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Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


King Arthur Megapost: The History of a Story


[From left to right: a sword recovered from the Sutton Hoo burial; an illustration from a medieval manuscript; Woodcut from the first printed and illustrated edition of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, 1498; an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley of a scene from Malory's Morte D'Darthur, 1893; an illustration from Howard Pyle's King Arthur and His Knights, 1903; Animation from Disney's The Sword in the Stone, 1963); Kiera Knightley as, apparently, Guinevere?, 2005]

Quick Recommendations: If you want classic knights in shining armor and words like "Mayhap," start by reading Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and his Knights. If you want a modernist, literary retelling of the classic Arthur stories, read T.H. White's The Once and Future King. If you want a "historical fiction" version of Arthur, start with Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave.



“King Arthur Stuff” comes up so frequently by reference or allusion that most people probably feel they have a basic handle on the story -- sword in the stone, Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, etc. Despite that, most people haven’t actually sat down and read “The King Arthur Story” directly, and even if they have, it probably wasn’t the whole story, because there have been many variations of “The King Arthur Story” over time, and most of them are deeply flawed in one way or another. The earliest versions verge on unreadable by modern standards, the Victorian ones bowdlerize or moralize many of the stories beyond recognition, and modern authors tell their part of the story through their own lens for their own reasons and leave out all the parts that don’t fit with the particular story they want to tell.

This thread is going to be an attempt to write out a basic, simple history of the core versions of “The King Arthur Story”, starting with the best available theories as to the “historical” King Arthur and moving forward through time, charting how the story changed and why and what parts were added when.

I’m not going to give detailed page citations or anything but for each section I’ll point out a few different books or articles that I’m using as sources and that give different takes on that period of the story. This is a big topic and I’m not a professional scholar, so for parts of this story that go outside my expertise I’ll be relying on wikipedia and internet searches, and therefore may get things wrong -- if you disagree or have a correction, jump in the thread and together we'll get a better picture.

Feel free to use this thread for debate or discussion of anything Arthur related, including any questions or comments you might have on this post and why it's too goddam long, thoughts about the use of Arthurian motifs in other works, why you think my opinion of The Mists of Avalon is misognyist bullshit, your recreation of the death of King Arthur in Legos, whatever you want.

The first section will cover the debate over the historical reality of King Arthur. I’ll put up a new section every so often until we’re up to the modern era.

Part I: Historical Arthur: The Bad Dude of Badon Hill

”Who was this Arthur dude, anyway?” : the historical sources

How did the story of Arthur begin? We don’t really know. He falls in a historical void. To understand that void, we have to start with a little scene-setting.

From 43 BC to 383 AD -- that is, for a little over four hundred years -- Britain was a part of Roman civilization. It was a big part, as an active frontier. There was a certain amount of political chaos, but relatively speaking for the ancient world,the island enjoyed a long period of stability and peace. As the Roman empire collapsed, though, that all changed. In 383, the Roman commander in Britain, Magnus Maximus, known as Macsen Wledig in Welsh, declared himself Emperor, took the British garrison, and proceeded to march on Rome. He had some initial victories but ultimately this didn’t work out too well for him and he was defeated by Emperor Theodosius.

The problem was that he’d pulled all or most of the Roman troops out of Britain (possibly leaving local native commanders in charge; he may have had a Welsh wife). What happened in Britain in the years after that wasn't good ; the Saxons, i.e., viking raiders from northern Europe, saw an opening and started invading, and the remaining Romans either got called away to other parts of the empire or bailed on their own initiative. The Bretons seem to have wanted to stay part of the Empire, but the weren’t given a chance, and in 410 AD the Roman Emperor Honorius probably sent a letter to the Bretons telling them they were on their own.

After that, Britain goes dark from history for a few hundred years, the domain of a Celtic & Breton culture that was subdivided into warring kingdoms and ultimately, apart from some remnants in Wales, burned to ash by the Angles and the Saxons. Out of all that ash only a few (well, three or four, depending) scraps survive that arguably have any historical credibility and mention anything Arthur related.

The first is a 6th-century screed by a monk named Gildas who hated everyone and everything in the Britain of his era, and who mentions that he was born in the year of the “battle of Mount Badon,” a great victory against the Saxon invaders:

quote:

After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions, as eagerly as bees to the beehive when a storm threatens, and begged whole-heartedly, 'burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers', that they should not be altogether destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.
26 From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/...y-at-badon-hill

Gildas never mentions Arthur’s name (unless Arthur is the same person as Aurelianus?), but that’s not a big deal because he barely mentioned anyone’s name in his whole book, instead just using nasty epithets for everyone (he was an angry, angry man. Later canonized as St. Gildas). Even within what he does say there are some obvious conflicts. (This Ambrosius Aurelianus guy -- did he win Badon, or was Badon won by someone else continuing his string of victories? It depends on how you translate the original text). To add to the controversy, the Venerable Bede writes his History of the English People around 730 AD, and it doesn’t mention Arthur at all, but that isn’t as conclusive as it might sound since Bede was a Saxon, writing in the north of England, and he tended to leave out things that made that Saxons look bad or that he wouldn’t have known about because he didn’t have any non-Saxon sources, and Arthur would possibly fall into both categories.

Three centuries after Gildas, some time in the 9th century, a Welsh monk who might have been named Nennius wrote a book called the Historia Brittonum, and in it copied down (from where?) a list of Arthur’s twelve battles, listing Badon Hill as Arthur’s great victory against the Saxons.

quote:

Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/nennius-full.asp

So far as that goes, it sounds like straight history. We've got two apparently independent sources confirming each other that there was a battle at a place called Badon Hill, and one of them gives Arthur as the leader while the other is silent and hence non-contradictory. We're also starting to see problems, though -- for example, Nennius contains some apparently mythical elements, such as

quote:

a story of the king Vortigern, who allowed the Saxons to settle in the island of Britain in return for the hand of Hengist's daughter.[18] One legend recorded of Vortigern concerns his attempt to build a stronghold near Snowdon, called Dinas Emrys, only to have his building materials disappear each time he tries. His advisers tell him to sprinkle the blood of a boy born without a father on the site to lift the curse. Vortigern finds such a youth in Ambrosius, who rebukes the wise men and reveals that the cause of the disturbance is two serpents buried under the ground.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historia_Brittonum

Is that Ambrosius the same Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned by Gildas? Who knows? (Later, he turns into Merlin; we’ll get to that). Is Nennius just copying down everything he finds, from myths and legends to historical accounts, or is he compiling a specific narrative for a specific purpose? Scholars differ. It's also worth noting that when Nennius says Arthur was "commander," he uses the latin term "Dux Bellorum" -- "dux" is the root word for modern "Duke," -- which in this context could mean anything from claiming Arthur held a specific Roman military title to just a general statement that he was roughly in charge.

Meanwhile, though, before we get too many centuries ahead, there are a couple of Welsh sources worth discussing. The “Annales Cambriae”, or “Annals of Wales,” a yearly chronicle kept at St. Dyfed’s in Wales, contains some mention of Arthur, as follows:

quote:

Year 72 (c. AD 516) The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.
Year 93 (c. 537) The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Mordred fell and there was death [i.e., plague -ed.] in Britain and in Ireland.
Year 129 (c. 573) The Battle of Armterid
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annales_Cambriae

Perhaps the most cryptic “contemporary” reference to Arthur comes from the incomplete Welsh manuscript poem Y Goddoddin. It could date from anywhere in the early 600’s AD to as late as the 11th century. Describing a warrior named “Gwawrddur” (they all have names like that), it says

quote:

He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur

Meaning he killed a lot of dudes but wasn’t as much of a badass as Arthur was -- implying that everyone listening to the poem knew who Arthur was. If the poem dates to the 6th century, that would be another, independent, contemporary source naming Arthur as a bad dude who killed lots of folks.

Those four texts are really all we have in terms of written, independent, period references to Arthur. It ain’t much. There’s good reason to think they’re independent sources and the authors hadn’t read each other but they may not have been. None of them are conclusive; despite the quotes I’ve posted, all of the above texts are disputed translations from odd period dialects that we have limited knowledge of, copied and recopied into later versions by varying scribes over intervals of hundreds of years.

The Historical Debate

Therefore, most mainstream historical opinion on the historicity of King Arthur can be summed up by two quotes, which I’ll excerpt from Wikipedia:

Pro:

quote:

Thomas Charles-Edwards: "at this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur [but …] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him".[1]

Con:

quote:

David Dunville:"I think we can dispose of him [Arthur] quite briefly. He owes his place in our history books to a 'no smoke without fire' school of thought ... The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books."[2]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histor...for_King_Arthur


Part of the problem is that there are lots of really, really bad “scholars” writing about the “real Arthur” with, shall we say, a very relaxed attitude towards proof and an almost infinite appetite for wild speculation. (For just one example out of many, see King Arthur by Norma Lorre Goodrich, which has lots of really interesting scholarly textual analysis but pollutes it with reams and reams of empty guesswork). These books sell well to tourists and people like me who love Arthuriana but it took me a while to realize they’re all full of horseshit because they’re all wildly speculating far in excess of what the contemporary texts really give us evidence for. The big problem with them is that they’ve massively tainted the professional historical debate, such that most actual scholars of post-Roman British history reflexively cover their ears the moment anyone mentions Arthur.

There are, however, a few authors who are 1) actual serious scholars and 2) who treat the subject professionally, yet nevertheless 3) maintain Arthur probably existed and present decent theories as to who he was. Of those, the two I’d recommend looking at are Geoffrey Ashe and Christopher Gidlow.

Geoffrey Ashe theorizes that Arthur was a British king referred to as Riothamus in contemporary sources., The core of his theory is that “Riothamus” translates as “High King” and Riothamus is recorded as fighting his last battle near the city of Avallon in France. Ashe also has a number of books covering archeological searches for Arthurian relics and information.

Christopher Gidlow is the author of , The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend which is the book I’m using as my source for much of this section and this post. Gidlow’s an Oxford history graduate but not an academic; he works as a manager of Historical Events at the Tower of London, which should give you some idea of how popular historical Arthur theories are in modern academia. Still, his basic arguments are pretty solid -- he points out that there’s decent evidence from the four “contemporary” sources above that someone named Arthur probably existed in the generation immediately after Ambrosius Aurelianus and probably fought the Saxons at dates around those in the Annales Cambriae. Sure, these sources have problems, but all sources from the period have problems, and modern historians nevertheless accept their evidence for the existence of plenty of other British kings and events in the same period. He basically posits that all the King Arthur hype has predisposed professional historians to sneer at King Arthur’s historicity, and personally I think he’s right in that. If you want a good critical essay on Gidlow’s book, and a comparison with another modern professional scholar writing an anti-historical-Arthur book, see this journal article: The Historicity and Historiography of Arthur: A critical review of King Arthur: Myth-Making and History by N. Higham, and The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend by C. Gidlow, by Howard M. Wiseman.


Seed of a Story (This post, the TL;DR version!)

At this stage, we don’t really have much in the way of the typical Arthur story.There’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere. No sword in the stone. No Holy Grail. No Round Table. No Camelot. Hell, no knights at all, much less shining armor (plate armor wouldn’t be developed for another six-hundred-odd years). It’s just Arthur, killin’ lots of Saxons. Arthur’s a Christian, but he’s not even specifically a King; depending on how you interpret the texts, he could be anything from a general to a particularly bad-rear end warrior. Conversely, what we *do* have at this point has mostly changed in traditional retellings; the Saxon invasion is basically vanished in traditional versions, as is Arthur as a battle leader. Really the only recognizable parts are his name, his Christianity, a few inklings of characters that later became Merlin, and his death with Modred at Camlann.

So much for history. How did Arthur become legendary? How did all that turn into a story? We’ll get to that in the next section.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Apr 3, 2014 around 05:59

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LorneReams
Jun 27, 2003
I'm bizarre

One of the first books I ever read was the Crystal Cave (and then the rest of them), and it started a short lived romp through every book of that time period (i.e Once and Future King :didn't like:, The Pendragon Cycle by Lawhead :absolutly loved:, etc.)

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


LorneReams posted:

One of the first books I ever read was the Crystal Cave (and then the rest of them), and it started a short lived romp through every book of that time period (i.e Once and Future King :didn't like:, The Pendragon Cycle by Lawhead :absolutly loved:, etc.)

Stewart is great, but I haven't read Lawhead. Probably the last big section I'll do will cover modern "historical fiction" style Arthur treatments and see how they try to fit all the various story elements we'll have covered by then into a 5th-century setting. Stewart in particular does some really neat things that turn apparent errors/sloppiness by Geoffrey of Monmouth into springboards for her novelization.

Does anyone have particular questions or things they'd like me to cover in future posts? I don't want to just be rambling up here by myself :P

Walh Hara
May 11, 2012


Oh interesting, although the lack of information is a bit dissapointing as well. Do we even know when Arthur lived (if he is based on a real person)? Do we know in which part of England he lived (if he is based on a real person)?

quote:

Does anyone have particular questions or things they'd like me to cover in future posts? I don't want to just be rambling up here by myself :P

It's a bit hard to ask questions when chances are high you'll adress the answers anyway in a future post. One question I'd like to see answered that you might not talk about : does Arthur's legend have (m)any similarities with legends from other places?

LorneReams
Jun 27, 2003
I'm bizarre

From my understanding (and as mentioned by Lawhead in his series) almost all modern retellings of the Arthur myth seem to come from Le_Morte_d'Arthur (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Morte_d%27Arthur).

Is that still true?

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Walh Hara posted:

Oh interesting, although the lack of information is a bit dissapointing as well. Do we even know when Arthur lived (if he is based on a real person)? Do we know in which part of England he lived (if he is based on a real person)?


For "where," the only relatively concrete, "period" information we have is that list of battles. "Caledonian" means "in Scotland", so presumably at least one of the battles was up north; people tend to assume that Cair Lion means modern Caerleon in South Wales; there are a couple candidates for the "City of the Legion" based on cities that had had Roman legions in them. Most of the other locations are a matter for speculation.

Some writers scatter these battles all over England and take that as evidence that when Nennius says Arthur was Commander, using the latin term "dux bellorum," that he was specifically referring to a military title and that Arthur had been chosen by the various and sundry small kings of Britain to act in the role of co-ordinating military leader for the entire island. That's probably a bit of a stretch since "Dux" was just latin for "leader." Ashe and Gidlow tend to put Arthur in south-eastern England and eastern Wales, but for different reasons. Ashe likes to take spots that were "traditionally" connected with Arthur and start digging things up until he finds something that dates to the post-Roman period, then immediately declare whatever he finds to be Camelot. Gidlow, conversely, uses a lot of complicated reasoning based on which Celtic kingdoms were conquered when, basically putting Arthur on the Celtic/Saxon border at the relevant time period.

So "when" and "where" are connected. If you believe a certain set of dates -- say, the ones in the Welsh Annals -- that limits where Arthur was, since at that time certain areas of Britain were Celtic and others were Saxon.

As to "when," again, it depends on when you date Gildas and how accurate you think the Welsh Annals are, but roughly speaking, sometime in the middle 6th century seems about right. Any earlier and you're in the Roman era, any later and you're in the Saxon era. Right around 500-600 AD there's an Arthur-shaped hole in history.


quote:

It's a bit hard to ask questions when chances are high you'll adress the answers anyway in a future post. One question I'd like to see answered that you might not talk about : does Arthur's legend have (m)any similarities with legends from other places?

Yes, lots. You could actually trace the history of the Arthur legend as a historical person gradually getting shifted to conform to Joseph Campbell's universal Hero with a Thousand Faces. Some of what I'll talk about will be instances where legends from other places seem pretty clearly to have been straight-up added to the Arthur story. In other cases Arthurian motifs seem to recur for other, later legendary heroes in other places.


LorneReams posted:

From my understanding (and as mentioned by Lawhead in his series) almost all modern retellings of the Arthur myth seem to come from Le_Morte_d'Arthur (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Morte_d%27Arthur).

Is that still true?


Yes, sortof. I'm working on the Mallory section now; he's basically the last comprehensive synthesis of the varying legends before Arthur enters the modern era. I think over the past 20 to 30 years or so -- basically, since Mary Stewart, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lawhead, and a few other writers started taking a "historical fiction" approach -- there's been less emphasis on Mallory, but it's a matter of relative emphasis. Nobody's setting Mallory aside, they're just picking details out of Mallory and re-interpreting them in light of older sources, archaeological findings from the 5th century, etc., to try to get at a "real" Arthur story.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 20, 2014 around 00:54

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Part II: Legendary Arthur: Welsh Legend to Geoffrey of Monmouth

Welsh Bards and Saint’s Lives

The transition from history to story began, as best we can tell,in the Welsh oral bardic tradition. We only have parts of this tradition written down in a few disparate and fragmentary sources (one of which we’ve already seen, in the Y Goddoddin), but what we do have is scattered with references to Arthur, and that’s where we start seeing the familiar details pop up.

For example, the Black Book of Carmarthen is a collection of Welsh poetry written down in the 12th century, but arguably containing many poems from hundreds of years earlier. Those poems are full of references to things like witches, and giants, but more importantly for our purposes they contain actual mentions of Arthur and his men. His band of heroes starts showing up, in the persons of Kei and Bedwyr (i.e., Kay and Bedevere). There’s also a passing reference to Uther Pendragon (Arthur has apparently borrowed one of his servants). There are a couple of different characters who might have later turned into Merlin (a bard named Myrrdin and the aforementioned servant of Uther, Mabon son of Modron). Similarly, in the White Book of Rhydderch, which is probably a little later but similarly hard to date, we see what is probably the first mention of Guinevere (here spelled Gwenhwyvar; modern “Jennifer”), as well as Arthur’s sword, here “Caletvwlch” (yes, that’s etymologically similar to “Excalibur”, at least if you’re Welsh), and one of his companions is named “Gwalchmei,” which may have turned into our later Gawain.

There’s also a whole host of “Welsh Triads,” basically mnemonic devices used by Welsh bards to remember stories. Each triad is simply a list of three things in verse form -- i.e., the Three Red Ravagers of Britain, the Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain, etc. A lot of these contain references to Arthur, are lists of members of Arthur’s court, etc. Depending on how you look at them, they’re either notes on or outlines for a pre-existing oral bardic tradition and depending on which version of which triad you’re talking about, they could date from anywhere in a thousand-year span.


Completing the early “historical” written sources are a number of “Saint’s Lives” written in the early part of the 12th century (i.e., “Pre-Galfridian,” which I’ll explain later). These were mostly written in order to justify monasterial land grants by tracing them back to pre-Saxon kings, and Arthur is of course a favorite choice. These contain a lot of weird and interesting details; for example, the Life of St. Gildas states that Arthur killed Gildas’ brother, which modern scholars sometimes use to explain why Gildas never mentioned Arthur by name, and also gives us the earliest “Abduction of Guinevere” story. Analyzing all the different Saint’s Lives is beyond the scope of what I can cover here; for the most part, though, they’re mostly about why King Arthur gave a land grant to each particular monastery, so there’s an obvious bias in their historicity that makes them less-than-reliable sources.



The Pseudo-History of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Around 1136, all this Celtic oral-tradition mishmash gets turned into something more. Geoffrey of Monmouth pens his “Historia Regum Britanniae”, “History of the Kings of Britain.”

As far as we can tell today, what Geoffrey seems to have done was to take most of the sources we have above (with the possible exception of the Annales Cambriae), along with (possibly) a few sources we no longer have copies of, and using his imagination and lackluster skill at textual analysis as the glue, he glommed them all together into a single account of the Legend of British History. His book purports to be a history of the British Isles from the founding of Britannia by Brutus, the supposed grandson or great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy, up through Cadwallader, a 7th-century Welsh king.

Apart from a few sections that give the first versions of the stories that Shakespeare would later draw on for King Lear and Cymbeline, the main reason people read Geoffrey today is because he provided the first comprehensive, popular, widely-distributed version of the Arthur story.


What’s in Geoffrey and What Isn’t

I won’t go over every detail of Geoffrey’s Arthur; you can find that at this link if you want; instead, i’ll just go through briefly and cover what’s new with Geoffrey and what isn’t, mostly following the analysis of Gidlow, as above.

Geoffrey’s chronology of British history is all kinds of messed up -- he seems to have gotten lists of kings backwards, thought kings that reigned different British kingdoms simultaneously were kings of a unified Britain in sequence, and generally made all kinds deliberate alterations or mistakes interpreting his source material. Before we even get to Arthur himself, for no apparent reason Geoffrey decides that Merlin and the Ambrosius in Nennius are the same person, and so for all time henceforth, the prophesying Ambrosius of Nennius becomes the Enchanter Merlin. He also decides, again for no discernable reason, that the Ambrosius Aurelianus of Gildas is a separate individual and the overall “High King” of Britain, and has him win a bunch of battles against the invading Saxons, the course of which mostly follow what Geoffrey could have pieced together from Bede, Gildas, and Nennius. The first real new material comes when Merlin and Ambrosius Aurelianus’ brother, Uther Pendragon, travel to Ireland, where Merlin dismantles a giant stone circle. Then they bring the stones back to England and Merlin sets them up again at Stonehenge to be Ambrosius Aurelianus’s grave marker. Uther Pendragon then becomes the next “King of Britain” and has a few more battles with the Saxons, finally conquering the rest of the island, including Scotland.

Uther proceeds to fall in love with Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, one of his tributary kings. There’s a war. Uther can’t wait to get busy, so Merlin disguises Uther with an enchantment and Uther sneaks into Gorlois’ castle of Tintagel and conceives Arthur with Ygerna; Gorlois dies, Uther and Ygerna are married. Years pass, Arthur takes over after being declared king by an assembly at Silchester (there is no Sword in the Stone yet). Arthur then fights his twelve victories against the Saxons listed in Nennius. Since Geoffrey’s Britain isn't’ fragmented into different kingdoms, where in Nennius Arthur fought “with all the kings and military force of the Britons,” Geoffrey has him fight with the Bretons as allies instead. (In earlier sources, the Britons and Bretons are all basically the same people, just some of them live in France; by the time of Geoffrey, we’re talking about two distinct people, English Britons and French Bretons, who live in what is now Brittany).

After his victory, Arthur holds court at Caerleon for a while, and then after that, for some reason he invades France and Italy, maybe Ireland too, and finally conquers Rome, killing giants in single combat along the way. Partway through this Arthur’s nephew Gualguanus shows up, another proto-Gawain.

It’s really hard to even imagine where Geoffrey got this continental invasion stuff, and it’s the main reason why Renaissance scholars didn’t consider Arthur historical -- unlike Britain, there’s a fairly well-documented list of all the French rulers and Roman emperors for this period, and the guys Geoffrey says Arthur fought aren’t on it. If Arthur had conquered Europe, we would have a record. Maybe Geoffrey made it up; more on that in a bit.

Anyway, after conquering Rome, Arthur receives word that his nephew Modred has taken over back home in Britain and is living adulterously with Guanhuvara. Arthur goes back to Britain and fights three battles with Modred, culminating in a final battle of “Camblan”, where Modred is slain. Arthur is mortally wounded and carried off to the “Insula Avallonis”, the Isle of Avalon, for healing. He doesn’t explicitly die, but rather abdicates his crown to a successor, and thus passes out of Geoffrey’s “history.” (In another book Geoffrey wrote later, he would describe Avallon as a kind of earthly paradise).

Geoffrey’s “Ancient Book in the British Language”.

Geoffrey claimed to have based his history on “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” given him by his friend, Archdeacon Walter. Some such book probably existed, or else Walter would presumably have said something, but we can’t even tell from Geoffrey’s latin whether he’s talking about a text in Breton, Welsh, or Old English.

It’s possible, given how little Geoffrey pays attention to textual accuracy elsewhere, that he didn’t have any such source and he’s just making up everything in his book that we can’t trace to something older. But there are a few problems with that. He’s pretty clearly drawing on Gildas and Nennius and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but he’s clearly getting stuff from elsewhere, too.

For one thing, while describing Arthur at Badon Hill, Geoffrey gives a list of his equipment, naming his sword “Caliburnus” and stating it was forged in the Isle of Avalon (Excalibur!), his shield “Pridwen,” and his spear “Ron.” The interesting thing here is that “Caliburn” is in an archaic form of Welsh, older than the “Caletvwlch” we have from the White Book of Rhydderch; the White Book refers to Arthur’s ship as Pridwen, and shield makes more sense; and “Ron” is just an ancient Welsh word for “spear.”

The second big connection to make here is that Geoffrey is our first source for details of the battle of Cam(b)laan -- Modred and Guinevere’s adulterous relationship, Modred as Arthur’s nephew, the mortal wound, the passage to Avalon. Remember that before this, the only reference we had to Mordred and Camlaan was from the Annales Cambriae, and it was just a single line noting that the battle happened and they both died. More importantly, the Annales Cambriae was a fairly esoteric text, and it seems unlikely that Geoffrey had seen it, especially since Geoffrey doesn’t mention the plague that the Annals list as happening in the same year. So that looks like two independent sources giving us a final battle between Arthur and Modred at Cam(b)laan.

So putting those together, it looks like Geoffrey is copying from something that sounds a lot like another Welsh poetic source, similar to the Black, White, and Red Books mentioned above but probably older, and that we no longer have an extant copy of. That might also be the source for the whole “continental invasion” sequence, perhaps derived from the campaign of Magnus Maximus. It might also explain where Geoffrey got the idea for Avallon, since Celtic mythology is littered with magical islands (See Mag Mell , Hy-Brasil, and Tir na Nog).

Or maybe Geoffrey made it up.


Historical Context for Geoffrey: poo poo gets Political

Let’s also put Geoffrey in historical context. The Norman kings of England were actively trying to conquer Wales while Geoffrey was writing and in the years after his work became popular. At least one scholar reads Geoffrey as essentially providing an extended justification for the Norman invasion of Wales, which would explain a lot of weird details, like Geoffrey’s constant insistence that there was always one single king of a unified “Britain” -- in other words, those Welsh holdouts needed to get with the program and submit to Norman rule, just like everyone submitted to Arthur back in the day. On the other hand, Geoffrey may have been Welsh himself -- Monmouth is in Wales -- so maybe there’s a bit of defiant Welsh nationalism in his Arthur portrayal.

This is all important for the story because around 1191 -- a good few decades after Geoffrey, but while the Normans were still busily trying to conquer Wales -- the monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed they had dug up King Arthur and Guinevere’s graves, thus “proving” that Glastonbury Tor was Avalon. It seems likely to have been a publicity stunt for the Abbey, but if the contemporary writings of one Gerald of Wales are any guide may also have been politically convenient, if only to stop all those Welsh rebels fighting on while they waited for Arthur to come back from Avalon; the “Once and Future” undying king may have been a powerful symbol for Welsh resistance. This “find” at Glastonbury in turn, had a strong effect on later versions of the story, and we see later writers like Robert de Boron (see below) making deliberate reference to Glastonbury as Avalon and connecting Glastonbury with the Grail legend. Gerald's accounts of the find also give us the earliest written mention we have of Morgana Le Fay.

Pre- or Post- Geoffrey?

Anyway, speculation aside, the Historia Regum Britanniae is the watershed work in Arthuriana, to the point that texts which are believed to pre-date Geoffrey are called “pre-Galfridian”. It was immensely popular at the time and widely distributed, to the point that more copies survive today than all copies of all the other Arthuriana mentioned above combined. For our purposes, therefore, the important thing about Geoffrey is that, for the most part, he’s the threshold past which Arthur steps into the realm of story. Anything before this, we can get away with considering it an independent, original source, with some potential grain of historical truth; anything after this -- even supposed archeological finds like those at Glastonbury -- we have to ask how much of it is Geoffrey-inspired Arthurian fable.


The Story So Far -- this post, the tl;dr version

Arthur’s starting to get recognizable here. He's a King now, for one thing. (It's good to be King!) The “Kai” and “Bedwyr” and “Myrddin” of the Welsh poets have become the now-familiar Merlin and Kay and Bedevere. Uther Pendragon is Arthur’s father and Arthur is conceived mystically with Merlin’s help. He’s got Caliburn, a special sword forged in a special place, the Island of Avalon. He’s still primarily a battle leader, though we start to see a proto-Camelot in Geoffrey’s description of Arthur’s Court at Caerleon. Arthur also wages war on the continent and conquers Rome, which we’ll see show up in Mallory but most authors from now on are going to mostly ignore. Finally, in Geoffrey we first see the story of Arthur returning to his kingdom after an absence, finding his kingdom and his wife usurped by Modred, and a final battle where Modred is slain and Arthur wounded and then carried away to the Isle of Avalon for healing.

On the other hand, we're seeing Guinevere and Gawain, but they still have weird names. And where’s Lancelot in all this? Where’s the Round Table? Where’s the Sword in the Stone? The Holy Grail? We’ll find them in the next section. They’re mostly in France.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 25, 2014 around 12:10

Walh Hara
May 11, 2012


Hieronymous Alloy posted:

For "where," the only relatively concrete, "period" information we have is that list of battles. "Caledonian" means "in Scotland", so presumably at least one of the battles was up north; people tend to assume that Cair Lion means modern Caerleon in South Wales; there are a couple candidates for the "City of the Legion" based on cities that had had Roman legions in them. Most of the other locations are a matter for speculation.

Some writers scatter these battles all over England and take that as evidence that when Nennius says Arthur was Commander, using the latin term "dux bellorum," that he was specifically referring to a military title and that Arthur had been chosen by the various and sundry small kings of Britain to act in the role of co-ordinating military leader for the entire island. That's probably a bit of a stretch since "Dux" was just latin for "leader." Ashe and Gidlow tend to put Arthur in south-eastern England and eastern Wales, but for different reasons. Ashe likes to take spots that were "traditionally" connected with Arthur and start digging things up until he finds something that dates to the post-Roman period, then immediately declare whatever he finds to be Camelot. Gidlow, conversely, uses a lot of complicated reasoning based on which Celtic kingdoms were conquered when, basically putting Arthur on the Celtic/Saxon border at the relevant time period.

So "when" and "where" are connected. If you believe a certain set of dates -- say, the ones in the Welsh Annals -- that limits where Arthur was, since at that time certain areas of Britain were Celtic and others were Saxon.

As to "when," again, it depends on when you date Gildas and how accurate you think the Welsh Annals are, but roughly speaking, sometime in the middle 6th century seems about right. Any earlier and you're in the Roman era, any later and you're in the Saxon era. Right around 500-600 AD there's an Arthur-shaped hole in history.


Yes, lots. You could actually trace the history of the Arthur legend as a historical person gradually getting shifted to conform to Joseph Campbell's universal Hero with a Thousand Faces. Some of what I'll talk about will be instances where legends from other places seem pretty clearly to have been straight-up added to the Arthur story. In other cases Arthurian motifs seem to recur for other, later legendary heroes in other places.

The more I read the more I doubt he actually existed in any form we would recognise today.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces was actually already on my list with books people recommended to me. I never got around to read it because at the time it got recommended I was struggling with The Golden Bough (which I consider to be a very good book that requires too much effort to read for someone completely unfamiliar with mythology/anthrophology) and I feared it would be more of the same. Also because the wikipedia synopsis made it seem like the "monomyth" is so extremely vague that it's hardly revolutionary that so many myths fit it, but this may be entirely unfounded criticism. Do you recommend it?

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Walh Hara posted:


The Hero with a Thousand Faces was actually already on my list with books people recommended to me. I never got around to read it because at the time it got recommended I was struggling with The Golden Bough (which I consider to be a very good book that requires too much effort to read for someone completely unfamiliar with mythology/anthrophology) and I feared it would be more of the same. Also because the wikipedia synopsis made it seem like the "monomyth" is so extremely vague that it's hardly revolutionary that so many myths fit it, but this may be entirely unfounded criticism. Do you recommend it?

They're both neat books but they're aiming at different targets.

For The Golden Bough, you might be wasting your time unless the edition you have contains the sections where Frazier explicitly connects everything to Christianity (most editions don't, as Frazier took them out of later editions). A large part of what Frazier was trying to do with The Golden Bough was show how Christianity was just another mythology that followed the same structure as other ancient world mythologies -- a dying and reviving god patterned after the harvest ritual, etc. The parts explicitly about Christianity were too controversial for the Victorians, though, so he took them out, and what's left -- especially since we know Frazier's methods don't hold up to modern anthropological standards -- is just a massive list of Myths Around the World. Like reading the encyclopedia, it's interesting in a way but a hard slog to grind through.

What Campbell was trying to do was break down all the various heroic myths around the world into a single basic structure; think of him as taking the really basic, grade-school breakdown of conflict-resolution-crisis-denoument to the next level of sophistication (call to adventure -- refusal of call -- supernatural aid -- road of trials -- apotheosis -- ultimate boon -- return). Where Frazier was writing about the stories of gods, Campbell's writing about the stories of heroes.

You can judge how good a job Campbell did by the fact that George Lucas literally used Hero with a Thousand Faces as a crib sheet while writing Star Wars. Many Hollywood scripts (basically any blockbuster; Matrix is a good example) now follow Campbell's arc religiously. His analysis in Hero with a Thousand Faces is only applicable to a certain type of male-protagonist hero quest fantasy, though; there are lots of stories that don't fit it (for example, ancient-world myths with young female protagonists tend to follow a little red riding hood / persephone pattern instead).

PlushCow
Oct 19, 2005

The cow eats the grass


I love the fact that we have only a few snippets of Arthur references and a load of "we know this guy made this poo poo up."

I appreciate all the extensive posts so far on the subject, as I am one of those who seems to know the Arthur mythos without really having read any books (beyond a few children's books perhaps), all I know is mostly from movies/TV. A while ago I tried to read White's A Once and Future King but the goofiness of the beginning really put me off, as the language of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur did as well.

John Boorman's Excalibur film is what mostly comes to mind when I think of the Arthur mythos, which wikipedia says is solely based on Mallory's work. Any suggestions for a novel heavily influenced by Mallory's work in more accessible language? I looked up Le Morte d'Arthur again on an Amazon preview and I still don't have the patience to tackle it.

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


PlushCow posted:

I love the fact that we have only a few snippets of Arthur references and a load of "we know this guy made this poo poo up."

I appreciate all the extensive posts so far on the subject, as I am one of those who seems to know the Arthur mythos without really having read any books (beyond a few children's books perhaps), all I know is mostly from movies/TV. A while ago I tried to read White's A Once and Future King but the goofiness of the beginning really put me off, as the language of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur did as well.

John Boorman's Excalibur film is what mostly comes to mind when I think of the Arthur mythos, which wikipedia says is solely based on Mallory's work. Any suggestions for a novel heavily influenced by Mallory's work in more accessible language? I looked up Le Morte d'Arthur again on an Amazon preview and I still don't have the patience to tackle it.

Thanks! I know I'm kinda info-dumping on the forum and it's a lot to take in, but I hope it's worth the slog.

The problem with recommending a version of the Arthur stories is that they tend to be either heavily bowdlerized (a big problem with victorian versions), severely cut down and redacted for juveniles (a problem with early 20th century versions), or modern versions that have been severely rewritten and won't give a really good idea of the "core" legend (TH White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc). The last big section will be a recommendation of the various Arthur stories I've read and what to read depending on what you're looking for.

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Part III, Legend into Myth: Chrétien de Troyes, the Troubadours, and the Chivalric Ideal

I don’t know as much about this phase of the Arthur story, partly because I don’t read French. This is, however, the phase where the rest of the details we haven’t seen yet get added in -- round table, holy grail, knights in shining armor, etc.

After Geoffrey (or possibly before? at least contemporaneously?) the Arthur stories move to the Continent. Partly this happens through oral tradition, partly (probably) through copies of Geoffrey filtering across the channel, and partly through the troubadours in what is now Southern France. .


The Troubadours

These guys are the reason everyone in these stories is wearing 12th century plate armor and riding horses and jousting and following the Code of Chivalry and so forth. First I’ll go over who they were and what changes and additions they made to the stories; the second half of this section will go over why they made those changes.

Robert Wace

Robert Wace was a Norman french poet who wrote the Roman de Brut, another poetical history of the Kings of Britain, around 1155 It was almost entirely based on Geoffrey; it’s noteworthy because he was the first author to call Arthur’s sword “Excalibur” and it contains the first mention of the Round Table.

Chretien de Troyes

About fifty years after Geoffrey, a French poet and troubadour named Chrétien de Troyes wrote the next major group of Arthurian stories. This is where the Arthur story starts going all Courtly Love. He had almost certainly read Geoffrey and Wace, but he added so much to that framework that it’s a big question as to where he got it all. Lancelot shows up for the first time, as does Perceval and, for that matter, the Holy Grail (at least as such). We get the first mention of “Camelot”, filling the role of Geoffrey’s Caerleon (although Chretien mentions Caerleon also). It’s hard to know what, if anything, Chretien based his stories on -- he may simply have invented it all, or he may have based his works on lost Breton or Celtic original (s). Some of his ideas seem to draw on on Celtic tales (Perceval sounds a lot like “Peredur,” a common heroic name in Welsh poetry, and there are magical, life-renewing cauldrons in some Celtic myths that could be early versions of the Grail,. Another theory is that the story of the Grail may have been a dramatization of the Communion service. Some seem complete inventions (as far as I know nobody has any real idea where the hell he got his Lancelot stories from, apart from maybe lifting the core story from early versions of Tristan and Iseult).

Robert de Boron

Robert de Boron was a French poet who probably wrote sometime around 1200 to 1212 AD. Much of his work has been lost, but he wrote two poems, a Life of Joseph of Arimathea and a life of Merlin, that profoundly influenced the Arthur story. As best I can tell (we’re starting to exceed the limits of my scholarship), de Boron gets a lot of Arthurian “firsts.” He’s the first writer to explicitly connect the “Holy Grail” of Chretien with the specific “Holy Chalice” used by Christ at the Last Supper He also appears to have been the first writer to include the story of Arthur pulling Excalibur from a stone, though there are a few possible prior sources for that story. He may have draw on the story of St. Galgano of Italy, who drove his sword into a stone hilt-deep.. (Interestingly enough, St. Galgano’s sword apparently survives to the present day and is still embedded in the stone, at Montesiepi Chapel in Italy; long thought a forgery, testing has dated the sword to the 12th century). There’s also a possible analogue in some versions of the norse Volsungasaga, where Odin drives the sword Gram into a tree and Sigurd’s father Sigmund draws it out. On the other hand, maybe Boron just took the story of Theseus rolling his father’s stone away to find the sword beneath and magicked it up a little, or maybe (since Boron technically describes the sword as being in an anvil on top of a stone) we should give him credit for some independent creation.

Wolfram von Eschenbach

Not to be left out, at least one German poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach decided to get in on the Arthur action too. He wrote a version of the Percival story, Parsival, which has a few significant differences from the version of Chrétien de Troyes; Wolfram claimed he was basing his work on a Provencal poet named Kyot but as far as anyone can tell Kyot was Wolfram’s invention.

Oral Traditions

Meanwhile, while all that writing was going on, the Arthurian stories were percolating orally throughout Europe. We know these stories travelled widely because of an interesting historical artifact: the Archivault of the Modena Cathedral , in Italy, which could date from as early as 1099 (i.e., thirty years before Geoffrey!) to as late as the 1140’s (i.e., a few years after).

Again, wikipedia gives a good description:

quote:

At the center of the Modena Archivolt image is a castle defended by two towers, inside of which are two figures identified as "Mardoc" and "Winlogee". The left tower is defended by a pickaxe-wielding man named "Burmaltus", who faces off against Artus de Bretania (King Arthur), Isdernus (most likely Yder), and another unnamed knight, who all bear their lances against him. On the other side, the knight "Carrado" spars with "Galvagin" (likely Gawain), while "Che" (Kay) and "Galvariun" (perhaps Galeshin) approach with their lances at their shoulders.[2]
"Winlogee" most likely corresponds to Arthur's wife, Guinevere.[2] Loomis suggested the names derived from Breton; "Winlogee" is similar to the Breton name Wenlowen, and Guinevere's name is rendered as the related Gwendoloena in the Latin romance De Ortu Waluuanii.
.

Even though the Modena Archivault may predate Geoffrey, I’m including it here because 1) being sculpture it’s hard to fit anywhere else and 2) because a lot of elements in it seem to tie better into the Continental troubadour tradition, rather than the Brittanic tradition we see in Geoffrey. It’s an important reminder that the Arthur we have written records of is just one Arthur; there were numerous oral traditions as well. When I say “this is the first place X part of the story shows up”, I’m just talking about the written version -- it might have been part of the oral tradition for hundreds of years before that.

The Vulgate Cycles

Over the next hundred years or so after that, all the written versions we’ve talked about above, all the stories by the troubadours, and most importantly, all the oral traditions, started getting gathered up into comprehensive collections in French prose. These are referred to variously as the Vulgate or Prose Lancelot Cyle and the Post-Vulgate Cycle, respectively. These are huge collections; the Vulgate Cycle is around 150 documents.

If there’s a part of the Arthur legend I haven’t already mentioned, it probably comes into the story somewhere around here, or at least this is the point where there are enough different possible sources that it’s beyond my scholarship to pinpoint single points of origin. This phase of things seems to be where the Lady of the Lake first starts showing up, for example, although there might be a connection there with ancient Celtic tradition of throwing swords into bodies of water as votive offerings that predates Arthur by centuries. Just because something first shows up here doesn’t mean it’s new at this stage; it could mean that, or it could mean it’s part of the oral tradition going back hundreds of years that nobody bothered to actually write down till this point.

The Politics: Arthur’s Court as an Idealized Other

Ok, so why were the French so busily Romancing the hell out of Arthur? Well, I think there are a few different answers on different levels. Again, there are a people who know a lot more than I do about this stuff, but here's my theory, anyway:

Partly, Arthur was easier to talk about than other subjects. There were considered to be three great “Matters” in Medieval literature, that is, three big story cycles -- the Matter of Britain, Matter of Rome, and Matter of France. The Matter of Rome was all the stories derived from classical sources; the Matter of France was the cycle surrounding Charlemagne and his knights. But the “Matter of Britain” was the cycle of stories surrounding Arthur and his knights.

This is interesting because the English contemporary of Charlemagne was Alfred the Great, and (again keeping historical context in mind) it might have been awkward to sing the praises of Alfred to a Norman or French audience. Easier by far to sing about the heroic exploits of the pre-Saxon Saxon killer, Arthur! Plus, there was so little clear historical record, and what there was had been so filled with Celtic magical rambling, almost anything could be added to it. After all, unlike with Charlemagne, it wasn’t like there were any of Arthur’s descendants standing around to argue about what really happened.

The other part of it all was that these Arthur stories provided a way for people to talk about the central moral dilemma of the middle ages: reconciling Christian morality with the fact that knights were gigantic murderous assholes who wandered around slaughtering everyone who got mildly inconvenient or who looked like they might have three spare coins to rub together. ( Terry Jones actually does a good job talking about this problem in one of his BBC Medieval Lives episodes (or you can read the book).)


For a quicker perspective on the problem, look a couple decades ahead. In 1209, right around the exact time Robert de Boron is writing his Arthurian cyles about holy knights chasing religious ideals and protecting the weak and so forth, France experienced the Albigensian Crusade, where this happened:

quote:

quote:

While discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying "to arms, to arms!", within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt...[4]
About twenty years later Caesarius of Heisterbach relates this story about the massacre,

quote:

When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot “Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.” The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius - Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Tim. ii. 19) and so countless number in that town were slain.[5][6]

Yeah, that’s where we get “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” So all these troubadours aren’t just writing this stuff for the sake of their health; they’re writing what they see as incredibly important literature dealing with the central moral dilemmas of their time -- how to come up with some kind of moral code that will keep these murderous bastards in some kind of line, because just sending them to church on Sunday clearly isn't enough. Each of the major Arthur stories in this period is ultimately about some major dilemma that medieval societies faced, whether it's fantasizing a magical way to pick a new heir without bloodshed, or trying to reconcile the need for political marriage with the fact that people still got horny, or trying to hold up a class of bloody murderers to a Christian ideal so they'll actually protect the weak for a change. These stories aren't just fluff entertainment -- they're the Casablanca's and Schindler's List's of their era, trying to make sense of and impose an ideal upon a harsh contemporary reality.

tl; dr: French Poets Edition

Basically over the next couple hundred years, a bunch of French poets took the Arthur legend and used it as a sort of convenient template for early attempts at moral literature. Considering that this is all being done in the 12th century, in some ways these guys are inventing the western literary tradition, or at least re-inventing it after over six hundred or so years of post-Roman hiatus. In the process, they’re taking neat stories and their own creative ideas -- the Holy Grail, the Sword in the Stone, etc. -- and adding it all into the creative mix. If we started with a survey of the historical Arthur, and moved to Geoffrey’s treatment of Arthur as a pseudo-historical figure of legend, in this phase of things the Arthur cycle moves into Christian myth as a sort of general framework that everyone can hang their morally uplifting stories onto. Instead of being historical reality, or even national legend, the Arthur stories are moving towards becoming a literary device for addressing contemporary social problems.

By the end of this period, though, these cycles are a huge mishmash of material from all sorts of sources -- hundreds of separate poems and prose works with all sorts of variations, all scattered over everywhere, without any unifying structure. Mallory will come along in the next section and solve that problem.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 24, 2014 around 15:47

yaffle
Sep 15, 2002
Probation
Can't post for 5 days!


I've read a bunch of "Arthur" books, but my favorite has to be "Arthur Rex" by Thomas Berger (who also wrote "Little Big Man"), it makes no attempt at historical accuracy (full plate mail etc) but is very funny and well written. Also very crude, I'm pretty sure they people who write Oglaf have read it.

Wachepti
Oct 31, 2003


As someone whose read most of the modern "historical fiction" versions of the Arthur story I LOVE THIS THREAD. I had no idea there was so little actual historical record. Can't wait to read more.

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Wachepti posted:

As someone whose read most of the modern "historical fiction" versions of the Arthur story I LOVE THIS THREAD. I had no idea there was so little actual historical record. Can't wait to read more.

Thanks! I feel like this stuff is definitely towards the extreme end of the nerd scale but it's such a neat little crux between historical and literary analysis that I figured the people who were into that sort of thing would really appreciate it, plus this forum is so heavily fantasy-oriented and Arthur stories are at the root of so much of the western fantasy tradition that it would be worthwhile to have something like this to refer people to. Plus it's been an opportunity for me to do a lot of new research myself and learn things, so that's fun too.

The next big post will cover everything from Chaucer & Mallory up through to Tennyson, and then I'll do Tennyson to the modern era in the last big post, which will be the "book recommendation" part of it. As I've been working on this I've realized that there are a lot more Arthur variants than I'd realized, especially in the past twenty-thirty years or so, so I'l definitely want people's help talking about those options.

If this thread really takes off I could probably do a follow-up thread with a similar treatment of the Robin Hood stories, though the through-line there is shorter and easier to draw (starts with various medieval ballads, then Ivanhoe, then the stories get collected by Howard Pyle, then Errol Flynn and Disney) and this guy has already pretty much covered everything I would.. I think the other side of that though is that people generally aren't as familiar with the core Robin Hood stories as they are with Arthuriana.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 25, 2014 around 03:37

Fellwenner
Oct 21, 2005
Don't make me kill you.



Very cool thread, I'm looking forward to the rest of it.

In the meantime I started watching Terry Jones Medieval Lives series last night, it's pretty interesting.

The Rat
Aug 29, 2004

11B gobble bronies every day


Interesting stuff! I read Arthur Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles a few months ago and really enjoyed them, but that's my only exposure to the Arthur legend. Looks like it's a lot more convoluted than I had expected.

LorneReams
Jun 27, 2003
I'm bizarre

Does Robin Hood tie into this history, or was that a later thing?

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


LorneReams posted:

Does Robin Hood tie into this history, or was that a later thing?

Later thing. The website I linked to earlier covers this stuff pretty well, but basically the earliest Robin Hood stories we have are written ballads from the 1400's, and the earliest possible references to Robin Hood date between 100 and 200 years prior to that, so about 600 years after Arthur had his day. Robin Hood doesn't start being a thing until around 200 years after Chretien de Troyes, and he doesn't start getting explicitly added to King Arthur stories till much much later, when people have gone fully fictional and nobody even pretends to give a poo poo about historical accuracy any more.

The problem with historical Robin Hood is sort of the inverse of the historical King Arthur problem -- there are many different potential candidates in the historical record for "Robin Hood," to the extent that it seems to have been a common alias used by a lot of different medieval outlaws, and it's really hard to nail down any particular Robin Hood story to any one particular historical personage.

The upside of the Robin Hood stories is that it's a lot easier to recommend a one-volume version to people -- pretty much everyone agrees that the modern classic version is The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle, to the point that almost every modern book or television or film version is going to be relying on Pyle in whole or in part.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 25, 2014 around 14:26

Spoilers Below
Feb 29, 2008

You can't see me at all...


This is a terribly interesting thread. I don't have anything to contribute that you haven't already covered in much greater detail, but I wanted to say thanks for doing it.

Looking forward to you reaching Marion Zimmer Bradley. I've got such a love/hate relationship with Mists of Avalon.

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Spoilers Below posted:

This is a terribly interesting thread. I don't have anything to contribute that you haven't already covered in much greater detail, but I wanted to say thanks for doing it.

Looking forward to you reaching Marion Zimmer Bradley. I've got such a love/hate relationship with Mists of Avalon.

Oh god, I really do need to re-read that one for this, don't I? I'm sortof in the same boat with you -- I really respect it but I don't particularly enjoy reading it. Still probably the most "worthy of discussion" of the modern "historical" Arthur treatments.

freebooter
Jul 7, 2009


Disappointed that a lot of people didn't like The Once And Future King; I've got it sitting on my ereader waiting for when I move to England. I vaguely remember hearing that it's been called the greatest fantasy work of all time.

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


freebooter posted:

Disappointed that a lot of people didn't like The Once And Future King; I've got it sitting on my ereader waiting for when I move to England. I vaguely remember hearing that it's been called the greatest fantasy work of all time.

It's brilliant in its own way but it goes off in its own, very non-Tolkien direction and has a lot of anachronisms and weirdnesses that don't quite "fit" with the post-Tolkien fantasy genre.

Edit: if you're the sort of reader that's going to get really annoyed when Merlin makes explicit references to Hitler because he's living time backwards, or get put off by lines like "Mordred is using cannon!," you might get put off by TOaFK. If conversely you love that kind of jazzing around you'll think it's amazing. Most Arthurian fiction uses a specific lens -- chivalric, pseudo-historical, allegorical, whatever. White isn't even pretending to present any Arthur but his own, and he veers close to breaking the fourth wall in doing so.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 26, 2014 around 04:05

freebooter
Jul 7, 2009


Well, that sounds like me. I much prefer non-Tolkien fantasy.

My knowledge of the Arthurian myths are pretty limited (do they teach them in English schools?) but recently I very much enjoyed Philip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur, the same guy who wrote Mortal Engines. Apparently he's a passionate fan of the legends and this was his own little YA contribution to them. It's an interesting take - Arthur is basically another typical, violent Celtic chieftan, and Merlin is a trickster and conman who is attempting to build up Arthur's legend to unite some of the smaller fiefdoms into a more prosperous kingdom. It's a neat little story in which all of the conflicting Arthurian myths are simultaneously "true" because they are deliberately manufactured and disseminated.

nrook
Jun 25, 2009


freebooter posted:

Disappointed that a lot of people didn't like The Once And Future King; I've got it sitting on my ereader waiting for when I move to England. I vaguely remember hearing that it's been called the greatest fantasy work of all time.

That's because it is Anybody who says different has no heart.

Ponsonby Britt
Mar 13, 2006
I think you mean, why is there silverware in the pancake drawer? Wassup?

I love what it does with Sir Lancelot - why is he the greatest of Arthur's knights? Because he's a deeply repressed sadomasochist, and knighthood is the only profession that encourages you to both hurt people and feel bad about it. Which is also a great modern gloss on the love triangle (or his part of it anyway).

Spoilers Below
Feb 29, 2008

You can't see me at all...


Put me down as another who loved TOaFK, and will defend it as being every bit as much a valid Arthurian legend as Le Morte d'Arthur.

Now, when it comes to the delightfully bonkers theory that Jeeves from the Jeeves & Wooster stories is T.H. White's Merlin...

Spoilers Below fucked around with this message at Mar 26, 2014 around 22:06

neongrey
Feb 28, 2007



Hieronymous Alloy posted:

Guinevere (here spelled Gwenhwyvar; modern “Jennifer”)

You know, I knew Jennifer was a legitly historical name with a very well-established background but for whatever reason seeing the dots connected right here for me sort of blew my mind.

King Arthur and Queen Jen seems just so weird to me but hey, there we have it.

Zore
Sep 21, 2010


This is really interesting stuff. I've always had an interest in the King Arthur stories, and especially in Merlin. He seemed to show up in everything I read when I was a child, and was almost always completely unrecognizable. Merlin has become such a weird and enigmatic figure that seems to slot into so much fantasy set in, or with references to, the modern era. Hell in a lot of ways right now there's been a huge push to focus on him and exclude Arthur in a lot of the more young adult and pop culture adaptations of the saga. Here I'm thinking specifically of T.A. Barron's multiple young adult series, Harry Potter, BBC's Merlin, The Dresden Files, The Magic Treehouse, The Dark is Rising, etc.

Its interesting because almost all of them eject almost everything about the character and invent a wholly new persona and story. You have everything from Merlin as an idiotic and failable teenager to a stereotypical evil councilor. Though he is, by far, most commonly a mythic wizard who established a major part of the modern setting.

He's such a weird and unique character that you seem to be able to slot into almost any role. Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and the rest never seem to be as widely and radically reinterpreted as Merlin is.

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Spoilers Below posted:

Put me down as another who loved TOaFK, and will defend it as being every bit as much a valid Arthurian legend as Le Morte d'Arthur.

Now, when it comes to the delightfully bonkers theory that Jeeves from the Jeeves & Wooster stories is T.H. White's Merlin...

That theory is amazing. It fits so well! He just didn't ever bring Bertie Excalibur because Bertie would have cut himself!

Plus that explains how White got all those first-hand accounts of everything. He got them from Jeeves.

neongrey posted:

You know, I knew Jennifer was a legitly historical name with a very well-established background but for whatever reason seeing the dots connected right here for me sort of blew my mind.

King Arthur and Queen Jen seems just so weird to me but hey, there we have it.

Awesome! That sort of thing is why this stuff is so cool. The Arthur legend is so ancient and so intertwined with western/english culture that the more you dig the more crazy connections you find.

Zore posted:


Its interesting because almost all of them eject almost everything about the character and invent a wholly new persona and story. You have everything from Merlin as an idiotic and failable teenager to a stereotypical evil councilor. Though he is, by far, most commonly a mythic wizard who established a major part of the modern setting.

He's such a weird and unique character that you seem to be able to slot into almost any role. Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and the rest never seem to be as widely and radically reinterpreted as Merlin is.


I think that's partly because there just aren't that many other male wizard characters in the western literary tradition, and those that do exist, are pretty much always evil (Faustus, etc.), whereas Merlin is fairly clearly Christian. Plus he's got all the vague historicity of the Arthur legends generally -- just enough that an author can use him in a "realistic" setting, while simultaneously being free of all other restraints.

One interesting theory I found researching all this is that "Merlin" may be a combination of several different wizards in the original old-school Celtic tradition; in the early Celtic stories lots of battle leaders (Uther Pendragon for example) appear to be wizards themselves, but then Geoffrey seems to consolidate all those wizardly deeds down into Merlin.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 28, 2014 around 14:26

Earwicker
Jan 6, 2003



This is a great thread, thanks for posting it!

Last spring I took a vacation to Wales and for a good part of the trip I was up in the north wandering around checking out various iron age ruins and megaliths, IMO anyone who is interested in this mythology should really visit that area if you get a chance, it's an incredible place and you can really feel the setting in the Arthurian stories and stuff like the Mabinogion come alive. Most of the actual castles and towns from the dark ages are just lumps of earth at this point (the actual standing castles that still dot the Welsh landscape are mostly from much later when Edward I conquered the country) but some of the actual religious monuments are in a bit better shape and going around trying to find them is a lot of fun - most of them aren't designated tourist sites or anything they are just in random farmer's fields but they do have little plaques here and there explaining what archeologists think the places were used for. Some of the sites are relevant specifically to the Arthurian legends (for example in the mountains of Snowdonia there's the ruins of an old hill fort called Dinas Emrys which some people theorize is the setting of the story where Vortigern kept trying to build a tower and it kept sinking due to red and white dragon infestation). A lot of the other ruins are the remains of villages and forts from the period, or of structures thought to be of religious import, but in many cases very little is known about them.

For example this was thought to be a ~5th century druidic shrine of some sort:



It was hard to get a picture showing the definition of the "structure" but in some spots you could see stones peeking out from under the grass. I believe this area was excavated in the 19th century which is when they did the work on determining it's usage, and it has since grown back over. This is out in the middle of a pasture in the middle of nowhere with a tiny little wooden sign on a fence mentioning it and the theoretical usage. A lot of the sites in this area are like this, presumably having not really been studied up close in over a hundred years and I wonder what more there is to learn from them. Probably quite a lot.

Nearby (and I think lending creedence to the shrine theory) were these beautiful standing stones.



a close shot showing the scale. my girlfriend is about 5'6" so these stones were a good 12-13 feet high or so, and who knows how deep into the ground they go



It was a lot of fun hiking around for hours with a paper map (there's no cell reception out there) trying to find these things while ten thousand sheep are constantly staring at you and wondering what the gently caress you are doing in their field. I hope there's a way to find out more about this period and these people from these sorts of ruins though it's hard to think of how it could be done without causing a lot of disturbance to the farmers who's land these are all on, though they are happy enough to let people wander around in their pastures looking for these things.

There are also a few sites which after their discovery were made into public land so you can see some of the actual original walls. For example this is the ruins of a place called Llys Rhosyr, which is from much later than the above images (and the Arthurian period) and thought to be the remains of one of the last native Welsh castles probably from the 11th or 12th century and most likely destroyed by Edward's forces in the 13th century. This was not a "military castle" in the sense that they came to be used but rather a sort of lightly fortified administrative centre for the region.

Earwicker fucked around with this message at Mar 28, 2014 around 16:20

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Earwicker posted:

This is a great thread, thanks for posting it!









Those photos are great, thanks!

I went hiking once in Wales around Tintern Abbey. I loved it but my friends all spent the whole time whining about how it looked just like North Carolina (which is actually sortof true, weirdly enough) and they could have done this at home and they wanted to go back to London and drink more.

How many sites like that are there? Is it worth planning a big trip? It seems like they're a lot more approachable than Stonehenge and similarly sized.

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Part IV: Myth into Literature: Stuff You Can Actually Read Edition

The nice thing about these next few hundred years is that we’re starting to get to material that a modern person can conceivably pick up and actually read, without having to first learn archaic Norman French or ancient Welsh or medieval church Latin. Partly for that reason, therefore, and partly because most of the background has been covered by now if you’ve already read this far, this thread is going to be more about “this is why you might want to read this particular Arthur story” from now on, rather than history or background analysis.

Anyway, while we were vacationing in France, what’s been going on over in Britain this whole time? By this point, the Arthur stories are roughly equivalent to a cross between a national British mythology and a shared fictional universe, sortof like if everyone in America today were writing Revolutionary War fan fiction and calling it the “Washington Cycle.”. When someone wanted to tell a story with a moral and needed a good setting, the Arthurian world was conveniently available.


Wales: The Mabinogion

In Wales they kept telling Arthur stories just like they had before. Eventually, the Red, White, and Black Books I mentioned above got combined with other “later” (i.e., no later than the 13th or 14th century or so) works into the collection referred to today as The Mabinogion. Because we can’t date these stories too precisely there’s argument over whether they are derivative of, or influences on, the earlier authors I’ve mentioned -- Chretien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth, etc. Some of it is Arthur-related but a lot of it is just random stories. A lot of later fantasy novels such as Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain draw on this collection for source material.

You can find a free online version of the Mabinogion here (although obviously in translation). It’s kinda rough going -- none of these stories are exactly formatted or paced for modern readers -- but if you want the “Original Celtic Arthur Stories,” and you don’t actually read ancient Welsh, this is as close as you’re gonna be able to get.


England: Post-Norman Recovery

While French are busy turning the Arthur tales into Christian mythology with the Holy Grail stories and so forth, and the Welsh are further developing their own Arthur of Celtic mythology, the Arthur legend continues to bubble merrilly along in England, despite or perhaps in part because of all those interfering Normans. King Edward the First, who reigned from 1272 to 1307, was apparently a huge Arthur fan, to the point that he held Arthurian-themed tournaments and even had a mock Round Table made up, one of which survives to this day as the Winchester Table (although the paintwork is relatively modern, dating to 1522, in the reign of Henry VIII).

People kept writing Arthur stuff, though most of these works are largely forgotten today. The most interesting thing that happens in England is that a cycle of stories develops around Sir Gawain rather than Lancelot (who still seems to be mostly farting around in France). Some of them are pretty much forgotten today, but a least two are still very much worth reading: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” and the Pearl Poet’s “The Story of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight”.

Chaucer -- Wife of Bath’s Tale

Chaucer is awesome. I could write a whole series of posts just about Chaucer. Everyone should read Chaucer, and not just because of historical interest -- things like the Miller’s Tale are still funny today, and anyone can read them in the original Middle English with a good annotated edition to explain the odd words and pronunciation changes. Seriously, pet peeve of mine, don’t read a “translated” version of Chaucer. Reading Chaucer in translation is like working out with half-pound plastic weights instead of actual barbells and dumbbells -- if you do it, you’re shortchanging yourself. Just put in the effort and do it for real -- nothing’s holding you back! You can do it! If you want a good book about Chaucer, I’d recommend The Life and Times of Chaucer by John Gardner (the same guy who wrote Grendel), which does a good job of covering not just what we know of Chaucer and his works, but also giving the feel of his world and times (it may be somewhat outdated by now, though, since it was written in 1977; I’d defer to an expert on that).


There’s so much to talk about re: The Wife of Bath’s Tale that I’m not even gonna try. I’m just pointing out that it’s part of the Arthurian tradition, part of a set of stories referred to as the Loathly Lady trope. (As above, later versions tend to identify the Knight with Sir Gawain).


The Pearl Poet -- The Story of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight:

Right around the same time Chaucer was writing his stuff, another major English poet was writing a different major work of Arthurian literature. We don’t know his name, so he’s referred to either as the “Pearl Poet” or the “Gawaine Poet” based on his two major works. Of those, obviously, the one I’m talking about here is The Story of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight.

Even though the Pearl Poet was writing at the same time as Chaucer, he’s *much* more difficult to read in the original, because our modern English is largely derived from Chaucer’s London dialect, whereas the “Pearl Poet” wrote mostly in the more obscure West Midlands dialect, interspersed with bits of Norman French, old Norse, etc., all of which would be very difficult for a modern English speaker. So I’ll forgive you if you read him in translation. (J.R. R. Tolkien’s translation is available here; his untranslated critical edition is here.) It’s probably my single favorite of all the Arthurian stories; if The Wife of Bath's Tale transcends the Arthurian romance genre, Green Knight is its zenith. I feel like it does the best job of any Arthurian tale of marrying the strange, wild, terrifying magic of the the Celtic tradition with the idealistic moral challenges of the French poets.

Sadly, though, the Green Knight story has been generally left out of most modern Arthur re-tellings or collections. Partly that’s because the magical elements don’t fit with modern “realistic” Arthur stories; partly it’s because the Green Knight manuscript was only discovered in the 1800’s . The main reason, though, is that no version of the story was included in Mallory (even though there are plenty of variants of the tale in the Celtic and English traditions).

Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur: also the Death of Change.

By this point, this whole story cycle is getting unwieldy. By now there are hundreds of different Arthur stories, in at least three separate major traditions (French, English, and Welsh), each of which has diverged enough from the others that they’re starting to get unrecognizable; in France it’s all about characters like Lancelot and Galahad that don’t really exist anywhere else, in Wales Arthur has by now essentially gone completely mythic, and in England it’s all starting to go in directions so weird and original that things are starting to look like recognizably modern literature.

It’s all just so disorganized. Somebody needed to do something. Someone does, and that someone was Sir Thomas Malory (probably).

Who Was Malory?

Mallory (or at least, the most likely Mallory) was a soldier, knight, member of Parliament, , horse thief, robber, kidnapper, and rapist, who kept getting thrown into prison, but managed to avoid execution by dint of noble blood and political connections. (To be fair to Malory, “surprise sex” at the time just meant “without the father’s consent,” and Chaucer once faced the same charge; to be fair to his victims, Mallory got charged with it multiple times, often in conjunction with simultaneous robberies, and thus he was probably a horrible rapist even by modern standards).

Le Morte D'Arthur: The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table

From notes in the surviving manuscript, it seems that Mallory had something of a prison conversion and decided to spend his time productively, putting together a relatively complete collection of Arthur stories. (His original title was actually “ The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table”). His prison must have had a good library because he actually did a pretty good job. He relied mostly on the French sources but assimilated almost all of them together pretty well, also including material from Geoffrey and even some of the more obscure later English sources. Because it was a compilation, though, it has a fair number of rough edges that are obvious to the modern reader -- for example, Arthur gets a fancy sword twice, once via the Sword in the Stone and once via the Lady of the Lake, because Mallory is combining two different traditions; conversely, because Mallory was relying mostly on the French sources, some of the cooler stories (like Green Knight, above) get left out, Lancelot ends up being the major hero most of the time, and Gawain gets sortof pushed aside and turned into the also-ran who’s just badass enough to make it really impressive when Lancelot kicks his rear end.

In theory, Mallory is perfectly readable in the original, no more difficult than Shakespeare with non-standardized spelling. In practice though I find actually reading through Mallory to be a huge slog, partly because he doesn’t pace his work like a modern writer and partly because his narrative priorities aren’t the same as a modern writer, but mostly because it’s just really really repetitive because it’s a compilation of many, many different stories which all have the same basic format -- there’s an event in Arthur’s court, Arthur sends a dude out on a quest into the forest to deal with it, there’s a bad knight and a damsel in distress, etc. Basically, if you read Mallory, you’re committing to read everything, and after a while it feels like you’re reading an Arthurian encyclopedia. Plus, the end is so depressing!

The reason Mallory matters so much is that his “Complete” collection of Arthur stories, in what was at the time modern vernacular common English, found its way into the hands of William Caxton, who puts out a print edition in 1485. Caxton is why Mallory and Chaucer are still readable today -- printing and increased literacy tend to freeze language shifts. (This is also why the English language changed more between Chaucer and Shakespeare, a span of about 200 years, than between Shakespeare and the modern era, a span of about 400 years). Caxton retitles Mallory’s book -- Mallory had only intended “Morte D’Arthur” to be the title of the last volume -- and makes a number of other minor changes to the text, but the main thing he does is just fix Mallory in print and distribute it widely.

For the next couple hundred years after Mallory and Caxton, people seem to stop writing new Arthur stories. Maybe everyone’s just overwhelmed by how long Mallory’s version is. Maybe a comprehensive, standardized print version takes all the fun out of writing new fanfic. Mostly, though, Arthur and his Knights just fall out of fashion. The Middle Ages are over, knights are over, chivalry seems an outmoded concept in the bright new age of the wheel-lock musket. Two hundred years later, Shakespeare writes two plays drawing on Geoffrey of Monmouth and (how many?) plays about kings of England but doesn’t even bother with Arthur.

Things stay that way for a few hundred years more, until a Victorian poet named Tennyson decides he wants to go retro. When he does, thanks to Caxton, Mallory’s “complete” version is conveniently easy to find.

Next post will probably wrap things up, taking us from Tennyson through to the modern era.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Apr 20, 2014 around 13:40

Spoilers Below
Feb 29, 2008

You can't see me at all...


Hieronymous Alloy posted:

Wales: The Mabinogion

If you're looking for a pretty faithful modern retelling of these stories, Evangeline Walton wrote a fantastic tetralogy that's (in my opinion) been ignored and overlooked for way too long. She's an amazing fantasy writer that just never got the recognition of her contemporaries, had a brief renaissance in the 70s when Ballantine wanted more fantasy to publish after Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast, but has since kinda fallen off the radar again. With the Mabinogion, people always recommend Lloyd Alexander, and for good reason because his books are very good, but he changed so much from the original tales that they rather quickly stop being the Mabinogion. But if you want to know what the Welsh King Arthur would have been like, but without struggling through ancient poetry, Walton's got you hooked up.

Earwicker
Jan 6, 2003



Hieronymous Alloy posted:

How many sites like that are there? Is it worth planning a big trip? It seems like they're a lot more approachable than Stonehenge and similarly sized.

There are quite a lot of them, but most are rather small. Here's a map of the known ones in the area where I was: http://www.megalithic.co.uk/asb_map...r=m_stname&tl=1

If you scroll down you can see pictures of a lot of the sites.

Some are fairly big but none that I saw really approached the size of Stonehenge. But it's a very different experience, most of them aren't major tourist attractions and don't have parking lots or fencing and you rarely encounter anyone else out there, and the process of hiking around the countryside trying to find them is a lot of fun.

Mr.48
May 1, 2007


First of all, thank you for the wonderfully interesting and informative thread Hieronymous Alloy!

I haven't read any of the Arthurian legends, except for some of the modern historical-fiction treatments like Jack Whyte's Dream of Eagles series. Although to be totally honest I enjoyed the earlier pre-Arthur books in the series the most because they dealt with the initial post-Roman situation in Britain as opposed to trying to cram the legends into a historical setting. Do you have any thoughts on that series and are there any other historical-fiction novels of that time period you could recommend?

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Mr.48 posted:

First of all, thank you for the wonderfully interesting and informative thread Hieronymous Alloy!

I haven't read any of the Arthurian legends, except for some of the modern historical-fiction treatments like Jack Whyte's Dream of Eagles series. Although to be totally honest I enjoyed the earlier pre-Arthur books in the series the most because they dealt with the initial post-Roman situation in Britain as opposed to trying to cram the legends into a historical setting. Do you have any thoughts on that series and are there any other historical-fiction novels of that time period you could recommend?

Heh, there are lots I could recommend and lots more I haven't yet read (as I'm learning from the thread!). That'll be a big chunk of the next major post. In the meanwhile, though, a lot of them have been mentioned one way or another in the thread already, so if you scroll through you can probably pick up some things to explore.

Once I've got all the big posts done I'll reorganize the first post a bit to make it easier to jump straight to the book recommendations.

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Mar 31, 2014 around 04:19

Hieronymous Alloy
Jan 30, 2009


Why?! Why?! Why must you refuse to accept that Dr. Hieronymous Alloy's Genetically Enhanced Cream Corn Is Superior to the Leading Brand on the Market ?!!!


Part V: Printed Fiction -- Tennyson to the Modern Era

The Romantic Revival

Up until the 1800’s or so, apart from bits of folklore and some minor artistic works, the Arthur legends basically get ignored for the next four hundred years. After 1634 even Mallory goes out of print and stays that way until 1816, when the Romantic movement is getting rolling. The “Romantic Movement” is too broad a subject to really describe in full here, but it’s not too far wrong to view it as a sort of counter-enlightment, as artists and writers started to spot all the problems with the ceaseless advance of rationality (i.e., industrial pollution, societal change, economic displacements, etc.) He’s obviously about a hundred years too late to be in the right period, but in terms of sentiment, think the scene in Lord of the Rings where Tolkien has all the Ents smash the poo poo out of Saruman’s industrialized Isengard, or even more pointedly all the damage that industrialization does to the Shire, and you’ll have (at least part of) the basic idea.

If you’re the sort of person who thinks a ruined medieval abbey looks cooler than a sound one, you’re going to love the King Arthur stories. They’re pre-industrial, Romantic with a capital R, lots of emotion, glory, morality, castles, knights in shining white armor, other knights in dastardly black armor, damsels in distress wearing pointy caps with silky tassels, etc. They’re also, by this point, fairly esoteric, old and forgotten, with all the glamour of tales buried by time.



The Lady of Shallott by Waterhouse, after Tennyson

Tennyson's Idylls

Things really take off, though, a few decades later, when England is moving into the Victorian era and a poet named Alfred Tennyson starts mining Arthurian legends for material. He starts with ”The Lady of Shalott” and that does well enough on its own that he spends the last twenty-five years or so of his career putting all of Mallory into blank verse, under the title “The Idylls of the King”. These poems were immensely popular and spurred a general wide revival of interest in Arthuriana, partly because Tennyson used them as a general platform for talking about Victorian mores and morality (in his retelling, it’s all that hussy Guinevere's fault, basically). The upside of reading these is that Tennyson was a brilliant poet; the downside is that, perhaps surprisingly from the author of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the Idylls tend to sort of languish around; they’re really long and they tend to be kinda boring-but-beautiful reads for big chunks of time.

After Tennyson we’re in the modern era. Almost everything Arthurian for the next hundred years or so is either based directly on Tennyson or on his source material in Mallory. I can’t cover all of these so I’ll just mention a few highlights that I think are still worth reading today for one reason or another.


Howard Pyle

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s an illustrator named Howard Pyle wrote a four-volume collection of King Arthur stories, basically everything in Mallory that he considered suitable for children, and illustrated it lavishly.


Illustration from Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and his Knights

The first volume is The Story of King Arthur and his Knights, the second is The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, the third is The Story of Sir Lancelot and his Companions, and the fourth is The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur.

Pyle wasn’t the only great illustrator to take his crack at Arthur -- Gustav Dore illustrated Tennyson, and Aubrey Beardsley illustrated a version of Mallory at about the same time -- but Pyle has two things going for him that make him worth reading over and above his illustrations. The first is that he was also a decent prose stylist, writing in a sort of ornate, romanticized, faux-elizabethan english that gives his version that “old timey feel” without the impenetrability of reading actual Mallory. His prose is like his illustration -- ornate and somewhat archaic but still clear and intelligible to modern readers. The second is that he had a good narrative sense and could tell a story well on his own, instead of just copying straight from Mallory, so his reworkings are paced and told in a way that’s a fair bit more accessible to modern readers than diving straight into Mallory or even Tennyson.
His version is still somewhat bowdlerized compared to the medieval source material (“Mayhap Lancelot was in Guenevere’s chambers for no evil!”) but it’s readable, paced relatively well, and in general is fairly comprehensive without being impenetrable.

This is what I’d recommend if you want a straight-up knights in shining armor experience. It’s comprehensive enough to give you a general idea of most of the major Arthur legends, it’s got black knights and disguises and magic and tournaments and chivalry and all the rest, it does a really good job of capturing the deliberate archaism that’s been a part of the Arthur legends for the past 1200 years, and it’s accessible to modern readers (so long as that modern reader wants to read something that feels vaguely archaic).

Roger Lancelyn Green

If you aren’t up to handling all four volumes of Pyle, but want that same comprehensive, traditional approach, I’d suggest King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green, published in 1953. It’s basically a one-volume retelling of Mallory plus some of the other major myths (i.e., Green Knight). Because it’s so comprehensive the storytelling gets a bit rushed, so it’s very much [thing happened][thing happened][thing happened], but if you want a quick read on the story it’s a decent choice.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

In the 30’s and 40’s -- Around the same time Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings -- an author named T.H. White started putting out a series of Arthurian stories that were eventually collected under the title The Once and Future King.

quote:

Fantasy historian Lin Carter wrote, "...the single finest fantasy novel written in our time, or for that matter, ever written, is, must be, by any conceivable standard, T. H. White's The Once and Future King. I can hardly imagine that any mature, literate person who has read the book would disagree with this estimate. White is a great writer.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_On...King#cite_ref-4

It’s hard to praise this book highly enough. Basically, White modernized Mallory. The core tales from Mallory are mostly still here, but the characters are all reworked and reinvented, the mythology is self-referential and even at times self-aware (Merlin makes references to twentieth-century events; Mordred is evil because he uses cannon). Ultimately, White is using the Arthurian legends as a way to talk about war and the philosophy and necessity of war, written at a time when the world was on the brink of what proved to become the greatest war in world history. It’s genuinely great literature.

It does have a few weaknesses, but they’re more a matter of taste than actual flaws in the work. Being modernist literature in a distinctly non-modern setting, there are some points where the tone clashes a bit -- if it doesn’t actually break the fourth wall, it knocks on it hard more than once, there are deliberate anachronisms and and at times the book even gets a little self-satirical. It’s self-consciously literary in a way that might not appeal to readers who want something a little more casual or purely entertaining, and he makes enough changes to the traditional stories that if your goal is learning the “traditional” versions of everything you’d be better off with Pyle, Tennyson, or Mallory.

The Move to Realism

Perhaps because White did such amasterful job of reworking Mallory, to the point that his version seemed definitive, or perhaps just because of changing tastes, there’s been a major shift in popular retellings of the Arthur stories.

This movement really took off in 1970 or so with the publication of Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy.

Basically, Stewart decided to give the Arthur stories the modern historical-fiction treatment, and based her interpretation on Geoffrey of Monmouth and some of the older Welsh legends, setting Mallory and the french influences mostly to the side. This is probably my favorite of the modern Arthur retellings; she does some really nifty things to resolve textual ambiguities (for example, she makes Merlin a relative of Ambrosius, to resolve the “also called Ambrosius” apparent error in Geoffrey of Monmouth), and by focusing on Merlin she gives all my favorite parts of the Arthur tales while being able to elide the depressing end. The downside of her version though is that she leaves a great deal out; if you’re looking for a comprehensive Arthur you won’t find it here at all (hell, reading this, you’d be left without the vaguest inkling who Lancelot was supposed to be, for example). She did write a sequel to her trilogy, The Wicked Day, apparently dealing with Mordred and Camlaan, but despite it sitting on my shelf for several years I haven’t actually read it yet because I’m worried it would be depressing.

Since Stewart, a number of other authors have followed in her wake, including Stephen Lawhead with his Pendragon Cycle, Jack Whyte with his Camulod Chronicles, and Bernard Cornwell with his Warlord Chronicles. I found out about a lot of these from this thread and am currently working through them; so far, Whyte and Lawhead seem to start waaaay ahead of the actual story and fill it out with fluff, while Cornwell is a solid writer who leaps right into the action but is a little more rapey than I’d really prefer -- he seems to be taking a George R. R. Martin style approach and emphasizing “gritty” / “grimdark” elements.

Perhaps the most interesting late-twentieth-century version of the Arthur stories follows this “pseudo-historical” trend but twists it: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which retells the Arthurian legends from the viewpoint of the female characters. Her prose style has some issues, but she really knows her pagan mythology, and her work is a really interesting re-casting of the stories. At the time (and perhaps still today?) it also served(s) as a feminist indictment of the fantasy genre, which even thirty years later is still wrestling with all kinds of gender issues.

Even when they’re not written all that well, I find these modern “realistic” / “historical” takes on the Arthur legend incredibly interesting. For one thing, these authors tend to heavily mine non-Mallory sources, and usually have neat takes on elements from Welsh myth, the Saint's Lives, etc. The most interesting thing is the narrative choices they face, though. Because so much of the Arthur legend was added later, an author trying for historical realism always faces really hard choices as to what to keep in and what to leave out. Usually, they find they have to include much of the later stuff -- without the Sword in the Stone and Lancelot and Guinevere and the Holy Grail, it somehow just isn’t Arthur! So each one of these I've read is different, and they're always different from each other in interesting ways, because you can trace how and why each author made the decision to include and recast which story elements.

Parody, Satire, and Incorporating Works


Illustration by Mark E. Rogers from More Adventures of Samurai Cat, a funny book that dates from before the furries ruined anthropomorphic animals for everybody

I’ve mostly covered “straight” retellings of the Arthur stories, but it’s worth noting that they’ve long been a convenient target for parody and satire, from the stories of Tom Thumb through Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court through to Monty Python. Obviously, all of this stuff is awesome.

A number of works have also included Arthurian themes or characters as major elements. Sometimes (as in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength), it’s because the end of the world is at hand so Arthur or Merlin finally wake up from their long sleep; sometimes it’s as archetypal figures, like in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry. I’m usually not a fan of this because it seems like a cop-out -- invent your own characters, don’t just slap in Lancelot like he’s the narrative equivalent of a Lego block -- but in rare circumstances it can work. I tend to like this sort of thing more when it’s just an extended allusion or reference -- i.e., “Rand Al’Thor” and the Stone of Tear in Wheel of Time, or something like Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat .

TL,DR: The Recommendations

All you wanted was a book recommendation, and I made you read a novel first?

Ok, here goes: If you want:

1) Classic knights in shining armor and words like "Mayhap," start by reading Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and his Knights.
2) A modernist, literary retelling of the classic Arthur stories, read T.H. White's The Once and Future King.
3) A "historical fiction" version of Arthur, start with Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave.
4) A comprehensive review of the evidence for and against the existence of a real historical Arthur, read The Reign of Arthur by Christopher Gidlow.
5) The single most awesome King Arthur short story, find a version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
6) The earliest "comprehensive" collection of Arthur stories, read Mallory's Morte D'Arthur.
7) The earliest root of the popular legends, read Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and skip all the parts that aren't about Arthur or Merlin.




Conclusion

And that concludes our Tour!. I hope people found all that interesting. The Arthur stories aren't just the oldest stories in English, they're older than English; he was a hero for the people that the Angles and Saxons invaded and conquered, and the earliest mentions of Arthur pre-date Beowulf by roughly 200 years. Tracing the history of these stories is tracing the history of our language and our fiction, back as far as we can.

Over the next few weeks and months as I have time and read everyone’s suggestions, I’ll incorporate more detailed reading suggestions and probably re-organize the thread a bit (inserting links to posts in the OP, etc.) Thanks!

Hieronymous Alloy fucked around with this message at Apr 11, 2014 around 12:42

OH WORD SON
Apr 21, 2006


I ate up the camulod chronicles. A tad dry in the beginning but good drat if it isn't great. Each book told from a different perspective. Loved them.

Except the last book. That one was awful

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uberkeyzer
Jul 10, 2006

But you remember one thing: if you screw up just this much, you'll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong!

Fabulous job of summarizing a very tangled history -- this is a great resource.

Not that it needs my help, but I want to throw some support behind anyone interested in Arthur, or just reading books in general, picking up The Once and Future King. I agree that the later books are a bit more "serious" if people are looking for something on the fluffier side, but I can't imagine anyone bouncing off of "The Sword and the Stone" -- it's wonderfully written and frequently hilarious.

Also, it may not have the same degree of factual historicity that later books have. But I think White, because of the way the book was written (in 4 chunks, one published in 1938, one in 1939, one in 1940, and the last in 1958) actually taps into the emotional heart of the story and most accurately depicts what it must have felt like to watch Arthur's kingdom fail. He watched the same thing happen to the world that he grew up in, and you really feel that as you slowly go from the optimism of the first book to the melancholy of the end -- but you never lose that hopeful spark.

Also, the whole geese/ant sequence. My god.

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