These long stories in verse usually present the glory of chivalry, the religious faith, and the romantic loves of a feudal age. In Beowulf, woman plays a very minor part and there is no love story; but in these romances we often find woman and love in the ascendancy. One of them, well known today in song, Tristram and Iseult (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde), “a possession of our composite race,” is almost entirely a story of romantic love.
The romances of this age that have most interest for English readers are those which relate to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The foundation suggestions for the most of this cycle are of British (Welsh) origin. This period would not have existed in vain, if it had given to the world nothing, but these Arthurian ideals of generosity, courage, honor, and high endeavour, which are still a potent influence. In his Idylls of the King, Tennyson calls Arthur and his Knights:—
“A glorious company, the flower
To serve as model for the mighty world,
And be the fair beginning of a time.”
The Quest of the Holy Grail belongs to the Arthurian cycle. Percival (Wagner’s Parsifal), the hero of the earlier version and Sir Galahad of the later, show the same spirit that animated the knights in the Crusades. Tennyson introduces Sir Galahad as a knight whose strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure, undertaking “the far-quest after the divine.” The American poet Lowell chose Sir Launfal, a less prominent figure in Arthurian romance, for the hero of his version of the search for the Grail, and had him find it in every sympathetic act along the common way of life.
The story of Gawayne and the Green Knight, “the jewel of English medieval literature,” tells how Sir Gawayne, Arthur’s favorite, fought with a giant called the Green Knight. The romance might almost be called a sermon, if it did not reveal in a more interesting way a great moral truth,—that deception weakens character and renders the deceiver vulnerable in life’s contests. In preparing for the struggle, Sir Gawayne is guilty of one act of deceit. But for this, he would have emerged unscathed from the battle. One wound, which leaves a lasting scar, is the result of an apparently trivial deception. His purity and honor in all things else save him from death. This story, which reminds us of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, presents in a new garb one of the oft-recurring ideals of the race, “keep troth” (truth). Chaucer sings in the same key:—
“Hold the hye wey, and let thy gost
And trouthe shall delivere, it is no drede.”
We should remember that these romances are the most characteristic literary creations of the Middle Ages, that they embody the new spirit of chivalry, religious faith, and romantic love in a feudal age, that they had a story to tell, and that some of them have never lost their influence on human ideals.