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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.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 6. The “matter of France,” “of Britain,” and “of Rome”

The “matter of France” includes the subjects of the old French epics. These, being national, could not bear exportation so well as some of the other “matters.” It is only in France that the Song of Roland can be thoroughly understood and valued. Yet Roland and Charlemagne were honoured beyond the Alps and beyond the sea. The Karlamagnus Saga is a large book written in Norway in the thirteenth century, bringing together in a prose version all the chief stories of the cycle. One section, Olif and Landres, was found “in the English tongue in Scotland” by a Norwegian envoy who went there in 1284 after the death of king Alexander III. Roland was almost as popular in Italy as in France. He appears also in English, though not to very great advantage. The favourite story from the French epics was that of Oliver and Fierabras, where the motive is not so much French patriotism as the opposition between Christian and infidel.

In the “matter of Britain” the English had a better right to share. They accepted at once the history of Geoffrey of Monmouth and made king Arthur into an English national hero, the British counterpart of Charlemagne. The alliterative Morte Arthure, derived from Geoffrey, is a kind of political epic, with allusions to contemporary history and the wars of Edward III, as George Neilson has sufficiently proved. This touch of allegory which one need not be afraid to compare with the purpose of the Aeneid or of The Faerie Queene, makes it unlike most other medieval romances; the pretence of solidity and historical truth in Geoffrey is not suitable for mere romantic purposes. Quite different is the Arthur who sits waiting for adventures, being “somewhat child-geared,” as the poet of Sir Gawayne says. In most of the stories Arthur is very unlike the great imperial monarch and conqueror as presented by Geoffrey and his followers. He has nothing particular to do, except to be present at the beginning and end of the story; the hero is Sir Perceval, Sir Ywain, Sir Gawain, or the Fair Knight Unknown (Sir Libeaus); unfortunately not Sir Erec (Geraint) in any extant English poem before Tennyson. In this second order, the proper Arthurian romances as distinguished from the versions or adaptations of Geoffrey, England had something to claim even before the English rimers began their work; for some of the French poems certainly, and probably many now lost, were written in England. This is a debatable and difficult part of literary history; but, at any rate, it is plain that the more elaborate French Arthurian romances were not the only authorities for the English tales. Chrètien’s Yvain in translated into English; but the French romance of The Fair Unknown is probably not the original of the English story of Sir Libeaus, which, like the old Italian version, would seem to have had a simpler and earlier form to work upon. Likewise, the English Sir Percevall must, surely, come from something older and less complicated than Chrètien’s Conte del Graal. It is at least a fair conjecture that these two romances belong to an earlier type, such as may have been hawked about in England by French or French-speaking minstrels; and, without any conjecture at all, they are different in their plots (not merely in their style) from the French work of Renaud de Beaujeu in the one case, and Chrètien de Troyes in the other. Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, again, cannot be referred to any known French book for its original; and, in this and other ways, the English rendering of the “matter of Britain” goes beyond the French, or, to be more precise, is found to differ from the existing French documents.

The “matter of Rome the great,” that is, classical antiquity, is well represented in English. There are several poems in rime and alliterative verse on Alexander and on Troy, some of them being fragmentary. The tale of Thebes, though often referred to, does not appear fully told till Lydgate took it up, nor the romantic version of the Aeneid (Roman d’Ènèas) before Caxton’s prose.