These outliers were rather more fortunate, probably for no more recondite reason than that the French originals from which they were in almost every instance certainly taken were finished in themselves. Of the special Gawain cycle or sub-cycle we have two romances in pure metrical form, and more than two in alliterative, which are above the average in interest. Ywain and Gawain , one of the former, is derived directly or indirectly from the Chevalier au Lyon of Chrestien de Troyes; and both present some remarkable affinities with the unknown original of the "Sir Beaumains" episode of Malory, and, through it, with Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette.
For a " real romance," as it calls itself though it is fair to say that in the original the word means "royal" , of the simpler kind but extremely well told, there are not many better metrical specimens than Ywain and Gawain , but it has less character-interest, actual or possible, than those which have been commented on. The hero, King Urien's son, accepts an adventure in which another knight of the Table, Sir Colgrevance, has fared ill, after it has been told in a conversation at court which is joined in first by the Queen and afterwards by the King.
Sir Kay here shows his usual cross-grainedness; and Guinevere "with milde mood" requests to know "What the devil is thee within? You ride to a certain fountain, pour water from it on a stone, and then, after divers marvels, have to do battle with a redoubtable knight. Colgrevance has fared badly; Kay is as usual quite sure that he would fare better; but Ywain actually undertakes the task. He has a tough battle with the knight who answers the challenge, but wounds him mortally; and when the knight flies to his neighbouring castle, is so hard on his heels that the portcullis actually drops on his horse's haunches just behind the saddle, and cuts the beast in two.
Ywain is thus left between the portcullis and the by this time shut door—a position all the more awkward that the knight himself expires immediately after he has reached shelter. The situation is saved, however, by the guardian damsel of romance, Lunet the Linet or Lynette of the Beaumains-Gareth story , who emerges from a postern between gate and portcullis and conveys the intruder safe to her own chamber. Here a magic bed makes him invisible: though the whole castle, including the very room, is ransacked by the dead knight's people and would-be revengers, at the bidding of his widow.
This widow, however, is rather an Ephesian matron. The sagacious Lunet, whose confidante she is, suggests to her that, unless she enlists some doughty knight as her champion, the king will confiscate her fief; and that there is no champion like a husband. A very little more finesse effects the marriage, even though the lady is made aware of the identity of her new lover and her own husband's slayer. It is of course necessary to remember that the death of a combatant in fairly challenged and fought single contest was not reckoned as any fault to his antagonist.
Ywain actually shows his prowess against the King: and has an opportunity of showing Kay once more that it is one thing to blame other people for failing, and another to succeed yourself. And after this the newly married pair live together happily for a time. John's Eve, he is without fail to return, the engagement being sealed by the gift from his lady of a special ring.
He forgets his promise of course: and at the stated time a damsel appears, sternly demands the ring, and announces her lady's decision to have nothing further to do with him. There is in such cases only one thing for any true knight, from Sir Lancelot to Sir Amadis, to do: and that is to go mad, divest himself of his garments, and take to the greenwood. This Ywain duly does, supporting himself at first on the raw flesh of game which he kills with a bow and arrows wrested from a chance-comer; and then on less savage but still simple food supplied by a benevolent hermit.
As he lies asleep under a tree, a lady rides by with attendants, and one of these another of the wise damsels of romance recognises him as Sir Ywain. The lady has at the time sore need of a champion against a hostile earl, and she also fortunately possesses a box of ointment infallible against madness, which Morgane la Faye has given her. With this the damsel is sent back to anoint Ywain. He comes to his senses, is armed and clothed, undertakes the lady's defence, and discomfits the earl: but is as miserable as ever.
Resisting the lady's offer of herself and all her possessions, he rides off once more "with heavy heart and dreary cheer. Soon he hears a hideous noise and, riding in its direction, finds that a dragon has attacked a lion. To aggravate his sorrow he comes to the fountain and thorn-tree of the original adventure, and hears some one complaining in the chapel hard by. They exchange questions. She has been accused of treason by the usual steward it is very hard for a steward of romance to be good and two brothers—of treason to her lady, and is to be burnt, unless she can find a knight who will fight the three.
Ywain agrees to defend her: but before he can carry out his promise he has, on the same morning, to meet a terrible giant who is molesting his hosts at a castle where he is guested.
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Both adventures, however, are achieved on the same day, with very notable aid from the lion: and Ywain undertakes a fresh one, being recruited by the necessary damsel-messenger, against two half-fiend brother knights. They stipulate that the lion is to be forcibly prevented from interfering, and he is locked up in a room; but, hearing the noise of battle, he scratches up the earth under the door, frees himself, and once more succours his master at the nick of time. Even this does not expiate Ywain's fault: and yet another task falls to him—the championship of the rights of the younger of a pair of sisters, the elder of whom has secured no less a representative than Gawain himself.
The pair, unknowing and unknown, fight all day long before Arthur's court with no advantage on either side: and when the light fails an interchange of courtesies leads to recognition and the settlement of the dispute. Now the tale is nearly full.
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Ywain rides yet again to the magic fountain and performs the rite; there is no one to meet him; the castle rocks and the inmates quake. But the crafty Lunet persuades her mistress to swear that if the Knight of the Lion, who has fallen at variance with his lady, will come to the rescue, she will do all she can to reconcile the pair. Which not ill-prepared "curtain" duly falls: leaving us comfortably assured that Ywain and his Lady and Lunet and the Lion one wishes that these two could have made a match of it, and he must surely have been a bewitched knight lived happily. This, it has been said, is a specimen of the pure romance; with little except incident in it, and a touch or two of manners.
It does not, as the others noticed above do, lend itself much to character-drawing. But it is spiritedly told; though rougher, it is much more vigorous than the French original; and the mere expletives and stock phrases, which are the curse of these romances, do not obtrude themselves too much.
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In this respect, and some others, it is the superior of the one coupled above with it, Lybius Disconus , which is closer, except in names, to the Beaumains story. Still, this also is not a bad specimen of the same class. The hero of it is a son, not a brother, of Gawain, comes nameless or nicknamed, but as "Beaufils," not "Beaumains," to Arthur's court, and is knighted at once, not made to go through the "kitchen-knave" stage.
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Accordingly, the damsel Elene not Lunet , to whom he is assigned as champion in the adventure of the Lady of Sinadowne, objects only to his novelty of knighthood and is converted by his first victory. The course of the adventures is, however, different from that which some people know from Malory, and many from Tennyson. One of them is farcical: the Fair Unknown rescues a damsel at her utmost need from two giants, a red and a black, one of whom is roasting a wild boar and uses the animal as a weapon, with the spit in it, for the combat. Moreover, he falls a victim to the wiles of a sorceress-chatelaine whom he has also succoured: and it is only after the year and day that Elene goads him on to his proper quest.
But this also is no bad story. The limits of this volume admit of not much farther "argument" though the writer would very gladly give it of these minor romances of adventure, Arthurian and other. Ellis's easily accessible book supplies abstracts of the main Arthurian story before Malory; of the two most famous, though by no means best, of all the non-Arthurian romances, Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton the former of which was handled and rehandled from age to age, moralised, curtailed, lengthened, and hashed up in every form ; of the brilliant and vigorous Richard Coeur-de-Lion ; of the less racy Charlemagne romances in English; of the Seven Wise Masters , brought from the East and naturalised all over Europe; of the delightful love story of Florice and Blancheflour ; of that powerful and pathetic legend of the Proud King Robert of Sicily , which Longfellow and Mr.
Nor does he seem to have known one of the finest of all—the alliterative romance of Gawain and the Green Knight which, since Dr. Morris published it some forty years ago for the Early English Text Society, has made its way through text-books into more general knowledge than most of its fellows enjoy. In this the hero is tempted repeatedly, elaborately, and with great knowledge of nature and no small command of art on the teller's part, by the wife of his host and destined antagonist. He resists in the main, but succumbs in the point of accepting a magic preservative as a gift: and is discovered and lectured accordingly.
It is curious that this, which is far above the usual mere adventure-story and is novel of a high kind as well as romance, has no known French original; and is strongly English in many characteristics besides its verse-form. There are striking situations, even striking phrases, here and there; there is plenty of variety in scene, and more than is sometimes thought in detail; but the motive-and-character-interest is rarely utilised as it might be, and very generally is not even suggested. There is seldom any real plot or "fable"—only a chain of events: and though no one but a very dull person will object to the supernatural element, or to the exaggerated feats of professedly natural prowess and endurance, it cannot be said that on the whole they are artistically managed.
You feel, not merely that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains, but that the reason why he did not is that he did not know how.
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Sir Thomas Malory, himself most unknown perhaps of all great writers, did know how; and a cynical person might echo the I nunc of the Roman satirist, and dwell on the futility of doing great things, in reference to the fact that it used to be fashionable, and is still not uncommon, to call Malory a "mere compiler.
But no mistake about the mysterious Englishman the place-names with which the designation is connected are all pure English is possible to any one who has read his book, and who knows what prose fiction is. If they can give us any single "French book"—the reference to which is a commonplace of the subject—from which it was taken, let them; they have not yet.
If they point out as they can French and English books from which parts of it were taken, similar things may be done with Dante and Chaucer, with Shakespeare and Milton, and very probably could have been done with Homer. It is what the artist does with his materials, not where he gets them, that is the question. And Malory has done, with his materials, a very great thing indeed.
He is working no doubt to a certain extent blindly; working much better than he knows, and sometimes as he would not work if he knew better; though whether he would work as well if he knew better is quite a different point. Sometimes he may not take the best available version of a story; but we must ask ourselves whether he knew it. Sometimes he may put in what we do not want: but we must ask ourselves whether there was not a reason for doing so, to him if not to us.
What is certain is that he, and he only in any language, makes of this vast assemblage of stories one story, and one book. He does it much more than half unconsciously no doubt by following the lines of, as I suppose, Walter Map, and fusing the different motives, holding to this method even in parts of the legend with which, so far as one knows, Map cannot have meddled. Before him this legend consisted of half a dozen great divisions—a word which may be used of malice prepense.
These were the story of Merlin, that of Arthur's own origin, and that of the previous history of the Graal for introduction; the story of Arthur's winning the throne, of the Round Table, and of the marriage with Guinevere, also endless branchings of special knights' adventures, and of the wars with the Saxons and the Romans, and the episode of the False Guinevere—with whom for a time Arthur lives as with his queen—for middle; and the story of the Graal-quest, the love of Lancelot for the Queen, and the rebellion of Mordred with its fatal consequences, for close.
Exactly how much of this Malory personally had before him we cannot of course say: but of any working up of the whole that would have spared him trouble, and robbed him of credit, we do not know.
In fact the favourite term "compiler" gives up the only dangerous point. Now in what way did Malory compile? In the way in which the ordinary compiler proceeds he most emphatically does not. He cuts down the preliminaries mercilessly: but they can be perfectly well spared. He misses almost all the wars with the Saxons, which are the most tedious parts of the originals.
He adopts, most happily, the early, not the late, placing of those with the Romans. He drops the false Guinevere altogether, which is imperative, that the true one may have no right to plead the incident—though he does not represent Arthur as "blameless. He gives that Quest as plentifully because it leads up to the "dolorous death and departing out of this world of them all.
And the catastrophe of the actual "departing" he gives perfectly; with the magnificent final scenes which he has converted, sometimes in almost Shakespearean fashion, by the slightest verbal touches from mediocre verse to splendid prose. A very remarkable compiler! It is a pity that they did not take him and cut him up in little stars for a light to all his brethren in compiling thereafter.
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