Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

tion that it should, even under the unsettled conditions of romance, keep something of the interest of that conflict which goes on by the mingled good and evil in men's hearts and fates. It is not Fancy run wild, but, with all her lawless magician-work and fairy extravagance, bound still to deal with and present, “after what flourish her nature will,” some memorial of that strife of human affections, powers, and destinies, in which are born equally the prose and commonplace with the poetry and heroism of life. Herein,” says Caxton, in the Prologue to his edition,“ may be seen noble chyvalrye, curtosye, humanyte, frendlynesse, hardynesse, love, frendshyp, cowardyse, murdre, hate, vertue, synne.” So much semblance of the unfanciful truth of things and enforcement from actual humanity these fanciful stories of elfdom have, to give real pleasure and profit, and to bear out the pious conclusion of the Preface: “But al is wryton for our doctryne, and for to beware that we falle not to vyse ne synne, but texercyse and folowe vertu, by whyche we may come and atteyne to good fame and renomme in thys lyf, and after thys shorte and transytorye lyf to come into everlastyng blysse in heven, the whyche he graunt us that reygneth in heven the blessed Trynyte. Amen."

From “La Morte d'Arthure” Mr. Bulfinch has largely drawn for his excellent “ Age of Chivalry," which does for this portion of modern romance what “ The Age of Fable” did so well for the old mythology. The same refinement of taste and simplicity of style which marked the former book distinguish this. It contains the best and most characteristic stories of Arthur and his knights, cleared of what is tedious and exceptionable. Perhaps the book can have no better praise than that it is sure of its place in the children's libraries, on the same shelf, and in the same attractive dog-eared and shabby condition with the much beread and belent Arabian Nights and Child's Own Book. But it will not lack the more discriminating favor of those who judge it by its literary merit. Its introductory information upon the manners and customs of chivalry, the original sources of the legends, and the mythic history of England, is valuable, and the stories selected are among the most remarkable and interesting. They will be

[ocr errors]

esteemed for themselves and the genial pleasure they give, apart from the value which attaches to them for the suggestion they have given to poets like Bulwer and Tennyson.

The second part of “ The Age of Chivalry” is chosen out of the Mabinogeon, a rather ill-sounding Welsh word, which means Prose Tales, and is the title of a collection of Welsh legends, among which are many Round-Table stories. These, in manuscript, were known for years to be buried in various libraries, and were at last brought to light and printed by a patriotic Mr. Owen, to be now given to English comprehension in a translation by Lady Guest. They have an interest equal with, and rather fresher, than the fables of the Morte d'Arthure, and readers will gladly make the confession which the American compiler hopes, “ that he has laid them under no light obligation.” Among them it is pleasant to find the original of the first of the Idyls of the King, — “ Enid." These Mabinogeon have a more popular flavor than those from the History of Arthur and his Round Table, which came to the English through chansons, romances, and fabliaux in the Anglo-Norman tongue. They are less for knights and more for the people ; not minstrel songs so much as fireside stories. They have about them the cast of common life and ungentle manners, as well as of the splendor of chivalry and the bearing of nobles. There is a good deal of direct narration, sharp speech, and sturdy talk, with broad humor and practical joking, which smack of the people and their likings, and which appear so notably in ballads. In this fashion of the crowd, and in certain other respects, one is struck with a resemblance between these Welsh stories and the Oriental,those of the Thousand and One Nights, for example. In both are the same brisk talk and pointed reply, and a like cumulative exaggeration in description. This, for instance, seems much after the Oriental fashion, where Kay tells the giant's porter that he will know Bedwyr by the lance whose “head will leave the shaft and draw blood from the wind, and descend upon the shaft again;” - and where the maiden Olwen is described : “More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer her hands and her fingers than the blossoms

of the wood-anemone amidst the spray of the meadow-fountain. The eye of the trained hawk was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the swan, her cheek redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld her was filled with her love. Four white trefoils sprung up wherever she trod." Or where Kilwich rides out: “And in the youth's hand were two spears of silver, sharp, well tempered, headed with steel, three ells in length, of an edge to wound the wind and cause blood to flow, and swifter than the fall of the dew-drop from the blade of reed-grass, when the dew of June is at the heaviest. And there was precious gold of the value of three hundred kine upon his shoes and upon his stirrups, from his knee to the tip of his toe. And the blade of grass bent not beneath him, so light was his courser's tread, as he journeyed toward the gate of Arthur's palace.” It would be worth while to have the comparison drawn for us between Northern and Gothic romance and fairy-story, and Eastern tales of magic. No branch of historic study is more interesting than questions of race and language. There is a certain sustained fascination in following any of the leads of ethnological research among those •great Asiatic emigrations, and those pursuits of tribe after tribe — Scythian, Gothic, Slavonic - to the west and north of Europe. In this research all folk-lore of myths and traditions in song or story is found of express value. And in those Welsh stories, growing up among a people first known, out of Asia, about the Euxine, and called by Homer and Herodotus Kipuépioi, then named by the Romans Cimmerii, in Western Europe Kimbri, and at last in Britain known as Cymry, there should be discoverable some trace of family resemblance with the stories of Persia and India. But the moral difference is greater than any formal likeness, and very striking between the enervation of life, sentiment, and fancy in the one, and the masculine vigor in the other. It is the contrast between the Palm and the Oak, land of the Sun and land of Frost, passion and the controlled will, fatalism and self-reliance. Ali or Hassan, finding himself in love, is apt to have his reason wander, falls into a swoon at the sight of the loved one, and when he awakes

VOL. LXVII. — 5TH S. VOL. V. NO. III. 34

recites the dismallest verses, or, in absence, writes from “ her emaciated slave": . The heart is contracted; and solicitude extended ; and the eye sleepless;

and the body wearied; And patience cut short; and disjunction continued ; and reason deranged;

and the heart snatched away.” But in the North, Lancelot unhorses knight after knight, in loyalty to Guinevere ; or, out of simple friendliness to lovelorn Elaine, will wear on his helmet into the thick of chivalrous fight her sleeve of scarlet set with pearls. The flower of the broom, foam of the wave, wood-anemone, meadow-fountain, and white trefoil, in the aspect of Cymryc Olwen, which is Eastern in the cumulation of its details, show with a tempered, cool, and pure loveliness, in characteristic contrast of North to Orient, with this hot, luscious beauty of the Lady Badoura of Balsora : “A fair damsel, like the moon when it appeareth in its fourteenth night, with joined eyebrows and languishing eyelids, and a bosom like two pomegranates; she had thin lips like two pieces of carnelian, a mouth like the seal of Solomon, and a set of teeth that would sport with the reason of the poet and prose-writer.”. Such differences in the surface-work of the external fancy are but typical of the deeper contrasts in the character of thought and feeling, and the quality and meaning of life, through the whole range of Northern romance, compared with Oriental fable. The similitudes are mostly formal, while the unlikeness is intrinsic and essential.

These Mabinogeon are entertaining stories, but, beside being pleasant to read, they are of worth and interest as fine specimens of the ancient legends which are at once the people's children and their teachers. In selecting them from the large and expensive English volumes, Mr. Bulfinch has rendered good service, and has done his work in a manner which seems to prove it a labor of love. We wish he might have given us more of them. The history of Charlemain and his peers, which he promises, will doubtless be given in the same excellent manner, and be received with like favor.

In all this legend which has gathered around the name of Arthur, making the mythic hero hold a more real place and power in the world than the historic king, the poets have, from

a

1

а

the first, found abundant suggestion and illustration. Their works, from the sing-song ballad of " The Boy and the Mantle " to the stately cantos of “The Faerie Queen," have proved, with greater or less pretension and value, what an attraction this old stock of Ènglish romance has been to the finer and the coarser, poetic fancy and sympathy. The greater poets, who have given up their quick and delicate wits to the attraction, have rendered the people's household word a charm in literature, — a word to conjure with, and furnish the poetry of our language with some of its most beautiful forms and heroic or gracious spirits, to adorn it with most splendid or lovely scenes, and to make it move in all the gracefullest motions or stateliest marches with the procession of sweet experiences or grand events.

Spenser's great poem shows how he drew from this ancient spring; and in his Preface we find him writing to Raleigh, that, having it in mind in his book “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” he has chosen the “ Historye of King Arthure as most fitte for the excellency of his person,” and in him will “labour to pourtraict the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve Morall Vertues, as Aristotle has devised.” Milton's fancy looked in this direction before his imagination sought the height of that great argument of his epic; for he confesses that his mind,“ in the spacious circuit of her musing," among other attempts, cast about to see what king or knight before the Conquest might be chosen, in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian hero." We all know the appreciation which Scott, joining antiquarian zest with poetic feeling, had of our ancient stories, and we have all enjoyed his use of them. The two famous instances, in our day, of the favor in which the poets have held them are the " King Arthur” of Bulwer, and the “ Idyls of the King" by Tennyson. Such works prove the rich suggestiveness of that popular fiction, which to the North and its poetry has proved what the fable of Charlemain and his Paladins has been to the South. The first of them its author calls “the child of my most cherished hopes, to which I deliberately confide the task to uphold, and the chance to continue, its father's name.” The “Idyls the large and charming fulfilment of the promise, in earlier vol

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« ZurückWeiter »