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?

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?