The legend of King Arthur is ingrained into our culture and holds timeless appeal. The information here is more of a synthesis paper rather than a full-fledged argument on who King Arthur really is. In any case, the amount of information I gleaned from a mere two-day workshop over the course of two Saturdays made attending well worth it. If you’ve more than a passing interest in the topic, please give this a read. If not, still feel free to chime in regarding the discussion question at the end of this post.
The Legend of King Arthur: When Fiction is the Greater Truth
The mere mention of King Arthur conjures the medieval imagery society has come to associate with tales of Arthurian Lore: Camelot, Excalibur, Knights in Shining Armor, The Round Table, The Holy Grail, and Damsels in Distress. This menagerie of fleeting impressions occupies a permanent spot in popular culture. As a legend, the existence of a real King Arthur cannot be verified. The imaginative re-telling of history better speaks to universal truths only made possible by the power of literature. Arthur’s legend changes and grows with the times in order to reflect the needs of the people.
A paper such as this can only paint broad strokes. The historical era which begat the origins of these stories springs from a Britain struggling to find power and peace amidst invading forces and religious upheaval. Historical records at this time were often cobbled together from documents written years apart and told in a more narrative-driven than factual manner. It’s most likely that the King Arthur of literature is a composite of twelve different men who mostly lived during the fifth and sixth centuries (Wadley). By tracing such mentions, it’s possible to better appreciate how the legend was born.
The earliest source to refer to a King Arthur figure is Gildas’ 525 AD three-part sermon On the Ruin of Britain. He condemns Britain’s “might is right” mentality and its many sins against God and man (6). Battles ensued with the Picts and Scots to the North, as well as with the invading Romans. King Vortigern then invited the Saxons to help Britain find relief from invasions (7). Gildas mentions “that they [the Britons] might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man.” He goes on to note Ambrosius is of Roman ancestry and high birth (8). Thus Ambrosius would have been Christian in a time when pagan Celtic beliefs still held sway over many. This early reference rooted in a Gildas’ passionate accusations plants the seeds for the way coming to terms with change eventually becomes a key theme in Arthurian Lore. After all, even the mighty kingdom of Camelot fell because good times can never last.
Following Gildas’ scathing sermon, the first document to portray King Arthur as a historical figure was Nennius’ 828 AD History of the Britons. Arthur’s prowess as a military leader and warrior, not as a king, are highlighted. Nennius details a boy named Ambrose, “a child born without a father” (5). Once this child’s blood has been spilled on the ground, King Vortigern’s citadel can supposedly be built. Ambrose is smarter than the King’s wise men. He tells of an underground pool containing dragons in vases. He interprets the imagery for Vortigern and reveals the red dragon represents Vortigern and the white dragon the invading Saxons (5-6). The not entirely chronological events present issues with clarity. However, Nennius’ account further sets the stage for the coming of an Arthur who can restore hope to a broken people.
After Vortigern’s fiery death, his son is granted two provinces “by Ambrosius, who was the great king among the kings of Britain” (8). It comes to pass “that the magnanimous Arthur, with all of the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror” (8). It’s then stated how Arthur single-handedly killed 940 men during his twelfth and biggest fight, the Battle of Badon. The introduction of Ambrose versus Ambrosius leaves room for later renditions to further subdivide characters and create more complex interactions amongst them. Even at this early stage, the origins of the story have the making for grand soap-opera-style entertainment.
Nennius’ document makes way for Geoffrey’s Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain which appeared circa 1136 AD. It’s a pseudohistorical document full of inaccuracies that makes it hard to differentiate historical fact from the makings of a legend. In any case, Monmouth further gives shape to the complex stories by introducing yet more characters and upping the element of magic. This provides a transition for the prior versions of Arthur to transform into the explosion of tales that soon commenced.
The wise men who advised Vortigern in Nennius are now referred to as wizards. Ambrosius Merlin, also a wizard, advises the king that using a fatherless boy’s blood to make his kingdom stable is nonsense. The young Merlin then proceeds to interpret the meaning of the dragons and give sage advice (135). Vortigern’s wizard foresees two deaths for him. One from the Saxons and the other from the sons of the Roman Emperor Constantine: Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon. To add to the confusion, we now have another Ambrosius on the scene. He brings peace and settles religious matters, but meets his end from poison. His brother Uther then takes over. Vortigern flees and then gets burned up (153-55). Once again, the stage is set for a country in turmoil in need of a great and fearless leader.
Monmouth recounts Arthur’s origin story by detailing how Uther lusts after The Duke of Cornwall’s wife Igraine. Uther does this by enlisting Merlin’s magic to make him look like Gorlois so he can bed his wife. Gorlois is later killed in battle, making it easier for Uther to marry Igraine. Arthur and his sister Anna are the result of this marriage (174-178). The introduction of these characters makes way for all sorts of tangled plots to ensue in future stories.
Arthur comes to power and is depicted as being pleased “that he was a terror unto them all, and he set his desire upon subduing the whole of Europe unto himself” (195). Guinevere receives the briefest of mentions as her husband is off making a name for himself and protecting Britain for years. This semi-historical Arthur is one that still reflects the unease of the time as Monmouth gives us a conqueror whose kingdom suffers in his absence. Ultimately, Arthur can’t regain his glory days and he gives up his kingdom and retires to the island of Avalon (236). Later versions see Arthur come to even more severe reckonings as his kingdom of Camelot slips away.
Thus a legend is born. Between 1138 and 1470, over 130 stories were created taking inspiration from the Arthurian details that took shape in Monmouth’s works. The dating of The Mabinogion, a collection of Celtic stories, may or may not have been written before Monmouth’s document. In any case, the Celtic stories also show Arthur as a warlord and not the chivalrous knight people tend to envision him as today. Representation as a fearless conqueror drew from the unrest of the times in order to give people the type of hero they needed.
An important transition in Arthurian Lore takes place in Chretien DeTroyes’ early twelfth century romances which contain “Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart.” The shift from a focus on conquering enemies to upholding courtly love and chivalry can be seen as now becoming another central layer to the stories. DeTroyes’ work is widely acknowledged as one of the precursors to the modern novel in that he wrote stories that contained three clear movements—a beginning, middle, and an end. The addition of Lancelot’s character and his love affair with Guinevere deepened the significance of the abduction of Arthur’s wife glossed over in Gildas.
The story, originally written in French as eight-syllable rhyming couplets, was commissioned by Marie de Champagne. DeTroyes begins, “the material and the treatment of it are given and furnished to him by the Countess, and he is simply trying to carry out her concern and attention” (1). Marie’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitane, had divorced Louis VII in order to marry Henry, Duke of Normandy who would become King Henry II. Eleanor institutes the Court of Love. Her variety of courtly love focused on “adulterous situations between knights and ladies.” Her daughter then spread those ideals to her court by requesting such elements be written into DeTroyes’s poem (Wadley). At least women got more page time, even if too often relegated to being in need of saving or conjuring spells.
Numerous stories made their way into the Arthurian canon over the course of some 350 years. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was published in 1485. Malory compiled the existing stories in French and English and added original material as well (Wadley). Malory’s collection provides the main source of inspiration for many of the tales that later followed. The tone remains elevated and serious, but today’s readers are most likely more familiar with the modernized version first published by Keith Banes in 1962. Reader-friendly versions of classics are yet another way the legend of King Arthur continues to have timeless appeal.
Malory’s work was vetted by the Tudors who wanted to lay claim to their Arthurian heritage. With the discovery of America and the shift from a feudalistic world, the tales surrounding King Arthur’s legend fell out of favor. Shakespeare and his contemporaries didn’t write about Arthur (Wadley). Malory’s version includes Guinevere being sentenced to burn at the stake and Lancelot swooping in to save her. A cuckolded Arthur does not intervene in the face of their true love, though he does later forgive them. After Arthur’s death, a measure of redemption is possible because Guinevere seeks repentance in a nunnery and Lancelot becomes a monk. In this sense, the cycle shows hope remains even after all hope is lost.
Not until the 1850s did Alfred Lord Tennyson revive the stories in serial form, with the final collection being released in 1872. His rendition reflected the morality of 19th century Victorian England. Idylls of the King is written in lines of blank verse, and Tennyson maintains the serious tone of Malory’s work. In keeping with the times, Tennyson’s treatment of courtly love centers more on ultimate spiritual fulfillment rather than matters of the flesh.
Another important addition to the legend occurred with the release of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King in 1958. The book brought together four previously released tales, the first of which released in 1938. The overall tone of White’s book is less serious and incorporates more elements of humor. The anti-war subject matter of Arthur’s earnest pursuit of chivalry is in direct correlation to an author who had witnessed the horrors of major world wars. In the end, the code of conduct put in place reveals that even it must be kept in place by force.
With a sound body of literature in place, parodies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail caught the attention of audiences as well as the Broadway musical spinoff Spamalot (in which Lancelot comes out of the closet and lets his rainbow flag fly). Other versions like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon retell the legend from the perspective of the primary female characters.
It will be interesting to see where the legend of King Arthur goes next. On the one hand, emerging stories of King Arthur will be driven by the market. In some ways, Arthur vs. Zombies has already manifested itself in the medieval fantasy world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy book series. In other ways, the bloody warlord version portrayed in movies like King Arthur seem to reflect the political unease of our times and a return to “might is right.” Soon enough, we shall see a resurgence of a King Arthur that harkens back to the magic of Camelot. So who is Arthur? He is the culmination of all that came before him. As a tragic hero, he is at once of the time and timeless. Readers can trace in him the evolution of the bloody warlord who eventually uses his head.
*The list of works cited and consulted appears at the end of this post.
What appeal do any of the books and movies based on the legend of King Arthur hold for you?
Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the jousting image in this post
The Last Sleep of Arthur appears courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. 1982. New York: Ballantine, 2000. Print.
DeTroyes, Chretien. “Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart.” Four Arthurian Romances. Compiled by Douglas B. Killings. Eds. W.W. Comfort, Prof. Foerster (footnotes), and Karen Wadley. Gutenberg.org. 2014. Print.
Gildas. On the Ruin of Britain. Trans. J. A. Giles. Ed. Karen Wadley. Gutenberg.org, 2013. Print.
Guest, Lady Charlotte E., trans. The Mabinogion. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1997. Print.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table.1962.Adapted by Keith Banes. New York: Signet, 2010. Print.
Monmouth, Geoffrey of. History of the Kings of Britain. 1958. Trans. Sebastian Evans. Revised by Charles W. Dunn. London: Everyman’s Library, 1963.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dirs. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle. Michael White Productions, 1975. DVD.
Nennius. History of the Britons. Trans. J. A. Giles. Ed. Karen Wadley. Gutenberg.org, 2013. Print.
Spamalot. Dir. Unknown. Perf. Unknown. Velma W. Morrison Center for the Performing Arts, Boise, ID. 3 Nov. 2007. 2007. Performance.
Tennyson, Lord Alfred. 1983. Idylls of the King. Ed. J. M. Gray. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Wadley, Karen. Fact-Fiction Arthurian Legends. Boise State University. Interactive Learning Center, Boise, ID. 2014 Feb. 22 and May 1. Lecture.
White, T. H. 1958. The Once and Future King. New York: Ace Books, 2011. eBook.
Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain. 1971. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.
Camelot. Dir. Joshua Logan. Perf. Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, 1967. DVD.
Excalibur. Dir. John Boorman. Perf. Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, and Nicholas Clay. Orion Pictures Corporation, 1981. DVD.
First Knight. Dir. Jerry Zucker. Perf. Sean Connery, Richard Gere, and Julia Ormond. Colombia Pictures, 1995. DVD.
King Arthur. Dir. Antoine Fuqua. Perf. Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, and Keira Knightley. Touchstone Pictures, 2004. DVD.
The Lion in Winter. Dir. Anthony Harvey. Perf. Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins. AVCO Embassy, 1968. DVD.
The Mists of Avalon. Dir. Uli Edel. Perf. Angelica Huston, Julianna Margulies, and Joan Allen. Turner Network Television (TNT), 2001. DVD.
Tennyson, Lord Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” 1842. Wikisource. Wikimedia Foundation. 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar 2014.
The Sword in the Stone. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Perf. Rickie Sorensen, Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson. Walt Disney Productions, 1963. Film.