The Once and Future King



In a land of myth, in a time of magic….”, those are the first words of the British TV series Merlin (2008-2012), which dwells on the life and adventures of Merlin and Prince Arthur Pendragon, and his eventual ascension to the throne, a life that is full of fantastical deeds and creatures, filled with such wonders that it makes historians doubt that King Arthur has truly ever existed. Why is it important, then, if King Arthur is just a myth? Why has it become an obsession for historians to distinguish the facts from the fantasy in the life of this mythical king?

Many centuries have passed since Geoffrey of Monmouth published his book which narrated the legends of the once and future king, and yet the interest towards him is still alive. King Arthur has had great influence over the British culture and identity. This essay will focus on the Arthurian legends as an event with causes and effects, using the portraying of Arthur in Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth; La morte d’Arthur, by Malory; and the poems written by Chrétien de Troyes. These three works have played a major role in the formation of the fantastical king of the legends. The main bases behind the legends can be classified in three major divisions: the literary sources (both Welsh and Latin), the historical records of the kings that lived at Arthur’s approximate time, and the archaeological data provided by some remains of ancient sites. The last two causes are deeply intertwined, and for that, they will be discussed together. Finally, it will also analyze the effect of the Arthurian legends on the British culture, dividing them according to the role that they played in the history and politics of different centuries, how they were used to encourage nationalism, their relationship with feminism, and their expression in the arts, such as Literature and the Media.

The first division of the historical cause behind the creation of the Arthurian Legends is the existence of some literary records. Many historians believe that Arthur’s period can be placed between the era of the Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon England, in the years 410 – 650 A.D., a period that is commonly known as the Dark Age of the Island of Britain (Walley 9), due to the few records that are available from that time. Most of the records that mention Arthur´s name are of literary nature, and can be classified into two kinds of sources: the Latin sources, and the Welsh ones. Although many historians tend to devalue the Welsh sources due to their obscure nature (lack of a specific author, or a time in which the source was written), in their “fiction” categorization, and their folkloric tradition, they are as equally important as the Latin sources when trying to form a whole picture of the perception and characterization created around the figure of the legendary king. The two more important Latin sources that were written during the Dark Ages or before the 10th century are Nennius' Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Gildas the Wise's De Excidio Britanniae(On the Ruin of Britain) (Walley 30), both of which are considered as historical records written by members of the clergy, and thus more trustworthy, at least in the eyes of many contemporary researchers. Historia Brittonum was written in the 9th century, being a chronicle of the island of Britain, and also contains a compilation of the twelve battles in which Arthur fought, and which was decisive in keeping the Saxons away for at least a century (Vermaat). On the other side, De Excidio Britanniae contains information about the Battle of Badon (which was the final battle described in a Historia Brittonum), and yet it has no mention of Arthur, although Gildas should have been his contemporary. There has been a lot of speculation around this fact, otherwise it agrees with Nennius' piece. The speculation is mainly centered around two ideas: the first, King Arthur had had Gildas' brother killed, and thus incurred in Gildas anger, which caused his deletion in all of Gildas's historical accounts; the second one is related to the phrase “The Bear” which was used to describe a warrior at the Battle of Badon, and which has the word arth as its root (in Welsh), and so it is plausible for Arthur to be “the Bear” (Walley 32). Regarding the Welsh sources, there are four principal books called The Black Book of Caermarthen, The Book of Aneurin, The Book of Taliessin, and the Red Book of Hergerst, which are poems attributed to Myrddin (who is thought to be Merlin) Aneurin, Taliessin, and Llywarch Hen, four Celtic bards who had lived in the 6th century (Walley 24). These books contain the Trioed Ynis Prydein or Welsh Triads, which were a mnemonic device used by the bards to tell stories, characters or events, like triadic sayings, used for an easy recollection. These Triads contained many mentions of King Arthur, his courtiers, the balls and parties held at his court, places and events associated with him, and many of their stories are thought to have been part of Celtic mythological body, transmitted by oral tradition (Walley 28). These stories depict a kind of Arthur that is somehow different to the traditional one of the British Mediaeval stories and more similar to the Welsh ones, which is the main reason why many scholars think it is a characterization of him before the starting of the legends.

The second and third component of the historical cause behind the Arthurian Legends are the explorations of the archaeological sites and the different historical characters that may have occupied the persona of Arthur, which are deeply connected, for a variation in the first alters the second. One of the most famous places that are believed to be connected to Arthur are the ruins of Tintagel, Arthur's place of birth. Although there have been many doubts regarding the site (early research didn't show any remains from Arthur's time), more in-depth excavations (done by the British scholar Ralegh Radford) demonstrated the existence of a Celtic monastery that once stood on the site, by the 5th or 6th century (Walley 11). Another site that seems to have been pinpointed is the Isles of Avalon, where according to the legend, is the place where Arthur was taken after his wound at the battle of Camnlan, and where supposedly once lay the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, in the 500-foot hill called Glastonbury Tor, in the town of Glastonbury. Although the site now is not an island, studies done in the place show that it was once underwater, with the Tor as an island that stood above the water. Despite the lack of his remains nowadays, it has been recorded as his laying place by many accounts (Walley 47). One place whose location is still under great discussion is the field where the battle of Camnlan took place. The variations of the location of said field causes a variation in the identification of Arthur. Although many locate the battle of Camnlan in Cornwall, which supports Geoffrey's works, others have argued that the location of it is farther north, in Birdoswald, which agrees with works of the bards who talked about northern warriors and battles (Walley 42). The farther north it is placed, the more the identity of Arthur changes, ranging from a Latin Soldier, to a Welsh Warrior, and even to a Scottish Prince. Many historians believe that all the deeds attributed to Arthur might actually be attributed to many different people, so that at the end, the real Arthur is more like a conglomeration of different warriors that together make most of Arthur’s profile.

The event itself started with the publication of the book Historia Regum Britanniae, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which introduced the character of Arthur Pendragon as it is known today, and continued with Malory’s La morte d´Arthur, and Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian based poems, which together constitute the basis from where writers obtained their inspiration to create their own versions of the mythical king. Although the discussion of its actual existence is still ongoing, there is no denying that it is his legends what have attracted and snared the attention of so many people through the ages, immortalizing thus the persona of the noble and brave Arthur, who fought for the Isles and kept the peace within it for many years. To better understand the legends, it is important not to focus only on them, but also to analyze the context within which they were created, both historical and social, as well as the author's’ biography, so as to obtain a more holistic view of them.

Tradition locates Geoffrey’s place of birth in Monmouthshire (now Gwent), to the South of Wales, around the year 1100 (Ross) probably the descendant of a family with Bretonic roots who had later “emigrated to Wales after the Norman conquest” (Huber). He was a resident in Oxford, where he was most probably a teacher in one of the small faculties, and where he held a church-related charge, most likely a secular canon at the Church of St. George, which allowed him to later be named bishop of St. Asaph, in Wales in 1151. He died in 1155 (Shopkow). The publication of Historia Regum Britaniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) was around the year 1135, a time characterized by political upheaval caused by the death of King Henry of Normandy which left the crown with no definite succession, for his son had perished in a shipwreck, and the country wasn’t ready to accept his daughter, Matilda, as the new queen, which led to a civil war for 20 years between the followers of Matilda and her husband, and the ones who supported Henry’s nephew, Stephen, as the new King (History BBC). The social situation was dominated by a strong feeling of rebellion against the complete absorption of the English culture by the Norman conquerors. King Arthur was the perfect representation of a war leader who fights against a foreign culture and unifies the land under the same banner, installing peace in the kingdom (Rogers 16 – 18). Another important social characteristic was the nationalistic feelings of the Welsh, who had initiated an uprising in the North against Normandy.

The book itself is a recompilation of the different Kings of Britain, and it also introduces another well known character, who plays a crucial roll in Arthur’s birth: the wizard Merlin. Merlin disguises Uther Pendragon as the Duke of Cornwall (with the aid of magic) which gives him access to the Castle of Tintagel, and, more importantly, to the Duke’s wife, Igraine (or Eigyr, in Welsh), whom he bedded. While Uther lay with his wife, the Duke was slain in battle, which allowed Uther to marry Igraine and claim the child as his rightful heir. The name of this child was Arthur (BBC Wales History), who, after his father’s death in his teen years, came to power, and “proved himself to be an able King with his defeat of the Saxons and the Picts” (Pfeifer 15), wielding the famous sword Caliburn (Excalibur in later works). Although it wasn’t said to possess magical properties, it still seemed to draw the souls out of his enemies (BBC Wales History). After the defeat of his enemies, Arthur established a peaceful rule of almost 12 years, during which he enjoyed of great popularity and gave prosperity to the land. Also, he married Guinevere, and established a famous order of knighthood, which could be considered as the beginning of the concepts of Camelot and the Round Table. During his lasts years of reign, Arthur decided to invade more countries, and marched into Roman territories, leaving the crown in charge of his nephew Mordred. However, Mordred decided to name himself King, causing Arthur to leave his conquest and return home, to seize back the throne, in a battle that is known as the Battle of Camnlan, during which Arthur is mortally wounded and carried away to Avalon. The ending of the story is somewhat open, not specifying whether Arthur lived, or died, although in later versions it is said that he stayed in Avalon, and was sleeping there until he awakes once more (Pfeifer 15). Although Geoffrey claims at the beginning of his book that it is a historical account based on historical records, these sources (if they ever existed) have long been lost. That fact, combined with the abundance of fantastical elements, is the main reason why it is classified as a legend, instead of being considered a historical record (BBC Geoffrey of Monmouth).

The event, the legends, is reinforced with Chrétien de Troyes, a French poet from whom little is known about. There is no data regarding his birth or death, but he flourished publicly as a writer around the years 1160-1180 (Encyclopedia Britannica). Chrétien was a court poet, meaning he was a“clerc attached to a noble court (princeton.edu), which, in his case, was the court of the Count and Countess of Champagne. His work was probably one of a school-trained man of letters, which mainly consisted in praising his patrons and their lineages, and also to provide them with edifying stories. During his times, courtliness and chivalry had become the aristocratic ideals, and also, an interest in committed love. Chrétien extracted his materials mainly from two sources, Wace’s Brut (the French translation of Geoffrey’s work, but with added material), and Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae, from where he constructed his own materials, the five poems that dealt with the Knights of Arthur’s court: Lancelot, Perceval, Erec and Enide, Yvan, and Cligès(princeton.edu). The importance of Chrétien’s work at that time is that it supported the power of a strong King, which was the situation in France, and it encouraged the people to follow such leaders.

The first poem, Lancelot or The Knight of the Cart, introduces Lancelot as the major Knight in the Arthurian cannon, and also the courtly love between this knight and Queen Guinever (Arthur’s wife), and it relates the deeds of Lancelot as a brave and loyal knight, who will do everything in his power to protect the Queen (including shaming himself in exchange for her whereabouts), and his adventures in his quest to rescue her from a kidnapper (gradesaver.com). Another poem is named Perceval or The Story of the Grail, which narrates the adventures of Perceval, a young man raised in the woods who once had a casual encounter with the Grail, in an old castle. Some times passes after this encounter, and Percerval, now a man of age, who had joined the Knights of Camelot, begins a quest to recover the Grail, in a search that also helps him learn who he is and his place in the world. The story, however, is unfinished, and it has been adapted and rewritten many times since then, becoming, perhaps, his most famous work (McElhearn). Cligès, another poem, deals with a character who fell in love with Fenice, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Cligès’ uncle. Driven by his love, Cligès travels to Arthur’s court, and defeats his best knights in a tournament, which earns him honour, and for whom he performs many deeds. Eventually, he meets with Fenice, and they fake her death, so she can escape her husband and live with Cligès forever (Ford). Erec and Enide is known for being a love story between a knight of Arthur’s court and the daughter of a small tenant, that surpasses all odds, a message of fidelity and eternal love (Easy Literature Notes). Arthur’s court appears as sumptuous and even lavish, full of riches, and the centre of parties and merriment. The last of Chrétien’s poem that is still conserved is named Yvain, and it centres around a young knight who meets his wife in his effort to avenge his cousin’s honour. After that, he becomes an errant knight, with the promise of returning to his love in a one year span, but he forgets, which causes his wife’s rejection. In an effort to regain his wife’s favour, he defeats many foes with the help of a lion he has saved, and finally, gets his wife back (enotes.com). In all of Chrétien’s poems King Arthur appears as the benevolent king who offers his patronage to young gentlemen, helping them acquire honour and renown.

La morte d´Arthur by Malory, written around 1470, is the last book that can be considered forming the bulk of Arthurian Legends. Not much is known about the author himself, and what can be true beyond speculation is that he wrote La morte d´Arthur while he was in jail (he tells so himself). Some Arthurian scholars believe him to be Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, although there are some doubts, because there were many Thomas Malory living at that time (15th century). Although the data available is little, there are records of his time in jail for various reasons, such as rape and murder, along with an attempted murder of a Lancastrian Duke, for he lived during the times of The War of the Roses, a feud between the Lancaster and the York families, that fought over the throne, and that caused great political upheaval in Britain. Although his intentions for writing it are unknown, some think that it was Malory’s way to show contrition for his deeds, and to indicate that chivalry was important and honourable (Pfeifer 17-20).

La morte d´Arthur is divided into eight different books. It is based on many previous Arthurian works, as a retelling of Geoffrey’s legend, but with some things added by Malory. One of Malory’s innovations was the foundation of the Round Table as such, as well as Mordred being Arthur’s son with his half-sister Morgause. Along with some of Arthur’s campaigns and adventures, Malory also focused on Lancelot and his forbidden love for Guinevere, his attempts to stay away from her, and finally his giving into the temptation, which causes a confrontation with Arthur when they are ultimately discovered. Malory focuses a lot on the knights’ quest, the reason why he adds a retelling of the Holy Grail search, and also on the introduction of an unknown knight, Gareth, who earns the court’s respect by proving his worthiness, as well as the love story between Tristan and Isolde. Finally, Mallory ends the book with Arthur being taken to Avalon, where he waits until he is called back to fulfill his title of Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus (The Once and Future King) (Pfeifer 20-21). Thus ends the book that, alongside the others, form the Arthurian Legend classics, and which has affected Britain in many ways over the centuries since their beginning.

The first effect of the Arthurian Legends has had over Great Britain’s history and politics, is they have been used by many as political statements. Mallory’s own work can be considered as a political allegory to the Lancaster reign, a representation of the rise and downfall of the English Knighthood under the Lancastrian Kings. Also, he could have used it to compare Arthur’s situation and claim to the throne as the same that was being lived by Edward IV, the first Yorkish King, who was trying to regain Britain, just as Arthur had fought against Rome, although his political allegiances are not clear. Most possibly, he wrote the book to present the ideal King, who had to be a strong administrator, taking care not only of the government, but also of his people, and to show how the country could be better without the Civil War, that needed peace no matter the cost (Wimbiscus 25). The Arthurian legends are the example of mercy, justice and chivalry, which caused King Edward III to re-establish the Knights of the Round Table under the same honour code (Wimbiscus 27). During the 16th century, the Arthurian Legends were not as popular as they had been in the previous centuries, being barely mentioned in a poem by Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, which was in honour of Elizabeth I of the Tudor Dynasty, and in which Arthur appears merely as a background character, included there due to the Tudors' claim of being of Arthur’s lineage. The cycle was almost gone during the following centuries, until finally, in the 19th century, they acquired renowned political strength. Writers used them to demonstrate their ideas, and to inspire feelings such as national identity, among others (Wimbiscus 18)

The second effect of King Arhur’s life and deeds is their use in the ideological area, adapting them so they could fit ideologies such as nationalism and pacifism, and also to encourage feminism. Their role in British Nationalism is vital, for they were used to create a feeling of a national identity, a country united under the leadership of a strong ruler to whom they would owe loyalty. This feeling was exploited during the World War II, in which writers such as T.H.White, who, continuing with the Legends, would use their characters to represent the world’s political situation, having Mordred as a personification of Hitler, and the fascists, and using many allegories to indicate their feelings toward those unfair rulers who would only bring chaos and disaster to Britain. To avoid this, the British country should be united in their fight against their foes (Nazis, communists, fascists). Pacifism was also represented in White’s novel in the character of Merlin, Arthur’s advisor, who would present it as the best idea for a governmental policy, stating the “Might” is only useful and good when it is used for “Right”, or to use the power to enforce peace. White’s main idea was that man is good by nature, but power that he doesn’t know how to channel makes him fall apart (Wimbiscus 51-52). Another writer, Marion Z. Bradley gives the Arthurian Legends a twist, by presenting the character of Morgan Le Fay under a new light, and making the women the protagonists of her story, under a clear feminist point of view, in which the threads are moved by women, and that, by the end of the story, all of them have undergone change through a process of self-discovery and understanding of who they are and who they are meant to be (Štefanidesová 29).

The last effect of the cycle of the British culture can be seen in the role that it plays in the arts, whether it is in its Literature or Media. Amongst the poems inspired by the Arthurian Legends can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s Sir Tristem and The Bridal of Triermain and Tennyson’s Lancelot and Guenevere, The Lady of Shalott and the twelve poems series Idylls of the King. One particularity of Tennyson is that no sex or adultery was shown in his works, because they adhered to the strict Victorian ideals. Among novels we can find T.H.White’s novels The Once and Future King and Marion Z. Bradley The Mists of Avalon, both written during the 20th century to promote their personal views of the world. Another book is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, in which a man travels back in time to King Arthur’s court, in a representation of the contradiction of the old ideals that cannot survive in the modern society (Wimbiscus 19).

Finally, there have been many adaptations of it in the media, not only in movies such as The Sword in the Stone (1963), Camelot (1967), Lancelot du Lac (1974) (Bilson), among others, but also in documentaries like The Truth behind the Legend (2004), and In Search of Myths and Heroes – King Arthur. The small screen hasn’t been excepted of producing works inspired by such a myth, producing series and miniseries related to it. Amongst them can be found the BBC series Merlin, a retelling of the legends with the warlock as the principal character, who is around Arthur’s age, and who slowly earns his trust and become his friend, trying to defend Arthur from all his foes while struggling to keep his magic hidden in Uther’s Camelot, where anything related to sorcery merits death. This show was fairly popular, and ended after 5 seasons, which only demonstrates the avid interest of the public towards the fantastical life of King Arthur Pendragon (BBC One)

As it can be seen throughout the essay, King Arthur is not only a part of the folklore of a nation, dusty and forgotten, but it is a legend that has been kept alive, transcending time. it is imbued in the very core of the national identity of the British Isles. For the British, Arthur does not represent only a historical and mythical character, but acts more as a living symbol that will carry the ideals of Great Britain as long as his story is known. Although it has suffered many adaptations since its early beginnings, expanding over time until forming a broad net of Arthurian Legends, the original idea is still preserved in Arthur’s essence: a King who unites and brings peace. Whether he is shown in movies or books, young or old, fair or dark haired, no matter what changes are made to him or his legends, he will still be remembered for centuries to come as the Once and Future King.




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