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June, 2009 : Feature:

Arthuriana Through the Ages

From History to Legend... And Back?

The Continuing Appeal of Arthurian Legend

The cycle of legends revolving around King Arthur and his court have fascinated people in different times and cultures for centuries. In particular, in the Middle Ages "the Matter of Britain," as the tales concerning Arthur and his knights were called, was one of the main sources for epic romance in verse. From the early French works of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century, to the German from Gottfried von Straßburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach in the thirteenth, through numerous retellings and reinventions in all the major languages of Europe, the legends were revised and expanded for hundreds of years, leaving so much material that interpreting and analyzing the texts provides jobs for academics all over the world.

The work that became the authoritative model for Arthurian literature in English, Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, was not completed until 1470 and is largely a compilation of the tales that were most popular in the fifteenth century. But long before Malory, writers were more concerned with providing an even better version or versions than other writers who had preceded them than they were with telling the story of a figure considered by most at the time to be historical. They derived their narrative authority from the "fact" that Arthur was a king of Britain, just as Charlemagne was historical, the central figure of "the Matter of France," or Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, important figures in "the Matter of Rome"—never mind that Alexander the Great had nothing to do with Rome. The name itself is exemplary of the ahistoricism of the medieval writers, which is obvious in the traditional tales of Arthur that have come down to us.

"King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table": as a result of the many medieval writers who contributed to the body of work revolving around Arthur, the phrase conjures up images of knights and ladies, tournaments and quests—romantic, courtly tales reflecting the ideals of chivalry of the authors who told them. This is the legacy we have inherited from the fascination of medieval writers with the "Matter of Britain." Historicity was not a priority in Medieval Arthurian romance; instead, the tales were set in the world familiar to the writers themselves, a feudal society with knights and jousting and love for the lady of the castle. This version of Arthur still makes an appearance in works like the movie "First Knight" but in fiction it is much more common these days to move the story back in time to a setting closer to what might have been historical truth.

The Mysterious Figure of the "Historical" King Arthur

If there ever was a real Arthur upon whom all the legends are based, then he must have lived in the fifth to sixth century. No contemporary account names him, but there are tantalizing references to figures associated with Arthur in the legends. In the diatribe written by St. Gildas sometime in the first half of the sixth century, "De Excidio Britanniae" ("Concerning the Ruin of Britain") he mentions the leader of the Britons who fought back the Saxons, Ambrosius Aurelianus, as well as a contemporary leader ruling in Dumnonia, Constantine. In the Arthurian legends, Ambrosius Aurelianus is often portrayed as Arthur's uncle, and Arthur is succeeded by Constantine, son of Cador of Dumnonia. There is also a standing stone from the fifth or sixth century north of Fowey in Cornwall which commemorates "Drustanus, son of Cunomorus" in Latin—Drustanus being the Latin version of Tristan, one of Arthur's knights in many of the medieval legends.

Fifth century Britain was a world in transition. Britain had been part of the Roman Empire for centuries, from the Roman conquest in AD 43 to the withdrawal of Roman troops around AD 410. The Roman forces briefly conquered southern Scotland in the second century, but after less than forty years they gave up the attempt; Ireland was never conquered by Rome. By the time of the Roman withdrawal, however, most of Britain had been a part of Rome for almost four centuries, and the influence can be seen in the infrastructure to this day. Several modern roads continue to use the old alignments of the impressive road system built by the Romans, over 2,000 miles in all. The names of cities such as London (Londinium), Gloucester (Glevum), and Lincoln (Lindum) have evolved from the old Roman names. Recent archeological work has shown that many of the cities of Roman Britain were occupied well into the sixth century, and several of the battles sealing the Saxon conquest of Britain at the end of the sixth century involve Roman cities in the west, in particular Cirencester (Corinium), Gloucester (Glevum) and Bath (Aquae Sulis).

Thus, a hypothetical Arthur would probably have been born into a world where the evidence of Britain's Roman past was still visible. Even though knowledge of Roman building techniques was in decline, buildings and monuments must have long been still standing, until the stones had all been carried off as material for a later wall or church or farmhouse.

At the same time, hill forts that had been abandoned after the Roman conquest were being reoccupied in the fifth and sixth centuries, defensive structures once the seats of Celtic kings. And while there is evidence for the continued use of Latin, such as in the standing stone for the Dumnonian prince Drustanus, mentioned above, Britain is the largest European region of the former Roman Empire where the majority language is neither a Romance language, nor a language descended from the pre-Roman inhabitants (such as Greek). The minority language Welsh is a Celtic language descended from the original British tongue, and it contains a number of loan words from Latin, but most of the Latin words that entered the English language came after the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century. Such linguistic evidence along with the reoccupation of tribal hill forts seem to indicate that old Celtic traditions were being reinstated after the departure of the Roman troops. Archeological evidence seems to indicate that parts of Britain remained a mix of Roman, Celtic, and Christian traditions well into the sixth century, perhaps just a little more mixed than before the withdrawal of the Roman troops—and a lot less stable.

The lack of stability, as in much of the Roman Empire at the time, had to do with barbarian invasions. In the case of Britain, these were primarily from the Irish to the west and the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to the east. This, of course, is the true basis of the heroic figure of "King Arthur"—a leader who fought back invasion, at least for a time. As Christopher Snyder points out, the earliest versions of the legends portray Arthur as a war hero:

In the oldest Arthurian tales, Arthur is variously depicted as a roving warrior who fights battles across the island, or as an itinerant chieftan with no permanent court. (Snyder 104)

He goes on to name the various "courts" of Arthur that became established in medieval literature: Celliwig in Welsh tradtion, Caerleon in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and finally (and most importantly for the development of the legend) Camelot in the works of Chrétien de Troyes. It is interesting to note that "Camelot" has a distinct etymological resemblance to the former Roman capital of "Camulodunum" (Colchester), but by the end of the fifth century and the beginning of the sixth, this area of Britain was largely under Saxon control. Tantalizing as the similarity is, whether the name "Camelot" was an attempt by Chrétien to recall the early days of Roman Britain, was based on knowledge now lost, or was simply coincidence cannot now be determined.

Who Arthur was, if he even existed at all, will probably never be established for sure, but his legend in all its manifestations has taken on a life of its own. For the writer, however, the many uncertainties of the historical background are more than just obstacles to overcome—they are also spaces to be filled, a special license to reinvent. While this does not explain the fascination for the reader, it may at least in part help explain the fascination for the writer.

Victorian Arthuriana

While Arthurian legend was one of the main sources of fiction during the Middle Ages, between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, interest in the figure of King Arthur waned. Following close on the heels of so-called "Gothic literature" at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth came a renewed interest in Arthurian legends. After the appearance of modern versions of the story of Merlin by Robert Southey, Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Love Peacock, and the Welsh tales of the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest, Victorian poets produced a large corpus of both short and epic poetry revolving around King Arthur and his knights, the most significant of which was undoubtedly Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The Victorian poets who reworked the tales of Arthur tended to give them a medieval setting rather than one in the Dark Ages, retaining the jousts and quests and knightly chivalry of Malory's version. (1)

Like many writers before and since, Tennyson, while largely following Malory's authoritative version (at least for writers in English) made significant changes to the characters, in particular Arthur:

The principal innovation is Tennyson's conception of Arthur himself, for the king is not the noble but flawed figure of medieval romance, but an idealised, highly symbolic figure. (Taylor and Brewer, 89)

Openly didactic, Tennyson wanted to demonstrate the need for the "Ideal" with his figure of Arthur, an impulse that to later generations places Idylls of the King firmly in the traditions of nineteenth century literature.

The early twentieth century saw a move away from poetry to prose retellings of the Arthurian legends, several of which had illustrations by artists who have since achieved cult status, including Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Crane and Arthur Rackham. These illustrations and retellings, continuing the tradition of anachronistically setting King Arthur in the Middle Ages, have had a significant influence on later twentieth century Arthuriana—and in particular on the received notion of what the Arthurian legends are all about.

King Arthur Moves Forward—and Back

It would be impossible to provide a true overview of modern Arthuriana in an essay of this length; (1) as the literary critic Raymond Thompson pointed out in 1985, over two hundred Arthurian novels and short stories were published in English in the hundred years following 1884, (169) and the numbers have only swelled even more since. Instead, I will touch on some of the more significant literary reincarnations of Arthur since WWII and the ways in which the legends were retold. (A much more detailed overview and analysis is provided by Norris J. Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe in The Arthurian Handbook, but even they can treat no more than a few dozen modern novels.)

In 1938, probably one of the most original works ever written based on Arthurian legend was published, T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone, a sort of prequel to Malory telling the story of Arthur's ("Wart") youth until he becomes king, and the basis of the Disney film by the same name. In the years following, White wrote three further books encompassing the more traditional cycle of stories. All four books were published together as The Once and Future King in 1958.

Deliberately anachronistic and ahistorical, White's novel is simultaneously comic and tragic. A number of critics have noted how the books become increasingly bleak, reflecting the fact that the two central books were written during the Second World War. The historical pessimism of the era of world war reflected in White's version of the tale of King Arthur in itself is not original, although his treatment of the material is brilliant—as we have seen, for almost a millennium before White, authors had been adapting the material to suit a contemporary audience and include themes that would speak to their readers and listeners. While White does not adopt the strategy of medieval writers in setting the tale in his own time, he does create an atmosphere that is neither medieval nor modern but a comical mix of the two:

Tilting and horsemanship had two afternoons a week, because they were the most important branches of a gentleman's education these days. Merlyn grumbled about athletics, saying that nowadays people seemed to think that you were an educated man if you could knock another man off a horse and that the craze for games was the ruin of scholarship—nobody got scholarships like they used to when he was a boy, and all the public schools had been forced to lower their standards ... (56)

White places training in tilting in the context of an elite British school system of the twentieth century. This strategy not only provides humor in the early sections of the book, it also gives the story as a whole a more contemporary feel, making the themes accessible to a modern world at war.

Since the 1960s, the tendency in Arthurian literature has been to move the setting back in time rather than forward. While a number of novels have appeared that continue to use the setting of the High Middle Ages, for example by Richard Monaco, Vera Chapman and Phyllis Ann Karr, many more have attempted to bring more historical realism into their interpretation of the legends by moving the events back into the Dark Ages. One of the first and most impressive of these quasi-historical treatments of Arthur is Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset (1963). The story is set in sub-Roman Britain and told in the first person by Artos (Arthur). As Sutcliff says herself in the "Author's Note," the impulse behind the writing of this novel was to recreate a figure like the war leader that the legendary King Arthur might have been based on:

….behind all the numinous mist of pagan, early Christian and medieval splendors that have gathered about it, there stands the solitary figure of a great man. No knight in shining armor, no Round Table, no many-towered Camelot; but a Romano-British war leader ... Sword at Sunset is an attempt to re-create from fragments of known facts, from likelihoods and deductions and guesswork pure and simple, the kind of man this war leader may have been, and the story of his long struggle. (n.p.)

Sutcliff's novel was followed seven years later by a fictional retelling and reinterpretation of the legend of Merlin set in the Dark Ages which has had a lasting influence on Arthuriana: Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave. The novel was followed by three more, The Hollow Hills (1973), The Last Enchantment (1979), and The Wicked Day (1983). International bestsellers, Stewart's novels probably did more than any works previously in the twentieth century to revive the popularity of Arthurian literature.

One of the most influential Arthurian novels of recent years is also concerned with a reinterpretation of the legends, but reinterpretation of a very different kind. In The Mists of Avalon, (1982) Marion Zimmer Bradley emphasizes the roles the women play in the Arthurian legends and the conflict between Christian and Celtic religions. In the 1970s and early 1980s, feminist studies had begun to appear that reinterpreted strong female figures in myth and legend as traces of goddess cults which had been eradicated by Christianity. In Patricia Monaghan's The Book of Goddesses and Heroines, for example, which appeared a year before Mists of Avalon, the entry for Morgan Le Fay contains the following:

….in Welsh mythology, she was said to be a queen of Avalon, the underworld fairyland where King Arthur was carried—some said by Morgan herself—when he disappeared from this world. In some legends, Morgan was Arthur's sister, whereas in other tales she was immortal, living with her eight sisters in Avalon, where she was an artist and a healer. (207)

Using such feminist interpretations of the legends, Zimmer Bradley created a new mythology within the framework of the old, one that has substantially contributed to the way we now view Arthurian literature.

Filling Arthurian Legend with New Meaning

The way in which the legends of King Arthur lend themselves to such a wide variety of different retellings and reinterpretations is in itself a fascinating phenomenon. Whether the authors who have contributed to Arthurian literature have made their stories the embodiment of chivalry, the concept of perfect manhood, or a fictional revival of goddess worship, the cycle of legends has shown a surprising resilience, providing material for countless adaptations—and only growing stronger in the process. While the "Matter of France" and the "Matter of Rome" certainly still contribute to contemporary literature on occasion, it is nothing in comparison to the "Matter of Britain." Whether or not a historical figure ever lived on whom King Arthur is based, as far as his influence on literature is concerned he has certainly earned the title of "the once and future king."

Footnotes

  1. A number of works of Victorian Arthuriana are available through The Camelot Project.
  2. A much more detailed overview and analysis is provided by Norris J. Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe in The Arthurian Handbook, but even they can treat no more than a few dozen modern novels.

Works Referenced

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1982.

The Camelot Project. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/

Lacy, Norris J. and Geoffrey Ashe, with Debra N. Mancoff. The Arthurian Handbook, Second Edition. New York: Garland, 1997.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. New York: EP Dutton, 1981.

Snyder, Christopher. Exploring the World of King Arthur. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970.

Sutcliff, Rosemary. Sword At Sunset. (1963) Reprint, New York: Tor, 1987.

Taylor, Beverly and Elisabeth Brewer. The Return of King Arthur. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer Ltd, 1983.

Thompson, Raymond. The Return from Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

White, T. H.. The Once and Future King (1958) Reprint, New York: Berkley, 1966.


Copyright © 2009, Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

COMMENTS!

Jun 4, 02:39 by IROSF
Comment below!
Jun 4, 20:33 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
An interesting and well thought out overview of the Arthurian Mythos.
Several years ago in one of my Early English History courses at university I wrote a paper on the historicity of Arthur. Part of my paper dealt with the actual word Arthur being a title rather than an name. "Art" in old Welsh has the meaning of bear and is related to the idea of a leader of a war band. There may have been several Arthurs roaming dark age Britain, vainly attempting to stem the tide of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. I wish I had the paper to hand that I might provide some more information on my thesis.
Jun 5, 20:54 by Ryder W. Miller
Ruth,
Fascinating article. I wish you would have included the newly re-issued book by John Steinbeck about the King Arthur mythos. I am inclined to believe that he wrote the King Arthur book as a reaction to the success of The Lord of the Rings which sought to create a new mythos for England. Steinbeck was a long time King Arthur fan and was a knight of sorts himself. The Kennedy's with Camelot D.C. also seemed to be inspired as well. Can you comment about this?
Jun 8, 13:13 by frog pill
Another recent Arthurian story which I was put in mind of by Dafydd Nicklin's phrase about stemming the "tide of Angles", is K.V. Johansen's "The Inexorable Tide", in the collection The Storyteller and Other Tales: http://www.pippin.ca/kvj/storyteller.htm

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