Although attempts to identify the historical Arthur continue, the King is largely a creation of romance, and it is hardly surprising that his character changes and grows and that he presents occasional inconsistent traits from text to text.
In pseudo-chronicles (e.g. Wace), the depiction is understandably that of a military leader, since the legend of Arthur was just being forged and developed and since his prestige would henceforth be based in large part on him having subjugated much of the world and imposed himself as its leader. Even in such texts, however, Arthur’s concern for peace and justice balances his warlike traits; it is in Wace that, having brought an extended period of peace to the world, he establishes the Round Table to promote equality and harmony.
Much of Arthurian literature is only marginally, if at all, about Arthur. In the course of the Middle Ages, emphasis shifts quickly to Lancelot and Guinevere, to Perceval, Galahad, or Gawain, to Tristan (Tristram) and Isolde. However, in Celtic material more than in French or other romances, Arthur does often play the central and dominant role, undertaking wars, hunts, and quests, succeeding thereby in gaining both glory and territory for himself. At the same time, in works like Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur (although a glorious and famous king) is closely associated with magic and the supernatural: the Welsh Arthur, not surprisingly, participates extensively in the Celtic mythological tradition.
Beyond the chronicles, the Celtic material, and certain other texts (e.g., the Middle English works), the emphasis on Arthur as warrior and conqueror is reduced. Romance authors generally abandon interest in large-scale wars in favor of more localized battles, tourneys, and (especially) the presentation of Arthur as sovereign and patriarch rather than warrior. He is most consistently presented as wise, generous, and magnanimous. He is kind and forgiving, trustworthy and loyal. On the other hand, he is sometimes seen as indecisive or, conversely, petulant and stubborn, even when his own interest or those of the court may be compromised. For example, Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec et Enide Arthur insists on conducting the hunt for the white stag, even though he is told – and does not appear to doubt – that the hunt will inevitably lead to dissension and trouble at court.
Arthur may act hastily, but he rarely reacts in anger, other than righteous indignation. An exception is offered by the Alliterative Morte, but most often he is presented as even-tempered to the point of blandness. In the Mort Artu, we may be startled by an absence of outrage when Arthur is told of Lancelot’s sin with Guinevere: he becomes pale, comments that allt his is merveilles, and lapses into silence. Of course, his passivity may be less a function of his traditional character than of the Mort Artu poet’s individual presentation – the King will react with near indifference even to the Queen’s death – but in most texts he is shown to be even-tempered, even-handed, and calm.
The King appears on occasion to be a somewhat feeble patriarch. In Chrétien’s Yvain, for example, Arthur is unable to stay awake after a feast; he retires to the Queen’s chamber for a nap, causing puzzlement and grubbling on the part of his knights. The essential fact here and in other texts, however, is that his prestige is never – or almost never – compromised by his personal weakness. Whether he is nodding off at awkward moments, suffering fools (like Kay) a bit too gladly, or risking the harmony of the court by commanding everyone to play his white-stag game, his authority and glory remain intact. Indeed, they remain intact even when the ethic and efficacy of the Arthurian court itself are questioned. (It should be noted that occasional works, such as Robert Biket’s Lai du cor and other settings of chastity tests, often indulge in humor at Arthur’s expense; this is, however, a minority view of the King.)
As Rosemary Morris notes, Arthur was an ideal Christian hero, and in various texts, such as Culhwch and Olwen, he is presented as God’s elect. In some works that recount the withdrawal of the Sword in the Stone, it is by that phenomenon that God chooses Arthur as King. Yet, as early as Chrétien, authors begin to hint that the court and its kind of chivalry are ineffective or flawed ideals. Once the Grail quest becomes a preoccupation of Chrétien and his successors, the writers imply – and sometimes indicate explicitly – that the quest can be accomplished only by a renunciation of Arthurian chivalry and adherence to a higher code.
Nevertheless, it is only by implication (however clear) that Arthur is himself diminished, and within the context of his court and world he remains respected and revered. It appears that there are in a sense two Arthurs: one of them is a human being (illustrious, wise, but quite human nonetheless); the other is an image, identified with the ideals of Camelot and the Round Table. The natural, if rare, frailties of the human king seldom compromise the image, even when the distinction between the two widens progressively, and the most fascinating settings of the Arthurian legend are often those that show Arthur as human and imperfect.
If later authors have not often made fundamental changes in the character of Arthur, they have in a number of cases concentrated more heavily on one side of that character than on the other. Some accounts have deified him and thereby robbed him of most of his humanity, but other writers have successfully resisted that temptation, presenting Arthur as subject to doubts, fears, and jealousies.
Among many notable treatments of the monarch, we might conclude with two. Thomas Berger comically traces Arthur’s development from a naive youth (and a pompous one, who reacts to the news that he will be king by immediatly adopting the royal “we”) to a great ruler who nonetheless retains his human traits; and T.H. White shows us, far better than most writers, and Arthur who is at the end an old man, feeble and exhausted, sad and near despair, an old man sustained – but barely – by hope.
Analysis of Arthurian texts
An analysis of Arthurian texts shows at least eight different descriptions of Arthur’s basic character:
- British National Hero.
In the the earliest historic traditions, Arthur is presented as a British hero who fought off the Saxon invasions, postponing their conquest of Britain by several decades. In 1125, historian William Malmesbury disparaged the “trifles” told of Arthur by the Bretons, saying that Arthur is “a man who is surely worthy of being described in true histories rather than dreamed about in fallacious myths – for he truly sustained his sinking homeland for a long time and aroused the drooping spirits of his fellow citizens to battle”.
The historian John Morris, who has no doubt as to Arthur’s reality, says, “His triumph was the last victory of western Rome; his short lived empire created the future nations of the English and the Welsh; and it was during his reign and under his authority that the Scots first came to Scotland. His victory and his defeat turned Roman Britain into Great Britain. His name overshadows his age”. (Morris, xiii).
- World Conqueror.
As an extension of the national hero character, Geoffrey of Monmouth and other chroniclers portrayed Arthur as a great conqueror who brought Britain, the surrounding Islands, Scandinavia, Gaul, and Rome under his control. Sometimes his empire extends farther, to Africa and the far east. Arthur joins the ranks of such legendary warlords as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. In creating this portrayl, Geoffrey gave the British a past “golden age” upon which they might look with pride and for inspiration.
- Mythological Emperor.
This portrayal is found in Welsh lore. Arthur presides over a kingdom of Celtic fantasy, full of beast-men, witches, one-eyed giants, dwarves, devils, fairies, and magicians. He sails to the otherworld and leads his army into the highlands of hell. He rules the known world, from Europe to Africa. Arthur and his warriors are giants among men. They can run lightly across the tops of reeds and can hit a fly with an arrow from the other side of the realm. They create fire with their bodies and carry knives as big as bridges and crush mountains under their feet. They are like the gods of classical mythology.
- Passive Patriarch.
In the continental romances, Arthur himself yields importance to his famous knights, whose individual adventures occupy the narratives. Arthur seems impotent, confused, and self-absorbed, sitting in the background. Nevertheless, he commands complete respect from his knights, and his court is considered the very center of civilization.
- Human High King.
In the French prose cycles and some of their adaptations, including Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, Arthur becomes a far more human character than in previous texts. He is a fearsome warrior and a respected potentate, but his human failings are all too apparent. He tries to drown his infant son. He is unfaithful to his wife at least twice, with the Saxon sorcereress Gamille and the mother of Arthur the Less. The latter, he rapes. He fails to keep his promise to Kings Ban and Bors and, consequently, they are conquered by Claudas. When he discovers the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, he handles it poorly and eventually allows himself to be egged into war by his nephew Gawain. These failings are carefully balanced by deeds of nobility and kidness and, in the end, we are forced to conclude that he is a human character placed in a super-human situation. The tragedy of his life, beginning with his incest, is beyond his ability to control; he is almost helpless as his kingdom crumbles around him. Our sympathy for him is increased if our awe is somewhat diminished.
- Daring Young Warrior.
In most texts, when Arthur is not fighting wars against Saxons or Romans, he is concerning himself with the duties of holding court. A small number of texts, however, show Arthur donning sword and armor and seeking adventure just as Lancelot or Gawain might do. His knights are amazed and pleased that their mighty king can also be a knight-errant. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin continuation, he personally jousts with King Pellinore to avenge a wound Pellinore gave to Girflet; he has further adventures with Merlin. Le Chevalier du Papegau describes the adventures of the young king, who goes under the alias the Knight of the Parrot, with fearsome beasts and beautiful ladies. Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is largely concerned with the adventures of the dashing young Prince Arthur, a Christ figure, in the realm of Faerie.
- God-Appointed Sovereign.
An Arthur of infalliable character, given his throne by the approval of God. Robert de Boron and the author of the Vulgate Merlin show signs of leaning towards this portrayal with the Sword in the Stone test, but this characterization is nowhere more obvious than in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Arthur is not the son of Uther; he emerges from the waves and washes to shore at Merlin’s feet, who makes him Uther’s heir. None of his knights can match him in virtue. Guinevere’s infidelity is partially inspired by the fact that Arthur is “high, self-contain’d, and passionless”; that she could not endure “that pure severity of perfect light”.
- Petty, Lecherous Tyrant.
A portrayal found in a minor but significant number of texts. The Welsh saint’s lives generally characterize Arthur in an unflattering light. Always the ruler of some small territory, Arthur invariably does something to offend a visiting saint, such as stealing the saint’s robe or altar. The saint then, through his superior spirituality, teaches Arthur a much-needed lesson. In these tales, Arthur represents the secular forces at work against God’s spiritual mandates. Why the biographers chose Arthur instead of less famous, less-admired figures is unknown, but there may be at work some resentment towards a secular figure eclipsing in fame the legendary St. Patrick or St. Germanus.
The other group of literature to portray Arthur as a tyrant are the Scottish chronicles, which have their own agenda. In Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae (1527), Arthur is a cruel king who never extends his borders beyond the boundaries of Britain. He throws drunken orgies at Christmastime. He names Mordred as his successor but later breaks his promise, causing Mordred’s righteous revolt. Mordred, of course, is from Lothian: a Scot. John of Fordun’s previous Chronica Gentis Scotorum (c. 1385) is nicer to Arthur but agrees that Mordred, as a Scot, had a better claim to Britain than Arthur.
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