One of my most valued treasures from childhood is my copy of Sidney Lanier’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. My dad gave it to me for Christmas when I was seven or eight, and I opened it the first time with the greatest excitement. The very phrase “Knights of the Round Table” stirred a thrill in my soul or ever I knew what manner knights these be (as the book would say). So I turned to the first page and read: “It befell in the days of noble Utherpendragon.” And my heart sank. I didn’t know the word befell and had no way of figuring out what it meant. And I’d never seen a word with as many letters as that Questing Beast at the end of the sentence. But I wanted to understand, so I put the book on my shelf and waited a few years before again attempting the adventure. When I did read it a few years later, I fell hopelessly in love. I read it again and again, each time feeling that I had become more worthy of a place at that Round Table.
Later still, I learned the meaning of the words on the title page: “From Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.” and bought a volume of Malory in the original language and spelling. Here was a treasure indeed! More details. More stories (including some parts about the ladies that Lanier left out of his children’s version). More strange spellings and archaic words. More adventure. More noblesse. Why did I drop it after just a third of the book? (It may have had something to do with a graduate degree.)
But now I’ve picked up the quest again at long last. And here it all is again. The Round Table with its golden letters appearing mystically to show each knight which of the one-hundred fifty sieges (i.e., seats) to sit in. The Siege Perilous, which no knight may occupy save he for whom it is appointed. Sir Dagonet, Arthur’s knighted fool. The code of honor. Yes, these guys were adulterous. (Lanier made that much clear.) But they kept their word, fought to develop courage and prowess for the day of testing, set aside all combativeness to act gently while indoors, defended the defenseless, punished the wicked, honored the honorable regardless of poverty or wealth, and gave young people a chance.
My favorite part of the world of King Arthur is the sense of adventure, in its original meaning,which heartily takes on whatever comes its way. A character in Malory will say, “Promise me what I shall ask” or “Grant me a gift,” and the knight he’s speaking to will promise first and then find out what he’s committed himself to. And he does it, as long as it’s honorable. (Don’t make this promise to King Mark!) Wandering through the woods, the knights-errant often come across a castle or a bridge defended by a scurrilous knight who says that no one may pass without first jousting with him. King Arthur’s knights never just go around. This adventure has come, and they accept it. If they win the fight, a thug has been eliminated and the woods are safer. If they lose, they go to the dungeon without a complaint and simply wait a few days for a better knight to come along. (Hope that Launcelot or Tristram aren’t far behind!)
The best adventures begin on Pentecost. King Arthur expects all knights to join him for a feast on Pentecost if they can. (Why Pentecost? Because the greatest adventure ever began on that day?) So each year, the great and noble fellowship gathers once again, and then they sit without eating until someone unexpected, usually a damsel, comes into the hall with a quest. “Sir King,” she says, holding a shield and apparently totally unaware that she’s just happened to come by on a day when a hundred and fifty knights have been waiting for an adventure, “a treacherous knave killed my brother. Who will take my fallen brother’s shield and find this recreant and punish him?” And then someone accepts the quest – preferably a kitchen boy who hasn’t yet had a chance to prove his mettle. Is it too corny for me to say that I still need what this book teaches?