King Arthur in medieval sources

Anthologies and Reference — Before Geoffrey of Monmouth: Early Latin Texts – Welsh Poems and Stories — Geoffrey — Knights of the Round Table: Breton lai – Tristan and Isolde – Chretien de TroyesRomances based on Chretien’sMore romancesCyclical RomancesMalory

This began as a list of recommended reading, but it’s difficult to cut it down to that. English-speaking readers have a “canonical” medieval Arthurian text, Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, published in 1485 and available in many editions since then. Read it, and you have a good basis for understanding 20th- and 21st-century Arthurian novels, movies, and TV series. It is the last item on this list of works, which provides I hope a sense of how the stories of Arthur, Merlin, and his knights evolved.

Anthologies and Reference

Richard Barber, Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated Anthology (Boydell & Brewer)
Richard Brengle, Arthur, King of Britain (Prentice-Hall or Appleton-Century-Crofts)
James Wilhelm, rev. Norris Lacy, The Romance of Arthur : An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation (3rd ed., Routledge 2013)

Camelot Project at the University of Rochester is an anthology of texts, commentary, and artworks. It is particularly rich in 19th-century and early 20th-century materials.
King Arthur Aloud offers audio files of readings from medieval Arthurian literature in Welsh, French, German, and English, in a scholarly reconstruction of the original pronunciation.

Norris J. Lacy, ed. New Arthurian Encyclopedia, or the older Arthurian Encyclopedia (Routledge/Garland)
Norris J. Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe, Arthurian Handbook (Garland 1988, rev.  Routledge 1997)
Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide To Arthurian Literature And Legend (Oxford 2005)

A note about editions and translations: An edition of a medieval work is usually a printed presentation of the text as found in one manuscript, with a few changes where the editor feels that the scribe misinterpreted a word. Sometimes the editor will include important variants from other manuscripts (that is, extra lines or changed lines that make sense). Some editions attempt to give all variants from all available manuscripts. A translation into English will follow a certain style which may or may not convey the flavor of the original. For example, if verse is translated into prose, it will lose its sparkle; but if the original is very difficult verse or poor-quality verse, the prose translation may seem ideal for a reader who wants to get the gist of the story. Most online translations are public domain, i.e. older than 1923, and often they use a vocabulary and even sentence structure that shows its age.

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Before the beginning

Early Latin texts

Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain, 6th c. Latin prose). Online translations into English: Gildas the Wise, Ruin of Britain, trans. Hugh Williams (1899) or Six Old English Chronicles, trans. Giles (1891). Gildas does not mention Arthur but his description of the political situation and the Battle of Badon became part of the story of Arthur.

Nennius, Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, 9th c. Latin prose). Online translations into English: Six Old English Chronicles, trans. Giles (1891); the Arthurian passage, trans. John Morris (1980). This is the earliest appearance of the Arthur who became King Arthur.

Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals, 10th c. Latin prose). Online English translation by James Ingram (1912); facsimile of first page (including the two Arthur references) from British Library Harley 3859.

Welsh poems and stories

Welsh elegies, triads, and bardic poems: see The Arthur of the Welsh : The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature, by Rachel Bromwich, (U. of Wales Press); or John B. Coe and Simon Young, The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend (Llanerch 1995).

Online edition, translation, notes, and audio for Taliessin’s poem Preiddeu Annwn (by Sarah Higley)

The Mabinogion, (11th. c. and after; some editions do not contain the Arthurian tales). Mabinogion, trans. online Lady Charlotte Guest (1849) or Jones & Jones. (1949)

The lives of Saints Euflam or Efflam,  Cadog, Carannog, Illtud, Padarn, and Gildas (the life by Caradoc of Llancarfan) all mention Arthur. A preface to the life of St. Goeznovius tells how Arthur fought the Saxons. The life of St Kentigern mentions a figure named Lailoken who was perceived in the Middle Ages to be similar to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin. Some of these saints’ lives are available online in English translations.

King Arthur

Geoffrey’s History is the first book to tell the story of King Arthur, his queen, his knights, his strange begetting, and his death. Over the next century, long narrative poems and tales (romances) and some shorter poems (lais) were written about the adventures of various knights. In some of them, Arthur is just a casual character; in others, hie plays a vital role.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1138), tr. Lewis Thorpe –great list of names (Penguin, 1981); or else tr. Michael Faletra (Broadview, 2008)–includes Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin and many other useful texts in English.

Geoffrey’s Latin work was translated  into French verse for the 12th-century Anglo-Norman court by Wace and later into English verse by Layamon (the versions have many differences from Geoffrey). Both of these were called Brut, for Brutus, the eponymous leader of the first humans to inhabit Britain.  For these, see either  Arthurian Chronicles (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, 35) by Wace and Layamon (U. of Toronto Press), or else The Life of King Arthur by Wace and Lawman (Everyman Paperback Classics, 1997).

Knights of the Round Table

The Breton lai

No-one is quite sure what a Breton lay or lai is, but evidently it involved a fairly short versified narrative or song made up on traditional subjects or new ones by singer-authors who performed them, probably traveling from one court to another but possibly sometimes attached to a particular lord. None of these have survived in Breton, but there are medieval French and Middle English works which claim to be translations of these stories from Brittany (or Wales). It is assumed that many Arthurian stories developed through being retold in lais. Written lais include classical stories (often based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses), stories about King Arthur’s or King Mark’s court, and stories about a fantasy past in which fairies, werewolves, and other such creatures could be encountered in Wales and Brittany.

Marie de France (2nd half 12th c., French poet) wrote at least 12 lais, as well as a collection of Aesopian fables and a story in which a knight visits Purgatory and Heaven.Her lais Lanval and Chevrefueil portray Arthur and Tristan, respectively. See The Lais of Marie de France, tr. Burgess and Busby (prose, Penguin); or the verse translations of Patricia Terry in The Honeysuckle and Hazel Tree: Medieval Stories of Men and Women (U. of California Press, 1995), which includes some other French lais of the period. Online verse translation by Judy Shoaf.

A couple of other 12th-century French lais are Graelent and Guingamor, in Two Breton Lays, ed. and trans. Russell Weingartner (Garland, 1985). A group of poems in Middle English which call themselves Breton Lays have been edited (NOT translated) as Breton Lays in Middle English by Thomas Rumble (Wayne State University Press, 1965) and Middle English Breton Lays by Anne Laskaya and others (Western Michigan U. Press, 1995); the latter is online at TEAMS MIDDLE ENGLISH TEXTS.

Tristan & Isolde

The great love story of Tristan, Isolde, and Isolde’s husband Mark was very popular in the 12th century; there were two long French romances (in Beroul’s romance, Arthur is a contemporary of Mark; however, in Thomas’s version, Arthur was king in an earlier generation) and several short lais, including two different ones both called La Folie Tristan (Tristan’s madness) and Marie de France’s lai Chevrefueil (Honeysuckle). Neither French romance survived except in bits and pieces, but German translations of both did survive, and a Norwegian translation of Thomas’s.

The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (Vintage Classics) by Joseph Bedier, tr. Hilaire Belloc, combines the “best bits” of the principal 12th. c. French versions, none of which have survived whole in their original form, into a coherent and pleasing narrative.

Beroul, The Romance of Tristan and the Tale of Tristan’s Madness (ca. 1180-1200), tr. Alan S. Fedrick (Penguin)–includes the two short poems (lais) about Tristan playing the fool.
Eilhart von Oberge, Tristrant (ca. 1170), tr. Thomas (U. of Nebraska Press, out of print)–a German version similar to Beroul’s
Thomas of Britain, Tristan (ca. 1170): see next item for easily-available translation.
Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan and Isolde (ca. 1210), tr. Hatto (prose, Penguin), includes translations of surviving fragments of Thomas’s poem (Gottfried’s German romance is based on Thomas’s poem).
The Saga of Tristram and Isond (1226), tr. Paul Schach (U. of Nebraska Press, out of print)–the only Tristan work based on Thomas’s poem to survive complete. Another translation is by Joyce Hill, in Arthurian Archives IIII Norse Romance 1. The Tristan Legend (D. S. Brewer, 1999).


Chretien de Troyes

This French poet is sometimes credit with having invented the genre of the Arthurian romance. Roman (the word behind the English “romance”) meant something to 12th-century French speakers like “our language.” A romance was a work which had its source in another language (Latin, for instance, or the “British” language of Wales or Brittany) but had been re-created for a French-speaking audience. The first French romances were lengthy narratives in verse couplets, making them easy to compose, remember, and copy accurately (so long as the dialect of the copyist pronounced the rhyme words the same way).  The descendent term in French and German, Roman, is usually translated into English as “novel,” which means almost the opposite–an original long prose work. By the 13th century, it was more common to compose French Arthurian romances in prose, but verse romances in various styles remained popular in English up into the 14th century.

Chretien was presumably from the town of Troyes,  the capital of the medieval Province of Champagne, which owed allegiance to France. He wrote one romance commissioned by Marie, Countess of Champagne (Lancelot) and one commissioned by Philip, Count of Flanders (Perceval). He wrote in all five long verse romances in which King Arthur’s court is prominent, in French sometime before 1190. He was the first to tell of Lancelot’s love for Guenevere, and of a Grail.

The Complete Romances of Chretien De Troyes, trans. by David Staines (prose; Indiana U. Press, 1993)
Arthurian Romances, tr. William W. Kibler and Carroll (prose; Penguin Classics, 1991)
Arthurian Romances. Including Perceval, tr. D. D. R. Owens (prose; Everyman, 1987)
-Chretien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, trans. W.W. Comfort (prose; 1914) of four of the romances available though OMACL: The Online Medieval and Classical Library

Individual romances of Chretien:

Cliges, tr. Burton Raffel (verse; Yale U. Press, 1997)
Erec and Enide, tr. Ruth Harwood Cline, (verse; U. of Georgia Press, 2000);  tr. Burton Raffel (verse; Yale U. Press, 1997), or Dorothy Gilbert (U. of California Press, 1992)
Yvain or or The Knight With The Lion, tr. Ruth Harwood Cline, (verse; U. of Georgia Press, 1975), or Burton Raffel (verse; Yale 1987)
Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart, tr. Ruth Harwood Cline (verse; U. of Georgia Press, 1981), or Burton Raffel (verse; Yale U. Press, 1997)
Perceval or the Story of the Grail, tr. Ruth Harwood Cline (verse; U.of Georgia Press, 1986) or Pickens and Kibler (verse; Garland, 1990), or Nigel Bryant (prose; Boydell & Brewer)
Garland Library of Medieval Literature publishes individual editions of the romances with facing-page verse translations (by Kibler), for those who want to learn some Old French.

Romances related to or based on Chretien’s

Hartmann von Aue (late 12th-early 13th c. German poet):. Iwein: the Knight with the Lion (U. of Nebraska Press, 1979), and Erec (U. of Nebraska Press, 1982), both tr. J. W, Thomas.

Wolfram von Eschenbach (13th. c. German poet), Parzival. Wolfram wrote a very different version of the Grail story (ca. 1200), which however is clearly related to Chretien’s version. Translations include those by. Hatto (Penguin, 1980), byKatherine Patterson (Lodestar, 1998); and by Mustard and Passage (Vintage, 1961).

Anonymous 13th-century Norwegian prose translations, as represented by later Icelandic copyists: Erex Saga and Ivens Saga: The Old Norse Versions of Chrétien De Troyes’s Erec and Yvain, tr. Foster Blaisdell and Marianne E. Kalinke (U. of Nebraska Press).

Anonymous 14th c. English poets: Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain, online in Middle English ed. Mary Flowers Braswell.

Anonymous 14th-century or earlier Welsh: prose versions of Erec, Yvain, and Perceval: Geraint son of Erbin, Owein or the Lady of the Fountain, and Peredur son of Evrawc in the Mabinogion, trans. online Lady Charlotte Guest (1849) or Jones & Jones. (1949). Opinion is divided as to whether the authors of these tales had read Chretien’s works, or whether the two versions came from similar older sources. It is clear at any rate that the Welsh authors were familiar with the characters independently of Chretien.

Ulrich von Zatzikhoven (early 13th-c Swiss, writing German verse), Lanzelet, trans. Thomas Kerth (Columbia UP, 2005). This book is not based on Chretien’s Lancelot, and Ulrich clearly did not know that romance. It allows us to see what kind of adventures were attributed to Lancelot before Chretien made him Guinevere’s lover.

Grail continuations (various 13th c. French poets): Chretien left his Grail romance, Perceval, incomplete, although it was already longer than any of his earlier works. The first continuator (anonymous) took up the story where Chretien left off, and the second continuator started where the first one stopped. Then two separate authors, Gerbert de Montreuil and Manessier, separately wrote additions to the extended poem consisting of Chretien + first continuation + second continuation. Manessier wrote an end to the story. Two authors also wrote prologues to Chretien’s romance.

Anonymous (13th c. French): High Book of the Grail; Perlesvaus, tr. Nigel Bryant (Boydell and Brewer). This romance claims to be a continuation of Chretien but tells a dramatically different story in which Kay is a treacherous villain. Also available online from OMACL as  The High History of the Holy Graal, tr. Sebastian Evans (1898).

More verse romances

Many romances, short and long, were written in various European languages about the adventures of Arthur’s knights. Gawain was the most popular hero of these. In many cases the romances which deal with a particular theme (say, a knight marries an old/ugly woman) are clearly not related to each other, but to a wealth of stories being told in different countries or parts of the country. These are just a few of the more famous romances

Heinrich von dem Türlin (13th. c. German), Diu Crône: The Crown, , trans. by J.W. Thomas (U. of Nebraska Press, 1989). Gawain is the hero of many adventures here.

Anonymous 14th-c English; known as the Pearl-poet or the Gawain-poet): Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The most famous Middle English Arthurian romance, available in many translations. In La Mule sans Frein by “Paien de Masieres,” a  French verse work contemporary with Chretien de Troyes, Gawain must play a beheading game.

Geoffrey Chaucer (14th-c. English),  Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. The origin of this story, in which marriage to a hag is connected to the question of “sovereignty,” may be legends such as that of the Irish hero-king Niall of the Nine Hostages. In a 15th-century English version, Gawain is the hero: Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (ed.Thomas Hahn).

Three Arthurian Romances : Poems from Medieval France : Caradoc, the Knight With the Sword, the Perilous Graveyard, tr. Ross Gilbert Arthur (Everyman)

“Fair Unknown”romances, about Gingalan the son of Gawain; see the Camelot Project entry for several Middle English versions and modern translations; this story also appears in French as Le Bel Inconnu of Renaud de Beaujeu and in German as Wigalois.

“Cyclical” romances

I group here works which (like Geoffrey’s story of Arthur in the History of the Kings of Britain) see King Arthur’s whole life and reign as part of history. The evolution of the Grail from Chretien’s “dish which does not contain fish” to a relic of Jesus’s Passion provided a way of linking Arthur’s court with salvation history through the Grail Knight, who is either Perceval or Galahad. The incorporation of adventures of Lancelot brings up the question of the relationship between divine love and the sexual love between Lancelot and Guinevere. The further addition of the Tristram stories allows for a contrast between the two love triangles, Tristan-Isolde-Mark and Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur.

Robert de Boron (late 12th-early 13th c. French). Robert envisaged a Grail trilogy. He seems to have begun writing in verse, but he and/or others decided to work in prose instead.

  • Joseph of Arimathe (History of the Grail). This survives in the original verse format. Joseph of Arimathea: A Romance of the Grail, tr. Jean Rogers (Steiner, 1971). Tells how the Grail, a relic of Jesus’s passion, came to England in the first century.
  • Merlin: only 504 lines of verse survive, but there are 46 manuscripts of the entire prose romance. It was incorporated into the Vulgate Lancelot-Grail cycle. It tells how Merlin was conceived by the Devil but born as an instant convert to Christianity, how he built Stonehenge and engineered Arthur’s conception (these two incidents are in Geoffrey), and how he helped Arthur institute the Round Table.
  • Perceval. The original of this, verse or prose, does not survive but it is represented by the “Didot Perceval,” now online as  The Romance of Perceval in Prose, tr. Dell Skeels (1966). It covers the Grail Quest and also a brief section on Arthur’s death.

The Lancelot-Grail Cycle, also known as the “Vulgate Lancelot,” is a 13th-century French prose compilation usually divided into 5 sections.

  • History of the Holy Grail (Estoire del Saint Graal)–the story is somewhat changed from Robert’s version, to provide Lancelot with a Grail-related ancestry.
  • Merlin–Robert de Boron’s Merlin + additional adventures from the early days of Arthur’s court (“Huth Merlin”)
  • Lancelot–the longest section, based on independent Lancelot romances which told of his birth, childhood, adventures, the beginning of his love for Guinevere. Some Grail adventures are included, and we are told how Lancelot conceived Galahad on the Grail Maiden. Lancelot of the Lake, tr. Corin Corley (Oxford World’s Classics; based on the edition of Elspeth Kennedy, who wrote the excellent introduction to this translation).
  • Quest of the Holy Grail (Queste del Saint Graal)–an original romance (though closely linked to the History of the Holy Grail) in which Galahad comes to court and leads Perceval and Bors to “achieve” the Grail, which involves returning it to a city in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The Quest of the Holy Grail, tr. Shoaf (Broadview)
  • Death of Arthur (Mort Artu)–after the Grail Quest, Arthur’s nephews Mordred and Agravain make public the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, leading to war between Arthur and Lancelot, then Mordred’s usurpation of the crown. In the final battle, Arthur and Mordred slay each other. The Death of King Arthur, tr.. James Cable (Penguin) or From Camelot to Joyous Guard : The Old French La Mort Le Roi Artu, tr. J. Neale Carman (U. of Kansas Press)

The 13th-c French Post-Vulgate Cycle is based on the Vulgate and incorporates the Estoire and Merlin. However, the Lancelot sections are replaced with the Merlin Continuation, so that Arthur’s own story seems more prominent.

Both these cycles have been translated into English by various scholars working under general editor Norris Lacy: Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation. This was originally published in 5 hardbound volumes (Garland) but is now available in 10 paperbound volumes (Boydell & Brewer). This edition includes an index and summaries of every chapter.
Selections from this translation have been published as The Lancelot-Grail Reader (ed. Norris Lacy).

An even longer 13th-c prose compilation is the “Prose Tristan” which makes Tristan a central character of the Arthurian adventures.

Morte d’Arthur

Three English works are called, more or less “Le Morte d’Arthur” (Arthur’s Death), like the last section of the Vulgate Cycle.

Two of them are 14th-century verse works which can be read online,King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Benson, rev. Foster. The two poems tell different if converging stories: the Alliterative Morte is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story (in which Mordred usurps the crown while Arthur is fighting Rome) , while the Stanzaic Morte is based on the Lancelot-Grail version (in which Arthur is fighting Lancelot in France, instead of Rome).

Thomas Malory ‘s work, known as Morte D’Arthur or Morte Darthur or simply Works, has a special place for English readers. Writing in the 15th century, as a man who had actually been in wars, ambushes, and battles, Malory shaped his story based on various “French books” (and also English ones) from Arthur’s conception to his death. It was chosen by the first English publisher, Caxton, as one of the earliest English books to print. Besides Caxton’s edition, a single manuscript has survived, which is divided up differently.  Different editors use different basic versions (either the Winchester Manuscript or Caxton’s edition), and make different decisions about regularizing, modernizing, or translating Malory’s language. Some editions are also abridged. So, read a few pages of any edition you might want to buy, and check the introduction, so that you can decide if this will be comfortable for you.

Caxton’s 1485 edition of Malory is available in various formats online, for example at Le Morte Darthur at University of Michigan.

Not the end!

There are of course many more medieval romances in which Arthur and Merlin appear.