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Arthur, king of the Siluri, or Dumnonii--British races driven back into the west of England by the Saxons--is represented as having united the British tribes in resisting the pagan invaders, and as having been the champion not only of his people but also of Christianity. He is said to have lived in the sixth century, and to have maintained a stubborn contest against the Saxon Cerdic, but the "Saxon Chronicle" is suspiciously silent as to his warfare and as to his existence. Indeed, the Welsh bards of the earliest period do not assert that he was a contemporary, and it is more than doubtful whether he is an historic personage. It is worthy of remark that the fame of Arthur is widely spread; he is claimed alike as a prince in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Cumberland, and the lowlands of Scotland; that is to say, his fame is conterminous with the Brithonic race, and does not extend to the Goidels or Gaels. As is now well known, Great Britain was twice invaded by races of Celtic blood and tongue; the first wave was that of the Goidels, and after a lapse of some considerable time a second Celtic wave, that of the Brithons, or Britons, from the east, overran Britain, and drove the Gaels to west and north. Finn and Ossian belong to the mythic heroic cycle of the Gaels, and Arthur and Merlin to that of the Britons. These several shadowy forms are probably deities shorn of their divinity and given historic attributes and position, much as, among the Norsemen, Odin, when he ceased to be regarded as the All-father, or God, came to be reckoned as an ancestor of the kings.
The Ruins of King Arthur's Castle.
The earliest legends of Arthur's exploits are to be found in the bardic lays attributed to the sixth and seventh centuries ("Myoyrian Archaeology of Wales," 1801). A Welsh collection of stories called the "Mabinogion," of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1849, gives further Arthurian legends. Some of the stories "have the character of chivalric romances," and are therefore probably of French origin; while others "bear the impress of a far higher antiquity, both as regards the manners they depict and the style of language in which they are composed." These latter rarely mention Arthur, but the former belong, as Mr. Skene puts it, to the "full-blown Arthurian romance." Chretien de Troies, the most famous of the old French trouveres in the latter part of the twelfth century, made the Arthur legend the subject for his "Romans" and "Contes," as well as for two epics on Tristan; the Holy Grail, Peredur, etc., belonging to the same cycle. Early in the same century the Arthurian metrical romance became known in Germany, and there assumed a more animated and artistic form in the "Parzival" of Wolfram of Eschenbach, "Tristan und Isolt" of Gottfried of Strasburg, "Erec and Iwein" of Hartmann, and "Wigalois" of Wirnt. The most renowned of the heroes of the Arthurian school are Peredur (Parzival or Perceval), Tristan or Tristram, Iwein, Erec, Gawein, Wigalois, Wigamur, Gauriel, and Lancelot. From France the Arthurian romance spread also to Spain, Provence, Italy, and the Netherlands, even into Iceland, and was again transplanted into England. One of the publications that issued from the press of Caxton (1485) was a collection of stories by Sir Thomas Malory, either compiled by him in English, from various of the later French prose romances, or translated directly from an already existing French compendium. Copland reprinted the work in 1557, and in 1634 the last of the black-letter editions appeared. A reprint of Caxton's "Kynge Arthur," with an introduction and notes by Robert Southey, was issued in 1817--"The Byrth, Lyfe, and Actes of Kyng Arthur." The most complete edition is that by Thomas Wright, from the text of 1634.
The name of King Arthur was given during the Middle Ages to many places and monuments supposed to have been in some way associated with his exploits, such as "Arthur's Seat," near Edinburgh, "Arthur's Oven," on the Carron, near Falkirk, etc. What was called the sepulchre of his queen was shown at Meigle, in Strathmore, in the sixteenth century. Near Boscastle, in Cornwall, is Pentargain, a headland called after him "Arthur's Head." Other localities take his name in Brittany. In the Middle Ages, in Germany, Arthur's Courts were buildings in which the patricians assembled. One such still remains at Danzig. There was one anciently at Thorn, about which a ballad and legend exist. Milton was meditating an Arthurian epic in 1639; and in our own day the interest of the legends about King Arthur and his knights has been revived by Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" and some of Wagner's operas. We must not omit to note the magnificent life-sized ideal bronze figure of Arthur, cast for the monument of Maximilian I., now in the Franciscan church at Innsbruck, and regarded as the finest among the series of heroes there represented.
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