The Literary History of King Arthur

The legend of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table is one of the most enduring legends in British literature.

The earliest stories about King Arthur date from before the 11th century, and appear in two Welsh tales called Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy. These two stories became part of a 14th century Welsh collection of mythological tales known as The Mabinogion.

These original stories tell of a Dark Age society, and give us some idea of what the real Arthur was probably like. This dark edge was kept by Geoffrey (the Archdeacon) of Monmouth, who was the first writer to popularise King Arthur’s story, in approximately 1136, in his book History of the Kings of Britain.

There has been some debate as to whether Geoffrey, who was writing some six hundred years after he believed Arthur to have died, had made his history up. Geoffrey claimed he had taken most of his information from an “ancient book written in the British language,” which is unknown to us today.
Whether his work was correct or not, Geoffrey was clearly aware of the mythology of the Celtic people, and often mixed their stories with real histories.

It wasn’t just Geoffrey who took an interest in the Arthurian stories. The French medieval poet Chrétien de Troyes was responsible for introducing us to most of the characters and tales that we now think of as an integral part of Arthur’s story, such as Lancelot in about 1162, and Perceval (the Count of the Grail) in c.1180. Both of these characters have their origins in early Celtic myths, but neither should really appear in the Arthurian legends.

Chrétien was also responsible for adding the elements of chivalry and courtly love to the mythology that surrounds King Arthur. He was also the one who translated the names of Geoffrey’s characters from Welsh to the medieval French and distorted the threads of the historical Arthur Geoffrey claimed to have discovered, and mingled it in literary fantasy.

King Arthur, then, though a classical figure of these isles, has in fact had much of his story rooted on the other side of the channel. It remains a hot source of debate as to where Arthur truly came from, of where Camelot actually “was”, however. There are still plenty of other places, such as Cornwall, who also claim to have had just as much influence on his story, if not more besides!

A second article, on the more recent and most enduring examples of Arthur’s literary history will follow soon.

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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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