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About the legend

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND

There is much uncertainty about the identity of Arthur and about whether or not he was a real person, a great leader and hero of his time, but it is certain that the Arthur with whom most people are familiar - the Arthur of  Camelot, and the knights of the Round Table, and the great age of chivalry, owes more to  legend than fact. It is not he who has elaborated any truths about his life and accomplishments, but those who have chosen to write about him. Yet we should hold them worthy of our regard and affection, for they have given us an Arthur who discloses a humanity that is as appropriate to our time as to the age in which their legends place the great events of his kingship, and which enables us to better appreciate the measure of triumph and tragedy with which their writings are concerned.

In their book, King Arthur The True Story, Phillips and Keatman claim evidence that shows the legendary Arthur did exist, and identify the locations of his Camelot and his final resting place. Whatever the truth of their findings, and the arguments of other who claim at least to have identified where Camelot stood, it remains possible that the legend has some historical basis.

The earliest known written reference to Arthur is made by the monk Nennius in the Historia Brittonum, a collection of notes on the history and geography of Britiain compiled towards the end of the 8th cenrury. Nennius claimed to have taken his evidence from various documents -”...from the Annals of the Romans, the Chronicles of the Holy Fathers, the writings of the Irish and the Saxons, and the trditions of our own wise men.”. These are no longer known to exist, and what evidence they may have had about Arthur is impossible to tell. It is likely that some, perhaps most, were anecdotal records written at some distance from events, but some may have been more valid accounts written during or soon after particular happenings, and it is possible that some may have referred to Arthur and events in which he was involved.

From whatever his sources may have been, and whether reliable or not, there must have been some reference to Arthur for Nennius identifies him as the ‘dux bellorum’ who led the Britons against the Saxons in 12 battles.   “Then Arthur fought against them in those days with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was the leader of battles. The first battle was at the mouth of the river Glein. The second, third, fourth, and fifth upon another river which is called Dubglas, in the district of Linnuis. The sixth battle upon the river which is called Bassas.  The seventh battle was in the Caledionain wood that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was in Fort Guinnion in which Arthur carried the image of St. Mary, ever virgin, on his shoulders and that day the pagans were turned to flight and a great slaughter was upon them through the virtue of Our Lord Jesus Christ and through the virtue of St. Mary the Virgin, his mother. The ninth battle was waged in the City of The Legion. The tenth battle he fought on the shore of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle took place on the mountain which is called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon, in which nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day from one attack by Arthur, and no one overthrew them except himself alone. And in all the battles he was the victor.”

Later, probably in the late 10th century, the Annales Cambiae, the ancient records of Wales, refers to:             “The battle of Badon in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders, and the Britons were the victors.” and to “The battle of Camlann  in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) perish.”

Later still, around 1135, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae, and claiming to draw his evidence from ‘a most ancient book in the British tongue’ tells how Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygaerne (Igraine) the wife of Gorlios, Duke of Cornwall, whom Uther wins with the help of Merlin’s magic.  In his account, Arthur, at the age of 15 becomes King of Britain, subsequently defeating the Saxons and conquering Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, the Orkneys, and many lands in the continent of Europe. He marries Guinevere, daughter of a noble Romano-British family and establishes his court at Caerleon on Usk.  Summoned to pay tribute to the Roman Emperor Lucius, he declares war and leads a campaign against Rome, leaving his kingdom in the charge of his nephew, Mordred. On the point of entering Rome, Arthur receives word that Mordred has taken Guinevere and has seized the throne. He returns to Britain accompanied by Gawain who is killed in a skirmish with Mordred’s men as they land. Arthur pursues Mordred to Cornwall and in a final battle, Mordred and all his knights are slain. Arthur is mortally wounded and is taken to the sacred island of Avalon to be healed .

During the next two centuries, the story is developed further by other writers. Some time around 1150, Wace of Jersey wrote a ‘Roman de Brut’ based on the Arthurian writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In it he introduces the Round Table and the expectation that Arthur will return from Avalon to resume his kingdom.  Later in that century, the French writers Marie de France, Robert de Boron who introduces the Holy Grail, and Chretien de Troyes, who is the first to identify Camelot as the site of Arthur’s court and who introduces Lancelot and many of Arthur’s knights into the story,  take it still further.

Early in the 13th century Layoman, a priest from Worcester, made the first version of the Arthurian saga in native English, and still more developments of the story were made in the collection of French prose works usually referred to as The Vulgate Cycle, and which includes The Story of Merlin, The Prose Lancelot, The Grail Quest, The Book of Arthur, and The Death of Arthur. In the next hundred years, other adaptations and enlargements of the story continued to be made in French, German and English writing. Other developments of the story were made in the poems, Le Morte Arthur, whose author is unknown,  and the alliterative Morte Arthure,  attributed to the Scottish poet Huchoun who may also have been the author of the alliterative poems The Awntyrs (Adventures) of Arthur, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There is also reference to Arthur in early Welsh writing; the Goddoddin, The Spoils of Annwm, the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Book of Taliesin, and the Red Book of Hergest, a collection of Welsh tales compiled some time betwen the 14th and 15th century, but almost certainly based on much earlier works.

These elaborations of the original legend became the basis for Sir Thoman Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, written in the 15th century and first published by William Caxton in 1485.  Malory’s work, a collection of twenty-one books or episodes, covers the whole of Arthur’s life, and brings together many of the the events and characters from the legend’s earlier development to present what is probably the most complete and best known version of the story. It is Malory’s interpretation of the story that is most familiar to most people, and his account of events in Arthur’s life that is in turn the basis for much of its continuing development.

John Lawlor in his intrduction to the 1969 Penguin edition of Le Morte D’Arthur writes, “The width and variety of response to Arthurian story, in authors French and English, named and anonymous, reinforces one truth that applies equally to Malory and to the authors of the French cycle, as it applies to all, medieval or modern, who take up the old stories.  Each draws from the common store according to the measure of his understanding: quicquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis. What each in turn makes is to be judged in its own light. The source itself remains undiminished.”

By any measurement, that source is an exceptional one for it has provided an inspiration for writers of prose and poetry for several hundreds of years, and still continues to do so for today’s writers without limiting the interpretations they may choose to make, and it is this capacity to encourage a continuing flow of imaginative writing that truly marks Arthur, as T. H. White declared him to be, “The Once and Future King”.

    

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