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قراءة كتاب King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

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‏اللغة: English
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
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result that when we come to the twelfth century we find Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain, describing Arthur no longer as a half-barbarous Briton, wearing rude armor, his arms and legs bare, but instead as a most Christian king, the flower of mediæval chivalry, decked out in all the gorgeous trappings of a knight of the Crusades.

As the story of Arthur grew it attracted to itself popular legends of all kinds. Its roots were in Britain and the chief threads in its fabric remained British-Celtic. The next most important threads were those that were added by the Celtic chroniclers of Ireland. Then stories that were not Celtic at all were woven into the legend, some from Germanic sources, which the Saxons or the descendants of the Franks may have contributed, and others that came from the Orient, which may have been brought back from the East by men returning from the Crusades. And if it was the Celts who gave us the most of the material for the stories of Arthur it was the French poets who first wrote out the stories and gave them enduring form.

It was the Frenchman, Chrétien de Troies, who lived at the courts of Champagne and of Flanders, who put the old legends into verse for the pleasure of the noble lords and ladies that were his patrons. He composed six Arthurian poems. The first, which was written about 1160 or earlier, related the story of Tristram. The next was called Érec et Énide, and told some of the adventures that were later used by Tennyson in his Geraint and Enid. The third was Cligès, a poem that has little to do with the stories of Arthur and his knights as we have them. Next came the Conte de la Charrette, or Le Chevalier de la Charrette, which set forth the love of Lancelot and Guinevere. Then followed Yvain, or Le Chevalier au Lion, and finally came Perceval, or Le Conte du Graal, which gives the first account of the Holy Grail.

None of these stories are to be found in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had written earlier in Latin, nor in any of the so-called chronicles. It was Chrétien who took the old folk-tales that men had been telling each other for centuries and put them into sprightly verse for the entertainment of his lords and ladies. He fashioned the stories according to the taste of his own gay courts, and so Arthur and his Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, Perceval and the other knights became far more like French people of the twelfth century than like Britons of the sixth. And in introducing the Holy Grail, that sacred and mystic cup that was supposed to hold drops of the blood of Christ and to have been carried to England by Joseph of Arimathea, Chrétien added to the Arthurian legends an old religious story that had had nothing to do with Arthur originally.

From this point in its history that sturdy ancient English oak, the original story of Arthur and his knights, an account mainly of warlike adventures, sent forth four new branches that have now become part and parcel of the parent legend. These four branches are the story of Merlin, the story of Lancelot, the story of the Holy Grail, and the story of Tristram and Iseult. Some of the writers who came after Chrétien took one of these stories, some another, each enlarging his theme according to his own taste, until each story was the center of a large number of new and romantic offshoots. Practically all of them, however, were bound together by the thread that led from the court of the great King Arthur at Camelot.

The story of Merlin, that man of magic, is the least important of the four branches, though Merlin is still an intensely interesting figure in the story of Arthur that we read to-day. The story of Lancelot was to prove very important; starting as a romance that had very little connection with Arthur, it became with Malory and Tennyson the real center of interest of the plot. The story of the Holy Grail proved almost equally important. In the earliest accounts of this Perceval was the knight chosen above all others to reach the Grail Castle, but Perceval was too rough and worldly a knight to suit the taste of the monks who wrote out the legends and so they created Galahad to take his place as their own ideal of perfection. And into these adventures are woven some of the tales of Sir Gawain, among them the delightful story of Gawain and the Little Maid with the Narrow Sleeves. To the legend of Perceval, Wolfram von Eschenbach, a Bavarian, added the story of the son of Perceval, or Parzival, as he calls him, the story of Lohengrin, the famous Swan-knight. Tristram and Iseult, the fourth of the branches, though less connected with Arthur than either Lancelot or the Holy Grail, became immensely popular with poets and remancers because of its great love story, and is to be found told again and again in widely varying forms all through the Middle Ages.

So we have seen that a British chieftain, winning a great battle in the year 500, became in time celebrated throughout Europe as the greatest king of romance. So far it was mainly the French who had made him famous. Layamon, an English priest, had written a poem in English concerning Arthur shortly after 1200, and told of the founding of the Round Table, but it was to be a considerable time yet before any English writer was to attempt what the French had already done. Chaucer told none of the Arthurian stories, though he placed the scene of his Wife of Bath's Tale at King Arthur's court. An unknown English poet wrote Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight somewhere between 1350 and 1375. It is not until we come to the Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory, finished in 1469 or 1470, that we reach the next great step in the history of the legends since the time of Chrétien de Troies. But in Malory's story Arthur steps forth resplendent, the kingly figure that we have to-day.

Little is known concerning Sir Thomas Malory. He seems to have been a knight and country gentleman of Warwickshire, a member of Parliament in the reign of Henry VI, and later a soldier on the side of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses. As a result of the victory of the party of York he had to retire from public life when Edward IV came to the throne, and lived quietly at his Warwickshire estate. He was familiar with life at court and with men-at-arms and he knew how popular the stories of King Arthur were becoming in England. So, being a man of education, he set to work to make a collection of the legends, using as his chief sources the French romances.

Malory showed considerable originality in carrying out his plan. He made Arthur the central figure, taking the story of Merlin as an introduction to the birth of Arthur, instead of as a separate legend, and ending his account soon after the death of the king. He omitted a number of the older legends that had little to do with Arthur, many of them good stories, such as that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He made the England of his Arthur something like the England he knew, and his people became real and living instead of fanciful figures out of a far-distant past. His descriptions are vivid and lively and his style so engaging that his work of the fifteenth century is much read to-day. Three characters stand out from all the rest, Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, and these three became in all stories and poems subsequent to Malory's time the main figures of the legends.

Matthew Arnold attributed to Homer three great epic traits, swiftness, simplicity, and nobility. It is these three characteristics that have made the Morte Darthur so deservedly famous.

With the printing of Malory's book by the first English printer, William Caxton, in 1485, we come to the end of the Middle Ages in literature. Manuscripts written out laboriously by monks and clerks were now to give way to the printed page. The age of Elizabeth was less than a century away, one of the golden ages of the poets. Yet few of the Elizabethans touched on the story of Arthur. The main exception was Edmund Spenser, who made Prince