An Arthurian Journey
“ IT IS apparent in all histories,” says the preface to one of the many editions of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, “that there were nine most famous and renowned kings and princes, who, for their noble acts and worthy atchievments, are stiled the nine worthies, and it is most execrable infidelity to doubt that there was a Joshua, it is wicked Atheism to make a question if there were a David, it is hatefull to be difficult of a sometime Judas Macchabæus; besides there are none of any capacitie but doe believe there was an Alexander. The world is possest with the acknowledgement of the life and death of Julius Cæsar, and the never dying fame of the illustrious Trojan Hector is perspicuous.
. . . The magnanimous prince Godfrey duke of Bulloigne . . . and the famous emperor Charlemagne no Christian will deny.” “ And,” he proceeds, “ shall the Jewes and the Heathen be honoured in the memory and magnificent prowesse of their worthies? Shall the French and German nations glorify their triumphs with their Godfrey and Charles, and shall we of this island be so possest with incredulitie, diffidence, stupiditie and ingratitude to deny, make doubt, or expresse in speech and history the immortal name and fame of our victorious Arthur ? . . . As (by the favour of Heaven) this kingdom of Britain was graced with one worthy, let us with thankfulness acknowledge him.”
Years before I met with this energetic plea, the doubts and arguments which had arisen in my own mind against the existence of Arthur had given place to a belief that no such figure ever looms up in the traditions of a country, printing his foot on its rocks, setting his name on its landmarks, weaving his deeds into its primitive, unwritten story to become the woof of its earliest tales and poetry, unless it be the transfiguration of a real hero. The time of Arthur is no mythic epoch ; the Roman Emperors who fought his forerunners, the saints who preached in the British Isles before his birth, are as well known as the Hanoverian kings or the Protestant Archbishops of Canterbury. The only proof lacking of his having lived is contemporaneous record, — an objection which would overthrow some of the most solidly seated effigies of history. The name of Arthur is familiar to the first murmurs of British song, and to those of the kindred Brittany which have passed into the keeping of letters.
The editor of Sir Thomas Malory, while commending his author’s “painful industry ” in translating and compiling the Arthurian legends from French and Italian sources, admits that “fables and fictions ” have been inserted which may be a blemish to the truth of the history, but that “ superfitial flaws ” should not shake our faith in its substantial authenticity. Neither he nor Sir Thomas could foresee the confirmation his narrative would gain, after four hundred years, from the discovery and publication of Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and early English manuscripts to which he had not access, — echoes of Breton rhyme and legend; for Brittany is the birthplace of the Arthurian epic. These are the earliest forms in which the oral traditions and ballads about men and deeds, then not many ages removed, have come down to our day. Some slight study of these authorities,1 which are now within everybody’s reach, brought me back to Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur for the best summary of the old tales, and to Lord Tennyson as the inspired exponent of them, as they have been handed on through generations and centuries, undergoing the pressure of every period, until they represent, not the modern man, but the modern ideal. It was, therefore, with the Idylls of the King as a guide that I traced the course of Arthur from his mysterious coming to his mysterious passing away.
There is probably not a shire in England and Wales which does not boast of connection with the Flower of Kings ; to follow the tangled and doubtful clues to all these localities would be a fool’s errand, and the poetry and interest of the subject would be lost in the search. The track is distinct and fairly continuous only in the south marches, where the beginnings of the legend swarm about the soil like bees coming out of the ground. Cornwall, stretching its peninsula far out into the western sea, is invested with an isolation and remoteness befitting the unpenetrated secret of Arthur’s origin. It is a region of steep, bare, hog-backed hills, elongating themselves in monotonous succession from coast to coast, divided by deep, narrow vales almost smothered in luxuriant vegetation. There is the extreme of contrast between the close-shorn and never-ending ridges, on which not a bush stands knee - high against the salt winds, with sparse and meagre trees on the lower slopes, and the hothouse wealth of shrubbery and flowers at their feet. The downs have a bloom of their own cowering among the short grass, daisies, buttercups, and a pale little pink flower growing profusely even in the crevices of the rocks, and here and there they are burnished by a touch of gorge ; but even under the smile of June the landscape turns to desolation towards the clilfs. The villages and hamlets scattered along the hilly roads have a quaint and quiet charm. The houses, whether one or two storied, are true cottages, and are of brown or gray stone, with slate roofs. They stand in pretty gardens tacked to paddocks and orchard bits. The stables and granges have a solid, half-fortified look, as if built to resist attack. Every such huddle of houses, flowers, and verdure has its inn, temperance or “ licensed to sell ; ” its smithy, the horse waiting at the door, patiently, with his head down, and one or two gossips around the glowing forge. In many of them clacks a mill, with a big, watergreened wheel turning under the slap of a hurried brook. They have a grave, old-time presence, cheerful enough, especially when animated by the rosy cheeks of the hale workingmen, the handsome women, the chubby children, five out of six showing the type of a race in their long dark eyes, rich coloring, and downward curving features. The abode of melancholy is the church, a low, severe structure, with a square Norman tower and some interior pillar or arch of Saxon times. A stone cross generally stands sentinel before the graveyard, worn from its outline by a thousand years of weather, marking the spot as consecrated by an earlier Christianity than that of the building. The group keeps aloof from the village, in sight of the awful sea, as if doing perpetual penance for the sins of forgotten generations. Between the villages the steep roads are shut in by walls of slate covered with turf, and overgrown at midsummer with ivy, ferns, and dark blue wild hyacinths; forming a foundation for the hawthorn hedges, white with fresh-scented blossoms, and for ramparts of golden furze. But these beautiful barriers shut out every view except the distant stretching spines of the naked hills, and the traveler cannot forget that only the flowers and sunshine save the prospect from dreariness.
It is by a repetition of these serious scenes that the steep road reaches the windy village of Tintagel, whence a still steeper track leads afoot down a stony glen, shut in between rock walls, through which a bright brook hastens with many skips and jumps. At a turn in the path the sea comes into sight between huge crag-jambs, and to the left a mountainous, cloven headland, girt about the shoulders with the ruins of twin castles. A few yards further, the path branches, on one hand to a quarry, which is no flaw in the grandeur; on the other to the lower ledges of " the island,” as the outer half of Tintagel promontory is called in the neighborhood. The path scales the side of the tremendous chasm, into which the sea breaks frantic, and rushes out as if in terror; up and up, by stony scrambles and sharp turns, here and there guarded by a hand-rail, but more fit for a goat than for man, and not wide enough for two goats to pass; up and up, the height more giddy, the dreadful depth, with the waters rushing in and out, deeper and deeper. At length a wooden door in the ruined outworks of the castle is reached, opening on the narrow ledge above the sheer cliff; within are grassy courts, broken battlements, ivied parapets, and a sense of safety. Here is a breathingplace, to sit on the fallen masonry and look about for the footprints of legend. No scene could have been chosen more suited to the prologue of an ancient drama. Here, in the hold of Gorlois, his fallen foe, died Uther Pendragon. Here the wonderful child Merlin first prophesied ; and as his prophecies were soon fulfilled, he rose to the sublime importance and influence which he kept until old age. This seaward castle, on the outer side of the headland, was the stronghold of Ygerne, Arthur’s mother, in which she was besieged and taken by Uther, who had slain her husband for love of her. The bold span which joined it to the landward castle, above the roaring cleft, is gone, but its piers remain imbedded in the rock. An arched gateway stands firm, framing a different picture from each side ; and as castles, like churches and forests, have a tendency to arise on the vestiges of older ones, it may have been the postern by which, according to ancient hearsay, Merlin gave the new-born Arthur into the care of the faithful Antor. At the base of the castle crag is a little sandy cove, where the brook, having reached the foot of the glen, slips off into the sea, — a slim cascade of fifty feet, perhaps, but from the terrible perch over against it looking like a child’s slide. This was the beach where, by another version, one stormy night, the waves washed the babe to Merlin’s feet, while Uther Pendragon lay dying high overhead in the keep.
But the clearest images which linger in Tintagel are Tristan and Yseult. Her name clings to the shores of her native Ireland in Capelizod (Isolde’s or Yseult’s chapel), but her memory warms these rocks and ruins like the golden lichen on their dark surface. On her track I took a stiff clamber to the breezy topmost turf, spreading evenly for acres like a tilting-ground, edged by flat rocks which jut over the abyss. The coast, far as the eye can reach, is curved and scalloped into bays, and broken into huge natural piers and moles. The face of the precipice, beetling hundreds of feet above the waves, is sombre; in places there is a warmth as from a more genial under - color ; nevertheless, the gloom would be appalling but for the glint of the lichen showing everywhere like halfworn gilding. Green slopes of grass belt the cliff at intervals, smooth as the glacis of a fort; and the look of the slippery sward, to which no living hand or foot could cling, is more cruel than the splintered rock above and below. The lowest stories are worn into caverns and vaulted passages, into which the sea plunges with the sound of muffled thunder, bursting out again, after a short silence, with an explosion like a mine; and the foam gushes up, climbing to the knees of the crags, and the wind blows the flakes about their ears. At the foot of every headland are flying buttresses, blunt cones, or shapeless masses, which would be called huge on many rock - bound coasts, but which here look like fungi.
In truth it is tremendous scenery, with a formidable, threatening aspect, calling to mind earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, and the force which abides in nature to overwhelm and destroy. Its beauty and harmony, as I saw it, came from the open sea, which was of a bright, tender blue, with a long, smooth swell, on which the wind left soft white paths, and the shadows of the clouds made wandering violet islets. The distant capes and points were dim and dreamlike in the summer haze, as if Yseult’s reveries brooded over them still. These are the waves that severed her from her green Ireland and from the wild coast of Brittany, where Tristan found his young bride. These are the waves she crossed when the message came that he was dying, and heart-burning, jealousy, wrath, and mutual wrong were merged in lifelong passion, drawing her once more to his side by the chain which had held her since the morning of their days, when the philtre welded it in their veins. Her last voyage, with its tragic ending, is a finer and more fitting close to the story than the surprise and murder of Tristan at Tintagel by her husband, King Mark, “ as he sat harping before la belle Isoude.” Lord Tennyson could hardly help taking the latter conclusion, as Matthew Arnold had been beforehand with him in choosing the former. It is in every way a pity, for it was not in Mr. Arnold’s key; though there are beautiful lines and passages of deep pathos in his Tristram and Iseult, it has not the march, ring, and antique fatality of the old romances, which Tennyson has caught with surpassing power and charm.
The story of these predestined lovers is pathetic and dramatic from first to last, the most imaginative and complete of the Arthurian cycle. It has a singular likeness to the true stories of the troubadours of Provence, with their royal lady-loves, their unhappy, unhallowed passion, their crusading and monastic penances, their distant and often violent deaths. The figure of Tristan, the child of sorrow, is more distinctly drawn, if less imposing, than Arthur or Launcelot. the last has passed through so many hands that the die has lost its sharpness, and has been softened to the pattern of a Bayard or a Raleigh, while the “light and nimble ” Tristan, with his harp and hunting-horn, keeps his untempered originality. He was nephew of King Mark of Cornwall; his mother was Elizabeth, “ both good and fair,” who died in giving him birth, and bestowed on him his sorrowful name. He became the object of a stepmother’s hatred, and the first act recorded of him is that he sued for her pardon when she had been detected in an attempt to poison him. He was then sent to France to finish his education, where he acquired many arts and graces, but did not lose the roving, forester tendency of his temperament. There is the same difference between Guinivere and Yseult, who, though a king’s daughter and a king’s wife, is less a queen than a willful woman. She is but half civilized; the untamed Irish blood heats her cheeks to the end. In the innocent, light-hearted prank which brought doom upon them; in after-years of guilt, of voluntary separation, of effort to forget; in their flight and joyous life together; in their vain repentance; in his self-exile, his lapses into madness; in the perpetual victory of a love which was fate ; in their partings; in their death-bed reunion, — these passionate phantoms haunt the ruins and cliffs of Tintagel, and challenge human sympathy by the human nature in their failings.
There are few other sites in Cornwall where the theatre and actors of its primitive tragedy are so vividly descried. “The duchy,” as its inhabitants are still proud to call it, is a chosen field for traditions, but they are so old that their tangible proofs are worn out. It is more empty than any part of Great Britain where I have been of monuments or the fragments of monuments which please or interest the eye. There is not a castle or church which is worth turning aside to see, except for the sake of its name and associations. Along the infrequent lines of travel there are disfiguring industries, — mines, quarries, china - clay works, tin stream - washing ; and although some of these are ancient in origin, they are worked by the most modern processes. Away from the great highways the country has a desolation quite its own, wholly unlike the undiscovered aspect of much American scenery, — the desolation of a region long forsaken and forgotten. For the antiquarian it is full of bournes, Druidical remains, miraculous crosses, holy wells, one-story chapels half buried in sand, where Galahad and Launcelot may have stopped to pray. The general configuration is straitened and narrow, as if the never-ending hills were the gaunt vertebræ of an interminable backbone. The loveliness of the valleys in their midsummer bloom and vegetation is a charming relief from the naked hills and the sea-bitten foliage cowering under their lee; but if one could picture the land in its pristine bareness, when those cherished plantations did not fill the interstices, or if all that twelve hundred years of gradual cultivation have done to modify the landscape were brushed off, it would be harsh and crude from the ridges to the coast, rent with fissures by which the salt waves break in to embitter the brooks, and drive them back toward their hilly homes. Even yet it makes a fine frame for solitary heroic figures, for deadly encounters in single combat, for battlepieces of antique simplicity, for rites of lonely devoutness, for magic barges vanishing into the unknown.
But the glory of Arthur belongs to all England, and the whole southwest coast is especially dedicated to his memory, South Wales and Somersetshire above the rest. Caerleon, on the Usk, was his seat before his supremacy was fully established, and one at which he continued to hold court at stated seasons. Arthur was chosen to the pendragonship by acclamation of a faction of the barons and knights under the influence of Merlin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who consecrated him at Caerleon at Whitsuntide, where he received seven tributary kings in the following August. There was still so much turbulence and discontent among them, and a whisper of treason, that Arthur escaped from a window in his tower to a safer hold. At this crisis Merlin arrived again in his mysterious preeminence, before which all bowed, and the barons went to welcome him, and “ led him into a palace upon the river without the town, in a faire meadow, and brought him up to a window aloft, where they might see fair water and great, that goed about the walls of Karlion.” They there made their complaints against Arthur, whom they called bastard and usurper. Merlin convened a general assembly, held in state, in presence of the archbishop, at which he promised to satisfy them of Arthur’s claims to be their lord paramount. The archbishop opened the ceremonies with a solemn exhortation, but the barons interrupted him : “ ‘ Sir, abide awhile untill we have heard Merlin speak, for hereafter ye may us preach at leisure.’ ” Then Merlin brought forward Antor and Uther Pendragon’s letters and seal, and revealed Arthur’s royal origin. The princes, still dissatisfied, dispersed, to break out in rebellion. Arthur, by Merlin’s advice, collected the survivors of his father’s Round Table, and founded his own ; formed alliances, among others with King Leodogran, father of Guinivere, whom he married later; put down the malcontents, after much hard fighting ; and thus was confirmed and acknowledged monarch of the realm, and crowned, as one annalist relates, at Stonehenge.
The morning sunshine of a September day was turning the turbid waters of the Severn to gold, as I crossed them from the Somerset shore to South Wales, and it was still bright and early when I reached the town of Newport, with its three strong towers. There the Usk falls into the Severn, scuffling with the tidal flow. Following the former inland through the quiet fields for three miles, it brought me to Caerleon, a little town which stopped growing a great while ago. A circular green mound, a few acres across, deeply hollowed in the middle, is all that remains of Arthur’s palace, where the door was kept by that erratic porter who went upon his head to save his feet. The centre of the circuit is so much lower than the sides that they shut out all view except of the sky; it is only near the top that even the church tower on a neighboring hill comes into sight. From the rim the outlook is of no great extent, over a green valley, through which the Usk winds and bends, a muddy stream, sunk between clay banks. The nearer hills are low, the further ones higher and bolder, but no other town, village, country-seat, or even church is to be seen. From the tower of Arthur’s palace only,
And white sails flying on the yellow sea.”
The land is scantily wooded, chiefly pasture; in a new country it would be a blank landscape, but here it has an Old World character, rural and placid, tamed to man’s use, long though little inhabited, with nothing to hinder the range of memory and fancy. As it looks now, turning the back on the little town, it may have looked when Arthur’s knights went to hunt the white hart in the forest of Dean. That lay, some say, between the Usk and Wye; some, southward, between Caerleon and Cardiff, which are fourteen miles apart. The hills to the south are bolder, and the woodland sweeps over many of them in an unbroken wave. On nearing Cardiff a change comes over the scenery, and the river Taff runs through it, swift and clear, to the sea. There are fine remains of the castle, with its great octagonal keep, in which Robert, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, spent twenty-six years in captivity and blindness. The modern additions are castellated, but extraordinarily incongruous and out of keeping with the character of the original pile. But castle, cathedral, and all that is oldest in the place had Norman builders. The home of Enid and the hold of the Knight of the Sparrowhawk, the port where Arthur embarked on his foreign expeditions, where the broken-hearted Launcelot set sail for his own country, are buried under the ruins of a later antiquity.
Wales, like every part of Great Britain, lays claim to the sites of Arthur’s court and many of his battlefields ; but Arthur’s courts, camps, beds, stairs, stools, and graves are thickly strewn from the English Channel to the Firth of Forth. Carlisle is almost the only northerly place of ascertained identity to which tradition assigns events of importance in the annals of his reign ; but some versions do not allude to them, while others place them at Cardoel, or Cardoile, in Wales, which has withdrawn from the scope of latitude and longitude. In some romances, an encounter between Launcelot and Sir Mador de la Porte, of which more hereafter, is related to have taken place at Carlisle.
Arthur held his court at Westminster from time to time, and this explains the geography which finds Shalott at Guildford, in Surrey. To try and fix all the Arthurian localities would be waste of time, and, far worse, loss of illusion. London in its age and vastness has some of the eternal dignity of Rome; strata on strata of conquest and civilization hide older layers from the eye, but not from the mind. Westminster will always be venerable and historic far beyond the memories of its present bridge and abbey ; the sense of beginnings, of mythical preludes to recorded event, is lost only in wonder at the results. But it is very different where new-born industry or vulgarity has trampled the grave of romance out of shape and sight, so let those beware who would look too close.
Winchester is another seat of ancient beauty and dignity which lays claim to having been one of Arthur’s abodes and the headquarters of the Round Table, and some of the old romances confound it with Camelot. Wherever he held his court the Round Table must have been set for the time, and all authorities agree in making Camelot his favorite place of sojourn, the starting and rallying point of the guests ; and the most learned in our times identify it with the hill fort at South Cadbury, in Somersetshire, sometimes called Queen’s Camel.
The nearest railway station to Cadbury is Templecombe, a pretty old village, off the track of travel; but few trains stop there daily, and as the whistle dies away the place loses recollection of them. Here once stood a consistory of the Knights Templars. Some fragments of the refectory are built into a cottage, and the chapel wall, with its fine Gothic window, partly incloses the pigsty. It is seven or eight miles from Templecombe to South Cadbury, by the quietest, greenest lanes, between banks of fern and bluebell crested with hedges hung full of scarlet berries, and past the prettiest hamlets, — four or five thatched, embowered cottages, with rustic porch and garden, planted irregularly about a low gray church with an ivied tower. Trees border the road, and above their tops are seen on all sides hills rolled in foliage. At length, one higher than the rest comes into sight, with straight, cleancut lines of grassy summit, and this is the old British camp, Cadbury Castle, or " the hill fort.” There was a steep, stony lane, up which I had to trudge for about a quarter of a mile, the first stage of the ascent ; then came a belt of trees on the edge of a trench; then a wilderness of thistles, briers, nettles, and scrub growth, — a parable of the difficulties one gets into among the confusion and contradiction of the old romances through which lies the way to historic likelihood. The hillsides grew steeper at every step, hardly to be climbed except on all fours ; another bank and trench, then a smooth green slope, almost perpendicular, and a final ridge, raised slightly round a circular plateau, — about twenty acres of springy turf, without tree or shrub. Here was the place to sit and pant, and rest the shaking legs, under a blue sky ; to listen to the fresh breeze rustling in the trees below, and gaze over the fertile countryside. An undulating succession of hill and dale flowed softly into each other, feathered and fringed with waving woods. Beyond the mounting, billowy uplands, several sharp, isolated peaks cut the clear air; of these, the tallest rose darkly, like a mysterious warning, and it was Glastonbury Tor.
This, then, was Camelot. Within the grassy circle stood Arthur’s chief palace, the headquarters of the Round Table. Here he sat in his hall strewn with fresh rushes, and leaned his elbow on a flamecolored cushion, while no porter kept the hospitable doors. Here it was that Guinivere shone supreme among her ladies ; here that Sir Bors, Sir Kay, Tor, Gawaine. Balin le Savage, the prudent Dinadan, Launcelot du Lac, paid them worship in the lists and the bower, or went forth on quests and adventures, or followed the king to battle at Badon and Ashdown, or joined with Galahad and Percivale in their sacred Search. This is the centre of that enchanted realm in which still are hidden the magic spring, the lake, the isle, the pavilion of pleasure, the castle, the mystic chapel, the lawless forest, the hermit’s cell. Hither came Tristan of Lyonesse to vindicate the honor of Cornish knights, who were held to be cowards by the Round Table, perhaps in contempt of their king, Mark. He was introduced by Launcelot, his brother in arms : and on his arrival “ came Queen Guinivere and many ladies with her, and all these ladies said with one voice : ‘ Welcome Sir Tristan: ’ ‘ welcome ’ said the damosels ; ‘ welcome ’ said the knights; ‘ welcome ’ said king Arthur, ‘ for one of the best knights and gentilest in the world.’ ”
As the loves of Tristan and Yseult belong especially to Tintagel, so do those of Launcelot and Guinivere to Camelot. Although the latter’s personality is not so trenchant as Yseult’s, it is finely and consistently indicated by the old romances, and Tennyson has perfected the picture by observing the outline. There is always something large and lofty about her even in her whims and humors ; she is royal. She bears a bad character in Wales to this day, where, I am told, Ganor, short for Gwenhwyvar, is an ill name for a woman, as Florinda was in Spain after the fall of King Roderick. There is an old Welsh rhyme about Guinivere which means “ bad when little, worse when great.” But her name is not so eschewed in Cornwall, where it is said to survive in the patronymic of Jennifer; and the prejudice, wherever it exists, rests on the end, not on the beginning, of her story. In Sir Thomas Malory she treads grandly through her ordeals, though the ground was as hot ploughshares under her feet. The bluff Sir Bors, no courtier, though he was of Launcelot’s family, declared that “ always she hath been large and free of her goods to all good knights, and the most bounteous lady of her gifts and good graces that ever I saw or heard speak of.” The ten knights wearing the white armor of her bodyguard, who were wounded in her behalf, had cause to remember her good graces : for she had them laid in a chamber adjoining hers, and tended them with her own hands, day and night, until they were healed. When five kings made war on Arthur and he took the field, he asked the queen to go with him, that her presence might embolden him ; and she replied, “‘Sir, I am at your command and shall be ready what time soever ye he ready.’ ” When they were forced across Humber, the river being dangerous, Arthur bade her choose between capture and the risk of drowning, and she answered that she would rather die in the water than fall into the enemy’s hands. Her thanks to Sir Kay for his bravery in this strait, and her promise “ to bear his noble fame among ladies,” are spoken with the same queenly spirit and freedom. Her affection and veneration for the king were strong at first, perhaps to the last; on his departure against the Romans, Guinivere was overcome by grief, and was carried fainting to her chamber by her ladies.
This is the epoch of Launcelot’s first appearance at court, so far as the devious chronology can be followed ; and if there was already some unavowed love between them, they were so far above even self-suspicion that Launcelot openly professed his admiration for the queen and chose her as his lady, and she accepted him as her knight elect. As their lives go on and their chivalrous relations change, her emotions become more violent; her anger, grief, and jealousy get the upper hand too often, until she turns into something of a termagant. There is a humorous touch of nature in the incidents of her absence, through illness, from a brilliant tournament on Humber, near Launcelot’s castle of Joyeuse Garde. It was when Tristan and Yseult had fled together from Cornwall, during an uprising of the people against King Mark, and they were Launcelot’s guests. As Guinivere could not preside, Yseult was made queen of the tourney, though because of her forfeit honor her pavilion was apart from the other ladies’. It was the crowning moment for her and her minstrel knight, and in an outburst of triumphant happiness he sent greeting to Guinivere " that in all the land there were but four lovers, — Queen Guinivere and Sir Launcelot du Lac, Sir Tristram of Lyonesse and Queen Isoud. " The queen had much curiosity about these doings, the report of which reached her at a seaside castle where she was getting well, with great praise of Yseult “ for her beautie, bountie and mirth,” and she broke out with the petulance of convalescence : “ ‘ O mercy Jesu ! so saith all the people that hath seen her and spoken with her. . . . It misfortuned me of my sickness while that tournament endured, and I suppose I shall never see in all my life such an assembly of knights and ladies as ye had there.’
Humor is not lacking in many of the Arthurian adventures, and Dinadan, the modern man, is something of a wag; but there is little place for it in the fatal love-tale about which the epic revolves. In the course of years Guinivere’s passion for Launcelot outruns caution and disguise, under the trials to which her self-control is exposed by his dangers, absences, captivities, and allurements by other women. Little by little everybody is in the secret except Arthur; and though his mistrust is sometimes stirred, he puts it aside with grand magnanimity. These passages are gathered and summed up by the master hand in Launcelot and Elaine. That touching vision came among the rest, during the long afternoon while I lingered on the hill fort, and I looked far and wide for the river down which her barge floated, and into which the jealous queen flung the diamonds. At last I caught a gleam of water, and made out a little stream — the Camel, no doubt — twisting among the meadows at the base of the hill. Too much has to be allowed for shallowing and shrinking even in over a thousand years for imagination to see the boat and boatman, and the fair corpse, borne down that rivulet. With great unwillingness to shift the scene of so exquisite an episode, I had to fall back on Sir Thomas Malory’s assertion that Astolat, or Shalott, was Guildford, in Surrey, and that the Thames carried the lady to London, while Arthur was sojourning at Westminster. The original of Elaine in the old metrical Morte Arthur is a more spoiled and self-willed maiden than the lily maid of Astolat. The ancient poem says her cheek
and the likeness of a wild rose is more in keeping with her untrained bloom and forlorn end. But Tennyson generously gave us the pure and pensive image which could not be spared from her place in the Idylls of the King.
The earlier portion of the Arthuriad, after the preliminary incidents are disposed of and the leading personages have been introduced, is pervaded by a bright freshness as of the breeze and sunshine of morning. The knights and ladies are young ; the swords are unworn though not unproved, the shields untarnished ; love, faith, hope, ambition, and belief in life are warming the veins and lifting the hearts. There are bursts of joy and recklessness, born of animal spirits and the exuberance of youth. There are springs of tenderness in these dauntless souls, not yet dried by the length and drought of the day. Even King Mark, the meanest and most abject of the throng, finding the bodies of an Irish knight, killed in combat by Balin, and of his lady-love, who stabbed herself on seeing him fall, lays them together in a rich tomb within a beautiful church. The friendship of the brute creation and its part in the life of man give rise to many touching incidents. The most important of them is the adventure of the lady of the white hart and her knight, who kills Gawaine’s hounds to avenge the pet creature’s death. “ ‘ Why have ye slain my hounds ? ’ ” said Sir Gawaine. “ ‘ They did but after their kind, and lever had I ye had wroken your anger upon me than upon a dumb beast.’ ” The death of the hart and hounds brought about the death of the knight and lady, for which Gawaine was tried by Guinivere’s court of ladies, and rebuked by his younger brother and squire : “ ‘ Ye should give mercy to them that ask mercy, for a knight without, mercy is without worship.’ ” Percivale. on a lone mountain-side, beset with foes and danger, rescues a lion’s whelp from a serpent; the lion kills the snake, carries the whelp to a safe place, and comes back to fawn on Percivale like a spaniel. The knight, in the loneliness of his peril, stroked him “on the neck and on the shoulders and gave thanks to God for the fellowship of the beast.” The little hound given by Tristan to Yseult plays his humble part in their drama, he alone recognizing his lord through the rags and strangeness of a lately past insanity. Horses and their faithful service are not forgotten. When Launcelot nearly lost his life in an ambush, and his horse was shot under him, the devoted creature followed his master, with forty arrows in his flanks and his entrails dragging, until he fell dead. Even birds have their place in this largely drawn plan of an ideal world. Launcelot got into one of his worst scrapes by climbing a tree to release a falcon entangled in her jesses. “When she would have taken flight she hung by the legs fast, and Sir Launcelot saw how she hung and beheld the fair perigot and was sorry for her.” Arthur has the largest share of this compassion, the highminded, great - hearted king, who was subject to a sacred rage in the fray, was pitiful and courteous to any woman, child, serf, or beast that cried for help.
Woods and flowery fields were favorite resorts of the brotherhood, in the prime of their errantry ; they were addicted to sitting by forest wells and springs, a practice so well known of them that a heart-whole fellow, passing where a knight lay watching the bubbies in a fountain, taxed him at once with being of the court and with his lovelorn state. Launcelot’s grief after a night of bitter repentance is assuaged by hearing the birds sing at dawn. Feeling for nature, so vehemently claimed as a development of modern sensibility, belongs not only to Sir Thomas Malory, but to the old romances, which abound even more than he does in picturesque details and descriptions. They are sprinkled with little poems in prose on springtime and summer. “ The spring returns, the trees are in their bloom, the forest in its beauty, the birds chaunt, the sea is smooth, the gently rising tide sounds hollow, the wind is still. The best armour against misfortune is prayer.”2 Malory has a lovely interlude on May, wherein “ true love is likened to summer,” as introduction to How Queen Gunever rode on Maying. These softer strains run through the gladsome measures of hunting, tilting, and going to battle. Only the predictions of Merlin rise from time to time, like the chill breath on a cloudless day foretelling a change of weather. Gradually the morning music dies away, and exultation gives place to murmurs, wrangling, recrimination, care, and remorse. Under the changefulness of fortune and the fickle heart of man, the bonds of loyalty slacken, those of love and friendship chafe, the lustre of the Round Table grows dull. In this transition Malory shows his knowledge of life and human nature, as well as his genius; no modern analyst has a finer touch for the intricacies of the heart. Even the nameless bards and romancewriters of the dark ages knew the difference between a light love and a master passion. He and his forerunners perfectly understood how to class those temporary bonds which are twisted and loosened by vanity or vexation, and the mortal hold of a love like Launcelot and Guinivere’s, Tristan and Yseult’s, and that of Yseult’s unhappy paynim adorer, Sir Palomides, or the undying wifely devotion of Elizabeth of Lyonesse and the fair Ynid. The proceedings of the lovers and their views of love remind one that there is no new thing under the sun. “ ‘ Madam,’ said Sir Launcelot ” (when the queen hypocritically reproached him with hardness of heart to Elaine), “ ‘ I love not to be constrained in love, for love must arise of the heart and not by no constraint.’ ‘ That is truth,’ said the king and many knights : ‘ love is free in himself and never will be bounden ; for where he is bounden he loseth himself.’ ” They wrote to each other, in spite of prudence, and the letters were intercepted, as in later days. Merlin, the sage, after leading his long life with credit and dignity, when he was an old man “ fell on a dotage ” of the youthful Vivien, with what disastrous result is known. He remains the type and warning of amorous graybeards. When three knights, Marhaus, Gawaine, and Uwaine, or Evan, met three damsels, and agreed to spend a year in their company, seeking adventures, the eldest knight chose the youngest maid; the young squire, who had not won his spurs, took the elderly damsel, who discreetly guided him to renown. The modification of temperament and character by time and circumstance is indicated with consummate skill, yet with absolute simplicity of method.
The art of bookmaking was not understood in those days, however. The prose Morte d’Arthur is a patchy bit of work ; the edges of the scraps seldom meet exactly. It is easy to recognize different versions of one story in several adventures which are narrated as happening at distinct times and places. Even by its own system of chronology and geography there are discrepancies and contradictions ; it is full of clumsy translation, while the bloodthirstiness of some episodes and the tender chivalry and piety of others show that the original documents must have been of widely different dates. But the same spirit animates the whole book, and that was infused by Sir Thomas Malory.
As natural vicissitude was bringing the court and fellowship to a turningpoint, the St. Grail appeared. This had been foretold long before by Merlin, and it came to pass when the youth Galahad saw the vision of the sacred chalice in hall and vowed to follow the summons. The other knights saw it at the same time in different manifestations, and all swore to follow; the gay Gawaine, who was the first to swear, was the first to weary of the search. From this climax there is a change of tone in Malory’s recital, which can be explained only by supposing a different and deeper meaning in the old romance whence he took the quest of the Sangreal from those which furnished him with the histories of Merlin and Arthur, and the previous adventures of various knights. It has a strange solemnizing effect on the rest of the story. In the choosing of Arthur as king, in spite of his doubtful birth and humble rearing, and the setting him over the heads of petty kings and powerful chieftains, there is a Scriptural significance, which reappears faintly from time to time during the epic. This, however, may be merely the glimpsing up of eternal moral truths underlying the course of events in history and human life, of which romance and fiction are but rearrangements. But after the quest of the St. Grail is proclaimed, the fabulous color of the adventures gives place to an allegorical one. There is a mystic elevation, a religious fervor, in the moods of the knights and in their pursuits ; they vow themselves to the service of Christ instead of to their lady’s ; their sins find them out and bring them to repentance. A gentler code prevails in their encounters ; they are content to prove their prowess by overthrowing an adversary without slaying him. Hermits and holy women begin to play important parts; white birds and beasts and flowers and white-robed visitants haunt the visions of the knights ; the personages themselves become conscious that they are carrying out an allegory, as when the anchorite expounds to Gawaine that the captives in the Castle of Maidens typify “ the good soules that were in prison afore the incarnation of Christ.” Sir Bors sees a pelican feed its starving young and die, and recognizes it as a symbol. The marvelous is transmuted into the miraculous. Dreams have a spiritual interpretation, temptations are of the same character, and a foreshadowing of the end falls across the minds of the brotherhood. Arthur, more than the rest, is burdened by the presentiment, and it weighs heavily on the queen, who tries to stir up the king to forbid the knights to follow the St. Grail, as they had taken their oath when he was not in hall. He will not interfere, and they set out on the morrow, after hearing mass in the minster with the king and queen, a sad and solemn farewell rite. The knights then armed and rode away, commending themselves to the queen, with a clash, tramp, and sound of departure that reverberates through the blood as one reads. This is one of the very few passages in which Tennyson has enfeebled the old narrative, instead of enriching it and making it more beautiful. His picture of Guinivere riding by Launcelot, weeping and wailing before all the people who had come out, sorrowing, to see the fellowship go forth, lacks the dignity and poignancy of the other version. She was mastered by her emotion, and withdrew to her chamber. Launcelot missed and followed her. "' Ah, madam ! I pray you be not displeased, for I shall come again as soon as I may with my worship.'
‘ Alas ! ’ said she, ‘ that ever I saw you ! but Hee that suffered death upon the crosse for all mankind bee to you good conduct and safetie, and to all the whole fellowship.’ ”
Day was waning when my retrospect brought this procession before me, and I followed down the steep descent ; the echoes of their receding footsteps mingling with the faint, distant voice of labor calling to its children that the hours of work were over and the time for rest had come.
Objects of great antiquity are to be found within the circumference of the hill fort and its eight concentric walls and ditches, for the green mounds cover stone foundations, which, with the natural escarpment, must have made it almost impregnable to early weapons and modes of warfare ; but not a vestige of them meets the eye, and the fabled Camelot gains everything by being left without one stone upon another to hinder the dreamer’s rebuilding.
The search for the St. Grail altogether exceeds the bounds of terrestrial geography. The greater number of those who undertook it never came back ; among these were the pearls of the order, Galahad and Percivale. Sir Bors was the last to return to court, bringing their farewell greetings. Galahad’s parting message was, " Salute Sir Launcelot, my father, and bid him remember this unstable world ; ” and thenceforward Launcelot had a deeper tenderness for his brave kinsman, as the last, earthly link with his son ; for Galahad was the child of an early adventure, into which Launcelot had been entrapped by an ambitious prince and his daughter. Launcelot, to whom a terrible warning vision of the Grail had been vouchsafed, had spent part of his absence in penitence with hermits. His superiority to his mates was so striking that even the anchorites, in rebuking him, said, as if despite themselves, " For an earthly sinner thou hast no peer in knighthood nor never shall be, but little thank hast thou given unto God for all the great vertues that God hath lent thee.” Notwithstanding these admonitions, and his deep and earnest aspirations, and the fading out of the spirit of delight, which is profoundly felt as the end of the epic approaches, he and the queen were drawn together again, neither of them being of the metal to withstand temptation when exposed to it directly. They strove and struggled, and Guinivere, moved by prudence or compunction, forbade Launcelot the court with some high words, and he left it in wrath. To hide her heaviness of heart, the queen gave a banquet for twenty-four knights, among whom was the volatile Gawaine. A secret foe of his contrived that a dish of poisoned apples should be placed on table, within Gawaine’s reach, but it was Sir Patrise who eat and fell dead. On this the knights left the table, in fear that there was a plot to poison them all, in revenge for their gossip about the queen, and Mador de la Porte took up the cause, as next of kin to Sir Patrise. She was accused to Arthur, who, though persuaded of her innocence, could not break the code and appear as his wife’s champion, and told her to send for Launcelot or another defender. The queen believed that Launcelot had left the country, and knew not where to turn, as the guests at her feast included the knights of greatest prowess of the fellowship. If not vindicated she would bo burnt alive, and in her despair she appealed to the blunt and honest Bors, Launcelot’s next of kin, and devoted to him with a doglike fidelity, who promised to take up her battle if no better man should offer. Authorities differ as to whether the lists were marked out and the stake and fagots set up at the forgotten Cardoile in Wales, or at merry Carlisle in the breezy north marches, or, as Malory says, at Westminster. Mador was overthrown in single combat by an unknown knight who rode up at the last moment, and was none other than Launcelot in disguise. He was wounded in the encounter, and when he came to receive the thanks of the king and queen, and put off his helmet, “ she wept so tenderly that she sank almost to the ground that he had done to her so great goodness where she showed him great unkindness.” But this misadventure was not of a sort to put a stop to gossip. Her anxiety increased; she sent him from court again, and this time chance led him to Astolat.
The flitting of Elaine across the disorder of the court, the surmises to which her sad tale gave rise, by strange and adverse chance brought about the catastrophe for Launcelot and the queen. They had enemies, among whom was the king’s nephew, Mordred, bent on usurping the throne, and sowing dissension and dishonor through the court and realm as means to his end. Through him discovery and disgrace overtook them,
The conclusion is prolonged by Sir Thomas Malory with a diversity of magnanimous and affecting incidents, in which the nobility of the chief actors comes to light in a final glow. Launcelot and the queen escape to his castle on Humber ; his kinsfolk rally to him; Arthur lays siege to the fortress, and passages of perfect chivalry take place between the mortally aggrieved king and his once best friend and knight. Many of the brilliant order lose their lives ; the kingdom is wasted by the strife, and the Pope intervenes, commanding Arthur to make peace under pain of interdict, and to pardon Guinivere and her lover. The king, for the sake of religion and for the good of his realm, yields, and the three meet, in presence of the court and the armies, at Carlisle, where Launcelot had rescued her from peril of death,
They assembled in the green lap of the unbounded Cumberland landscape, —a bold, open country, where the fells sweep skyward with a fine breadth, freshened by strong breezes; clouds and sunshine, ragged rainstorms, thunder and lightning, chase across them forever; there is no chance for settled weather. in summer the woods are dark and dense; the grassy fields are dotted with haymakers or with grazing sheep ; flashing brooks race and brawl round shady bluffs; the banks are truly pied with clover, buttercups, daisies, forget-menots, and bluebells, over which glare scarlet poppies, and the tall foxglove — fairy finger by a prettier name —waves its purple flowers. There is a sense of freedom in Cumberland seldom felt in English scenery; there seems to be no bottom land or low ground, and no middle distance ; everywhere you stand high, and the eye at once climbs the steep, widespreading fell. The singularity of the landscape is that you are always looking up at it. Helvellyn, Skiddaw, and the jagged peaks and bulks of lesser mountains encircle the view, but do not shut it in ; the glance travels to the horizon.
Hither came the queen and Launcelot, “ in white samite with silver shredde, ivory saddle and white steed,” says the ancient metrical Morte Arthur, accompanied by a hundred knights in green velvet, in which their horses too were trapped to the heels ; and every knight wore a green wreath and held a branch of olive in his hand, tokening peace. “And behold and wist you,” Sir Thomas Malory relates, " there was many a weeping eye. And then Sir Launcelot alight . . . and took the queen and so led her to where King Arthur was in his seat . . . and then he kneeled down and the queen both. . . . The king sat still and said no word.” Launcelot, as in honor bound, maintained Guinivere’s innocence, offering to fight any knight alive in defense of her good name. Gawaine, Arthur’s nephew, would have taken up the challenge on his uncle’s behalf, but it was ruled that even single combat on this score would infringe the Pope’s decree.
With this splendid scene the curtain falls on the glory of the Round Table. The queen withdrew to a convent; Launcelot, with his whole family and following, to his own country of France. His sorrow on leaving the land of his adoption, “ ‘ most noble Christian realm, whom I have loved above all other realms,’” is deeply moving. To France Arthur and the knights who remained of his broken court and order, Gawaine among them, pursued Launcelot, and besieged him at his castle in Brittany, with a liberal interpretation of the Pope’s prohibition, leaving Mordred regent. One of the finest touches of the conclusion is the relentless purpose of Gawaine, once the lightest trifler of the court, yet a true knight and prince, under the tragic stress of the exigency and his vindictive grief for his brothers. He fights and is wounded by Launcelot, and defies him to another meeting as soon as he shall be healed. Meanwhile, however, the news comes of treason, rebellion, and invasion at home, and Arthur and his host are called back to Britain, where Gawaine dies, and Arthur declares that “ now all earthly joy is gone from him.” All this and much that follows is eminently pathetic, and in place in a romance; but Lord Tennyson’s abridgment is at once more poetical and more dramatic. Both he and Sir Thomas Malory lead the way to Salisbury.
Salisbury Plain is endowed with the inalienable grandeur of the Roman Campagna or the Libyan desert. There is nothing else so striking, nothing so strange, in all England. Groups of trees, patches of cultivation, scattered farm buildings, encroach here and there on its wide solitude, but they take nothing from the effect of boundless openness and unrecorded antiquity. As the eye ranges over it, certain details are noted : grassy burrows, the burying-places of prehistoric times, the bright green rings which show where fairies have danced overnight, the outlines of more than one British camp, and the shafts and trioliths of Stonehenge standing up against the sky. These break the surface slightly, but are lost in the general view of the dull-colored sweep, rising and falling in long, calm swells. In my memory the sky is always lowering, and the sun sends broad beams of dim light through rifts in the clouds. It is a scene of loneliness and desolation not to be surpassed, which seems to belong wholly to times gone by beyond recollection, yet which, even in those furthest bygone times, must have looked the same as now. The Arthurian account of Stonehenge is that Merlin had the huge stones brought by magic, and set up in commemoration of Arthur’s triumph ; and this is the only adequate explanation which has been given of the way in which they came there.
Where the reiterated rise and fall of the plain breaks into irregularities towards the northeast there is a dell, closed in by two hills and hidden by beautiful trees, through which the small, clear stream of the upper Avon speeds along. Centuries before the monk Austin came from Rome to evangelize England, some of the first saints who brought Christianity to Britain, building churches and religious houses which were to serve as the foundations, spiritual and material, of later and more famous ones, made this peaceful nook a sacred retreat, and called it Ambrosebury. They built some sort of shelter for their meditations and ministrations.
Was byggyd by a burney’s flode,”
the metrical romance says, and in aftertimes two successive Saxon nunneries and a Norman one were erected on the spot; the old name being corrupted first into Almesbury, then Amesbury, which it keeps to this day. Here Guinivere took refuge after the discovery of her guilt, and here came Launcelot, after Arthur’s overthrow, to carry her off to his castle in Brittany, and defend her against the whole world.
But repentance had entered into her soul, with an awakening to the magnitude of her sin and the calamities which it had brought upon the realm. She called the ladies and gentlewomen of the convent together, and confessed before them all: “ ‘ Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought. . . . Through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed.’ ” She declared her purpose of devoting the rest of her days to expiation. “‘And I trust, through God’s grace, that after my death to have a sight of the blessed face of Christ. . . . Therefore, Sir Launcelot, I require and beseech thee heartily, for all the love that was ever betwixt us, that thou never see me more in the visage; and I command thee, on God’s behalf, that thou forsake my company.’ ” She further bade him go to his own country, marry, be happy, and pray for her that she might “ amend her misliving.” “‘Now, sweet madam,’ said Sir Launcelot, ‘ would ye that I should return again unto my own country, there to wed a lady? Nay, madam, wit you well that shall I never do.’ ” Life was ended for him as for her, and, gained by her contrition and exhortations, Launcelot vowed to give up the world and devote himself to prayer. Thus they parted forever, without the last kiss, which he besought in vain, but with such unutterable love and woe that the nuns wept for the anguish of their farewell; “and there was never so hard an hearted man but he would have wept to see the dolour that they made.” There is no more tragical or majestic queen in fiction than Guinivere as she appears at the last; there is no page in literature more palpitating with high-wrought passion than Sir Thomas Malory’s recital of the parting and death of Launcelot and his royal lady.
Every trace of the convent is gone. A modern mansion keeps the name of Amesbury Abbey, and its walls hold the former stones, — the stones against which Guinivere laid her golden head, under her husband’s sublime rebuke and pardon, and on which she knelt daily for three years of penitence, until she died. Through the weird, lonely tract from which they were gathered to build the first religious house, Arthur traversed the place once made joyous by his coronation, on his mission of farewell and forgiveness. He must so have come and gone, for it is crossed by a Roman road and an old British trackway, by one of which he must have taken his way to Amesbury, and thence to join his army for the final battle on the Cornish coast.
It might be thought that if tradition could keep its hold on one site more than any other of Arthurian story, it would be upon that of the disastrous defeat which alone, of the entire cycle, belongs to the catalogue of historic facts, when the great leader of the native tribes fell before the alliance of domestic treachery with the swarms of invasion, and left Britain without a head, to be overrun by Danes, Saxons, and Normans, until her nationality and even her name were ground off the face of the land. It was assuredly one of the decisive battles of the world, yet the field is as uncertain as any of the Arthurian localities. Cornwall claims it, and places it near Camelford, not far from Tintagel, where there is a second little river Camel, which Drayton says goes hither and thither at random : —
By Mordred’s murtherous hand was mingled with her flood.”
The name of Slaughter Bridge commemorates the catastrophe, as well as a great battle in Saxon times, three centuries afterwards. One tradition says, further, that on that bridge Arthur met his traitor nephew Mordred during the fight, and slew him before getting his own death-wound. The spot is picturesque, and not wanting in romantic suggestion. The long, sharp-backed hills stretch out in bleak uniformity, seamed at irregular angles by the hedge-walls; above them rise two mounts, square-topped, but broken in outline, with a sinister, ominous bearing, like the high places of human sacrifice. They are called Roughtor and Brown Willy, a corruption of Bron Wella, or Beacon-Breast, in Cornish, and are the highest points in Cornwall. Overlooked by these, at the head of the narrow, twisting vale in which Camelford lies, is a low, onearched stone bridge, spanning a brook half strangled in rushes; a little way off, on one hand, stands a gray mill with a mossy water-wheel; on the other, an old gateway, leading I know not whither, with two tall, rude stone gateposts surmounted by rough stone balls which might have been shot from a catapult. It is a good site for a duel or any other deadly encounter in past times, but not for a battle ; and I left it altogether converted to the theory, adopted by Tennyson, that the battle took place on some more open space in the lost region of Lyonesse.
Lyonesse was the westernmost part of Cornwall, when the peninsula reached thirty miles beyond Land’s End, and broke off, not in that unimpressive cliff, a low jetty compared to Tintagel and
but in the terrible outposts of the Scilly Isles. It must have been a soft summerland, like the whole south coast; the high ridges having run themselves out into mere craggy partitions between the dells and combes, heavily wooded, as the submerged forest off Mount’s Bay still testifies. The low-lying, open country must have been golden with buttercups in the meadows, gorse blazing like bonfires on the banks, with yellow flagflowers waving in the marshes, and laburnums shaking their golden tresses to the wind under the lee of every gentle slope. A hundred and forty Christian churches are said to have been founded in that blessed region, and no doubt the missionaries, who were from more civilized countries, taught their converts some of the simple arts of peace, and sheep grazed, orchards bloomed, and wheat ripened in the warm folds of the landscape. It was from this pleasant land that Tristram came, with his harp and the lays and ways of minstrels from across the narrow seas. It was here, most likely, that Percivale and others of the Round Table found the hermitages and monasteries to which they resorted for seasons of prayer and penance, or to close their warlike days in religious meditation. Here, and not in the clefts of Roughtor and Bron Wella, Arthur and the remnant of his knights met Mordred and his heathen allies, and the sound of battle rolled above the rolling of the surf on either coast. During the silent period of English history Lyonesse was engulfed by the sea, either by a tremendous physical convulsion, such as formed the Zuyder Zee, or by gradual inroads, like those which have got possession of the neighboring coast of Wales. The flowery domain, with its churches and castles, its humbler homes and the bleaching bones of the great battlefield, lies fathoms below the waves that roll their long, undulating swell in and out of the caverns at Land’s End, and dash in a fury of foam against the fangs of the Scilly Isles, standing up like a shark’s teeth, edgewise, against the Atlantic sky-line.
The last station of my pilgrimage was the abbey of Glastonbury, famed centuries before Arthur because of its sacred origin and its miraculous privileges. The way lies through the lovely vale of Cheddar, with the British Channel on one hand, and on the other the Mendip Hills, a high range softly overlaid by turf and trees, breaking off abruptly here and there into steep crags; below the surface there are caves hung with fantastic stalactites, in which have been found human skeletons and weapons. Turning east from the valley, the road crosses a flat stretch, from which is seen a very high hill standing up alone, wooded half-way to the top, and crowned by a ruined tower. This is Glastonbury Tor, with the ruined chapel of St. Michael mounting guard over a quiet little Old World town, which bears the stamp of devoutness on its cruciform ground-plan, with a market cross at the intersection of four compact streets. It meekly wears the ornament of two beautiful old churches, St. John’s and St. Benedict’s, and owns, without boast, two curious, picturesque inns of remote date: one is the George, the pilgrims’ hostelry of former times; the other, the Red Lion, was the gatehouse of the abbey, and keeps the Gothic entrance, and some beautiful fretwork and mullions in certain small chambers where guests may refresh themselves and rest. Many house-fronts in the town are built with fragments of the abbey, but the small place is so sweet and sedate that there seems to be no desecration in putting these sacred stones to domestic use. Glastonbury is a country town in the truest sense. Its streets, paved with cobble-stones and without sidewalks, emerge directly upon open fields. On one hand is the Tor; on the other, a grassy steep named Wearyall Hill, where the legend begins which has hallowed the spot from the lucent time before the dark ages to this day.
says the ancient romance of Joseph of Arimathea, and goes on to relate how our Saviour’s latest friend, after roaming about the world, waiting for the voice of the Spirit to bid him stop, heard the intimation as he came down this hillside, and saw the island valley of Avalon at his feet. He paused, and planted his staff, of which he had no further need. Forthwith it took root, and in due time, being a thorn, but of no native species, put out leaves and flowers, and grew into a thick tree, which blossomed at Christmas, when every English thorn stands black and bare. This prodigy, repeated yearly, had made the tree an object of veneration centuries before the life of Joseph of Arimathea was compiled, which was between A. D. 1300 and 1400, according to Skeat, the authority on early English metrical romances. And an older poem on the same subject refers to a still more ancient chronicle : —
... as the old boke says.”
The pious practice of taking slips and cuttings from the holy thorn, as it was called, has given us living witnesses of its power, though the Puritans rooted out the parent stock as an object of idolatrous worship. They were planted in various parts of England and France, and several remain. One thrives in the episcopal garden at Wells, another within the precinct of Glastonbury Abbey. As all the shoots possess the same privilege, they may still be seen at Christmas in leaf and flower, a yearly prodigy, and a testimony to the marvel of a millennium and a half ago, to put it at the latest. The legend runs that Joseph built a cell and chapel in the heart of the isle of Avalon, said to be the first place of Christian worship in Britain, and preached Christ to the Britons, who heard him gladly, founded a religious house, and there ended peaceful days, and was buried. The chapel of wood or wattles, “ wreathed twigs,” says Dugdale, in the Monasticum Anglicanum, was preserved as a relic (like the cell of St. Francis Assisi) in the churches which rose, one after another, on the consecrated spot; it went to pieces in the course of a thousand years, and is represented by the lady chapel of the latest edifice, better known as the Chapel of St. Joseph. St. Patrick and St. Benedict were among the early abbots, and the fiery Dunstan, who is credited with building the first stone church there. It was sacred ground to Briton, Roman, Saxon, Dane, and Norman, and the burial-place of several of the West Saxon kings. As Mr. Freeman wrote in his Origin of the English Nation, “It stands alone among English minsters as the one link which does really bind us to the ancient church of the Briton and the Roman.” It grew in fame and beauty, and spread its dependencies over the neighboring fields, where the abbot’s kitchen and barn stand firm, fine specimens of what may be called domestic ecclesiastical building. On the south slope of Wearyall Hill, which keeps the name of the Vineyards, the monks planted grapes to make their own wine.
It is sad to think that the abbey, in its full beauty of holiness, might still give shelter to worship within its thrice-hallowed inclosure, but it is a ruin. The last abbot stood up manfully against the robberies of Henry VIII., and was dragged on a hurdle from his monastery to the top of the Tor, where, before St. Michael’s tower, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. The treasures and revenues of the abbey were taken by the Crown, the fraternity was dispersed, and the exquisite church fell into decay.
The remains are unspeakably beautiful now, in the midst of a grassy, shady space, surrounded by gardens shut in by walls wreathed in ivy and clematis. I was there in one of the few cloudless hours I have known in England. The afternoon was hot and bright; the trees threw cool shadows over the smooth green; the sunshine streamed across the Gothic windows of St. Joseph’s Chapel, and through its broken, grass-grown pavement into the very arches of the crypt, which is filled up with shrubs and bushes and graceful creepers. Sad, sad for religion, but better thus for the musing of romance. Under the stones of this crypt, transferred from an older tomb, was found, in Henry II.’s historic reign, a great coffin, encasing the mighty bones of a king and the smaller ones of a woman, whose golden hair had not yet fallen into dust. It was inscribed, " Hic jacet sepultus inclytus Rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia.” This happened at the time of founding the exquisite lady chapel, of which the ruins now represent the abbey.
I turned away, possessed by conviction, to climb the steep Tor for my last look at the land of Arthur, — “ that man of men,” as Drayton calls him. It stands up like a watch-tower above the island of Avalon, which is embowered in trees just about Glastonbury, but spreads out into flat marsh land, covered for miles with stacks and mows of peat cut for use. The Britons called it Glassy Island, from the clearness of its encircling streams, and Avallon from the Welsh afallwyn, an orchard, as it once abounded in apple-trees. They have gone, and so have the glassy streams, gradually sucked up by the bog; but within a hundred years of the dissolution of the abbey there were waterways to the sea. by which the abbots went and came in boats. Beyond the flats hills rise, range after range, to the bright line of the Bristol Channel. The abbots of the fifteenth century followed the same course by which the mysterious barge brought the dying Arthur. Was not the myth his undying seclusion, the truth his secret burial in the holy earth of Glastonbury? As I thought this theory out to my own satisfaction, the clouds, which had taken a half-holiday, returned to gather thickly overhead, leaving only a broad band of clear sky above the water; the round red sun was slipping into the waves, and a ship passed slowly before the disk, every spar black and sharp against the parting ruddiness.
And so, with a retrospective portent, the journey ended. It was made between midsummer and Michaelmas, for the Arthurian cycle knows no winter. It belongs to youth and mellow manhood ; at the first touch of age the brotherhood fades from sight.