Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 1)

Welcome back to our exciting adventure through the evolution of Arthurian legends. I see you’re a brave soul, since I didn’t scare you away with the historical sources. Now we move on to the literary sources. Even though this isn’t a complete list, it is the top 10 sources, so it’s going to take us two weeks to tackle them all. Fasten your seat belts, because here we go.

Y Gododdin – This bardic poem, written down in the ninth or tenth century, chronicles a battle around the year 600 between a group of Pictish warriors from the Gododdin (hence, the name) and the Angles. It contains one of the first known mentions of Arthur in literature in this line: “He brought down black crows to feed before the walls of the city, though he was no Arthur.” So the warrior hero of this poem was praised for being a great military man, but still he couldn’t live up to Arthur.

The Black Book of Carmarthen – The Black Book (so named for its binding) is a collection of poetry complied in the mid 13th century. It refers to Arthur, Myrdinn (Merlin) and many of the knights we know and love, calling Kay, Bedivere and Lancelot by early translations of their names.

The Mabinogion – This famous collection of Welsh myth and legend was written down in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, but comes from a much older, likely oral, tradition. It includes five stories set in or around Arthur’s court: Culhwch and Olwen, The Dream of Rhonabwy, Geraint Mab Erbin, Peredur son of Evrawc, and Owein. These stories are complex and much has been written about them, so if you want to know more, I suggest you read them, ask my friend Tyler Tichelaar, or Google the stories and commentaries on them. I don’t know them well enough to do them justice.

Geoffrey of Monmouth – Or as I like to call him “the grand-daddy of Arthurian legend.” Geoffrey’s works History of the Kings of Britain and Life of Merlin (written around 1136) are responsible for most of what we automatically think of when we think of King Arthur and his court. He claimed his History was translated from a source no one else ever saw, so it is considered a “pseudo history.” Geoffrey’s contributions to the legends include:

  • Tintagel as Arthur’s birthplace, as well as the story of Arthur’s conception by way of Merlin’s magical disguise of Uther into Goloris, Igraine’s husband
  • The name Caliburnus for Arthur’s sword (it started out as the Welsh Caledfwlch and went on to become Excalibur when the French translated it)
  • The introduction of Morgan as a healer, her nine sisters of Avalon, and details about Avalon
  • The story of Merlin and Vortigern with the tower and the red and white dragons
  • Merlin being responsible for relocating Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain
  • Merlin as advisor to Arthur, including his warning to Arthur about Guinevere’s betrayal
  • The hunting of the white hart
  • The concept of Arthur’s band of knights
  • Descriptions of medieval courts (feasting, ladies, hunts) that we associate with the legends, but are actually from times later in history than the historical Arthur would have lived

Wace – Wace was an Anglo-Norman poet whose Roman de Brut was based on Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain. He brought us the concept of the literal Round Table and it’s ideology of all men being equal around it, as well as idea of Arthur’s Knights of the Round being from all across Europe. (I can’t help but picture an early medieval United Nations.)

Next week we’ll cover the later medieval sources that helped shape the legends into what we know today.

So, what do you know about these sources? Have you read any of them? What surprised you most? What else do you want to know about them?

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15 thoughts on “Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 2) « Through the Mists of Time

  2. I love the Arthurian legends. When I was a child, I would curl up in my bed and read about King Arthur and his knights. My favourite Arthurian legend is the great romantic myth: Tristan and Iseult. I prefer to read Bedier’s modern version. Sometimes, I’ll switch it up and read Beroul’s or Gottfried Von Strassburg’s version.

    Have you read De Rougemont’s book Love in the Western World? It’s fantastic. He really deconstructs the Arthurian legends and tells us how they accumulate in our culture today.

  3. Pingback: Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 2) « Through the Mists of Time

  4. Pingback: Arthurian Legend: Historical Fiction or Fantasy? « Through the Mists of Time

  5. Pingback: Everything Old is New Again « Through the Mists of Time

  6. Pingback: The Holy Grail: Part 1 – Celtic Myth « Through the Mists of Time

  7. Is there A Holy Grail? No, of course not, yet there are in all religions items held in high esteem. It is a fact that the Romans excavated the tomb which was ‘believed’ to be that of Jesus. It is a fact that items found were taken to Rome and then sent to the ‘far north of the Empire’ when Rome was threatened. So it IS possible that there are in various northern European countries items ‘believed’ to be of Christian relgion importance. I believe this is where the legends originate. But was there a KING Arthur who searched for it? Of course not, for we didn’t have kings in those days. The writers mentioned above were writing legends, yet there is a thin line between legend and fantasy, and many are, to me, fantasy.

    I do believe the writer of today is more fortunate that the likes of Geoffery, Bede and Nennius for we have meteorologists, archaelogists and forensic science evidence to help.

    The recently published ‘Hywel’ and the soon to be published ‘Tadau a Mebion’, though historical fiction, will do a lot to seperate fact from legend. However the best read on the subject in my mind is Graham Phillips ‘King Arthur: The True Story’ (with Martin Keatman). Century, 1992. ISBN 978-0-7126-5580-4.

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that these authors weren’t writing what we would consider history, although given the loose definition of history at the time, they may well have believed their fiction-injected stories to be close enough! But not by today’s standards, of course.

      Phillips and Keatman’s book is one of my main sources for my novels. Others have argued against the veracity of their theories, but I found them sound enough for my purposes.

      Best of luck to you with your writing!

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