Sunday, April 17, 2011

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green

It has a colourful cover, thick black lines like primitive stained-glass windows and bright colours so that you know that the knight on the left wears a red cloak and the lady on the right has blonde hair and blue robes. On the back the picture is of a heaped-up castle town covered in turrets, with little stairs leading up towards the top of it where you can just see into a vaulted hall housing a great round table; and two knights are riding out of the castle. Inside there are more pictures, shoehorned in among small black type. Pictures of knights, ladies, castles, and hermits, all in those raw thick lines. Many of the pages are loose, and some of the pictures have been coloured in with a careful hand, including the frontispiece showing the King and Queen. My aunt's name is written on the inside cover, but I was the one who coloured in the pictures.

My earliest memory of this ancient companion of mine is of dipping into the eerie story of Sir Lancelot's First Quest, and the terrible Chapel Perilous. I don't even remember when I first read it cover to cover, but it must have been early and often.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a pupil of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, a late Inkling, and a great scholar and storyteller in his own right. His focus lay in retelling old stories for a young audience, surely not an original aim but accomplished with rare skill. His Robin Hood is perhaps the second most well-known, eclipsed only by Howard Pyle's version, and his Tales from Ancient Egypt and A Book of Dragons are favourites in our family. But if he had a masterpiece, I suspect it might be King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.

This particular King Arthur reads something like a Greatest Hits. It is mostly a condensation (and a tidying-up) of Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur, but it also contains stories (and twists on stories) from the Welsh Mabinogion, the two Middle English poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Marriage of Sir Gawain, Chretien de Toyes's Erec et Enide, and even a plot point or two from the German Parzival. This King Arthur pulls all the best, all the most well-loved stories together into one coherent whole. As far as I am concerned, it is the definitive King Arthur, even above Le Morte D'Arthur or The Idylls of the King by Tennyson. While I have read and enjoyed many, many other King Arthur collections (my second-favourite may be The Mabinogion), when I think of King Arthur at all I think of this one.

Green's prose is excellent. His archaisms are both convincing and easy to read. He tells all the stories--some sad, some joyful, and all thrilling--with consummate skill, weaving them all together into one exciting, romantic, tragic tapestry using Le Morte D'Arthur as a base with a strong Tennyson influence.

Book One is The Coming of Arthur, all about Uther Pendragon and Igraine, Merlin, the sword in the stone, and the giving of Excalibur. We meet Balyn and Balan, the ill-fated brothers who deal the Dolorous Stroke and hear about the First Quest of the Table. Book Two, The Knights of the Round Table, deals with the golden age of Logres. It is here that Sir Gawain escapes with his life from the Green Knight and marries his loathly lady. Here Sir Lancelot comes to Camelot and undergoes his first quests; Sir Gareth, the Knight of the Kitchen undergoes the test of the multicoloured knights; Sir Tristram tells his sad story; Geraint and Enid find that the path of true love doesn't always run smooth; and we meet the callow yet formidable Sir Percivale. Book Three, The Quest of the Holy Grail, is full of adventure and mystery. Book Four, The Departing of Arthur, narrates the terrible tale of the fall of Logres almost in Mallory's own words. The whole forms an unforgettable epic.

This is real food for the imagination. There are so many things our culture has lost and is losing--reverence, self-sacrifice, courage, chivalry, a really healthy regard for kingliness and servanthood. The idea--the crazy Christian ideal--of a knight who limits himself only to hard blows and gentle words. CS Lewis, naturally, said it first:
Peace, Eustace. Do not scold, like a kitchengirl. No warrior scolds. Courteous words or else hard knocks are his only language.--The Last Battle
Sir Thomas Mallory is not my favourite author, and Le Morte D'Arthur is far from my favourite book. I have a somewhat more idealistic and, er, moral idea of Logres than he had. But there is a place in Le Morte D'Arthur where Sir Ector pays tribute to Sir Lancelot--
Thou were the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.
This was the chivalric ideal. CS Lewis explains again:
The important thing about this ideal is, of course, the double demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth. When Launcelot heard himself pronounced the best knight in the world, ‘he wept as he had been a child that had been beaten.
Echoes of Chesterton there:
I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian," especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting. The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile. Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way, were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels. The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness?--Orthodoxy
What world of riddles, indeed, but the world redeemed by Christ? In this world we are commanded to lose our lives to gain them; in this world the Prince of Peace brought a dividing sword. Seeking obedience to the High King of Heaven, earthly warriors found meekness, gentleness, and kindness commanded of them in terms that would take no denial. Seeking obedience to the Lover of Souls, timid men found valour and fortitude exacted in the face of such horrifying trials as would turn the bones of the bravest to water. No middle way is possible; no happy balance may be struck. You cannot be a little bit soft and a little bit brave; somewhere in the middle. You must be at once as brave as a lion and as meek as a lamb. And it is a terrible truth that you cannot love a thing without being willing to fight for it.

This King Arthur was written by a man who had read and understood all the things I've just quoted above. I have had reason to think deeply about this particular book in the last few years, and I am continually impressed by the wealth of goodness within it. Logres, CS Lewis hints in That Hideous Strength, is the Kingdom of God in Britain; a little like the City On A Hill which was the United States, or Romania which was Byzantium, or the glorious kingdom of Charlemagne which was France, or the Southland of the Holy Spirit which was Australia. By these things I mean that many countries on earth have a legend or an ideal, in which their civil government walked closely in the will of God. In England we find the most ancient and wonderful version of that myth: we read how it was set up, a light against the pagan invasions; we read how it flourished and grew, how it underwent a great quest in search of greater divine blessing; and how, in the end, it was thwarted (but only for a time!) by human sin. And one day Logres will rise again.

In Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur we have a picture, a potent and wonderful picture, of a kingdom and a brotherhood working, to their best knowledge, to build the Kingdom of God on earth; thwarted, but not for long. A better snapshot of medieval Christendom could hardly be found.


Tim Nelson said...

Where does Spenser rate in your King Arthur author pantimé (like a pantheon, but with honourable ones, not gods)?

Suzannah said...

Well, Spenser's Arthur is Prince, not King, Arthur. Spenser is sixth in my six-man pantimé of Favourite Authors (neat word; thanks!), but not because he retells the King Arthur legends; he doesn't. I like The Faerie Queene for other reasons.

If I do have a King Arthur author pantimé, it goes something like this:

Roger Lancelyn Green
The author of the Mabinogion
Thomas Bulfinch
Thomas Mallory
Geoffrey Monmouth

I have, but have never read, Wace and Layamon. And I don't have, but would love to read, Chretien de Troyes, as he comes highly recommended. One day!


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