of birds and beasts, stuffs and vegetables; the long moralisings; the religious passages sometimes (as it may seem to mere moderns) interposed in very odd contexts; the endless descriptions of battles and single combats; the absence of striking characterisation and varied incident. Their interest is a peculiar interest, yet one can hardly call the taste for it "an acquired taste," because the very large majority of healthy and intelligent children delight in these stories under whatever form they are presented to them, and at least a considerable number of grown-up persons never lose the enjoyment. The disapproval which rested on "romances of chivalry" for a long time was admittedly ignorant and absurd; and the reasons why this disapproval, at least in its somewhat milder form of neglect, has never been wholly removed, are not very difficult to discover. It is to be feared that Don Quixote, great as it is, has done not a little mischief, and by virtue of its greatness is likely to do not a little more, though the Amadis group, which it specially satirises, has faults not found in the older tales. The texts, though in most cases easily enough accessible now, are not what may be called obviously and yet unobtrusively so. They are to a very large extent issued by learned societies: and the public, not too unreasonably, is rather suspicious, and not at all avid, of the products of learned societies. They are accompanied by introductions and notes and glossaries—things the public (again not wholly to be blamed) regards without cordiality. Latterly they have been used for educational purposes, and anything used for educational purposes acquires an evil—or at least an unappetising—reputation. In some cases they have been messed and meddled in usum vulgi. But their worst enemy recently has been, it may be feared, the irreconcilable opposition of their spirit to what is called the modern spirit—though this latter sometimes takes them up and plays with them in a fashion of maudlin mysticism.

[Sidenote: Partenopeus of Blois selected for analysis and translation.]

To treat them at large here as Ellis treated some of the English imitations would be impossible in point of scale and dangerous as a competition; for Ellis, though a little too prone to Voltairianise or at least Hamiltonise things sometimes too good for that kind of treatment, was a very clever man indeed. For somewhat full abstract and translation we may take one of the most famous, but perhaps not one of the most generally and thoroughly known, Partenopeus (or -pex[59]) of Blois, which, though it exists in English, and though the French was very probably written by an Englishman, is not now one of the most widely read and is in parts very charming. That it is one of the romances on which, from the fact of the resemblance of its central incident to the story of Cupid and Psyche, the good defenders of the bad theory of the classical origin of romance generally have based one of their few plausible arguments, need not occupy us. For the question is not whether Denis Pyramus or any one else (modernity would not be modernity if his claims were not challenged) told it, but how he told it. Still less need we treat the other question before indicated. Here is one of the central stories of the world—one of those which Eve told to her children in virtue of the knowledge communicated by the apple, one with which the sons of God courted the daughters of men, or, at latest, one of those which were yarned in the Ark. It is the story of the unwise lover—in this case the man, not as in Psyche's the woman—who will not be content to enjoy an unseen, but by every other sense enjoyable and adorable love, even though (in this case) the single deprivation is expressly to be terminated. We have it, of course, in all sorts of forms, languages, and differing conditions. But we are only concerned with it here as with a gracious example of that kind of romance which, though not exactly a "fairy tale" in the Western sense, is pretty obviously influenced by the Eastern fairy tale itself, and still more obviously influences the modern kind in which "the supernatural" is definitely prominent.

It was perhaps excusable in the good M. Robert, who wrote the Introduction to Crapelet's edition of this poem eighty years ago, to "protest too much" in favour of the author whom he was now presenting practically for the first time—to a changed audience; but it was unnecessary and a little unfortunate. Except in one point or group of points, it is vain to try to put Partenopeus above Cupid and Psyche: but it can perfectly well stand by itself in its own place, and that no low one. Except in Floire et Blanchefleur and of course in Aucassin et Nicolette, the peculiar grace and delicacy of romance are nowhere so well shown; and Partenopeus, besides the advantage of length, has that of personages interesting, besides the absolute hero and heroine. The Count of Blois himself is, no doubt, despite his beauty, and his bravery, and his good nature, rather of a feeble folk. Psyche has the excuse of her sex, besides the evil counsel of her sisters, for her curiosity. But Partenopeus has not the former; nor has he even that weaker but still not quite invalid one which lost Agib, the son of Cassib, his many-Houried Paradise on Earth. He is supposed to be a Frenchman—the somewhat excessive fashion in which Frenchmen make obedience to the second clause[60] of the Fifth Commandment atone for some neglect of other parts of the decalogue is well known, or at least traditionally believed. But most certainly a man is not justified in obeying his mother to the extent of disobeying—and that in the shabbiest of ways—his lady and mistress, who is, in fact, according to mediaeval ideas, virtually, if not virtuously, his wife. But Melior herself, the heroine, is an absolutely delightful person from her first appearance (or rather non-appearance) as a sweet dream come true, to her last in the more orthodox and public spousals. The grace of her Dian-like surrender of herself to her love; the constancy with which she holds to the betrothal theory of the time; the unselfishness with which she not only permits but actually advises the lover, whom she would so fain, but cannot yet, make her acknowledged husband, to leave her; her frank forgiveness of his only-just-in-time repented and prevented, but intended, infidelity; her sorrow at and after the separation enforced by his breach of pact; her interviews with her sister, naturally chequered by conflicting feelings of love and pride and the rest—are all charming. But she is not the only charming figure.

The "second heroine," a sister or cousin who plays a sort of superior confidante's part, is by no means uncommon in Romance. Alexandrine, for instance, who plays this in William of Palerne, is a very nice girl. But Urraque or Urraca,[61] the sister of Melior—whether full and legitimate, or "half" illegitimate, versions differ—is much more elaborately dealt with, and is, in fact, the chief character of the piece, and a character rather unusually strong for Romance. She plays the part of reconciler after Partenopeus' fatal folly has estranged him from her sister, and plays it at great length, but with much less tedium than might be expected. But the author is an "incurable feminist," as some one else was once described with a mixture of pity and admiration: and he is not contented with two heroines. There is a third, Persewis, maid of honour to Urraque, and also a fervent admirer of the incomparable Partenopeus, on whose actual beauty great stress is laid, and who in romance, other than his own, is quoted as a modern paragon thereof, worthy to rank with ancient patterns, sacred and profane. Persewis, however, is very young—a "flapper" or a "[bread-and-]buttercup," as successive generations have irreverently called the immature but agreeable creature. The poet lays much emphasis on this youth. She did not "kiss and embrace," he says, just because she was too young, and not because of any foolish prudery or propriety, things which he does not hesitate to pronounce appropriate only to ugly girls. His own attitude to "the fair" is unflinchingly put in one of the most notable and best known passages of the poem (l. 7095 sq.):

When God made all creation, and devised their forms for his creatures, He distributed beauties and good qualities to each in proportion as He loved it. He loved ladies above all things, and therefore made for them the best qualities and beauties. Of mere earth made He everything [else] under Heaven: but the hearts of ladies He made of honey, and gave to them more courtesy than to any other living creature. And as God loves them, therefore I love them: hunger and thirst are nothing to me as regards them: and I cry "Quits" to Him for His Paradise if the bright faces of ladies enter not therein.

It will be observed, of course, how like this is to the most famous passage of Aucassin et Nicolette. It is less dreamily beautiful, but there is a certain spirit and downrightness about it which is agreeable; nor do I know anywhere a more forcible statement of the doctrine, often held by no bad people, that beauty is a personal testimonial of the Divinity—a scarcely parabolic command to love and admire its possessors.[62]

If, however, our poet has something of that Romantic morality to which Ascham—in a conjoined fit[63] of pedantry, prudery, and Protestantism—gave such an ugly name, he may excuse it to less strait-laced judges by other traits. Even the "retainer" of an editor ought not to have induced M. Robert to say that Melior's original surrender was "against her will," though she certainly did make a protest of a kind.[64] But the enchanted and enchanting Empress's constancy is inviolable. Even after she has been obliged to banish her foolish lover, or rather after he has banished himself, she avows herself his only. She will die, she says, before she takes another lord; and for this reason objects for some time to the proposed tourney for her hand, in which the already proven invincibility of the Count of Blois makes him almost a certain victor, because it involves a conditional consent to admit another mate. To her scrupulousness, a kind of blunt common-sense, tempering the amiability of Urraca, is a pleasant set-off, and the freshness of Persewis completes the effect.

Moreover, there are little bits of almost Chaucerian vividness and terseness here and there, contrasting oddly with the chevilles—the stock phrases and epithets—elsewhere. When the tourney actually comes off and Partenopeus is supposed to be prisoner of a felon knight afar off, the two sisters and Persewis take their places at the entrance of the tower crossing the bridge at Melior's capital, "Chef d'Oire."[65] Melior is labelled only "whom all the world loves and prizes," but Urraca and her damsel "have their faces pale and discoloured—for they have lost much of their beauty—so sorely have they wept Partenopeus." On the contrary, when, at the close of the first day's tourney, the usual "unknown knights" (in this case the Count of Blois himself and his friend Gaudins) ride off triumphant, they "go joyfully to their hostel with lifted lances, helmets on head, hauberks on back, and shields held proudly as if to begin jousting."

Bel i vinrent et bel s'en vont,

says King Corsols, one of the judges of the tourney, but not in the least aware of their identity. This may occur elsewhere, but it is by no means one of the commonplaces of Romance, and a well hit-off picture is motived by a sharply cut phrase.[66]

It is this sudden enlivening of the commonplaces of Romance with vivid picture and phrase which puts Partenopeus high among its fellows. The story is very simple, and the variation and multiplication of episodic adventure unusually scanty; while the too common genealogical preface is rather exceptionally superfluous. That the Count of Blois is the nephew of Clovis can interest—outside of a peculiar class of antiquarian commentator—no mortal; and the identification of "Chef-d'Oire," Melior's enchanted capital, with Constantinople, though likely enough, is not much more important. Clovis and Byzantium (of which the enchantress is Empress) were well-known names and suited the abonne of those times. The actual "argument" is of the slightest. One of Spenser's curious doggerel common measures—say:

A fairy queen grants bliss and troth On terms, unto the knight: His mother makes him break his oath, Her sister puts it right—

would almost do; the following prose abstract is practically exhaustive.

Partenopeus, Count of Blois, nephew of King Clovis of France, and descendant of famous heroes of antiquity, including Hector, the most beautiful and one of the most valiant of men, after displaying his prowess in a war with the Saracen Sornagur, loses his way while hunting in the Ardennes. He at last comes to the seashore, and finds a ship which in fifteen days takes him to a strange country, where all is beautiful but entirely solitary. He finds a magnificent palace, where he is splendidly guested by unseen hands, and at last conducted to a gorgeous bedchamber. In the dark he, not unnaturally, lies awake speculating on the marvel; and after a time light footsteps approach the bed, and a form, invisible but tangible, lies down beside him. He touches it, and finds it warm and soft and smooth, and though it protests a little, the natural consequences follow. Then the lady confesses that she had heard of him, had (incognita) seen him at the Court of France, and had, being a white witch as well as an Empress, brought him to "Chef d'Oire," her capital, though she denies having intentionally or knowingly arranged the shepherd's hour itself.[67] She is, however, as frank as Juliet and Miranda combined. She will be his wife (she makes a most interesting and accurate profession of Christian orthodoxy) if he will marry her; but it is impossible for the remainder of a period of which two and a half years have still to run, and at the end of which, and not till then, she has promised her vassals to choose a husband. Meanwhile, Partenopeus must submit to an ordeal not quite so painful as hot ploughshares. He must never see her or attempt to see her, and he must not, during his stay at Chef d'Oire, see or speak to any other human being. At the same time, hunting, exploring the palace and the city and the country, and all other pastimes independent of visible human companionship, are freely at his disposal by day.

Et moi aures cascune nuit

says Melior, with the exquisite simplicity which is the charm of the whole piece.

One must be very inquisitive, exceedingly virtuous (the mediaeval value of consummated betrothal being reckoned), superfluously fond of the company of one's miscellaneous fellow-creatures, and a person of very bad taste[68] to boot, in order to decline the bargain. Partenopeus does not dream of doing so, and for a whole year thinks of nothing but his fairy love and her bounties to him. Then he remembers his uncle-king and his country, and asks leave to visit them, but not with the faintest intention of running away. Melior gives it with the same frankness and kindness with which she has given herself—informing him, in fact, that he ought to go, for his uncle is dead and his country in danger. Only, she reminds him of his pledges, and warns him of the misfortunes which await his breach of them. He is then magically wafted back on ship-board as he came.

He has, once more, no intention of playing the truant or traitor, and does his duty bravely and successfully. But the new King has a niece and the Count himself has a mother, who, motherlike, is convinced that her son's mysterious love is a very bad person, if not an actual maufes or devil, and is very anxious that he shall marry the niece. She has clerical and chemical resources to help her, and Partenopeus has actually consented, in a fit of aberration, when, with one of the odd Wemmick-like flashes of reflection,[69] not uncommon with knights, he remembers Melior, and unceremoniously makes off to her. He confesses (for he is a good creature though foolish) and is forgiven, Melior being, though not in the least insipid or of a put-up-with-anything disposition, full of "loving mercy" in every sense. But the situation is bound to recur, and now, though the time of probation (probation very much tempered!) is nearly over, the mother wins her way. Partenopeus is deluded into accepting an enchanted lantern, which he tries on his unsuspecting mistress at the first possible moment. What he sees, of course, is only a very lovely woman—a woman in the condition best fitted to show her loveliness—whom he has offended irreparably, and lost.

Melior is no scold, but she is also no milksop. She will have nothing more to do with him, for he has shamed her with her people (who now appear), broken her magic power, and, above all, been false to her wish and his word. The entreaties of her sister Urraca (whose gracious figure is now elaborately introduced) are for the time useless, and Partenopeus is only saved from the vengeance of the courtiers and the household by Urraca's protection.[70]

To halt for a moment, the scene of the treason and discovery is another of those singular vividnesses which distinguish this poem and story. The long darkness suddenly flashing into light, and the startled Melior's beauty framed in the splendour of the couch and the bedchamber—the offender at once realising his folly and his crime, and dashing the instrument of his treachery (useless, for all is daylight now, the charm being counter-charmed) against the wall—the half-frightened, half-curious Court ladies and Court servants thronging in—the apparition of Urraca,—all this gives a picture of extraordinarily dramatic power. It reminds one a little of Spenser's famous portrayal of Britomart disturbed at night, and the comparison of the two brings out all sorts of "excellent differences."

But to return to the story itself. Although the invariable cut-and-driedness of romance incidents has been grossly exaggerated, there is one situation which is almost always treated in the same way. The knight who has, with or without his own fault, incurred the displeasure of his mistress, "doth [always] to the green wood go," and there, whether in complete sanity or not, lives for a time a half or wholly savage life, discarding knightly and sometimes any other dress, eating very little, and in considerable danger of being eaten himself. Everybody, from Lancelot to Amadis, does it; and Partenopeus does it too, but in his own way. Reaching Blois and utterly rejecting his mother's attempts to excuse herself and console him, he drags out a miserable time in continual penance and self-neglect, till at last, availing himself of (and rather shabbily if piously tricking) a Saracen page,[71] he succeeds in getting off incognito to the vague "Ardennes," where his sadly ended adventure had begun. These particular Ardennes appear to be reachable by sea (on which they have a coast), and to contain not only ordinary beasts of chase, not only wolves and bears, but lions, tigers, wyverns, dragons, etc. A single unarmed man has practically no chance there, and the Count determines to condemn himself to the fate of the Roman arena. As a preliminary, he dismounts and turns loose his horse, who is presently attacked by a lion and wounded, but luckily gets a fair blow with his hoof between his enemy's eyes, and kills him. Then comes another of the flashes (and something more) of the piece. Stung by the pain of his wound and dripping with blood, the animal dashes at full speed, and whinnying at the top of his powers, to the seashore and along it. The passage is worth translating:

He [the horse after he has killed the lion] lifts his tail, and takes to flight down a valley towards nightfall. Much he looks about him and much he whinnies. By night-time he has got out of the wood and has fled to the sea: but he will not stop there. He makes the pebbles fly as he gallops and never stops whinnying. Now the moon has mounted high in the heavens, all clear and bright and shining: there is not a dark cloud in all the sky, nor any movement on the sea: sweet and serene is the weather, and fair and clear and lightened up. And the palfrey whinnies so loudly that he can be heard far off at sea.

He is heard at sea, for a ship is waiting there in the calm, and on board that ship is Urraca, with a wise captain named Maruc and a stout crew. The singularity of the event induces them to land (Maruc knows the dangers of the region, but Urraca has no fears; the captain also knows how to enchant the beasts), and the horse's bloodmarks guide them up the valley. At last they come upon a miserable creature, in rags, dishevelled, half-starved, and altogether unrecognisable. After a little time, however, Urraca does recognise him, and, despite his forlorn and repulsive condition, takes him in her arms.

Si le descouvre un poi le vis.

Yet another of the uncommon "flashlight" sketches, where in two short lines one sees the damsel as she has been described not so long before, "tall and graceful, her fair hair (which, untressed, reached her feet [now, no doubt, more suitably arranged]), with forehead broad and high, and smooth; grey eyes, large and seignorous" (an admirable word for eyes), "all her face one kiss"; one sees her with one arm round the tottering wretch, and with the "long fingers" of her other white hand clearing the matted hair from his visage till she can recognise him.

They take him on board, of course, though to induce him to go this delightful creature has to give an account of her sister's feelings (which, to put it mildly, anticipates the truth very considerably), and also to cry over him a little.[72] She takes him to Saleuces,[73] an island principality of her own, and there she and her maid-of-honour, Persewis (see above), proceed to cocker and cosset him up exactly as one imagines two such girls would do to "a dear, silly, nice, handsome thing," as a favourite modern actress used to bring down the house by saying, with a sort of shake, half of tears and half of laughter, in her voice. Indeed the phrase fits Partenopeus precisely. We are told that Urraca would have been formally in love with him if it had not been unsportsgirl-like towards her sister; and as for Persewis, there is once more a windfall in the description of the "butter-cup's" delight when Urraca, going to see Melior, has to leave her alone with the Count. The Princess is of course very sorry to go. "But Persewis would not have minded if she had stayed forty days, or till August," and she "glories greatly" when her rival departs. No mischief, however, comes of it; for the child is "too young," as we are earnestly assured, and Partenopeus, to do him justice, is both too much of a gentleman, and too dolefully in earnest about recovering Melior, to dream of any.

Meanwhile, Urraca is most unselfishly doing her very best to reconcile the lovers, not neglecting the employment of white fibs as before, and occasionally indulging, not merely in satiric observation on poor Melior's irresolution and conflict of feeling, but in decidedly sisterly plainness of speech, reminding the Empress that after all she had entrapped Partenopeus into loving her, and that he had, for two whole years, devoted himself entirely to her love and its conditions. At last a rather complicated and not always quite consistently told provisional settlement is arrived at, carrying out, in a manner, the undertakings referred to by Melior in her first interview with her lover. An immense tourney for the hand of Melior is to be held, with a jury of kings to judge it: and everybody, Christian or pagan, from emperor to vavasour is invited to compete. But in case of no single victor, a kind of "election" by what may be called the States of Byzantium—kings, dukes, counts, and simple fief-holders—is to decide, and it seems sometimes as if Melior retained something of a personal veto at last. Of the incidents and episodes before this actually comes off, the most noteworthy are a curious instance of the punctilio of chivalry (the Count having once promised Melior that no one but herself shall gird on his sword, makes a difficulty when Urraca and Persewis arm him), and a misfortune by which he, rowing carelessly by himself, falls into the power of a felon knight, Armans of Thenodon. This last incident, however, though it alarms his two benefactresses, is not really unlucky. For, in the first place, Armans is not at home, and his wife, falling a victim, like every woman, to Partenopeus' extraordinary beauty, allows him his parole; while the accident enables him to appear at the tournament incognito—a practice always affected, if possible, by the knights of romance, and in this case possessing some obvious and special advantages.

On his way he meets another knight, Gaudin le Blond, with whom he gladly strikes up brotherhood-in-arms. The three days of the mellay are not very different from the innumerable similar scenes elsewhere, nor can the author be said to be specially happy at this kind of business. But any possible tedium is fairly relieved by the shrewd and sometimes jovial remarks made by one of the judging kings, the before-quoted Corsols—met by grumbles from another, Clarin, and by the fears and interest of the three ladies, of whom the ever-faithful and shrewd Urraca is the first to discover Partenopeus. He and Gaudin perform the usual exploits and suffer the usual inconveniences, but at the end it is still undecided whether the Count of Blois or the Soldan of Persia—a good knight, though a pagan, and something of a braggart—deserves the priceless prize of Melior's hand with the empire of Byzantium to boot. The "election" follows, and after some doubt goes right, while Melior now offers no objection. But the Soldan, in his outrecuidance, demands single combat. He has, of course, no right to do this, and the Council and the Empress object strongly. But Partenopeus will have no stain on his honour; consents to the fight; deliberately refuses to take advantage of the Soldan when he is unhorsed and pinned down by the animal; assists him to get free; and only after an outrageous menace from the Persian justifies his own claim to belong to the class of champions

Who always cleave their foe To the waist

—indeed excels them, by entirely bisecting the Soldan.

An episodic restoration of parole to the widow of Armans (who has actually taken part in the tourney and been killed) should be noticed, and the piece ends, or rather comes close to an end, with the marriages which appropriately follow these well-deserved murders. Marriages—not a marriage only—for King "Lohier" of France most sensibly insists on espousing the delightful Urraca: and Persewis is consoled for the loss of Partenopeus by the suit—refused at first and then granted, with the obviously intense enjoyment of both processes likely in a novice—of his brother-in-arms, to whom the "Emperor of Byzantium" abandons his own two counties in France, adding a third in his new empire, and winning by this generosity almost more popularity than by his prowess.

But, as was hinted, the story does not actually end. There is a great deal about the festivities, and though the author says encouragingly that he "will not devise much of breeches," he does—and of many other garments. Indeed the last of his liveliest patches is a mischievous picture of the Court ladies at their toilette: "Let me see that mirror; make my head-dress higher; let me show my mouth more; drop the pleat over the eyes;[74] alter my eyebrows," etc. etc. But beyond the washing of hands before the feast, this French book that Crapelet printed fourscore years ago goeth not. Perhaps it was a mere accident; perhaps the writer had a shrewd notion that whatever he wrote would seem but stale in its reminder of the night when Partenopeus lay awake, and seemingly alone, in the enchanted palace—now merely an ordinary place of splendour and festivity—and when something came to the bed, "step by step, little by little," and laid itself beside him.

Such are the contents and such some of the special traits and features of one of the most famous of those romances of chivalry, the reading of which with anything like the same interest as that taken in Homer, seemed to the Reverend Professor Hugh Blair to be the most suitable instance he could hit upon of a total lack of taste. This is a point, of course, on which each age, and each reader in each age, must judge for itself and himself. I think the author of the Odyssey (the Iliad comes rather in competition with the chansons than with these romances) was a better poet than the author of Partenopeus, and I also think that he was a better story-teller; but I do not think that the latter was a bad story-teller; and I can read him with plenty of interest. So I can most of his fellows, no one of whom, I think, ever quite approaches the insipidity of their worst English imitators. The knights do not weary me with their exploits, and I confess that I am hyperbolical enough to like reading and thinking as well as talking of the ladies very much. They are of various sorts; but they are generally lovable. There is no better for affection and faithfulness and pluck than the Josiane of Bevis, whose husband and her at one time faithful guardian, but at another would-be ravisher, Ascapart, guard a certain gate not more than a furlong or two from where I am writing. It is good to think of the (to some extent justified) indignation of l'Orgueilleuse d'Amours when Sir Blancandin rides up and audaciously kisses her in the midst of her train; and the companion picture of the tomb where Idoine apparently sleeps in death (while her true knight Amadas fights with a ghostly foe above) makes a fitting pendant. If her near namesake with an L prefixed, the Lidoine of Meraugis de Portlesguez, interests me less, it is because its author, Raoul de Houdenc, was one of the first to mix love and moral allegory—a "wanity" which is not my favourite "wanity." To the Alexandrine of Guillaume de Palerne reference has already been made. Blanchefleur—known all over Europe with her lover Floire (Floris, etc.)—the Saracen slave who charms a Christian prince, and is rescued by him from the Emir of Babylon, to whom she has been sold in hopes of weaning Floris from his attachment, more than deserved her vogue. But, as in the case of the chansons, mere cataloguing would be dull and unprofitable, and analysis on the scale accorded to Partenopeus impossible. One must only take up once more the note of this whole early part of our history, and impress again on the reader the evident desire for the accomplished novel which these numerous romances show; the inevitable practice, in tale-telling of a kind, which the production of them might have given; and, above all, the openings, germs, suggestions of new devices in fiction which are observable in them, and which remained for others to develop if the first finders left them unimproved.


[58] That is, of nothing like the length of the latest forms of the Chansons de Geste or the Arthurian Romances proper. Some of the late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Adventure stories, before they dropped into prose, are indeed long enough, and a great deal too long; but they show degeneracy.

[59] The h (Parth-) does occur in both forms, and there are other variation, as "Partonopeus," etc. But these are trifles.

[60] Taking honour to the mother as separate from that to the father.

[61] The Spanish-English form is perhaps the prettier. I am sorry to say that the poet, to get a rhyme, sometimes spells it "Urracle," which is not pretty. Southey's "Queen Orraca" seems to me to have changed her vowel to disadvantage.

[62] The original author of the Court of Love, whether Chaucer or another, pretty certainly knew it; and Spenser spiritualised the doctrine itself in the Four Hymns.

[63] I think the medical people (borrowing, as Science so often does, the language which she would fain banish from human knowledge) call this sort of thing a syndrome.

[64] See below on Urraca's plain speaking.

[65] Not too commentatorially identified with Constantinople.

[66] It may be worth noting that in this context appears the original form of an English word quite common recently, but almost unknown a very short time ago—"grouse" in the sense of "complain," "grumble": "Ce dist Corsols et nul n'en grouce."

[67] No one will be rude enough to disbelieve her, and, as will be seen, her supernatural powers had limits; but it was odd, though fortunate, that they should have broken down exactly at this important juncture. Who made those rebellious candles take him to that chamber and couch, unknown to her?

[68] For Melior, though of invisible beauty, is represented as delightful in every other way, as wise and witty and gracious in speech as becomes a white witch. And when her lover on one occasion thanks her for her sermon, there is no satire; he only means sermo.

[69] Like Guy of Warwick; still more like Mr. Jaggers's clerk, though the circumstances are reversed. He almost says in so many words, "Hullo! here's an engagement ring on my finger. We can't have a marriage."

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