Arthurian legend


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Arthurian legend,

the mass of legend, popular in medieval lore, concerning King Arthur of Britain and his knights.

Medieval Sources

The battle of Mt. Badon—in which, according to the Annales Cambriae (c.1150), Arthur carried the Cross of Jesus on his shoulders—but not Arthur's name, is mentioned (c.540) by GildasGildas, Saint
, d. 570, British historian, possibly a Welsh monk. Shortly before 547 he wrote the De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, a Latin history of Britain dealing with the Roman invasion and the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England, the earliest authority for the period.
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. The earliest apparent mention of Arthur in any known literature is a brief reference to a mighty warrior in the Welsh poem Gododdin (c.600). Arthur next appears in NenniusNennius
, fl. 796, Welsh writer, to whom is ascribed the Historia Britonum. He lived on the borders of Mercia and probably was a pupil of Elbod, bishop of Bangor.
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 (c.800) as a Celtic warrior who fought (c.600) 12 victorious battles against the Saxon invaders.

These and several subsequent references indicate that his legend had already developed into a considerable literature before Geoffrey of MonmouthGeoffrey of Monmouth
, c.1100–1154, English author. He was probably born at Monmouth and was of either Breton or Welsh descent. In 1152 he was named bishop of St. Asaph in Wales. His Historia regum Britanniae (written c.
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 wrote his Historia (c.1135), in which he elaborated on the feats of King Arthur whom he represented as the conqueror of Western Europe. After Geoffrey's Historia came WaceWace
, c.1100–1174, Norman-French poet of Jersey. King Henry II made him canon of Bayeux. His Roman de Brut (1155) is a long, rhymed chronicle of British history based on the Historia of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
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's Roman de Brut (c.1155), which infused the legend with the spirit of chivalric romance. The Brut (c.1200) of LayamonLayamon
, fl. c.1200, first prominent Middle English poet. He described himself as a humble priest attached to the church at Ernley (Arley Regis) near Radstone. His Brut
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, modeled on Wace's work, gives one of the best pictures of Arthur as a national hero.

Chrétien de TroyesChrétien de Troyes
or Chrestien de Troyes
, fl. 1170, French poet, author of the first great literary treatments of the Arthurian legend. His narrative romances, composed c.1170–c.
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, a 12th-century French poet, wrote five romances dealing with the knights of Arthur's court. His Perceval contains the earliest extant literary version of the quest of the Holy Grail (see Grail, HolyGrail, Holy,
a feature of medieval legend and literature. It appears variously as a chalice, a cup, or a dish and sometimes as a stone or a caldron into which a bleeding lance drips. It was identified by Christians as the chalice of the Last Supper brought to England by St.
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). Two medieval German poets important in the development of Arthurian legend are Wolfram von EschenbachWolfram von Eschenbach
, c.1170–c.1220, German poet. Perhaps the greatest of the German minnesingers, and one of the finest poets of medieval Europe. He was a knight who led a restless, roving life. In 1203 he was at the court of Landgrave Hermann von Thüringen.
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 and Gottfried von StrassburgGottfried von Strassburg
, fl. 13th cent., German poet, also called Godfrey of Strasbourg. He is thought to have been official scribe of Strasbourg, but little is known of him. As author of the Middle High German Tristan (c.
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. The latter's Tristan was the first great literary treatment of the Tristram and IsoldeTristram and Isolde
, medieval romance. The earliest extant version (incomplete) was written (c.1185) by Thomas of Britain in Anglo-Norman French verse. About 1210, Gottfried von Strassburg wrote in German verse a version based on that of Thomas.
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 story.

After 1225 no significant medieval Arthurian literature was produced on the Continent. In England, however, the legend continued to flourish. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1370), one of the best Middle English romances, embodies the ideal of chivalric knighthood. The last important medieval work dealing with the Arthurian legend is the Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas MaloryMalory, Sir Thomas
, d. 1471, English author of Morte d'Arthur. It is almost certain that he was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell, Warwickshire. Knighted in 1442, he served in the parliament of 1445.
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, whose tales have become the source for most subsequent Arthurian material. Many writers have used Arthurian themes since Malory, notably Tennyson in his Idylls of the King. Swinburne, William Morris, and Edwin Arlington Robinson also wrote poetic works based on the legend. T. H. White's trilogy The Once and Future King (1958) is a charming and decidedly 20th-century retelling of the Arthurian story.

The Link to Celtic Mythology

Formerly, it was thought that the Arthurian legend was the work of several inventive poets and romancers of the Middle Ages. The generally accepted theory now is that Arthurian legend developed out of stories of Celtic mythology. The most archaic form in which these occur in British sources is the Welsh MabinogionMabinogion
, title given to a collection of medieval Welsh stories. Scholars differ as to the meaning of the word mabinogion: some think it to be the plural of the Welsh word mabinogi, which means "youthful career"; others think it derives from the Welsh word
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, but much of Irish mythology is palpably identical with Arthurian romance.

It is probable that traditional Irish hero stories fused in Britain with those of the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Celts of North Britain. The resultant legend with its hero, Arthur, was transmitted to their Breton cousins on the Continent probably by the year 1000. The Bretons, famous as wandering minstrels, followed Norman armies over Western Europe and used the legend's stories for their repertory. By 1100, therefore, Arthurian stories were well known even in Italy.

The Story

Although there are innumerable variations of the Arthurian legend, the basic story has remained the same. Arthur was the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, and Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall. After the death of Uther, Arthur, who had been reared in secrecy, won acknowledgment as king of Britain by successfully withdrawing a sword from a stone. MerlinMerlin,
in Arthurian legend, magician, seer, and teacher at the court of King Vortigern and later at the court of King Arthur. He was a bard and culture hero in early Celtic folklore. In Arthurian legend he is famous as a magician and as the counselor of King Arthur.
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, the court magician, then revealed the new king's parentage. Arthur, reigning in his court at Camelot, proved to be a noble king and a mighty warrior. He was the possessor of the miraculous sword ExcaliburExcalibur
, in Arthurian legend, sword given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake. At Arthur's death Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur into the lake; a hand rose from the water, caught the sword, and disappeared.
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, given to him by the mysterious Lady of the LakeLady of the Lake,
in Arthurian legend, a misty, supernatural figure endowed with magic powers, who gave the sword Excalibur to King Arthur. She inhabited a castle in an underwater kingdom.
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.

Of Arthur's several enemies, the most treacherous were his sister Morgan le Fay and his nephew Mordred. Morgan le Fay was usually represented as an evil sorceress, scheming to win Arthur's throne for herself and her lover. Mordred (or Modred) was variously Arthur's nephew or his son by his sister Morgawse. He seized Arthur's throne during the king's absence. Later he was slain in battle by Arthur, but not before he had fatally wounded the king. Arthur was borne away to the isle of AvalonAvalon
, in Celtic mythology, the blissful otherworld of the dead. In medieval romance it was the island to which the mortally wounded King Arthur was taken, and from which it was expected he would someday return. Avalon is often identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, England.
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, where it was expected that he would be healed of his wounds and that he would someday return to his people.

Two of the most invincible knights in Arthur's realm were Sir Tristram and Sir Launcelot of the Lake. Both of them, however, were involved in illicit and tragic love unions—Tristram with Isolde, the queen of Tristram's uncle, King Mark; LauncelotLauncelot, Sir
, in Arthurian legend, bravest and most celebrated knight at the court of King Arthur. He was kidnapped as an infant by the mysterious Lady of the Lake, from whom he received his education and took his title, Launcelot of the Lake.
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 with GuinevereGuinevere
, in Arthurian legend, wife of King Arthur. Her illicit and tragic love for Sir Launcelot, which foreshadowed the downfall of Arthur's kingdom, ends with her retirement to a convent.
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, the queen of his sovereign, King Arthur. Other knights of importance include the naive Sir Pelleas, who fell helplessly in love with the heartless Ettarre (or Ettard) and Sir Gawain, Arthur's nephew, who appeared variously as the ideal of knightly courtesy and as the bitter enemy of Launcelot.

Also significant are Sir Balin and Sir Balan, two devoted brothers who unwittingly slew one another; Sir Galahad, Launcelot's son, who was the hero of the quest for the Holy Grail; Sir Kay, Arthur's villainous foster brother; Sir Percivale (or ParsifalParsifal
, figure of Arthurian legend also known as Sir Percivale, who is in turn a later form of a hero of Celtic myth. The name originally occurs as Pryderi, an alternative name of Gwry in Pwyll Prince of Dyved, a tale in the Mabinogion.
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); Sir Gareth; Sir Geraint; Sir Bedivere; and other knights of the Round TableRound Table,
in Arthurian legend, the table at which King Arthur and his knights held court. It was allegedly fashioned at the behest of Arthur to prevent quarrels among the knights over precedence.
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. To modern readers, Arthurian legend has become the mirror of the ideal of medieval knighthood and chivalrychivalry
, system of ethical ideals that arose from feudalism and had its highest development in the 12th and 13th cent.

Chivalric ethics originated chiefly in France and Spain and spread rapidly to the rest of the Continent and to England.
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.

Bibliography

See studies by R. H. Fletcher (2d ed. 1966), R. L. Loomis (1949; 1956; 1927, repr. 1969; 1963, repr. 1970), L. Alcock (1972), J. Morris (1973), and R. W. Barber (1973); J. L. Weston, tr., Arthurian Romances Unrepresented in Malory's Morte d'Arthur (8 vol., 1907; repr. 1971); N. J. Lacy et al., ed., The Arthurian Encyclopedia (1987); E. Archibald and A. Putter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legends (2009).

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