GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH had written his stories so well, that although he warned people not to write about the British kings, they paid no heed to his warning. Soon many more people began to write about them, and especially about Arthur.
In 1155 Geoffrey died, and that year a Frenchman, or Jerseyman rather, named Robert Wace, finished a long poem which he called Li Romans de Brut or the Romances of Brutus. This poem was founded upon Geoffrey's history and tells much the same story, to which Wace has added something of his own. Besides Wace, many writers told the tale in French. For French, you must remember, was still the language of the rulers of our land. It is to these French writers, and chiefly to Walter Map, perhaps, that we owe something new which was now added to the Arthur story.
Walter Map, like so many of the writers of this early time, was a priest. He was chaplain to Henry II., and was still alive when John, the bad king, sat upon the throne.
The first writers of the Arthur story had made a great deal of manly strength: it was often little more than a tale of hard knocks given and taken. Later it became softened by the thought of courtesy, with the idea that knights might give and take these hard knocks for the sake of a lady they loved, and in the cause of all women.
Now something full of mystery was added to the tale. This was the Quest of the Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail was said to be a dish used by Christ at the Last Supper. It was also said to have been used to hold the sacred blood which, when Christ hung upon the cross, flowed from his wounds. The Holy Grail came into the possession of Joseph of Arimathea, and by him was brought to Britain. But after a time the vessel was lost, and the story of it even forgotten, or only remembered in some dim way.
And this is the story which the poet-priest, Walter Map, used to give new life and new glory to the tales of Arthur. He makes the knights of the round table set forth to search for the Grail. They ride far away over hill and dale, through dim forests and dark waters. They fight with men and fiends, alone and in tournaments. They help fair ladies in distress, they are tempted to sin, they struggle and repent, for only the pure in heart may find the holy vessel.
It is a wonderful and beautiful story, and these old story- tellers meant it to be something more than a fairy tale. They saw around them many wicked things. They saw men fighting for the mere love of fighting. They saw men following pleasure for the mere love of pleasure. They saw men who were strong oppress the weak and grind down the poor, and so they told the story of the Quest of the Holy Grail to try to make them a little better.
With every new writer the story of Arthur grew. It seemed to draw all the beauty and wonder of the time to itself, and many stories which at first had been told apart from it came to be joined to it. We have seen how it has been told in Welsh, in Latin, and in French, and, last of all, we have it in English.
The first great English writer of the stories of Arthur was named Layamon. He, too, was a priest, and, like Wace, he wrote in verse.
Like Wace, Layamon called his book the Brut, because it is the story of the Britons, who took their name from Brutus, and of Arthur the great British hero. This book is known, therefore, as Layamon's Brut. Layamon took Wace's book for a foundation, but he added a great deal to it, and there are many stories in Layamon not to be found in Wace. It is probable that Layamon did not make up these stories, but that many of them are old tales he heard from the people among whom he lived.
Layamon finished his book towards the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth. Perhaps he sat quietly writing it in his cell when the angry barons were forcing King John to sign the Magna Charta. At least he wrote it when all England was stirring to new life again. The fact that he wrote in English shows that, for Layamon's Brut is the first book written in English after the Conquest. This book proves how little hold the French language had upon the English people, for although our land had been ruled by Frenchmen for a hundred and fifty years, there are very few words in Layamon that are French or that are even made from French.
But although Layamon wrote his book in English, it was not the English that we speak to-day. It was what is called Early English or even sometimes Semi-Saxon. If you opened a book of Layamon's Brut you would, I fear, not be able to read it.
We know very little of Layamon; all that we do know he tells us himself in the beginning of his poem. "A priest was in the land," he says:
"Layamon was he called.
He was Leouenathe's son, the Lord to him be gracious.
He lived at Ernleye at a noble church
Upon Severn's bank. Good there to him it seemed
Fast by Radestone, where he books read.
It came to him in mind, and in his first thoughts,
That he would of England the noble deeds tell,
What they were named and whence they came,
The English land who first possessed
After the flood which from the Lord came.
Layamon began to journey, far he went over the land
And won the noble books, which he for pattern took.
He told the English book that Saint Beda made.
Another he took in Latin which Saint Albin made,
And the fair Austin who baptism brought hither.
Book the third he took laid it in the midst
That the French clerk made. Wace he was called,
He well could write.
. . . . . . . .
Layamon laid these books down and the leaves turned.
He them lovingly beheld, the Lord to him be merciful!
Pen he took in fingers and wrote upon a book skin,
And the true words set together,
And the three books pressed to one."
That, in words such as we use now, is how Layamon begins his poem. But this is how the words looked as Layamon wrote them: -
"An preost wes on leoden: lazamon wes ihoten.
he wes Leouenaoes sone: lioe him beo drihte."