Arthurian Legend Throughout the Ages
If someone were to ask for a thorough description of Arthurian legend, it would be nearly impossible to sum it all up in a few brief sentences. Like many mythologies, the Arthurian tales do not focus on one particular person, genre, or event, but they encompass numerous people and places – from the Guinevere and Lancelot scandal to Sir Gawain and his encounter with the mystical Green Knight, the sorceresses Morgan Le Fay and Nimue, Arthur’s wizard advisor, Merlin, to Arthur’s son, Mordred, who was the legendary king’s ultimate downfall.
The stories span over the course of about 1,500 years and have passed from hand to hand, culture to culture, so many times that it has changed and shifted within each passing. The roots of the various versions of the legends are quite obscure, as are any historical origins. Despite this, Arthurian legend has a long tradition that has not only entertained countless generations but with every new group of people that adopt the stories, cultural imprints are made, and the stories take on new lives of their own.
Arthur’s characterization is not all that has changed through the various hands it has been passed through. The legends, in general, have shifted as they have moved from the Welsh to French romantics, and throughout many other cultures. Even today, the Arthurian legend is being modified to fit our times and purposes. Ernest N. Kaulbach says that “received Arthurian texts are transformed by social concerns outside the texts but generally contemporary with the texts” (234) – meaning that each different version of the legend is specifically molded, whether intentionally or not, to fit the people and culture that have adopted it. This is essential to understanding how the tales of King Arthur have changed and shaped since their origin and why there are so many versions of the same stories.
Another question that is often raised in regards to Arthurian legend is when the stories first came about. Although many believe that Arthur was a Roman centurion, there have been some references to him in even earlier works, like the Welsh song cycle, Gododdin, but since the text has “interpolations,” scholars are unsure of when his name was added (Regan 401). Most believe, however, that Arthur was around earlier because “in the surviving medieval Welsh literature about Arthur, there is a wealth of allusions to characters and narrative material that suggests a rich tradition even before Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chétien de Troyes shaped the Matter of Britain into the form that is most recognizable to modern readers” (“Arthur in Welsh Literature”). There are certainly references enough in Welsh literature to insinuate that Arthur predated some of his most famous spokespeople.
It is difficult to say if there is any historical significance to the stories of King Arthur because there is no recorded history of a monarch that ruled over England by the name of Arthur. “It is still a debated question whether the British hero named Arthur was a historical personage or a creature of fancy” (Loomis 1). Even though there is not any real evidence that King Arthur existed, he is definitely a kind of “Culture Hero” (Loomis 1), which is “a (typically mythological) historical figure who embodies the culture of a particular society, and is frequently considered to have founded or shaped that culture” (Culture Hero). According to Elizabeth Archibald, “the argument continues to rage, and participants tend to take one of two positions: either Arthur is a mythical figure who was historicized as an early king of Britain, or else he is a historical figure who was mythicized as a superhero” (1). Whatever the case, however, King Arthur is still a central figure in British history and culture.
One of the most popular theories about King Arthur’s identity is that he originated from a Roman military leader named Artorious Maximus that fought against invading Saxons (Loomis 1). The character of Arthur tends to shift slightly throughout the cultures, but for the most part, the multiple depictions of the man tend to be similar. He is always viewed as a hero, brave and loyal. He is usually portrayed as a peaceful ruler, although in many of the earlier stories, he is also a great warrior and military leader. He is well-loved and “most consistently presented as wise, generous, and magnanimous […] kind and forgiving, trustworthy and loyal” (Lacy 19). With all of these admirable traits, it is easy to see why this king of legends has inspired so many leaders and cultures throughout the ages.
Celtic, Welsh and Irish Legends
Perhaps the richest stories and aspects of Arthurian legend come from the Celts, whose tradition was oral. The Saxons eventually drove the Celts into the mountains and the furthest reaches of the area, and with their invasion, they, too, adopted the stories of King Arthur and made them their own (“Ancient Echoes”). Many of the stories of Merlin as a wizard came from this era. The University of Idaho describes the effect that the Celts had on Arthur’s story, showing how the Celtic Arthurian legend greatly reflected the people of that time:
These are stories filled with the exploits of great warriors and mighty kings – the Celts had an aristocratic warrior-culture, and valued courage and skill at arms. They are rife with magic and the supernatural, being among the most fantastic of any society’s mythos – the Celts believed in an Otherworld, and felt that it was very close to our own mortal world, and sometimes beings from one world could even enter the other. Above all, these tales burgeon with energy and verve – the same vivacity that drove the Celts from one end of Europe to the other. (“Ancient Echoes”)
There is a good possibility that the tradition of Avalon and Arthur’s journey to an enchanted sleep to heal there after his battle with Mordred came from this idea of the Otherworld in Celtic society.
The earliest known Welsh story about Arthur is that of Culhwch and Olwen, “the Mabinogion story of Arthur’s assistance to his cousin Culhwch in winning the hand of Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbadadden” (The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature & Legend 20). Not only does this recount one of Arthur’s adventures but it also contains names and references to events that became well-known in later versions of the tale, like Cei (today known as Kay), Taliesin, Bedwyr (Bedivere), and even an allusion to the battle of Camlan, which was Arthur’s final stand. Along with the better-known material, there are also references to other parts of the story that seems to have been lost (The Oxford Guide 24).
Some Irish deviations of the legend can be traced back as far as the twelfth, tenth, and even eighth centuries, and “some of these Irish sagas of the Middle Ages have survived in modern folklore as well as in Arthurian romance” (Loomis 2). The themes of the Turning Castle, Tristan and Isolt, and the Beheading Game were more than likely Welsh and Irish originally. It can also be noted that the first sources of romance in medieval times was probably reserved mostly for the elite and not peasants because “the Irish and Welsh precursors of the French romances formed a dignified class of narrative artists whose livelihood depended on their appealing to the tastes of the rich and powerful” (Loomis 2).
The Bretons, Impact of Christianity
Since the time period between the early Welsh and Irish works and the French and Anglo-Norman romances is vast and the culture different as well, there had to be a bridge between the two eras of Arthur’s story. This bridge is thought to be the Bretons, who could speak French and a language similar to Welsh. Even though there is no text that has survived in the Breton language from this time, the Bretons were very devoted to Arthur, who was one of their greatest heroes (Loomis 6).
Another, extremely important bridge between the oral traditions and romances was the introduction of Christianity into the Welsh and Celtic society. After the Saxons invaded, Christianity began to wiggle its way into the legend and changed it to fit to its agenda. “The early Christian Church had a penchant for taking the established folklore of a society and assimilating it into a new Christian dogma, painting over the old pagan character in broad strokes” (“Round Table Discussion”). Even though many of the Christianized romances are far removed from the magic-laced tales of old, the influences of the Celtic, Welsh, and Irish people that came before are still there, lurking behind the painted-over version of the French and Anglo-Norman romances. A great example of a parallel between Celtic and Christian tradition is the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, which is similar in many ways to an old Welsh epic, “The Spoils of Annwn,” which recounts Arthur’s quest to find an ancient, magical relic of great historical importance, much like the knights’ search for the Grail (“Ancient Echoes”).
French and English Romances
Today, some of the most popular versions of the stories are the French romances, where the Lancelot and Guinevere scandal originated. Lancelot du Lac was an invention of the French, as were many of the noble knights that are so well-known today. Different from the earlier stories, the French romances focused on romance, courtly love, and quests for honor rather than war or magicians, although it was not unusual for a knight – like Sir Gawain, for instance, to meet with a sorcerer, ghost, or witch on his journey. The oldest romances are from Provençal poet Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote Lancelot, Yvain, Erec, and some of a Percevel. All of these poems are about one of Arthur’s knights (Regan 404) and Percevel, which was not finished by de Troyes, was the work that brought the quest for the Holy Grail into the legend (Lacy 187).
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in France, Arthurian legend was “the primary source of inspiration” because Arthur had “so captured the imagination of medieval and publics” (Lacy 187). Most of the French romances did not focus on Arthur himself, but instead his knights and the courageous quests they go on to find love or glory. Brut by Wace and Joseph d’ Arimathie are among the other countless French romances (187).
After the French romances, English romances were introduced, both as poetry and prose. Some of the English work was shorter and rhymed, indicating that it was probably written for “oral delivery” and others were “clearly the products of clerkly authors” (Lacy 153). According to Lacy, “regardless of their origins, the English romances, with a few major exceptions, are less courtly and sophisticated, but simpler and shorter than their French predecessors. Emphasis remains on dramatic action and adventure rather than on love and psychological finesse” (153). Some of the most well-known and well-written English romances are Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (153).
Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Britannaie"
As time passed, more versions and traditions broke out, showing that “cultures alter inherited texts and are, in turn, changed by them” (qtd. In Kaulbach 234). One of the most popular and well-regarded sources about King Arthur and his court are from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin work Historia Regum Britannaie, which was written in 1137 and translates in English to History of the Kings of Britain. In this work, he “devotes about a fifth of his work to Arthur and contributes several elements to the tradition,” including Uther Pendragon as Arthur’s father with an adulterous relationship with Igraine and Merlin as a sorcerer (Regan 404). Geoffrey’s depiction of Arthur in his book became so popular that for four centuries, his version of the great king was the Arthur for most people as a real person and was recognized as one of the Nine Worthies (Ditmas 19).
Not only did Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain cause the tales of Arthur to reign once again, but his book also was extremely useful on a political level, for then and even present rulers. It gave – and is possibly still giving – the rulers of Britain precedents, showing them what a true, good leader should be like. With his account of Arthur’s life, it could be said that Geoffrey of Monmouth left the king’s big shoes for future rulers to fill. “Even more important are Geoffrey’s additions to the story of Arthur, perhaps the most significant of which is to give Arthur a place in the line of British kings and to describe the glories of his court and the conquests that make him emperor of the civilized world” (The Oxford Guide 28). In the pages of his text, Geoffrey makes Arthur come alive, conjuring a convincing case that Arthur did indeed have a place in British history, even though many of the kings in his History are fictional – including Shakespeare’s King Lear and his daughters (The Oxford Guide 29).
Impact on Spenser, Tennyson and Milton
Many famous authors and artists were inspired by Arthurian legend, including Spenser, who “uses Arthur to represent magnificence and ideal manhood in an allegory with virtues and vices embodied in romantic knights, ladies, giants, and dragons” in his longest work, the Fairie Queene (Regan 405). Tennyson based his series of romances, Idylls of the King, on Malory, and before penning Paradise Lost, Charles L. Regan says that John Milton thought about an “Arthuriad” (405).
Arthurian legend became popular once again in the early nineteenth century, particularly during the reign of Queen Victoria and was built on top of the Gothic Revival, but moral integrity was promoted more and it “modernized chivalric ideals of the subsequent era” (Lacy 28). During this time, especially during the 1860s and 70s, when interest in Arthurian legend was at its peak, “Arthur predominated, in part because this Arthur was so adaptable to Victorian cultural constructions” (Bryden 599). Using King Arthur, the artists and writers of the era did not only revive the stories, but they created a whole new tradition around Arthur within itself. Arthur became a means by which they conveyed morals, the monarchal society of the time, and remained a spiritual and inspirational allegory (Lacy 29).
Arthurian Legend Today
Even though what is now classified as the “Arthurian Revival” ended with the terrible reality of World War I (Lacy 29), Arthurian legend is still rife in our modern culture today and has not faded since it was brought into existence. The influences of the legend can be found all throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Modern author T.A. Barron focuses most of his young adult novels on Arthurian legend with his Great Tree of Avalon trilogy and Lost Years of Merlin saga. Movies, like the hit classic Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail provide a hilarious rendition of the old stories and Disney’s Sword in the Stone presents a kid-friendly version of the stories. Two major television shows focused entirely around Arthurian legend are Starz’s Camelot and BBC’s Merlin. Every single one of these new, modern versions of the tale creates its own world, landscape, and characters despite the common theme. Some may frown upon the reinventing of old legends, but even today with our advanced media, are we not simply mimicking what those who came before us have done to the very same stories?
From its earliest roots, the story of King Arthur and his knights, advisor, and nemeses have been changing hands. From the Celts, to the French, to the English, to the Victorian Arthurian Revival, and even to the present day, Arthurian legend has been molded and re-molded again, so much so that it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. Although the origins were most likely Celtic, the Saxons took over, Christianity was introduced, and the stories changed some more. When the French caught wind of these potentially romantic tales, they, too, changed them to fit their culture, as did the English soon after. During the nineteenth century, the myths were revived once again in the Victorian Arthurian Revival. Today, the stories about King Arthur are still being told in different, unique ways and every one of them, while under the same umbrella as the original stories, is one of a kind and presents a new view on a very old topic. Even though no one can know for sure whether any of this great legend is based on fact, it is not important if it is real or not. What does matter is what we get from the stories and the rich mixture of cultures involved. Celtic, Welsh, Saxon, Anglo-Norman, French, English, Christian, pagan, modern – and more – are all mixed up together in a collection of stories and characters that we know today as Arthurian Legend.
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“Culture Hero.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
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© 2014 Elizabeth Wilson