Early Arthurian Britain – Growth of the Legend: Literature/Folklore/Mythology

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When Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was published in the twelfth century, the world was suddenly introduced to a more complete view of the Arthurian period than had ever been known. Geoffrey had pulled together many earlier sources, drawing on Welsh monastic annals, Breton folklore that descended from Welsh stories, poetry and legends. He created a character and an era larger than life.

Though Geoffrey’s History was criticized even in his own time for its inaccuracies, he caught the attention of the Anglo-Norman monarchs of the day. Because Arthur had allegedly campaigned and conquered lands outside of Britain – parts of Ireland and Gaul for example – lands the Plantagenet kings were also interested in conquering – the monarchs sought to adopt Arthur for their own hero.

Interest in the age of Arthur spread through bards. Many Arthurian stories and related tales were eventually recorded in manuscripts during the Middle Ages. Most notably, these include the Black Book of Carmarthen (c.1250), The Book of Aneirin (late thirteenth century), The Book of Taliesin (fourteenth century), The White Book of Rhydderch (c.1350), and The Red Book of Hergest (c.1400).

Aneirin was a resident court bard of the northern kingdom of Manau Gododdin in the sixth century. His poem, Y Gododdin, (c.600) is a lament for dead soldiers after a battle the Britons lost. Arthur is briefly compared with a less capable warrior in the battle.

Taliesin, also a bard in the northern kingdoms, composed five poems that mention Arthur, including Prieddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn). The poem describes a raid on the pre-Christian Welsh Otherworld, Annwn, in which Arthur and his warriors seize a treasure that includes a magical cauldron. The cauldron may be a precursor to the Holy Grail theme.

Since the Middle Ages a vast body of Arthurian literature has been written, too numerous to list here. The legend grew more literary than historical, being infused with each author’s current beliefs and cultural standards.

Migrating, it found its way into France as well. French writers marketed to wealthy and powerful patrons such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and capitalized on the French connections in British politics.

Tales of Arthur were composed anew, revised, translated and retranslated all across medieval Europe from 1200 to 1600. Incredibly, the languages from which the stories emerged included English, Scots, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Provençal, Italian, Dutch, Old Norse, Icelandic, Swedish, Danish, Greek, Czech, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. Following is a list of significant literary contributions to the legend during the Middle Ages.

  • Wace, Roman de Brut (1155) Introduced Celtic myth, the Round Table, and Arthur’s return from Avalon.
  • Anonymous, Mabinogion (c.1400-found in Red Book of Hergest) Includes more complete Culhwch and Olwen.
  • Chretien de Troyes, Le Chevalier de la Charrete (late twelfth century). Introduces Lancelot and his affair with Guinevere, and Camelot.
  • Chretien de Troyes, Le Conte del Graal or Perceval, (late twelfth century) Introduces the grail quest and the Fisher King
  • Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1400)
  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, (1486)
  • Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, (1590)

Interest waned after the end of the Tudor period (1603). By the seventeenth century, straight-laced Protestants and Parliamentarians disdained anything royal, including Arthurian stories that demonstrated chivalry and touted aristocracy. Ben Jonson and John Milton, leading literary figures at the time, deserted Arthurian works they had planned to write.

In the nineteenth century, interest rebounded as medievalism became fashionable. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate, decided to rewrite the legend for the modern world. Inspired by Malory and the Mabinogion, he wrote, among other poems, The Lady of Shallot (1832) to critical success, then Idylls of the King, completed over the years of 1859-91.

Tennyson’s poetry, in turn, inspired the pre-Raphaelite painters, who worked in the later half of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. Arthurian figures in romantic settings dominate a large number of their paintings.

In the twentieth century and beyond, authors continue to break new ground, from T.H. White’s Once and Future King (1939) to Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (1970’s) to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982). In addition, the legend has expanded into film, music, television, comic books, games and other media. While still basing their work in the Arthurian Fact, authors have reworked, embellished, and blended folklore, mythology and imagination with the bare remnants of Dark Age history.

The texts of many selections of Arthurian literature are available at the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project website: Camelot Project