Arthurian literature fell out of favor in the eighteenth century and it would not be until Victorian poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite artists would again make the legend popular, but one work from this time when Arthur was rarely featured in literature was Sir Walter Scott’s “The Bridal of Triermain.” The poem was first published in 1813 and its use of the names of Triermain and Sir Roland De Vaux bear resemblance to Coleridge’s equally famous poem “Christabel” which was written in 1797-1800 but not published until 1816, yet it seems that Scott, who was friends with Coleridge, may have seen the manuscript and been influenced by it. Nevertheless, the two works bear little resemble in plot or character.
For Arthurian scholars and enthusiasts, “The Bridal of Triermain” holds interest because it creates an illegitimate daughter for King Arthur. Unlike other works where Arthur has illegitimate children before his marriage to Guinevere, Arthur is married to Guinevere already at the time of this poem, and she is already involved with Sir Lancelot.
The poem is told in the present day (early 1800s) by a narrator named Arthur who is trying to court a female named Lucy. Arthur tells Lucy the tale of Roland De Vaux, who sought to wed King Arthur’s daughter Gyneth. Within this story is Lyulph’s Tale, in which Roland’s bard Lyulph tells Roland the story of Gyneth, who has been asleep for five hundred years, and whom Roland wishes to win as his bride.
Gyneth became King Arthur’s daughter after he met and fell in love with a maiden named Guendolen. Scott describes this woman who seduces Arthur as follows:
But Guendolen’s might far outshine
Each maid of merely mortal line.
Her mother was of human birth,
Her sire a Genie of the earth,
In days of old deem’d to preside
O’er lovers’ wiles and beauty’s pride,
By youths and virgins worshipp’d long
With festive dance and choral song,
Till, when the cross to Britain came,
On heathen alters died the flame.
Now, deep in Wastdale solitude,
The downfall of his rights he rued,
And, born of his resentment heir,
He train’d to guile that lady fair,
To sink in slothful sin and shame
The champions of the Christian name.
In other words, Guendolen is the weapon of her father, the genie, against good Christian knights. She seduces Arthur, and while it is unclear whether she loves Arthur or not, she clearly wants him to stay with her and wastes his time in making love to her so he forgets his kingly duties for three months. Finally, Arthur comes to his senses and decides to leave her. When she begs him not to go, he tells her if she’s worried he has gotten her pregnant, he will do right by their child:
I swear by sceptre and by sword,
As belted knight and Britain’s lord,
That if a boy shall claim my care,
That boy is born a kingdom’s heir;
But if a maiden Fate allows,
To choose that maid a fitting spouse,
A summer-day in lists shall strive
My knights, the bravest knights alive,
And he, the best and bravest tried,
Shall Arthur’s daughter claim for bride.
Nevertheless, Guendolen does not want Arthur to leave, and in her anger, she tries to poison him by giving him a cup to drink from, but Arthur spills a drop on his horse and it burns the horse so Arthur flings the cup from him and rides away.
Years later, Arthur’s daughter Gyneth shows up at court on Pentecost, saying her mother has died and asking her father to keep his promise. Guinevere is notably not upset to learn of Arthur’s human weakness that led to an illegitimate child, bur rather, she just smiles on Lancelot, acknowledging her own weakness.
Arthur keeps his promise by holding a tournament for all the knights to compete for Gyneth’s hand, but before long, he realizes what a bad idea it was because all his knights are being slain. He tries to talk Gyneth out of the tournament, telling her he’ll pick the best knight for her, but she refuses and the tournament continues. The narrator then comments:
‘Seem’d in this dismal hour, that Fate
Would Camlan’s ruin antedate,
And spare dark Mordred’s crime;
Already gasping on the ground
Lie twenty of the Table Round,
Of chivalry the prime.
However, when Merlin’s own son Vanoc dies, Merlin suddenly appears, ending the tournament and punishing Gyneth to sleep for centuries:
Sleep, until a knight shall awake thee,
For feats of arms as far renown’d
As warrior of the Table Round.
Lyulph now completes his tale of how Gyneth sleeps by stating:
‘Still she bears her weird alone,
In the Valley of Saint John;
And her semblance oft will seem,
Mingling in a champion’s dream,
Of her weary lot to ’plain,
And crave his aid to burst her chain.
Few have braved the yawning door,
And those few return’d no more.
Despite the unlikeliness of solving the quest and winning Arthur’s daughter for his bride, Sir Roland de Vaux, who is lord of Triermain, is determined to succeed. He rides in quest of the sleeping princess and eventually comes to a castle in the Valley of St. John where he must pass through the Hall of Fear and overcome its snares to succeed:
‘It is his, the first who e’er
Dared the dimal Hall of Fear;
His, who hath the snares defied
Spread by pleasure, wealth and pride.
Of course, he succeeds and manages to kiss and wake Gyneth. And the two live happily ever after, having many descendants for King Arthur:
Our lovers, briefly be it said,
Wedded as lovers wont to wed,
When tale or play is o’er;
Lived long and blest, loved fond and true,
And saw a numerous race renew
The honours that they bore.
I admit that while I admire the music of Scott’s meter and rhyme, I’m not overly impressed with the poem. I don’t understand why Roland would want to wed Gyneth when she’s a type of female Mordred who was intent on destroying Camelot, but I guess the quest itself and that she is King Arthur’s daughter makes her attractive enough to him.
Scott’s poem was well known throughout the nineteenth century, so doubtless many writers of Arthurian poems and novels in the Victorian period were influenced by his work. It should be noted that the narrator named Arthur equally is successful in winning the love of his Lucy.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com