Our Island Story - H. E. Marshall
It is said that Arthur not only drove the Saxons out of Britain, but that he conquered many parts of Europe, until at last he ruled over thirty kingdoms. Then for some years there was peace.
During these years, Arthur did much for his people. He taught them to love truth and goodness, and to be Christian and gentle. No king had ever been loved as Arthur was loved.
'Liberal to each man, I ween,
Knight with the best, wondrous keen,
To the young he was as father,
To the old as comforter.
Wondrous stern to the unwise,
Wrong could he suffer nowise,
Right, dear exceeding was to him.
Now was Arthur right good king,
His folk and all peoples lovéd him.'
In those fierce and far-off days, when men spent most of their time fighting, it was very necessary for them to be brave and strong, in order to protect their dear ones, but they were very often cruel as well and nearly always fierce. Arthur taught people that it was possible to be brave yet kind, strong yet gentle. Afterwards people forgot this again, but in the days of Arthur the fame of his court and of his gentle knights spread far and wide.
No noble thought himself perfect unless his armour, and clothes even, were made like those of Arthur's knights. No man thought himself worthy of love until, fighting for the right against the wrong, he had three times conquered an enemy.
Many pretty stories are told of Arthur and his gentle, courteous knights, although they did not learn all their gentleness and their courtesy at once, as you shall hear.
Upon an Easter Day, Arthur called together all his knights and nobles, from his many kingdoms, to a great feast. They came from far and near, kings, earls, barons and knights, gay in splendid clothes, glittering with jewels and gold.
As they waited for the King they laughed and talked together. But secretly each heart was full of proud thoughts. Each man thought himself nobler and grander than any of the others.
The tables were spread for the feast. They were covered with white silk cloths. Silver baskets piled with loaves, golden bowls and cups full of wine stood ready, and, as the knights and nobles talked and waited, they began to choose where they would sit.
In those days master and servants all sat together at the same table for meals. The master and his family sat at the top, and the servants and poor people at the bottom of the table. So it came to be considered that the seats near the top were the best. The further down the table any one sat, the less honour was paid him.
At his feast no servants nor poor people were going to sit at table, yet all the nobles wanted places at the top. 'We will not sit in the seats of scullions and beggars,' they said.
So they began to push each other aside, and to say, 'Make way, this is my seat.'
'Nay, I am more honourable than you. You must sit below me.'
'How dare you? My name is more noble than yours. That is my seat.'
'Give place, I say.'
At first it was only words. Soon it came to blows. They had come to the feast unarmed, so they had only their hands with which to fight, but as they grew angrier and angrier, they seized the bowls of wine and threw them at each other. Next the loaves of bread and the gold and silver cups were thrown about, the tables and benches were overturned, howls and yells filled the hall, and everything was in dreadful confusion.
When the noise was at its worst, the door opened and the King appeared. His face was stern and grand as he looked down on the struggling, yelling crowd.
'Sit ye, sit ye down quickly, every man in the place where he is,' he cried. 'Whoso will not, he shall be put to death.'
At the sound of their King's stern voice, the foolish nobles were filled with shame. Silently they sat down; the tables and benches were put back in their places and the feast began.
But Arthur was sad at heart. 'How can I teach my people to be gentle and kind, if my knights will not even sit at meat in peace,' he said to himself. Then as he sat sorrowfully wondering what he could do, Merlin came to him.
'Be not sad, O King,' he said, 'but listen to my advice. Tell your carpenters to make a great round table at which there shall be a place for every knight. Then there can be no more quarrelling. For at a round table there is neither top nor bottom, so no knight can say that he sits above or below another. All shall be equal.'
Then Arthur was sad no longer. He did as Merlin advised, and had a great round table made, at which there was a seat for each one of his knights. After that there was no more quarrelling as to who should have the best place, for all were equal, and Arthur's knights became known as The Knights of the Round Table.
But, alas! the time of peace did not last. Again came days of war and strife. In a great and terrible battle, Arthur and nearly all his knights were killed. Once more the fierce heathen swept over the land, filling it with sorrow and bloodshed, and the glory and beauty of knighthood were forgotten in Britain.
But some people think that Arthur did not die. They say that when he was wounded so that he could fight no more, the wise fairies came to take him back to fairyland. They say that he is still there, and that some day he will come again.
Other people say the stories about Arthur and his knights are not true, but at least we may believe that in those far-off, fierce, fighting days there was a king who taught his people that to be gentle was not cowardly and that to be cruel was not brave;—
'Who reverenced his conscience as his king;
Whose glory was redressing human wrong;
Who spake no slander, no, nor listened to it,
Who loved one only and who clave to her.'