“At the battle of Camlann, Arthur and Medraut fell.”
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cleric – 1130 A.D.
Written references to Arthur, including the quote above from the Annales Cambriae (c. 950 A.D.), predate Geoffrey of Monmouth, but Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain secured Arthur’s place in history. Arthur – and the idea of Arthur – was wildly popular following Geoffrey. A legal document from twelfth century Cornwall preserves the details of an altercation between a local man and a visiting church officer over whether Arthur was still alive. Arthur’s legend was taking on messianic proportion.
Like the writers of much of the best fiction, Geoffrey claims to be deriving his work from an ancient book that he was lent … neither its existence nor its non-existence can be proved. His Arthur is a conqueror (both within the British Isles and on the continent of Europe) who is supported by a group of warriors, notable among them Gawain and Kay; it is while he is campaigning on the continent that his nephew Mordred, left as regent in his absence, attempts to usurp the throne, resulting in their final internecine battle. ~Helen Cooper
I had to look up ‘internecine’. It means mutually destructive. Like Gollum and the One Ring. Or Maximus and Commodus in Gladiator. Or Liam and doughnuts.
Chrétien de Troyes, Poet – 1160 A.D.
Chrétien de Troyes composed the first French verse romances devoted to the exploits of individual knights of the Round Table. It is in these that Lancelot first achieves prominence, as the lover of Guenivere and as Arthur’s best knight, displacing Gawain. The fashion started by Chrétien initiated an extraordinary literary flowering of Arthurian material across Europe. New romances were composed; French ones were translated and adapted into a multiplicity of languages, from Norse to Portuguese and Hebrew. ~Helen Cooper
By the early 1200′s a connected series of stories written in prose by various authors emerges: The Vulgate Cycle. It spans the entire history of the Round Table from the Grail’s whereabouts in the generation after Christ’s crucifixion to the fatal battle between Arthur and Mordred. Mordred has now become the illegitimate son of Arthur and Arthur’s sister. The purity of the Grail knights becomes at least as important as their battle prowess and a new figure, Galahad, replaces the more worldly Perceval. The downfall of the Round Table is portrayed as a result of carnal appetites: Arthur and his sister, Lancelot and Guinevere.
Meanwhile, English tradition insisted on retaining Gawain’s position as the most popular knight. His preeminence shows especially in surviving the tests put to him by the Green Knight. In contrast, Lancelot is relegated to a cameo in an English verse adaptation of the very last part of the French prose.
I can’t help but think of Lancelot as the sparkly vampire and Gawain as more … Wolverine. Not judging. It’s just that Gawain rocks.
Sir Thomas Malory, Prisoner – 1460 A.D.
For 300 years, the stories are expounded upon, translated from one language to another, and adapted from verse to prose and back again. In the mid-1400′s Sir Thomas Malory sets about the monumental task of harmonizing the mess. His first choice is whether to write in verse or prose.
His choice of prose may have been influenced by the fact that the earliest English prose romances tend to be stories of disaster or tragedy— stories such as Oedipus or the fall of Troy— rather than of wish-fulfillment and happy endings. That Malory gives his whole work the title of the Morte Darthur, the death of Arthur, insists that this too is a story in which things go irrevocably wrong. ~Helen Cooper
Arthur is a popular topic in the early days of the printing press, and many works are printed, but:
It was Malory’s work that survived. After tastes changed in the course of the sixteenth century the French romances ceased to be reprinted, and in so far as they have been known at all since then it is largely as works for study by academics, despite recent translations of some of them. Malory, by contrast, was reprinted several times down to 1634; he passed into some obscurity after that, but since the revival of interest in the Morte that started early in the nineteenth century, he has served as the direct or indirect basis for almost every Arthurian work in any medium: poems, novels, children’s books, science fiction, films, advertisements, cartoons, modern heritage paraphernalia— everything from epics to T-shirts. ~Helen Cooper
I’m not sure what ‘modern heritage paraphernalia’ is. I Googled it and got images of boats, frowning politicians, and golf balls.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet – 1832 A.D.
Interest in Arthurian legend waned in the late 1600′s when the Enlightenment launched a sustained PR attack against the idea that anything inspiring could come from the Middle Ages (the so-called Dark Ages). Arthur couldn’t stay dead though, and in the 1800′s he caught the interest of a handful of brilliant poets. Most striking among them was Alfred Lord Tennyson. He published “The Lady of Shallot” in 1832 followed by “Idylls of the King” which retold the entirety of Arthur’s life in 12 narrative poems.
Arthur’s popularity has continued unabated since Tennyson, but today a person is most likely to know of Arthur through film and TV like Disney’s Sword and the Stone or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The most recent popular Arthurian offerings take great liberty with the original stories and characters – modernizing them (Disney’s Avalon High) or using them for little more than name recognition (SyFy’s Merlin).
Sir Thomas the Hesitant is a playful revisit of the Arthurian legend, but I try to treat Malory as canonical – not because this is necessarily the case, but to honor his work. I do take liberty from time to time, but in ways that I think Malory himself would appreciate. Sir Thomas Malory, the prisoner-knight is an intriguing and tragic figure in his own right, but that is a tale for another day.
Where to Start Reading About King Arthur
First, try Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot for a quick, free, and rewarding Arthurian experience. It comes with bragging rights for having read a Poet Laureate.
Reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is a larger endeavor. I recommend Helen Cooper’s treatment for its readability and her excellent comments, though she does abridge some material. Fair warning: Malory’s narrative is abrupt and often absurd, but it reads like historical narrative. The combination makes me laugh, though I’m not sure it’s supposed to. Malory is not for everyone:
‘Well,’ said Arthur, ‘thou hast said thy message, the which is the most orgulous and lewdest message that ever man had sent unto a king. ~Arthur via Malory via Cooper
Fair enough, Arthur. Thus endeth the lesson.