The medieval romance and Arthurian Romance in England is derived substantially from Latin and French originals. The chief characteristics of the English romances are: the tone of unreality, the idealization of virtues, the downright condemnation of vices, the spirit of adventure in a world detached from the banalities of life, an urge for the marvelous and the unattainable, worship of a beautiful lady or the cult of woman-worship, or the Virgin cult, the quest for chivalry, supernaturalism, and type and not individualized characters.
The writes of romances normally drew upon three storehouses, known as “The matter of France”, “The matter of Rome” and “The matter of Britain.” It is with the matter of Britain that we are directly concerned. The writers by and large dealt with the body of legendary material about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.
The Arthurian romances are later than those inspired by Charlemagne. Arthur became the national hero and represented the longings and aspirations of the English people. He successfully fought against the Saxon invaders and became the popular idol. As compared to Charlemagne, Arthur was certainly a shadowy figure, shrouded in mystery and romance.
The British had a superstitious belief that in any national crisis Arthur would miraculously emerge to resolve their difficulty. Nennius, for example, records the military victories of Arthur as historical documents. It is suggested that Arthur scored twelve victories over the Saxons. A champion of the Christian faith, Arthur carried an image of Virgin Mary, as did Sir Gawain, one of his valiant Knights. Nennius’ version does not carry convention.
The Lombard documents, which have represented Arthur and Sir Gawain as Artusius and Galvanus respectively are, however, more reliable. By the thirteenth century Arthur and Sir Gawain were integrated into the framework of a rich tradition. We have it on the testimony of Alanus de Insulis that anybody who questioned the life and activities of Arthur had to pay the severest penalty.
The first Anglo-Norman Chronicler of the Arthurian legends was William of Malmesbury. “It is of this Arthur,” says he, “that the Britons tell so many fables, even to the present day, a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions but by authentic history. He long upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war.”
This extract clearly indicates that William of Malmesbury regarded Arthur as historical personage. Next to William to Malmesbury comes Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is remarkable for an abundance of materials. In his Latin work he characterizes Arthur as a Norman King, who has earned undying fame by defeating the Picts, Scots, and Saxons.
His wife is Guinevere. His most loyal knights are Sir Gawain, Sir Bedivere, and Sir Kay. The other knights are not mentioned at all. Wace translated Geofrey of Monmouth‘s work into Anglo-Norman, which was translated into English verse by Layamon. In Layamon’s Brut the Britons were described as the descendants of a Roman called Brutus, Britain or Briton is derived from that name.
Unlike Geoffrey of Monmouth, the subsequent writer no longer presented Arthur as a crusader. Arthur became the undisputed hero of Knight-errantry and Chivalry. Robert de Boron, for example, attached much importance to Merlin, the magician. Certain other romancers have set store by the adventures of Lancelot and Eric, Tristram and Percival.
Arthur’s marriage gained in importance. His battle with Mordred and the role of the Round Table were gradually emphasized. The Round Table was made round to prevent misunderstanding among the Knight’s over precedence.
The Celts were brought in the spirit of boundless imagination in their concept of Arthur. They were not much interested in the grandiose national themes and concentrated their attention upon individual characters. The French poetess, Marie de France, wrote some Arthurian romances, known as ‘lays’, and was demonstrably influenced by the Celtic legends, which were orally transmitted.
The French Arthurian romances aimed at entertainment rather than historical veracity or instruction. The audience and the readers love to hear of strange events of alien races in far-off lands. In the Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Chronicle Sir Gawain is represented as the most distinguished follower of Arthur. Very soon, however, he is replaced by Lancelot
Among the French romancers Ghretien de Troyes deserves special mention. He is the poet of courtly and chivalrous romance, which found a congenial atmosphere amidst luxury, refinement, and the intellectual character of the French nation. A sense of chivalry and courtesy inspired the knights not so much to defend the King or Christian Faith as the champion of the weak and the distressed. Women no longer appeared as wives and mothers, but as objects of adoration.
The adventures of the knights were confined to the deliverance of the damsels in distress. To serve women selflessly became their motto. The women inspired their adventures and became the pivots of the lives of men. The influences of female patronage was on the increase. Women, in some cases were married although the Knights remained bachelors. Love was the predominant theme. The sentiments of the lovers were fully explored. Chretien de Troyes should, therefore, be regarded as the pioneer of the romance of chivalry and love.
Robert de Boron turned his attention to the romance relating to the Holy Grail. Both Chretien de Troyes and Robert de Boron popularized the Arthurian romances and rehabilitated Lancelot, Perceval, and Tristram as symbols of chivalry and courtesy. Malory, the English poet, was inspired by these two French writers to record the true spirit of chivalry in his Morte d’ Arthur.
Arthur, became increasingly active. It was he who used to assign deeds of adventure to different knights. It is, however, interesting to note that he was not represented as an active hero in any of the early romances. At a subsequent stage Arthur, the symbol of all the knightly virtues and unblemished character, and even perfection, became an active hero also, as in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Arthur and knights of the Round Table no longer thought of national unity, but of courtesy and chivalry.
It was the Knight, the cream of the nation, who came to be one of the ideals worthy of emulation. Initially quite attractive, these romances grew a little stale and monotonous, and the readers and the audience clamoured for novelty. The writers had fully drawn upon the tradition, and had no other alternative but to invent new themes. These romances have been rightly described as sham romances, cut off from the rich legacy, transmitted to them. Malory and Spenser deserve praise for having revived the tradition lying long dormant.
For centuries no composite accounts of the Arthurian legend were available. The romances narrated were of the adventures and heroic exploits of the isolated knights. The quest for the Holy Grail forged a link and brought about an artistic unity.
It would not be out of place to refer to the principal personages of Arthurian romance. Merlin was an important figure, although he was not a knight. A wizard, he was the chief counsellor of the King. Geoffrey of Monmouth referred to Merlin as a Welsh barb. Robert de Boron wrote a fulllength romance about Merlin. It is from him that we get an account of the birth of Arthur. Uther and Igerne were secretly married, and Arthur was born. Right from the beginning Arthur was invested with mystery and romance Merlin helped Arthur substantially to defeat the Saxons and ascend the throne. The romancers represented Merlin as the son of a virgin and a devil. A priest named Blase was Merlin’s tutor, and saved him from the evil influence of anti-Christ. Endowed with magical powers, Merlin was in love with Nimiance.
Though not quite as popular as Merlin, another supernatural character, namely Morgan has been introduced in the Arthurian romances. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he has been represented as a goddess. Determined to crush Arthur, she was foiled in her nefarious attempt by Sir Gawain. It has been suggested that she is none other than Nimiance.
Modred, the nephew of Arthur was no doubt, a distinguished Knight, who later turned traitor. During Arthur’s absence he seduced Arthur’s wife, Guinvevere, married her and usurped the kingdom.
As contrasted with Modred, Gawain presents a picture of courtesy chivalry and undivided loyalty. Some romancers have represented him as a mythical figure, for his strength waxed and waned at different hours of the day. Since he was strong in the morning and at noon, and grew weak with the decline of the day, he was thought to be the Sun-God. He is first mentioned by William of Malmesbury and later dwelt upon at length by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
According to Wace, Sir Gawain was one of the best knights and wisest of the world, the least misspeaker, and no boaster, and best taught of all things that belong to worship or courtesy.” Sir Gawain prominent for quite some time, had to yield to Lancelot, who emerged in full splendour as the courtly lover of the Queen.
The reason is not far to seek. Sir Gawain was essentially a symbol of Christianity, and could not think of loving the maidens, whom he had helped or protected. There were major shifts in taste, and the romances must cater for ladies, who thought of love as one of supreme importance. The chaste and heart-whole Gawain appeared to them as extremely washy. Celibacy was increasingly looked down upon. Hence Lancelor, the lover of the Queen, and Tristram, the lover of Iseult captured popular imagination. Gawain was, thus being degraded and the loving knights exalted.
When the quest for the Holy Grail became a prominent theme of the romances, Gawain had a chance for rehabilitation. For chastity was the essential virtue of the knights in quest of the Holy Grail. But Percevel and Galahad were already on the scene. The types of romances were there one upholding the theme of love, both romantic and sexual; and the other upholding the religious theme as represented in the Holy Grail. Both the groups neglected Gawain for some time. Later, however, he was depicted as a licentious lover by a section of the romancers. But most of the writers, catering for the lower classes of England, still represented Gawain as a symbol of chastity. Gawain’s appeal to the masses still remained unaffected. That explains why Tristram was the subject of one romance, Lancelot of two, while Gawain of ten. In the romance known as ‘Yvain and Gawain, Gawain is represented as a very great knight. It is the reward of his chastity that even his old and ugly wife is transformed into young and beautiful woman. In one romance Gawain is made to withstand the tempting offers of the host’s wife. As a reward of his chastity he is offered the host’s lovely daughter. In the famous romance, known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the hero remains immaculate right up to the end.
Since the thirteenth century Lancelot as a Knight of Arthur was undisputed, In Chretien’s Lancelot, he ranks higher than Gawain. It was in the fitness of things that the most distinguished Knight should be the Queen’s lover. Lancelot does not owe his fame to history but the French sentiment. Popular in France, Lancelot did not have a high stock in England. It is only in two English romances, i.e. Le Morte d’ Arthur and Lancelot of the Lake, that Lancelot was extravagantly written about. Unlike the English society, the French society was highly sophisticated, which allowed free love and even adultery, Courtly love was very much permissive, and was not considered incompatible with chivalry and courtesy. Judged from this point of view, Lancelot was an ideal hero.
The readers could not imagine a hero without chivalry, courtesy, and above all, Love. Lancelot could not be charged with treachery, since he publicly declared to be in the service of the Queen, and not the King. Lancelot passed through various vicissitudes of fortune while rescuing the Queen from being abducted. His selfless service even at the peril of his life was adequately rewarded by love. Lancelot’s love eventually brought about the dissolution of the Round Table, because the knights in general and Gawain in particular thought that Lancelot’s love was an act of disloyalty to the recognized lord.