Finally, after making our way through the Latin and French version we reach the English take on King Arthur. Layamon (or, if you want to be extra snobbish, Laȝamon) made a verse translation of Wace’s poems, adding a lot of his own material. His translation is in alliterative verse, like the one used in Old English poetry, but he also uses rhymes, which were unknown in Old English literature.
The excerpt in the NAEL picks up where we left off with Wace, after Arthur’s successful campaign, when he vanquished Rome and, with the emperor Lucius killed in the battle, it seems as if he were ready to become the new emperor. The poem provides the answer why people in Rome nowadays don’t speak English and eat fish & chips instead of pasta. A knight arrives from England with some seriously bad news, but he delivers them in a very roundabout way. He doesn’t want to deliver the bad news so he just stays up all night, chatting with the king. The next morning Arthur is distressed because of a dream he had. He dreamt he was sitting on the roof of the big house together with Gawain, while his sister’s son, Modred, whom he had left back in England as a regent, was chopping down at the posts holding up the roof (as the editors of the NAEL write, he’s like one of two rats eating at the roots of Yggdrassil, the tree that was the axis mundi of the Germanic mythological universe). Modred is being helped by Guinevere. Arthur and Gawain fall the ground, Gawain’s both arms are broken, but Arthur breaks only his right arm. He kills Modred with the sword in his left hand and slices Guinevere to pieces. Then he has some seriously psychedelic visions about roaming on a vast plain with griffins and “really gruesome birds”. He is picked up by a golden lioness, who plunges into the sea. The waves separate them, but Arthur is picked up by a fish who brings him ashore. And then he woke up, all quaking.
The knight says, “Well, should it ever be true, you are the most powerful king in the world and you can easily vanquish all your enemies”. Arthur answers that he has no doubts about Modred’s and Guinevere’s loyalty. Then the knight finally delivers the crushing news: it is all true. Modred took over the kingdom and the queen, who was apparently very willing to become his mistress, predicting that Arthur should never return from Rome alive. Everybody is dumbstruck at first, then people start to discuss it more and more loudly. Finally, Arthur puts an end to it, saying that the next morning he is setting back home, with the plans to kill Modred, burn Guinevere at stake and kill everyone who aided and abetted them.
In many respects we can see the links between OE literature and Arthurian myths: not only on the level of language (alliteration), but also imagery (the palace representing the state of the kingdom, like Heorot) and yet another childless king with his nephew about to succeed him. Guinevere in this early version becomes quite willingly Modred’s lover, and there’s no Lancelot in the picture yet. The convoluted way in which the knight delivers the bad news rings a bell for me, but I can’t quite place it. Maybe I’ll think of it as I will be progressing through the NAEL.