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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

V. The Earliest Scottish Literature

§ 6. Morte Arthure

Panton and Donaldson, the editors for the Early English Text Society of the interminable Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy (it contains over 14,000 lines), were the first to point out that this unrimed alliterative translation of Guido delle Colonne’s Hystoria Troiana must, from identity in style and phraseology, be attributed to the same author as Morte Arthure, though it had been copied from a Scottish original by a west midland scribe. Their opinion has been developed and confirmed by Neilson’s work on Huchoun. As Morte Arthure is admittedly superior in execution to the Gest Hystoriale and as, unless it had some source still undiscovered or now lost, it is a very independent rendering of the story of Arthur as related in Books IX and X of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histora Regum Britanniae, it may be used to illustrate the style of Huchoun. Morte Arthure begins with a rude demand from Lucius Iberius, emperor of Rome, for tribute from King Arthur. Arthur, after considering the matter with his council, comes to the conclusion that he has more right to the empire than Lucius has to tribute from him; he will, therefore, anticipate Lucius’s threats of invasion by taking the field against him. Accordingly, he appoints Mordred to rule in his absence and charges him especially with the care of Waynour (Guinevere). Arthur himself crosses the Channel with his host, and, after an unpleasant dream, fights a great battle with a giant from Genoa “engendered of fiends,” who lives on human flesh, has ravaged the Cotentin and, last of all, has carried off and slain the Duchess of Brittany. The author, who is excessively fond of alliteration, excels himself, in his description of the giant, by carrying an alliteration on the same letter through four consecutive verses; so that the first twelve lines (1074–85) make three stanzas of this sort, of which the last, as the least repulsive, may be taken as a specimen:

  • Huke-nebbyde as a hawke, and a hore berde
  • And herede to the hole eyghn with hyngande browes;
  • Harske as a hunde-fisch, hardly who so luke3,
  • So was the hyde of that hulke hally al ouer.
  • Hardly has Arthur had time to thank Heaven for his success in the combat, ere urgent messengers arrive from the marshal of France to say that he must have help at once against the emperor, who has entered the country and is carrying destruction far and wide. Sir Boice, Sir Gawain, Sir Bedivere and some others are hastily despatched to delay the emperor, who has brought with him all the powers of eastern heathenesse; and these knights, with the help of an ambuscade, win a victory. In the great battle which follows many noble deeds are done; these are described with great vigour. Arthur himself with Collbrande (Excalibur) has a short way with his foemen:

  • He clekys owtte Collbrande, full clenlyche burneschte,
  • Graythes hym to Golapas, that greuyde moste,
  • Kuttes hym euen by the knees clenly in sondyre.
  • “Come down” quod the kynge, “and karpe to thy ferys!
  • Thowe arte to hye by the halfe, I hete the in trouthe!
  • Thou sall be handsomere in hye, with the helpe of my Lorde!”2123 ff.
  • The emperor himself perishes at the hands of Arthur, and his knights, having slaughtered the paynim till they are tired, fall upon the spoil, and help themselves, not only to “hakkenays and horses of armes,” but to all kinds of wonderful animals, “kamells and sekadrisses [whatever they may be], dromondaries,”

  • Moylle[char] mylke whitte, and meruayllous beste[char]
  • Elfaydes, and arrabys, and olyfaunte[char] noble.2287 f.
  • And thus
  • The roy ryall renownde, with his rownde table,
  • One the coste of Costantyne by the clere strande[char]
  • Has the Romaynes ryche rebuykede for euer.2372 ff.
  • As a historical novel, which, in truth, it is, Morte Arthure passes rapidly from one scene to another of a different kind. On the battle follows the siege of Metz; on the siege, a single combat between Gawain and Sir Priamus, whose genealogy is remarkable—his father
  • es of Alexandire blode, ouerlynge of kynges,
  • The vncle of his ayele, sir Ector of Troye.
  • No sooner is Metz won with gallant chivalry than we are carried over the Alps with Arthur, who advances into Tuscany and halts “in the Vertennon vale, the vines imangez.” There the “cunningest cardinal” invites him to Rome to help the pope and to be crowned. But already fortune’s wheel, which Arthur sees in a dreadful dream, is on the turn. The king has passed the topmost point of his glory, for Sir Cradok comes to tell that Mordred has rebelled and has “weddede Waynore.” Forthwith the camp is broken up, and they hurry homewards. Mordred’s allies, the Danes, meet them at sea and a great naval battle is admirably described. The Danes are defeated, and, after landing, Gawain meets Mordred in single combat and is slain. It is the wicked Mordred in single combat and is slain. It is the wicked Mordred himself who in admiration declares,

  • This was sir Gawayne the gude, the gladdeste of othire,
  • And the graciouseste gome that vndire God lyffede,
  • Mane hardyeste of hande, happyeste in armes,
  • And the hendeste in hawle vndire heuen riche.3876 ff.
  • Arthur vows that he will never rest till Gawain’s slayer be slain. So the last battle is joined. Mordred keeps well behind his men and changes his arms, but Arthur spies him and, after a great fight, in which Arthur himself receives his death-wound, Mordred perishes by Excalibur, a better death, says Arthur, than he deserved. Arthur makes himself be carried in haste to the Isle of Avalon, and, seeing there is no way but death, bequeaths the crown to Constantine his cousin, orders Mordred’s children to be slain and makes a good end.
  • I foregyffe all greffe, for Criste[char] luf of heuen,
  • [char]ife Waynor hafe wele wroghte, wele hir betydde.4324 f.
  • Like other poets, the author has drawn his battle scenes from his own time. Neilson has shown that the battle in France is arranged like Crecy, and argues ingeniously that the sea-fight is a poetical version of that fought off Winchelsea in 1350, while other indications, more or less uncertain, lead him to fix the date of the poem as 1365.