The Legend of Arthur became widely distributed across Europe during the twelfth century and inspired writers across the continent. In 1155, Wace opened the second half of the twelfth century with his poetic version of Geoffrey's Historia, introducing medieval concepts and formalising Arthur's court. The elaboration of the Arthurian history and its literary development into the Arthurian Romance can be traced (Phillips and Keatman 1992, pp.10, 202-203) by the stepwise addition of content, concepts and style through the following century. Already from the works of Geoffrey and Wace had Arthur's magical sword, the mystical Isle of Avalon, Merlin the magician, Arthur's beautiful wife Guinevere and steadfast knight Gawain become integral to the stories; as the romances developed so too did the Arthur's entourage burgeon.
Chrétien de Troyes wrote five Arthurian stories in France between 1160 and 1180 (Comfort 1914). In this period in France the romance genre was replacing the older heroic epic as the favourite form of entertainment among the aristocracy. Classical antiquities such as the Aenead and the Iliad were being transformed to long poetic chivalric adventure tales and in this environment the stories of Arthur and the marvellous Celtic world came to grip the imagination of both audience and author alike (Owen 1975). In these Arthurian Romances were introduced the characters Perceval and Lancelot of the Lake, who appear to be based on folk-heroes from France (Phillips and Keatman 1992, p.33), and Camelot as the name of Arthur's court made its appearance.
Robert de Boron of Burgundy wrote an Arthurian trilogy in the late 1190s that interpolated into the Arthurian romances the powerful theme of the Holy Grail, firing the imagination with the presence of the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. Layamon shortly afterwards rendered the Arthurian story into English and transformed Arthur to immortality with the promise of his return from the Isle of Avalon. The Arthur stories entered into German around the same time with two poems by Hartmann von Aue (1200) and Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic, Parzival (1205), and by the centenary of Geoffrey's Historia in 1235, an Arthurian compilation called the Vulgate Cycle had been prepared.
The Arthurian Romances remained popular throughout medieval Europe, with Arthur the feudal king resident in castle Camelot with his Lady Guinevere and his knights in shining armour. In 1470 Sir Thomas Malory completed his Le Morte d'Arthur (Vinaver 1971; Cowen 1969). With this work a new style was developed in the telling of the Arthurian stories, for the earlier romances that were written as an ever unfolding and inter-relating poetic 'tapestry' were broken into a series of self-contained readable and intelligible prose stories (Vinaver 1971). The transition of style was accompanied with the technological development of the printing press, and in 1485 Le Morte Darthur was published as a series of twenty-one books by Caxton to celebrate 'King Arthur, which ought moost to be remembred emonge us Englysshemen tofore al other Crysten kynges' (Vinaver 1971, p. vi; Cowen 1969, p. 3).
Throughout the Arthurian Romances endured the theme of love and its consequences; of the values placed on honour and loyalty and the devastation wrought upon the kingdom by its betrayal, 'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world' (Lawlor 1969). The Arthurian Romances concern the human condition, and of the need for vigilance in our actions, and for this the Romances endure. Caxton made this clear in his preface to Malory (Cowen 1969, p. 4), 'Do after good and leave the evil ... beware that we fall not to vice ne sin, but to exercise and follow virtue'. That these themes were true to the individual as they were to the survival of nations was exemplified by the fate of the vaguely known yet 'excellent king, King Arthur, sometime king of this noble realm, then called Britain'. The great but doomed kingdom, lost in the dark past, once held and will always hold the lessons we must never forget.
Copyright © John Bonsing & S Rhys Jones 2006. All Rights Reserved
Comfort, W (transl.) 1914, Arthurian Romances Chrétien de Troyes, 1977 reprint, J M Dent & Sons Ltd, London.
Cowen, J (ed.) 1969, Sir Thomas Malory - Le Morte D'Arthur Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.
Lawlor, J 1969, Introduction, in J Cowen Sir Thomas Malory - Le Morte D'Arthur Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.
Owen, D 1975, Introduction, in W Comfort (transl) Arthurian Romances, 1977 reprint, J M Dent & Sons Ltd, London, pp. vii-xvi.
Phillips, G & Keatman, M 1992, King Arthur - the true story, Random House, London.
Vinaver, E 1971, The works of Sir Thomas Malory, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
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