Early historical tradition; early legendary tradition; early French romances; folklore
Early historical tradition
About 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the history of Britain that brought Arthur to the world. Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Brittaniae would be a font of historical information and a masterpiece of historical research and presentation if it were not for the simple fact that he made most of it up, or adopted it irresponsibly from obviously fictional sources. Unfortunately, Geoffrey’s chronicle was considered genuine history by many people in his day, and almost all Arthurian texts that followed were based on it.
The chronicles that precede Geoffrey are full of odd allusions, enticing pieces of information, and contradictory facts, all of which Geoffrey superceded. These chronicles form the “early tradition” of Arthurian literature. (At the same time, the Welsh built a body of fantastic, supernatural Arthurian literature which is covered in the next section.)
The earliest reference to Arthur is in Y Gododdin (c. 600), in which a warrior’s prowess is compared to Arthur’s. But the earliest text to describe Arthur in detail is Nennius Historia Brittonum, written in the early ninth century. The author claimed to have “made a heap” of all the fragments and extracts he found concerning British history. The narrative certainly is a “heap,” with little form or structure, but it includes a number of interesting tales, including the story of Ambrosius and Vortigern, and a description of Arthur’s twelve great battles against the Saxons. Arthur, whom Nennius describes as the dux bellorum or “battle leader” of the British kings, is implicity not a king himself. Dux bellorum may imply some kind of official title, much like the Roman Dux Brittanium, which means “Duke of the Britains.”
Arthur was victorius in all of the battles, the last of which was the battle of Badon Hill, where Arthur personally killed 960 opponents, sending the Saxons screaming back to Germany for help. Nennius’ narrative dives into genealogies at this point, never returning to Arthur or his fate. However, in an appendix, he describes several mirabilia (“miracles”) of Britain, two of which concern Arthur: the tomb of Arthur’s son Amr, whom Arthur had killed; and a stone where Arthur’s dog, Caval, left a pawprint during the hunt for the boar Troynt. Both Amr and Troynt (Twrch Trwyth) appear in Welsh Arthurian legends and reflect elements of the early legendary tradition about Arthur.
The Annales Cambriae date from the late tenth century. This simple list of events by date includes two episodes which concern Arthur: in the year 516, “the battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors”; and in the year 537, “the battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.” Both of the dates seem about 20 years too late, and they do not square with Gildas or Nennius. This is the first mention of Camlann, and of Medraut, who was to become Mordred, though it must be noted that the Annales, contrary to later tradition, do not specify that Mordred and Arthur were on opposite sides.
The next historical chronicle we need to be concerned with is the Legenda Sancti Goeznovii (“Legend of St. Goeznovius”) written in Brittany in, according to the text itself, 1019. There has been some debate over the correctness of the date, but modern scholarship seems to regard it as accurate. The text describes, in simple, non-legendary terms, how Vortigern invited too many Saxons to Britain, and how Arthur, in the 460s or 470s, drove them away again. Arthur is said to have been “called from human life” after a number of victories in Britain and Gaul, allowing the Saxons to return. Goeznovii specifically calls Arthur “King of the Britons.” The importance of this text lies in the fact that it is, as Geoffrey Ashe (Lacy, NAE, 204) says, “the only early historical narrative in which Arthur is mentioned plainly, with no obviously dubious or fantastic touches.”
We come now to the last important chronicle before Geoffrey of Monmouth: William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum (c. 1125). According to William, Arthur was a general under Ambrosius, who staved off the invasion of the “Angles” (rather than the Saxons). William belittles the “trifles” told of Arthur by the Britons, saying that a warrior as great as Arthur deserves to be remembered in authentic history. Given the next “authentic history,” Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, William’s statement is thick with unintentional irony.
Early legendary tradition
While Nennius, the authors of the Annales and Goeznovii, and William of Malmesbury were attempting to write authentic histories, the Welsh were building a body of legendary tradition about King Arthur. Evidence shows that Breton conteurs carried these legends from Britain to Brittany, and eventually to Gaul and the rest of the continent. These legends, in contrast to the “courtly” French romances which would follow, are characterized by blood, sweat, and tears; by magnificent palaces, fearsome beasts, mysterious otherworlds, supernatural occurrences, hags and giants and sorcerers, bloody battles, and Arthur presiding over all as an “emperor.”
The earliest existing example of Welsh legend is a poem known as The Spoils of Annwn. Taliesin, an historical northern bard who lived in the century after Arthur, is the supposed narrator. Arthur and three shiploads of warriors sail to Annwn, the Welsh otherworld, for some unclear purpose (to free a prisoner, perhaps, or to find treasure). Arthur returns with a magical cauldron, but only seven warriors have survived the expedition.
Unfortunately, there are few existing cogent narratives to come out of this body of early legend. Complete tales such as Culhwch and Olwen (Arthur, presented as an emperor of a vast but realm, helps his nephew Culhwch conquer beasts, witches, and warriors so that he may marry Olwen, the daughter of a giant) are rare. Most of what we have are hints and allusions. One poem tells of the mysterious properties of Arthur’s grave, another alludes to Arthur’s battles with a hag at the Hall of Afarnach, and against the Cudgel-Head (Pen Palach) at Dissethach, and against the Dog-heads at Mount Eidyn (Edinburgh). Bedwyr (Bedivere), Cei (Kay), and Gwalchmei are extolled among his bravest and boldest warriors.
The Triads, which are annotations or indices of early legend, talk of Arthur’s courts, of his son Llacheu, of his strife with Mordred, of his three wives named Gwenhwyfar, of how one was unfaithful, and of the battle of Camlann. Most of this material was not written until the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, and some of it shows traces of contamination by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but the majority of it harkens to an earlier era of bold, bloody, and wonderous legend that has since been lost.
Another significant “body” of tradition concerning Arthur is the lives of the Welsh saints, one of which is of particular interest: Caradoc’s Vita Gildae, which includes an account of the abduction of Guinevere by Melwas of the Summer Region. This seems to be the original abduction story, and is possibly the source of Chrétien de Troyes’s tale of Guinevere, Lancelot, and Meleagant (Meleagaunce).
Geoffrey of Monmouth – now we come to what is arguably the most important Arthurian text ever written: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”), a Latin chronicle from 1138. Beginning with Brutus, the expatriated Roman who conquered Britain (then called Albion) from giants, Geoffrey chronicles a line of British kings through the seventh-century Cadwallar (Cadwallader). Though Geoffrey claimed to have adapted his material from an ancient book of British history, it is clear that he embellished or completely invented the main episodes, taking names from wherever he found them: authentic histories, Welsh genealogies, contemporary figures, and his own imagination. Some Celtic material – mostly names – creeps in here and there, such as Arthur’s battles with the Giant of Mont St. Michel and the giant Ritho (Rhitta).
Geoffrey’s book provides the first full “biography” of King Arthur and his famous predecessors. Summarized, it reads something like this:
After Britain lost support from the Roman military in the early fifth century, the country was beset from all sides by barbarian Picts, Irish, and Huns. The ranks of Britain’s warriors had been depleted during Maximus’s war with Rome. Rome refused to send aid. With no one else to turn to, the Britons asked King Aldroenus of Brittany for assistance. Aldroenus sent his brother Constantine with legions of warriors. Constantine drove out the barbarians and was crowned king of Britain.
Constantine had had three sons named Constans (who became a monk), Ambrosius, and Uther. Constantine was assassinated by a Pict. Earl Vortigern of Gwent, seeking to increase his own power, removed Constans from his monastery and foisted him to the throne. Once Vortigern had established power as Constans’s advisor, he arranged for Constans’s assassination. Ambrosius and Uther, just children, fled Britain for Brittany to escape Vortigern’s hand. Vortigern ascended to the throne.
Beset with the same barbarian problems, Vortigern hired Saxon mercenaries to swell the ranks of the British army. The Saxons were led by Hengist, who saw a chance to win power and territory. Hengist brought far more Saxons than were needed into Britain, settling in Kent. When their intentions became obvious, they attacked, decimating the British army at the battle of Amesbury. Vortigern fled into Wales, where he tried to build a fortress at Snowdon and encountered Merlin.
Meanwhile, Ambrosius and Uther raised an army in Brittany and came to Britain. They destroyed Vortigern, killed Hengist, and checked the Saxon advance. Like his father, Ambrosius was poisoned by a Pictish agent. Uther became king and adopted the name Pendragon. He enjoyed further victories against the Saxons. At a victory feast, he fell in love with Igerne (Igraine), the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. Gorlois, understanding Uther’s intentions, took his wife and left the feast. Uther took affront to this offense and attacked Gorlois, but could not breach the defenses of the castle Tintagel in Cornwall, where Igerne was in safekeeping. Uther called on Merlin’s help.
Merlin transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois, allowing him to enter Tintagel undetected and to sleep with Igerne, begetting Arthur. Gorlois, meanwhile, was killed fighting Uther’s soldiers. Uther married Igerne and had, besides Arthur, a daughter named Anna.
The Saxon wars resumed. Uther fell ill and had to take to the field in a litter. Nevertheless, at the battle of Saint Albans, he killed the Saxon leaders Octa and Eosa. Then, like his brother and father, he was poisoned. Arthur was crowned king at the age of fifteen.
Assisted by Cador of Cornwall and Hoel of Brittany, Arthur resumed the war against the Saxons, now led by Colgrim, Baldulph, and Cheldric. Arthur wielded a sword called Caliburn, fought with a lance called Ron, and carried a shield known as Pridwen. His victories against the Saxons culminated in the battle of Bath (Geoffrey’s Badon), in which they were utterly destroyed. Arthur married the lady Guinevere, who had been raised in the house of Cador. Arthur then turned his attention to the Picts and the Irish (led by King Gillamaur), crushing them at Loch Lomond in Scotland.
Having pacified all of Britain, Arthur, in quick succession, conquered Ireland, Iceland, Gothland, and Orkney. Having thus established his power thoughout the British Isles, Arthur enjoyed twelve years of relative peace (during which, in the romances, the bulk of the quests and adventures occurred).
After this interval, Arthur proceded to conquer Norway and Denmark. He then conquered Gaul by defeating Frollo, the Roman governor, in single combat. Following this victory, Arthur held a magificent court in Caerleon, establishing bishops, dukes, earls, and kings all over his domain.
During the court, however, a notice came from Emperor Leo of Rome demanding tribute from Arthur. Arthur replied that no tribute was due, and both sides prepared for war. Lucius, the Roman procurator, led the Roman armies and summoned allies from all over the known world. Arthur sailed to Brittany to join forces with his cousin Hoel. When he arrived he learned that Hoel’s niece had been kidnapped by the giant of Mont St. Michael. Taking Bedivere and Kay, Arthur went to the mountain and killed the giant, but was too late to save the life of the maiden.
Arthur led his army into Gaul and met Lucius’s forces. A meeting to negotiate a truce ended in disaster when Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and the best of Arthur’s warriors, took offense to a comment by one of Lucius’s soldiers and cut off his head. Several battles followed, culminating in the battle of Soissons, where Arthur was victorious and Lucius was killed. Kay and Bedivere also fell in the battle.
Arthur wintered in Gaul and prepared to march on Rome itself, but he received word from Britain that Mordred, his nephew (the son of Anna and the brother of Gawain), whom Arthur had left as regent, had usurped the throne, and had taken Guinevere as his wife. As Arthur prepared to return to Britain to deal with Mordred, Mordred allied with Saxons and swelled his ranks with their numbers. Arthur landed at Richborough, battled Mordred’s army, and lost Gawain in the fighting. Guinevere, hearing of Arthur’s advance, fled to Caerleon and took the veil.
Pressing on, Arthur encountered Mordred’s army again at the river Camel in Cornwall (Geoffrey’s version of Camlann). At this final battle, both armies were obliterated. Mordred died, and Arthur received a mortal wound. Before he was taken to the island of Avalon for healing, he bestowed the crown of Britain on Constantine, son of Cador of Cornwall.
No more, then, is Arthur a simple dux bellorum who staves of the Saxon invasion of Britain: he is a full-blown emperor; a conqueror of a vast realm who manages to amass enough power to challenge Rome itself. Geoffrey’s chronicle was a hit. The British people enjoyed having such a conqueror in their history. The Normans, who had been in power for just over 70 years at the time of Geoffrey’s writing, now had an historical claim to the island: they were descendants of Arthur’s relatives in Brittany, come again to defeat the Anglo-Saxons. There were skeptics even in Geoffrey’s own time, but for the most part, his history was accepted as more-or-less authentic for centuries.
In 1155, Wace adapted Geoffrey’s chronicle into the French verse Roman de Brut and, for the most part, dropped the pretext of history, infusing the saga with romance and paving the way for the great French romances. Around 1190, Layamon wrote Brut, an adaptation of Wace, in English. Though Wace’s (and, ultimately, Layamon’s) primary source was Geoffrey, both Wace and Layamon show the influence of Celtic and Breton oral tradition in their versions of Arthur’s life. Wace contributed at least one major addition to the Arthurian saga: the Round Table, which, he said, Arthur established to end disputes about precedence among his knights. Wace claimed to have heard of the Round Table from the Bretons. An important addition from Layamon is the statement that Arthur was taken to Avalon by an elfin queen named Argante (probably a corruption of Morgan).
Early French romances
Wace brought the story of King Arthur across the channel and on to the continent, where it was to remain for the next two centuries.
The lines of transmission have been the subject of much debate. As stated before, Breton storytellers, who traveled far and wide, probably brought Arthurian tales out of Britain for centuries, but very little has survived. Marie de France’s lays (c. 1170) were adapted from Breton tales, as were other scattered stories. The tale of Guinevere’s abduction reached Modena in Italy as early as 1135, when a sculptor fashioned the Modena Archivolt, depicting the rescue of “Winlogee” (Guinevere) from “Carrado” (Caradoc) and “Mardoc” by “Artus de Bretania” (Arthur), “Isdernus” (Yder), “Galvagin” (Gawain), and “Che” (Kay).
But these tales inspired no body of literature until Wace’s Roman de Brut, as if French romancers needed Wace’s pseudo-historic framework to tell them who Arthur was and to structure their tales. In any event, Arthurian literature exploeded in France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy over the next 200 years, with the first and most prominent romancer being Chrétien de Troyes.
Chrétien’s Erec, Cliges, Yvain, Lancelot, and Perceval, all composed in the late twelfth century, portray and Arthurian world characterized by courtly love and chivalry, with Arthur’s court at the very center of civilization. Arthur himself recedes into the background. He is neither the great general of the chronicles nor the glorious emperor of the Welsh legends; he is a generous, benevolent monarch who supervises the action of the story but rarely participates in it. Sometimes the portrayal of Arthur is negative; he is bland, impotent, passive, selfish, disinterested. And yet, Arthur is regarded with respect and awe, and his court is considered the epitome of civlized society and chivalric virtue.
To analyze each author’s treatment of Arthur and his court is beyond the scope of this entry and, indeed, this book (Arthurian Name Dictionary, Christopher W. Bruce). Suffice to say that people and places and themes are introduced in these early romances that will stay with the Arthurian legend to the modern day: the heroes Lancelot, Perceval, Yvain, Yder, Tristan (Tristram), and Erec; the Grail and the quest to achieve it; the abduction of Guinevere by Meleagant; the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere; Camelot; Chastity Tests; tournaments; and the tale of the Fair Unknown, to name only a few.
Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Romances, and the Post-Vulgate Romances
These texts, written between 1200 and 1240, constitute the last major contributions to the basic text and structure of Arthur’s biography. They succeeded, on a grandoise scale, to unite the themes introduced by Chrétien de Troyes and other French writers (the Round Table, the Grail, the affair, the adventures of the heroes) with the history of Arthur’s court provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace. Together, these sources introduced the theme of the Arthur-Grail “cycle”, formed of at least four parts: the ancient history of the Grail (Robert de Boron’s Joesph d’Arimathie and the Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal), the establishment of Arthur and the Round Table (the Merlins), the quest for the Grail (Robert de Boron’s Perceval/Didot-Perceval and the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Queste del Sainte Graal), and the downfall and death of Arthur (the Mort Artus). The Vulgate Cycle also adds a fifth section that falls between the Merlin and the Queste: a Lancelot, which describes the many adventures of Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table. The stories have a religious subtext and portray Arthur’s reign in the context of the growth of Christianity throughout the known world.
In a sense, these cycles are the first true “Arthurian” tales because they are the first to show Arthur as an individual rather than as a emperor, conqueror, or kindly old patriarch. For the first time, we see multiple expressions of Arthur’s personal joys and woes; his reactions to the events taking place around him.
The Prose Cycles modify the biography given by Geoffrey of Monmouth considerably and deserve an individual summary:
When Jesus Christ was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea, a soldier of Pontius Pilate and a closet Christian, caught some of the Christ’s blood in the cup or dish used at the Last Supper. This became the Holy Grail. Joseph eventually brought the Grail to Britain, and his followers established the Grail Castle at Corbenic (Carbonek). Arthur and his famous knights were descendants of this fellowship.
Merlin is born when a devil lies with a maiden, but he is baptized upon birth and loses his father’s evil spirit.
The reign of Vortigern and Ambrosius is described much as in Geoffrey of Monmouth, but Ambrosius becomes “Pendragon” and his brother Constans becomes “Maine”. Pendragon and Uther contend with the Saxons as well as with native rebellions.
Uther becomes king after Pendragon dies in battle against the Saxons. Uther falls in love with Igerne, the wife of the duke of Tintagel, and Merlin helps him enter the castle as in Geoffrey of Monmouth, but makes Uther promise to give him the child that is conceived. Uther marries Igerne. Merlin takes Arthur when he is born and gives him to Ector (or Antor), a duke, to be raised. Antor has a son named Kay, who becomes Arthur’s foster-brother. Uther’s vassals revolt against him, and Uther becomes sick and dies. Merlin assures the kings of Britain that God will appoint their new leader at Christmas.
At Christmas, Antor, Kay, and Arthur go to Logres (London) for a tournament. Arthur is Kay’s squire. After mass, the nobles exit a church to find a huge stone in the churchyard. A sword, Excalibur, is thrust through the anvil and into the stone, and a message proclaims that the person who draws the sword from the stone will be the new king. All the nobles try to pull it out, but in vain. During the tournament, Kay realizes that he’s forgotten his sword, so he sends Arthur to get it. Arthur cannot find it, so he pulls the sword from the stone and gives it to Kay. Antor makes Arthur return it, and Arthur draws it again in front of everyone. At Antor’s request, Arthur makes Kay his seneschal. The nobles protest Arthur’s appointment at first but eventually accept it.
Some of the more irate kings, with ambitions to the throne themselves, organize a rebellion against Arthur. They include Lot, father of Gawain, and Urien, father of Yvain. At Merlin’s advice, Arthur summons help from the French Kings Ban of Benoic and Bors of Gannes, promising to aid them against their mortal enemy, King Claudas, if they assist Arthur against the rebellion. With their assistance, Arthur routs the rebels at the battle of Bedegraine. Arthur unknowingly sleeps with his half-sister, the wife of Lot, and begets Mordred. He has a dream portending the destruction of his kingdom.
The Saxons begin their invasion of Britain anew, and the rebel kings return to their own lands to defend their homes. Arthur meets a maiden named Lisanor and fathers a son named Loholt with her. Gawain, Yvain, and other sons of the rebels break from their fathers and go to join Arthur’s forces. Arthur, Merlin, Ban, and Bors go to the kingdom of Carmelide, ruled by Leodegan, and defend it against the Saxon king Rions (Geoffrey’s Ritho). Arthur falls in love with Leodegan’s daughter, Guinevere, and marries her. As a wedding present, Leodegan gives Arthur the Round Table that had belonged to Uther.
Arthur and his young allies enjoy victory while the rebels are continually defeated. Finally, the rebel kings agree to submit to Arthur, the forces unite, and the Saxons are crushed at the battle of Clarence. Arthur goes to Gaul and defeats King Claudas, who has allied with Romans and with Duke Frollo of Germany. Returning to Britain, Arthur kills Rions in Carmelide. He has pacified Britain.
Rome demands Arthur’s submission. Arthur raises an army and goes to Gaul. He stops to kill the giant of Mont St. Michel. Arthur defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius at the battle of Soissons and kills him. Arthur also kills a devil cat at Lake Lausanne, then returns to Britain. Merlin is imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake and disappears from the story.
Arthur’s court becomes the most renowned in the world, and it attracks the greatest knights from every kingdom. Lancelot eventually arrives and becomes one of Arthur’s most famous and valuable warriors, but he falls in love with Guinevere. Arthur is attacked by an imperialistic lord named Galehaut, but Lancelot brings an end to the hostilities. The adventures of Lancelot, Gawain, Hector, Balin, Agravain, Sagremor, Gaheris, Gareth, Lionel, Galescalain (Galeshin), Erec, Pelleas, Dodinel, Tristan, Aglovale, Perceval, Tor, Bors, and Yvain are related in detail. Arthur has his own adventures involving Pellinore, Accolon, and the Lady of the Lake. Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, hates him and tries to kill him. The Saxons invade again, briefly, but are defeated at Saxon Rock. During the invasion, Arthur sleeps with the Saxon sorceress Gamile (Camille) on the same night that Guinevere is first unfaithful with Lancelot.
Soon afterwards, Guinevere’s half-sister, called the False Guinevere (Genievre), proclaims that she is the true queen and that Guinevere is an impostor. The False Guinevere seduces Arthur, and he exiles the real Guinevere, who goes to live with Lancelot. Eventually, Arthur discovers his mistake; the False Guinevere dies; and the true Guinevere is welcomed back to court. She is later abducted by Meleagant but is rescued by Lancelot.
In Gaul, Claudas has rebuilt his forces. Arthur goes to war with him, defeats him, and Claudas flees Gaul for good.
Galahad, Lancelot’s son, arrives at Camelot. The Grail appears to the Knights of the Round Table, and all swear to seek it. Arthur laments because he knows he will lose his best knights in the quest. The quest is eventually completed by Galahad, Perceval, and Bors. Only Bors returns to court. Many knights have been slain. Gawain has murdered over a dozen of them.
Arthur holds a tournament at Winchester to restore the chivalric code, but it is clear that the soul of the court has been lost in the Grail Quest. Knights fight and murder each other; jealousy abounds; Arthur begins to suspect the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere; the queen is accused of murder.
Agravain and Mordred expose the affair by catching the lovers in flagrante while Arthur is hunting. Lancelot kills his attackers and flees, and Arthur sentences Guinevere to be burned at the stake. Many Knights of the Round Table join Lancelot’s side. Lancelot shows up and rescues Guinevere, slaying more of Arthur’s knights, including Gawain’s brothers. Arthur, egged on by an infuriated Gawain, pursues Lancelot to his castle at Joyous Guard and fights him there. The pope intervenes and forces Arthur to restore Guinevere as queen. Arthur exiles Lancelot, and Lancelot goes to his homeland of Benoic.
Gawain urges Arthur to war. Leaving Mordred in charge of Britain and the queen, Arthur sails to Benoic with his army and attacks Lancelot. Lancelot tries to make peace; Arthur is tempted, but a vengeful Gawain rejects the proposal and forces Arthur to do the same. Gawain and Lancelot fight single combat, and Gawain is mortally wounded.
Romans invade Gaul. Arthur meets them and slays the emperor, but Kay is killed. News arrives that Mordred has faked Arthur’s death, has siezed the throne, and has tried to force Guinevere into marriage. Arthur arrives at Dover and fights Mordred’s forces. Gawain dies. Guinevere flees to a nunnery at Amesbury. The fighting reaches Salisbury Plain. The armies are obliterated. Arthur kills Mordred but receives a mortal wound. The only knights remaining are Lucan and Girflet (Griflet le Fise de Dieu). They bring Arthur to the Ancient Chapel, and Lucan soon dies. Arthur orders Girflet to throw Excalibur into a lake and, after some hesitation, Girflet complies. Morgan le Fay arrives to bear Arthur away for healing. A body is later buried in the Ancient Chapel, but it is unclear whether it is Arthur’s.
Lancelot contends with Mordred’s sons and kills them, then retires to a monastery. Arthur’s remaining knights do the same. In the Post-Vulgate version, King Mark of Cornwall invades Logres and destroys Camelot and the Round Table.
This version of Arthur’s life and death became canonical, and it forms the conext of most of the subsequent romances, such as the Prose Tristan, the Italian Tavola Ritonda, the English Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and, with a few exceptions, most modern texts.
Despite the existence of the large numbers of carefully composed literary texts that take Arthur as their subject, his legend is inextricably bound up with the conventional materials of folklore. There have been attempts to establish a folk origin for Arthurian romances themselves, in the form of pagan rituals, the memory of which was preserved in oral tradition, expanded, and finally fixed in written form. Those attempts have not been wholly persuasive, and most scholars would hesitate to go so far. It is nonetheless clear that popular beliefs very early grew up around Arthur, and the relation of folklore and literary tradition is certainly reciprocal: while folk motifs may have contributed to the legend’s dissemination, many of them may in fact have been furthered, if not formed, by the King’s popularity. The latter situation appears the more common, and Loomis suggested that many Arthurian themes were borrowed not from folklore but from early sagas and other texts. He concluded that, although many elements of Arthurian stories “survive in Celtic and other folktales collected within the last century, it would be a mistake to infer their origin in ‘folklore’ in the strict sense of that term.”
Folklore related to Arthurian subjects falls into two categories: the character of Arthur himself, and themes and motifs that find their way into Arthurian works. The former is related primarily to the legends of Arthur’s survival and return, beliefs that have persisted nearly to this day. A number of stories have traditionally been told about the discovery of Arthur and his knights in various circumstances (sleeping in a cave, riding in a nocturnal hunt). Some versions that present them as sleeping insist that a call for help in their presence would immediately rouse the knights and bring them forth to battle the enemies of England. A thirteenth-century text, the Lanercost Chronicle, records the story of bishop Peter des Roches, who met Arthur face to face; to ensure that the bishop would be believed when recounting the meeting, Arthur magically gave him the power to produce a butterfly whenever he opened his fist. In contrast to the detail of such stories, other folk beliefs are only vague associations, as witness the link, attested in Somerset, between Arthur and birds (especially the crow or raven).
It is hardly surprising that Arthurian and other romances cast much folk material in literary form. They draw heavily on traditional motifs, many of which Loomis and others traced to sources in Celtic myth and folklore. For example, while we find in legend numerous examples of stakes supporting severed human heads, it appears that the Celtic world provides the only folk antecedent for the particular situation of Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec et Enide, in which a final stake is reserved for the hero’s head. Among other Arthurian motifs that offer folk analogues – and that may be of folk origin – we may count the revolving or disappearing castle, the beheading test, chastity tests involving horns or mantles, fairy mistresses, the storm-producing spring, and perhaps the question test found in the Perceval stories. Such motifs are less “Arthurian folklore” per se than simply traditional material appropriated by many authors, including those of Arthurian romance.