The legends of King Arthur have extended through the history of the English language. Each generation, it seems, owns Arthur and his story; each generation, it appears, rewrites the story to suit its own challenges and values.
More than likely, Arthur did exist. If so, he was a Celtic warlord at the time that the Romans were withdrawing their troops from Britain. Arthur probably was trained by the Romans in military matters and in Roman law. Quite likely Arthur was Christian. His fame rested, at first, on his leadership of the Celts against the German tribes of Saxons and Angles who were crossing from mainland Europe to replace the Roman rule in Britain. Arthur seems to have won several victories before dying in battle; his legend was remembered, not only by the Celts who withdrew from southeastern Britain, but also among the German tribes who established the country called England.
Arthur is remembered as a Christian king. Many of the adventures of his knights took place when Arthur’s court met to observe Christian holidays (such as Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost). Some of the adventures, though, seem to be retellings of myths and legends from the pre-Christian religions of Britain. The presence of monstrous giants, fierce dragons, and the magician Merlin (sometimes identified as “son of the devil”) bears witness to Celtic beliefs. Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by enemies of the kingdom and must be rescued by Arthur. As the Norsemen (or Vikings) raided English and Celtic settlements, memories of King Arthur and his successes multiplied. Other local heroes became identified with Arthur’s court, and dreams of the Round Table encouraged people during this time of turmoil.
In the middle of the eleventh century, two kingdoms that had arisen from Viking settlements sought to claim England. The English army defeated the Danes, only to lose to the Normans, who came from Normandy, land previously granted to them by the king of France. The new rulers of England introduced a culture that was part Viking and part French, but which was able to incorporate the story of Arthur into its vision of England. A little less than a century after the victory of the Normans, Geoffrey of Monmouth included accounts of King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Already Arthur was said to be the son of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, then wife to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwell. Uther dies when Arthur is fifteen, and Arthur is made king. During the following years Arthur consolidates his kingdom, first on the island of Britain, next extending to Ireland and Iceland, then to Norway, and eventually to Rome itself. Arthur defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius Hiberius, but before he returns to England his throne is seized by Mordred, a kinsman of Arthur who had been placed in control of the English government during Arthur’s absence. A bloody battle ensues in which Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken to the island Avalon, according to Geoffrey, in the year 542, and the kingdom passes into other hands.
Around the same time that Geoffrey was writing his military history of Arthur, in France Chretien de Troyes was blending the romances of chivalry into the accounts of Arthur’s rule. Chretien is the first to mention the name Camelot; he is the first to tell of Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and the first to describe the quest for the Holy Grail. Stories of the Fisher King, somehow related to Joseph of Arimathea, were told earlier, but they were not linked to King Arthur until Chretien wrote his work. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, as the Italian Renaissance was already well under way, Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, probably the most famous compilation of the stories related to King Arthur and the knights of Camelot.
England’s importance grew tremendously during the rule of the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanovers (as well as the time of the Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell). An empire was established, and an industrial revolution began in England that changed the entire world. By the nineteenth century, readers of the English-speaking world favored a return to the romantic stories of earlier times. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a series of poems about Arthur and his knights. Howard Pyle wrote children’s books to tell the story of Arthur and Camelot. (Pyle’s version is the first that I read as a child. Pyle is also known for his accounts of Robin Hood and for his stories about pirates, both strong influences on literature and storytelling to the present.) Well before Monty Python produced a comic film version of the story of King Arthur, Mark Twain explored the comic possibilities of Camelot in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s Arthur and Merlin are not the noble heroes of Malory and Tennyson. They are bumbling, superstitious, and easily awed by the scientific and technological knowledge of the time-traveling American.
The twentieth century is known for two World Wars, and in that time of gloom the legend of Arthur was rewritten again. T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King, highlighting the tragedy and foolishness of war. His book was the basis for Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which was an award-winning Broadway musical, later made into a movie. In fact, Arthur has been portrayed in more than a hundred movies since 1909, including a Disney cartoon and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Perhaps the best movie version of Arthur’s story is Excalibur (1981) starring Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson, and directed by John Boorman.
In the past fifty years, many fantasy writers have labored to rewrite the story of King Arthur. Some have sought to place him in the proper time, at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Others have tried to recreate the late Middle Ages’ romance and chivalry of Malory’s tale. Still others have tried to expand upon the magic of Merlin, Morgan, and the Lady of the Lake, putting Arthur and his companions in a world far removed from the contemporary world of science and technology.
In most versions of the story, Arthur does not die, but when he is badly wounded he is taken by barge to the mystical island called Avalon. There he continues to heal, but he will return to support his kingdom at its time of greatest need. Thanks to Geoffrey, Malory, Tennyson, White, and others, Arthur and his legend has frequently returned, supporting England and the entire world in those times when we need a legend to sustain us. J.