(From George Sampson's Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, 3rd ed.).
XII. THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND
The mystery of Arthur's end is not darker than the mystery of his beginning. While the ancient tradition is everywhere, the facts and records are nowhere. The earliest English Arthurian literature is singularly meagre and undistinguished. The romantic exploitation of "the matter of Britain" was the achievement, mainly, of French writers, and, indeed, some critics would have us attach little importance to British influence on the development of the Arthurian legend. The "matter of Britain" very quickly became international property—a vast composite body of romantic tradition, which European poets and story-tellers of every nationality drew upon and used for their own purposes. Arthur was non-political and could be idealised without offence to any ruling family. The British king himself faded more and more into the background, and became, in time, but the phantom monarch of a featureless "land of faëry". His knights quite overshadow him in the later romances; but they, in their turn, undergo the same process of denationalization, and appear as natives of some region of fantasy, moving about in a golden atmosphere of illusion. The course of the story is too obscure to be made clear in a brief summary which must necessarily ignore the hints and half-tones that count for much in the total effect, and which can take no account of French, German and Italian contributions to the legend. Old English literature, even the Chronicle, knows nothing whatever of Arthur. To find any mention of him earlier than the twelfth century we must turn to Wales, where, in a few obscure poems, a difficult prose story, and two dry Latin chronicles we find what appear to be the first written references, meagre and casual, but indicating a tradition already ancient. The earliest is in Historia Britonum, which, as we have seen (p. 9), dates from 679, though the existing recension of Nennius was made in the ninth century. The reference of Nennius to Arthur occurs in a very short account of the conflict that culminated in Mount Badon, usually dated 516, though some would put it as early as 470. Gildas, who was a youth in 516, also mentions Mount Badon; but the only hero he names is "Ambrosius Aurelianus". In Nennius the hero has become "The magnanimous Arthur", who was twelve times victorious, last of all at Mount Badon; but he is a military leader, not a king—or,p perhaps, as the anthropologist Lord Raglan thinks, "a god of war".
The poems of the ancient Welsh bards have been discussed almost as fiercely as the poems of Ossian; yet there is no doubt that together with much of late and doubtful invention they contain something of indisputably ancient tradition. But the most celebrated of the early Welsh bards know nothing of Arthur. Llywarch Hên, Taliesin and Aneirin (sixth or seventh century?) never mention him; to the first to Urien, Lord of Rheged, is the most imposing figure among all the native warriors. There are, indeed, only five ancient poems that mention Arthur at all. The reference most significant to modern readers occurs in the Stanzas of the Graves contained in the Black Book of Caermarthen (twelfth century): "A grave there is for March (Mark), a grave for Gwythur, a grave for Gwgawn of the Ruddy Sword; a mystery is the grave of Arthur." Another stanza mentions both the fatal battle of Camlan and Bedwyr (Bedivere) , who shares with Kai (Kay) pre-eminence among Arthur's followers in the primitive Welsh fragments of Arthurian fable. Another Arthurian knight, Geraint, is the hero of a poem that appears both in The Black Book of Caermarthen and in the Red Book of Hergest (fourteenth century). One of the eighteen stanzas just mentions Arthur by name. The Chair of the Sovereign in The Book of Taliesin (thirteenth century) alludes obscurely to Arthur as a "Warrior sprung from two sources". Arthur, Kai and Beedwyr appear in another poem contained in The Black Book; but the deed celebrated in the almost incomprehensible lines of this poem are the deeds of Kai and Bedwyr. Arthur recedes still further into the twilight of myth in the only other Old Welsh poem where any extended allusion is made to him a most obscure piece of sixty lines contained in The Book of Taliesin. Here, as Matthew Arnold says, "The writer is pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret". Arthur sets upon various expeditions over perilous seas in his ship Pridwen; one of them has as its object the rape of a cauldron belonging to the King of Hades. Ancient British poetry has nothing futher to tell us of this mysterious being, who is, even at a time so remote, a vague, impalpable figure of legend.
The most remarkable fragment of the existing early Welsh literature about Arthur is the prose romance of Kulhwch and Olwen, assigned by most authorities to the tenth century. It is one of the stories that Lady Charlotte Guest translated from the Red Book of Hergest and published in The Mabinogion (1838). Of the twelve "Mabinogion", or stories for the young (the word has a special meaning but is loosely used), five deal with Arthurian themes. Two, Kullwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabury, are British; the other three are based on French originals. In The Dream of Rhonabury, Arthur and Kai apper, Mount Badon is mentioned, and the fatal battle of Camlan with Mordred is referred to in some detail. The Arthuro Kullwch and Olwen bears little resemblance to the mystic king of later legend, except in the magnitude of his warrior retinue, in which Kai and Bedwyr are leaders. Arthur, with his dog Cavall, joins in the hunt for the boar Twrch Trwyth through Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, and his many adventures are clearly relics of ancient wonder-tales of bird and beast, wind and water. The wild and even monstrous Arthur of this legend is equally remote from Nennis and from Malory; but the charm of the story is someething that the long-winded Continental writers could not achieve.
The serious historian William of Malmesbury, who wrote a few years earlier than Geoffrey of Monmouth, refers to Arthur as a hero worthy to be celebrated in authentic history and not in idle fictions. He adds, "The sepulchre of Arthur is nowhere to be seen, whence ancient ballads fable that he is to come." Plainly, Arthur was already a popular tradition. The transformation of the British Arthru into a romantic hero of European renown was the result of contact between British and Norman culture. No doubt the Normans got their first knowledge of Arthurian story from Brittany; but the real contact was made in Britain itself, where the Normans had succeeded in establishing intimate relations with the Welsh. Thus the true father of the Arthurian legend is Geoffrey of Monmouth. How much he derived from ancient sources we shall probably never find out; but we can reasonably assume that he did not invent the fabric of the story, however fancifully he embroidered it. And, after all, the real point is not how much he invented, but how he used his matter, historical or legendary. Geoffrey had the art of making the improbable seem probable, and his ingenious blending of fact and fable not only gave his book a great success with readers, but made Arthur and Merlin the romantic property of literary Europe. So it has been urged thet we shoul take Geoffrey's compilation, not as a national history, but as a national epic, doing for Britain what the Aeneid did for Rome, and finding in the mythical Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas, the name-giving founder of the British state. In such a story all the legends have their natural place. Geoffrey's History is thus the first Brut—for so in time the records of early British kings with this mythical starting-point came to be called. The first few books of Historia Regum Britanniae relate the deeds of Arthur's predecessors. At the close of the sixth book the weird figure of Merlin appears on the scene, and romance begins to usurp the place of sober history. Arthur is Geoffrey's hero. He knows nothing of Tristam, Lancelot or the Holy Grail; but it was he who, in the Mordred and Guenevere episode, first sugggested the love-tragedy that was to become one of the world's imperishable romances.
In the Latin Life of Gildas written at about the time of Geoffrey's death there is a further interesting allusion. Arthur is described as being engaged in deadly feud with the King of Scotland, whom he finally kills; he subsequently comes into collision with Melwas, the wicked king of the "summer country" or Somerset, who had, unknown to him, abducted his wife Guenevere, and concealed her in the abbey of Glastonia. This seems to be the earliest appearance o the tradition which made Melwas (the Mellyagraunce of Malory) an abductor of Guenevere. Some of the Welsh traditions are used in Peacock's delightful story The Misfortunes of Elphin, Melwas and the abduction both appearing.
The value of the Arthurian story as matter for verse was first perceived in France; and the earliest surviving standard example of metrical narrative or romance derived directly or indirectly from Geoffrey is Li Romans de Brut by Wace, who, born in Jersey, lived at Caen and Bayeux, and completed his poem in 1155. Some of the matter is independent of Geoffrey's History. Thus, it is Wace, not Geoffrey, who first tells of the Round Table. The poem, 15,000 lines long, written in lightly rhyming verse and in a familiar language, was very popular. Wace's Brut, possibly in some form not now existing, or in some blend with other chronicles, provided the foundation of Layamon's Brut, the only English contrubution of any importance to Arthurian literature before the fourteenth century; for, so far, all the matter discussed is in Welsh or Latin or French. Layamon added something personal to the essntially English character of his style and matter, and he gives us as well details not to be found in Wace or Geoffrey. Thus, he amplifies the story of the Round Table and narrates the dream of Arthur, not to be found in Geoffrey or Wace, which foreshadows the treachery of Mordred and Guenevere, and disturbs the king with a sense of impending doom. Layamon's enormous and uncouth epic has the unique distinction of being the first celebration of "the matter of Britain" in the English tongue.
Not the least remarkable fact about the story of King Arthur is its rapid development as the centre of many gravitating stories, at first quite independent, but now permanently part of the great Arthurian system. Thus we have the stories of Merlin, of Gawain, of Lancelot, of Tristram, of Perceval, and of the Grail. A full account of these associated legends belongs to the histroy of French and German, rather than of English, literature, and is thus outside our scope. In origin Merlin may have been a Welsh wizard-bard, but he makes his first appearance in Geoffrey and quickly passes into French romance, from which he is transferred to English story. Gawain is the hero of more episodic romances than any other British knight; when he passes into French stroy he begins to assume his Malorian (and Tennysonian) lightness of character. He is the hero of the finest of all Middle English metrical romances, Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, and, as Gwalchmai, he plays a large part in the story called Peredur the Son of Evrawc, included in the Mabinogion. Peredur is Perceval, and the story comes from French romance. The love of Lancelot for Guenevere is now a central episode of the Arthurian tragedy, but Lancelot is actually a late-comer into the legend, and his story is told in French. The book to which Chaucer refers in The Nun's Priest's Tale and Dante in the famous passage of Inferno VI is perhaps the great prose Lancelot traditionally attributed to Walter Map (see p. 21). The Grail story is another complicated addition to the Arthurian cycle. Out of the quest for various talismans, no doubt a part of Celtic tradition, developed the story of Perceval, as told in French and German romances; and the "Grail", a primitive symbol, proved capable of semi-mystical religious interpretation, and came to be identified with the cup of the Last Supper in which Joseph of Arimathea treasured the blood that flowed from the wounds of the Redeemer. The story of Tristram and Iseult is probably the oldest of the subsidiary Arthurian legens, and we find the richest versions in fragments of French poems and fuller German compositions. The English literature of Tristram is very meagre. The whole story bears every mark of remote pagan and Celtic origin. Finally, as an example of how independent legends were caught into the great Arthurian system, let us note the Celtic fairy tale of Lanval, best known in the lay of Marie de France (c. 1175), a fascinatingly obscure personality who, possibly English, wrote in French. And as a postcript we may note that the sceptical twentieth century has nevertheless not lagged behind the Middle Ages or the Victorians in its devotion to King Arthur, as witness the Arthurian trilogy Merlin, Lancelot and Tristram (1917-27) by the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, the reshaping of the Grail legend in John Cowper Powys's Glastonbury Romance (1933), Charles Williams's Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Reign of the Summer Stars (1944), and T. H. White's trilogy The Once and Future King (1958), which inspired the American stage and film success Camelot.
Through all the various strains of Arthurian story we hear "the horns of Elfland faintly blowing"; and it is quite possible that, to the Celtic wonderland, with its fables of the "little people", we owe much of the fairy-lore which has, thorugh Shakespeare and poets of lower degree, enriched the literature of England. Chaucer, at any rate, seemed to have no doubt about it, for he links all that he knew, or craed to know, about the Arthurian stories with his recollections of the Fairy world:
In th' oldë dayës of the King Arthoúr,So let us believe with the poets, and leave the British Arthur in his unquestioned place as the supreme king of Romance.
Of which that Britons speken greet honóur,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye;
The elf-queen with hir joy companye
Dauncëd ful ofte in many a greneë mede.