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