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The Evolution of King Arthur

The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon, 1898
The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon, 1898

Arthurian Legend does not stagnate but remains vibrant and meaningful.

Art by Walter Crane, 1911
Art by Walter Crane, 1911

King Arthur is perhaps the most well-known subject in Anglophone literature. Not many other legends that originated over a millennium ago are still told as frequently and with such gusto today. But, what really makes Arthurian legends so different from other heroic epics is its dynamic ability to evolve.

The tales of Arthur and his knights have been innovated by virtually every new storyteller who told them. New characters were added over time. And, in some cases completely independent myths were grafted into the realm of Camelot.

Because of the way this group of tales lends itself to innovation, Arthurian Legend does not stagnate but remains vibrant and meaningful to every subsequent generation.

The Earliest Sources for King Arthur

Many of us have had the annoying circumstance of being seated next to someone who feels it’s their job to point out every time a Hollywood film departs from historical accuracy, or when the film contradicts the original book.

Well, if you ever hear one of these nitpickers asserting that a King Arthur film “isn’t historically accurate” or “that’s not what happens in the book,” you can promptly ask them “which part of undocumented history do you mean?” or “to which book are you referring?” King Arthur does not have one original source, but many!

Title Page to Morte d'Arthur by Tennyson, art by Alberto Sangorski  1912
Title Page to Morte d'Arthur by Tennyson, art by Alberto Sangorski 1912

Thus the most reasonable position is to be agnostic about the question of Arthur.

The real “original” source for Arthur would be the historical figure – if he existed. Some argue very convincingly that he did.

But, it has not been proven categorically either way. Yes, there is some archaeological evidence, but none of it is proven to be 100% sure to be related the Arthur.

Alan Lupack, author of “The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Legend” put it this way:

“Thus the most reasonable position, though one that will surely be criticized on both sides of the debate, is to be agnostic about the question of Arthur’s historicity,” (pg. 5). I am inclined to agree with him.

Oral Tradition

Whether he lived in reality or merely in the mind of the first bard who told his story, the next innovation of the Arthur legacy was in the form of folktales.

As with Robin Hood and other folk heroes, Arthur was likely being spoken of orally long before his deeds were ever written down.

The Cambridge Companion to Arthurian Literature (various authors) says that “the legend evolved from the shadowy Welsh tradition through [to] medieval chronicle and romance…” (pg. 3).

The authors go on to say that by the time he is mentioned in our earliest source, the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, “he is already larger than life.”

The chronicle records that Arthur led twelve battles against the incoming Saxons, and that he personally killed no less than 960 men in one of them!

Art by N. C. Wyeth, 1917
Art by N. C. Wyeth, 1917

The job of the historian is to extrapolate the history from the exaggerations.

Exaggerated deeds does not necessarily imply that a character is purely imaginary. Similar tales were told of Charlemagne and other known figures. The job of the historian in these cases is to extrapolate the history from the exaggerations.

However, when there is little firm evidence to tell us what the history actually is, then all we are left with is the legend. One of Arthur’s famous battles is recorded independently by the historian Gildas, the battle Mount Badon. So, we know that battle did actually take place. Gildas does not mention Arthur, however.

Art by Alberto Sangorski, 1912
Art by Alberto Sangorski, 1912
Saint Columba, an example of the kind of saint who would be featured in Medieval hagiographies. Art by John R Skelton, 1906
Saint Columba, an example of the kind of saint who would be featured in Medieval hagiographies. Art by John R Skelton, 1906

Arthur in Saints Lives

The next innovative use of the figure of Arthur is as a character in numerous hagiographies. Writers of Celtic saints’ lives found it useful to use Arthur as a literary trope to help their main character, the saint, gain credibility with the reader.

Although some non-historians will cite saints’ lives as historical evidence, in most cases they are pure literary fiction and of no use to historians whatsoever$6.

Arthur’s appearance in these stories does not aid historians in ascertaining whether or not he really lived. But, they do reveal the fact that many people believed that Arthur lived at the times these stories were written.

The fact that authors of the hagiographies, usually monks, used Arthur as a well-known figure to make their own character seem more reliable to the readers demonstrates how well known King Arthur already was among the Celtic peoples in the early Middle Ages. And, since we know that only the elite were literate at this time, this is another indication that a strong oral tradition was already in place.

Merlin prophesies for Vortigern, from a manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae
Merlin prophesies for Vortigern, from a manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

His book was so popular that it spawned summarized versions, adaptations, and was translated into other European languages.

Medieval Texts and Chronicles

Arthur is mentioned in many other scattered early medieval texts and chronicles between the early to high Middle Ages (9th to 12th century), and some of them are thought to be based on even earlier accounts that are now lost. But, the most famous is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia (History of the Kings of Britain), c. 1135 AD.

Geoffrey of Monmouth included Arthur with other documented British kings, and portrays him as a warrior-king valiantly defending Britain against the invading Saxons. This is yet another innovation. Prior to this we have only references to Arthur, not a full on account of his life and times.

An image from a manuscript of Wace's Brut.
An image from a manuscript of Wace's Brut.

Geoffrey of Monmouth opened the floodgate for yet more innovation to the tales. His book was so popular that it spawned summarized versions, adaptations, and was translated into other European languages.

Writers in the Middle Ages had different concepts of plagiarism than we do today, so it is not surprising that other writers took Geoffrey’s story and ran with it. Even translators often took their own liberties with his text.

For instance, Wace, the translator who brought Geoffrey’s work to the French people in 1155, did not translate word for word but used liberal artistic license. Although “courtly” elements were present in Geoffrey’s Historia, Wace expanded them in his version, called Brut. It was Wace’s Brut that first introduced the famous Round Table.

The status of women was improving so that noble ladies commissioned romances.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, from a Medieval manuscript
Eleanor of Aquitaine, from a Medieval manuscript

Medieval Social Changes

Innovations to the Arthurian Legends often corresponded with social changes that were occurring at the time.

As mentioned above, Arthur was used in hagiographies to aid the mission of the Christian monks who wrote them. Although Britain was nominally Christian as early as the 6th century, pagan holdovers and customs lingered on for hundreds of years. So we see his afore mentioned presence in Saints Lives reflects that conversion efforts were still being made.

We see one major change in the tales of Arthur in the 12th century. In his book “King Arthur in Legend and History,” Richard White explains that the 12th century was a time of great change for women in the Middle Ages.

He says that “the status of women was improving so that noble ladies Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie de Champagne, were in a position to patronize the arts and commission romances,” (pg. xvii).

Art by N. C. Wyeth,1917
Art by N. C. Wyeth,1917

He also explains this is the period when royal court life was really taking shape and that these stories were being read at court where many noble ladies were present, as opposed to a storyteller outdoors or in a tavern as it would have been told in the early days.

So, this is when we see a major jump from warrior epic to courtly romance. White says:

It is Chretien de Troyes, the twelfth-century French poet, who first converts Geoffrey’s warrior hero of outstanding prowess into a less bellicose and more sedentary figure of chivalric romance. Since Chretien and subsequent French writers visualized Arthur as an English king, they were naturally more derogatory about him than writers of Welsh or English origin. (xviii).

Art by Arthur Rackham, 1917
Art by Arthur Rackham, 1917

Le Morte d'Arthur

The work that most readers will be familiar with is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. However, by the time it was completed, circa 1470 A.D., there was already over 1,000 years between it and the time of Arthur’s supposed reign. Malory’s seminal work is, therefore, not very useful in getting to the root of the origins of King Arthur.

But it is useful in seeing how the many preceding works had built upon one another to become synthesized in an epic and complex story with numerous characters and many layers. And, of course, Malory’s work is the classic that most of the works that have come after have been based on.

When British royalty needed a boost in the public relations department, they drew upon Arthur.

The Accolade by  Edmund Blair Leighton, a Pre-Raphaelite artist, 1901
The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton, a Pre-Raphaelite artist, 1901

Arthur as Propaganda

One thing that many readers may not know is that writers and storytellers have not been the only people to innovate the Arthur tales.

Actually, you do probably know that! I’m sure that many of you know of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde,” based on Arthurian characters, or that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of 19th century painters who spawned their own movement, used Arthurian Legend as one of their favorite painting subjects.

But, what you really may not know is that royalty, the politicians of their day, also used Arthur for propaganda purposes.

Just as the afore mentioned monks used Arthur to promote their saints because they recognized that he was well known and well loved by the public, when British royalty needed a boost in the public relations department, they drew upon Arthur as well.

There were many English kings who used Arthur for their own personal P.R. campaigns, including King Henry VIII. But, the most innovative was Henry II.

Charlemagne and Arthur were the most popular figures of medieval legend - the difference was that Charlemagne’s historical existence was uncontested.

Henry II of England and his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine
Henry II of England and his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine

Henry II and King Arthur

Henry II was a great admirer of King Arthur. Living in the 12th century, Henry was known to have been quite the fan of Wace’s afore mentioned Arthurian work, Brut.

At the time, his royal counterparts in France were quite proud of their own inheritance of the legacy of Charlemagne. Charlemagne and Arthur were virtually the two most popular figures of medieval legend, ballad, and literature. The difference was that Charlemagne’s historical existence was uncontested.

Although most lay people did believe in Arthur’s historicity, there were critics as early as the 12th century who were outraged that Geoffrey of Monmouth had used mere legend instead of reliable sources for his Historia.

If only some hard evidence could be found so that the kings of England, like the kings of France, would have their own renowned predecessor to bolster their public image…

Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861
Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

Arthur's Grave

Supposedly, so the story goes, an aged and wise bard told Henry II the secret location of the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere, buried on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey.

Accounts say that the excavation took place under Henry’s successor, Richard I, in 1190. However, some writers have said they believe it to have taken place before Henry’s death in 1189.

Among the contents of the grave was found the skeletons of two corpses, a male and a female, a lock of the golden hair, and a plaque in the shape of a cross identifying them as Arthur and Guinevere.

The grave’s contents went missing sometime in the 16th century, so they are not able to be analyzed with modern science.

Arthur and Guinivere by Lancelot Speed, 1912
Arthur and Guinivere by Lancelot Speed, 1912

Archaeology has demonstrated that the site had been occupied since at least the 5th or 6th centuries.

Christopher Snyder discusses Arthur’s grave in his book, “The World of King Arthur.”

He says that although there was motive on the part of the royal family, or even on the part of the monks to increase pilgrimages to their abbey, that archaeology has demonstrated that the site had been occupied since at least the 5th or 6th centuries.

He also says that judging by drawings documenting the cross, now lost, it does appear to have been created much earlier than the 12th century, though it is not likely to have originated in the time of Arthur.

Many historians believe that Henry II hatched the plan and planted the evidence which was then “discovered” under the instructions of Richard I.

Winchester Round Table. Photo by Shane Broderick, used with permission.
Winchester Round Table. Photo by Shane Broderick, used with permission.

Henry VIII

Other English kings also saw the benefit of attaching themselves to King Arthur. The Tudors, whose right to rule was always tenuous, took advantage of their own Welsh origins to tie themselves to Arthur.

Henry VIII’s older brother, who would have been king if he had not died too young, was named Arthur. And, Henry VIII famously refinished the famous Winchester Round Table, hanging in Winchester Castle, with a Tudor Rose adorning the center. This leads us to wonder if their parents called the presumptive heir "Arthur" as a bit of propaganda itself.

A subject that has never waned in popularity in well over one thousand years is impossible to cover in a single article. But, I have attempted to give an overview of how various innovators have shaped Arthurian legend over the years. Of course, these innovations are still going on today in literature, film, and other media, and probably will continue long after we are gone.

References

Archibald, Elizabeth, and Ad Putter. 2009. The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lupack, Alan. 2005. Oxford Guide to Arthurian Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Snyder, Christopher. 2000. The World of King Arthur. New York: Thames & Hudson.

White, Richard. 1997. King Arthur in Legend and History. New York: Routledge.

© 2015 Carolyn Emerick

Comments 27 comments

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 18 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is a very interesting hub that I've shared on Twitter. Thank you for sharing all the fascinating information about the legends concerning King Arthur. I enjoyed learning about about him a great deal!


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 18 months ago Author

Hi Alicia, thank you so much for reading and sharing! I really appreciate it :-)


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 18 months ago from USA

This is so well written and presented. You have condensed many hundreds of years of history into an entertaining, informative article that does so much more than summarize. Voted up and more and sharing, pinning.


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 18 months ago Author

Thanks so much, Flourish! :-)


Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna Jones 18 months ago from United Kingdom

This is superb, Carolyn! I blame Henry II's romanticism for much of this, with his round table and code of chivalry with the Order of the Garter (he's also the one that raised St. George to be our patron saint), so King Arthur has been a political tool as well as an inspiring legend. You've covered all of the aspects and influences very well. I'll be spamming this everywhere! :-) x


May Zarb 18 months ago

After the wait, you did not disappoint! You've managed to cover so much into an amazingly concise article! When I studied Courtly Magic, as you can imagine, Arthurian legends popped up constantly. So when it came to people criticizing 'historical' accuracy, I also had a similar reaction. Thanks for the great read! :)


Ilonagarden profile image

Ilonagarden 18 months ago from Ohio

I always found King Arthur fascinating. Beautiful illustrations of the topic.


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 18 months ago Author

@Polly, you just taught me something! I don't know much about Henry IIth apart from what I learned in researching this article. But, he sounds like a fun monarch to read about. Most monarchs living at cruxes of change are. Especially in the Middle Ages. Thanks for the shares!

@May, I'm so glad you liked it! With everything you're studying at uni, I can't wait to see what's inside of your little head :-) You know, some people do put college papers and essays up here as an article. I did that with one, and have one more on Academia.edu. I would have put up more, but my life was a little hectic and I wasn't able to save all my old papers, and some were freakin awesome! haha! But, if you have any that are interesting, throw them up here!

@Ilonagarden, Thanks so much for stopping by :-) I appreciate your comment


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 18 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Excellent work, and I learned several things. And yes, nothing is more annoying than a play by play criticism during a screening.

Voted up and awesome.


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 18 months ago Author

Thank you Will! That's great feedback, I really appreciate it :-)


Brian 18 months ago

Excellent job! You covered it all very thoroughly and with some detail in places. I long to teach again classes on the subject...maybe someday again I can use my expertise. Until then, keep spreading the knowledge about the 'Once and Future King.' Ardderchog!


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 18 months ago Author

Thanks, Brian! That means a lot coming from someone with your background :-)


May Zarb 18 months ago

@Carolyn. I might start by putting some up on Academia.edu first. If I going to put them up here I might tweak them a little to make them more like an article. Just formatting and pictures mostly. It makes me happy to know that you are keen to read my stuff!


Lee Cloak 18 months ago

I do love to read anything and watch anything Arthurian and this certainly did not dissapoint, a really great hub packed with fantastic detail, thanks for sharing your knowledge, voted up, Lee


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 18 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Certainly instructive Carolyn. (Interesting Tennyson used the Plantegenet coat of arms for his poem's title page).

In a different way to Robin Hood, Arthur was used by the romantics as 'moral back-up' in times of stress. They were both 'good guys', done wrong (Robin, as former Robert of Lockesley done out of an inheritance by a greedy Norman cousin or whatever, Arthur done out of his kingship by 'son' Mordred in alliance with the Saxons).

I saw a more realistic series on the TV here in the 1980's about Arthur and his knights that portrayed them in very early mediaeval outfits, i.e., around the time of the first Germanic migrants into Britain. When Mordred tried to get the Saxon warband leader to join him against Arthur the Saxon is shown as saying 'there is no glory in fighting an old man'. In the end Mordred motivated him with the promise of land.

Arthur has been 'located', buried as far apart as under Arthur's Seat in what is now Scotland (Pictland at the time), Wales and Cornwall and is said to come to the aid of Britons at a time of great need. Some would say he did, during WWII (Battle of Britain - imagine Arthur, Lancelot and co. piloting Spitfires). You could dismiss it all as romantic make-believe, but 'it's better to travel in hope...'

My forebears having come in successive waves of invaders (Saxons, Angles, Danes, Norsemen), I'm of the opinion Arthur fulfilled his role in bolstering up the Britons against the unstoppable. That's why English folk tend to take the side of the underdog, it's a sort of (gulp) sign of guilt about oppressing the good old Celts.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 18 months ago from East Coast, United States

Wonderful read on King Arthur. It's fascinating how the story changes with time. I have often wondered about many of our mythical heroes. Who do we remember from the ancient past and how they are remembered? I love the idea of a story that's been told for so long. And as we will never learn the true story, it's our faith that makes it beautiful.


poetryman6969 profile image

poetryman6969 18 months ago

I have certainly found the legend of King Arthur to be endlessly entertaining. At one time I had thought it was a tale to teach moral lessons but when I look at some of the behaviors of some of the participants, the morality seems a little dubious.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 18 months ago from Northeast Ohio

This was an interesting read, Carolyn, about King Arthur and his tale through classic literature. Thanks for the insightful hub on him and his sword. Voted up for interesting!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 18 months ago from Other Side of the Sun

Very interesting hub Carolyn and some fascinating information on King Arthur. I think most ancient stories have a kernel of truth to them, but unravelling what is history and what is myth built up over time is always difficult


lyoness913 profile image

lyoness913 18 months ago from Overland Park, KS

Very interesting hub- love the pictures as well. Voted up due to the quality and information! Brilliant!


jbosh1972 profile image

jbosh1972 18 months ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

Thank you for an intriguing and relaxing read. You put a lot of work into this hub.


mobilporno profile image

mobilporno 18 months ago from Singapore

Very cool hub friend. Love the content and material. Thanks


creativenid1 profile image

creativenid1 18 months ago from online

very nice hub


deborahmorrison1 profile image

deborahmorrison1 18 months ago from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Highly informative! A most interesting read!


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 16 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Carolyn, this was an interesting hub about the legend of King Arthur. Voted up for useful!


wemarriage profile image

wemarriage 15 months ago

Carolyn this was brilliant as always. I shared it on twiiter and pinterest. After reading several books on Henry VII, he too used his Welsh heritage to weave himself as an Arthur through European Courts during the many years he was in exile from England. It gave him credibility to the throne througout Europe. So much so that Edward IV payed the king of Brittany to capture Henry and return him to England. Henry being very astute in the ways of court was forewarned and went to France ahead of his capture. It is what gave him the sheer nerve to name his oldest child, a son , Arthur, as you mentioned. Something no other king has ever done.


Benoit 9 months ago

You might want to look into Arrthurian stories coming from the celtic part of France.I`ve read tales from there I had never seen elsewhere such the youth of Merlin....

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