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It has become a common English saying that the average Englishman can speak French after the “scole of Stratford-atteBowe,” and this is perhaps the only common expression of modern English that dates back to the fourteenth century. Goldsmith may have taken his idea of the village clergyman, “passing rich on forty pounds a year,” from Chaucer's “Poor Parson of a Town”:
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
After the Prologue, Chaucer relates the stories that each of the pilgrims tells: the Knight an old romance, the Prioress a legend of Our Lady, the Priest a ghost-story, and the Wife of Bath, a lady who had had as many husbands as the woman of Samaria, a romantic tale of Sir Gærwain and his bride. The stories are in every mood—comic and sentimental, grave and gay, and are told with immense spirit and skill.
Chaucer died in 1400. In his day educated people in England still spoke French and English, and Chaucer's great service to English literature is that his success as an English poet made it impossible for any later Englishman to write in a language not his own.
Contemporary with Chaucer were William Langland, the author of Piers Plowman, who was born in Oxfordshire in 1332; and John Gower, who died in 1408 and was buried in St. Saviour's Church, Southwark, and whose Pyramus and Thisbe was acted by Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Piers Plowman describes the misery of the common people caused by the ceaseless and senseless wars that ravaged Western Europe in Chaucer's century, the obverse side of the glory of the third Edward.
Photo: Fredk Hollyer.
“THE DREAM OF SIR LAUNCELOT," BY SIR E. BURNE-JONES Launcelot is the most attractive and human of all the romantic figures that sat at the Round Table.
During the later centuries of the Middle Ages that heralded the Renaissance, Europe was stirred to a joyous awakening, the immediate result of which was a riot of romance-writing, and by good fortune we have a book in our own language that is the sum and symbol of all this splendid activity. Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur is not exactly an original work: it was compiled in the main from French romances. These in their turn, however, had been based on ancient Celtic legends, so that in the Knights of the Round Table are to be found a company of British heroes comparable to the heroes of classic myth and of the German Nibelungen Lied.
That Sir Thomas Malory was more than a translator is shown in the fact that the book occupies in English literature a position infinitely higher than its French originals ever held in the literature of France. He is said to have been a Warwickshire gentleman, knighted in 1445, and a Member of Parliament, who was taken captive in the Wars of the Roses, Le Morte d'Arthur being partly written in prison. The book was completed by 1470. It was the last important work finished before the introduction of printing, and one of the first printed by Caxton when he set up his press at Westminster.
Le Morte d'Arthur is a collection of simply written tales about Arthur, Launcelot, Galahad, Percival, Tristram, and other great figures, their loves and adventures. The book is divided into twenty-one parts, with an infinite number of short chapters. The first part tells legends of the birth and early days of Arthur. One day there suddenly appeared in an English churchyard a huge stone, with a sword embedded in an anvil. Gold letters written on the marble declared that “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England ”
Arthur had been sent home from a New Year's tournament to fetch his elder brother's sword, and thinking to save himself the long journey by calling at the churchyard and taking the sword embedded in the stone, he pulled it free and thus became King of England. His accession entailed various adventures, including a stout battle with eleven kings and a great host, against which he “did so marvellously in arms that all men had wonder.”
He married the beautiful Guenever, and lived in splendid state at the city of Carleon in Wales, surrounded by hundreds of knights and beautiful ladies, patterns of valour, breeding, and grace to all the world. The bravest of the knights formed the king's immediate circle, sitting with him at the Round Table, and “pleasing him more than right great riches.” From the court of Arthur these knights went forth to all parts in search of adventure—to protect women, chastise oppressors, liberate the enchanted, enchain giants and malicious dwarfs. To read of their exploits is to consort with the greatest lovers the world has known, to enter the many-towered cities of the dreamland of chivalry, "where knights and dames with new and wondrous names go singing down the street.” There is the thrilling tale of Sir Gawaine and Gaheris, and how four knights fought against them and overcame them, and how at the last moment their lives were saved at the request of four ladies: the tale of Pellinore, and how a lady desired help of him, and how he fought with two knights for her and slew one of them at the first stroke: the tale of the Lady of the Lake, and how she saved King Arthur from a mantle which should have burnt him, and how another lady helped La Cote Mail Taile in his fight against a hundred knights by conniving at his escape: of Launcelot's slaughter of a knight "who distressed all ladies, and also a villain that kept the bridge”: and countless others in which love is often as important as valour itself.
The life and exploits of the famous Sir Tristram are described in rich detail, in the middle part of Malory's book. Tris