Wednesday, 4 February 2015


How Malory Would Teach Us To Be "a Very Knight and Servant of Jesus Christ"

(By Francis Paul.)

There is a tale which might well be on every bookshelf; and it is strange indeed that such a book is not edited and issued for the use of our children by some enterprising Catholic publisher. Through the pleasant fields of high romance the old volume leads us in those Books of the "Morte d' Arthur," which tell of the quest of the Holy Grail. Arthurian Legend—for legend it was—has been cherished for many years, and has interested with its antique charm many poets and many men. Milton was attracted by it; also Dryden, Rossetti, Tennyson, and the colourful William Morris.
 But it cannot be retold without destroying its appeal. It is an echo of other times, other men, other ideas. To feel the reality of it, we must avoid Tennyson's "blameless curates clad in tin mail," and go back to Malory himself. Enchantment is a far-off thing. In a wireless station: the loud crash of a local amateur, and the high, clear, bell like tone of the distant expert. An old tale retold is an old tale marred. Reading the original record of the old forgotten, far-off things and battles long ago, like Guenever,
"Ye gaze upon the arras giddily
 Where the wind set the silken kings asway."
 The world depicted allures. Not Chaucer, Maundeville, or Ascham, widely praised in their own time, are so popular in England to-day. Endurance is a good test of worth.
 Sir Thomas Malory was evidently of the retinue of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (1S82-1439), and with him served in France. "No better school for the future author of the 'Morte d' Arthur' can be imagined than a personal acquaintance with that Englishman whom all Europe recognised as embodying the knightly ideal of the age." The Earl of Warwick lies in a splendid tomb in St. Mary's Church in Warwick, clad, as befits his fame, all in armour, surrounded by stone remembrances of a splendid age. He was the man who visited the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, who performed a marvellous feat of arms at Verona, who splendidly represented England at the Council of Constance, who was Captain of Calais and be came the guest of the French King Charles VI., who jousted like Lancelot of old, at the coronation of Joan of Navarre, queen to Henry IV. Of his retinue was Sir Thomas Malory, knight.
 Out of many books, Sir Thomas Malory in 1469 made one book; out of many tales, one tale; out of the heterogeneity of many a high romance, conceived a glorious narrative. It was a romantic age, and this is its record ; it was a time of noble questings, and the great quest was the search for the white purity of the Holy Grail.
 We must ever remember, nowadays, that non-Catholic authors are often dangerous, if not insidious literature. But these were the years before the Protestant revolt— before the domestic disagreements and covetous compulsions of Henry VIII. drove the Mother Church from England. Every author was then a Catholic author; every fictitious character, a Catholic character; every knight fasted, heard Mass, received Communion, confessed, did penance, and made him clean of his life, that prayer and deed might be acceptable unto God. Sir Perceval "saw his sword lie on the ground naked, in whose pommel was a red cross and the sign of the crucifix therein ; and he bethought him of his knighthood," and resisted temptation. The days of the year are reckoned from Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, Whitsunday, Michaelmas, and the Feast of the Assumption ; the Pope it is who crowns Arthur "emperor" ; to the Pope the wicked knight is sent to receive penance for foul deeds; "those which at Pentecost at the high feast took upon them to go in the quest of the Sangreal without confession : they might not enter into the meadow of humility and patience"; Sir Bora "blessed his body and his visage," and praised God that he has escaped a devil in woman's likeness.
 True, there was wickedness, there was pride, there was magic. Merlin, "a devil's son," is an "enchanter and a multiplier of words," he "knoweth all things by the devil's craft." Vivien uses the black art against Merlin, and Morgan le Fay against Arthur; an invisible knight rides and slays by treachery; as Apollo hid ├ćneas in a cloud, so Merlin conceals Arthur from sight. Severed heads are healed, men wax strong with the increasing day. Yet "to tempt God is no wisdom," and Merlin himself foretells that God's Will will be done.
 The capricious meddling gods of ancient epic have departed; the incidents which revolve about Arthur are connected with his name by a single circumstantial link. Then reading through the many books of Malory, we come upon a final unity which Homer never had: "And here followeth the noble tale of the Sangreal, that is called the Holy Vessel, and the signification of the blessed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, blessed mote it be, the which was Drought into this land by Joseph of Aramathie. Therefore on all sinful souls, blessed Lord, have Thou mercy."
 It was an age of unrealities, of improbabilities, of princesses and maidens distressed. It was also the age of the Crusades, when men were sincere Christians, who loved much, hated much; when the mere chivalry of the legends was transfigured by Christianity ; making the tales immortal. What was formerly undertaken for love of a lady was now accomplished for the love of Christ. Men had ideals then, and fought for them ; the unreality and fantasy of it all is the bold dream of idealism. Men were time to their aspirations, and to themselves. "There were none hermits in these days but that they had been men of worship and of prowess ; and those hermits held great household, and refreshed people that were in distress." There were none who followed false creeds and false gods ; there was aid for all— sometimes simple aid of the healing monk, some times miraculous aid from Heaven.
 A sharp distinction was made between "knightly deeds in God's works, and no knightly deeds in worldly works." The good are rewarded, the evil are punished ; the Prodigal Son receives his deserts, but the Prodigal Son's brother also obtains his rewards. "For ever," said Arthur, "it is a worshipful knight's deed to help another worshipful knight when he seeth him in great danger; for ever a worshipful man will be loath to see a worshipful man shamed ; and he that is of no worship, and fareth with cowardice, never shall he show gentleness, nor no manner of goodness where he seeth a man in any danger, for then even will a coward show no mercy ; and always a good man will do ever to another as he would be done to himself."
 Nor is it fanciful thus to speak of a part of that book which Ascham denounced as immoral. The quest of the Holy Grail was age long, and shall be age long. The old legends tell that Joseph of Arimathea care fully guarded the cup. In some shadowy stronghold, this Grail was kept under stately guard, as befitted a heavenly treasure. The retention of sin disabled a knight from even locating where that castle stood; he must have confessed his sins at the high feast of Pentecost. The slightest evil thought rendered his passage past the lions at the portal gate a dangerous, if not an impossible, achievement. A few chosen ones were found, each in his heart of hearts, of sufficient purity and worth ; and these saw with their own eyes this glorious chalice, heard the song of choirs angelical, and were strengthened with the grace of heavenly food. The legend of the Grail chronicles no more the merely earthly clash of armed knights, no more the gay tournaments, and the adventures undertaken for love of a lady. This is spiritual struggle and spiritual reward, where each man does the will of God.
 It is an allegory of the Mass, the most solemn act of religion. Contrition, confession, absolution, penance, the divine aid which supports God's children, the ecstatic joy of future rewards — these are the things represented by the acts of those questing knights, first and foremost of whom was Galahad bearing a huge cross on his shield. It is the reflex, this tale, of that great Mediaeval Faith which raised huge cathedrals and transfigured humble hermits, which kindled the imaginations of unimaginative men. "As all romance is ideal, so this romance is most ideal of all; and as the idealism of romance is its most vital quality, so this highest ideal of romance has lived through all the centuries and won all Christian peoples."
 For us to-day, as for the men of five hundred years ago, Malory teaches courage, purity, endurance, true love likened to summer, worship, and fear of God. Could we learn his lesson and emulate his characters, then would each be "a very knight and servant of Jesus Christ," that "no temptation should bring out of God's service, but to endure as his true champion." The story of the Grail, in Malory's virile version, may show us how to confirm ourselves in the army of Christ. Then might each say with Sir Perceval: "I serve the best in the world, and in his service he will not suffer me to die ; for who that knocketh shall enter, and who that asketh shall have, and who that seeketh him he hideth him not."

 Freeman's Journal  30 August 1917,

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