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Galahad; and he, while the vision is still before him, prays to be released from a world of calamity and sin, — and dies upon the spot, calm and happy!
Then, with one of those harsh discords which jar continually upon the ear in the legends of barbarous times, the tone of the story sinks to its former level. But it rises again in the tragic close. In the fatal battle of Camlan, or before it, Gawaine and most of the other knights are slain; while Tristan has perished already in private feud. Arthur himself, wounded and dying, is carried away by the Fairy of the Lake to the mystic Isle of Avalon; and Lancelot and the few other survivors retire to convents or hermitages, - to mourn over their own sins and the approaching ruin of their race.
The plot of King Arthur' is constructed by a union of the historical view of the legend with the romantic.
The historical portion of the poen, to which every thing else is professedly subservient, is in itself extremely simple. King Arthur is the sovereign, not of England, but only of South Wales. The conquest of his territories is attempted by his nearest Saxon neighbours who, by a slight and convenient anachronism, are represented as already united under Crida, king of the Mercians. The invaders besiege for many months Caerleon-upon-Usk, Arthur's chief town, to which (probably for reasons of prosody) the poet appropriates the uncertain name of Carduel. The Welsh at length repulse their assailants; a peace is agreed on; and from the marriage of Arthur with Crida's daughter, Genevieve (in name, but in nothing else, the Guenever or Genevra of the romances), begins the amalgamation of the blood of the hostile races.
The independence of Wales being thus the purpose of Arthur's struggles, there is vindicated for him, without any direct violation of historical truth, what the author calls the epic
glory of success.' His personal character and position, freed from all by which the early traditions had debased them, are raised into a region of purity and loftiness worthy of the patriotking and the Lord of young Romance.' From the bosom of present happiness he looks forward, at the close of the strain, to the national greatness of his race, and to his own poetic immortality.
That the manners and costume of the chivalrous times are adopted, is a circumstance which, as the author truly observes, our familiar associations absolutely required. But the chivalrous view is incorporated yet more closely into the structure of the poem. The approach of the historical incidents is briefly announced at the beginning : their actual occurrence is related in about two Books at the end. The whole intervening space is taken up with the chivalrous wanderings and adventures of the king, which are connected with the national contest by the influence they have on its issue.
Arthur is prophetically warned by Merlin that, for success in the patriotic struggle which lay before him, he must be armed by the possession of three talismanic gifts to be attained by solitary journeys and perils. The wanderings in which be accordingly engages have thus a Supernatural character imprinted on them from the beginning; and this character adheres to them throughout. How far this part of the design is judicious, is a question as to which we shall have something to say hereafter. But we may, in the mean time, endeavour to place ourselves at the point of view from which, if we mistake not, the poet, on the assumption that his supernatural machinery is to be accepted with due poetic faith, would desire that its several parts should be contemplated.
The contest which rages around the walls of Carduel is not between nations only, but between religions. Its direct issue is the triumph, not only of the British race, but also of their Christian creed. The champion by whom this victory is to be won has, therefore, to approve himself worthy of his mission, by trials in which a part is taken by Supernatural Powers, both friendly and hostile.
The author announces, in his preface, an intention of making but a very cautious and reverent use of the supernatural elements suggested by the doctrines of Christianity. The higher of these he does not venture to introduce at all. He accepts, as sufficient for the poetical purpose, “the Fairy, the Genius, the • Enchanter,'— the personages peopling the supernatural world of the romances. But there are two points in which his conception of these unearthly ministers and their office is peculiar.
In the first place, all these imaginary beings of romance are, with him, consecrated to the service of truth and goodness. He will know of no malignant elves, no evil genii, no demon-prompted sorcerers or prophets. Merlin is the patriotic sage, whose wisdom is devoted to the rescue of his country ; – the divinely-taught seer, who is obeyed by good though awful spirits, and who uses the mysterious knowledge they impart only for the furtherance of the designs of heavenly benevolence. The Weird Lady of the Lake — whose attributes and history in the romances are perplexing, and not unfrequently degrading --rises here above the world of fairy-land, and becomes a solemn and dimly-seen spirit, who watches over the destiny of the chivalrous king, – appals only that she may arouse to action,—and sends him forth to
perils, not that he may suffer or sin, but that he may obtain moral strength, and wisdom, and purification.
Secondly, throughout the whole of the action which flows out of the influences exercised by these supernatural characters, and to some extent even in the conception of the characters themselves, — there is a strong mixture of Allegory; sometimes an obscure hint, and sometimes a clear enunciation, of momentous or touching truths that lie hidden under the outline of the poetical images. The individuality even of the Lady of the Lake herself is not allowed to rest untouched by indications of a recondite meaning. The whole panorama of richly-imaginative pictures, representing the trials to which the hero is subjected in her realm beneath the waters, is avowedly and directly allegorical. The Dove herself (a singularly fine poetic thought, not altogether satisfactorily worked out), a figure whose personal reality is essential to the action of the poem, is yet not without an obvious signification.
The Christian machinery of the story, then, consists of influences friendly to the hero. With the Heathen superstitions he is brought into direct hostility. Their agency is exerted to seduce or destroy. It is in his manner of handling the materials here available, that the poet has deviated most widely from the romantic precedents : And it is this innovation, which enables him to throw over the legend a colouring which had never before been given to it. In antithesis to the etherially significant forms through which he has striven to individualise the romantic idea of Christianity, he places before us successively the sensuous beauty of the classic mythology, and the stern grandeur of the warlike religions of the North.
The scenes suggested by this design, display, as it seems to us, great philosophical discrimination, as well as poetical taste.
The paganism of Classical Antiquity is represented in one of its oldest shapes, - the faith of the Etruscans, — the germ (for so we may allow the poet to assume) both of much that is characteristic in Grecian mythology, and of yet more that is simply beautiful in Grecian art. But the faith is virtually dead: it does not attach itself to any real objects of fear or worship. No supernatural agent is exhibited as personifying it. Its priests possess nothing more than old prophetic traditions. Its character is embodied only in temples, in works of sculpture and painting, in exquisite landscapes, and in beautiful human forms.
The paganism of the Gothic North is differently treated. It was against it- in the modification of it professed by the English Saxons, that the national contest was directly maintained ; and therefore there was a just reason for making it more promi
nent in the poetical picture. But in the management of it there is a nicely-calculated gradation.
Out of the Saxon paganism of the besiegers of Carduel there does not arise any supernatural incident; unless this description may be applied to the utterance, by one of Odin's priests, of a raving and ambiguous prophecy. The display of unearthly might is reserved for the Scandinavian mythology, and transported to a distant place. Even from it, also, there springs nothing that is unequivocally above nature, in any incident in which a part is taken by the subordinate personages.
Arthur alone, amidst the icy islands and volcanic convulsions of the Arctic Seas, beholds gigantic terrors guarding the sleep of the Malignant Principle of the Norse Fables; and then, as soon as the actors have been shown in a kind of tableau, the curtain drops, biding the awful struggle in which the champion of Goodness and Truth is to disarm the Powers of Evil.
Perhaps we have prefaced too diffusely. Some of those who have accompanied us in surveying the exterior of the building, and the prospects which its site commands, may have begun to look impatiently for the opening of the door. But it has appeared to us that a consecutive view both of the older forms of the legend of which the poem treats, and of the sources from which its mythology is derived, would not only facilitate our own duty of analysis, but might also place others in the best position for fairly appreciating a composition which claims from its readers intelligent study as well as poetic susceptibility.
Our land's first legends, love and knightly deeds,
And wondrous Merlin, and his wandering king,
Sought in the world of Fable-land, I sing.
And glide translucent o'er the sands of gold.' The opening scene is an airy sketch of rural elegance and social enjoyment-a landscape with figures, in the manner of Watteau. Arthur and his court hold a May festival, by a stream in a woody valley near Carduel. The gaiety is interrupted by the appearance of an indistinct phantom, which Arthur, spell-bound, follows into the forest. He returns, solemn, anxious, and silent; and at night seeks the turret in which burned the lamp of his wizardteacher, Merlin. To him the king relates how the shadow had shown him, in a dark pool, an image of the Saxon dominion over the whole island. An incantation, worked by Merlin, evokes spirits, at whose approach Arthur falls senseless; and, in the morning, the enchanter announces to him the knowledge he has gained from his invisible ministers.
Arthur is commanded to lay down the crown and take up knightly arms; and to seek, for twelve months, in solitary wanderings, three magical gifts which shall suffice to defend his menaced throne. Under the guidance of the Weird Lady of the Lake, who will become visible to him through a charm gathered from a grave, he must gain the Diamond Sword, watched by genii in the caves of a forest which grows beneath the waters, from a single stem. The Silver Shield in which the Scandinavian god Thor was cradled, must next be wrested from the dwarf, who guards it amidst the icebergs of the North, where the Valkyrs -- the demons of war- sit round the bed of Lok, the sleeping Destroyer. The third and last enjoined labour, enigmatically described here, is left, throughout the poem, in an obscurity which is evidently intentional, but which will be a stumbling-block to inquisitive and matter-of-fact readers. There must be found before the Iron Gate of Death, a childlike guide, with golden locks, and looks that light the tomb; or, the year of proof' will have failed.
Arthur rides forth alone. He must reject even the attendance of Lancelot, the dearest of the three knights who are to take, after him, the principal part in the story. Two of them, however, will bye and bye be allowed to follow his steps. Lancelot, the type of
pure love and faithful friendship, will be at hand in the most romantic of his adventures; and will himself be the hero of events, at once resembling those which happen to the king, and contributing to their favourable issue. Gawaine, the man at once of jest, and speech, and action, will be Arthur's companion when bodily evils are to endured with cheerfulness, or to be overcome by valour. For Caradoc, the knightly poet, (who in the Welsh traditions is merely a brave warrior, and is quite obscure in the romances), is reserved a sadder yet a nobler destiny. He remains in Carduel to guard his country, to inspirit its defenders by song, and to sanctify its defence by self-sacrifice.
When the King has reached the sea-shore, there is fulfilled, though not, perhaps, in the manner we might have anticipated, the promise which the prophet seemed to have made of a guide on his perilous journey. A snow-white Dove Alies from a rock, and nestles joyfully in Arthur's bosom. The dove forthwith shows the way to a boat, which the king enters with his steed; and the bark, unmoored, bears, them away to the continent.
His first landing is in a colony of the Vandals, on a site which it is not difficult to conjecture. Here is introduced one of those satirical sketches of very recent events, which the poet limns with evident alacrity and delight; but of which, since we cannot help regarding them as blots on the page, we