: The earliest recorded tradition concerning Arthur represents him as
a leader of the Britons against the Anglo-Saxon invaders.
He is supposed to have won the battle of Badon Hill in the
The battle itself is historical, and since the name Arthur derives
from the common Roman name
seems likely that the Arthur legend may have begun in the heroism of
a real man, one of the Romans who shared the plight of the Celts
when the Anglo-Saxons struck.
The British historian
Gildas, who finished his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
around 540, tells of the battle (of Badon Hill) but says nothing of Arthur.
hero himself first appears in a ninth-century history, the Historia
Brittonum, allegedly drawn from earlier histories. The Historia
Brittonum, begun by a man called Nennius and expanded by
later writers, reports that Arthur, though not a British king himself,
commanded the British forces and won twelve great victories,
one of them the battle of Badon Hill, where Arthur alone
killed 960 men. Later in this history the writers speak of a stone
bearing the footprint of Arthur's dog, Cabal, and of the tomb of
Arthur's son. A still later history, the Annales Cambriae, is the
first to tell of Arthur's final battle, in 537, against "Medraut"-
view table of familial relations between THE CHARACTERS
Though histories give little space to Arthur until the twelfth
century, he was apparently a firmly established folk hero. He is
the central figure in numerous ancient Welsh and Irish legends
(impossible to date).
By the early twelfth century, some
scholars think, he may have been known in northern Italy and
France. (Names possibly derived from Arthurian folklore
begin occurring in their literature at this time.)
But it was in 1137, with the release of Geoffrey of
Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, that the legend solidified.
According to Geoffrey, the Historia translates an ancient book
in the British language. Except for his earliest readers, no one
has believed him. Imaginary sources were a standard ploy of
medieval writers. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that the basis of Geoffrey's work
was folk history, perhaps even from written sources of folk history.
At all events, the spirit of Geoffrey's work is frankly patriotic.
It gives the English and Anglo-Norman aristocracy a British hero as noble
as the Norman hero Charlemagne.
It traces England's genesis to the fall of Troy and the dispersion
of the Trojan heroes - that misty antiquity when, for instance,
Romulus fled from Troy to Rome, Tuscan to Tuscany, and Brutus
to Britain -
and by establishing British power as coeval and coequal with
Roman and French power, it raises Britain out of its subservient
position with respect to European kingdoms. This pseudo-history was accepted as
fact well into the Renaissance. Arthur, the
greatest of Geoffrey's mythical kings, became not only a vital
symbol of British national spirit but the practical model of real
medieval and Renaissance kings.
Edward III, like Arthur, had a Round Table and twelve peers; Henry VII traced his claim on
one side to King Arthur.
After 1137, the further development of the Arthur legend in England was almost wholly
political in impetus
(except for works of folk tradition, as in the tales
recorded in the much later Welsh Mabinogion).
Only Sir Cawain and the Green Knight, a
few courtly tales such as Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, and a
half dozen Scottish Arthurian pieces stand outside this general
Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem in French apparently presented
to the wife of Henry II of England in 1154, closely para-
phrases Geoffrey and maintains
the patriotic spirit, merely embellishing it with verse. Layamon's Brut, which began as an
English paraphrase of Wace, intensifies the nationalistic spirit
of the poem in three respects -- first, by the use of the English
language; second, by substituting native alliterative meter for
Wace's continental poetic form, octosyllabic couplets; and third,
by introducing new material. This new material consisted of both new events and a new intensity of emotion,
and reached more than double the length of Wace's
poem (Layamon expands Wace's 1,500+ lines to 32,000+ lines).
Another English alliterative poem, the Morte Arthure, composed
in the mid-fourteenth century, during the reign of Edward III,
has political implications of a gloomier sort. Here Arthur's conquests are made to
parallel Edward's, Arthur's battles grimly
parody Edward's battles, and Arthur's tragedy -a fall through
pride--warns Edward that a similar fate may await him. The
poem is the direct source of Malory's "Arthur and King Lucius"
sequence and may, in the opinion of some scholars, have provided Malory with a
model for political comment through romance. Whereas the Morte Arthure poet
identified Arthur with Edward, Malory alters details as if to equate Arthur and Henry
V, suppresses the tragic conclusion of the poem, and thus perhaps sets the glory of Arthur
-- and of Henry V -- in ironic counterpoise with what came afterward in Malory's England.
Naturally enough, the Arthurian legend reflected in Geoffrey's
Historia Regum Britanniae was developed along very
different lines in France. It provided not a national myth but
subject matter for fiction. It provided material for the relatively
short "Breton lays" popular in France in the mid-twelfth century
and after (not all of the lays are Arthurian), and it provided
themes for the more elaborate verse "romances."
which have survived - and perhaps the first written -- are those of
Chrétien de Troyes, elegant and artificial
elaborations of older
Arthurian stories of (possibly) Welsh origin (ie, from the Mabinogion). Here
the tales become threads for moral allegory, illustrations of virtuous
behavior, courtesy, and polite conversation. Verse romances of this
sort very soon became popular outside France - in Italy, Spain,
Portugal, and Germany; in England the French influence resulted in the Arthurian
Christian parable, Sir Gawain and the
In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, French verse
romance gave way to prose and to still more ingenious and elaborate art.
It was to this form, the prose romance, that Malory
turned most often for his material. Whereas French verse romances were relatively straightforward with respect to plot,
the prose romances became a gloomy medieval forest of complexity. A given romance
might have dozens of main plots, hundreds of digressive episodes (indeed,
main plots may be dropped
and forgotten), and too many characters for the reader to keep in
mind. Scholars are still uncertain about how these prose romances
work, and anything we say must be speculative; but since they
are Malory's point of departure, some speculation is necessary.
One thing is certain: the greatest of the prose romances -- for
example, the so-called Vulgate Cycle-begin by dismissing, if
they ever thought of it, the Aristotelian idea that a work must be
perspicuous. Like the elaborate interlace work in medieval
painting, manuscript illumination, and church ornamentation,
they intentionally defy intellectual comprehension. They are
freighted with symbols of obscure significance, with apparently
meaningful but widely separated verbal repetitions, and with
subtle relationships between plots and between characters.
They were written backward, so to speak, beginning with a
"given" of Arthurian romance-for instance the fact that a certain knight has a
certain magical sword - and explaining how the
hitherto unexplained detail came about. If the prose romance
form has any significance in itself, it-would seem to be this:
like the universe as the Christian Middle Ages conceived it, the
prose romance is complex beyond all intelligibility, yet secretly
ordered just as the baffling world around us is subtly ordered
by God's plan. Knights go on quests, suffer more distractions,
diversions, and reversals than the mind can retain; yet trifling
events produce, hundreds of pages later, their destinal effects.
For some of these events, the motivation of characters is carefully
plotted and thoroughly explained; and though events within any given
plot may be isolated by the intrusion of events
from other plots, no event is isolated in the total process of the
cycle's flow of reality. The seemingly shapeless form of the romance,
like the devious paths its knights ride down, celebrates
the optimistic doctrine that nothing is wasted, nothing lost: God
moves in strange ways.
Nothing remotely resembling this art form appears in English
literature. But in simplifying the French prose romances,
Malory did more than reduce an incredibly complex art to mere
adventure. Suppressing the carefully worked out motivations
he found in his sources, dismissing some of the religious mystery,
introducing a seeming realism (either dropping the magic
in his sources or presenting it in flat, plain statements of what
must be taken for weird fact), Malory changed the premise of
Arthurian legend and gave the legend new meaning.
--John Gardner, Ph.D.; Dept. of English, Southern Illinois University
excerpted from The Cliff Notes on LE MORTE D'ARTHUR