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One of the earliest appearances of King Arthur in written English was in a work by a monk called Gildas, who died in 572. Arthur is also mentioned in the British Historical Miscellany,a collection of manuscripts brought together sometime in the ninth or tenth century. His name also appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, reused in a very influential History of the Kings of England by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1137).
However, none of this is evidence that Arthur was a real person: it merely tells us that since the 6th century he was being written about as a fact of common cultural knowledge in England and Wales. As Winston Churchill said ‘It is all true, or ought to be’.
From the 11th century, French verse romances about Arthur were copied and translated into English, and eventually an English verse and prose tradition about Arthur emerged. Stories about Arthur became cyclical, collections of episodes, part of a larger ‘history’ that embraced many stories of Arthur and his knights, rather than a single linear narrative. The idea of a ‘true history’ of Arthur was important for medieval writers: they felt they had to connect their particular story of Arthur with the ‘true history’, to authenticate it for their audiences, and thus ‘prove’ Arthur’s reality. This way, invented new Arthurian stories could be integrated acceptably, and readers would be reassured that new stories about Arthur were part of the ‘right’ tradition.
The Arthurian stories and poems show changes in how Arthur’s society was portrayed, as he moved through the centuries, and back and forth across the English Channel, from a Saxon war leader to an English knightly lord. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about Uther’s desire for Ygraine in The History of the Kings of Britain, in the 12th century, he said only that Uther would have a physical breakdown if he couldn’t have this woman. The verbs are all about possession, of an object or a thing that is rightfully the king’s if he wants it. Love is not relevant for Uther, only desire.
When Robert Wace translated this tale into French a few years later, in his Roman de Brut, he translated the culture as well as the story.Wace’s Uther flirts publicly and skillfully with Ygraine, who joins in the game quite knowingly. The French courtly tradition was a more nuanced and socially complex affair fostered by a more leisured aristocracy. A century later, when the poet Layamon translated Wace’s poem back into English verse as Brut, he also brought the poem back into a British cultural mode: he returned to a heroic and martial emphasis. Layamon’s Arthur is a fierce warrior king, not a chivalric knight. Guinevere offers the cup of wine to the visiting lord, a sign that Arthur’s court is still Anglo-Saxon. She is also demonized as a witch for her sexual influence over the king, but her fate is not important for this story. The focus in Brut is Arthur’s revenge upon his usurper. Lancelot doesn’t exist in this story: Modred seduces Guinevere, and she disappears from sight, her narrative usefulness over.
In the Morte Darthur (1470) Sir Thomas Malory combined the older Arthurian traditions with the new literary form of prose. He used familiar tales from the native English tradition of Layamon, of Arthur as a national hero. But he incorporated a second tradition from France, and from Wace’s Brut, which focuses on the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. This also combined two audiences: aristocratic readers of the newfangled prose romance, and the medieval burghers entertained by fantastical histories in verse.
Romance is different from epic. Epic takes place in the world of everyday, presented in an enlarged and ennobled form, occasionally with a climactic monster or visit from the gods. In Malory’s form of romance, in his day an established and probably also a rather old-fashioned form, he was using realistic details to produce a mimetic portrait of the aristocratic life of his time. The very early epic, such as the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, dealt with the war leader and his comitatus, warriors under his command, in a feudal relationship. King Arthur, the Romano-British chieftain of epic, turns into a fifteenth-century monarch surrounded by his knights in a romance.
Romances depicted the uppermost layers of this feudal society, which was still organized by the bonds of loyalty between lord and man, but only dealt with the king and his knights. Men of lesser ranks were barely mentioned, except as victims or nameless servants. There is also an age restriction in the characters of romance: old people are almost invisible, except as a passing crone or villein (not villain). The characters are almost all men of fighting age, their wives or mistresses, perhaps a clerk, an enchanter, a fairy, a fiend, a giant or a dwarf. If Malorian knights have sons, the sons grow to adulthood and fight alongside, or against, their father, while the father has not appeared to age.
Family relationships barely exist, and the linear connection between father and son, or the husband’s relationship with his wife, are feudal (in terms of bonds of loyalty) rather than personal (in terms of emotion). The personal relationships in the world of romance are those of knight and vassal, king and knight, and the mirror image of lady and lover: the last is the most important in Malory. Fidelity is the most valued personal quality. It surpasses the love of a wife for her husband, but also of the knightly lover for his lady. This paradox becomes the crux of complex debate in courtly love literature, and in real life. In the Morte Darthur, the masculine loyalties between Arthur and Lancelot, as lord and knight, are more important than the loyalty of Lancelot to Guinevere. This is why Lancelot’s choice of his lady over his king is so agonised, and leads to the destruction of the Round Table.
A third layer of combined and evolving cultures can be seen in the vocabulary. Malory persistently uses English and anglicized forms of names that were commonly known in their French form. Tristan becomes Tristram, Girflet becomes Gryflet, Gaheriet becomes Gareth. Malory also uses names only known in the English romance tradition: Baudewyne, the Green Knight, Sir Ironside, etc, and supplies geographically accurate English placenames for locations only vaguely indicated in the French versions.
By the early 15th century concision in narration was becoming valued. Details were being pared down, the story was becoming refined and the narration more sophisticated in how much it could convey in fewer words. The English of the Morte Darthur is also close enough to modern English to let us to read it without translation. Finally. From this point on, Arthur was plunged into English literature by Edmund Spenser (in The Faerie Queene), Tennyson (in The Idylls of the King), and the immortal T H White (The Once and Future King).
Kate’s podcast series Why I Really Like This Book has more about Beowulf, The Faerie Queene, and a whole series of novels about King Arthur, at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.