How Sir Launcelot Was Known by Dame Elaine
by Aubrey Beardsley. Illustration for a 1894 edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (Part One)
The story of King Arthur is Britain's foundation myth as the story of wandering Aeneas accounts for Rome's origins in The Aeneid. The real King Arthur was probably a sixth-century tribal chieftain, whose exploits were magnified into legend and codified by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136). Geoffrey depicts Arthur as a powerful king who resists invading barbarians and Imperial Romans alike. We first hear of the Round Table in a late twelfth-century poem.
In discussions of the English national culture, it is wise to keep the Arthurian virtues in mind. Knights were brave, generous, loyal, stoical, eager for adventure, and always prepared to save a lady’s honor. And at the same time, that paragon of knighthood, Sir Lancelot, always seems to be cheating on his lady, Dame Elaine, with no less a personage than Guinevere, the wife of the King.
There is but one emphatically Christian episode in the Arthurian tales, and that’s the quest for the Holy Grail, the sacred vessel with magical properties from which the savior drank at the Last Supper. Galahad, son of Lancelot, is of such purity that he alone among the questing knights beholds the Holy Grail. But Arthur himself has Savior-like powers. Though death in the persons of three gracious ladies shall take him away in a barge, he will return to rule after recovering from his wounds in the mystic Isle of Avalon.
The adulterous liaison between Lancelot and Guinevere is the central episode of the Arthurian saga in either of its most eloquent versions. Sir Thomas Malory told the story in prose in the waning days of the Middle Ages; Le Morte d’Arthur was published in 1485. Alfred, Lord Tennyson rendered the tale in the fluid blank verse of Idylls of the King, which he wrote in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Malory can still be read with pleasure. Tennyson is intermittently sublime.
In both, Sir Lancelot is the epitome of chivalry, the warrior Arthur loves and honors most, who would be flawless were it not for his adulterous love of his liege lord’s lady. But that is a grievous fault in a community based on male fellowship and the ideals of courtly love, and it leads ultimately to a civil war and the doom of Camelot.
The story of how Arthur alone can pull the great sword Excalilbur out of the rock is as crucial in Malory as the contest between Odysseus and the suitors at the end of The Odyssey. The feat establishes Arthur's kingship and confirms the power of Merlin's wizardry. In Tennyson, the magic is palpable: Arthur is crowned by the sword itself, rising from the “bosom of the lake.” On one side of the sword is written “Take me,” on the other “Cast me away!”
King Arthur draws the sword from the stone.
Source: Charles H. Sylvester, Journeys Through Bookland (Chicago: Bellows-Reeve Company, 1909)