The Evolution of King Arthur
Arthurian Legend does not stagnate but remains vibrant and meaningful.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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 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…
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.
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.
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.
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