Arthur, King

Arthur, King
   King Arthur was the legendary king of Britain who became the central figure in a literary tradition that spanned centuries and included hundreds of texts in the later Middle Ages and beyond, even into the 21st century. Over the course of the medieval period, the literary figure of Arthur developed from a Romanized Celtic “leader of battles” to a refined king presiding over the world’s most glamorous court, and surrounded by the greatest, most chivalric of knights.
   It is possible that Arthur was an historical figure. According to NENNIUS, the purported author of the early ninth-century Historia Britonium, Arthur was the dux bellorum or leader of battles who led the Britons to success in 12 battles against the Saxons, culminating in a decisive victory at Mount Badon, where he killed 960 of the enemy in one charge.Mount Badon was apparently a historical battle—it is mentioned by the contemporary chronicler GILDAS, though Gildas does not mention Arthur. The ANNALES CAMBRIAE (Welsh Annals) put Arthur at the Battle of Badon in 516, and say that Arthur and someone named “Medraut” fell at the Battle of Camlann in 537. After the ultimate Saxon victory, Arthur as the last great Celtic hero became a major figure in Welsh legend and folklore. In the seventh-century poetic lament GODODDIN, Arthur is alluded to as a great warrior. In The SPOILS OF ANNWFN, he leads an army to the Celtic Otherworld to bring back a magic cauldron. In the complex narrative CULHWCH AND OLWEN, Arthur is the center of a court full of heroes—including Kay and Bedivere—who perform miraculous deeds and kill giants.
   Arthur grew from a national British hero to a major figure in world literature with the publication of GEOFFREY OFMONMOUTH’s HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIAE (ca. 1136), a “History of the Kings of Britain” in Latin prose in which Arthur figures as Britain’s greatest king. In Geoffrey, Arthur is the product of an adulterous union between King Uther Pendragon and Ygerne, duchess of Cornwall, after a tryst arranged by the seer Merlin, who transforms Uther into the likeness of Ygerne’s husband. Geoffrey extols Arthur as the vanquisher of the Saxons, but also makes him a world conqueror. His wife is Guanhumara, his sword is Caliburn, and his greatest knight is his nephew Gawain. His other nephew, Mordred, betrays him by usurping Arthur’s kingdom and his queen. In a final battle at Camlann,Mordred is killed, but Arthur is taken to Avalon, from whence he will return when his wounds are healed. Geoffrey’s story provided the basic outline of Arthur’s supposed history for the rest of the Middle Ages. In about 1155, WACE translated Geoffrey’s story into Anglo-French poetry, adding details like Arthur’s round table, a wedding gift from Guenevere’s father. In the early 13th century, LAYAMON freely adapted and expanded Wace’s story into early MIDDLE ENGLISH verse, the first version of the Arthurian legend in English.
   The Arthurian tradition took a different turn in the hands of the late 12th-century French creators of the ROMANCE tradition, MARIE DE FRANCE and CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES. In their texts, Arthur himself moves into a secondary role as his court provides the background for the adventures of some of his individual knights (Gawain, Yvain, Lancelot), and the newly fashionable concept of COURTLY LOVE becomes central to most tales. Chrétien introduces Lancelot as Arthur’s greatest knight, who also replaces Mordred as the queen’s more sympathetic lover. In his Le Conte du Graal (The story of the grail), Chrétien introduces the naïve knight Perceval and the mysterious vessel, the Grail, which becomes a staple of the Arthurian tradition.
   In the 13th century, a series of lengthy French prose romances known collectively as the VULGATE CYCLE attempted to pull together and unify a number of elements in the Arthurian tradition, and to fill in the gaps in the story of the mysterious Grail, which becomes in these romances the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. The Grail becomes the object of a quest by all of Arthur’s knights, but only Sir Perceval, Sir Bors, and Sir GALAHAD are able to achieve the quest. The Vulgate Cycle introduces Merlin into Arthur’s reign as his early adviser, and the motif of the sword in the stone by which Arthur proves his legitimacy as king. In these romances,Arthur unwittingly sleeps with his own half sister, Morgause, and begets the traitor Mordred as his own son. By the 13th century, the popularity of Arthurian romance had spread into most of the vernacular literatures of Europe. Important German versions of some of Chrétien’s stories were produced by WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH and HARTMAN VON AUE. Versions in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, and Icelandic were composed in the 13th and 14th centuries, and a number of Middle English romances of Arthur appeared in the 14th and 15th centuries. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the English knight Sir Thomas MALORY chose to write his own version of the Arthurian legend. He attempted to tell, in a single book, the whole story of King Arthur, from his conception to his mysterious end after the Battle of Camlann.His work, known as Le MORTE DARTHUR (ca. 1470), uses the Vulgate Cycle and some English romances as its major sources, and introduces as well the story of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE, making Tristram one of Arthur’s knights. Malory’s book is the culmination of the medieval legend of King Arthur, and when it was printed by CAXTON in 1485, it brought the Arthurian story to a wider audience than it had ever reached before. Not only did Malory’s text provide a summative compilation of the medieval Arthurian tradition, but it also served as the basis of all later versions of the legend, including Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Steinbeck’s Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, and Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex. It is largely to Malory, to Geoffrey of Monmouth, and to Chrétien de Troyes that the legend of King Arthur owes its position as the most widespread and influential literary tradition in Western literature.
   ■ Baswell, Christopher, and William Sharpe, eds. The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition. New York: Garland, 1988.
   ■ Braswell, Mary Flowers, and John Bugge, eds. The Arthurian Tradition: Essays in Convergence. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
   ■ Fenster, Thelma S., ed. Arthurian Women: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1996.
   ■ Fries,Maureen, and Jeanie Watson, eds. Approaches to Teaching the Arthurian Tradition. New York:Modern Language Association, 1992.
   ■ Lacy, Norris J., and Geoffrey Ashe. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland, 1988.
   ■ Lagorio,Valerie M., and Mildred Leake Day, eds. King Arthur through the Ages. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1990.
   ■ Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Development of Arthurian Romance. New York: Norton, 1963.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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