The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend

§ 10. Layamon

Above all, Wace’s Brut is of signal interest to English readers as forming the basis of the solitary contribution of any consequence made by an English writer to the vast and varied mass of Arthurian literature before the fourteenth century. Layamon, however, is a very different poet from Wace. While not indifferent to romance, as several significant additions to the Arthurian part of his story will show, Layamon wrote his Brut as a frankly patriotic English epic. Wace’s work is almost as artificial and exotic a product as the poetical romances; it was designed as a contribution to the polite literature of the Norman aristocracy. Layamon, dwelling in seclusion on the banks of the Severn, where “it was good to be,” was fired by an ambition “to tell the noble deeds of England,” and to tell them in the English tongue. His poem is the first articulate utterance of the native English genius reasserting itself in its own language after the long silence which succeeded the Conquest. Although he borrows most of his matter from Wace, Layamon, in manner and spirit, is much nearer akin to the robust singers of the Old English period than to the courtly French poet. The simple force and vividness of the primitive English epic reappear in descriptions of battle scenes and of heroic deeds. Even the poet’s diction is scrupulously pure English. And Arthur, who, in the hands of the professional romancers, had already become all but an alien to his fatherland, is restored to his rightful place as the champion of Britain, and the great Christian king who

  • Drew all the petty princedoms under him,
  • Their king and head, and made a realm, and reign’d.
  • Arthur, therefore, was to Layamon, primarily, the ideal British hero—an actual king of England, whose character and prowess deserved the veneration of his countrymen altogether apart from the glamour with which romance had enshrouded his name. But Layamon was a poet; and upon him, as upon the rest, the romantic glamour works its inevitable spell. Elfland claims Arthur, both at his birth and at his death. Elves received him into the world; they gave him gifts, to become the best of knights and a mighty king, to have long life and to be generous above all living men. At his passing, Arthur says he will go to Argante (Morgan le fay), the splendid elf; she will heal him of his wounds, so that he will return again to his kingdom. Again, Arthur’s byrnie was made for him by Wygar, the elvish smith, his spear by Griffin of the city of the wizard Merlin (Kaermerdin). Caliburn, his sword, was wrought in Avalon with magic craft; the Round Table by a strange carpenter from beyond the sea. Nowhere, however, does Layamon’s poem breathe more of the spirit of pure romance than in the passages which describe Arthur’s last battle and fall. The encounter took place at Camelford (Camlan) “a name that will last for ever.” The stream hard by, “was flooded with blood unmeasured.” So thick was the throng that the warriors could not distinguish each other, but “each slew downright, were he swain, were he knight.” Modred and all his knights perished and “there were slain all the brave ones, Arthur’s warriors, high and low, and all the Britons of Arthur’s board.” Of all the two hundred thousand men who fought none remained, at the end of the fight, save Arthur and two of his knights. But Arthur was sorely wounded, and, bidding the young Constantine, Cador’s son, take charge of his kingdom, he consigns himself to the care of Argante, “the fairest of all maidens,” who dwells in Avalon. Thence, cured of his wounds, he will come again to “dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.”

    Even with the words there came from the sea a short boat borne on the waves, and two women therein, wondrously arrayed: and they took Arthur anon, and bare him quickly, and softly laid him down, and fared forth away. Then was brought to pass that which Merlin whilom said, that there should be sorrow untold at Arthur’s forth-faring. The Britions believe yet that he is alive, and dwelleth in Avalon, with the fairest of all elves, and ever yet the Britons look for Arthur’s coming. Was never the man born, nor ever of woman chosen, that knoweth the sooth, to say more of Arthur. But whilom there was a seer hight Merlin; he said with words—and his sayings were sooth—that an Arthur should yet come to help the Britons.

    In this passage, as in many others, Layamon supplies several details not found in Wace, and his poem throughout bears abundant evidence that he drew upon a fund of independent traditions gleaned from many fields. Among the most interesting of Layamon’s additions to, and amplifications of, Wace’s narrative are his accounts of Arthur’s dream shortly before his last return to Britain, and of the origin and the making of the Round Table. The dream, of which neither Geoffrey nor Wace knows anything, foreshadows the treachery of Modred and Guinevere, and disturbs Arthur with the sense of impending doom. The occasion of the institution of the Round Table is, as in Wace, a quarrel for precedence among Arthur’s knights; but the description of the actual making, and of the properties, of the Table is all Layamon’s own. It was while he was in Cornwall, after the quarrel among his knights, that Arthur met the man from oversea who offered to “make him a board, wondrous fair, at which sixteen hundred men and more might sit.” Its huge size notwithstanding, and though it took four weeks to make, the board could, by some magic means, be carried by Arthur as he rode, and set by him in what place soever he willed. Like Wace, Layamon evidently knew stories about the Round Table of which the origin has never been traced; for “this was that same table” he says, “of which the Britons boast”—the Britons, who tell “many leasings” of king Arthur, and say of him things “that never happened in the kingdom of this world.” So it would appear that Layamon, had he pleased, could have told us much more of Arthur. Even as it stands, however, his poem is a notable contribution to Arthurian story, and has the unique distinction of being the first celebration of “the matter of Britain” in the English tongue.