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Legends of King Arthur.
1. Idyls of the King. By Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet Laureate.
2. The Age of Chivalry. Part I. King Arthur and his Knights. Part II. The Mabinogeon; or, Welsh Popular Tales. By Thomas Bulfinch. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Co. 1859. 12mo. pp. 414.
No wide-spread, lasting belief or long-established institution has ever been allowed to influence men's lives and nations fortunes without serving some definite purpose and performing some use; and Chivalry, like other great agencies, had its work to do. When Constantine made Christianity the religion of the world and associated it with the Imperial power, it could but suffer from the contact. Humility began to give way to pride, and zeal to ambition. Controversies arose, and learning was more desired than piety. Polemics took the place of wise instruction and earnest exhortation ; the war against the flesh and the devil was neglected in the struggle between opposing opinions. From the council of Nice the falling off and corruption of the outward church were rapid. The clergy lost more and more their power over the affections and lives of their hearers; they were too busy and too indifferent to retain or use it. While wave after wave of Franks, Germans, Goths, Vandals and Huns flung themselves upon the sinking State, driving empire from West to East and finally overwhelming it, the Christian Church alone had strength enough to stand in the universal overthrow; and its doctrines spread farther and farther through all the turmoil. But it was losing its efficiency in governing and purifying men, and teaching them to live just, kindly, Christian lives; and this, too, at a time when all the power and authority of government and law was swept away utterly. A vast amount of fresh, animal life and savage energy was infused into the people by the admixture of their robust conquerors. Physical rejuvenation had been as much needed as moral. After the flood of invaders had in a measure subsided, some power was needed which should hold the law-forgetting
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people in check; a system which should receive and preserve, however imperfectly, and bring into action the precepts of brotherly love, honesty and morality, which the guardians of the church were losing sight of and neglecting to enforce. Such a system, combining the traditions and customs of the Celtic races, the remains of cultivation and refinement which the fallen empire had left behind it, and the superstitions, many of the precepts, something of the spirit of Christians, was Chivalry ;-a strange mixture of Christianity and Paganism, of superstition and impiety, of honor and dishonesty, of gentle courtesy and brute force, of chastity and licentiousness, of morality and profligacy. It was the natural outgrowth of the time of the people with their warm blood whirling through their veins, their teeming imaginations, their rude ideas of honor, their love of pomp and parade, their superstition and their levity. Its growth, its extent and its continuance show how naturally it resulted from, and how faithfully it represented their character.
The use of Chivalry was to keep alive and active in men's minds the principles of honor and courtesy, of fidelity and sacrifice, which stood in place of Christian uprightness and neighborly love. It inculcated the duties of outward religion, and preserved that dim, mysterious, deep-seated reverence for sacred things which was for a long time the only guardian of piety. It held up a high standard of manly character, though it sometimes connived at the violation of the most sacred rights. It favored excess and intemperance ; yet bestowed the most liberal and genuine applause on the highest virtue. Though it often set at naught the sacred relation of husband and wife, yet by insisting upon constancy to a single love, it put a strong check upon the roving appetites and indiscriminate indulgence of the age, which had before brought Greece and Rome to a state of pollution of which few people now have any idea. The dissolute court of Charles the Second and the gilded reign of Louis Quatorze offer a counterpart in this respect to the worst that Chivalry can show, and even modern Paris or Naples or Madrid would not look clean in the comparison.
The most obvious, much-talked-of effect of Chivalry was upon the condition of woman. She who before had been the slave of man's caprice,-seldom honored, though often
as alwardly better was so much la none dareer sufferinolject
petted, commonly looked down upon and degraded, was now become little less than a goddess : her favor the object of a life's devotion ; her smile the reward for suffering and labor; her bidding law, which none dared disobey. Yet while her station was so much exalted, her real excellence was hardly better understood. True love there was, surely, as always, but it was not the boasted love of Chivalry. When the ideal of manhood was the union of warlike prowess and lofty courtesy, the natural counterpart and complement was the fulness of grace and beauty ; and for these woman was prized. We shall see clearer proofs of the selfish and egotistical character of this devotion, in looking at the romances of Chivalry.
But Chivalry, with all its extent, duration and individuality was merely a succedaneum, and these partial benefits were to prepare the way for better things to come. The inordinate exaltation of woman had at least lifted her out of her subordinate position, and men were better prepared to recognize her true excellence and her rights when they were gradually unveiled. The splendor and magnificence of princes made them patrons of learning and arts, which thus gathered strength for the full luxuriance into which they burst when Chivalry itself had begun to pass away. The reverence it demanded for at least the externals of religion kept men's minds in some sort ready for a purer faith. When, after half-a-dozen centuries, ignorance began to yield to learning and anarchy to rule; when the doting church at Rome was rudely shaken by the Reformation, and better worship and truer precepts took the place of her ordinances and teachings, the work of Chivalry was finished and it passed away. The last hero of Chivalry and the first protestant king met on “ the field of the cloth of gold” at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
The origin of romantic fiction has been the subject of much dispute and many theories. Mallet and Bishop Percy ascribed it to the Northern Scalds, Warton and others to the Arabians, others again to the remains of classic mythology and fable. A recent French writer, (Villemarqué) after long research, sums up his conclusions thus: “ Que les contes chevaleresques bretons où figure le roi Arthur, dernière forme dle legende traditionelle dont il est le sujet, ont été le type des principales épopées chevaleresques français et étrangères de la Table Ronde.”
It would seem that both system and literature were the necessary results of their time, the characteristic ideas of many broken and commingling races; and, doubtless, every one of these theories contains truth. Beginning, probably, with the traditions of the Britons, these stories passed successively through different minds and were re-written by different hands, receiving some additions from each, gathering more and more of fable, of the Chivalry of higher civilization and later time, assuming many different forms before that in which we now see them. They give us, then, no real knowledge of those whom they pretend to describe, but a true abstract of the character and thoughts of those by whom and for whom they were written. They hold out a representation, distorted in chronology, geography and other matters of historical perspective ; yet as faithful in de tail, as full of light and shade, as spirited and lifelike, as an old Flemish painting. In the stories of Arthur and his knights we see mirrored the feelings, the manners, the life, of five centuries after. Hence these extravagant fictions have a use and value which the most accurate enumeration of events would lack.
Like the early writings of every literature, these romances are marked by lively imagination and profuse details. They are full of that life which writers always give when they are fully inspired by their subject, and write with entire self-abandonment. Often they are prosy and tedious; often the current of the story is fast and strong. The descriptions are commonly graphic; sometimes beautiful, and often absurd. The individuality of different characters is preserved, as if unconsciously, not only in each separate romance, but more or less throughout all in which the same persons appear. Withal they are full of inconsistencies, continually setting all laws of unity at de fiance. The nominal hero of a romance is often not the principal person in it. In most of them the real hero is changed many times. The reader is at first sight surprised that the women excite no more interest than they do in these romances. The writer seldom gives his female characters more attention than is absolutely necessary to maintain their connection with the story. He thinks he has done enough when he has painted them as wonders of beauty. This is an almost universal peculiarity of the romances, Even Ariosto seems to think his women rather in the way
-at least he shows very little fondness for them, and takes very little pains with them. This looks strange, in sight of the extravagant devotion which chivalry paid to woman, and when we remember that the cause of all the knight's exploits and adventures, the object of all his devotion, is the lady whom we see and care for so little. But this shows us again that woman was valued not for her own worth and loveliness, but as an object of possession, and for her beauty; that the homage men gave her was but a reflected self-admiration. It was given her, not as something she could claim for her due, but by the condescending kindness of her lord; and in return for it she must serve his pleasures, grace his festivals, smile on his exploits, and reward his prowess. She had not yet taken her position as helper, companion and equal.
The romances of chivalry fall mostly into two classes, one including those which relate to king Arthur and his knights, the other those of Charlemagne and his compeers. Beside these there are the utterly fabulous Amadises, Palmerins, etc., for a catalogue of whom see the account of the search by the priest and the barber in Don Quixote's library. The first class is that of which we have to speak now. They are the oldest,-perhaps the most characteristic and entertaining. They are very numerous and drearily long. The general reader will hardly have time or inclination to work his way through them to make acquaintance with Arthur's knights and learn of their exploits. Mr. Ellis has done very great service to the curious in such matters by his “ Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances.” But many who would wish, as every one ought, to know something of these things, would turn uneasily from a long book of comparatively disconnected abstracts and extracts. Mr. Wright has recently edited an edition of Sir Thomas Mallory's “ History of King Arthur,” but this is too quaint and too prolix for popular reading. The most entertaining account is to be found in Dunlop's “ History of Fiction.” Here, however, it forms but a small part of an extended whole, and gives us abstracts of the principal romances, rather than a sketch of the whole subject. Mr. Tennyson, in his Idyls of the King, has marked these legends of king Arthur deeply with his own peculiar thought and