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The Legend of King Arthur

: 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 sixth century.

The battle itself is historical, and since the name Arthur derives from the common Roman name Artorius, it 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.
The 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"- Mordred.

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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 trend.

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." The earliest 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 Green Knight.

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


Arthuriana Link page

by Thomas Bulfinch
See also:
Celtic Myths