The Chronicles of Jean Froissart
The Holy Grail by Sir Thomas Malory
Like most people around my age, I first came in contact with Arthurian legend through the Disney film The Sword and the Stone. Later, I read T.H. White's The Once and Future King, the first volume of which was the source for the movie. Neither the book nor the cartoon of The Sword and the Stone has any basis in Malory, but the later volumes in White's series do. Even at a fairly young age, I preferred these later, darker novels to the comic absurdity of Merlin and Wart in Sword and the Stone. In particular, I remember Lancelot's affair with Guinevere and Galahad's death after finding the Grail. I think these moments were among the first in my life as a reader when I regretted what was happening on the page at the same time that I felt it inevitable. And I felt the melancholy of that regret along with the pleasure of knowing that I could be made to feel such things by words on a page.
Like the Disney movie and White's novels, Malory's Morte D'Arthur is a redaction and adaptation of earlier sources. As such, it can't be called the
story of Camelot any more than its successors can. But it seems more
than a coincidence that the most powerful portions of later adaptations
are those that stay closest to Malory. At any rate, the passages from
Malory on the Holy Grail included here are ripe with the complex
emotions I felt when first reading White's later books. Of course, the
Holy Grail has become synonymous with impossible goals and it's precisely this sense of impossibility that makes these pages so moving.
There is the impossibility of reconciling the ethical demands of
Round Table with the world as it really exists. The impossibility of
reconciling what one ought to do with what one wants to do. (Launcelot
goes about through much of these pages with a hairshirt on, hoping to
do penance for his sins with Guinevere.) Of course, there is the
impossibility of the quest itself, a necessary impossiblity,
sithen was there never man so hardy to say that he had seen the Sangreal. But more moving than all of this is the impossibility of simply surviving in what Galahad calls
this unstable world. As these chapters end, Galahad has survived the quest and been made the king of a foreign land, and he has only one request:
I thank thee, for now I see that that hath been my desire many a day.
Now, blessed Lord, would I not longer live, if it might please thee,
A Description of Elizabethan England by William Harrison
Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland
were written by several hands and published in 1577 as one part of a
projected -- and never completed -- history of the world. They're known
today mostly as the source for Shakespeare's history plays and several
of his tragedies. In keeping with its generally uncomfortable
relationship to historical writing, the Shelf foregoes these famous
parts of the Chronicles for its descriptions of contemporary
England, written by William Harrison. After the poetic myth-making of
Froissart and Malory, it was oddly invigorating to read Harrison's
reportorial descriptions of the
degree's of people (gentleman,
citizens, yeomen and laborers), of the cities and towns of Elizabeth
England, of the structure of the Church of England, etc. Not to say my
interest never flagged, say, during one of several pages on the amount
of wheat in one type of bread versus bran in another. But my attention
was rewarded with the following table on
vagabondry, which is among the most delightfully strange things I've encountered in the Classics so far.
A gentleman also of late hath taken great pains to search out the secret practices of this ungracious rabble. And among other things he setteth down and describeth three and twenty sorts of them, whose names it shall not be amiss to remember whereby each one may take occasion to read and know as also by his industry what wicked people they are, and what villainy remaineth in them.
The several disorders and degrees amongst our idle vagabonds.
- Hookers or anglers
- Wild rogues
- Priggers or pransers
- Freshwater mariners or whipiacks
- Drunken tinkers
- Swadders or pedlers
- Jarkemen or patricoes
Of the women kind
- Demanders for glimmar or fire
- Autem mortem
- Walking mortes
- Kinching mortes
- Kinching cooes
I'm not sure I have anything to add at this point; it feels like a pretty comprehensive list.
--CRB, October 5, 2007