avalon mists / show articles / king arthur

article by: Todd Jenson
issue date: 9/2/03


"Arthur Pendragon, King of all Britain, you are needed."

With these words, Elisa Maza awakened one of the most famous figures of medieval legend and ushered him into "Gargoyles". This adventure of Arthur' s, aiding Goliath and the Avalon clan against the Archmage and his minions, was only the latest, however, in a literary career spanning over nine centuries.

It is, to this day, still uncertain as to whether there was a real King Arthur; while his rival in "Gargoyles", Macbeth, was undoubtedly real, Arthur's roots are far more cloudy. Early mentions of him in British literature during the Dark Ages are fragmentary and do not provide us with a complete picture. Some accounts, such as that in the 9th century Historia Britonnum (History of the Britons), claim that he fought against the invading Saxons in the 5th or 6th century A.D. and defeated them in twelve battles, culminating in a major victory over them at Mount Badon; however, these accounts are filled with such obviously legendary elements as Arthur slaying 960 Saxons personally in battle, and were written so long after the period that they record that they cannot be considered eyewitness reports. Others place Arthur in a more mythical setting; he is portrayed as battling various mythical beings such as witches, giants, and even the monstrous wild boar Troit in an epic hunt across Wales, and as journeying to the Otherworld of Annwn to steal a magical cauldron. From these latter, some historians have concluded that Arthur was a purely legendary figure whose association with the struggles between the Britons and the Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries was merely an attempt to euhemerize him and place him into solid history. Others, however, have argued that Arthur was based on a real British leader during that time, although one who obviously did not much resemble his more familiar legendary counterpart.

The first "biographical account" of Arthur, which gives him an actual story from start to finish, is the History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was published in 1136. Geoffrey's work was a purported history of Britain all the way down to 689, which he claimed was based on an ancient book in the British tongue that he had once read; historians have agreed in general, however, that this book was an invention of Geoffrey's rather than a real source, and that most of the contents of his work were his own invention. Geoffrey covers several centuries of "British history", going back all the way to Trojan settlers under the leadership of one Brutus (after whom Britain was named), the great-grandson of Aeneas, coming to Britain and slaying the giants that had previously dwelt there, and covering a few well-known legendary and historical figures along the way, such as King Lear, but the climax of his book deals with Arthur's reign.

Much of Geoffrey's account is familiar to audiences today. He tells how Uther Pendragon fell in love with Igraine, the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, and begot Arthur upon her with Merlin's help, how Arthur became King of Britain, married Guinevere, and ruled over the island for many years, presiding over a golden age when Britain's fortunes were at their peak, before he was betrayed by Mordred, mortally wounded in battle, and taken away to Avalon for healing. This became the basis for all later versions of his story.

A first-time reading of Geoffrey's book, however, shows that many familiar elements of the legend are missing. Merlin disappears from the story after helping Uther attain Igraine, and never meets Arthur or serves as his advisor and tutor. There is no Sword in the Stone, Arthur simply becoming King of Britain after Uther's death in a matter-of-fact fashion, and although Excalibur (under the name of Caliburn) is mentioned, there is likewise no Lady of the Lake or arm clothed in white samite to rise from the waters and receive the sword from Bedivere after the final battle (indeed, Bedivere is slain fighting against the Romans before the final battle in Geoffrey, and does not take part in it). There is no mention of Camelot - Arthur holds court at Caerleon in southern Wales, though in a splendor worthy of Camelot - and no Round Table; also, there is no Lancelot, Morgan le Fay, Galahad, or Quest of the Holy Grail. Mordred is Arthur's nephew rather than his son, and there is no hint of the incest that produced him in later versions of the legend. Furthermore, Geoffrey focuses not on the adventures of Arthur's knights, but rather on Arthur's wars, following him as he first defeats the invading Saxons, then proceeds to conquer Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Gaul, finally taking on the Roman Empire itself, although he is forced to return to Britain to put down Mordred's rebellion before he can take Rome. And although he is described as being taken away to Avalon, there is no hint that he will ever return.

Geoffrey's work proved to be very popular, and became a medieval best-seller. Two translations of it in the latter part of the 12th century developed the story further. The first was a translation into Norman French, by one Wace, entitled Roman de Brut (the Romance of Brutus). Wace's work is particularly noteworthy in being the first Arthurian writing (or at least, the first extant Arthurian writing) to mention the Round Table. The second was a translation or adaptation into Old English by a certain Layamon, which invested Geoffrey's characters with an Anglo-Saxon, almost Beowulfian spirit (ironic in light of Arthur's wars with the Saxons); at one point, in a particular display of Englishness, Arthur compares the pursuit of a defeated Saxon chieftain to a fox hunt!

In the meantime, other writers were adding a more courtly atmosphere to the Arthurian legend, connected to the developing customs of chivalry and courtly love. In contrast to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon, who wrote pseudo-chronicles of Arthur's life and reign, these writers focused on the adventures of individual knights of Arthur's court, with Arthur and those about him as background figures. Chief among these was Chretien de Troyes, who was noted for introducing into the legend the love affair of Lancelot and Guinevere in his Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart and the Holy Grail in his Perceval. In the initial version of the Grail legend as told by Chretien, the "Grail Knight" is Percival rather than Galahad (who had yet to be created); Chretien also introduced Percival's lady love Blanchefleur, who would eventually play a major role in Greg Weisman's projected but never-made Pendragon spin-off.

In Chretien's work, the Holy Grail was merely a mysterious wonder-working vessel, with no connections to Jesus Christ or the Last Supper. The notion of the Grail as the cup of the Last Supper was introduced by one Robert de Boron, who wrote two romances, Joseph, dealing with Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail's origins, and Merlin, which dealt with the early lives of Merlin and Arthur, and which introduced the Sword in the Stone into the story. (It is thought that de Boron wrote a romance about Percival as well, to turn his work into a trilogy, but if he did, it has not survived.)

Later French romancers, in the early 13th century, created the Vulgate Cycle, which brought the love affair of Lancelot and Guinevere and the Grail fully into Arthur's story. It was this work which introduced Galahad as the knight who achieves the Holy Grail (with Percival playing the part of a runner-up) and the part that Lancelot and Guinevere's love affair played in destroying Arthur's kingdom. It also first brought in the scene where Excalibur is returned to the lake after Arthur's final battle, although here the knight who throws it into the lake is not Bedivere but one Girflet.

In England, Arthurian poems and prose continued to be written. In the 14th century, an anonymous Englishman wrote the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, dealing with Gawain's encounter with a mysterious green knight who tests his virtue upon many fronts; the Green Knight would find his way onto Greg Weisman's "Arthurian Survivors List", alongside Arthur, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay, Nimue, Percival, and Blanchefleur. However, the most important piece of Arthurian literature to be produced in medieval England after Geoffrey of Monmouth was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in the late 15th century. Malory adapted portions of the Vulgate Cycle and a few other Arthurian works, both French and English, into a series of stories which covered Arthur's reign from start to finish. Malory completed his work in 1469 or 1470; the book was published by William Caxton in 1485. There are actually two different versions of Malory's work: one is the Caxton version, the other a manuscript that was discovered in Winchester in 1934, which appears to have been closer to Malory's original. Malory's version of the Arthurian legend has become the standard source since.

Arthur's story continued to flourish in the 16th century under the Tudors (who were Welsh and liked to think of themselves as Arthur's heirs), although very little lasting literature about him was produced (the closest being Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, and Arthur himself plays only a minor role in it). In the 17th century, however, it underwent a decline, partly thanks to the increasing unpopularity of the monarchy as frictions arose between the Stuarts and Parliament, which would lead to the execution of Charles I in 1649. John Milton, the leading poet of the 17th century, considered writing an Arthurian epic for a time, but abandoned it in the end and wrote Paradise Lost instead. Arthur was almost entirely forgotten in the 18th century, which preferred to draw its inspiration from the classical world and considered the medieval period merely a long dark age between the glories of Greece and Rome and the modern age. However, in the 19th century, it began to recover its popularity, especially when Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his Idylls of the King. The Victorians quickly took the Arthurian legend to heart, producing more poetry and paintings inspired by it.

The 20th century has shifted the focus of Arthurian literature from the medium of poetry to that of prose, and has produced many well-known works of Arthurian fiction. Among these (all books that Greg Weisman has read) are T. H. White's The Once and Future King, Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, and Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex. Some, such as White, Steinbeck, and Berger, have continued to use the legendary medieval setting for Arthur and his knights, while others, such as Stewart, have shifted it to the 5th century of actual history. Arthur has also appeared in the movies, and even in animated television series (particularly Gargoyles). Although Greg Weisman's hopes of making the "Pendragon" spin-off to Gargoyles covering Arthur and Griff's adventures were ultimately unfulfilled, other works inspired by the legendary king's career will no doubt be written in the time to come. Perhaps even, someday, Greg's "Pendragon" spin-off will at last be made. We can only hope....
Images credits & copyright:
Stankewitz, Daniel. Gargoyles-fans.de.
(http://gargoyles-fans.de) - July, 2003

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