It wasn’t a conscious decision that both my stories in the anthology A Seeming Glass were based on reworkings of Arthurian legend. Neither could it said to be entirely coincidental. When it comes to new visions of old stories, King Arthur and the ‘Matter of Britain’ has been at it longer than most.
Almost everything in the vast canon of Arthurian legend and literature is the result of imagination. The earliest known documents that are generally accepted to mention a figure that has been associated with King Arthur date from the 9th centuries, some 200 years after the historical Arthur would have lived. These references, from Mediaeval chronicles, are scanty indeed – they refer to a Romano-British warrior or lord who fought a number of battles against the Saxons in the 6th century. There are also references to Arthur’s enemy Medraut (who became Mordred in later versions) and Merlin.
From these scant sources have sprung the entire vast edifice of Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and their magical ally – though it is of course possible that other sources have been lost or misinterpreted, and that folklore relating to Arthur enabled ideas to enter into popular memory without ever being written down.
Other stories in Welsh literature appearing from the 8th to the 10th centuries added tales about Arthur, or hinted at his prowess through oblique references in other stories. Most of the tales refer to combat with magical enemies, or quests to the underworld. During this Arthurian ‘dark age’, the character evolved into a King or overlord rather than a military leader. Some of the important characters also arose in this early phase – Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, and his closest knights, Bedwyr (Bedevere) and Cei (Kay). Even the notion that Arthur was not dead and would return might have arisen in this period. The earliest Arthurian texts are fraught with difficulties – most survive as later copies or the original works, meaning it is virtually impossible to know what has been added or altered from the source itself. The later popularity of Arthur itself creates suspicion that he was inserted into earlier accounts of British history and lore.
The critical moment Arthur’s domination of the landscape of British myth was the appearance of a book by 12th century Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth – Historia Regum Britanniae, or, The History of the Kings of Britain. This began to fill in a lot of the gaps that had appeared in the earlier versions. According to Geoffrey, Arthur’s reign over Britain (and later most of Northern Europe) stood as an oasis of peace and security in the midst of an era of upheaval and Saxon advances.
As early as 1190, Geoffrey’s account was (probably correctly) identified as having mainly been made up, partly by him and partly by others, but that didn’t stop it becoming the official version of British history well into the early modern age. Virtually from the moment Geoffrey produced the Historia, a cascade of Romances began to appear, telling the story of Arthur, his knights, the sorcerer Merlin, the various women who surrounded him for good and ill – his queen, Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay – and the important props, the Holy Grail and the Round Table.
Over the following two or three centuries, most of the well-known Arthurian tropes and characters had appeared. The French romance writer Chrétien de Troyes, writing in the late 12th century, introduced pivotal characters such as Lancelot and Percival and helped spread the popularity of stories about Arthur well beyond the land of his birth.
Most of the romances that flourished in the 12th-14th centuries focussed on that period of peace and stability identified by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This may be surprising in the light of the modern emphasis on the beginning and end of Arthur’s reign, but Arthur himself almost became a background figure. While Arthur himself remained with his court, hosting feasts, tournaments and occasionally dispensing justice, the focal point of the stories was the questing knights and their adventures. Works such as Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown poet in the 14th century, represent a sort of reversal over the Saxon nation that had eventually defeated Arthur’s Britons. This and other contemporary works were written in Middle English, a development of the Anglo Saxon language, and used the characteristically Saxon alliterative form. The domination of Arthur was complete.
Stories such as the English Gawain and the Green Knight, and the French High History of the Holy Grail have the Mediaeval ideals of chivalry at their heart. Arthur’s knights strive to be pure of heart and pious. Their success or failure often depends on their purity, and the stories sometimes form dramatisations of tests of purity. Gawain and the Green Knight piles temptations in the knight’s path, forcing him to tread a precarious path between insulting his hostess’ hospitality and succumbing to desires of the flesh. The Holy Grail provides the ultimate test of knightly conduct – only the perfect knight can see it, and remember to ask who it serves.
Sir Thomas Malory translated and compiled a number of the existing tales in his Le Morte d’Arthur produced in the mid-15th century. This provides an interesting mix of Middle English and French source material which results in an inconsistent but still cohesive work. Malory is still interested in knightly prowess, but perfection is less important than it had been. Lancelot is undoubtedly the hero of the tale, despite his flaws, and receives much more ‘screen time’ than his son Galahad, who finally achieves the Grail. Le Morte d’Arthur is more of a story of human flaws than previous works, and emphasises destiny as an important theme, which would be exploited to the full by the English monarchy in later years.
Le Morte d’Arthur was printed by Caxton in 1485, the year that the Lancastrian Henry Tudor gained the throne after defeating Richard III in battle. Whether or not this was coincidence, Tudor played on his Welsh heritage to draw links with Arthur. The Tudors were minor members of the Lancastrian dynasty, and Henry’s claim to the throne was tenuous. He quickly set about emphasising connections with the ancient king who, it was said, would return to restore peace. It’s not hard to see how attractive was the idea of a King who would put an end to the long period of civil war as Arthur had created peace in Britain, especially if he could point to genuine connections. Henry named his eldest son and heir Arthur, and though Prince Arthur died before ascending the throne, Henry Tudor’s heir Henry VIII continued to emphasise the dynasty’s inheritance of Arthur’s mantle. Henry VIII had the Winchester Round Table (probably made in the reign of Edward I) repainted with the names of Arthur’s knights around the rim and a likeness of Henry in the space reserved for Arthur.
Arthur’s remains were supposedly discovered at Glastonbury Abbey, creating a new blaze of publicity and generating a bond between Arthur and the Somerset town that remains to this day.
Interest in Arthur waned somewhat in the 17th century, though works of literature continued to be produced. The sense of Arthur as genuine history had been gradually eroded, and the Stuarts did not share their Tudor predecessors’ enthusiasm for their mysterious forebear. A dramatic revival took place in the 19th century, which really gained pace when the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson took up the subject matter. The Lady of Shalott, featuring Lancelot and glimpses of Camelot, was written in 1832, and between 1859 and 1885 The Idylls of the King – a major, epic reworking of Arthur’s story in blank verse. Once again drawing links between the existing monarchy and Arthur, Tennyson dedicated the poem cycle to Prince Albert. The Idylls indicate the Victorian ideal of manhood, epitomised in the figure of Arthur, who is ultimately doomed to fail.
Each era of Arthurian writing and art creates the King and his Court, and even his world, anew. It’s perhaps harder to see how modern takes on the myth reflect our times. How does the bonkers brilliance of John Boorman’s epic Excalibur square with the Feminist retelling of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon? What parallels are there between Monty Python’s raucous The Holy Grail and the popular teatime BBC series Merlin? Perhaps the idea of Arthur as a real man rather than the expression of an ideal can be found in all of these. Indeed, the appeal of Arthur as a real person is expressed in the appearance of books such as Adrian Gilbert’s The Holy Kingdom, which claims to have found two real historical figures that much of the Arthurian legend is based on.
It’s tempting to see modern, post-Empire Britain reflected in the character of Arthur in the BBC series. An arrogant, self-centred boy in the shadow of a powerful, intolerant father grows up to find his purpose in the world in harmony with the diverse forces around him.
The truth about Arthur is that the historical figure is a tiny, barely glowing ember, out of all proportion to the vast fire that subsequently caught in the British consciousness. In many ways, the absence of established fact around Arthur has allowed invention and imagination to fill the breach. There have been many different versions of Arthur, and while his popularity in storytelling has never waned since Historia Regum Britanniae, there has never been an entirely fixed version of Arthur, his court or the world he inhabited. Arthur cannot be reimagined because Arthur has always existed in imagination. He is a recurring dream that returns to tell us about ourselves.
Find out more about A Seeming Glass on the Random Writers website