Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 2)

When last we met, Geoffrey of Monmouth had set many of our traditional ideas about King Arthur and his court in place, and Wace introduced us to the Round Table. But there were still plenty of changes in store to the legends. Without further ado, here’s a look at some of the later medieval sources that shaped Arthurian legend.

Chertien de Troyes – Ah, yes, where would the great romance of Arthurian legend be without the French? Chertien was a 12th century poet who gave the legends a softer side that would have the ladies swooning for centuries by adding in the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot. He also gave us the Grail Quest (what would Monty Python do without him?) and the stories of many of the knights’ adventures.

Layamon –  His Brut, based on the similarly named work by Wace (remember him from last week?), introduced the Lady of the Lake, who was an elf named Argante.

The Vulgate Cycle – This 13th century collection was written down by Cistercian monks. Given that, its likely not a surprise that it was in this cycle when Morgan falls from grace, going from the benevolent healer/priestess of earlier legend to Arthur’s evil, incestuous sister. These monks also gave us Lancelot’s life story and adventures, details of the Grail Quest, the characters of Nimue and/or Viviane (they are sometimes interchangeable, sometimes different people, depending on the author), and the theme of the maimed Fisher King and the Wasteland that must be restored.

Thomas Malory – Come on, admit it – you’ve been waiting for me to cover him. Thanks to his 1470 work Le Morte D’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), we have a popular notion of King Arthur as the greatest Christian King to ever rule England. (How many of you had to read Le Mort in school? Raise your hand. Mine is raised.) Malory firmly cemented Arthur in the Middle Ages, which is one reason why a lot of people have a hard time thinking of him as a historical Celt. He is also responsible for popularizing Guinevere’s kidnapping by Maleagant, making Morgan a shape-shifter and….drumroll, please…giving us the hope that Arthur may come again when Britain most needs him. The musical Camelot, and frankly the rest of us who dabble in the legends, owe him and his forebears a lot.

With Malory’s seminal work, the legends as we know them today were pretty much in place. Interest in them waned after the 1500s until Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote his famous Idylls of the King and The Lady of Shallot (among others) in the mid-1800s. These words rekindled an interest in Arthur and his court that lasts even to this day.

So, having been through the historical and literary sources behind the legend, tell me your reaction.  What have you learned? Personally, I find it fascinating to watch the legends evolve. Which parts do you like the best? Where do you think they’re going in the future?

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