THE old legends say that the Teutons who invaded Britain were opposed most valiantly by Arthur, a British king. Tales of his valiant deeds were told over and over again, and new ones were often added. By and by they were put into book form by one Thomas Malory, and it is from this that Tennyson took the stories that he made into the splendid verse of his Idylls of the King.
These stories say that after the death of Arthur's father, King Uther, the little boy was brought up by one Sir Ector and was called his son. When Arthur had grown old enough to be a squire, the throne of Britain became vacant. In the churchyard there was seen a great stone, wherein was an anvil. In the anvil was a sword, and about it was written in letters of gold, "Whoso pulleth this sword from this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England." Many tried to lift the sword, but Arthur was the only one who succeeded. Therefore he was made king, and he swore that he would rule justly and truly all the days of his life.
Arthur and the enchanter Merlin rode one day by a broad lake, and afar out in the midst of the lake an arm clad in white samite—a rich cloth like satin—rose from out the water and held up a fair sword. Then came the Lady of the Lake moving upon the water. "Enter into yonder barge," she said, "and row to the sword and take it and the scabbard." So it was that King Arthur found his magic sword Excalibur, which so often helped him to overcome his enemies in battle.
KING ARTHUR OBTAINS THE SWORD EXCALIBUR
The barons wished the king to take a wife, and Merlin asked, "Is there any fair lady that you love better than another?" "Yes," the king replied, "I love Guinevere. She is the gentlest and fairest lady that I know living." The father of Guinevere consented joyfully to the marriage, and as her dowry he sent the famous Round Table which King Uther had given him long before, with one hundred knights, brave and true. Then Arthur rejoiced. He welcomed Guinevere and he sought out twenty-eight knights of his own to sit at the Round Table, and it was found that by some magic the name of each knight had been written upon his seat, or siege, in letters of gold; but on one seat, called the Siege Perilous, there was none.
THE COURT OF KING ARTHUR
The bravest of these knights was Lancelot, but they were all strong and valiant. They jousted, they avenged maidens in distress, and they punished all wrongdoing that came to their ears. They were brave and true, but no one of them had dared to place himself in the Siege Perilous. At last there came to Arthur's court a fair and pure youth named Galahad, and when the silken cloth was lifted from the Siege Perilous, behold, upon it was written, "This is the seat of Galahad."
One evening, when every knight sat in his place, a cracking was heard and the sound of thunder, and a sunbeam seven times brighter than day was seen, and in the sunbeam was the Holy Grail, the cup from which the Blessed Christ drank at the Last Supper. But it was veiled with white samite, so that none might see it. Thereupon most of the knights took vows that they would search the world over till the glorious vision of the Grail should come to them. It was a long and almost hopeless search. Even the pure Sir Galahad made many journeys in vain, but at last he had a vision of the Holy Cup. Then a multitude of angels bore his soul to heaven, and never again has the Grail been seen upon the earth.
THE THREE QUEENS MOURNING OVER KING ARTHUR
At length, King Arthur was sorely wounded in battle, and he knew that the time had come for him to die. "Cast my sword Excalibur into the water of the lake," he bade Sir Bedivere, his companion, "and come again and tell me what you have seen." And when Sir Bedivere had thrown the sword, there rose from the water an arm clad with white samite. The hand took the sword and both sword and arm vanished beneath the waters. Then came close to the shore a barge, and in it was King Arthur's sister with two other queens and many fair ladies in waiting. The king was laid softly into the barge, and Sir Bedivere went away into the forest to weep.
In the morning, he came upon a chapel wherein was a tomb by which a hermit was praying. The hermit told Sir Bedivere that the man who was buried in the tomb had been brought there by some ladies at midnight. Then the faithful knight knew that it was the tomb of his king, and by it he abode all the days of his life, fasting and praying for the soul of his lord, King Arthur.