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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

But Guinevere is a very different person



But Lancelot escapes this worst of fates in the _Idylls_ themselves, and much more does he escape it in the originals. In the first place, though he invariably (or always till the Graal Quest) "wins through," he constantly does not do so without intermediate hairbreadth escapes, and even not a few adventures which are at first not escapes at all. And just as his perpetual bafflement in the Quest salts and seasons his triumphs in the saddle, so does the ruling passion of his sin save, from anything approaching mawkishness,[35] his innumerable and yet inoffensive virtues; his chastity, save in this instance, which chastity itself, by a further stroke of art, is saved from _niaiserie_ by the plotted adventures with Elaine; his courtesy, his mercifulness, his wonderfully early notion of a gentleman (_v. inf._), his invariable disregard of self, and yet his equally invariable naturalness. Pious Aeneas had not the least objection to bringing about the death of Dido, as he might have known he was doing (unless he was as great a fool as he is a prig); and he is probably never more disgusting or Pecksniffian than when he looks back on the flames of Dido's pyre and is really afraid that something unpleasant must have happened, though he can't think what the matter can be. But _he_, one feels sure, would never have lifted up his hand against a woman, unless she had richly deserved it on the strictest patriotic scores, as in the case of Helen,

when his mamma fortunately interfered. On the other hand, Lancelot was "of the Asra who die when they love" and love till they die--nay, who would die if they did not love. But it is certain (for there is a very nice miniature of it reproduced from the MS. in M. Paulin Paris's abstract) that, for a moment, he drew his sword on Elaine to punish the deceit which made him unwittingly false to Guinevere. It is very shocking, no doubt, but exceedingly natural; and of course he did not kill or even (like Philaster) wound her, though nobody interfered to prevent him. Many of the incidents which bring out his character are well known to moderns by poem and picture, though others, as well worth knowing, are not. But the human contrasts of success and failure, of merit and sin, have never, I think, been quite brought out, and to bring them out completely here would take too much room. We may perhaps leave this other--quite other--"_First_ Gentleman in Europe" with the remark that Chrestien de Troyes gives only one side of him, and therefore does not give him at all. The Lancelot of board and bower, of travel and tournament, he does very fairly. But of the Lancelot of the woods and the hermitage, of the dream at the foot of the cross, of the mystic voyage and the just failing (if failing) effort of Carbonek, he gives, because he knows, nothing.

[Sidenote: Guinevere.]

Completed as he was, no matter for the moment by whom, he is thus the first hero of romance and nearly the greatest; but his lady is worthy of him, and she is almost more original as an individual. It is true that she is not the first heroine, as he is, if not altogether, almost the first hero. Helen was that, though very imperfectly revealed and gingerly handled. Calypso (hardly Circe) _might_ have been. Medea is perhaps nearer still, especially in Apollonius. But the Greek romancers were the first who had really busied themselves with the heroine: they took her up seriously and gave her a considerable position. But they did not succeed in giving her much character. The naughty _not_-heroine of Achilles Tatius, though she has less than none in Mr. Pope's supposed innuendo sense, alone has an approach to some in the other. As for the accomplished Guinevere's probable contemporary, the Ismene or Hysmine of Eustathius Macrembolites (_v. sup._ p. 18), she is a sort of Greek-mediaeval Henrietta Temple, with Mr. Meredith and Mr. Disraeli by turns holding the pen, though with neither of them supplying the brains. But Guinevere is a very different person; or rather, she _is_ a person, and the first. To appreciate her she must be compared with herself in earlier presentations, and then considered fully as she appears in the Vulgate--for Malory, though he has given much, has not given the whole of her, and Tennyson has painted only the last panel of the polyptych wholly, and has rather over-coloured that.[36]

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