David Masson (1822-1907), who held chairs in English Literature at University College, London, and then at Edinburgh, is perhaps best known for his Life of Milton, the first volume of which appeared the same year as his British Novelists and their Styles, the work from which this extract is taken. The latter book was based on lectures given in Edinburgh in the spring of 1858; it is a good example of the combination of historical perspective and impressionistic enthusiasm that often characterized English studies at the mid-century and after. The extract is from British Novelists (London: Macmillan, 1859), pp. 49-54.
Malory’s Mort d’Arthur, or History of King Arthur and of the Knights of the Round Table, is one of those books the full effect and significance of which in the history of our literature it would require much research and much disquisition to exhaust. On the origin of the book alone there might be a historical essay of much interest. How the original groundwork came forth to the world in 1147, in the legends of Arthur and Merlin, which formed part of the Welsh Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin ‘History of the Britons,’ the materials of which he professed to have derived from Breton tradition and from Breton writings of which there is no trace; how Geoffrey’s book at once seized the imagination of the age, and his legends were appropriated, amplified, and developed by contemporary metrical chroniclers, and especially by the Anglo-Normans, Gaimar and Wace, and the Saxon Layamon; how, within the next century, new tissues of chivalrous and religious romance were woven out of the material thus accumulated, or attached to it and woven into it, by Anglo-Norman poets, themselves not wholly the inventors of what they wrote, but deriving the incidents and the names which they worked up from legend already afloat, —Robert de Borron adding the Roman du St. Graal and the developed History of Merlin, and Walter Mapes adding the Adventures of Sir