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

XIV. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: II

§ 5. Celtic Romances

Of far greater importance, however, than any of the foregoing influences is that derived from Celtic sources. Stories of Arthur, of Tristram and Gawain, while, in response to formative influences of the time, they present certain details in common with the other romances, have yet a distinct atmosphere, fresh motives and new colouring. Points of similarity exist, but with a difference. The incessant combats of the Carolingian saga find a counterpart in the “derring-doe” of Arthurian heroes. As in Horn and Havelok, the scene in the Celtic romances is laid in Britain; but the background is Celtic rather than English. Again, just as King Alisaunder and Richard Cœur de Lion are magnificats of splendid heroic figures, so the glorification of Arthur is the persistent theme of this Celtic work. And, last, the love-strain and the magic which came from the east, and were embodied in Flores and Blancheflour, correspond, in some measure, with Celtic passion and Celtic mysticism. For such points of contact the spirit of the age must he held accountable: for such differences as exist, individual and national genius.

The effect of the Celtic genius upon English romance, if, indeed, such a statement may be ventured upon, was to reveal the passions, to extend the fancy and to inculcate sensibility. The Celtic element revealed love as a passion in all its fulness, a passion laden with possibilities, mysterious and awful in power and effect. It opened up avenues to a fairy-land peopled with elvish forms and lit by strange lights. It pointed to an exalted chivalry and lofty ideals, to a courtesy which was the outcome of a refinement of sentiment.

In the romance of Sir Tristram is embodied the Celtic revelation of love. The English poem is based on the version of Thomas, and is distinct from that of Béroul. This story of “death-marked” affection is well known: how Tristram and the fair Iseult are fatally united by the magic love-potion, quaffed in spite of Iseult’s approaching union with Mark of Cornwall; how their love persists in spite of honour and duty; how Tristram marries Iseult of the White Hand and comes to lie wounded in Brittany; how his wife, distracted with jealousy, falsely announces the ominous black sail coming over the seas; and how the fair Iseult glides through the hall and expires on the corpse of her former lover. Here we feel that the tragedy of love has been remorselessly enacted. It appears to us as a new and irresistible force, differing alike from the blandishments of the east and the crudeness of the north. A sense of mystery and gloom enfolds it all like a misty veil over cairn and cromlech. The problem is as enduring as life itself. Enchantment is suggested by means of the love-potion, yet the weakness is mortal, as, indeed, is the sombre climax. Passion descends to the level of reality, and the comfortable medieval ending is sternly eschewed. Love is conducted by neither code nor nice theory: it moves, simple, sensuous, passionate, to its appointed end, and relentlessly reveals the poetry of life.

In the romances which deal with the relations between mortal and fairy we find elements of the richest fancy. Here and elsewhere, in this Celtic section, are discovered landscapes and scenes which charm the imagination with their glamour and light. Fays come and go, wrapped in ethereal beauty, and horrible spirit-shapes appear to the accompaniment of mad symphonies of the elements. Knights of faërie emerge out of weird forbidden tracts, strange enchantments dictating or following their various movements. Mystic commands lightly broken entail tragic penalties, and mortals become the sport of elvish visitants.

Of the romances which relate to love-passages between mortal and fairy, Sir Launfal, Sir Orfeo and Emarè may be taken as types. In Sir Launfal, the hero receives love-favours from a beautiful fay, but breaks his bond by carelessly betraying his secret to the queen. He is condemned to death and abandoned by the fay, who, however, relents in time and, riding to Arthur’s court, succeeds in carrying the knight off to the Isle of Avalon. Sir Orfeo may be briefly described as a Celtic adaptation of the familiar classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Queen Heurodys is carried off into fairyland, in spite of all that human efforts can do. King Orfeo follows her in despair, as a ministrel, but his wonderful melodies at last succeed in leading her back to the haunts of men. In Emarè we have a beautifully told story of the Constance type, with the addition of certain mystical elements. The heroine is a mysterious maiden of unearthly beauty who is cast off by her unnatural father and drifts to the shores of Wales, where she wins Sir Cador’s love. After the marriage, Sir Cador goes abroad, and the young wife is once more turned adrift by an intriguing mother-in-law. She reaches Rome and there, in due course, she is happily discovered by the griefstricken Cador. Other romances relate the deeds of the offspring of fairy and mortal union as, for instance, Sir Degare and Sir Gowther. The former is an account of a fairy knight and a princess of Britain. He is abandoned in infancy by the princess, who, however, leaves with him a pair of magic gloves which will fit no hands but hers. The child in time becomes a knight, and his prowess in the lists renders him eligible for the hand of the princess, his mother. By means of the gloves, however, they learn their real relationship; whereupon Sir Degare relinquishes his claim and succeeds in the filial task of reuniting his parents. In Sir Gowther, the hero is the son of a “fiendish” knight and a gentle lady whom he had betrayed. The boy, as was predicted, proved to be of a most savage temperament, until the offending Adam was whipped out of him by means of self-inflicted penance. He then wins the love of an earl’s daughter by glorious achievements in the lists, and piously builds an abbey to commemorate his conversion.