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and there also that important literary works were first composed in it. It became the standard tongue of France, and has continued to be so. Its poets had the name of Trouvères or Trouveurs. The greater part of its poetry was narrative ; and most of the tales may be referred to the one or the other of two classes, There were the poems called Fabliaux, usually short stories, which had a familiar and comic tone, even when they dealt with the same kind of incidents as poems of the other class. There were, again, the Chivalrous Romances, compositions more bulky, and almost always more serious in temper as well as more ambitious in design.
The Fabliaux affected our literature little till the time of Chaucer. In regard to their character, we hardly require to know more than that which we may gather from remembering the likeness which, as we have learned, subsisted between thein and the lighter stories in the monastic collections of Latin fiction. It should also be observed, however, that many poems, usually described as Fabliaux, rise decidedly into the serious and imaginative tone of the romances; and that some collections of narratives, in Norman-French verse, exhibit the same author as attempting both kinds of composition. Of this mixed kind are the works of a poetess, usually known as Marie of France, who probably wrote in Brittany, but made copious use of British materials, and addresses herself to a king, supposed to have been our Henry the Third. Her twelve “ Lays,” some of which have their scene laid in England, and celebrate the marvels of the Round Table, are among the most beautiful relics which the middle ages have left us. They were well known, and freely. used, by Chaucer and others of our poets. Her “ Fables” interesting in another way. She acknowledges having translated them from the English tongue; and one of the manuscripts makes her assign the authorship of her originals to king Alfred.
The Romances of Chivalry we must learn to understand more exactly than the Fabliaux. They are the effusions of a rude minstrelsy, using an imperfect language, and guided by irregular impulse, not by laws of art; but many of them are, in parts at least, delightfully imaginative, spirited, or pathetic. The history of the whole class is important, not only for their value as illustrations of mediæval manners and customs, but also for their intimate connection with our early literature ;
Where, in the chronicle of wasted time,
We see descriptions of the fairest wights,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights.
The earliest of them, except such as were really nothing more than devout legends, were founded on historical traditions of England; and tales engrafted on these were the best and most popular of the series. Native Englishmen, also, writing in French, were among the most active of those who worked up our national stories into the romantic shape; all the French works were composed for our English court and nobles; and translation of them was the most frequent use to which our infant-language was applied. Above all
, they imprinted on our poetry, in its oldest stages, characteristics which it did not lose for centuries, if indeed it can be said to have lost them at all.
2. The oldest among them, like other earlier pieces of narrative poetry, are based on national events, and are not distinguishable, by any well-drawn line, from popular and legendary histories. Such is the character of an ancient French romance, which is particularly interesting to us, both on account of its story, and because it exists also in a very ancient English dress. It relates one of those traditions of the east of England, by which the Norse settlers strove to give dignity to their arrival in the island. This romance of “ Havelok” was written, in French, early in the twelfth century. The poem
is almost free from the anachronisms of manners and sentiment which soon became universal ; and the cast of the story is simple and antique. Its hero, the orphan child of a Danish king, exposed at sea by the treachery of his guardian, is drifted on the coast of Lincolnshire, and fostered by the fisherman Grim, who afterwards gives his name to an English town. A princess of England, imprisoned by guardians as false as Havelok’s, is forced by them to marry him, that she may thus be irretrievably degraded : he reveals his royal descent, already marked by a flame playing round his head; and, in fierce battles, he reconquers his wife's inheritance and his own.
The writers of the romances gradually departed, more and more, from the facts given to them by the chroniclers and popular traditions. They substituted private exploits and perils for national events, with increasing frequency, till their incidents and their
personages were equally the offspring of pure invention : they ceased to aim at true representation of the manners and institutions of antiquity, and minutely described the past from their observation of the present. Seizing on the most poetical features of society, as it appeared among the nobles in whose halls their songs were to be chanted, they wove out of these the gorgeously colored web of chivalry, with its pictures of life eccentrically yet attractively unreal, and its anomalous code of morals, alternately severe and loose, generous and savage. They combined, into startling contrasts, both in the scenery and in the adventures, the wild rudeness of ancient barbarism with the ambitious pomp of castles and palaces. They conjured up, around their knights and ladies, a shadowy world of monsters and marvels, to which the icy north contributed its dwarfs and giants, its earthquakes and its talismanic weapons ; while a vast array of fairies and magicians, of spells and prophecies, was gathered from superstitions floating about among the people, which were partly remembrances of heathenism altered by distance, partly corruptions of Christian belief natural to times of general ignorance, and partly oriental fables that had travelled from Spain and the Holy Land.
We have noticed the only extant romance, founded on English history, in which these transformations are not strikingly shown. The least extravagant peculiarities of chivalry are introduced freely in the “ Gest of King Horn;" which relates a story very
like in outline to that of Havelok, and is believed, by our best critics, to have had its origin in some genuine Saxon tradition. In “Bevis of Hamptoun,” and “Guy of Warwick," the historical character is utterly lost; and the heroes and their adventures are specimens of the most fantastic knight-errantry. In no instance were liberties taken so boldly with matters of fact, as in the romance of “ Richard Cour de Lion," composed in French not many years after its hero's death. It gives him a fiend for his mother, distorts his war in Palestine and his captivity into the wildest farrago of impossible exploits and dangers, and exaggerates his fanciful and choleric disposition into the perfection of chivalrous Quixotism and martial ferocity.
3. Of all the French romances, incomparably the most interesting are those that celebrate the glory and the fall of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. No poems of the class deviate so widely from the track of the old legends : none prove so forcibly to the discriminating reader the hollowness of the chivalrous morality; and none display, so brilliantly, or so often, pictures romantically beautiful and scenes of tragic pathos.
The series, when completed, embraced the history of several generations. Before it had reached this point, the heroes had become so numerous, and the adventures so complicated, that a mere abstract would fill many pages. The supernatural machinery, introduced more profusely than in any other of the tales, and breathing a singular tone of mystic awfulness, touched at many points ground too sacred to be trodden carelessly. Although, likewise, the leading outline of the story implies strik
ingly a recognition of moral responsibility and retribution, the terrible lesson of the catastrophe is often forgotten in the details ; and revolting incidents, interwoven inextricably into the tissue of the narrative, pollute all the principal pieces of the group. Minute description, therefore, of those singular monuments, is here impossible. But a little acquaintance with them is needed, for a just comprehension of many things in our early poetry; and, although the pieces in their earliest forms are difficult of access, the research of an eminent scholar has made it easy to know something in regard to them.
The order in which the principal parts of the series were composed, appears to have been the same with that of the events narrated.
First comes the Romance of “The Saint Graal,” (the holy vessel or cup,) which is in truth a saintly legend rather than a chivalrous tale. It is chiefly occupied in relating the history of the most revered of all religious relics, which not only proved and typified the mystery of the mass, but worked by its mere presence the most striking miracles. Treasured up by Joseph of Arimathea, it was by him or his descendants carried into Britain; but, too sacred to be looked on by a sinful people, it vanished for ages from the eyes of men. Secondly, the “Merlin,” deriving its name from the fiend-born prophet and magician, celebrates the birth and exploits of Arthur, and the gathering round him of the peerless Knights of the Round Table. The story is founded on Geoffrey of Monmouth, or his Welsh and Armorican authorities; but the chivalrous and supernatural features disguise almost completely the historic origin. Thirdly, in the “ Lancelot,” the national character of the incidents disappears, a new set of personages emerge, and the marvellous adornments are of a more modern cast. The hero, nurtured from childhood by the Lady of the Lake in her fairy-realm beneath the waters, grows up to be, not only the bravest champion of the Round Table, but the most admired for all the virtues of knighthood; and this, too, while he lives in foul and deadly sin; and wrongs with secret treachery Arthur, his lord and benefactor. From his guilt, imitated by many of the other knights, was to ensue the destruction of the whole band; and the warning is already given. The presence of the Holy Graal is intimated by shadowy apparitions and thrilling voices; and the full contemplation of the miraculous relic is announced as the crowning glory of chivalry. Fourthly, the “Quest of the Saint Graal tells how the knights, full of short-lived repentance and religious awe, scatter themselves on solitary wanderings to seek for the beatific vision; how the sinners all return, unsuccessful and humbled; but how at length the adventure is achieved by the young and unknown Sir Galahad, pure as well as knightly, and how he, while the vision passed before him, prays that he may
live no longer, and is immediately taken away from a world of calamity and sin. Fifthly, the “Mort Artus," or Death of Arthur, winds up, with tragic and supernatural horrors, the wild tale into which the fall of the ancient Britons had thus been transformed. The noblest of the champions perish in feuds, in which revenge was sought for mutual wrongs: and, after the fatal battle of Camlan, the survivors retire to convents or hermitages, to mourn over their sins and the ruin of their race. Arthur himself, wounded and dying, is carried by the Fairy of the Lake to the enchanted Isle of Avalon, there to dream away the
that must elapse before he shall return to earth and reign over the perfected world of chivalry. Sixthly, of several romances which, though written after these, went back in the tale to interpolate new incidents and characters, the first part of the “Tristan," or Tristrem, alone requires notice here. The adventures of its hero are a repetition, with added impurities and new poetical beauties, of those which had been attributed to Lancelot of the Lake.
4. The romances of this British cycle interest us through, several circumstances, besides their national origin and their extraordinary power of poetic fascination.
The six that have just been described, which were the originals of all the others, were written, in the latter half of the twelfth century, for the English court and nobles, and some of them, it is said, on the suggestion of our King Henry the Second. Further, although they were composed in French, the authors of all of them were Englishmen. "The Saint Graal is attributed to Robert Borron, the first part of the Tristan to Luke Gast of Salisbury ; and all the rest are assigned to Walter Mapes, whom we know as the leader of the Latin satirists. The circumstances are curious; and they are equally so, whether these men were of Norman or of Saxon descent: indeed, the distinction of races, which must have chiefly disappeared among the higher classes long before, was probably, by that time, beginning to lose its importance for the mass of the people. It is to be noted, likewise, that all our six romances are couched in prose; a peculiarity which was hardly to have been looked for in early pieces of such a class, but which possibly may be supposed to have arisen from want of skill in French versification. Be this as it may, the twelfth century haci not closed when Chrétien of Troyes constructed several metrical romances, chiefly from the prose of our English authors,