Guest Post by Samantha Knepper
The legend of King Arthur is one that has captured the attention of the public throughout centuries. Each interpretation and reimaging of the legend reflects the time the author lived in. By tracing the Arthurian myth throughout centuries, the myths that emerge from the different time periods are not just about King Arthur but also the time in which they were created. As much as I would love to go into detail about each reinterpretation, I am using broad strokes and just touching on the major changes with a little bit about each one to give big picture view.
There are mentions of figures before The History of the Kings of Britain that could have been Arthur or were named Arthur, however the legend we are familiar with today really takes off in the twelfth century. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of the Kings of Britain, which was finished in 1136. Monmouth more than likely had a version of Historia Brittonum, ‘History of the Britons’, written by a Welsh historian called Nennius. Nennius drew from numerous chronicles to create a history of the British people, a list of the 28 towns in Britain, and genealogies. The salient point for the Arthurian story is that Nennius mentioned twelve battles that a King Arthur fought. This is more than likely where Monmouth took the idea of King Arthur. I say more than likely as we have none of the sources today that Monmouth possessed.
The Archbishop presents the sword to Arthur before the people. The inscription on the stone is: 'Whoever pulls this sword out will be king of the land.' c. 1316 France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai) From http://www.bl.uk.
Monmouth gives us several key ideas that have stayed with the Arthurian tale: Arthur was conceived due to Merlin’s interference, conception at Tintagel, and Arthur’s mortal wounding but leaving for Avalon instead of dying. Monmouth details the heroic feats of Arthur, making him one of the most outstanding British heroes. Monmouth’s History had numerous copies made, demonstrating its immediate popularity, and inspired other writers. French romance writers picked up the story, most famously Chrétien de Troyes, a French medieval poet, who wrote a serious of Arthurian romances – such as Lancelot and Perceval. German writers were also picking up the story and Wolfram Von Eschenback wrote Parzival. There were a series of prose adaptations that were written called Le Roman de Laurin, the Arthurian Prose Vulgate. The use of Arthurian stories continued, but they were changed in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.
These new interpretations of the Arthur legend had the basic outline of Monmouth’s version of events: Arthur was a king of Britain who was a hero and a warrior. Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur (‘The Death of King Arthur’) in 1465, which signaled a change in the story and a change in society. Aside from being one of the first books printed in England, it was about the golden age of knighthood dying. Changing the images and narrative surrounding Arthur once again. Henry VIII, who took the throne in 1509, took the image of King Arthur and the idealized age of knighthood to heart and even had the Winchester round table of Edward III painted over so that he was on top, imaging himself as the new Arthur. Times were changing and the story was being reinterpreted.
Richard Blackmore wrote two King Arthur epics, Prince Arthur in 1695 and King Arthur in 1697, but the story was being used during this time as an allegory for the political struggles during this period. Tom Thumb was also used in this way, Henry Fielding’s plays, for example, had an Arthurian setting but Arthur was comedic rather than the romance character that had emerged in the late Middle Ages. In the early nineteenth century, a renewed interest the Arthurian legend took place.
La mort d'Arthur, James Archer (1823–1904), Manchester. From https://artuk.org.
The renewed interest was due to the romanticism, Gothic Revival, and medievalism that had developed. Chivalry, an ideal code of conduct that was a large part of the medieval romances, was also a part of the medieval Arthurian romances. In the early part of the nineteenth century Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was reprinted. Alfred Tennyson rewrote the King Arthur story for the Victorian era in Idylls of the King. In this work Arthur was the ideal of manhood but failed due to the weakness of being human. The ideal of manhood was the Victorian ideal, changing the Arthurian story to fit a new time. This generated even more interest in the Arthurian tale and there were further editions and other writers who wrote their own Arthurian tales. The popularity of King Arthur continued into the twentieth century.
There was a comic strip featuring Arthur that started in 1937, Prince Valiant, along with numerous novels such as Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, in 1953 and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King in 1958. Marrion Zimmer Bradley wrote The Mists of Avalon in 1982, which reimagined the story from a feminist perspective. Other tales have included values like equality and democracy, values that would have been foreign to the writers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In addition to the novels, as technology developed, the Arthurian legend was brought into new media.
Illustration from page 306 of The Boy's King Arthur: the death of Arthur and Mordred – 'Then the king ... ran towards Sir Mordred, crying, "Traitor, now is thy death day come."' From https://commons.wikimedia.org.
Disney adapted one of the stories from the first half of the twentieth century, T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone into their movie of the same name. In 1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail came out, in the 1990s there was a miniseries that aired on television called Merlin, and in 2004 there was another movie called King Arthur, demonstrating the enduring popularity of Arthurian legends. This year, another movi
e, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, has been released. This movie, like all the others, reflects the values of our times rather than the medieval values that Arthur had first been endowed with. There is still something that captivates people about Arthur and allows for a reinterpretation to reflect society today, whatever it is, it connects our past with our present, allowing us to feel good about where we came from.
King Arthur’s statue at Tintagel. From http://www.independent.co.uk.
For further reading I highly recommend any of the literature I discussed along with watching the movies, and TV shows mentioned. My specialty is medieval warrior culture in twelfth to fourteenth century France and England, so I can only speak for that era in terms of history. For those interested in the medieval Arthur and his values I recommended the following books (along with medieval literature) that deal with society and violence: R. W. Barber’s The Reign of Chivalry, John France’s Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, Richard W. Kaeuper’s Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, and Maurice Keen’s Chivalry.
Samantha Knepper lives in San Diego and can be reached at SamanthaLKnepper@gmail.comhttp://medievalknightsandmore.com. She received her MA in History from Norwich University and her capstone looked at the idolization of heroes from the past in twelfth to fourteenth-century France and England. She loves discussing all things medieval and hopes to learn how to joust this year.