King Arthur – In literature and tradition

A British chieftain of the 5th-6th century central figure of a great cycle of romance. Legend says that he was born at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, lived at CaerleonWales, with his wife Guanhuvara (Guenevere), was leader of the Round Table, hunted the fabulous boar Twrch Trwyth, and fought and slew the Demon Cat of Losanne (Cath Palug), conquered many lands, was betrayed by his wife and dearest knight, was mortally wounded at the battle of Camlann, and was taken to Avalon by three fairy queens, whence he will returned in the hour of his country’s need.

Historically, a victorius battle-leader of the Britons against the Saxons about 500 AD, of whose life and death nothing more is known. The vast pseudo-historical and romantic literature which grew up about him from the 12th century on reflects folk traditions and mythological concepts.

Nennius, a Welsh cleric, writing about 826, furnishes, besides an untrustworthy account of Arthur’s battles, a list of marvels. Two are localized in the neighborhood of the Wye: a stone in which Arthur’s hound Cabal had left its footprint during the hunting of the boar Troit; and the grave of Arthur’s son Anir (Amr), the length of which varied each time it was measured. The Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, composed about 1100, belongs to the general Jason and Medea type and contains much mythical and folktale material.

Several personages (MabonModronManawyddanLlwch) are taken over from the Continental Celtic and the Irish pantheon; others are helpful companions, who assist the hero in his impossible tasks, as did the Argonauts and similar figures in modern folktales. There are giants to be slain, vessels of plenty to be sought, and the supernatural boar mentioned by Nennius, to be hunted from Ireland across South Wales and Cornwall into the sea. The details of the chase show the characteristic interest of Welsh and Irish in accounting for place names. Arthur has become a king and shares in several quests and adventures, but seems to have acquired no supernatural attributes. The same may be said of him as he appears in The Spoils of Annwn, a poem probably of the 10th century, raiding the island fortress of the gods in his ship Prydwen (Pridwen), and returning with a magic cauldron from which none but the brave could obtain food.

The most famous mythical concept attached to Arthur is that of his immortality and Messianic return to the re-establish the Britons in their kingdom, but it is not attested before 1113. In that year certain French canons, having been shown Arthur’s seat and oven (probably megaliths) on Dartmoor, came to Bodmin, and a fracas arouse between their servants and a Cornishman who insisted that Arthur was still alive. From the same source we learn that Bretons and French quarreled over this question, and from then on the testimony is continuous that, especially in Brittany, the belief in Arthur’s survival and return was firmly fixed. Alanus de Insulis (1174-1179), in commenting on Merlin’s prophecy that Arthur’s end would be doubtful, says that anyone who proclaimed in Brittany that Arthur had shared the fate of mortals could not escape stoning. Malory, years later, testifies that some men in many parts of England believed that the king was had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place, “… and would come again and win the holy cross.”

The “British hope” represents an old pagan belief that the hero is a god who cannot die, a belief revitalized and prolonged the centuries by the simple human urge to optimism which in modern times refused to accept the death of Napoleon Bonapart and Kitchener. Certainly there was a strong mythological element in the tradition, for every account of Arthur’s survival in medieval literature or modern folklore either places him in the world of the immortals or implies his superhuman nature.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c 1136), drawing on Breton sources, tells us that Arthur was borne to the Isle of Avallon (Avalon) to be healed of his wound, and the Vita Merlin (1150) informs us that Arthur lies on a golden bed in an ever-fruitful Isle of Apples, where the inhabitants live to be over a hundred, and where he is tended by the fay Morgan and her sisters. Thus Arthur’s abode is the mythical Isle of Women of the Celts, and Morgan le Fay (in many accounts Arthur’s sister) is specifically called a goddess by three medieval writers.

The wandering Breton conteurs transmitted the legend of Arthur’s survival to Sicily, for there we find him dwelling with Morgan according to Floriant and Florete and Torrella’s Faula. The latter poem (1350-81) adds a mythical trait: Arthur remains young since he is fed yearly by the Grail. This equates him with the Maimed King, who is likewise fed by the Grail and whose vital forces are in sympathetic relation to the fertility of his land. Gervase of Tilbury (c 1211) describes Arthur as living on in a Sicilian palace, his wounds annually reopening – another reflection of Arthur in the role of a vegetation spirit.

Gervase combines the motif of the island abode of Arthur with the widespread concept of the king in the hollow mountain, for it is in the dark depths of Mount Etna that the British king is discovered. The same concept was known to Caesarius of Heisterbach and the authors of the Wartburgkreig and the Dispute between a Christian and a Jew, we find it again in the 19th century attached to many caves in Wales and England and to the Eildon Hills in Scotland. These folktales represent Arthur as lying asleep, surrounded by his knights, awaiting the day when he will issue forth to victory – a bland of the Messianic return motif and a belief in some chthonian deity.

The tradition of Arthur’s subterranean dwelling had two strange developments. In Etienne de Rouen’s Draco Normannicus (1167-68) Arthur is held up to ridicule as ruler over the lower hemisphere, threatening to return to his old domain with a host of antipodean subjects in order to overthrow Henry II. Moreover, since Walter Map (1181) reports a folktale in which the king of a subterranean realm was conceived as a dwarf riding on a goat, we can understand why a mosaic at Otranto (1165) depicts Arthur astride the same bizarre mount.

Long-lived was the belief in British king as leader of the Wild Hunt, originally the personification of winter and its storms. Gervase and two other 13th century writers assign this role to Arthur, and tell how he and his company of riders may be seen by moonlight in the forests of Britian or Brittany or Savoy, we have Scottish reference from the 16th century; and at Cadbury CastleSomerset, and in several parts of France, the belief was still current in the 19th century.

Another folk tradition holds that Arthur lives on in the form of a bird. Cervantes tells us that the English believed that their ancient hero assumed the form of a crow, and an 13th century tourist in Cornwall was rebuked for shooting a raven, which might have been. The latest testimony from Cornwall takes the bird to be a chough or a puffin. One might surmise that this transformation is related to the fact that Bran, son of Llyr, the euhemerized sea god of the Mabinogion and the prototype of the Maimed King, bears a name meaning “crow”. Certainly in the Mabinogion and Irish sagas we have instances of divine figures taking the shape of birds.

Barring the modern folk traditions of Arthur’s survival, the British battle-leaders name lives on almost entirely in association with places or natural subjects. In Scotland there is the majestic hill called Arthur’s Seat, in Wales there are a Craig Arthur near Llangollen and an Arthurs Stone near Swansea; Cornwall boasts Arthur’s Hall, Hunting Lodge, and grave, and Brittany Arthur’s Camp. These are but a few of many such names.

… that grey king whose name, a ghost,
streams like a cloud, man-shaped from mountain peak
and cleaves to cairn and cromlech still.

Arthur in Chronicles
There is no mention of Arthur in the English traditions of the fifth and sixth centuries preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Its silence, however, implies nothing either way about his reality, because, while it names a few of the Britons’ leaders (Vortigern, for instance), it omits those who inflicted reverses on the Saxons, such as Ambrosius. Hence, the presumably successful Arthur would have had no place in it. His first appearance in a chronicle is in the tenth-century Annales Cambriae, a Welsh document that associates him with the battles of Badon and Camlann, assigned to 518 and 539 or thereabout. The provenance of these entires is unknown, and the date given for Badon seems to clash with the earlier testimony of Gildas. The Camlann entry proves at least that there was a Welsh tradition of that battle before Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Henry of Huntingdon, in his Historia Anglorum (ca. 1129), draws mainly on Anglo-Saxon matter for this period, but adds an accent of Arthur in a vague retrospect of “those times” inserted between 527 and 530. It is based on Nennius’s list of his battles. Henry calls him “the leader of the soldiers and kings of Britain“.

Geoffrey’s transformation of Arthur into a quasi-historical monarch, with a detailed and grandiose career, completely alters his status. Where medieval historiography touches on post-Roman Britain, Geoffrey’s story is commonly accepted in substance. Two authors taking a skeptical or hostile view, Giraldus Cambrensis and William of Newburgh, are distinguished spokesmen for what long remains a minority opinion. Yet there is a recurrent awareness that the story presents difficulties, especially with dating. Chroniclers’ use of it varies widely in fullness and credulity.

Welsh adapters and translators of Geoffrey, in the chronicles known as Bruts, follow him fairly closely. Among the works written in England, the most important are by Pierre de Langtoft, Robert Mannyng (Robert of Brunne or Bourn), and John Hardyng. In the hands of these authors and many others, Geoffrey’s narrative is treated selectively, sometimes modified by the authors’ own fancies and sometimes augmented with material from romance. In the end, the problems arising from more genuine history, which fails to confirm Geoffrey and often casts obvious suspicion on him, become too intractable. In Polydore Vergil (1534), a definite skepticism has set in. Raphael Holinshed (1577) can still make a serious attempt to harmonize Arthur with Anglo-Saxon and other evidence, but he drifts into speculations and contradictions that leave everything in confusion.

Scotland’s chroniclers, such as John of Fordun (ca. 1385), also try to follow Geoffrey. With less of the critical spirit than their English counterparts, they are subversive instead through a difference of attitude. Repelled by Geoffrey’s account of war waged by Arthur against the Scots, and by the Plantagenets’ adoption of him as – in effect – a king of England, Scottish chroniclers tend to alter the values of the story and make him unsympathetic. The extreme of this process is represented by Hector Boece (1527), whose Arthur is the faithless and licentious ruler of a comtemptible nation.

On the Continent, Arthur is overwhelmingly a king of romance, and interest in the historical aspect is slight. Some chroniclers mention him briefly, usually echoing Geoffrey, if with reservations. A few, such as Jean des Preis, or d’Outremeuse (late fourteenth century), exploit the romances to elaborate his career in ways of their own. There are traces, however, of a historical tradition that is independent of Geoffrey or nearly so. This places Arthur’s floruit in and around the 460s and associates him with real persons – notably Aegidius, a Roman ruler of northern Gaul – of whom Geoffrey knows nothing.

A glimpse of it can perhaps be caught in a recension of a chronicle Geoffrey may have used himself, that of Sigebert of Gembloux, who died in 1112. About 1175, a writer known as the monk of Ursicampum (Orcamp) compiled an enlarged version of Sigebert’s chronicle. He introduced matter from Geoffrey but with certain questions, raising the possibility that Arthur might be the same as the British king known as Riothamus, documented in Gaul ca. 468-70. A separate hint at this equation occurs in the Chronicles of Anjou, where, in a passage generally derived from Geoffrey, Arthur’s betrayer becomes Morvandus. This suggests a conflation of “Mordred” with “Arvandus”, the name of an imperial prefect who did betray Riothamus. Allusions to Arthur consistent with the equation, though not offering it in plain terms, appear in Albericus Trium Fontium (1227-51), the Salzburg Annals (thirteenth century), Martinus Polonus (ca. 1275), Jacques de Guise (late fourteenth century), and Philippe de Vigneulles (1525). With one or two minor corrections, genuinely required in the interests of accuracy, these could all be derived from a single source giving Arthur a sixteen-year reign running from about 454 to 470. Such a reign would allow him to be the immediate successor of Vortigern, as implied by the apparently indipendent account – also continental – in the Legend of St. Goeznovius.

Chronicles in English
The Middle English chroniclers who wrote about Arthur generally followed the story of the rise and fall of Arthur as it was presented in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Although most of the chroniclers knew some of the Arthurian romances and borrowed from them details and names of some characters, like Lancelot and Yvain, they generally did not make major changes in Geoffrey’s account. They apparently distinguished between what they considered to be the basically true account in Geoffrey and the basically fictitious ones in romance. Although a few Latin chroniclers, like Ranulph Higden and William of Newburgh, had doubts about the truth of Geoffrey’s Historia, they were in the minority. In fact, most of the English chroniclers, in contrast to Higden, William, and some of the Scottish chroniclers, were enthusiastic about Arthur and portrayed him not as the weak king of some of the French romances (Chrétien’s Chevalier de la charrete, parts of the Vulgate Cycle) but as the heroic figure developed by Geoffrey.

This may at first seem surprising, since Arthur was British and an enemy of the Saxons, the ancestors of the English. Admittedly, Layamon may have been more interested in drawing a parallel to the later Norman Conquest than in praising the British; but the attitude of most of the chroniclers seem to be similar to the attitude of Caxton, who in his preface to Malory’s Morte Darthur (1485) explains that noble gentlemen told him that he should print the history of Arthur, the “noble king and conqueror”, rather than that of any of the other Nine Worthies, since Arthur “was a man born within the realm, and [was] king and emperor of the same”. Although Caxton’s enthusiasm was undoubtedly influenced by Henry VII’s claim to be a descendant of Arthur, it also followed the tradition of earlier English chroniclers who looked upon Arthur’s reign as one of the great periods in the history of the land they now inhabited.

Scottish Arthurian Chronicles
References to Arthur in Scottish Arthurian chronicles can be positive or negative; and it is easy to account for the chronicler’s reactions by considering both the ultimate source of their information, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and the feelings of Scottish nationalism that devolped in the late Middle Ages and that found expression in the chronicles. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Picts and Scots are Arthur’s enemies; Arthur conquers Scotland; and Arthur’s kingdom is eventually destroyed by the traitorous Scot Mordred. Yet Geoffrey’s account is not completely biased against the Scots, for Arthur has in it some important Scottish allies: Loth of LodensiaGawain, and King Auguselus.

As one might expect, when the Scots began to write their own chronicles, their reactions to this material were mixed, and by the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the use of it, by some chroniclers at least, was colored by feelings of nationalism and by their antagonism toward the English, who had accepted the British Arthurian history as a part of their own nation’s past glory. Some, like Barbour, Andrew of Wyntoun, and Blind Harry, accept Arthur’s reputation uncritically and refer to him with admiration as a great British king; their allusions to him, however, are brief, and they make little effort to tell much of the Arthurian story. Others accept the fact that Arthur was great king, but they are also skeptical or critical. John Leslie, for example, in his brief account of Arthur, doubts the stories of Arthur’s foreign conquests. John of Fordun and John Major give more detailed accounts than any of the above; and although they admire Arthur they point out that he was illegitimate and that the true heirs to the throne were Mordred and Gawain, who were passed over because they were too young. This view that Scots, not Arthur, should have ruled Britain, popularized by John of Fordun’s fourteenth-century chronicle, became the basis for bitter attacks on Arthur in the fifteenth-century Chronicle of Scotland in a Part and in the sixteenth-century chronicles of Boece, Bellenden, Stewart, and Buchanan.

John Barbour (ca. 1316-1396), archdeacon of Aberdeen, wrote the Bruce, the great epic-chronicle of medieval Scotland. Although Barbour appealed to the patriotism of the Scots, unlike some later Scottish writers he admires Arthur and refers to him as a valorous king who was slain treacherously by Mordred, his sister’s son; the Arthurian story, like those of Troy, Alexander, and Julius Caesar, is for Barbour an exemplum about treason.

John of Fordun, one of the most influential medieval Scottish chroniclers, wrote the Latin Chronica Gentis Scotorum (ca. 1385), sometimes called the Scotichronicon, a title more properly applied to Walter Bower’s popular continuation of the work (1447). Apparently attempting to do for Scottish history what Geoffrey of Monmouth had done for British, John drew upon earlier short chronicles and legends that gave the Scots a distinguished past and that offered evidence that Scotland was historically independent of England. Although he presents Arthur as an admirable king (“beloved by almost all men”), the author asserts that the British throne was not lawfully his because he was conceived out of wedlock. The true heirs were Gawain and Mordred, the sons of Arthur’s sister Anna and the Scottish consul Lot. Arthur became king by necessity because of the threat from the Saxons and the youth of Gawain and Mordred. Mordred later rebelled because of Arthur’s weak claim to the throne. John of Fordun’s treatment of Arthur was the basis for the more hostile presentations in the later chronicles of Boece, Stewart, and Belleden.

Andrew of Wyntoun’s Original Chronicle of Scotland (ca. 1420), a Scottish vernacular chronicle in verse, begins with the Creation, emphasizes general world history in Books I-V, and focuses on Scottish and British history in Books VI-IX. The account of Arthur is a brief summary of the war against Lucius. Unlike some Scottish chroniclers, Andrew speaks favorably of Arthur, who was slain by “Mordred the traitor”. He says that his source for the Arthurian story was the “Gestis Historiall” of “Huchone of the Auld Ryall”.

The Chronicle of Scotland in a Part (The Scottis Originale) is an anonymous short chronicle in Middle Scots (ca. 1460) that presents Arthur as a tyrant, a “huris sone” who was made king by the “devilry of Merlin“, while the true heirs, Mordred and Gawain, were passed over because they were Scottish; therefore, Mordred, “in his rychtwyse querele”, slew Arthur. It is an extreme development of the version of the Arthurian story presented by John of Fordun.

Blind Harry wrote the Wallace (ca. 1476-78), the Scottish verse epic-chronicle in twelve books inspired by Barbour’s Bruce, as a thinly veiled attack on the pro-English policies of James III. Harry, once thought to have been an uneducated blind minstrel, was apparently a literate writer who drew upon written sources. Although the work is biased against the English, Harry admired the “gud king Arthour”, compares his hero, Wallace, to him, and, in a passage echoing Barbour’s Arthurian allusion, says that Arthur, like Ector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar, was destroyed through cowardice.

John Major (b. 1469/70) was a Scottish historian, influenced by French humanism, who wrote the Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521). He bases his Arthurian account upon Geoffrey of Monmouth and John of Fordun. Major presents John’s story that Arthur was illegitimate and that the true heirs to the throne were Gawain and Mordred, the sons of Loth and Anna, who here is the sister of Aurelius (not Arthur). But they were too young and Arthur was chosen king. Major expresses genuine admiration for Arthur, noting that he was noble, handsome, and chivalrous; that he conquered many foreign lands; and that he was one of the Nine Worthies. He is skeptical about magic elements in the Arthurian story and doubts that Arthur will return, although he mentions that, when Arthur was buried at Glastonbury, people sang, “Hic jacet Arthurus Rex magnus Rex futurus”.

Hector Boece, first principal of the University of Aberdeen, wrote the influential Latin chronicle Scotorum Historiae (1527), later translated into Middle Scots prose by John Bellenden (1531) and Middle Scots verse by William Stewart (1535). Boece’s story of Arthur diverges markedly from earlier accounts and carries to an extreme the sentiments against Arthur that were implicit in John of Fordun’s chronicle. From John, it incorporates Arthur’s illegitimacy and weak claim to the throne but adds several new elements: Arthur’s conquests are limited to Britain; Arthur recognizes Mordred as his successor but is persuaded to break the treaty, thus causing hostilities to be renewed; Guenevere is taken prisoner and held by the Picts for the rest of her life. J.B. Black describes the chronicle as a “wild welter that recalls the grotesque pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth”.

John Bellenden, at the request of James V of Scotland, translated Boece’s Scotorum Historiae into Middle Scots prose in 1531. He shortened the Arthurian section somewhat but maintained Boece’s bias against Arthur. He noted that Gawain fought on Arthur’s side “against his native people”.

Also at the request of James V, William Stewart translated Boece’s history into 61,000 lines of Scottish verse in 1535. He adds considerably to Boece’s Arthurian account, calling Arthur the most unfortunate of all British kings, one punished by God for being “faithless and untrue” to King Mordred.

John Leslie published his De Origine, Moribus, et Rebus Gentis Scotorum at Rome in 1578; it was translated into Scottish in 1596 by Father James Dalrymple. Like Boece, Bellenden, and Stewart, he limits Arthur’s conquests to Britain, but he praises Arthur as noble, courageous, and honorable. He mentions Arthur’s Round Table, which Leslie himself had seen, and notes that Arthur had twenty-four knights.

Although considered a Scottish humanist, George Buchanan followed Hector Boece fairly closely in the account of Arthur that he presented in his Rerum Scotiarum Historia (1582); changes from the source tend to make Arthur’s character worse than it is in Boece. He also finds the account of Arthur’s conception a fiction invented by Merlin and Uther to lessen Igerne’s (Igraine) shame, and he has Guenevere help Mordred plan Arthur’s downfall.

Sword in the Stone
According to traditional accounts, Arthur’s royalty is revealed when, as a young man, he is able to withdraw a sword from a stone or from an anvil placed on a block of stone. This motif, absent from Geoffrey of Monmouth, apparently originated with Robert de Boron, in his Merlin romance. That work exists only in fragment, but scholars are agreed that it survives in two prose redactions (the Suite du Merlin and the Merlin portion of the Vulgate Cycle). In Robert’s work (and also in Malory), the sword is embedded in an anvil, but some later writers omitted the anvil, and the sword and stone have become standard elements of Arthur’s early history. Robert had partially explained the significance of the objects – the sword represents justice; the stone doubtless symbolizes Christ – thereby establishing Arthur as defender of the faith and as king by divine right.

This special relationship of Arthur to God is not so strongly emphasized by later writers, and the symbolism of sword and stone is similarly deemphasized; the withdrawal of the sword (a test often arranged by Merlin) becomes a means not of divine selection of a king but of his revelation. In most accounts, the sword is first given to Kay, whose possible claim to the kingship is disproved when he is unable to repeat the sword’s removal.

In the Vulgate and thereafter, the test of the Sword in the Stone also serves to reveal Galahad as the preordained Grail knight. Malory, for example, tells us how Merlin inserted Balin’s sword into a marble stone, where it remained until Galahad was able to remove it.