views updated May 21 2018

Arthur. King Arthur and his circle are creations of medieval writers drawing on history, folklore, mythology, and imagination. Though British in his historical dimension, as a figure of legend and romance Arthur belongs to European culture and has been transplanted to that of America. Arthurian material has been continually reshaped and developed, reflecting aspects of contemporary life, morality, and aspirations. The literature is vast, embracing literary scholarship, historical and archaeological investigations of British responses to the Anglo-Saxon invasions, fiction, and enthusiastic attempts to identify sites and persons.

The ‘real’ Arthur is a hero referred to in the British poem the Gododdin (c.600), in the 9th-cent. Nennius' Historia Brittonum (as victorious ‘leader of battles’, including Mount Badon, against Anglo-Saxons), and in two entries in the 10th-cent. Annales Cambriae. The original warlord, who defies identification, was developed by the 9th- and 10th-cent. Welsh into a great Welsh victor. British tradition from areas conquered by the Anglo-Saxons had migrated to unconquered Wales, and the 9th and 10th cents. saw both Welsh cultural revival and a prospect of Welsh success against the English. An inspirational national figure was needed. His manufacture both used and influenced early Welsh poetry. Arthur grew into a ruler and hero, possibly absorbing other heroes.

Welsh tradition in turn contributed to oral traditions in Cornwall, and in Brittany, where it came to be believed that he still lived. It was probably Breton bards who were responsible for the Round Table motif.

But Arthur and his world were definitively formed in the 1130s by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his fictional History of the Kings of Britain. In this, Arthur is the ideal king, conqueror of much of Europe, attacking even Rome. Finally defeated and mortally wounded, he is borne to Avalon. Geoffrey's purposes perhaps included justifying the desire of the current rulers of England to be independent of France, and consoling the Welsh for English domination by giving them a glorious history.

Arthur's court proved a magnet for heroes and their deeds, and in much Arthurian material Arthur's own profile is low, his function that of a reference point. The legend of Tristan and Isolde, one of the most popular, was tacked on to Arthur's. Other tales, however, developed out of it. The Grail element, combining Celtic traditions of magical testing-vessels and blessed food-producing horns with Christian sentiment, first crystallized in French. Chrétien of Troyes in the 1170s and 1180s also introduced courtly love, made the Round Table a centre of chivalry, and identified Arthur's capital as Camelot. The first treatment in (Middle) English was Layamon's Brut (late 12th cent.), which introduced the element of faerie. The greatest English production was the late 14th-cent. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The cult of chivalry was a European phenomenon. Arthurian romances portrayed its ideals, and some of its organization and trappings. Arthurian characters and deeds were emulated in tournaments, sometimes in Arthurian dress, and in ceremonial, as in Edward III's foundation of the Order of the Garter. The material had a religious element, yet the ethos was not ecclesiastical; the lesson was that the path of the Christian knight could lead to salvation, and one of its implicit ideas was that of crusade. Arthurian matters could be politically useful. Honour paid by Edward I to what were apparently bones of Arthur and Guinevere, at Glastonbury in 1278, was flattering to the Welsh, while emphasizing that hope for a Messianic delivery from him was pointless.

In the early modern period the popularity of Arthurian material declined. Changes in war, government, and economy made the chivalrous, aristocratic knight obsolete and the Renaissance made classical literature more popular. It survived in the English-speaking world because of Sir Thomas Malory. His work, completed about 1469, retailed the story as a tragedy. It was printed in 1485 by Caxton, who saw it as a moral, didactic work, as the Morte Darthur.

Henry VII exploited Welsh interest, naming his elder son Arthur, and making him prince of Wales in 1489, but Arthur's significance under the Tudors was chiefly in pageantry and in literature. He featured in some pageant decorations, but there was little attempt to connect him with Tudor monarchs. There was some drama and poetry, and Arthur was taken up by Edmund Spenser in his Faerie Queene. Shakespeare, however, gave him no attention.

Arthur's historicity had not been accepted by everyone. William of Newburgh, Gerald of Wales, and Ranulf Higden were openly critical of Geoffrey of Monmouth's history, but Geoffrey carried the day until the late 16th cent. The Italian Polydore Vergil had sparked controversy in his Anglica historia, written at Henry VII's request and published in 1534. John Leland defended Arthur against him in 1544. Scottish perception was subtly different. Hector Boece's History of the Scots (1526) incorporated some reworkings, mostly to Arthur's detriment, as if Arthur were an Englishman and offensive to Scottish pride. The development of historical scholarship was fuelled in part by perceptions that Anglo-Saxon history might yield support for protestantism and the break with Rome, and that the ancient British might have been rather like the indigenous people of the recently discovered New World.

Arthurian romance was next popular in the 19th cent., though Dryden wrote a play which was set to music by Purcell. Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth wrote some Arthurian material, but the boom began with Tennyson's poems, from 1832, based on Malory. Tennyson's characters often symbolize particular qualities, and his works are moralizing. Other Arthurian writers include Algernon Swinburne, William Morris, Matthew Arnold, and (satirically) the American Mark Twain.

Emphases similar to those in literature have been apparent in the visual arts. Most Arthurian art has been in the Gothic style, with a consistent range of images. The medieval period generated manuscript illumination, sculptured decoration of churches, tiles, misericords, caskets, embroidery, objets d'art, and frescos, in England and on the continent. Tristan and Isolde was the most popular legend, particularly with women in convents. The Round Table now in Winchester castle was built probably for Edward I, and painted for Henry VIII. Above a Tudor rose is Arthur, originally with Henry's face, and royal symbols. Early modern art preferred secular, contemporary themes, and neglected the elements with Roman catholic implications, the Grail quests.

Nineteenth-cent. didacticism found numerous expressions, including the decoration (1851–64) of the Queen's Robing Room in the new palace of Westminster with Arthurian scenes, in fresco, to illustrate moral qualities. Arthurian scenes were also used for the Oxford Union murals in 1857, undertaken by a group of Pre-Raphaelite artists, who produced many Arthurian works. In general Arthur seldom appears; he is eclipsed as a hero by Galahad and Lancelot, and the most influential of Tennyson's poems were The Lady of Shalott and Elaine.

In the 20th cent. Arthurian settings and circles proved an enduring theme for novelists and poets of very different kinds. British musical treatments include works by Boughton, Bax, Parry, and Elgar. There have been a number of films.

Many attempts have been made to identify Arthurian sites. Through the ages Camelot has been located at Cadbury (where an Iron Age hill-fort was a centre of British power in the late 5th cent.), Caerleon, Colchester, Winchester, Tintagel, and, recently and controversially, near Stirling. The origin of Arthur's association with Cornwall is not clear. According to Welsh tradition, Kelliwic, possibly Killibury castle, was his base. Dozmary Pool and Loe Pool are associated with the Lady of the Lake. Castle Dore and Tintagel (with their late 5th- and early 6th-cent. secular aristocratic dwellings) are ‘identified’ as settings for Tristan and Isolde. Glastonbury (where the Tor was occupied in the Dark Ages) was associated in the mid-12th cent. with an abduction of Guinevere, and became identified with Avalon. In 1190 or 1191 the monks ‘discovered’, fraudulently, the burial of Arthur and Guinevere, and in the mid-13th cent. they added Joseph of Arimathea, with whom the Holy Grail was associated, to their history. The enduring resonance of Arthurian romance was underlined in the hopeful application to John F. Kennedy's presidency of the USA of the name of Camelot.

A. E. Redgate


Barber, R. , King Arthur: Hero and Legend (Woodbridge, 1986);
Morris, R. , The Character of King Arthur in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, 1982);
Whitaker, M. , The Legends of King Arthur in Art (Woodbridge, 1990).


views updated May 18 2018


ARTHUR , traditionally known as a sixth-century king of the Britons. Discussion of the origins of Arthur is of long standing. He is the hero or, later, the central figure of a large body of literature, much of it cyclic, in most western European languages but most especially in the medieval forms of French, German, English, and Welsh. He is consistently portrayed as a British ruler, and there is no doubt that his origins are to be sought in early Welsh sources and, to a lesser extent, in Breton and Cornish literature.

The evidence for Arthur's historical existence is meager and difficult to evaluate. Chapter 56 of the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, usually attributed to "Nennius," places him in the context of the first period of the attacks on Britain by the Germanic invaders, in the second half of the fifth century, and lists twelve of his famous victories. The chronicle now known as Annales Cambriae notes under the year 518 the Battle of Badon, as an Arthurian victory, probably the same as that which closes the Nennian list, and under 539 the Battle of Camlan, in which Arthur and Medrawd fell (Medrawd, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Modred, is the rebellious nephew of Arthur whose abduction of Guenevere led to the catastrophic final Battle of Camlan). The Nennian notes and the chronicle entries probably derive from the same northern British source of the eighth century and are the earliest testimony to a historical Arthur. The places referred to in the list of battles cannot be securely located, and not all are to be associated with Arthur; but the list probably represents the remnant of a pre-ninth-century Welsh poem that contained a catalog of some of Arthur's traditional victories. Together with a eulogistic reference to Arthur in another Welsh poem, Gododdin, from northern Britain, these early allusions suggest the development of a fifth-century British leader into a popular heroic figure celebrated in song. (The Gododdin reference cannot be dated more securely than to the sixth to eleventh century.) The British author Gildas, however, writing about 540, does not name Arthur, although he celebrates the Battle of Badon; nor do other major historical sources, such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Bede, refer to him, so that some doubt as to his historical existence must remain.

Stories of Arthur, like many other northern British heroic legends, were relocated in early medieval Wales and achieved great popularity even before the arrival of the Normans in the eleventh century opened the way for this material to become a major component in the chivalric literatures of western Europe. Welsh poems from before 1100, mirabilia recounted in the Historia Brittonum, and material in some saints' lives of the eleventh and twelfth centuries all testify to a variety of tales being told about Arthur and to the fact that the hero was beginning to attract to himself legends and heroes from other cycles. Nineteenth-century scholars attempted to interpret this material in terms of solar mythology and the mythological type of the culture hero; though this approach is discredited in view of the nature of the historical evidence, it may yet be necessary to see Arthur, if not as a mythological figure, at least as one of fictional, folkloric origins. In Nennius's mirabilia Arthur and his dog Cabal hunt the boar Porcum Troit, a story more fully developed in the eleventh-century Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, and stories of Arthur in this latter source have already become associated with topographical features. Poems in the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Book of Taliesin, manuscripts from the thirteenth century, portray Arthur as the leader of a band of renowned warriors, Cei and Bedwyr foremost among them, who fight with monsters, hags, and giants and who carry out a disastrous expedition against the otherworld to free a prisoner. The twelfth-century Life of Saint Gildas contains the story of the abduction of Arthur's wife by Melwas and her imprisonment in the Glass Island, euhemerized as Glastonbury. These are the elements, together with some personal names, which seem to represent the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend and which reappear in contemporary terms throughout its later forms.

There is more than one tradition of Arthur's end besides that of his death at Camlan. One that is attested early is his removal to the Isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds and to await the call to return. At the end of the twelfth century the monks of Glastonbury claimed to have discovered the graves of Arthur and his wife at their abbey, but this seems never to have found popular acceptance. Arthur's role as the awaited hero remained a political force throughout the Middle Ages among the Celtic peoples of Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. The later stages of his legend as the chivalrous king who was head of the Round Table and instigator of the search for the Holy Grail belong to the realm of literary history.


Good surveys of individual Arthurian topics will be found in R. S. Loomis's Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1959), where K. H. Jackson writes on the Arthur of history and of the early Welsh sources. The best survey of the earliest material is Thomas Jones's, "The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur," Nottingham Medieval Studies 8 (1964): 321.

All aspects of medieval Welsh literature relating to Arthur are discussed in a collaborative volume edited by Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, The Arthur of the Welsh (Cardiff, 1991). Other volumes in this series (Arthurian literature in the Middle Ages) are: W. J. Barron, editor, The Arthur of the English (2001), W. J. Jackson and others, editors, The Arthur of the Germans (2000). J. B. Coe and S. Young, The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend (Felinfach, 1995) is a useful and dependable compendium. O. J. Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature (Cardiff, 2000) and again "The Nature of Arthur," Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 17 (1994): 131, bring many new and challenging insights to the material. A. O. H. Jarman describes the Welsh poetry in "The Delineation of Arthur in Early Welsh Verse" in An Arthurian Tapestry, edited by Ernest K. Varty (Glasgow, 1951), while Rachel Bromwich discusses the question of the development of the legend in two articles, "Concepts of Arthur," Studia Celtica 10/11 (19751976): 163181, and "Celtic Elements in Arthurian Romance: A General Survey," in The Legend of Arthur in the Middle Ages, edited by P. B. Grout and others (Woodbridge, 1983). Rachel Bromwich's Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, 2d ed. (Cardiff, 1978) is a fund of information on Arthurian themes and characters. Jean Markale, King of the Celts: Arthurian Legend and Celtic Traadition (Rochester, 1994). Marged Haycock, "Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin," Studia Celtica 18/19 (19831984): 5278. Melville Richards, "Arthurian Onomastics," Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1969): 250269; Patrick K. Ford, "On the Significance of Some Arthurian Names in Welsh," Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30 (1983): 268273.

Brynley F. Roberts (1987 and 2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018

Arthur a legendary king of Britain, historically perhaps a 5th or 6th century Romano-British chieftain or general. Stories of his life, his court at Camelot, the exploits of his knights such as Lancelot and the quest for the Holy Grail, were developed by Malory, Chrétien de Troyes, and other medieval writers.

According to the traditional stories Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, was brought up in ignorance of his birth, but proved his identity as the king's son when he pulled the sword (Excalibur) from the stone. Guided by Merlin, he ruled Britain wisely, but in the end his leadership was fatally weakened by the adulterous love of his wife Guinevere and friend Lancelot, and Arthur himself was forced to fight a last battle against his nephew Mordred and his supporters. Fatally wounded, he was taken by barge to Avalon, so that his body was never found; he is thus one of the legendary heroes who may return to his kingdom should the need arise.
Arthur's Seat is a hill overlooking Edinburgh from the east, traditionally associated with Arthur.


views updated May 18 2018

Arthur Legendary British king who was said to rule the Knights of the Round Table. Two medieval chroniclers, Gildas and Nennius, tell of Arthur's fighting against the invading West Saxons and his final defeat of them at Mount Badon (possibly Badbury Hill, Dorset) in the early 6th century. However, some consider these sources unreliable and a modern view is that Arthur was a professional soldier in service to the British kings after the Roman occupation. Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century Historia Regum Brittaniae, based on Nennius and Welsh folklore, gave the legend – with the Round Table, Camelot, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the Holy Grail – the form in which it was transmitted through the Middle Ages. Malory's Morte D'Arthur (1470) was based on Monmouth's version.


views updated May 21 2018

Arthur ★★★ 1981 (PG)

Spoiled, alcoholic billionaire Moore stands to lose everything he owns when he falls in love with a waitress. He must choose between wealth and a planned marriage, or poverty and love. Surprisingly funny, with an Oscar for Gielgud as Moore's valet, and great performance from Minnelli. Arguably the best role Moore's ever had, and he makes the most of it, taking the one-joke premise to a Oscar nomination. ♫Arthur's Theme; Blue Moon; If You Knew Susie; Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. 97m/C VHS, DVD . Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, John Gielgud, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stephen Elliott, Jill Eikenberry, Lou Jacobi, Ted Ross, Barney Martin; D: Steve Gordon; W: Steve Gordon; C: Fred Schuler; M: Burt Bacharach, Peter Allen, Peter Allen. Oscars '81: Song (“Arthur's Theme”), Support. Actor (Gielgud); Golden Globes '82: Actor—Mus./Comedy (Moore), Film—Mus./Comedy, Song (“Arthur's Theme”), Support. Actor (Gielgud); L.A. Film Critics '81: Support. Actor (Gielgud); N.Y. Film Critics '81: Support. Actor (Gielgud); Writers Guild '81: Orig. Screenplay.