This week we’ll witness the release of yet another movie about perhaps the most famous ruler from the medieval period, King Arthur. The film, directed by Guy Ritchie, is titled King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. From what is shown in the trailer, the story depicts the rise of Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) from nobody orphan to leader of the people pitted against tyrannical King Vortigern (Jude Law). The preview also shows all of the expected castles, battle scenes, mythical creatures, and of course Excalibur, the sword promised in the title.
This is only the newest addition to a long line of modern media based on Arthurian legend. Film adaptations including nearly forty titles, with at least another fifteen film “modernizations” and thirteen tv series. Long before film and television, however, the Arthurian craze swept through late medieval culture, when dozens of stories and retellings of the king and his knights proliferated.
Yet Arthur is demonstrably legend, with only the smallest kernel of historicity behind the figure. So how did the story take such strong root as a cultural myth?
We find a start to an answer in the 1120s or 1130s. At that time, a British cleric from Monmouth named Geoffrey (c.1095-c.1155) published a book that became a bestseller of the medieval period and began the trend of hundreds of adaptations between his own time and the present. This book is now known as The History of the Kings of Britain, containing one of the earliest and most famous narratives about the life and deeds of King Arthur and his knights.
Of course, Geoffrey didn’t write in a vacuum, and he wasn’t the only author interested in Arthur and his court in the twelfth century. Nor was he the first to write about this legend. To understand the background of The History of the Kings of Britain, we need to go back to the middle of the sixth century.
The earliest reference to a man who would later become known as King Arthur appears in the historical work On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, by a British monk named Gildas (c.500-570). This three-part sermon was meant to excoriate Gildas’ contemporaries for their moral failings. In the author’s view, the decline of Britain after the Romans left the island was their fault, for their sins. But in the midst of his criticism Gildas tells the story of how a remaining Roman leader rose up to fight against the Saxons migrating to the island at the time:
Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelius, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Roman people, had weathered the onslaught of the recent storms. His family, who had been killed in these troubles, had certainly worn the purple…. Under Ambrosius Aurelius, our people [the Celtic British people] revived its strength and provoked the victors to battle. By the will of the Lord, triumph was theirs.
This figure became an essential part of British history, despite the fact that Gildas gives such a sparse biography.
Gildas’ story was picked up by other early medieval authors. For example, the monk Bede (672/3-735) told his own version as part of his historical propaganda for the Anglo-Saxon people in Ecclesiastical History of the English People, following Gildas fairly closely.
While early medieval authors kept their accounts brief, some offered significant changes. These adaptations began to shape the legend. The Welsh monk Nennius (fl.800) wrote from the perspective of propping up the Welsh people in his History of the Britons. Here we first encounter the use of the name Arthur, in place of Ambrosius Aurelius. Nennius writes, “Then Arthur fought against [the Saxons] in those days together with the kings of Britain, but he was himself the leader of battles.” After Nennius, the name stuck, as it was used in later chronicles like the Annals of Wales (composed c.950).
The real kicker came in the early twelfth century, when the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury (c.1095-c.1143) wrote his Deeds of the Kings of the English. Surveying earlier sources, William crafted his own story about Arthur, giving him an expanded biographical narrative. In Book I, William writes:
But when [Vortimer, son of Vortigern] died, the strength of the Britons dwindled away, hopes diminishing and fleeting; and indeed they would have then immediately perished had not Ambrosius—alone of the Romans surviving, who reigned as king after Vortigern—overpowered the presumptuous [Saxon] barbarians with the distinguished service of the warlike Arthur. This is the Arthur about whom the trifles of the Bretons rave even now, one certainly not to be dreamed of in false myths, but proclaimed in truthful histories—indeed, who for a long time held up his tottering fatherland, and kindled the broken spirits of his countrymen to war.
William separates the figure of Arthur from Ambrosius, giving them parallel roles. William also forcefully insists that this man Arthur was not mythical or legendary, but part of “truthful histories.”
William also relates Arthur’s victory at Mount Badon (as in the histories of Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and other chronicles), and later his death–or his seeming death, in any case. William writes, “But the tomb of Arthur is nowhere seen, whence ancient dirges still fable his coming.” With this statement, the king became a legendary hero not dead but only waiting to return until needed once again. William solidified Arthur’s position as a figure ready for political appropriation.
A clear line of influence through these texts, finally arriving at Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, published even before William of Malmesbury’s death. Geoffrey acknowledges Gildas and Bede by name within the first sentences of his dedication. He also mentions oral tradition, tales told that had not been written down. Likely some of these were Welsh stories (like the Mabinogion) that predate Geoffrey’s writing but only survive in later (thirteenth- and fourteenth-century) versions.
The authority that sticks out most in Geoffrey’s account of his own history is even more fascinating. He tells how his friend Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, an educated and knowledgeable man, gave him “a certain very ancient book written in the British [Welsh] language.” In this book, Geoffrey claims, he found the full account of the kings of Britain and their deeds. He presents his own History as a Latin translation of this Welsh book, though he also hints at his own additions.
Where other historians had told the story briefly, Geoffrey created an epic depiction. Other authors had provided details that fed life into the enduring presence of Arthur in British history, but Geoffrey told a full epic for the nation. He set Arthur within a much larger narrative, running from Roman myth, through the drama of Arthur’s parents, developing the court, knights, villains, and travails of the hero, to his death and beyond. He gave Arthur his wife Queen Guinevere (Guanhumara), loyal knights, the wise old guide and prophet Merlin (Merlinus), and the arch-villain Mordred (Modredus). In doing so, he held up Arthur as the archetypal ruler of Britain, the once and future king.
In the decades after Geoffrey of Monmouth published The History of the Kings of Britain, Arthurian legend boomed. Dozens of manuscripts containing the work survive from before 1200, and other authors capitalized on the popularity. Between the 1170s and 1190s, Chrétien de Troyes (c.1140-c.1200) penned a cycle of more elaborate, expanded stories about Arthur and his knights, creating the character Lancelot along the way. Around the same time, Arthur and other figures that became associated with his court (like Tristan and Isolde) also appeared in the writings of Marie de France (fl.1160-1215), especially in her romance lais.
The prevalence of Arthurian stories thrived for the next several centuries. In addition to many Latin works, we find romances featuring Arthurian subjects in French, German, and Middle English literature. One prominent example is the anonymous fourteenth-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Authors even used the setting of the Arthurian court when it has little to do with the narrative, as did Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400) for his Wife of Bath’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.
The culmination of Arthurian popularity, for the medieval period, appears in Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (c.1415-1471). Malory retells stories of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table, collected from previous sources. William Caxton published Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in 1485; soon, and for long after, it became one of the most widely and well known versions of the legend.
Through the late medieval period, every author found Arthur useful for one reason or another. This Arthurian legend became useful as a symbol against racial and ethnic oppression; a vehicle for idealizing court culture; a context for thinking about social issues; an allegory about kingship in the face of questionable practices by nobles; and, often in tandem with other uses, Arthur remained the centerpiece of ripping good yarns. Each author adapted the story to their own needs, remixing details and making their own custom narrative. And each author refashioned the hero as a king for the present time. Although he was a figure lifted out of historical propaganda about the sixth century, Arthur became a knight embodying the values of each author’s own time–a trend continuing to the twenty-first century.
There was no monolithic story of King Arthur, but one figure loomed at the center of them all.
As the many modern adaptations demonstrate–from T. H. White’s novel to Guy Ricthie’s new film–Arthurian legend still holds appeal to this day. As shrouded in the mists of myth as he was at the beginning, King Arthur has become an enduring legend with continued grip on popular imagination. So what’s one more retelling among the multitude of stories that began in the Middle Ages and endure up to our present?
Update: read my review of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword at The Public Medievalist.
Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain, translated by Lewis Thorpe (New York: Penguin, 1966).
Other excerpts from Arthur, King of Britain: History, Romance, Chronicle, & Criticism, edited by Richard L. Brengle (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1964).