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Through the Ages

The earliest full stories concerning King Arthur and his exploits appear to be the little known Welsh tales of "Culhwch and Olwen" and the "Dream of Rhonabwy". Though dating from before the 11th century, these two stories became a late attachment to a collection of Welsh mythological tales taken from the 14th century White Book of Rhydderch and Red Book of Hergest. Together, they are known as the "Mabinogion": an introduction for aspiring poets. Though the stories have a mythological slant, a certain amount of bardic poetic license is to be expected. Their background, however, is clearly an unfamiliar Dark Age society that gives us some idea of what the real Arthur was probably like.

The much-maligned Geoffrey of Monmouth, Archdeacon of Monmouth and later Bishop of St. Asaphs, first popularized King Arthur's story, around 1136, in his "History of the Kings of Britain". Though he was writing some six hundred years after Arthur's death, there is no reason to suppose that Geoffrey's history was "made up...from an inordinate love of lying" as both contemporary and modern historians almost universally insist. Geoffrey claimed he had taken most of his information from an earlier British source, unknown to us today: and why not? The early portion of his history clearly relates the mythology of the Celtic peoples and the stories of their Gods, whom his source had turned into early Kings: Bladud, Leir, Belenus, Brennius and so on. Later, however, he turns to real history. From the time of Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 bc, which both Geoffrey and the great man himself relate at great length, we can no longer be sure that the Archdeacon is reciting mere legend. Much of his information has corroborative historical sources like this. Who is to say that everything he tells us, from then on, is not pure fact? Furthermore, Geoffrey was the only source to hail the existence of King Tenvantius of Britain, until modern archaeologists began finding Iron Age coins bearing his name: "Tasciovantus". What other gems of the Archdeacon's history have been dismissed by today's historians?

It was the French medieval poet, Chrétien de Troyes, however who, not long after Geoffrey, introduced us to most of the characters and tales that we now think of as an integral part of the Arthurian story. He specialized in tales of Arthurian courtly love and thus brought us: Erec & Enid (1160), Lancelot (c.1162), Cligés (1164), Yvain (c.1170) and the Count of the Grail (also known as Perceval) (1180). He transformed the names of Geoffrey's characters from Welsh to the medieval French used today. It was Chrétien and those who followed him who distorted the Arthurian story, so that the true historical Arthur became lost in an amalgam of Celtic myth and literary fantasy. For example, neither Lancelot nor the Holy Grail were part of the Arthurian legend before Chrétien came along. Both do have origins in early Celtic myth, but there is little justification for including them in Arthur's story.

Chrétien's tales were extended by one Robert de Boron in the 1190s. He wrote Le Roman de I'Estoire dou Graal (or Joseph d'Arimathie), the Merlin and a, now lost, Pereceval. He was the first to explain the Holy Grail's connection with St. Joseph of Arimathea and became the inspiration for the anonymous Vulgate Cycle which further embellished the Arthurian story. This collection of romantic prose was apparently put together by Cistercian clerics between 1215 and 1235, some say at the instigation of their founder, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The vast work consists of the Prose Lancelot, Queste del Sainte Graal, Estoire del Sainte Graal, Mort Artu and Vulgate Merlin. It is particularly noted for introducing the idea that Mordred was the incestuous son of King Arthur.

Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century work, "Le Morte d'Arthur" is, perhaps, better known than Geoffrey or Chrétien. He took their stories and retold them with an epic unity, creating the Romantic Age of Chivalry. With one stroke of his pen, he transformed Arthur's Court from Dark Age obscurity to the height of medieval pageantry. Being written in English and printed by Caxton, "Le Morte d'Arthur" was instantly available to the masses, and it remains highly popular, even today, as a classic work of literature. Malory's work, however, is just that: a work of literature. There is little history left amongst his pages.

Arthur's modern popularity owes much to his re-emergence during the Victorian Age at the hands of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His huge poetic elegy entitled "Idylls of the King" led to a resurgence in interest in this early monarch, as reflected in much of the pre-Raphaelite art of the time. The fascination is still going strong today. However, modern Arthurian students have become much more critical of the romantic picture woven by many of these literary greats. Nowadays, we tend to be much more interested in the real Arthur, drawing upon the Mabinogion, Geoffrey and beyond, to examine historical sources that may just show us a glimpse of the truth behind this strangely compelling character.


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