Arthur was no chessboard king. The point is made frequently in the romances that he was a good knight in his own right, capable of fighting in the field or tournament, of slaying terrific giants, and so on. His men loved him because he would jeopardize his life like any of them, even riding icognito to seek adventure. Once he jousted down Lamorak, who, according to Malory, was the third best knight of the world.
Another time, to demonstrate his strength, Arthur seized Gawaine at a tournament, lifted him out of the saddle, and carried him along, armor and all, on his horse’s neck. (Gawaine already had won the tournament, and Arthur had forewarned him to go along with whatever he did.) And although on at least one occasion Arthur had a clerk read a letter from Elaine of Astolat aloud to the court, Arthur was literate, like many of his knights and ladies, but unlike King Claudas.
Tennyson’s Arthur can do no wrong. The Arthur of T.H. White is an idealistic and faithful man who has be enchanted into going to bed with Morgawse (Margawse), as well as a gentle, forgiving husband who is trapped into sentecing Guenevere to the stake and rejoices at her rescue. It is this version of Arthur that seems to have colored almost all modern treatments.
The Arthur of the Vulgate, Malory, and other medieval works, however, is a lusty and jealous man who does not need to be enchanted before hopping into bed with at least two other lovely ladies and probably more besides Morgawse; who appears to have fathered at least one bastard son and possibly more besides Mordred (see Amr, Borre, and Loholt); who would have sentenced Guenevere to death or to horrible maiming before her exile, if Lancelot had not saved her in trial by combat during the affair of Genievre; and who goes into a jealous rage and cries for the blood of both Guenevere and Lancelot when their guilt is made clear to him.
He is also something of a practical joker. When Sir Baudwin of Britain made a vow never to be jealous of his wife, Arthur arranged for Baudwin to be out hunting one night. Then Arthur brought a young knight of his own to the chamber of Baudwin’s wife, commanded admittance, and forced the young man into bed with the young lady – though he did not put a sword between them, threaten the knight with death if he touched the lady, and sat playing chess with one of her damsels at the bed’s foot for the rest of the night. In the morning, Arthur showed Baudwin his wife apparently caught with a lover in her bed, thus testing Baudwin’s vow of non-jealousy. Wonder of wonders, Baudwin passed, remaining truly non-jealous, whereupon Arthur explained the situation and praised the lady (The Avowynge of King Arthur).
Also among Arthur’s faults according to the medieval versions, and surely more serious faults than lust and jealousy, are pride and greed. By medieval thought, Arthur’s final downfall was brought less by the love of Lancelot and Guenevere than by Arthur’s own greed in wishing to conquer the world. Early versions give Mordred his chance at usurpation while Arthur is on the Continent to fight the Romans. Malory moves the war with Rome to fairly early in Arthur’s career and gives it a triumphant ending, but the older version appears to survive in the Vulgate, which has the Romans attacking Arthur while he and Gawaine are besieging Lancelot’s castle in France.
High among Arthur’s genuine virtues, by both medieval and modern standards, was loyalty to his word. After Lancelot had rescued Guenevere from the stake, while he was protecting her in Joyous Garde, the Bishop of Rochester came to arrange the peace commanded by the Pope between Arthur and Lancelot. Lancelot naturally wanted to be sure it was safe to deliver Guenevere up to her husband.
And then [the Bishop] shewed Sir Lancelot all his writing, both from the Pope and from King Arthur. This is sure enough, said Sir Launcelot, for full well I dare trust my lord's own writing and his seal, for he was never shamed of his promise.
Chrétien de Troyes has been called the adoptive father of Arthurian literature. In his romances, which antedate and clearly contain many seeds of the Vulgate and Malorian versions, Arthur usually seems less a flawed human being than a quasi-otherwordly ideal. He does appear to show feet of clay in Cligés (the same romance which calls him “the best king” this world ever saw or will see), when he insists upon death by torture for Count Angrs and his rebels, but this case is wrapped up with various medieval codes; and I find Cligés a work even more remarkable than most of Chrétien’s for gray areas between good and bad. Arthur also seems strangely weak at his first appearance in the last and possibly strangest of the series, Perceval, when he allows himself to fall into frozen despair over the Red Knight of Quinqueroi’s insult to himself and Guenevere, while his court continues to laugh and joke about him.
On the whole, however, he seems the personification of worldly (as opposed to otherwordly) kingliness. He can summon men from England, Flanders, Normandy, France, and Brittany as far as the Spanish peaks over the Pyrenees for his projected war on behalf of his great-nephew Cligés; yet Britain seems filled with little otherworldly kingdoms and castles that know not his sway, from Brandigant to Gore to the Rock of Canguin. Both Arthur’s mangificience and some (exaggerated!) glimpse into medieval society may be gleanded from the remark that the king felt upset at having only a mere 500 nobles of his household with him at Robais. Chrétien lost no chance of emphasizing Arthur’s generosity – a pearl among virtues, especially in medieval eyes; one guesses that the generosity of the rich must have been a key element in medieval economy.
Possibly less to Arthur’s credit, Chrétien also shows him early on declaring that a king’s word, once spoken – even if less than judiciously – should never be retracted. In Yvain we find Arthur cast in the role of the wise judge of folklore, shrewd as the Old Testament’s Solomon or Daniel as he tricks the elder daughter of the Lord of Noire Espine into confessing her greed and mercilessness.
Chrétien’s Arthur swears by the souls of his father Uther Pendragon, his mother, and his son – implying either that they are all three of them dead or that he so believes. Unfortunately, I cannot find that Chrétien gives us a name for Arthur’s son; but in Perceval we learn that his mother is, indeed, Igraine and that she is ruling the Rock of Canguin, along with her daughter, Arthur’s sister, and the niece, Clarissant, whom Arthur surely does not know he has – though whether the castle of Canguin lies in this world or the Otherworld appears a very moot question. In this episodie, Igraine calls Arthur a young man, a mere hundred years old, which looks like a piece of literary humor that serves the additional purpose of heightening the Good King mystique.
Don Quixote, who apparently knows nothing about Arthur’s being carried to Avalon, mentions a tradition that instead of dying he was magically turned into a crow, from which form he will eventually return to rule again. The good Don also remarks that in Castilian Arthur is usually called Arts or Artus (with or without accent mark depending on the English translation.) “Artus” is the name Phyllis Ann Karr found in the Vulgate.
In The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, Lewis Spence adds to Quixote’s words in account of a nineteenth-century Cornishman admonishin a hunter to stop shooting at ravens, because King Arthur was still alive as one. Spence even provides reasons for this belief: quoting various sources, he records possible derivations of the name “Arthur”, not only from aruthr – a variant of Welsh uthr, meaning “cruel” and suggestive of an early splitting of a single character into father and son – but alternatively from Welsh arrdhu, meaning “very black”, suggestive of connection with the raven god Bran. (Spens argues that Arthur was once the hero-god of a religious cult, an interesting theory which I record here without personally believing on the evidence I have so far seen.)
It would appear that Don Quixote got his information about the Matter of Britain not from his own or his author’s errant fancy, but from existing tradition. One book available to us and known to have been in Quixote’s library – the Catalan romance Tirant Lo Blanc, first published in 1490 – seems to offer a further tiny glimpse into this Iberian Arthurian tradition: Queen Morgan le Fay arrives, in a black-shrouded ship, at the Greek emperor’s port of Pera. She is clad in black velvet and attended by 130 lovely maidens, chief among whom are Hope, Honor, Chastity (named to celebrate courtly love), and Beauty; they are searching for Morgan’s brother Arthur.
The Greek emperor happens to be holding, lodged in a fair silver cage, a strange lord whose name he cannot learn, but who has a wondrous sword called Excalibur, as well as an aged knight attendant called Breunis Saunce Pit. Morgan recognizes the unnamed prisoner as her brother, whereupon Arthur looks into Excalibur, which seems to have somewhat the same properties as a crystal ball or other oracle of wisdom, and gives to all the company’s questions answers replete with the courtly philosophy of the time.
At the end, he is of course released and restored to his sister, and after a splendid celebration, during which Arthur and Morgan honor the emperor’s daughter and Tirant by dancing with them, the Arthurian party exchanges their ship’s black cloth for brocade and departs. This whole episode is almost surely to be understood as an elaborately staged masque; nevertheless, is is interesting to find Breunis (surely our old friend Breuse Sans Pitie) as well as Morgan cast in an unimpeachable light, and I cannot recall ever before finding this particular quality recorded of Excalibur. In The Arthurian Tradition, John Matthews refers to a version of the epic in which Merlin departs into an “esplumoir”, sometimes interpreted as a moulting cage for hawks; I find this interesting in view of Arthur’s silver cage and oracular resources in Tirant.
Lewis Spence further cites evidence pointing to Arthur himself having at one time been the Maimed King of the Grail legend and he mentions three more close relatives of Arthur: a sister, Anu; a brother, Madawg ap Uther; and a nephew, Eliwlod.
Origins of the Legend | The Legend of King Arthur