Arthurian Romances

The World Pertaining to King Arthur


Chretien de Troyes

King Arthur, ‘Once and Future King’

King Arthur, ‘Once and Future King’By Michael Wood

The fantastical tale of King Arthur, the hero warrior, is one of the great themes of British literature. But was it just invented to restore British pride after the Norman invasion? Michael Wood puts the king in the spotlight.

A great theme

The core myths of the Celtic peoples centre on the great cycle of stories based on the life and exploits of King Arthur. These legends link Arthur to a common poetic idea of Britain as a kind of paradise of the West, with a primeval unspoiled past. Together they add up to the greatest theme in the literature of the British Isles.

Together they add up to the greatest theme in the literature of the British Isles.

The historic figure of Arthur as a victorious fifth-century warrior, leading Britons into battle against Saxon invaders, has so far proved impossible for historians to confirm. In fact the one contemporary source that we do have for the time, ‘The Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ by the British monk and historian Gildas (c.500-70) gives somebody else’s name altogether as the leader of the Britons.

So where does the legend come from? Why has Arthur – the ‘once and future king’ of the poet Thomas Malory – remained so important to us, and why has he been important in the past?

First layer of the legend

The King Arthur that we know of today is a composite of layers of different legends, written by different authors at different times. He appears in his first incarnation in the ‘History of the Britons’, written in 830 and attributed to a writer called Nennius.

Here Arthur appears as a heroic British general and a Christian warrior, during the tumultuous late fifth century, when Anglo-Saxon tribes were attacking Britain. In one of the most pregnant passages in British history, Nennius says:

Then in those days Arthur fought against them with the kings of the Britons, but he was commander [dux bellorum] in those battles.

Nennius then gives a list of 12 battles fought by Arthur, a list that belongs in an old tradition of battle-list poems in Welsh poetry. Some of the names appear in other early poems and annals, stretched over a wide period of time and place, and the list represents the kind of eclectic plundering that was the bard´s stock-in-trade.

So the 12 battles of Arthur are not history. One man could not possibly have fought in all of them. The 12 battles are in fact the first signs of a legend.

Historic Arthur

In the turmoil of the period following the Norman invasion in 1066, Celtic literature experienced a flowering. Much of it concerned stories of the Welsh and the other Celtic Britons in glorious triumph against their new masters. A shower of new histories also sprung forth, introducing the Normans to the culture and the past of the Celts. All such stories need a main protagonist, a hero to lead the troops, and this is where Arthur fitted in.
Much of it concerned stories of the Welsh and the other Celtic Britons in glorious triumph against their new masters.

Already known in Welsh poetry and in Nennius’s history, he was an obvious contender. And with that background it is perhaps unsurprising that it was another Welsh writer who propelled Arthur from being just a Celtic warrior to being a mythical super-star.

The writer was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who spent his working life in Oxford and here produced his momentous work ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’. Geoffrey claimed the work was based on a secret lost Celtic manuscript that only he was able to examine. But it’s really a myth masquerading as history, a fantastical tale of the history of the British Isles, which concentrates its key pages on King Arthur and his wondrous deeds.

In this work, for the first time, Arthur’s whole life is told – from his birth at Tintagel to his eventual betrayal and death. There´s Guinevere and Merlin, there´s the legendary sword Caliburn (later known as Excalibur), and even the king´s final resting place at Avalon – though it’s not yet identified with Glastonbury.

At the time it was written Geoffrey´s book had a tremendous influence, and over 200 manuscripts still remain in existence. Its impact was as great in Europe as it was in Britain. Geoffrey had an expert way of mixing myth with fact, thus blurring reality – and this blend attracted a mass audience, perhaps in the same way that works such as The Da Vinci Code do today.

The Holy Grail

At the same time, the stories of Arthur began to bloom in the Celtic lands of northern France. This French connection began soon after the Norman Conquest, when Henry II of England married the vivacious and beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine. In their court the two worlds of French and English literature intermingled, and poets and troubadours transformed the Arthur legend from a political fable to a tale of chivalric romance.

Perhaps the most important among the court writers was Chrétien de Troyes, who worked for Eleanor´s daughter Marie de Champagne. Chrétien is probably the greatest medieval writer of Arthurian romances, and it was he who turned the legend from courtly romance into spiritual quest. The mysterious Holy Grail, one of the most captivating motifs in all literature, first appears as part of the Arthurian legend in Chrétien’s unfinished poem ‘Perceval, or the Story of the Grail’ (1181-90):

A girl came in, fair and comely and beautifully adorned, and between her hands she held a grail. And when she carried the grail in, the hall was suffused by a light so brilliant that the candles lost their brightness as do the moon or stars when the sun rises. After her came another girl bearing a silver trencher. The grail was made of the finest pure gold, and in it were set precious stones of many kinds, the richest and most precious in the earth or the sea.

Chrétien´s image of the grail, luminous and other-worldly, became a mystical symbol of all human quests, of the human yearning for something beyond, desirable and yet unattainable. With that, the Arthur legend entered the true realm of myth.

Arthur becomes political

By the time the Tudor king Henry VII came to the throne in 1485, chivalric tales of Arthur’s knightly quests and of the Knights of the Round Table, inspired by Chrétien de Troyes, had roused British writers to pen their own versions, and Arthur was a well established British hero. Thomas Malory’s work the Death of Arthur, published in 1486, was one of the first books to be printed in England.

It is a haunting vision of a knightly golden age swept away by civil strife and the betrayal of its ideals. Malory identified Winchester as Camelot, and it was there in the same year that Henry VII´s eldest son was baptised as Prince Arthur, to herald the new age.

It is a haunting vision of a knightly golden age swept away by civil strife and the betrayal of its ideals.

In the meantime Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tome had not been forgotten, and Arthur was also seen as a political and historical figure. Nowhere was this more true than in the minds of 16th-century rulers of Britain, trying desperately to prove their equal worth with their sometimes-ally sometimes-foe Charles V, the great Holy Roman Emperor.

The young prince Arthur did not live to be crowned king and usher in a true new Arthurian age, but in 1509 his younger brother became Henry VIII and took in the message. He had the Winchester Round Table of Edward III repainted, with himself depicted at the top. Here he was shown as a latter-day Arthur, a Christian emperor and head of a new British empire, with claims once more to European glory, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory had described.

Victorian revival

The 19th century in Britain was a time of great change, and the Industrial Revolution was transforming the nation irrevocably. But this situation produced great doubt and uncertainty in people’s minds – not just in the future direction of the world but in the very nature of man’s soul. As we have seen, at times of great change the legend of King Arthur, with its unfaltering moral stability, has always proved popular, and so it proved again in the reign of Queen Victoria.

The Victorian Arthurian legends were a nostalgic commentary on a lost spirit world.

Thus, when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1834, Arthurian themes from Malory´s book were chosen for the decoration of the queen´s robing room in the House of Lords, the symbolic centre of the British empire. And poems such as Tennyson´s ‘Idylls of the King’ and William Morris´s ‘The Defence of Guinevere’, based on the myth, became extremely popular. In addition, the Pre-Raphaelite painters produced fantastically powerful re-creations of the Arthurian legend, as did Julia Margaret Cameron in the new medium of photography.

The Victorian Arthurian legends were a nostalgic commentary on a lost spirit world. The fragility of goodness, the burden of rule and the impermanence of empire (a deep psychological strain, this, in 19th-century British literary culture) were all resonant themes for the modern British imperialist knights, and gentlemen, on their own road to Camelot.

Modern myth

Today the tale has lost none of its appeal. Camelot was ‘discovered’ at Cadbury, in Somerset, in the 1960s, and many books on the subject have been written in the past few decades. Films such as John Boorman´s Excalibur (1981), Robert Bresson´s Lancelot (1972) and Jerry Zucker’s First Knight (1995) were pre-cursors to Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 Hollywood epic King Arthur. Historians have also identified a real fifth-century Arthur – a prince and recognised warrior who died fighting the warring Scottish Picts.

But in the end it is perhaps his myth that is in any case more important than his history.

Has any of this helped verify the King Arthur of our story books? Maybe not. But in the end it is perhaps his myth that is in any case more important than his history. Over the centuries the figure of Arthur became a symbol of British history – a way of explaining the ‘matter’ of Britain, the relationship between the Saxons and the Celts, and a way of exorcising ghosts and healing the wounds of the past.

In such cases the dry, historical fact offers no solace, it is myth that offers real consolation, not in literal, historical fact but in poetic, imaginative truth. And a body of myth like the Arthurian tales therefore represents in some magical way the inner life of our history as Britons, over many hundreds, even thousands, of years. In this sense the fabulous myths really do serve Britain and make Arthur, perhaps, the real ‘once and future king’.

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The Infinite Character of King Arthur on Sale this Sunday!


This Sunday for my son’s 13th birthday, I will be giving away, “The Infinite Character of King Arthur” for Free!!!

Here’s the link below

The next part of the series will launch next week!  Book Two is titled “Mystical People and Places Accessing Supernatural Elements in the Arthurian Legends”.  

I am really excited about this one. It’s taking two of my favorite subject matter and putting them together.  So keep an eye out for my posts and emails this weekend and the coming weeks!

You can get a look at Infinite Arthur HERE!

Here are 8 things you may not know about King Arthur!

The legend of King Arthur, a fifth-century warrior who supposedly led the fight against Saxon invaders, continues to fascinate today. Here, as part of our Myths and Legends Week, historian John Matthews reveals eight things you probably didn’t know about King Arthur…
1) The once and future king

Arthur, sometimes known as ‘the king that was and the king that shall be’, is recognised all over the world as one of the most famous characters of myth and legend. Yet, if he existed at all (which few scholars agree upon), he would not have been a king, but the commander of an elite force of fighting men. Furthermore, he would have lived more than 500 years before medieval legends suggest.

All that is known, with even the least degree of certainty, is that a man named Arthur, or Arturus, led a band of heroic warriors who spearheaded the resistance of Britons against the invading Saxons, Jutes, and others from the north of Europe, sometime in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

Another theory claims that Arthur was a Roman centurion named Lucius Artorius Castus, who fought against the Picts [northern tribes that constituted the largest kingdom in Dark Age Scotland] on Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, some 300 years earlier than the time at which Arthur’s dates are normally set.

Even Arthur’s birthplace and base of operations are questionable. Camelot – the castled city associated with King Arthur – was invented by the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes. Arthur’s association with Cornwall and parts of Wales is an idea fostered by 18th-century antiquarians such as William Stukeley, who carried out one of the first archaeological investigations at Cadbury Castle in Somerset, long believed in local folklore to be the original site of Camelot.

Whatever the truth – and we may never know for sure – the adventures of the legendary King Arthur, with his Round Table Fellowship of Knights based in the mythical city of Camelot, were told and retold between the 11th and 15th centuries in hundreds of manuscripts in at least a dozen languages. “What place is there within the bounds of the Empire of Christendom to which the winged praise of Arthur the Briton has not extended?” wrote the 12th-century chronicler Alanus ab Insulis (or Alain de Lille). Today Arthurian stories are told in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Icelandic, Dutch, Russian, and even Hebrew.
2) The Round Table

The Round Table is the centerpiece of the Arthurian world. According to the 13th-century poet Layamon, Arthur ordered the table to be built for him by a famous Cornish carpenter, who somehow made the table capable of seating 1,600 men (clearly an exaggeration), yet easily portable to wherever Arthur set up his mobile base of operations.

Other stories suggest it was Merlin, the king’s magician, who made the table – “round” he said, “in the likeness of the world” – and who sent out a call to the bravest and truest knights to join a great fellowship whose task was to care for the disenfranchised (especially women), and who would do no harm to anyone who did not deserve it.

Some 150 knights were said to have sat at the Round Table. Their adventures lead us into a magical realm of wonder: where ‘faery women’ test the nobility of the knights by offering them seemingly impossible tasks, and strange creatures lurk in the shadows of a vast forest, in whose depth are clearings where castles, chapels, hermitages, and ruins are found – some empty, others containing dangerous foes.

When they had largely rid the land of monsters, dragons, and evil customs, the knights undertook their greatest task of all – the quest for the Holy Grail. Many did not return.

3) Merlin

Merlin, Arthur’s advisor, appears in different legends as a magician, a prophet, a wildman, or a visionary poet. He is said to have helped bring about the birth of the future king by magically giving Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, the likeness of his rival, Gorlois of Tintagel, Duke of Cornwall, so that Uther could engender a child with Gorlois’ wife, Igraine. Once Arthur was born, Merlin is said to have carried him away to a secret location in the forest, and watched over him until he came of age.

At this point, Merlin supposedly arranged the test of the Sword in the Stone, which only the true king could draw. This sword is often confused with Arthur’s most famous weapon, Excalibur, the legendary sword said to have magical powers. In fact that blade was given to Arthur later by the Lady of the Lake (a ‘faery woman’ who appears in the stories), after the sword from the stone breaks during battle. 
It is another such faery being, Nimue, the handmaid of the Lady of the Lake, who becomes Merlin’s nemesis: Merlin falls passionately in love with the beautiful damsel, who tricks him into giving her the secrets of his magic and then uses them against him, locking him forever in a cave from which, years after, ‘the cry of Merlin’ could still be heard.
Merlin’s own origins are almost as difficult to establish as Arthur’s. A collection of poems, magical and mystical in nature, is attributed to a princely bard named Myrddin, whose British name was changed because of its unfortunate similarity to merde (excrement) in French. The 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, who included Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain (1138), also wrote a Life of Merlin (c1150), in which a sixth-century prince goes mad after seeing his nephews killed in battle and who hides in the forest, telling stories to a pet pig. Geoffrey clearly considered this was the same Merlin as the character included in his later History of the Kings of Britain.
4) Faery women
Many faery women thread together the stories of Arthur and his knights. This is probably because a good number of the stories originated not in Britain, but in Brittany – or, as it was known then, Armorica or Aermorica, where belief in ancient deities and the faery race lived on. These faery tales became interwoven with stories of chivalry beloved by the courtly circle. Within the courtly circle these stories were told by roving troubadours – poets who learned dozens of Arthurian tales by heart.
In c1150 Geoffrey of Monmouth named nine sisters in his Vita Merlini as the rulers of the enchanted island of Avalon. Among them was Morgen (more familiar to us as Morgan le Fay), who in later stories is described as Arthur’s half-sister and becomes his most implacable foe. Sir Thomas Malory, in his great 15th-century novel, Le Mort D’Arthur, tells us Morgan was “put to school on a nunnery, where she learned magic and necromancy”. 
Though this may sound odd to us today, many of the women in enclosed orders were learned, and since learning was frequently equated with magic, thus Morgan came to be considered a sorceress.

5) The grail
The greatest task undertaken by Arthur’s knights was the quest for the grail, a mysterious vessel linked to the Passion of Christ [the story of Jesus Christ’s arrest, trial, suffering, and eventual execution by crucifixion]. According to the 12th-century poet Robert De Boron, the grail was used to celebrate the Last Supper, and afterwards by Christ’s ‘uncle’, Joseph of Arimathea, to catch some of the blood that flowed from the Saviour as his body was taken down from the cross.
Earlier stories, from the mythology of the Celts, can be seen as precursors of the grail: they spoke of “cauldrons of plenty” that provided food for heroes and could even bring the dead to life. But once the links with Christian belief were established in the 12th century, the grail became a holy relic sought by mystics and heroes – and, most famously, by Arthur’s fellowship.
All 150 knights of the Round Table are said to have gone forth in search of the sacred vessel after it appeared at Camelot during Pentecost [a feast celebrated each year on the 50th day after the Great and Holy Feast of Pascha (Easter) and 10 days after the Feast of the Ascension of Christ]. Of those who went forth only three succeeded in their quest to find the grail: the saintly knight Sir Galahad, the simple Sir Percival, and the honest, plain-spoken Sir Bors.
Many other knights perished, and this undoubtedly weakened both the Round Table and Arthur’s court, preparing the way for the dark days to come when Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred rose up against him and ended the dream of Camelot.
6) Lancelot and Guinevere
Love stories feature a great deal in the Arthurian world. Tristan and Isolde, for example, best known these days from Wagner’s 1859 opera that retold their story, were famous doomed lovers. But another story, originating in France, became one of the best known of the Arthurian tales: the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere.
The 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes gave us an account of their romance in his Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart (c1177). No stories before this feature Lancelot, so we must assume that Chrétien invented him. Lancelot became known as the greatest knight of the Round Table and Arthur’s most trusted ally, but it was his illicit love for Queen Guinevere that made him famous.
Chrétien’s story tells a dramatic tale of Guinevere’s abduction by a lord named Melwas, who had fallen in love with the queen, and of Lancelot’s efforts to rescue her. In order to reach Melwas’ castle, where she is held, Lancelot is forced to ride in a cart – a vehicle reserved for criminals on their way to the gallows. But Lancelot hesitates for a moment, and when Guinevere learns of this this later on she spurns him as not worthy of her affections.
Later stories extended Lancelot and Guinevere’s love into a full-blown affair, which in the end brought down the Round Table and ushered in the end of Arthur’s reign when Lancelot rescued the queen, who had been condemned to burn at the stake, and in the process killed several of Arthur’s knights. With the king reluctantly forced to attack Lancelot, the way was left open for Mordred to attack Camelot.


7) The death of Arthur
Weakened by the losses incurred during the quest for the grail, and then by the scandal of Lancelot and Guinevere, Arthur’s kingdom began to break apart.
War broke out after Lancelot staged an armed rescue of Guinevere, condemned to death for her treasonous love for the great knight. In the heat of battle Lancelot killed two of Arthur’s best men, Gareth and Gaheris, who had defended the queen. Their brother, the famous knight Sir Gawain, thus became Lancelot’s most bitter foe, and as Arthur was forced to respond to Lancelot’s rescue of the queen, he reluctantly led an army to France to attack him.
While Arthur and Gawain were away attacking Lancelot, King Arthur’s son, Mordred, raised an army and declared himself king. With the hasty return of the true king to Britain, a final battle took place at Camlann. Arthur killed Mordred, but suffered a wound that seemed likely to kill him – though in the end he was taken to Avalon to be healed.
There follows one of the most famous scenes in the entire series of Arthurian stories: Arthur’s faithful follower, Sir Bedivere, throws the king’s mighty sword back into the lake from which it had come at the beginning of his reign (given him by the Lady of the Lake). A mysterious hand rises from the water and seizes the sword, drawing it under.
A ship then appears, carrying three queens, who take the wounded Arthur away, across the sea to the fabled Isle of Avalon, where it is said he would be healed of his wounds and live on, awaiting recall by his country in time of need – the ‘once and future king’ indeed.
8) Arthur’s bones
Belief in Arthur’s expected return to his country was kept alive in stories for many years by the people of Britain. Arthur’s bones were supposedly found at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191, though this was nothing more than a fabrication designed to quell the belief that Arthur would return to expel the invading Normans. Nevertheless, some bones were indeed interred in a black marble tomb in 1278 at the expense of Edward I.
To this day, countless new books, films, television shows and plays continue to be created about King Arthur, adding to the popularity of the legends, which remain among the most familiar and best-loved stories of all time.
John Matthews is a historian who has produced more than 100 books on myth, the Arthurian legends, and the history of the Grail. His latest book, King Arthur: Many Faces, One Hero, co-written with Caitlín Matthews, will be published by Inner Traditions in 2016.



The Infinite Character of King Arthur: His History and Legend, His Camelot and Avalon by Jill M Roberts

Hi All! For my friends in the US and the UK, here’s the link for my new book on King Arthur! If you get the chance to pick up a copy, please let me know what you think. Hope you all enjoy!
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For UK:

New Book about King Arthur!


The Infinite Character of King Arthur:
His History and Legend,
Camelot and Avalon

By Jill M Roberts

You can get a copy here:

Hope you all enjoy it!

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Morgan Le Faye, Queen of ‘Gore’


Morgan Le Fay,
Queen of ‘Gore’
(Born c.AD 473)
(Welsh: Morgan; Latin: Morganna; English: Morgan)

The much maligned Morgan Le Fay was, to a large extent, the invention of medieval romance writers such as Sir Thomas Malory. In his “Le Morte D’Arthur” Malory tells us that Morgan was one of the half-sisters of King Arthur, daughter of Ygerna and her first husband, Gorlois. The Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian tales tells how she became Guinevere’s lady in waiting and fell in love with the King’s nephew, Giomar. Guinevere, however, put an end to the romance and, as a result, Morgan eventually betrayed the Queen’s affair with Lancelot to King Arthur. She even sent the Green Knight to Camelot in order to frighten Guinevere to death. Morgan herself took a fancy to Lancelot at one point and imprisoned him for some time before he was able to escape.

Chrétien describes Morgan as a giver of healing ointments, but the lady is usually portrayed as a wicked enchantress who learned her initial mysterious skills from her corrupt education in an early Christian nunnery. Later, Merlin helped her to extend her magical powers. The story that she enticed King Arthur into an incestuous affair from which Mordred was born is, however, a misconception derived from the desire of modern authors to merge Morgan with her more sympathetic sister, (Anna-) Morgause.

Malory shows how Morgan hated Arthur for his purity and plotted with her lover, Sir Accolon, to steal both Excalibur and the British throne. Arthur met Accolon in combat without his magical sword, but the Lady of the Lake helped him retrieve it and win the battle. In return, Morgan stole Excalibur’s scabbard and threw it into the nearest lake. She eventually escaped Arthur’s wrath by transforming her entourage into stone.

Morgan retired to Gore (North Rheged) and then to her Castle of Tauroc (possibly in North Wales). The Royal court appears to have thought her dead until Arthur came across her residence while out hunting one day. The two were immediately reconciled. In late life she moved to the Isle of Avalon, and it was to here that she and her allies, the Queens of Northgalis (North Wales) and the Wastelands, took her wounded brother to be healed after the Battle of Camlann.

Malory makes Morgan the wife of King Uriens of Gore, an actual historical mid to late 6th century monarch of North Rheged (what is now Cumberland and Westmorland in Northern Britain). Though technically this may have been just about possible, during this time period it is stretching credulity a little far. Morgan was an elder half-sister of King Arthur who fought at Mount Badon around 495-500 and traditionally died in 537. Urien was assassinated during a military campaign around 590. The earlier Vulgate Cycle, however, makes Morgan a generation younger, being the daughter of King Lot of Lothian (Gododdin). On the other hand, Welsh Tradition tells us that Urien’s wife was Modron ferch Afallach, apparently a sister-in-law of King Maelgwn Gwynedd, and it may be that two ladies have become confused.

Alternatively, this latter identification may betray the lady’s true origins as a Pagan Celtic Goddess. Modron was the name of the Celtic Mother-Goddess, often depicted in Romano-British times as having a triple personality. This may be seen in Arthurian tales through her association with the Queens of Northgalis (North Wales) and the Wastelands. The Lady of the Lake may have been another aspect of the lady. Modron’s father, Afallach, was the titular God of the Celtic Otherworld, Avalon. Morgan is said to have lived here with her nine sisters, a not insignificant group similar to the Greek Muses. Some early sources actually refer to Morgan as “the Goddess,” while her shape-shifting and healing aspects clearly indicate heavenly powers. She appears to have gradually degenerated into “Le Fay” – a fairy – who could fly through the air on enchanted wings: to this day, the Breton name for a water-nymph is a Morgan.

The lady’s wicked character appears to have been the invention of the Cistercian monks who wrote the stories of the Vulgate Cycle. Influenced by memories of the ancient Irish Goddess, the Morrighan (Phantom Queen), another triple-aspect divinity representing life & death, sexuality and conflict, they painted poor pagan Morgan as black as they could. They believed it blasphemous for a healer to be neither male nor a member of a religious order and Morgan paid dearly for her reputation.


Geoffrey Ashe (1990) Mythology of the British Isles.
Peter C. Bartrum (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary.
Ronan Coghlan (1991) The Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends.
David Day (1995) The Quest for King Arthur.
Chrétien De Troyes (1160) Erec and Enide.
Chrétien De Troyes (1170) Yvain.
Miranda J. Green (1992) Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend.
Phyllis Ann Karr (1997) The Arthurian Companion.
Thomas Malory (1485) Le Morte D’Arthur.
John & Caitlin Matthews (1988) The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology.
John Matthews (1994) The Arthurian Tradtion.
Geoffrey of Monmouth (1150) The Life of Merlin.

How the Arthurian Romances Developed


How the Legend Developed 

During the years 500 – 550AD the Britons appear to have held back the Saxon advance. However, in the following years they were forced back into Cornwall and Wales. The territory held by the Saxons eventually became known as England and the people in Wales were called ‘Welsh’ from the Saxon word ‘weala’ meaning ‘foreigners’. (It’s worth noting that the Welsh called themselves ‘Cymry’ meaning ‘fellow countrymen’ and their country ‘Cymru’.) Now, the importance of this division is that the Saxon conquerors were hardly likely to be interested in the exploits of a ‘foreign’ leader who was successful in holding them at bay. Maybe it is for this reason that Arthur is not mentioned in early English chronicles while his name occurs in Welsh ones.

The first reliable reference to Arthur is in the ‘Historia Brittonum’ written by the Welsh monk Nennius around the year 830AD. Surprisingly he refers to Arthur as a warrior – not a king. He lists twelve battles fought by Arthur including Mount Badon and the City Of The Legion.

Arthur is mentioned in early Welsh literature, however the surviving manuscripts which refer to him date from after the legend was firmly established. These documents, though interesting, do not help us understand the roots of the legend.

It was the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, another Welsh cleric, which really set down the foundations of the Arthurian legends. Other subsequent writers have expanded his themes and added new strands to the story. His work, ‘Historia Regum Britaniae’ was written in the year 1133AD. He claimed to have based the work on an ancient Celtic document in his possession. It became a ‘best seller’ and still survives in two hundred manuscripts.

Geoffrey’s work was intended to be an historical document. Within fifty years of its completion it had fired the imagination of writers of fiction across Europe. Many of these added new strands to the story which subsequently became essential elements:

In 1155 the French poet Maistre Wace added The Round Table.
Chretien de Troyes, also French, wrote five Arthurian stories between the years 1160 and 1180. He developed the theme of chivalry and dwelt on the subtleties of courtly romance.

Another French man, Robert de Boron from Burgundy, developed the idea of the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Back in England at about the same time, (around 1200AD) the priest Layamon wrote the story in English – the first time it had appeared in this language. In his version Arthur did not die from his wounds, he remained on the Isle of Avalon – to return some time in the future.

In 1485 William Caxton published ‘Le Morte Darthur’ – one of the first printed books. Written by Sir Thomas Malory, this was a collection of eight stories which brilliantly drew together the whole saga and gave us the account we know today.

It is interesting that writers placed Arthur in their own times. In fact the way the whole story develops tells us far more about the times in which the author lived than the era referred to.
Prior to the Norman invasion the Vikings were attacking and settling just as the Saxons had done 400 years before. People must surely have looked around for a saviour. Times were right for telling stories of a powerful leader.

The Norman conquerors must have welcomed Geoffrey’s account. This suggested that the rightful heir to the throne of England was driven out by the Saxons – maybe to Northern France. They could claim a direct blood-line to previous kings.

Geoffrey dedicated his book to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Lord of the Gwent Marches. Robert was unusual among the Norman Lords in as much as he encouraged an intellectual movement in Wales. It is said that he gathered a brilliant body of learned men in his court. He must have welcomed Geoffrey’s account which located important events in Caerleon (part of the Gwent Marches) and stated: “the city contained a college of two hundred learned men, who were skilled in astronomy and the other arts and so by their careful computations prophesied for King Arthur any Prodigies due at that time.” Geoffrey later became Archdeacon of Monmouth!

Geoffrey’s writing obviously touched a nerve particularly in France. Maybe it was because it harkened to a ‘better time’. In reality life must have been very different from that depicted in the legend that developed.

The story as we know it was written by Malory in 1470. He very clearly set the events in the Middle Ages.
What is the truth? Is there such a thing as the truth? Locating facts is very difficult. Geoffrey was writing some 600 years after the events. His main source is not known. Until relatively recently there was no standard spelling for even common words – names of people and places in particular took many forms. So ‘creative’ researchers can find what they want to find, while sceptics find nothing they can call concrete evidence. The deeper you dig, the less you see. Remember the words of a popular song:
“Don’t push too far, your dreams are china in your hand.”


Discussion of King Arthur’s Camelot
By David Nash Ford

Where are you Now?

King Arthur’s Court of Camelot evokes visions of lofty church spires and bustling city streets, a vast post-Roman-cum-Medieval Capital from where the mightiest of British Kings dispensed justice and oversaw peace and prosperity. From where did this over-romanticized view come though, and where is Camelot today?

The Tradition: A town named Camelot was first introduced into the Arthurian legend by the late 12th century French poet Chrétien De Troyes in his tale of Lancelot. However, it is mentioned but briefly and its status within the Kingdom of Britain is certainly never established. It was writers of the following century who declared it to be the chief residence of the High-King Arthur and embroidered the elaborate portrayal that we recognise today.


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