Legends of King Arthur

The legends of King Arthur

Hetta Howes tracks the many appearances of King Arthur, from a 9th-century history to a Hollywood blockbuster, via the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Malory and the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Damsels in distress. Doomed and forbidden love. Epic battles and quests in pursuit of strange creatures. This is the world of Arthurian legend and, at the centre of it all, there is the ‘once and future king’ – Arthur himself, who, according to the stories, pulled a sword from a stone to become the greatest king that Britain has ever known. This is a world which has inspired an overwhelming amount of literature, film, music, dance and other works of art. Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde follows the romance of two of Arthuriana’s star-crossed lovers; Tennyson immortalises Elaine of Astolat, a young maiden who fell in unrequited love with one of Arthur’s knights, in his poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’; and, more recently, Disney and Hollywood have turned their hand to Camelot. Many came to know King Arthur through Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, and in 2017 Guy Ritchie released a blockbuster which has Arthur growing up in a brothel before getting swept up in political intrigue. But who was King Arthur? Where did these legends come from? And what makes Arthurian literature so appealing to a modern audience?

Will the real King Arthur please stand up?

One question which has preoccupied historians for centuries is whether or not King Arthur was a real man or entirely a work of fiction. Evidence for a historical King Arthur is very scant. All that is known with certainty is that a man named Arthur, or Arturus, led a band of warriors in bloody resistance against a number of invading forces, including the Saxons and Jutes, around the 5th and 6th centuries CE – which is significantly earlier than most medieval legends place King Arthur. In a 9th-century Latin history of Britain (the Historia Britonum), a Welsh monk called Nennius mentions a war-lord named Arthur who fought 12 battles against invaders and who managed to fell 960 men in one go – an exaggeration typical of the historical, chronicle genre. Some other 10th-century Welsh chronicles also make reference to a leader called Arthur, similarly fierce and successful in battle.

However, the first reference to a man recognisable as the ‘King Arthur’ we know today comes in another historical chronicle, written a few hundred years later. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (A History of the Kings of Britain, 1138) the basic framework of the Arthurian legend is put into place, and then other, later authors build on this foundation. Geoffrey is the first known writer to identify Arthur as a king of Britain, and he is also the first to outline Arthur’s genealogy. According to Geoffrey, Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon is aided by a sorcerer and prophet called Merlin to impersonate another man and sleep with his wife – resulting in the conception of Arthur. Two other major chronicles use Geoffrey of Monmouth as a source to embellish the story of King Arthur and further establish the legend we’re familiar with today. In the 12th century, a Norman poet called Wace based his Roman de Brut (History of Britain, 1155) on Geoffrey’s work, adding in new features – like the special Round Table created for Arthur’s barons so that they would not argue over precedence and status at meetings. In the 13th century, an English poet called Layamon combines the Arthurian sections from Geoffrey and Wace and further expands on the legend. So, for example, he adds in a riot between barons and noblemen, all vying for status, which leads to the creation of the Round Table.

Wace's Roman de Brut

Wace's Roman de Brut

Wace’s Roman de Brut is a poem about King Arthur written in Anglo-Norman.

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Wace's Roman de Brut

Wace's Roman de Brut

The coronation of Arthur from Wace’s Roman de Brut.

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But was any of this true? ‘History’, as a genre, was treated differently in the medieval period. While many chronicles from the period do record provable events, others embellish, exaggerate or twist the truth, and some even invent outright to suit their own agendas. Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that he is copying an ancient manuscript, but there is no proof that Geoffrey actually had such a source and he may well have invented it to give his own chronicle authenticity. Just because he records a king called Arthur doesn’t mean that such a man really existed. Moreover, ‘was King Arthur real or not’ is not necessarily the most interesting question. From their origins, the use of Arthurian legends reveals as much about those adapting the legends as it does about the ‘true’ Arthur. So, the political undercurrents of the recent adaptation by Guy Ritchie – which explores poverty, the oppression and exploitation of the poor by those in power, gender equality and revolt – reveals as much about the ideological concerns of the contemporary world as it does about the medieval period. We don’t know whether or not Arthur was real, but we do know that countless authors have used his legends to explore their own anxieties, fears and hopes.

Romance versus history

Stories about Arthur’s kingdom, with their shifting cast of characters, survive in over 500 manuscripts written in a number of different languages, 40 of which are housed in the British Library. They were popular not only among richer men and women who could afford to acquire manuscripts (and who knew how to read them), but also among poorer members of society, as the legends travelled in popular song and oral storytelling. In historical chronicles, like those authored by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Layamon, the world of Arthur is characterised by violent battles and is concerned with the politics of kingship and the creation of nationhood. King Arthur, the great military leader, is integral in making Britain a super-power, something which later dynasties, such as the Tudors, recognised and used for their own ends, claiming ancestry to the legendary king to legitimise their own claims to the throne. However, the world of King Arthur which is best known today – with its supernatural beings, its beautiful women, tournaments and knightly activities – comes instead from the French romance tradition.

Laȝamon's Roman de Brut

Layamon's Roman de Brut

Laȝamon’s Brut is a Middle English poem about King Arthur, translated from Wace’s Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut.

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Romance is a medieval genre, which includes narratives written in prose or poetry that record the adventures and exploits of the aristocracy. Romance, in this instance, might well include romantic love, but it is not defined by it. As a genre, it is much more concerned with the individual knights and the often-fantastical things which happen to them, rather than with the creation of an English nation or the politics of rule. Many of the most famous moments from the legends of King Arthur were invented by the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote a number of Arthurian romances. For example, Chrétien is the first writer to introduce the character of Lancelot, one of the most famous Knights of the Round Table, to the legends of Arthur, and, more importantly, the first to introduce the famous love affair between Lancelot and King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere. Lancelot is, according to some versions of the story, born to a fairy mother, or, according to others, born to the Lady of the Lake. He is one of Arthur’s best knights, skilled with a sword and a lance, and in almost all versions in which he appears he is absolutely dedicated in his love for and service to Queen Guinevere. He rescues her from death countless times, and cuts open his hands prying open iron bars to rescue her. Their love is one of the enduring features of Arthurian romance; however, it also contributes to the destruction of the Round Table and the fall of Arthur’s utopian kingdom.

Another marked difference between the historical and romance traditions is that although Arthur is usually at least mentioned in the romances, he is not always the most important character. Historical narratives of Arthur are particularly interested in the founding of Camelot. But Arthurian romances are often more preoccupied with the events that follow. Once Arthur’s kingdom is up and running, Arthur’s role becomes slightly different: it is essentially to keep the peace in his own kingdom and provide stable rule. It is therefore often the responsibility of other knights to take up challenges and go on quests on his behalf. So, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 13th-century English poem, Arthur and his knights are having a New Year’s feast when, all of a sudden, in rides a giant green man on a giant green horse, carrying a holly branch in one hand and an axe in the other. He challenges Arthur to a beheading game, and although at first Arthur accepts, his nephew Gawain steps in and asks to take the challenge on Arthur’s behalf. The kingdom of Camelot needs Arthur at its helm, and he’d find it hard to rule without his head. Arthur is also absent from another famous episode which is recounted in a number of different romances, the famous quest for the Holy Grail, a cup believed to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper that can grant eternal life. Instead of Arthur, who remains at home to look after his kingdom, a number of his knights take up the challenge. Only the virginal Galahad, son of Lancelot, is successful in this quest, and the failure of all the others foreshadows the inevitable end of Camelot and its Round Table.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Middle English masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the story of a quest undertaken by Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur. This folio from the manuscript portrays the Green Knight, Gawain, King Arthur and other members of the court.

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Nostalgia and the death of King Arthur

This impending fall becomes increasingly important in Arthurian legends. The time of Arthur is perceived as a kind of utopia, where knights live according to chivalric rules and high ideals. But anyone reading these legends with one eye, the other trained on their own country and society, must realise that it is a long-gone utopia. Camelot did not last for ever, and this loss marks a number of Arthurian stories.

In the later Middle Ages, a growing audience for courtly texts in English resulted in a number of new works, particularly elegiac writings about the death of King Arthur, for example the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. The 15th-century writer Thomas Malory compiled these into the final section of his collected works of Arthurian legends. Titled Le Morte Darthur, they were published in 1485 by William Caxton, the man who introduced the printing press into England. These stories are less concerned with adventures and the supernatural, and more with nostalgia. Their authors follow the events which led to the demise of Arthur and his kingdom. The affair of Lancelot and Guinevere is discovered, and Mordred, Arthur’s son, uses the unrest as an excuse to lay claim to the throne. The kingdom turns against itself, and ultimately Arthur is mortally wounded on the battlefield. In a time of political upheaval, civil war and virulent diseases like the plague, writers seemed to yearn for a golden age when principles of chivalry were instilled by their great and powerful king, and the rule of the land was stable – even as they acknowledged that such times, if they had ever even existed, had passed.

Le Morte Darthur

Morte Darthur

Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur the last major work on Arthurian legend to be produced in the Middle Ages.

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But Arthur’s death is not necessarily the end of the legend. A number of writers record a coda. Arthur is taken away to the mythical land of Avalon by three beautiful ladies and, these writers either insist or simply hope, this once and future king will return one day to rule again. And although King Arthur may not have returned from the dead, as the myths promise, he has certainly enjoyed a number of afterlives in popular culture.

  • Hetta Elizabeth Howes
  • Dr. Hetta Elizabeth Howes is a Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at City, University of London and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker. She has published on crying and cleansing in Aelred of Rievaulx's writings for women and the relationship between blood and shame in medieval lyrics. She is currently turning her doctoral thesis into a monograph, examining the role of water as a literary metaphor in devotional prose – with a particular emphasis on works written for and by women.

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