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- Studies from Court and Cloister - 40/61 -
worldly adventures for worldly desires I ever achieved them, and had the better in every place, and never was I discomfited in no quarrel, were it right or wrong. And now I take upon me the adventure of holy things, and now I see and understand that mine old sin hindreth me and shameth me, so that I had no power to stir nor to speak when the holy blood appeared afore me. So thus he sorrowed till it was day, and heard the fowls of the air sing. Then was he somewhat comforted, and departed from the Cross on foot in a wild forest, and there he found a hermitage, and a hermit therein that was going to Mass. And then Sir Lancelot kneeled down on both his knees, and cried our Lord mercy for his wicked works that he had done. When Mass was done, Sir Lancelot called the hermit to him and prayed him for charity to hear his life. With a good will, said the good man. Sir, said he, be ye of King Arthur's court, and of the fellowship of the Round Table? Yea, forsooth, and my name is Sir Lancelot du Lake that hath been right well said of, and now my good fortune is changed, for I am the most wretched and caitiff of the world.
"Then the hermit beheld him, and had great marvel how he was so sore abashed. Sir, said the good man, ye ought to thank God more than any knight living, for He hath caused you to have more worldly worship than any, and for your presumption to take upon you in deadly sin for to be in His presence where His flesh and His blood was, that caused you ye might not see it with your worldly eyes. For He will not appear where such sinners be, but it be unto their great hurt and shame. And there is no knight living now that ought to give unto God so great thank as ye. For He hath given to you beauty, seemliness, and great strength above all other knights, and, therefore, ye are the more beholden to God than any man, to love Him and to dread Him; for your strength and manhood will little avail you, and God be against you."
Then Lancelot makes his confession to the hermit as we have already related, is assoiled, and repents him greatly. He remained three days with the hermit, and being then newly provided with a horse, helmet, and sword, he took his leave and rode away. After this occurs the episode at the Cross, and his receiving the hair shirt. On the morrow he jousted with many knights, and for the first time was thrown and overcome, all which he endured patiently as penance for his sins. That night he laid himself down to sleep under an apple-tree and dreamed a strange dream. At dawn he arose, armed himself and went on his way. He next came to a chapel "where was a recluse which had a window that she might look up to the altar, and all aloud she called Sir Lancelot, and asked him whence he came, what he was, and what he went to seek." He told her all his dreams and visions, which she expounded, and gave him pious counsel, but told him that he was " of evil faith and poor belief."
About this time he met Sir Galahad, and knew that he was his son. Then, after various adventures, he came as near the Holy Grail as it was given to him to come. As he was kneeling before a closed door in a castle "he heard a voice which sang sweetly, that it seemed none earthly thing. And him thought that the voice said, joy and Honour be to the Father of Heaven. Then Sir Lancelot wist well that there was the Sancgreall in that chamber." Then he prayed.
"And with that the chamber door opened, and there came out a great clearness, that the house was so bright as though all the torches of the world had been there. And anon he would have entered, but a voice said, Flee, Sir Lancelot, and enter not, for and if thou enter thou shalt forethink it. Then he withdrew him aback, and was right heavy in his mind. Then looked he up in the midst of the room and saw a table of silver, and the holy vessel covered with red samite, and so many angels about it, whereof one of them held a candle of wax burning, and the other held a Cross and the ornaments of the altar. And before the holy vessel he saw a good man, clothed like a priest, and it seemed that he was at the sacring of the Mass.
"And it seemed unto Sir Lancelot that, above the priest's hands, there were three men, whereof the two put the youngest by likeliness between the priest's hands, and so he lift it upright high, and it seemed to show unto the people. And then Sir Lancelot marvelled not a little, for him thought the priest was so greatly charged of the figure that him seemed he should have fallen to the ground; and when he saw none about him, he came to the door a great pace, and said:--
"Fair sweet Father, Jesu Christ, me take it for no sin, though I help the good man, which hath great need of help. Right so he entered into the chamber, and came toward the table of silver. And when he came nigh he felt a breath that him thought it was intermeddled with fire, which smote him so sore in the visage that him thought it all to brent his visage."
This is the culminating point of Lancelot's quest; he swooned away, and lay as one dead for twenty-four days. Nearer he might not come to the Holy Grail, and the sequel shows why, for after a time he returned to the court and fell into sin again, and forgot his good resolutions:--
"For, as the French book saith, had not Sir Lancelot been in his privy thoughts and in his mind set inwardly to the queen, as he was in seeming outward unto God, there had no knight passed him in the quest of the Sancgreall; but ever his thoughts were privily upon the queen."
But soon there arose a bitter quarrel between Lancelot and Guinevere, and she banished him from her sight. During his absence from the court she made a dinner, at which one of the guests, Sir Modor, was poisoned, and the queen accused of the crime. Guinevere was therefore impeached, and so truly did all the Round Table believe in her guilt, that at first no knight would come forward to defend her.
Ultimately, however, the "good Sir Bors," Lancelot's kinsman, was prevailed on to be her champion, provided that at the moment of the contest a better knight did not appear, to answer for her. Of course, when Sir Bors is about to enter the lists in the meadow before Winchester, where there is a great fire and an iron stake, at which Guinevere is to be burned if her champion is overcome, a strange knight appears in unknown armour, and turns out to be Lancelot, fights for the queen, and overthrows her accuser.
Here comes in the exquisite story of Elaine, to which Tennyson has done ample justice.
Soon after the death of the "lily maid of Astolat," Sir Agravaine, moved by jealousy of Arthur's greatest knight, discloses the story of Lancelot's treacherous love for the queen, and extracts from the king a reluctant permission to take the miscreant. But Sir Modred is the real instigator of the plot, working upon Agravaine's weakness, and Tennyson has altered little in the dramatic situation which immediately follows. His description of the parting scene between Lancelot and Guinevere is fine:--
"And then they were agreed upon a night (When the good King should not be there) to meet And part for ever. Passion pale they met And greeted: hands in hands, and eye to eye, Low on the border of her couch they sat Stammering and staring; it was their last hour, A madness of farewells. And Modred brought His creatures to the basement of the tower For testimony; and crying with full voice, 'Traitor, come out, ye are trapt at last,' aroused Lancelot, who rushing outward lion-like Leapt on him, and hurled him headlong, and he fell Stunned, and his creatures took and bare him off, And all was still; then she, 'The end is come, And I am shamed forever;' and he said, `Mine be the shame; mine was the sin; but rise, And fly to my strong castle over seas There will I hide thee till my life shall end, There hold thee with my life against the world.' She answered, 'Lancelot, wilt thou hold me so? Nay, friend, for we have taken our farewells. Would God that thou coulds't hide me from myself!"
Lancelot will not yield himself up lightly to his enemies; Sir Agravaine and another knight fall in the struggle with him; but it is not now that Guinevere betakes herself to Almesbury, and the whole beautiful scene between her and Arthur, and his most touching farewell to her are weavings of the modern poet's imagination. Beautiful the scene surely is, although wanting in one supreme touch, which a more Catholic-minded poet would have given to it. Guinevere's sin, according to Tennyson, is merely her sin against her husband; according to Malory it is her sin against God, and this is the very essence of the true Guinevere's repentance.
What really happens is this: Lancelot takes counsel with Sir Bors and his other friends, as to how he may save the queen, and it is decided that if on the morrow she is brought to the fire to be burned, Lancelot and all his kinsmen shall rescue her.
Accordingly, Arthur's nephews, Gawayn, Gahers, and Gareth, lead Guinevere forth "without Caerleyell, and there she was despoiled unto her smock, and so then her ghostly father was brought to her to be shriven of her misdeeds." But Lancelot's messenger gives the alarm duly, and Lancelot appears with all his friends. There is much fighting and bloodshed, and Sir Gahers and Sir Gareth are slain.
"Then Sir Lancelot rode straight unto the queen, and made a kirtle and a gown to be cast upon her, and then he made her to be set behind him, and rode with her unto his castle of joyous Garde, and there he kept her as a noble knight should, and many lords and kings send Sir Lancelot many good knights. When it was known openly that King Arthur and Sir Lancelot were at debate, many knights were glad of their debate, and many knights were sorry. But King Arthur sorrowed for pure sorrow, and said, Alas, that ever I bare any crown upon my head."
Gawayn, mourning the death of his brothers, incites the king to besiege Lancelot in Joyous Garde, and at length, reluctantly, Arthur consents to make war.
"Of this war was noise throughout all Christendom. And at last it was noised before the Pope, and he, considering the great goodness of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, which was called the most noble knight of the world, wherefore the Pope called unto him a noble clerk that at that time there was present the French book saith it was the Bishop of Rochester. And the Pope gave him Bulls under lead, unto King Arthur of England, charging him upon pain of interdiction of all England, that he take his queen, Dame Guinevere, to him again, and accord with Sir Lancelot."
Arthur would have made peace at once, but at first Gawayn prevented him. Then the bishop went to Lancelot and charged him to bring back the queen:--
"And the bishop had of the king his great seal and assurance, as he was a true anointed king, that Sir Lancelot should go safe and come safe, and that the queen should not be reproved of the king nor of none other, for nothing done before time past."
To Lancelot the bishop ended his exhortation in these words:--
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