A Blessed Companion Is a Book.

by John Erskine. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Co. 1926. 12mo. viii+340 pp. $2.50.
IN modernizing part of the Galahad story, Mr. Erskine is in the mediæval tradition, which always preferred retelling to invention. And this book, like his Helen, suggests that translation into modernity has one advantage. It makes us aware of the abiding freshness of the old tales. For both Helen and Galahad are capital novels, and both are written with remarkable fidelity to the former versions. The more intimately the reader knows the originals, the more he will enjoy the new renderings, for Mr. Erskine has a great knack at ingeniously utilizing hints. The ennui which had fallen on Arthur’s court before Galahad came, the queer episode of Arthur’s visit in disguise to see Iseult, the malicious traits of Gawain. Lancelot’s madness in the Isle de Joie, all are used. And when changes are introduced, as in the rape of Guinevere by Meliagrance, one appreciates the reason. The piquant talk, the merry or satirical reading of motive, are Erskine’s own, but the framework is carefully selected from the vast structure of romance.
Here they are, old and new; and no one need mind if some of us perversely prefer the old. Perhaps classical scholars feel that way about Helen. Certainly most lovers of romance will continue to like their Malory straight. We do not know much about Helen. Guinevere and Galahad are different. Long brooding; on these great figures by the mediæval imagination had at last imparted to them a certain finality. Mr. Erskine troubles us when he says, ‘We shall tell the story as it was before poets lifted it out of its origin, and used it as a language for remote and mystical things.’ For the process went just the other way. The human story was the last stage. The tales began as myth, crumbled into legend, grew slowly humanized, and the characters, when at long last projected with an intensity which gripped hearts for generations, had gathered into themselves too many elements to be lightly reinterpreted. ‘We confine our report to the first causes, as it were, of these famous dreams,’ says Mr. Erskine. No, no. The first causes were never two women and a man.
Galahad’s mother, for instance, that sad Grail maiden on whom rests in a mystery the fulfillment of fate — it is an outrage to present her as an attractive flapper! There are flappers in romance, but she is not one. To be sure, if the strange begetting of Galahad is to be told with no reference to the Grail, it must be so cheapened. But are we to see Guinevere turned into that most insufferable type, the woman bent on exerting an influence? As for Galahad, there is no warrant for handing him over — save the mark! — to be modeled by Guinevere! More moving in its grave reticence is the one page in Malory where these two are brought face to face. Mr. Erskine’s Galahad grows from a naughty boy spoiled by his mother to a tedious young man schooled by Guinevere to deny human nature. We see too much of him. Malory is wiser — Malory, who lets him say very little, and shows him for the most part only in brief flashes, as he flees down vanishing vistas.
What can one expect? The grave imaginative beauty, the human passion, of the great old story depend on the elements which Mr. Erskine, wisely for his purposes, rejects. A Galahad story that ignores the Grail must turn to sarcasm. For, unless there is a real Grail worth pursuing, the seeking idealist will always be both deluded and priggish. Omit, spiritual mystery, and the whole belittled story becomes, to speak frankly, disagreeable. Direction, destiny, depth, are the three words Spengler associates with the ‘ Faustian’ soul; all are needed to explain Grail romance. In this. ‘ megalopolitan ’ version, direction is gone, depth is replaced by surface polish, there is no destiny to be fulfilled. Mr. Ersklne’s book is a singularly apt illustration of Spengler’s theories; reading it, we observe not only ‘ the decline of the West,’ but the dying of the ‘Faustian’ soul. Perhaps this little review takes the book too seriously — but let us be on our guard against assuming that Mr. Erskine has brushed away accretions and disinterred buried reality. Rather, he has uprooted a beautiful thing, and given us something else in its place. The very cleverness of his book prevents one from accepting it as a skit, forces one to regard it as a portent.