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The Legend of Arthur

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the June 1981, A.S. XXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

It is through the legend of King Arthur that most people first become acquainted with the Middle Ages. Since he burst upon the literary scene in the 12th century, King Arthur has been the most popular and enduring figure in popular folklore, rivaled only by the heroes of Homer’s epic poems. Even today new tellings of his story appear regularly.

The historical Arthur is hidden by mists of the past. In the few records that survived, there are only brief mentions of him by name, and on other passage that could be applied to him. And that is all. All else is legend.

The fifth century was a perilous time in Britain. The Roman legions that had protected her had made their last appearance on the island in 418. Hope of their return remained until 446, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Vortigern, a native taking over from the Romans, had invited some Saxons from Germany to help him fight the Scots and Picts, who were coming down from the north. But the two Saxon leaders, Hengest and Horsa, turned on Vortigern, and thus began the Saxon invasions, at a date usually recorded as 455.

The earliest account of what occurs next is given by the monk Gildas in about 540. While he wrote his treatise, “De Excidio et Conquesta Britanniae,” mainly to deplore the wickedness of the current kings, he did give a brief account of the recent history. In it he mentions that resistance to the Saxons was organized by Abrosius Aurelianus, a Roman descendent, which ended victoriously with the battle of Mons Badonicus, or Badon Hill. Bede, who relied primarily on Gildas, dates the battle as 493 in his “A History of the English Church and People.”

The next account of the period was written in 858 by the monk Nennius. In his “History of the Britons,” he lists 12 battles that Arthur fought against the Saxons, with the final victory occurring at Mount Badon. The only other mentions of Arthur occur in the “Annales Cambriae,” which puts the battle of Badon in 518 and notes that in the battle of Camlann in 539, Arthur and Medraut died. The mists of time reveal no more.

The battle of Badon is important in that it stopped the Saxon advance. There was an outflow of Saxons during the next four decades and even the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” says very little of this period. This respite ended in 552, and soon after, the island belonged to the Saxons.

The legend of Arthur begins in 1136 with the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “The History of the Kings of Britain.” It is here that we meet for the first time many of the now familiar details of the legend. Geoffrey wrote his book as a history, and even as a history, and even as late as 1620 was considered an authority. Much of his book, however, is more fanciful than factual as several contemporary historians have pointed out. Nevertheless, its popularity was immediate.

The sources of Geoffrey’s work are unknown. The basic outline of the book is from Nennius, but little else. In his dedication, Geoffrey mentions having received a book in the British language, but most historians doubt its existence. To say that he made it all up is dangerous, as a number details have been found to be true. But for all its faults as history, it is a major piece of literature. Here we meet Merlin for the first time, as he gives a long prophecy to Vortigern as revealed by the fight between a read and a white dragon. The scene comes from Nennius, but in his work the prophecy was made by a Ambrosius, who would become the father of Aurelius Ambrosius. Geoffrey makes Aurelius the son of Constantine II, a real Roman general (c. 407), successor to Vortigern, and brother of Uther Pendragon, a name out of Celtic poems. Geoffrey also recounts the seduction of Igerna by Uther, including his shape change by Merlin. And here we learn of Arthur’s end by the treachery of Mordred and hisdeparture to the Isle of Avalon, which Geoffrey claims to have occurred in 542.

While Geoffrey is the source of the basic Arthurian legend, it is not in the form with which we are familiar. Lancelot is not here, instead Arthur’s champion is Gawain, a Celtic hero that had long been connected to Arthur in the Celtic legends of Wales. It is Mordred with whom Guinevere runs off. Arthur’s sword is named Caliburn, forged on the island of Avalon. But for all the changes that would come later, the basic story and theme had been set.

The first to expand upon Geoffrey was Robert Wace in 1155. In a 15,000 line poem, the concept of Arthur’s court as the Medieval ideal comes to the fore. It is he introduces the Round Table.

He is followed by Chretien de Troyes, one of the most famous troubadours of the Middle Ages. It is Chretien who conceived of Lancelot, Galahad, and the Grail. Lancelot first appeared in the poem “Eric” as the chief knight in Arthur’s court. In “Chevalier de la Chartte,” Lancelot came to the forefront and became Guinevere’s lover. Galahad made an appearance as the son of Lancelot and Elaine, the daughter of King Pallas. In the “Conte del Grail,” Chretien introduce the Grail them, with Percival as the hero. Chretien did not finish “Conte del Grail,” and so various endings were composed by several writers, the most notable being Wolfram von Eschenbach.

In the following centuries, many romances were written with an Arthurian theme. A set of prose stories by Robert de Boron, known as the Vulgate cycle, is the nucleus around which the last major changes were made in the Arthur legend. The sword in the anvil, the Lady of the Lake, and Siege Perilous made their first appearance. Morgain le Fay become a major character and was rendered as source of opposition. The stage was set for Sir Thomas Malory.

The person of Thomas Malory is as mysterious as the historical Arthur. All that is known of him is the colophon that William Caxon printed in the first edition of 1485. Whoever he was, Malory has become the touchstone for all later writers of Arthur. In his book, “Morte d’Arthur,” he achieved both a summation and a unification of all the romances and legends that surrounded Arthur. It is Malory who placed Camelot in that semi-mythical Golden Age that the name now evokes. It is an achievement that has few equals.

With Malory we have the Arthur legend in its final form. Since his time many writers have penned their own interpretations of the story: Tennyson, T.H. White, and Steinbeck the most prominent. Milton was about to write his own version before deciding to write “Paradise Lost.” Even today 500 years after “Morte d’Arthur,” Arthur’s appeal has not diminished and his story is told in books, plays, movies, comics, and other diverse forms of communication. The legend ends with Arthur being carried to Avalon where he lives until England’s time on need. During the Middle Ages there was much argument as to the location of Avalon and whether Arthur still lived. But if Avalon is where our dreams and hopes lie, then it is true that King Arthur is alive and well today.

 

Bibliography

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Trans. G.N. Garmonsway. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1972

Chambers, E.K. Arthur of Britain. London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1927

Miller, Helen Hill. The Realms of Arthur. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969.

Monmouth, Geoffrey of. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Lewis Thrope. New York: Penguin (Classics) Books, 1966.

Venerablis, Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. New York: Penguin (Classics) Books, 1955.

 

Copyright © 1981 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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