The Chivalrous Roundhead and the Knights of Satan
Part two of Karen Lewis' article

Milton's rejection of Arthur as a worthwhile model and as a historical figure was a far cry from the patriotism he had displayed in Mansus, but I do not feel that Milton fully lost belief in his country until 1660. In 1651 Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio - A Defence of the English People - was published, and quickly followed by the Defensio Secunda. The very title indicates the knightly role Milton had determined for himself, and by the time of the first work's publication the Republic had reached its zenith with the defeat of Charles II's troops at the Battle of Worcester. Yet nine years later the poet's message was forgotten and the "tyrant"'s son was able to regain his throne with ease. At the beginning of the revolution Milton had allegedly posted the following sonnet on his doors as a promise of support to the parliamentary cause:

Captain or colonel, or knight in arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless doors may seize,
If deed of honour did thee ever please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms,
He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call fame on such gentle acts as these...

As shown by his comparison of the Roundheads to "knights in arms", Milton knew the value of myth-making, and for the next few years he supplemented his polemics with sonnets in praise of commanders such as Henry Vane, Lord Fairfax and Cromwell. But ultimately Milton was to give "his best blood" - his eyesight - in vain; although he publicly prided himself upon losing his sight "overplied in liberty's defence", he now saw his earlier polemics as

casting pearls to hogs,
That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood
and still revolt when truth would set them free.

Milton had learned that public knight-errantry was not always justly rewarded, a lesson which drove him to shun worldly, fickle rewards and seek God's will more earnestly.

Milton had always been eager to infuse poetry with a Christian ethos, but even in the earliest works such as the poem On the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1629) it is evident that Milton felt uneasy about the pleasure the works of pagans gave him. The poem depicts the downfall of paganism and idolatry, but it is described with a certain amount of pity ("the sound of weeping heard, and loud lament"). It is almost as if the young Milton is forcing himself to destroy things dear to him, but when the same downfall is re-enacted in Book I of Paradise Lost (1667), pagan gods are shown as fallen angels in disguise and the note of pity has completely vanished. His determination to deal with the more austere doctrines of Christianity led him to reject his other subjects savagely, and because of its emphasis on courtly, exterior virtue - what Spenser had called "magnificence" - the Arthurian legend suffered the same attack as Greek and Roman legend. In Book I of Paradise Lost Milton compares an army's splendour to the glory of Arthur's knights, but his praise has a sting in the tail:

...and what resounds
In fable or romance of Uther's son
Begirt with British and Armoric knights...

The company in question is Satan's. While Milton intended the comparison to be ironic (in his own eyes Satan is a commander fighting for a just cause - liberty), by placing the legend of Uther's son among tales of giants and pagan gods he allows it to become submerged and identified with these empty legends. A few lines later Milton moves on to the romantic vision of other countries:

And all who since, baptized or infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban

The references are from epics by Ariosto and Boiardo, but perhaps the very reference to "jousting" is an indication of the combat's showiness and unimportance. It is as if knights in epic played at war, an inference which is repeated in Book IX when the poet describes the reason for his choice of subject. Here he describes himself as:

Not sedulous by nature to indite
Wars, hitherto the only argument
Heroic deemed. chief mastery to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabled knights
In battle feigned...
or to describe races and games
Or titling furniture, emblazoned shields,
Impreses quaint, caparisons and steeds;
Bases and tinsel trappings, gorgeous knights
At joust and tournament; then marshalled feast
Served up in hall with sewers, and seneschals;
The skill of artifice or office mean,
Not that which gives heroic name
To person or to poem.

The phrase "battles feigned" can either suggest this courtly play of war, or can refer simply to the fact that the legends were of dubious authenticity. But the inference that the legends served only to promote hierarchy or "office mean" shows the bent of the poet's mind. In Paradise Regained (1671) the court of King Arthur is again invoked in treacherous comparison:

And ladies of the Hesperides, that seemed
Fairer than feigned of old, or fabled since
Of faery damsels met in forest wide
By knights of Logres, or of Lyonesse,
Lancelot or Pelleas, or Pellenore...

But these knights are those who have been tempted by women; the fair ladies themselves sit at the table laden with food that Satan has prepared to tempt Christ as he prays in the wilderness. Milton's view of the knights has changed. Instead of spurning Chretien de Troyes's addition of the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere as unworthy of the high ideals which the knights embody, he now uses it to attack them and portray their chivalry as hypocrisy. "Seemed", "fabled", "faery" - as in Book IX of Paradise Lost, this is the language of illusion, and the author's own disillusionment.

It is easy enough to see in this kind of systematic attack the stereotypical Puritan fanaticism which condemns aesthetic appeal and external displays of "magnificence", but, as we have seen, the lost glamour of Camelot was ultimately tied up with Milton's disillusionment with Britain and how her subjects refused to see the shabby truth behind the gilded Eikon Basilike. Yet even if Arthurian romances lost their appeal precisely because of their attractiveness, the figure of the knight fighting for an idealistic concept appears again and again in his revolutionary tracts. Though its heavy egalitarian stress indicates his dissatisfaction with the legend's implicit hierarchy, An Apology for Smectymnus portrays the high ideals of every Arthurian knight:

Only this my mind gave me, that every free and gentle spirit without that oath, ought to be born a knight, nor needed to expect the gilt spur or the laying of a sword upon his shoulder to stir him up... to protect any attempted chastity.

Milton was a "free and gentle spirit", a sincere if Quixotic knight whose defence of high principles resulted in the greatest theodicy in English literature, and if he was to reject Arthurian myth in his work, it is not an exaggeration to acknowledge his debt to chivalry in his ethos and his personal life.