Arthurian Romance

views updated

Arthurian Romance

The Historical or Pre-Literary Arthur.

King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table are to this day the most familiar and beloved medieval literary characters. They continue to fascinate audiences of contemporary novels, scores of cinematic treatments—from the serious John Boorman film Excalibur to the parodic farce, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—and even print and television advertising employing the Arthurian icons of the sword Excalibur, the ideal of Camelot, and the quest for the Holy Grail. Although the figure of King Arthur known to medieval and modern audiences first took shape in the twelfth century, the product of the accumulation of almost six centuries of legend building, there is some evidence (admittedly slender) for the actual existence of an "historical" Arthur. Contemporary archeological excavation contributes to the still ongoing search for the historical foundations of the King Arthur legend. A leader of the Welsh named "Arthur" who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons apparently lived in late fifth-to early sixth-century Britain. The historian Gildas first mentioned the battle of Badon (c. 500), which the Welsh poem "Gododdin" (c. 600), in the earliest reference to Arthur's name, later attributed as a triumph to someone named "Arthur." The Welsh historian Nennius, in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons; c. 800), named this Arthur "Dux Bellorum" (leader of warriors). Two tenth-century Welsh chronicles, the Spoils of Annwen, and the Annales Cambriae (Annals of the Welsh) added to the growing legend the figure of Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son, who later kills his father. The tenth-to twelfth-century anthology of Welsh tales titled the Mabinogion added other Arthurian characters, including Yvain, whose character was amplified most extensively by Chrétien de Troyes in a romance about his adventures. In 1125, the historian William of Malmesbury wrote his Gesta Regnum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings), further establishing Arthur's reputation as a British hero.

Literary Treatments of the Arthur Legend.

The six centuries of scattered historical fragments giving evidence of the existence of a warrior named Arthur coalesced into a coherent narrative of a heroic life in the mid-twelfth century. The version of King Arthur that has become familiar to post-medieval audiences was first compiled then by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100–1155), whose Latin text, Historia Regnum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain; 1137), used the growing legend of Arthur as a unification myth for a Britain divided in civil war between loyalty to King Stephen or to Empress Matilda. Geoffrey introduced many of the features that would become standard Arthur lore—Merlin, the Mont-Saint-Michel giant, the prehistory of Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, and Arthur's final voyage to Avalon. The Anglo-Norman writer, Wace (c. 1100–1175), "translated"—rewrote in Anglo-Norman French with considerable changes to suit his audiences—Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle into Le Roman de Brut (1155), an originary romance featuring stories about Camelot and the knights of Arthur's court, and inventing the Round Table. In the late twelfth century, Chrétien de Troyes (fl. 1160–1190) appropriated Arthurian knights to produce in Old French a series of long and complex verse romances separately dedicated to the individual stories of several members of Arthur's court: Yvain: the Knight of the Lion, Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart, and Perceval, who figured prominently in the Quest of the Holy Grail. At about the same time Chrétien was writing his Arthurian romances, Marie de France (1150–1200) also wrote a series of Breton lais, two of which feature the Arthurian court—Lanval, about an unknown young knight, and Chevrefoil, about Tristan and Iseult. Thus by the end of the twelfth century, the constellation of Arthurian characters had become familiar to French and English audiences. Across the English Channel, Lawman (also spelled "Layamon," 1189–1207) translated Wace's Le Roman de Brut into alliterative early Middle English in a poem titled Brut,

Grail Quest

The "Holy Grail" has by now come to refer to almost anything that is highly desirable, much sought after, and ultimately elusive. This mysterious object is alluded to in modern poetry, most famously in T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"; it figures as the goal of the main character in the classic Wagnerian opera, Parsifal; it plays a part in contemporary films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Fisher King; and it has been the subject of a bestselling novel, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. But the mythic resonance of the Holy Grail is rooted in the legends about the Grail that circulated in the Middle Ages and were explored in a series of quest romances composed by medieval authors.

The father of romance, Chrétien de Troyes, in the late twelfth century wrote an unfinished text about the search for the Grail titled Perceval, while in Germany Wolfram von Eschenbach translated Chrétien's text into the thirteenth-century Middle High German romance, Parzival. In a parallel development, a significant segment of the thirteenth-century French Vulgate Cycle was The Quest of the Holy Grail, which was translated for a fifteenth-century English audience by Sir Thomas Malory in one of the books of his Le Morte d'Arthur devoted to the grail-quest. Indeed, in Malory's estimation, the unsuccessful quest for the Grail signaled the failure of the utopian social experiment that King Arthur's Camelot signified. In Malory's version, out of a large group of Roundtable knights who set out, only a "remnant" return alive from years of questing for the Grail, and such otherwise noble knights as Gawain, Perceval, Bors, and Lancelot fail at the quest because of their sexual impurity and "spotted" Christian virtue. In fact, the only knight who successfully experienced a vision of the Grail was Galahad, Lancelot's illegitimate son by Elaine, who was entitled to this privilege because of his utter spiritual perfection, a perfection that was so extreme that upon experiencing the Grail, he was no longer capable of living in the compromised (but human) moral climate of Arthur's Camelot. Like Roland in the Song of Roland, Galahad was wafted heavenward immediately after his mystical vision.

What was the Grail that medieval knights so avidly sought? Although the Grail is described in different terms in the various romances, it is often an object associated with the last moments of Jesus Christ's life, sometimes a cup or bowl used by Joseph of Arimethea, the man who brought the crucified Christ down from the cross and who may have collected His blood in some vessel, after the Roman soldier Longinus pierced Christ's side with a spear. The objects associated with the Grail are usually a spear or lance and a vessel, either a chalice or a bowl. Sometimes the Grail is associated with the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. However, some theorize that the symbols of the Grail, the male lance and the female vessel, originated in pre-Christian fertility myths that became associated with the Grail story through the myth of the "Fisher King," who was wounded in his thigh with a lance and whose infirmity is analogous with the general decline in fertility of his kingdom (hence the "wasteland" motif). The Fisher King is healed through contact with a vessel containing blood, sometimes Christ's blood, at other times the blood of a female virgin, which restores fertility to the land once again. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that at the time of Christ's death, some of the figures associated with this event migrated to Europe: Joseph of Arimethea purportedly came to England and Mary Magdalene reputedly settled in Marseilles, France. Some sites long attached to the legend of King Arthur, like Glastonbury in Somerset, which is reputedly the Isle of Avalon, are also attached to the Grail legend. In fact, in Glastonbury today, one can drink water from the "Chalice Well," a spring under which, local legend claims, Joseph of Arimethea buried the Holy Grail.

which introduced the motif of Arthur's prophetic dream before Mordred's treachery.


introduction: The delightful fourteenth-century Middle English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, illustrates both the secular and the spiritual concerns of romance narratives. In this passage, Gawain returns to Camelot after his adventure with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, presenting the Green Girdle he accepted from Bertilak's lady and revealing to the court what his adventure, in which he broke his covenant with the Green Knight, taught him about his own moral limitations. The translation attempts to mimic the original alliterative poetic style of the Middle English poem in which the same consonant or vowel begins three words in each line.

"Lo, lord," said Sir Gawain, and lifted the lace,
"This belt caused the blemish I bear on my neck;
This is the damage and loss I have claimed
Through the cowardice and covetousness that I acquired there;
This is the token of the untruth I was caught in,
And I must wear it while I still live.
A man may hide his misdeed, but never undo it,
For where once it's attached, it is latched on forever."
The king comforts the knight, and all the court also
Laughs loudly about it, and courteously agrees
That the lords and the ladies who belong to the Table,
Each guest at the gathering, should have such a belt,
A band of bright green circling slantwise about,
Of the same sort as Sir Gawain's and worn for his sake. …

source: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 2505–2518. Text modernized by Kristen M. Figg and John B. Friedman.

Late Medieval Expansion of the Arthur Story in France.

Although Arthur was the main figure in the "Matter" of Britain, his story was appropriated by all European medieval national literatures, but especially in France. By the thirteenth century, the stories about Arthur and his knights had accumulated to such a degree that between 1215 and 1235 several anonymous French writers contributed to the compilation of what has come to be called collectively the Vulgate Cycle(or Lancelot-Grail Cycle) and the later Post-Vulgate Cycle of romances, parts of which were translated into German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Irish, and Welsh, and were important sources for Sir Thomas Malory's late Middle English Morte D'Arthur in the fifteenth century. This vast interrelated but independently authored cycle of romances traced the entire career of the Arthurian cast of characters, including an extensive narrative about the life of Merlin (The History of Merlin); the enmity between Morgan le Faye and her half-sibling Arthur; her vengeful desire for Lancelot in order to thwart Guinevere; the knightly adventures of Lancelot as well as the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guinevere (The Prose Lancelot); the Grail Quest (The History of the Holy Grail and The Quest for the Holy Grail); and Arthur's death (The Death of Arthur). The Vulgate Cycle's authors expanded upon the personal lives of the Arthurian cast more than had ever been done previously and embellished the growing legend with a high degree of magic, mysticism, psychological complexity, and explicit sexuality. This French version of the Arthur story was perhaps the high point in the development of the medieval legend.

The "Englishing" of Arthurian Romance.

Arthur was not neglected by writers in his own Britain, especially in the last two centuries of the medieval era. In the fourteenth century, several important additions to the Arthurian literary corpus were produced in England. The Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1360), a Middle English poem about Arthur's death which may have been influenced by the Vulgate Cycle and later served as an important source for Thomas Malory in his own long collection of Arthurian narratives, is notable for using the Boethian symbol of the "wheel of fortune" (representing the concept of cyclical alternations between worldly prosperity and adversity) in its characterization of Arthur's developing enmity with his illegitimate son Mordred. Written in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, another poem that belongs to the so-called fourteenth-century "Alliterative Revival," Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, depicts the challenge brought to Camelot by a monstrous Green Knight, who is elaborately described as a hybrid of courtly elegance and primitive naturalism. With its intricate structure into four parts or "fitts," its employment of extensive number symbolism (the three correlating hunts and seductions at Castle Hautdesert and the highly symbolic pentangle emblem on the shield carried by Gawain) and color signification (green and gold), and its incorporation of folklore motifs into a courtly romance (the exchange of blows game introduced by the Green Knight and the exchange of winnings game proposed by Bertilak), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most literarily sophisticated romances in the Arthurian canon. At about the same time, in the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer assigned an Arthurian romance to be told by his female pilgrim, the Wife of Bath, in which an unnamed Arthurian knight (analogues suggest the knight was Gawain) rapes a maiden and to avoid execution quests to find out "what women want most."

Contours of the Literary Life of
King Arthur

The poems and stories about King Arthur that were written over a period of several centuries during the Middle Ages do not all include the same amount of detail of his life. His presence as a figure in British history grew from a mere mention of the name of an actual person in the sixth century to a fairly well-developed legend by the twelfth. By the end of the medieval period, a complete outline had emerged in response to changing concepts of heroism, morality, and statehood.

Arthur began his life as the offspring of an illicit union between Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall, contrived through the shape-shifting magic of the sage, Merlin, who became Arthur's advisor in his early career. After Merlin took the child away from Uther, Arthur was raised in seclusion until the moment when he pulled the sword from the stone (an incident familiar to modern audiences from its inclusion in most Arthurian films), which established his claim to the throne of Britain. Arthur's lifelong sibling conflict with his half-sister Morgan le Faye ("the fairy") generated many episodes in the Arthurian romances in which Morgan tried to undermine his power, most notably in the Vulgate Cycle, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Malory's Works. After marrying Guinevere, daughter of Lodgreaunce, Arthur established a Utopia-like court, Camelot, supported by the fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table. Most romances feature the fatal attraction between Guinevere and Arthur's best knight Sir Lancelot, the revelation of which led to internal strife in the kingdom, civil war between factions of the Roundtable Knights, and eventually the death of Arthur at the hands of his illegitimate son Mordred. The unsuccessful quest for the elusive and highly symbolic Holy Grail by Arthur's knights also contributed to the decline of Arthur's kingdom. Upon his death, Arthur's corpse was transported by the Lady of the Lake, Morgan, and Morgawse, Arthur's other half-sister, to the Isle of Avalon where, according to some versions, he awaits his predicted return as the "Once and Future King." The cycle of stories about the Arthurian characters is vast, and most Arthurian romances feature as protagonist one of Arthur's Roundtable Knights, not Arthur himself. More often, Arthur has little part in the action, except to be present at the beginning and end of the story, as, for example, in Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain and in the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the knights in the title are the focus of the adventure.

Romance in Print: Malory 's Arthur.

Finally, between 1469 and 1470, Sir Thomas Malory composed a series of tales about Arthur and Camelot in late Middle English prose. Published and edited by the early printer William Caxton, the first printed edition of Malory's Arthurian tales was titled Le Morte Arthure by Caxton in 1485. Upon the discovery of the presumably earlier hand-written Winchester Manuscript in 1934, Eugène Vinaver re-edited Malory's romances as Malory's Works. Comparison of Malory's texts with earlier versions of the Arthur story reveal that, in addition to theAlliterative Morte, Malory also drew heavily on the various parts of the French Vulgate Cycle for such details as the origins of Arthur, the role of Merlin, the treachery of Morgan le Faye, the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, the Grail Quest, the extensive story of Tristram and Isolde, and the death of Arthur at the hands of Mordred. While many sections of Malory's version are immediately recognizable as deriving from the Vulgate source, Malory is far more reticent than his French authorities were about incorporating elements of magic and details of the sexual passions experienced by these Arthurian characters. Like his model, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose twelfth-century audience was experiencing civil war between advocates of King Stephen and Empress Matilda, Malory, himself a prisoner when he wrote the book, used the story of Arthur as a unifying myth for a divided Britain. In Malory's hands, Arthur's legend, which culminated in internal strife because of the moral frailties of the inhabitants of Camelot, served as an exemplum, a story embodying a moral lesson, for his fifteenth-century English audience, who were now divided, as they had been by the Stephen-Matilda feud in Geoffrey's age, by the War of the Roses.


Elizabeth Archibald and A. S. G. Edwards, eds., A Companion to Malory (Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1996).

Richard Barber, King Arthur: Hero and Legend (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Boydell, 1986).

Norris J. Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation. 5 vols. (New York: Garland, 1993).

Roger Sherman Loomis, The Development of Arthurian Romance (New York: Norton, 1963).

Stephen H. A. Shepherd, ed., Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur: A Norton Critical Edition (New York: Norton, 2004).

Judith Weiss and Rosamund Allen, trans., Wace and Lawman: The Life of King Arthur (London: Everyman, 1997).

About this article

Arthurian Romance

Updated About content Print Article