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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

From Chrestien than he would have known


The constitution of the Arthuriad.]

The multiplicity of things done, whether by "him" or "them," is astonishing; and it is quite possible, indeed likely, that they were not all done by the same person. Mediaeval continuators (as has been seen in the case of Chrestien) worked after and into the work of each other in a rather uncanny fashion; and the present writer frankly confesses that he no more knows where Godfrey de Lagny took up the _Charette_, or the various other sequelists the _Percevale_, from Chrestien than he would have known, without confession, the books of the _Odyssey_ done by Mr. Broome and Mr. Fenton from those done by Mr. Pope. The _grand-oeuvre_ is the combination of Lancelot as (1) lover of the Queen; (2) descendant of the Graalwards; (3) author, in consequence of his sin, of the general failure of the Round Table Graal-Quest; (4) father of its one successful but half-unearthly Seeker; (5) bringer-about (in more ways than one[28]) of the intestine dissension which facilitates the invasion of Mordred and the foreigners and so the Passing of Arthur, of his own rejection by the repentant Queen, and of his death. As regards minor details of plot and incident there have to be added the bringing in of the pre-Round Table part of the story by Lancelot's descent from King Ban and his connections with King Bors, both Arthur's old allies, and both, as we may call them, "Graal-heirs"; the further connection with the Merlin legend by Lancelot's

fostering under the Lady of the Lake;[29] the exaltation, inspiring, and, as it were, unification of the scattered knight-adventures through Lancelot's constant presence as partaker, rescuer, and avenger;[30] the human interest given to the Graal-Quest (the earlier histories being strikingly lacking in this) by his failure, and a good many more. But above all there are the general characters of the knight and the Queen to make flesh and blood of the whole.

Not merely the exact author or authors, but even the exact source or sources of this complicated, fateful, and exquisite imagination are, once more, not known. Years ago it was laid down finally by the most competent of possible authorities (the late Sir John Rhys) that "the love of Lancelot and Guinevere is unknown to Welsh literature." Originals for the "greatest knight" have been sought by guesswork, by idle play on words and names, if not also by positive forgery, in that Breton literature which does not exist. There do exist versions of the story in which Lancelot plays no very prominent part, and there is even one singular version--certainly late and probably devised by a proper moral man afraid of scandal--which makes Lancelot outlive the Queen, quite comfortably continuing his adventurous career (this is perhaps the "furthest" of the Unthinkable in literature), and (not, it may be owned, quite inconsistently) hints that the connection was merely Platonic throughout. These things are explicable, but better negligible. For my own part I have always thought that the loves of Tristram and Iseult (which, as has been said, were originally un-Arthurian) suggested the main idea to the author of it, being taken together with Guinevere's falseness with Mordred in the old quasi-chronicle, and perhaps the story of the abduction by Melvas (Meleagraunce), which seems to be possibly a genuine Welsh legend. There are in the Tristram-Iseult-Mark trio quite sufficient suggestions of Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur; while the far higher plane on which the novice-novelist sets his lovers, and even the very interesting subsequent exaltation of Tristram and Iseult themselves to familiarity and to some extent equality with the other pair, has nothing critically difficult in it.

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