There may have been a British warrior-king named Arthur—the name itself is of Roman provenance—who flourished in the late fifth century, and who may conceivably have won a victory against the English invaders at a place known only as Mons Badonicus, but the evidence is so slight as to be practically non-existent. But how is it, then, that this spectral and fugitive tribal warrior became the central figure or figment of the English imagination whose creative life has stretched into the twenty-first century with no sign of abatement?
Those who engage in a conspiratorial theory of history believe that the legend of King Arthur was predominantly Norman in inspiration, and was designed to obscure the true and real achievements of the genuinely English King Alfred. But the stories of Arthur lie much further back. He has been equated with the primeval legends of the sun god, and compared with Hercules and Adonis. In Otranto Cathedral there is a mosaic of “Rex Arturus” in which the king rides upon a goat while wielding a phallic club; he is encircled by a zodiac, in which shape the landscape of Glastonbury itself is purported to be formed. This is suggestive but by no means conclusive; it may simply imply that, in taking over the figures of an ancient myth, the English were trying to borrow or assimilate the features of an older British earth-worship. The sleep of Arthur in the unknown region of Avalon has also been related to Plutarch’s invocation of the old British belief that the great god Cronos still sleeps upon an island surrounded by waters. This in turn has been related to the myth of the original Albion, which has been associated with the legend of Atlantis; the Druids were supposed to believe that Albion, the spirit or embodiment of the English, was an original portion of the lost continent. It is a very rich, not to say heady, brew. Any attempt to drink it will inevitably lead to numbness and disorientation.
The extant fragments of the Arthurian legend are themselves of sufficient interest. It seems most likely that the story of Arthur was originally Celtic in inspiration; Welsh poems of the ninth and tenth centuries already invoke Arthur as a figure of the remote past, and the Black Book of Carmarthen mentions the names of his knights or retinue while mysteriously suggesting that “anoeth bit bed i Arthur,” “the world’s wonder is the grave of Arthur.”1 This is the first surviving reference to the occluded demise of the ancient king. It suggests also the extent to which Celtic elements inform what are believed to be characteristically “English” legends. Another Celt, the historian Nennius, who wrote in Latin, refers to Arthur as “a commander in the battles” of Britons against the Saxon invaders; there are references also in the Annales Cambriae compiled in the seventh or eighth century, which seem to confirm the hypothesis that Arthur was an historic if remote figure. It records, of “Year 72,” the battle of Badon in which “Arthur bore the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the Britons were the victors.”2It is of passing interest that Avalon, the island to which Arthur is taken in death, is a transliteration of Attalon, apple trees, or Afalxon, apples; the apple tree was also one of the sacred trees of England, and the object of ceremonial worship known as “apple-wassailing” which may have been influenced by earlier insular cults. In account books as late as the 1670s and 1680s we read of boys paid to “howl away” disease from the apple trees. It would seem that once more an ancient English rite has arcane origins.
The provenance of Arthurian stories and legends then moves to Cornwall, and to Brittany, which suggests that an oral tradition concerning the king existed among the Brythonic Celts of these regions. His fame, and the exploits increasingly attached to his name, spread across Europe perhaps because of the very generality of his achievement. One Welsh poem of the thirteenth century exemplifies his ambivalent status: “And then, lo and behold bards coming to chant song to Arthur, but no one could understand that song . . . except that it was in praise of Arthur!”3 He hunts a boar; he fights a hag; he slays a giant; he searches for a magic cauldron; he sets tasks for his knights by which they will obtain their suit. The mosaic in Otranto Cathedral is complemented by another figure of Arthur above the north doorway of Modena Cathedral; a similar version adorns Bari Cathedral, also in Italy. Ailred of Rievaulx confessed in 1141 that the exploits of Arthur moved him to tears, while in 1113 certain canons of Laon in northern France fell into dispute with a Bodmin man who asserted that Arthur still lived. He had already become a folk memory.
In the light of Arthur’s Celtic origin it is perhaps not surprising that the first definitive or coherent account of the king should spring from the pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who has been described variously as of Welsh, Cornish or Breton stock. Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was completed by 1138; the author was canon of St. George’s, Oxford, but his ambitions were literary rather than spiritual. He had already composed a text entitled Prophetiae Merlini, so it can fairly be asserted that he had an abiding passion for the earliest history of the island. Two English chroniclers, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, had in fact recently provided an historical digest of the Anglo-Saxons; it seems likely that Geoffrey wished to furnish a chronology of the earlier Celtic or British people, in which the Saxons would play less prominent a role. Geoffrey himself said that much of his material had been derived from “an ancient book in the British language,” but no appropriate Welsh or Celtic text has yet been discovered. The fact that no such book has been found does not preclude its existence, although many scholars believe that few documents from this early period could have provided the detail and circumstance of Geoffrey’s account. Historia Regum Britanniaeis a more secular account of national history than most previous Latin originals, largely because the writer has chosen to emphasise the cycle of fortune rather than the providence of God. Significantly, therefore, the story of King Arthur is thereby placed in the context of an apparently authentic chronicle rather than in fable or romance.
The audience for Historia Regum Britanniae could scarcely have been the scattered Celtic communities in the west of the country but, rather, Anglo-Norman aristocrats and ecclesiastics as well as those few Anglo-Saxon thegns or abbots who had survived the ascendancy. The emphasis was not upon the race of Arthur, but upon the land he administered and defended; if it was a national epic, in part inspired by the cleric Geoffrey’s reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, it was the epic of a sacred earth or territory. It is important once more to suggest the Englishness of this sensibility. Celtic source material and Celtic longings, as well as the texture of Geoffrey’s Latin prose, are subdued by it; it is a field of force that creates its own lines of energy. One of the first pagan spells to be transmitted in Anglo-Saxon was that summoning the goddess of the earth; the earliest race of the English, from Angeln in the south of Denmark, was described by Tacitus as uniquely worshipping “Nerthus, that is Terra Mater.”
It is of particular interest, too, that the histories of Arthur are implicated in decline and failure; at the highest point of the king’s power, after he has conquered the Romans in continental Europe and is about to march on Rome itself, he is undone by the treachery of Mordred and dies in battle against him at Camblam in Cornwall. The story of Arthur has always been striated with sensations of loss and of transitoriness, which may well account for its central place within the English imagination; the native sensibility is touched with melancholy, as we have seen, and the sad fate of Arthur and his kingdom corresponds to that national mood. There is something, too, of determination and endurance within this dominant sensation. Some men say that Arthur will rise again; we must endure our going hence. It is the kind of stoicism which has been seen as characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in “The Battle of Maldon” where the most famous Saxon or English cry has been rendered—“Courage must be the firmer, heart the bolder, spirit must be the greater, as our strength grows less.” That combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.
So Geoffrey’s narrative became the representative national epic; it was immediately popular, with more than two hundred Latin manuscripts still extant, and was employed as source material until well into the eighteenth century. Here, too, in lucid and readily accessible form are national myths of another kind; Geoffrey relates the history of King Lear and his three daughters, of Cymbeline, of Merlin and the removal of Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain.
Within seventy years Historia Regum Britanniae was translated into French verse by a monk from Jersey, Robert Wace, whose Roman de Brut first introduced the “Round Table” as an image of true chivalry. A French narrative poem, Erec et Eride by Chrétien de Troyes, which has been described by an historian of French literature as the “first Arthurian romance,”4 was written soon afterwards. The poem was adapted into shorter verses, or lais, by Marie de France who, paradoxically, lived in England and “was writing for a French-speaking Norman audience.”5 Once more it is the land or territory, and only by indirection the race or tribe, which is being celebrated.
Certainly this is the concept introduced by Layamon’s Brut, the first translation into English of Wace and the first work in the English language to describe King Arthur himself. In the opening lines Layamon declares that “Layamon gon lithen, wide yond thas leode,” Layamon travelled widely through this land, and would tell of the leaders of England. This has led some scholars to suggest that “the true hero of the Brut is the land itself.”6 It may be of some significance, therefore, that it is also the first surviving long poem in Middle English and that it uses what seems to be a deliberately ornate and “poetic” alliterative line as an echo of old song. The use of a long accentual line and the employment of alliteration suggest, in other words, that one of Layamon’s principal models was the verse of the English past.
Layamon himself was a twelfth-century priest at Areley Regis in Worcestershire, not far removed from the great monastic libraries of the west midlands. In this colder climate the romance of the Anglo-Norman poets does not intrude, and there have been many attempts to distinguish Wace’s Roman de Brut in French from Layamon’s Brut in Middle English. That great literary scholar C. S. Lewis, who was himself half in love with the Anglo-Saxon past of this country, has described Layamon’s work as graver and more sombre than that of Wace. It possesses the hardness and gravity of the Old English sensibility, which we may perhaps now term the English sensibility itself. A light-hearted description of a spiral staircase in a tower, in the French of Wace’s poem, is transformed by Layamon’s interpolation so that it becomes “An ald stanene weorc; stithe men hit wurhten,” “it was an old stone work; hard men made it.” Old stone elicits a strong response in the poetry of the English; it is perhaps part of the antiquarian persuasion, and it suggests the presence of the past which is so much an aspect of the native inheritance.
Layamon, too, is more susceptible to wonders and supernatural events than his French counterpart; he introduces “aelvene” or “ ylfes,” or the “little people” of British provenance. Engravings from the sixteenth century show men walking into the caves of the “brownies” as they were known on account of their swarthy complexions; as late as the seventeenth century people could be suspected of witchery merely for having had dealings with these strange prehistoric folk of the moors. Here once more we may see one of the sources, and earliest examples, of that later English taste for ghost stories and for “horror”; as Bacon once concluded, “the thing is ancient but the word is late.” The native tendency is indeed as ancient as Beowulf, as enduring as the Gothic novel, and has not faded yet.
Another element of Layamon’s Brut, quite distinct from any French version, dwells in the elusive English notion of reticence or embarrassment. When Merlin reveals the secret of transporting the monoliths of Stonehenge:
Thus seiden Maerlin and seoththen he saet stille alse theh he wolde of worlden iwiten
“Thus said Merlin and then he sat still, as though he would go out of the world.” Similarly, when young Arthur is acclaimed as king:
Arthur saet ful stille
and then spoke a few cryptic words. This brevity or understatement, fading into silence, seems characteristic; it is present also in English medieval illumination where the pomp and circumstance of the continental courts are quite missing.
Layamon’s Brut, a poem of some sixteen thousand lines, was composed at some point between 1185 and 1225. The loss of Normandy in 1204 has already been noted, so that Layamon’s “sense of ‘England’ is made all the more relevant.”7 His preoccupation with the land is matched only by his emphasis upon “continuity” and his interest in “ordinary people.”8 It is possible, therefore, that Layamon’s use of English and his adoption of the alliterative line were methods of evoking or even creating a natural and national community of English speakers. This emphasis may also account for the direct and dramatic use of dialogue within the narrative, the comparative lack of subtlety in the exposition, the interest in supernatural strangeness, and the weight placed upon historical associations or references. It was as if a lost past were being revived, and this first version of Arthur’s exploits in English provided “a unifying account of national origins and a focus for patriotic spirit.” 9
Other dynastic chronicles, written in the vernacular, followed. An alliterative version of Morte Arthure had been transcribed by the beginning of the fifteenth century; it is the product of a highly literate and sophisticated culture, to which has been appended in an unknown hand “Hic jacet Arturus rex quondamrexque futurus,” “Here lies Arthur, the once and future king.”
It is a legend of origin combined with the myth of revival; part of the power of the Arthurian saga lies in its uncertain significance so that the very absence of meaning, particularly in the ambiguous death of Arthur, has encouraged a hundred different meanings—national, social, tribal, cultural— to rush into the available space. Arthur himself lies suspended between heaven and earth, the significance of his equivocal posture matched by the sense of suspended significance in the texts devoted to him.
There are many other chronicles, romances and fables to be found in the eight compendious volumes of the French “Vulgate Cycle,” of which the authorship is unknown; they include no less than everything, the romance of Launcelot and Guinevere, the story of Merlin, the adventures of Bors and Gawain, the death of Arthur, their chronology “spanning the entire history of the Grail quest from its origin in the Passion of Christ to its successful accomplishment by the chosen Arthurian hero.” 10 But the chivalric fictions and spiritual allegories of the French writers were not necessarily to English taste, and the native English chronicles were prone to emphasise the violence and suffering of heroism while turning spiritual meaning into a vague sense of superstitious dread; the environment is local and detailed, blessed with any number of historical associations in order to lend the adventures a wholly English context.
There is an accompanying desire “to create a tradition of secular English literature to rival that in French.”11 By native instinct or literary fortune the reign of Arthur was intimately attached to the national linguistic enterprise, so that his name and fame will live as long as the English language itself.
The English tales flourished for almost three hundred years, from 1250 to 1550, and we may reach tentative conclusions about the nature of early English sensibility in a comparison with their French counterparts. The stories tend to be narrated in a shorter and simplified form, with the vocabulary of love and courtesy excised; the “linear” English mind seemed to prefer an adventure complete with heroic and violent special effects. Great debates are foreshortened and reduced to practical discussion of pragmatic import. Psychological intimacy and interior drama are eschewed in favour of “the exaggerated and the grotesque” with “a marked preference for combats with giants and monsters rather than mere human opponents.”12 This taste for sensation and horror has endured as long as the Arthurian legends themselves.
The inscrutability or ambiguity of those legends—the ever elusive “Holy Grail” is in that sense emblematic—has in turn meant that countless political allegories and historical associations have been cast upon them. In England the stories of knightly grandeur and chivalric honor, in the service of a strong central court, created a glorious past to which less glorious contemporaries might wish to attach themselves. In the late twelfth century the exhumation of Arthur in the grounds of Glastonbury, at the behest of Henry II, was meant to assure the disaffected Welsh that their great chieftain was well and truly dead. It is believed that a hasty reading of Geoffrey of Monmouth by the monks of Glastonbury had originally led to the rapid insertion of other bodies into the supposed Arthurian graves, together with various relics quickly inscribed with appropriate material; at first Arthur and Guinevere were found in the same tomb, but a more thorough reading of the text led to her being silently removed. Mordred, the treacherous nephew, also vanished from the grave site.
In the context of English history itself, however, the extent to which a powerful imagination or a passage of significant writing can affect external events—can in a real sense “create” history—is of absorbing interest.
The antiquarian concerns of the English encourage, also, a brooding over the past as if it harboured some secret message or inspiration. Thus in 1278 Edward I and Queen Eleanor visited Glastonbury and, having inspected the remains of the once and future king, ordered that he be taken in pomp and reverence to the high altar of the abbey there. Edward was at that moment facing an insurrection of the Welsh, advancing under the inspiration of Arthur, and the king wished to claim Arthur as his own with the manifest suggestion that Edward was the chosen and legitimate successor. An historical figment, at best an obscure war-lord, was so honoured by historians and chroniclers that he became a potent force in thirteenth-century dynastic politics. It is a signal example of the power of historical writing. In the fourteenth century it was affirmed that the object of the knights’ quest, the Holy Grail, was in fact the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper which had been brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea. Thus the cultic status of this spot of English earth grew and grew; it has often been surmised that fact and fiction strangely mingle in English biography and historiography, so the story of Arthur may be adduced as the harbinger of a great national tradition.
In 1344 Edward III decided to establish a fellowship of the Round Table, which pledge was modified four years later into the Order of the Garter. So the recipients of this honour have to thank an Oxford cleric named Geoffrey for their advancement. Henry V wrote to the Abbot of Glastonbury, in 1421, demanding that the remains of Joseph of Arimathea should also be miraculously recovered; but the king died before any exhumation could take place, and the site of Joseph’s supposed burial has never been revealed.
Then in 1486 Henry VII named his first son Arthur as a way both of reuniting the English nation after the dynastic “Wars of the Roses” and of affirming his own legitimacy as sovereign. There were jousts and banquets in medieval style, while the image of a young King Arthur was delineated on the walls of Richmond Palace. The “image of King Arthur riding a golden triumphal chariot through the sphere of the sun . . . was to have enormous significance for the development of the Tudor Arthurian myth.” 13 In fact the only two prospective heirs to the throne of England who were given the name of Arthur both died young. Would the myth of Arthur have survived so long without the untimely deaths of his later avatars?
In the year before the christening of Henry VII’s heir, the young Prince Arthur, a yet more splendid addition to the Arthurian legend emerged in the shape of Malory’s prose epic in eight books, under the title of Le Morte Darthur.
Little is known of Thomas Malory himself; he was a soldier of an old Warwickshire family and was present at the siege of Calais in 1436. He inherited an estate at Newbold Revell but quickly lapsed into a career of violence, theft and extortion. He broke out of several prisons, on one occasion swimming across the moat, and he fought with Warwick against Edward IV. He died on 14 March 1471 in or near Newgate prison, in which gaol he is likely to have written the entire epic of Arthur, which closes “Praye for me while I am on lyve that God sende me good delyveraunce.” It is fortunate that we do not expect our greatest authors to live virtuous lives, since this thief, blackmailer and ruffian has produced what his editor has called “the one work of real poetic value in the whole field of modern Arthurian fiction.” 14 “ ‘What?’ seyde Sir Launcelot. ‘Is he a theff and a knyht? And a ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the Order of Knyghthode and contrary unto his oth. Hit is pyte that he lyvyth.’ ” These words must be the finest evidence for an embarrassed author in the entire history of English literature.
Thomas Malory first began the enterprise by adapting an alliterative Morte Arthur which, at a later date, Caxton considerably modified; that strange archaising mode did not fit naturally with the printer’s idea of “standard ” English. Then Malory turned to the vast corpus of French romances, together with some English additions, and radically shortened their rambling theses on courtly love and other speculative matters; he cut the theology, while at the same time condensing certain of the stories. He introduced these stories one after the other as if they were organic accretions of some total design, in the manner of an English cathedral of the same period. Malory is also of a decidedly pragmatic turn. As an Arthurian scholar has put it, “he exalts the practical over the ethereal and spiritual”;15 this will be seen to be a characteristically English response. Malory’s brevity is in fact an essential engine of the plot which turns upon sudden crises and arbitrary adventures; there are dramatic speeches rather than interior monologues, incidents rather than characters. This sensibility, deriving in part from the fierce reticence of the Saxons, runs very deeply through the English imagination.
The prose of Le Morte Darthur has the simplicity and vividness derived from great originals, while at moments of violence and high drama Malory reaches out for the alliterative tradition once more. The prose indeed generally registers that vernacular straightforwardness which Professor Chambers traced from Beowulf to the works of Sir Thomas More.
Sir Dynadan is dressed in “a womans garmente,” one of the earliest examples of that English taste for cross-dressing, “and when quene Gwenyver sawe sir Dynadan ibrought in so amonge them all, then she lowghe [laughed] that she fell downe; and so dede all that there was.” There are other examples of this colloquial register—“And there he lay lyke a fole grennynge and wolde nat speke”—which remains half the strength of written English prose.
There are certain principal themes in Le Morte Darthur, not the least of them being that great reverence for a distant past which is so much a part of national literature. But there are also certain key words which define this heroic world, among them “sothe,” “custom,” “aventure,” “worship,” “body,” “hole,” “felyship,” “marvayles,” “secretness,” all of them creating a charmed landscape of confrontation and of peril. The narrator makes mistakes, loses his sources, or refuses to endorse a certain section of the narrative; these are characteristically English manoeuvres, brought most delicately to life by Geoffrey Chaucer in his role as the embarrassed narrator. Malory is not an expert on “psychological individuality, and realistic time-schemes,” let alone causality,16 but many later English novelists have suffered from these minor failings. The slightly surrealistic air of his prose is suggestive in another sense, however, because it contributes to “the strangeness of Arthur’s kingdom.”17 It consorts, too, with the dominant note of the book, that “haunting elegiac tone or undertone . . . its sad suggestions of the vanity and transience of all things, of the passing away of pomp and splendour, of the falls of princes.”18 It reflects the mysterious and arbitrary workings of providence, doom foretold and prophetic dream. It has always been noticed that Sir Lancelot is the real hero of Malory’s narrative, but the central brooding figure is that of Arthur, the once and future king whose connection with the Holy Grail was to excite the attention of Blake and Tennyson, Scott and Rossetti, Steinbeck and Eliot.
In Malory’s account, “The Day of Destiny,” Arthur’s sword is thrown into a lake. “And there cam an arme and an honde above the watir, and toke hit and cleyght hit, and shoke hit thryse and braundysshed, and then vanysshed with the swerde into the watir.” When Arthur is told of this he replies, “Alas, help me hens, for I drede me I have tarryed over longe.” He is placed in a barge, with fair ladies in black hoods; all of them “wepte and shryked.” As he is guided away Sir Bedyvere cries out to him, “A, my lorde Arthur, what shall becom of me, now ye go frome me, and leve me here alone amonge myne enemyes?” “Comforte thyselff,” said the king, “and do as well as thou mayste, for in me ys no truste for to truste in. For I muste into the vale of Avylon to hele me of my grevous wounde. And if thou here nevermore of me, pray for my soule!” Arthur never was heard of again, in this life, and Malory adds a final paragraph:
Yet som men say in many partys of Inglonde that kynge Arthur ys nat dede, but had by the wyll of oure Lorde Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse. Yet I woll not say that hit shall be so, but rather I wolde sey: here in thys worlde he chaunged hys lyff. And many men say that there ys wrytten uppon the tombe thys: Hic Jacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus.
Here is “the peace that passes all understanding.” Yet in this account of dolorous departing, we seem to have mislaid the actual British warrior-king who fought against the English. What is the spell of this enchantment thrown over a thousand years of English literature and English art? It lies in its unknowability; the probability that Arthur was British rather than Anglo-Saxon serves only to emphasise his otherness. He is the other who is being continually sought, even if the encounter may destroy you. He represents blood kinship and tribal fealty for the heterogeneous and muddled race of the English; he represents sanctified leadership, uniting England and the Holy Grail. Yet at the same time he is an image of transience and of loss, the unendurable loss of one who just slipped away. He is the shadow on the page. John Milton invoked “Arturumque sub terris bella moventum,” Arthur under the earth fomenting wars, and Dryden wished to compose an epic concerning “King Arthur, conquering the Saxons.” Both of them are images of ferocious national identity, not untouched by melancholy and decay.
His memory was kept alive in folk-tale or oral tradition, and in the early eighteenth century it was recorded that “King Arthur’s story in English” was “often sold by the ballad-singers, with the like Authentic Records of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Southampton.” 19 Arthur slept in popular superstition, therefore, and he was not dead.
He was recovered for literary purposes in the nineteenth century, after suffering more than two centuries of relative neglect. He was restored in Tennyson’s early Arthurian poems, composed in the 1830s and 1840s, and in that poet’s Idylls of the King; Hallam Tennyson has written of his father that “what he called ‘the greatest of all poetical subjects’ perpetually haunted him.” William Morris wrote The Defence of Guenevere, and Swinburne composed Tristram of Lyonesse. There were scores of other revisions and redactions of Arthurian material, and they are still being issued. It was Tennyson, however, who “created a taste for Arthurian poetry unprecedented since the Middle Ages.”20 He began with “The Lady of Shalott” and ended with Idylls of the King, which “occupied the poet for more than fifty years and came closer than any other work of the age to being an epic and a national poem.”21 The advantage of English historicism is that it allows contemporary events and preoccupations to be observed in the context of a transcendent past; so the reader of Idylls of the King may draw conclusions about Victorian attitudes to women and nineteenth-century science. Medievalism did not preclude modernity, but actively encouraged it, with the unspoken assumption that “the Victorian world may profit from the patterns of the past.”22 Thus Hallam Tennyson noted of his father’s Arthurian poems that he “infused into them a spirit of modern thought and an ethical significance” which revived an entire literary tradition.
This is the true significance of Arthur: by not dying, by being perpetually reborn, he represents the idea of the English imagination. By creating a national epic, Tennyson also reasserted the power and efficacy of English literature itself. That epic, envisaged by Milton and Wordsworth alike, embodied the realisation “that the Arthurian legend was more than legend, was in fact the great national fount of myth and symbol.” 23 Tennyson had discovered Arthur in childhood. “The vision of an ideal Arthur as I have drawn him,” he wrote, “had come upon me when, little more than a boy, I first lighted upon Malory.” So in tracing that king’s doleful life he was returning to his own beginnings, and in the conflation of mood and memory he was also touching upon the source of national literature itself.
Tennyson told Caroline Fox that he believed Arthur to have been an “historical personage,”24 yet it is the music of Tennyson that lingers, that swelling cadence which is the movement of the language itself; it is a solemn music which always seems to anticipate its own dying fall, and so is consonant with the theme of Arthur and of Avalon. Yet, somehow, it exists too outside the rhythm of human time in a perpetual exequy to its own nature. Merlin, the great riddler, understood this:
For an ye heard a music, like enow They are building still, seeing the city is built To music, therefore never built at all, And therefore built for ever
That is what is meant by the suspension of meaning in the English epic of Arthur, which itself allows so many allusions and changing identifications. As Tennyson said of certain interpretations of his Arthurian characters, “They are right, and they are not right. They mean that and they do not.” Yet the meaning lies in the melody itself, in the music of transmission and inheritance which has no ultimate meaning except its survival through time. It is the search for pattern—pattern for its own sake—and for sacred order. That is why Arthur has survived.
It has been said that “Wilfred Owen saw the remnants of Arthur’s knights” in the carnage of the Western Front and heard the music “in the screaming funnel of a hospital barge.”25
And that long lamentation made him wise How unto Avalon, in agony, Kings passed in the dark barge, which Merlin dreamed
These lines were influenced by Tennyson’s “The Passing of Arthur” where is evinced
. . . an agony Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills All night in a waste land
The lamentation was taken up by T. S. Eliot, too, who so wished to unite himself with the English tradition that his poetry clustered around the music of Malory. “Therefore men calle hit—the londys of the two marchys—the Waste Londe, for that dolerous stroke.”