(Copyright © Heather M. Dale, 1994)
There are few people who have never heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the love-torn Guinevere and her champion Sir Lancelot, Camelot and the magical sword Excalibur, Merlin the Magician and the cunning Morgan La Fay. These legends have captured the imagination for 1400 years and are well-known throughout Europe. But where did it all begin? Who was Arthur, and how did his story evolve into the complex tale that remains popular to this day?
It is believed that Arthur lived in 6th Century AD in the area of Britain that is now known as Wales. A brief history lesson is needed to provide the backdrop to this historical Arthur. In 43 AD, the Romans occupied Britain, subduing the northern Pictish and Scottish tribes, as well as the western Irish, and incorporating the less warlike and somewhat more civilized Celtic peoples into the Roman Empire. The Romans intermarried with the Celts, who emulated their customs, superior technology, and Christian religion, and these Romanized Celts became known as Britons. When the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 AD, the Britons found themselves attacked on all sides: the northern tribes pushed south, the Irish raided from the west, and fierce Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, & Frisians) and Norsemen slowly pushed the Celts into southwestern Wales and Cornwall. Some even fled across to the Continent, establishing Brittany in western France and becoming known as Bretons.
It is in this turbulent post-Roman time that a brave man, perhaps a sort of tribal chieftain, led a small force of Britons into battle with the Germanic tribes. And due to tactical skill, superior fighting prowess, or incredible luck (we will never know) this Artorius or Arthur held back the Germanic hordes from his corner of Wales for 30 years. This incredible feat is first mentioned in a 6th Century quasi-historical Latin Chronicle by the monk Gildas.
Later Chroniclers added detail of dubious historical accuracy but great heroism to the tale of Arthur. The Venerable Bede wrote in 731 AD about the first great victory over the Saxons at Mount Badon, and the Welsh chronicler Nennius bases his 9th Century story on material from the rich Welsh storytelling tradition. Traditional Welsh heroes like Gawain became associated with Arthur, and the Welsh fascination with giants, magicians, and the realm of the Otherworld or Fairy became inextricably linked with the more mundane aspects of Arthur's battles. This interest in spiritual mysteries is especially evident in the Quest for the Holy Grail, a confusing and conflicting theme which was added in the 12th Century.
Even before the first millenium had ended, Arthur had become a legendary hero: he allegedly killed 1000 men single-handedly, he carried the holy image of Mary on his shield which put his foes to flight, and was described as leading "all the Kings of Britain". Renowned warriors were complimented that they are "almost as good as Arthur", and heroic tales sprung up even among the Continental Bretons.
In 1066 AD, the Normans from France conquered the Saxons and occupied Britain. Faced once more with relatively benign conquerors, the Britons began to adopt the romantic ideals of the Norman courts. Geoffrey of Monmouth's colourful fictional history called "The History of the Kings of Britain" (1138) fired the imaginations of the cultured Normans by giving King Arthur a "Norman-style" court at Camelot which was concerned with the new concept of courtly love.
Introduced by Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen of Henry II) and her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne, the complex game of courtly love involved young knights and coy maidens, a great deal of flattering speech and swearing of undying love, the introduction of fighting tournaments to compete for the favour of a lady, and the idea that True Love could only happen by accident (and, tragically, outside of lawful marriage). Tales about King Arthur's court flourished with the 12th Century writings of Chretien de Troyes. A master of the Romance style, Chretien introduced Sir Lancelot as the ideal Courtly Lover. Chretien's romances fulfilled the Norman taste for tragic love stories: Tristan and Isolt (which became vastly popular in Germany), the lonely Perceval, and, of course, the doomed love between Lancelot and Arthur's queen, Guinevere.
The 13th and 14th Centuries saw a lull in the written Arthurian tradition, though several literary gems remain some of the finest examples of medieval prose. The revival of the alliterative style (using many words with the same first letter or sound to create a poetic feel) brought forth two notable anonymous works: "Gawain and the Green Knight", where Sir Gawain battles his own personal weaknesses and the trickery of Morgan La Fay to become an ideal knight, and the "Alliterative Morte Arthure", which is based on Geoffrey's account of Arthur's rise and fall.
Without a doubt, the most monumental and influential Arthurian work was compiled in 1469 by Sir Thomas Malory. Most of the legend as we know it today is based on Malory's account, called the "Morte D'Arthur". Originally released in 21 volumes by Caxton, a contemporary printer, there was a flurry of excitement in 1934 upon the discovery of Malory's unedited manuscript in the Winchester Library. Based on the Winchester Manuscript, Eugene Vinaver divided the work into 8 sections which he felt were more representative of the recurring and underlying themes in the "Morte D'Arthur". Both the Caxton and Vinaver editions are available in the current day.
It is difficult to explore just who Thomas Malory was, since he was a victim of being associated with the losing side during the Tudor-Lancastrian War of the Roses. The self-titled "knight prisoner" was held for many years upon accusations of sacking monasteries, raping women, stealing livestock, raiding castles, attempting murder, insulting an abbot, giving shelter to known criminals, defaulting on debts, swimming moats to escape prison... It is fair to assume that many or all of these charges were politically-motivated, and were not due to Malory's superhuman criminality. Given access to a library during his "gentleman's confinement", Malory delved into all of the Arthurian sources available to him and set about combining the often-conflicting tales into a single cohesive work. What he created was one of the most moving and compelling works of English literature ever written.
The "Morte D'Arthur" was written in modern English and is readable (with some effort) without translation, unlike the Saxon- and Norman-influenced language of the earlier Arthurian stories. Concerned with honour, fellowship and loyalty, Malory portrayed King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with sensitivity, exploring the human flaws which ultimately led to Camelot's downfall. Malory also shows a deep sympathy for imprisoned knights, and emphasizes their fears and hope for freedom. The climax of the monumental work is stunning in its tragedy: the titanic battle between King Arthur and his bastard son Mordred, their mortal wounding of each other, and the barge which bears Arthur's body off to the magical land of Avalon, where it is said he waits to return to lead Britain in its time of deepest crisis.
Such a comprehensive and masterful work was a hard act to follow, there was again a lull in Arthurian literature until its enthusiastic Victorian revival. Its popularity continues to this day, with dozens of modern books, plays and films addressing different aspects of the legend. The diversity of the Arthurian story allows it to be used to explore any number of cultural and social issues. Just as Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote to flatter the Norman conquerors, Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" praised the "Golden Age of Britain" in the Victorian era of imperialism and colonial expansion. T.H. White's "The Once and Future King" explored the dark political climate of the World Wars, while Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Mists of Avalon" takes a feminist look at King Arthur's Court through the eyes of prominent women characters like Morgan and Guinevere.
It is the versatility and broad appeal of King Arthur's story that has made it endure and evolve over 1400 years. There is something for everyone: honour, romance, mystery and magic, adventure, heroism, and underlying tragedy. How strange it would seem to that long-ago Arthur, who fought to save his family and his homeland from the advancing tide of his enemies, that his actions inspired such dreams. But the story of The Once and Future King has left its indelible mark on European history, and it will continue to grow as one of our culture's living legends.
Coghlan, Ronan. "The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends." Barnes & Noble, New York, 1995.
Loomis, Roger Sherman and Laura Hibbard Loomis, eds. "Medieval Romances." Modern Library (Random House), Hew York, 1957.
Malory, Sir Thomas. "Morte D'Arthur." (Caxton Edition; also Eugene Vinaver's Edition based on Winchester MS.)
Tennyson, Alfred Ld. "Idylls of the King." 1885.
White, T.H. "The Sword in the Stone" (1939); "The Once and Future King" (1958).
Wilhelm, James J., ed. "The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation." Garland Publishing, New York, 1994.
Zimmer Bradley, Marion. "The Mists of Avalon." Del Rey/Ballantine, New York, 1982.
Copyright 1994, Heather Dale. All rights reserved.