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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Independently of the fact that no MS


high praise is given to the

position of the (further) accomplished Arthur-story, it is of course not intended to bestow that praise on any particular MS. or printed version that exists. It is in the highest degree improbable that, whether the original magician was Map, or Chrestien, or anybody else (to repeat a useful formula), we possess an exact and exclusive copy of the form into which he himself threw the story. Independently of the fact that no MS., verse or prose, of anything like the complete story seems old enough, independently of the enormous and almost innumerable separable accretions, the so-called Vulgate cycle of "_Graal-Merlin-Arthur-Lancelot-Graal-Quest-Arthur's-Death_" has considerable variants--the most important and remarkable of which by far is the large alteration or sequel of the "Vulgate" _Merlin_ which Malory preferred. In the "Vulgate" itself, too, there are things which were certainly written either by the great contriver in nodding moods, or by somebody else,--in fact no one can hope to understand mediaeval literature who forgets that no mediaeval writer could ever "let a thing alone": he simply _must_ add or shorten, paraphrase or alter. I rather doubt whether the Great Unknown himself meant _both_ the amours of Arthur with Camilla and the complete episode of the false Guinevere to stand side by side. The first is (as such justifications go) a sufficient justification of Guinevere by itself; and the conduct of Arthur in the second is such a combination of folly, cruelty, and all
sorts of despicable behaviour that it overdoes the thing. So, too, Lancelot's "abscondences," with or without madness, are too many and too prolonged.[43] The long and totally uninteresting campaign against Claudas, during the greater part of which Lancelot (who is most of all concerned) is absent, and in which he takes no part or interest when present, is another great blot. Some of these things, but not all, Malory remedied by omission.

To sum up, and even repeat a little, in speaking so highly of this development--French beyond all doubt as a part of literature, whatever the nationality, domicile, and temper of the person or persons who brought it about--I do not desire more to emphasise what I believe to be a great and not too well appreciated truth than to guard against that exaggeration which dogs and discredits literary criticism. Of course no single redaction of the legend in the late twelfth or earliest thirteenth century contains the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story as I have just outlined it. Of course the words used do not apply fully to Malory's English redaction of three centuries later--work of genius as this appears to me to be. Yet further, I should be fully disposed to allow that it is only by reading the _posse_ into the _esse_, under the guidance of later developments of the novel itself, that the estimate which I have given can be entirely justified. But this process seems to me to be perfectly legitimate, and to be, in fact, the only process capable of giving us literary-historical criticism that is worth having. The writer or writers, known or unknown, whose work we have been discussing, have got the plot, have got the characters, have got the narrative faculty required for a complete novel-romance. If they do not quite know what to do with these things it is only because the time is not yet. But how much they did, and of how much more they foreshadowed the doing, the extracts following should show better than any "talk about it."


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