The possibility of Arthur’s return has figured significantly in his story since William of Malmesbury (1125), Henry of Huntingdon (1129), and Wace (1155) repeated the “Breton hope” apparently popular in folk tradition. Although most medieval chroniclers refuted the claim, it enjoyed such a firm hold in the popular imagination that, according to Hermann of Tournai (1146), violence erupted at an 1113 religious gathering when a churchman declared that Arthur was actually dead. Malory cautiously recorded the legend of the Rex quondam Rexque futures (using the Latin inscription he found in the mid-fourteenth-century Alliterative Morte Arthure), remarking that
men say that he shall come again… I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life.
Despite the popular credence in the myth of the return, medieval romances almost never recorded its fulfillment. In Étienne de Rouen’s Latin poem Draco Normannicus (1168), Arthur writes a letter warning Henry II to leave Brittany alone, for he has returned from Avalon to marshall troops against Henry’s intrusions.
And the thirteenth-century German verse Manuel und Amande maintains that after his apparent death Arthur returned to reign another twenty-five years. Otherwise, romances treated the return as a promise for the future. Medieval and Renaissance writers occasionally depicted Arthur awaiting his return in Avalon (or in less traditional locations, such as Sicily or the island of Brasil), surrounded by former companions or by fairy ladies, and perhaps restored annually by the Grail, but these descriptions by and large appeared in the essentially non-Arthurian accounts of such figures as Loquifer, the Bâtarde de Bouillon, and Ogier the Dane, who visited Arthur’s magic isle in their travels.
In his poem “The Grave of King Arthur” (1777), Thomas Warton memorialized the traditional debate over whether Arthur would return. But depiction of that second coming awaited nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American writers, who in most instances have described the return or survival of his associates more often than of the King himself. Walter Scott’s Bridal of Triermain (1813) recounts the awakening of Arthur’s daughter in Plantagenet England.
Thomas Love Peacock, who in “The Round Table; or King Arthur’s Feast” (1817) described Arthur’s boredom in Avalon, in “Calidore” (1816) depicted the King, impatient to return, dispatching a young knight to nineteenth-century England to assess whether the time was right. The most significant version of the myth in the nineteenth century is that of Alfred Tennyson, who treated Arthur’s promised return in two imaginative ways: “The Epic” (1842), the modern frame for his earliest tale of the death of Arthur (the “Morte d’Arthur”), depicts the King returning in the narrator’s dream as “a modern gentleman/ Of stateliest port”, thereby suggesting that the medieval ideals of the Round Table could be maintained in the nineteenth century, though necessarily in modern forms.
The expanded version of “The Passing of Arthur” (1869) that concludes the Idylls of the King implies that Arthur’s departure from this world is actually a return to his proper home, where he is welcomed “beyond the limit of the world” like “a king returning from his wars”.
In the twentieth century, John Masefield remained closer to medieval tradition in the title poem of Midsummer Night and Other Tales in Verse (1928), which relates how on midsummer night the King and his knights awaken, again turning to stone at the end of the hour, and ends with the hope of Arthur’s return. The mythic possibility of this return seized the popular imagination with new force during World War II, when newspaper editorials announced that England’s need had never been greater and writers of the period used the material to dramatize the threat of totalitarianism.
The myth furnished the collective title The Once and Future King (1958) for books that T.H. White had published separately, beginning in 1939. The novel concludes with Arthur imagnining his return to establish a brigher world. Adapting the prophecy to a modern setting, C.S. Lewis’s novem That Hideous Strength (1945) shows Merlin awakening to help destroy an organization that aims to recondition the human race. Arthur himself never returns; however, various Arthurian figures appear throughout the work, and finally both Merlin and Mr. Fisher King, who heads the reistance against the evil organization, like Arthur go to another sphere. Martyn Skinner used the myth similarly in two satiric epics. In Merlin: or, the Return of Arthur (1951), Merlin recalls Arthur from Avalon, first taking him to hell to view a documentary film about the sickening realities of the modern world; The Return of Arthur: A Poem of the Future (1955) brings Arthur to England about the year 2000 to overthrow a totalitarian regime.
Recent science-fiction writers have employed the mythic return to depict a cosmic conflict between Good and Evil. In Merlin’s Mirror (1975), Andre Norton, while focusing on Merlin his medieval setting, adapts the story of Arthur’s survival through the device of time travel, showing the wounded King being put in a life-suspension chamber to await the arrival of space travelers with advanced medical arts.
Other writers follow the more common pattern of showing Arthur’s companions rather than the King himself returning to the modern world: Morgan Le Fay, Launcelot, and Merlin reappear in locations ranging from Cornwall to San Fransisco and Mobile, Alabama. This concentration on Arthurian characters other than the King emphasizes that the most significiant “return” of Arthur has been not in particular accounts of his second coming but in the revitalization of the entire body of Arthurian material after its relative dormancy between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century.