Arthurian Legend – Medieval Literature Laced With Truth?
Arthurian legend refers to the body of works surrounding King Arthur and his knights. Arthurian legend forms the centerpiece of the Matter of Britain, which is the body of medieval literature and legends associated with Great Britain and Brittany. The stories about King Arthur and his knights, however, are not limited to the literature of the Middle Ages.
Although the popularity of Arthurian legend declined after the medieval period, it experienced a revival during the Victorian era. Today, Arthurian legend continues to attract public interest, as evidenced by the numerous works that are based on these stories.
King Arthur of Arthurian Legend
The figure of King Arthur that we are familiar with today is derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (which translates as History of the Kings of Britain). This is a fictional history of Britain that was written between 1135 and 1139 and is considered to be part of the Matter of Britain. In his work, Geoffrey traces the ancestry of the Britons all the way back to the Trojans.
The writer claimed that the island of Britain was first settled by Brutus of Troy, allegedly a grandson or great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Geoffrey continues his history with the early kings of Britain, and the Roman period, i.e. from the Roman conquest until the end of Roman rule.
The throne of Britain is usurped, and the Saxons arrive on the island. The Romano-British resist the invaders, and the throne eventually is restored to the rightful line of kings.
According to the Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon, who succeeded his brother, Aurelius Ambrosius, as king of Britain. Incidentally, prior to Aurelius’ story, Geoffrey provides an account of the legendary wizard Merlin. After Uther’s death, Arthur became the new king of Britain.
Geoffrey narrates the deeds of King Arthur, which included the subjugation of the Saxons, the conquest of Norway, Dacia, Aquitaine, and Gaul, and a successful war against the Romans. Arthur’s story comes to an end after he is mortally wounded during a battle with Mordred, whom Geoffrey claims was the king’s nephew.
The battle between King Arthur and Sir Mordred is mentioned in Arthurian legend. (Shakko / Public Domain)
After the battle, Arthur was brought “to the isle of Avalon to be cured of his wounds”. It was there that Arthur “gave up the crown of Britain to his kinsman Constantine, the son of Cador, Duke of Cornwall, in the five hundred and forty-second year of our Lord’s incarnation”.
Interestingly, the Historia Regum Britanniae does not mention a number of well-known elements of Arthurian legend, arguably the most important being the Knights of the Round Table. This famous table was first mentioned by the Norman poet Wace in his Roman de Brut (which translates as Romance of Brut). This work, which is also part of the Matter of Britain, was completed in 1155.
Like the Historia Regum Britanniae, the Roman de Brut is a pseudo-history of Britain. In fact, much of Wace’s material was drawn from Geoffrey’s work. Nevertheless, the Roman de Brut also includes material concerning King Arthur not found in the Historia Regum Britanniae, one of which, of course, is the Round Table.
The Round Table of Arthurian Legend
Today the Round Table is regarded as a symbol of the chivalry of the time, as its seats were occupied by the greatest knights of Arthur’s kingdom. At the time when Wace was writing his Roman de Brut, however, the Round Table was a simple solution to a complicated problem. Whenever Arthur held a council or feast, he would invite his knights, who supposedly sat at a table in the king’s main hall.
The knight who sat at the head of the table was considered to have precedence over his peers. Humility does not seem to be a virtue possessed by Arthur’s knights, as they all coveted this place of honor. On one occasion, the knights even fought over the seat.
Having had enough of this, Arthur ordered a round table to be made. Since the table had no ‘head’, no one could claim precedence over the others, and all the knights were equals. In addition, Wace wrote that “At this table sat Britons, Frenchmen, Normans, Angevins, Flemings, Burgundians, and Loherins”, perhaps as a way of demonstrating the multi-ethnic nature of Arthur’s kingdom.
Arthurian legend - Knights of the Round Table from a medieval manuscript. (Michael Hurst / Public Domain)
Subsequently, the story of the Round Table was expanded upon. As an example, Robert de Boron, a French poet who was active during the late 12 th and early 13 th centuries, connected the Round Table to the Holy Grail. According to de Boron, the Holy Grail had been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, and that it was used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion.
The table used at the Last Supper and Joseph of Arimathea’s Grail Table are said to have been the inspiration behind the Round Table. These tables were used by Merlin as his models for the Round Table. In de Boron’s work, the Round Table was created during the reign of Arthur’s father, Uther.
When the king died, the Round Table was inherited by Leodegen of Camelide, the father of Guinevere. The Round Table only came into Arthur’s possession when he married Guinevere. The Round Table, along with 100 knights, was given to him by Leodegen as a wedding gift.
The story of the Round Table would not be complete without its knights. The number of the knights, however, varies according to the source. In de Boron’s version of the story, however, the Round Table had 13 seats, a clear reference to Jesus and his 12 apostles. One of the seats, however, was left empty.
This seat, known as the Perilous Seat, was meant to represent Judas, who betrayed Jesus. The seat was meant to be left unoccupied until the coming of the Grail knight, i.e. the knight who would set out on the quest for the Holy Grail. Anyone else who sat on the Perilous Seat would be killed. In some versions of the tale, the Perilous Seat was meant for Percival, while others claim that Galahad was the Grail knight.
Sir Galahad takes the Perilous Seat in a 15 th century illustration, as mentioned in Arthurian legend. (Pmx / Public Domain)
The quest for the Holy Grail is one of the best-known feats performed by a knight of King Arthur. This, however, was not the only quest found in Arthurian legend. Considering that there were so many knights serving King Arthur (some sources, for instance, claim that the Round Table could accommodate up to 150 knights), the medieval writers had more than enough material to work with.
Other Medieval Manuscripts About Arthurian Legend
Indeed, there are many works in the Matter of Britain concerning individual knights of the Round Table. These include the 12 th century Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, the 13 th century Lancelot-Grail Cycle, and the 14 th century Gawain and the Green Knight.
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During the 12 th century, Arthur's character began to be marginalized by the accretion of Arthurian legends such as that of Tristan and Iseult, pictured here. (Luca Z. / Public Domain)
One of the last works on Arthurian legend from the medieval period is Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (Middle French for The Death of Arthur). The Le Morte Darthur was completed around 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485. At present, there is only one surviving manuscript that predates Caxton’s edition.
This manuscript, known as the Winchester Manuscript, is now kept in the British Library. Malory’s Le Morte Darthur contains eight books, which were divided by Caxton into 21. The work follows a chronological order, beginning with the birth and the rise of Arthur, and ending with the breaking of the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur’s death. In between are the adventures of the various knights.
The death of Arthur depicted here and in Arthurian legend. A boat arrives to take the dying Arthur to Avalon after the Battle of Camlann. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain)
For the most part, Malory reworked the existing legends surrounding Arthur, and drew heavily on the French romances. Instead of focusing on the aspect of courtly love found in these romances, however, Malory placed emphasis on loyalty and the brotherhood of the knights. This makes sense when considering the context of Malory’s life and times.
When Malory was writing his work, England was going through the Wars of the Roses, during which the House of York and the House of Lancaster were fighting for the throne. Political opportunism was widely practiced by the nobles, of the day, and loyalty was a rare virtue, a stark contrast to the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur’s reign, and the fellowship of his knights come to an end, however, as a result of treachery.
The Sword in the Stone of Arthurian Legend
Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is also one of the best-known works of Arthurian legend that we have today and some of the best-known Arthurian legends are found in this source. One of these is the story of the Sword in the Stone, the earliest version of which, incidentally, is found in de Boron’s work.
Malory’s version of the story is similar to de Boron’s, which begins with the appearance of a sword stuck in an anvil and a stone in a churchyard on Christmas Eve,
“there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point”.
There were words written in gold around the sword, which were as follows, “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.” Needless to say, it was Arthur who managed to pull the sword out of the stone.
The story of Arthur drawing the sword from a stone appeared in Robert de Boron's 13 th century Merlin. (John Sweeney / Public Domain)
Malory does not end the story there, but connects it with the tale of another sword, the famous Excalibur. During the early part of his reign, Arthur encountered King Pellinore and the two men fought each other. During the fight, Arthur’s sword, i.e. the Sword in the Stone, was broken by Pellinore. As a result, Arthur was without a sword and was in need of a new one.
“for the scabbard is worth ten of the swords, for whiles ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard always with you.”
Finally, after Arthur was mortally wounded during his last battle, he requests one of his knights, Bedivere, to cast Excalibur back into the water, so as to return it to the Lady of the Lake.
The Popularity of Arthurian Legend
As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the ideals of chivalry began to lose its popularity. This in turn caused a decline in interest in Arthurian legend. During the 17 th century, for instance, interest in Arthurian legend was limited to England, while in the following century, it had been reduced to mere antiquarian interest.
Arthurian legend saw a revival during the Victorian era, thanks to the growing interest in the Middle Ages (more appropriately, perhaps, a romanticized version of the period) and chivalry. Poets were particularly attracted to the stories of King Arthur, and they created many works that explore the stories and the themes in Arthurian legend.
The most notable of these is Idylls of the King, by Alfred, lord Tennyson. This is a cycle of 12 poems published in various fragments and combinations between 1842 and 1888. The poems are a retelling of Arthurian legend and are based mainly on Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
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"O master, do you love my tender rhyme?" illustration for Idylls of the King, a retelling of Arthurian legend. (Shakko / Public Domain)
Arthurian legend maintained its popularity beyond the Victorian period. During the 20 th century, new retellings of Arthurian legend were created. These include Terence Hanbury White’s The Once and Future King (1958), based (once again) on the Le Morte Darthur, and Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex (1978). The 20 th century also the proliferation of Arthurian legend in media other than the written word.
White’s novel, for instance, served as the basis of Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1960 musical entitled Camelot. The musical was turned into a film, also called Camelot, in 1967. The versatility of Arthurian legend is also evident in the fact that it has become a subject of satire and parody.
Examples include Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), and the popular French comedy series Kaamelott (2005-2010). There is still much interest in Arthurian legend even today. The tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table will continue to be told, retold, adapted, and even ‘updated’, so long as people continue to be fascinated by them.
Top image: Sword in the Stone is one tale from Arthurian legend. Source: Melkor3D / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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