An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (4) King Arthur, Pt 1: Introduction (The Basics)
Good Morning, Everyone!
For the past few months, I’ve been reviewing the various kinds of medieval literature that modern-day epic fantasists might use to inform their story-telling, and today we finally reach one of my favorite topics, the Arthurian legend!
Before I get into how Arthurian romances and themes can be used by modern fantasists, let’s have some fun in reviewing the facts about King Arthur. As usual, I’ll begin the topic as if I were teaching a seminar, with some text-book background for you blog-loving medieval literature students to prepare for the in-class fun!
[Begin excerpt, from both Britannica.com & Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Ed, V. 23, p.100. [entries for: “Arthur,” “Arthurian Legend,” & “Arthurian Romance”]
“Arthur, legendary British king who appears in a cycle of medieval romances (known as the matter of Britain) as the sovereign of a knightly fellowship of the Round Table. It is not certain how or where (in Wales or in those parts of northern Britain inhabited by Brythonic-speaking Celts) these legends originated or whether the figure Arthur was based on a historical person.”
[continue Britannica excerpt] “The Arthurian legend [that subsequently developed] is a body of stories and medieval romances, known as the matter of Britain, centering on the legendary King Arthur. The story seems to have developed first in the British Isles, before being taken to the Continent by the Britons, who migrated to Brittany in the 6th & 7th Centuries.”
[continue Britannica excerpt] “The core of the legend about Arthur and his knights derives from lost Celtic mythology. Many of the incidents in the former parallel the deeds of such legendary Irish characters as Cú Chulainn, an Ulster warrior said to have been fathered by the god Lug, and Finn, hero of the Fenian cycle about a band of warriors defending Ireland, both of whom are gods transformed into human forces.
“Assumptions that a historical Arthur led Welsh resistance to the West Saxon advance from the middle Thames are based on a conflation of two early writers, the religious polemicist Gildas and the historian Nennius, and on the Annales Cambriae of the late 10th century. The 9th-century Historia Brittonum, traditionally attributed to Nennius, records 12 battles fought by Arthur against the Saxons, culminating in a victory at Mons Badonicus.
“The Arthurian section of this work, however, is from an undetermined source, possibly a poetic text. The Annales Cambriae also mention Arthur’s victory at Mons Badonicus (516) and record the Battle of Camlann (537), “in which Arthur and Medraut fell.” Gildas’ De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (mid-6th century) implies that Mons Badonicus was fought in about 500 but does not connect it with Arthur.
Early Welsh literature quickly made Arthur into a king of wonders and marvels. The 12th-century prose romance Kullwch and Olwen associated him with other heroes, this conception of a heroic band, with Arthur at its head, doubtless leading to the idea of Arthur’s court.”
[continue Britannica excerpt] “Medieval writers, especially the French, variously treated stories of Arthur’s birth, the adventures of his knights, and the adulterous love between his knight Sir Lancelot and his queen, Guinevere. This last situation and the quest for the Holy Grail (the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and given to Joseph of Arimathea) brought about the dissolution of the knightly fellowship, the death of Arthur, and the destruction of his kingdom.
“Stories about Arthur and his court had been popular in Wales before the 11th century; European fame came through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannia (1135–38), celebrating a glorious and triumphant king who defeated a Roman army in eastern France but was mortally wounded in battle during a rebellion at home led by his nephew Mordred. Some features of Geoffrey’s story were marvelous fabrications, and certain features of the Celtic stories were adapted to suit feudal times. The concept of Arthur as a world conqueror was clearly inspired by legends surrounding great leaders such as Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. Later writers, notably Wace of Jersey and Lawamon, filled out certain details, especially in connection with Arthur’s knightly fellowship (the Knights of the Round Table).”
[continue Britannica excerpt] “Using Celtic sources, Chrétien de Troyes in the late 12th century made Arthur the ruler of a realm of marvels in five romances of adventure. (Erec, Yvain, Le Chevalier de la Charette, and an unfinished Perceval). He also introduced the themes of the Grail and the love of Lancelot & Guinevere into Arthurian legend. Prose romances of the 13th century explored these major themes further. An early prose romance centering on Lancelot seems to have become the kernel of a cyclic work known as the Prose Lancelot, or Vulgate Cycle (c. 1225).
“The Lancelot theme was connected with the Grail story through Lancelot’s son, the pure knight Sir Galahad, who achieved the vision of God through the Grail as fully as is possible in this life, whereas Sir Lancelot was impeded in his progress along the mystic way because of his adultery with Guinevere.
Another branch of the Vulgate Cycle was based on a very early 13th-century verse romance, the Merlin by Robert de Boron, that had told of Arthur’s birth and childhood and his winning of the crown by drawing a magic sword, Excalibur, from a stone. The writer of the Vulgate cycle turned this into prose, adding a pseudo-historical narrative dealing with Arthur’s military exploits.”
[continue Britannica excerpt] “A final branch of the Vulgate cycle contained an account of Arthur’s Roman campaign and war with Mordred, to which was added a story of Lancelot’s renewed adultery with Guinevere and the disastrous war between Lancelot and Sir Gawain that ensued. A later prose romance, known as the post-Vulgate Grail romance (c. 1240), combined Arthurian legend with material from the Tristan romance.
“The legend told in the Vulgate cycle and post-Vulgate romance was most popularly transmitted to English-speaking readers in Thomas Malory’s late 15th-century prose Le Morte D’Arthur. At the same time, there was renewed interest in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, and the fictitious kings of Britain became more or less incorporated with official national mythology. The legend remained alive during the 17th century, though interest in it was by then confined to England. Of merely antiquarian interest during the 18th century, it again figured in literature during Victorian times, notably in Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.
[continue Britannica excerpt] “In the 20th century an American poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, wrote an Arthurian trilogy, and the American novelist Thomas Berger wrote Arthur Rex (1978). In England T.H. White retold the stories in a series of novels collected as The Once and Future King (1958). His work was the basis for Camelot (1960), a musical by Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe; a film, also called Camelot (1967), was derived from the musical. Numerous other films have been based on the Arthurian legend, notably John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and the satirical Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).” [End excerpts from both Britannica.com & Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Ed, V. 23, p.100. [entries for: “Arthur,” “Arthurian Legend,” & “Arthurian Romance”] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/36989/Arthur http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/37033/Arthurian-legend
And that’s an introduction to the Arthurian legends!
For those readers in the U.S., have a very Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you, Everyone, for taking the time to read my blog this year!
Next time: Major Themes in the Arthurian Romances and Legends