Arthurian Fiction Through the Ages: A Timeline of Heroes

by Hunter Liguore

If you enjoy the following article you will probably enjoy our articles about the Holy Grail in Issue 21.

Arthurian fiction has had a long tradition in fiction, and can be dated back to the 1100s, when simultaneous writers, separated by years and countries, begin to pen tales about the infamous Bear King. Most often cited as the starting point of the legends is the work done by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which depicts King Arthur as a noble, British king in The History of Britain. It is one of the most concise records, and not only treats Arthur as a real person, but sends him on a quite a few dangerous adventures. Other writers of the times, like Lifris of Llancarfan, depict King Arthur brandishing his sword against dragons, perhaps the first to do so.

During the twelfth century, King Arthur goes through many changes, much the same way vampires over the last hundred years have gone through several makeovers. Chrétien de Troyes adds to the epic cycle the Knights of the Round Table, including Lancelot and Perceval, the latter most known for his quest for the Holy Grail. The stories were most often composed as poetry. During this period Merlin makes a brief appearance in the poetry of Robert de Boron.

Moving forward, King Arthur fades away, but not completely, for a couple hundred years, and resurfaces during the 1400s. In this age, King Arthur is resuscitated as a noble knight and king, along with the many adventures of the twelve knights, including Tristan. The love story and betrayal of Lancelot takes a more prominent place in the author’s retelling. Other anonymous works retelling the King Author myth begin to appear in different parts of Europe, like the Mabinogion or The Welsh Romances. New adventures feature other notably knights including, Sir Gawain; even the Lady of the Lake gets her start here.

While bards spread the tales of King Arthur and His Knights, Sir Thomas Mallory in France did the world a favor and wrote down all the different versions and threads into one tome, which came down to us as The Death of Arthur. This one book still remains as the most complete and concise story of Arthurian legend. From it, writers for many generations to come will use it as a valuable source to rewrite the legends over and over again.

Every hundred years or so, a new author—perhaps intrigued or inspired—gets turned on to the previous generations’ renderings and has a go at something new. During the 1500s, the most notable contributors are The Misfortunes of Arthur by Thomas Hughes and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In the 1600s the most notable contributions are The Birth of Merlin by William Rowley, which returns to the mysterious druid as the trusted advisor of King Arthur. Richard Blackmore publishes two volumes of poetry, Prince Arthur and King Arthur. In the 1700s, the Round Table becomes the centerpiece of a poem by Thomas Warton, called, “On King Arthur's Round-table at Winchester.”

It is not until the 1800s that any significant changes are made to Arthurian legend. It starts first with a non-Arthurian book written by Sir Walter Scott, called Waverly, followed by Ivanhoe—books that evoked medieval chivalry and knighthood. The trend takes off and eclipses with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, The Idylls of the King and The Lady of Shallot. Mark Twain brings humor to Arthur’s kingdom in his novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Sydney Lanier’s book, The Boy’s King Arthur, precipitates the new wave of children’s stories about King Arthur.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Howard Pyle brings King Arthur to children full-time in a series of illustrate books that starts withThe Story of King Arthur and His Knights. It begins when Arthur is a teen and inadvertently pulls the sword from the stone and wins the crown. With his subsequent successful novels, King Arthur becomes a permanent feature in the imaginations of children, who later come of age in the 1930s, only to revive the genre again.

During the 1930s, it is T. H. White’s A Once and Future King, (and sequels) which establishes King Arthur firmly in the fantasy world for the next eighty years. Occasional reinventions through the forties and fifties take Arthur or Merlin on a variety of adventures. Later, in 1973 Mary Stewart revives the genre with her novel, The Crystal Cave, which gives Merlin his time in the spotlight. John Steinbeck pens of a book on King Arthur and his knights but it is sorely another version of Malory in disguise—a trend for writers in all ages.

By now you can see the trend that something new hits one generation, and is gobbled up, only to influence the next round of tales. One can assume that Mary Stewart’s work in some way inspired Marion Zimmer Bradley, who ten years after The Crystal Cave published her own version of the King Arthur myth in her novel, The Mists of Avalon. This turning point in Arthurian legend launches a new branch of stories featuring women at the forefront, while the king and his knights move to the background.

The 1980s revives Arthurian legend for another whole generation, as writers explores the legend from different angles, like Guinevere, Mordred, Merlin, Young Arthur, and so on. Most notable are Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, and Persia Woolley Guinevere Trilogy. While new versions come down the line, the majority steep the Arthurian world in magic, legend, and lore. They rewrite for adults, children, movies, comics, and more.

Arthur gets one last makeover in the 1990s. As archaeological evidence is unearthed during the 1990s, and shared publicly, rumors begin to spread that King Arthur was a Roman captain. (Some even suggest that “Arthur” is an actual title, much like “the Merlin,” is often deemed a title for a teacher.) This spurs new interest in Arthur as a Roman-turned-Gaul who starts on the side of Rome and ends on the side of the Gaulic tribes.

That brings us right up to today.

While Arthur has been reinvented over the last two thousand years, one thing that has remained constant is his symbol of valor, truth, and justice. We’ve no doubt not seen the last of Arthur, as the next generation is influenced and inspired. Who will bring forth the next installment in this long tradition? Only time will tell. I certainly will be among them.