An Arthurian Primer
Geoffrey of Monmouth — Arthur before Geoffrey — Arthur from Geoffrey to Malory — Arthur after the Middle Ages — Modern ideas about Who Arthur was
This is just a brief outline for those who are not sure what our sources for the story of King Arthur might be.
Figuring out who King Arthur “was” is very confusing. Even people who have spent their lives studying him cannot agree whether he ever actually existed. I myself don’t think he did; if there was an Arthur, he was not much like the character I think of as King Arthur, who was pretty much invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130s. Anyway, because there are no facts AT ALL about him, just stories written centuries after he was supposed to have lived, it’s hard to create a biography of him. Every storyteller has a different angle, different details. So there are really as many Arthurs as there are people writing about him (and that includes people who are trying to describe a “real” historical Arthur). Some people think he was a prehistoric legend of the Celtic British, some a Roman general defending Hadrian’s Wall, some a brilliant organizer of resistance to Germanic invaders; and in imaginative works he has been placed in outer space as well as in 12th-century England.
In the following very brief summary, I have put in red names and terms that you need to understand or might want to look up on the internet or in the New Arthurian Encyclopedia so that you can learn more.
A bit of history: Our oldest sources about Arthur come from medieval Welsh culture, which preserved the culture and traditions of a group of people called the Britons. Around the beginning of the current era, when the Romans were negotiating with, and then militarily occupying, Britain, the Britons consisted of many tribes controlling various parts of the island, speaking a group of languages called “p-Celtic” by modern linguists (as distinguished from the “q-Celtic” of Ireland and, later, Scotland). Brittany, which is the northwest corner of modern France, also had a “p-Celtic” culture, closely linked to that of Britain. Because of these languages, we call the Britons/Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Bretons “Celtic.” Starting in 43 AD, the Romans occupied most of the island south of Hadrian’s Wall (which they built) until the early 400s, when they withdrew their troops. During the 5th century, peoples who ended up calling themselves Angles, Saxons, and Jutes migrated to Britain across the North Sea, and eventually established kingdoms in the eastern half of the island, England, where their Germanic language (Anglo-Saxon, the ancestor of English) and culture dominated. The British language and culture survived in the western part of the island (Wales, Cornwall) and also across the English Channel in Brittany. After 1066 the Normans ruled England but the language that evolved was still called English and the country was still called England. The Welsh in particular came to think of themselves as the heirs of the Britons, since they spoke a language that had its roots in the British language.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth was not the first person to write about Arthur or even King Arthur, but his version was the one that inspired others. Geoffrey was a writer from Monmouth in Wales, and his book, History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin around 1138, seems to be the source of about 80% of the “canonical” King Arthur story. The Arthur chapters form a proper biography and include:
- Merlin the “prophet” and wise man
- Uther and Igraine (spelled many ways) Arthur’s parents, and the story of his strange conception
- Guinevere, Arthur’s wife
- King Lot, Arthur’s brother-in-law
- Mordred and Gawain, Arthur’s treacherous and loyal nephews, respectively
- Caliburn, recognizable as Excalibur, Arthur’s sword
- Avalon, a place where Caliburn was forged and where Arthur is (perhaps) taken to be healed after his last battle.
Geoffrey fits King Arthur into history as the leader of the Britons (that is, the Celtic people living in the island of Britain before, during, and after the Roman occupation of the island) resisting the invading/colonizing Anglo-Saxons around the year 500. His Arthur is a king who was able to bring together (by war and/or persuasion) all the kings of different parts of Britain and get them to work together to fight a common enemy, and then live together in peace for many years. Arthur is also presented as an emperor who rules over what is now Scandinavia and northern France, as well as the British Isles, and who is on the point of conquering Rome when, due to Mordred’s betrayal, he must return to Britain to defend the home front. Although Geoffrey does not mention the Round Table, he presents Arthur’s court as one which attracts champions from many lands (the Round Table is first described in a French “translation” of Geoffrey by the poet Wace).
Geoffrey later became interested in Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sorceress sister, and mentioned her in another book, a “Life of Merlin” which of course also had a whole new set of stories about Merlin. Geoffrey definitely was doing research on what we might now call folklore; from the books and records that have survived, it is clear that he was very good at combining written and oral sources from several parts of the British Isles, and making it all into an excellent and probable-looking “history.”
Up until about the 1600s Geoffrey’s account of Arthur had the status of being possibly true, though there were skeptics all along. Stories about Arthur and his knights, even ones that claimed to be historical, tended to include very unhistorical-looking events, such as encounters with giants, fairies, disappearing castles, magic ships, etc. Almost always the court of Arthur was used to mirror in some way the problems of contemporary society, either as a lost ideal or as a kind of laboratory for thought experiments about political, social, and even emotional situations (such as the political status of an adulterous queen). Geoffrey himself presented Arthur as the model of a 12th-century ruler, and even today writers often turn to Arthurian fantasy to imagine alternative societies.
Arthur before Geoffrey
We know that the name/character of Arthur, and quite a few others in the story, are at least a few centuries older than Geoffrey’s book. There can be no doubt that Geoffrey was using not only the few books and poems referring to Arthur that have survived, but also others which have been lost, and probably fireside stories about Arthur’s adventures, too. The sources we have which appear the most reliable do not refer to Arthur as a king, however.
Sources with historical intentions & value. We have one early text written from the British point of view describing the adventus saxonum (coming of the Anglo-Saxons); this is the Ruin of Britain by Gildas, who claims to have been born in the year of a great battle at Badon Hill, in which the Britons were victorious over their enemies. A British author whom we refer to as “Nennius” is Geoffrey’s source for Arthur’s battles against the Anglo-Saxons, but in this work, the History of the Britons, Arthur is said to be a general (dux bellorum, “leader of battles” or warlord). The last of the twelve battles is Badon Hill, the battle mentioned by Gildas. “Nennius” also tells two marvelous tales, about the wonderful dog and the tragically murdered son of “the soldier Arthur”; these are grouped with other marvels, mostly natural wonders of Wales. There are also two entries in a Welsh chronology (Annales Cambriae) that refer to Arthur’s leadership at Badon and to Arthur’s death at Camlann (but without calling him a king). These works date to the 9th and 10th centuries and presumably are based on earlier sources which have now been lost.
Political and religious beliefs. King Arthur appears in some Welsh and Breton saints’ lives, often as a worldly ruler (with sidekicks Kay and Bedivere) who needs the saint’s help or is corrected for his mistakes by the saint. We also know that in early 12th-century Cornwall and Brittany there was a popular belief that King Arthur would come again to liberate his people from the English and/or Normans (this was reported by some priests from Laon in France who were traveling in Cornwall in 1113, and were surprised to find the same idea in these two diverse places). After Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain made King Arthur internationally popular, the grave of Arthur and Guinevere was discovered in Glastonbury; this is generally thought to have been a hoax, with the double purpose of showing that Arthur was really dead (and would never come back to challenge the Norman rulers of England) and raising funds as a pilgrim/tourist attraction for the Glastonbury monks.
Since Welsh derives from British, the language that would have been spoken by an historical Arthur, its traditions are of special interest. There is some Welsh poetry, possibly quite old in parts, that mentions Arthur and his men either as great warriors or as heroes accomplishing fantastic quests and hunts. Some of the “Mabinogion” tales present him as a wonderful ruler and warrior, fighting giants sometimes and the English sometimes.
Arthur from Geoffrey to Malory
Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain was aimed at the rulers of England in his own time, who were French-speaking Normans, and it became popular not only in the English court but also in the French courts. It seems as though suddenly all the storytellers and poets knew some story in which King Arthur was an important character. Usually, though, the adventure involved a young knight of the Round Table, on some kind of quest to defend the rights of an attractive young lady.
A French poet, Chretien de Troyes, was the first to tell the story of the love of Lancelot for Guinevere, within about 50 years after Geoffrey wrote. Marie de Champagne, a great lady who was his patroness, told him pretty much what to do–to make a particular kind of love story out of a much older story in which Guinevere is abducted and rescued. Chretien also, writing for a different patron, wrote the first Arthurian Grail story, although in his version the Grail is just a gold dish that the hero, Perceval, is supposed to find out about (though in one passage a hermit tells Perceval that the dish is holy). A German poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach, wrote a much longer and more elaborate romance, Parzival, about the Grail, which in his story is a magical stone.
In the early 13th century, French authors started working out how to fit the Arthur story into a different view of history from Geoffrey’s, a religious view that plotted modern history from Christ to the Crusades. In their version, Lancelot’s love of Guinevere became a great sin, and the Grail became a relic of Christ’s crucifixion, closely tied to the Last Supper and beliefs that Christ was physically present in the bread and wine at Mass. The Grail visited Arthur’s realm looking for the heir to a kingdom in the Middle East. At first, in a version by Robert de Boron, Perceval was still that hero (and he was the direct descendent of Joseph of Arimathea, who was present at the Crucifixion). In the French prose Lancelot-Graal romance, the Grail hero became Galahad, Lancelot’s son, though Perceval continued to be associated with the Grail. These long “cyclical” romances included a history of Joseph of Arimathea’s family and covered all of Arthur’s life and death and many adventures of his various knights.
Finally (but not really, since nothing regarding Arthur is final!) a 15th-century English knight, Thomas Malory, wrote in English his own version of the whole story, choosing incidents and details from various sources and combining them to make a story about a great king of England. This is considered by some to be the best retelling of all. His book is called Le Morte D’Arthur or Morte Darthur and was one of the first secular books printed in England (by William Caxton).
The medieval rulers of England, particularly the 12th-century Plantagenets and the Welsh Tudors, liked the Arthur stories and often emphasized Arthur in their ceremonies or the literature their court poets wrote. The notion that the island of Britain had once been a headquarters for political, military, and cultural dominance of Europe was encouraging to their own ambitions.
Arthur after the Middle Ages
In the Renaissance the idea that Arthur was a historical figure was usually discredited. When one looked at Geoffrey with a skeptical eye it was clear that he had made up much of his “history,” and the story of Arthur included too many elements that offended the rationality of serious writers of history. However, Arthur was still appealing to English poets, and his story was incorporated into Edmund Spenser’s fantastical allegory The Faerie Queen (1590s). Arthur continued to show up occasionally in English literature, for example in the opera King Arthur (1691) by Henry Purcell, with a libretto by John Dryden. In this opera, Arthur unites the Britons and the English by marrying an English princess, Emmeline.
In the second half of the 19th century, a series of poems called Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, brought Arthur back into the mainstream of English literature. These poems re-told Malory’s narrative with romance and drama that made this one of the most influential books of the time. Artists including Edward Burne-Jones and the other Pre-Raphaelites, and the American Edwin Austin Abbey, chose Arthurian subjects; Julia Margaret Cameron, an early photographer, photographed her friends and family costumed in scenes from Arthurian stories; poets looked for a dramatic incident from the stories which would allow a fine lyric or narrative expansion.
In the 20th century, the tradition of re-interpreting Malory was continued by T. H. White, whose Sword in the Stone, a fantasy about Arthur’s childhood, became the first part of Once and Future King (1958), a powerful modern novel about Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. This was the basis of the musical Camelot. A very different interpretation of the story was Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which infused the Arthurian setting and character with modern neopagan ideas about the conflict between worship of The Goddess and masculine cultures. As he has always done, Arthur also inhabits the world of wizards, dragons, and fairies, as in the BBC series Merlin.
Arthur has inspired so many novels, works of art, comics (Prince Valiant but also the space drama Camelot 3000), and movies, TV series and miniseries, and even advertising and trademarks, that these different areas require special expertise to keep track of them. Most of this activity is in England and America, though there are also works of significance in French, German, and other languages.
Modern ideas about who Arthur was
It is not possible to prove that Arthur never existed, but no narrative of his role in history has been proposed that is convincing to historians. When scholars look back at the period when Arthur was supposed to have lived, there are almost no written records. The Romans had provided military support and organization in Britain for 4 centuries or so, but they left Britain in the 5th century and there wasn’t a lot of communication as their Empire was breaking down. The only book from Britain that has survived that tells the history of this period, Gildas’s book, does not mention Arthur. (However, Gildas is rather vague about names and it is still possible that Arthur lived when Geoffrey of Monmouth says he did.) I
When modern (post-WWII) writers try to imagine Arthur, based on what we know about the period, they usually guess that he must have been a military leader, maybe with some Roman training, who united the British to resist the much better-equipped and more warlike Anglo-Saxons. This story, which might be called “Arthur as Celtic Warlord,” is obviously influenced by England’s role in WWII, but also carries on Tennyson’s idea of Arthur as a good ruler.
Archaeology, however, provides historians with evidence that may not leave room in history for King Arthur fighting the Saxons. Between 400 and 700, Britain went from being a Roman province to being divided between several Welsh-speaking kingdoms in the West and several English-speaking kingdoms in the East. It is hard for archaeologists to agree whether it looks like the pagan Anglo-Saxons invaded Christian Britain, massacring the locals (Gildas’s story), or whether the Anglo-Saxons just kind of wandered inland, in small groups, settling down in villages where there seemed to be room, and blending in, but insisting on speaking their own language and on allegiance to kings of their own blood. If the latter interpretation is put forward, it is harder to find a role for Arthur.
Some scholars (particularly Nicholas Higham) have tried to show that Arthur was invented for particular political purposes by later Welsh authors, but we still don’t know enough about the transition from British to English rule to be able to prove that there is no room for an Arthur in that time.
Other writers have tried to pin Arthur to a known historical person, including Riothamus (a general who lived at the right time and more or less the right places; the strongest supporter of his identity as Arthur is Geoffrey Ashe) and Lucius Artorius Castus (a Roman general who commanded Sarmatian forces defending Hadrian’s Wall for a few years in the late 2nd century; this is part of a very elaborate theory, called the Sarmatian theory or the Alano-Sarmatian theory, most strongly presented by Scott Littleton and Dr. Linda Malcor). A Scottish leader named Aedan had a son named Artuir in the late 6th century, and there is at least one other late 6th-c Arthur; it is possible to construct arguments favoring either of these as the true, original Arthur, by either dismissing or reinterpreting the usual chronology.