The Literary History of King Arthur (part 2)


This concludes a reflection on the history, both from historical record and from fiction, of the enduring Arthurian legend…

It was the French medieval poet, Chrétien de Troyes, who introduced the concept of chivalry to the Arthurian legends in the 12th century, along with many of the most famous characters of the story, such as Lancelot and Perceval. However, the story of King Arthur hadn’t finished its period of evolution, and in the early 13th century, the anonymous Vulgate Cycle of romantic writings further embellished the Arthurian stories. Put together by Cistercian monks between 1215 and 1235, the collection contains the stories of Lancelot, Queste del Sainte Graal, Estoire del Sainte Graal, Mort Artu and Vulgate Merlin. It was at this time that the character of the evil Mordred, King Arthur’s incestuous son, was introduced.

Though much had been written on the legend prior, the 15th century saw the arrival of possibly the most famous of all the King Arthur stories, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory took the stories of Geoffrey or Chrétien, and retold them with an underlying romance which captured the appeal of the Age of Chivalry. Malory transformed the Dark Age Arthur into a shining armoured hero.

Le Morte d’Arthur was one of the first books to be printed by William Caxton (inventor of the printing press), which meant that it was instantly available to the masses. It was immediately popular, and remains a classic work of literature, despite the fact that there is none of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s original links to actual history within its lines.

The final polish on the Arthurian Legend came during the Victorian period when Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his epic poetic elegy, Idylls of the King. Accompanied by striking pre-Raphælite works of art as illustrations, Tennyson sparked a resurgence of interest in the legend.

The popularity of the King Arthur legend remains strong today in the shape of films, television series, such as the BBC’s Merlin, and annual retellings of the stories in book and poetic form.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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