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What is Arthurian Legend?

Updated on October 19, 2015
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's Degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Arthurian Legend
Arthurian Legend | Source

Arthurian Legend

Arthurian Legend is a collection of several tales about King Arthur, his wife, Guinevere, and the celebrated knights —Lancelot, Gawain, Perceval of Grail fame, and many others— associated with his court. The origin of many of the stories which came eventually to make up this complex body of material is obscure and we cannot even be certain that an historical figure lies behind the character of Arthur himself.

This legend presents King Arthur as a leader of great courage and valour, who conquers many tribes like Saxons and other opponents of his time. He is shown uniting his people of Britain to achieve peace and harmony, but unluckily, his kingdom collapses due to some internal conspiracies. One of it was his wife’s illicit love affair with one of his knights, named, Lancelot. Moreover, his illegitimate son, Mordred, was also the main cause of his failure. It is said that the King Arthur was taken to an island, Avalon, for treatment of his wounds and he will return to Britain when it is in desperate conditions.

King Arthur and his Knights at Round Table
King Arthur and his Knights at Round Table | Source

History of Arthurian Legend

It is universally acknowledged that the story of Arthur belongs to the Celtic tradition and that it originated with the particular branch of the Celts settled in Wales and Cornwall. It seems to have remained largely a matter of local interest until the twelfth, or as some believe the eleventh century. It achieved European circulation and renown with the publication of the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Arthurian romances of the greatest French writers of romance, Chretien De Troyes. On these simple facts there is but a number of other important questions scholarly opinion is sharply divided. How fully developed were Arthurian stories in Celtic literature? How much did Chretien and other French poets owe to Celtic sources? Were there Arthurian romances before in Chretien? Was Arthur an historical figure? Did Geoffrey of Monmouth have an ancient book in the British tongue, as he maintained, even though his own work is demonstrably more than a translation of such a volume?

According to Britinica Encyclopedia,

"Arthurian legend, the body of stories and medieval romances, known as the matter of Britain, centering on the legendary king Arthur. Medieval writers, especially the French, variously treated stories of Arthur’s birth, the adventures of his knights, and the adulterous love between his knight Sir Lancelot and his queen, Guinevere."


On the first three of these questions scholars split sharply into two schools, the Celticists and the inventionists. The former are strongly impressed by the many parallels between the romances of Chretien and of other medieval poets on the one hand and Celtic stories, folk-tales, and popular tradition on the other. They believe that the writers of French romances derived an important part of their material from Welsh and Breton tradition, either written or oral. The opponents of this view, however, feel that the indebtedness of French authors to Celtic sources has been overstressed. They insist that Chretien and his contemporaries were not folklorists but possessed with creative imagination, and that they enjoyed the same privilege of inventing their stories as do modern poets. It may be questioned whether what we know of the ways of medieval poets in other fields than Arthurian legend justifies the belief that they habitually exercise this privilege, but at least the position of the inventionists has the virtue of simplicity: what cannot be traced to a source fairly close at hand can be credited to the invention of the poet.

It must be admitted that the Celticists have sometimes pushed their quest for parallels pretty far, but the proper presentation of their point of view is rendered difficult by the paucity of Welsh and Breton literature that has come down to us from early times. For Brittain there no literary texts from the Middle Ages. What survives from the Welsh literature of this period is mainly contained in four manuscripts that fill two moderate-sized volumes of modern print. If the surviving Welsh literature were in any way comparable in richness to that of Ireland, were geographical and political separation permitted on unbroken continuity of language and literary tradition, many problems of Arthurian origins which must continue to trouble us would be fairly settled. As it is, recourse must be had constantly to Irish literature. Since the Welsh and the Irish are merely different branches of the same ethnic and linguistics stock, it is to be assumed that they preserved many traditions in common and may well have influenced each other. Although Irish literature does not know Arthur, we find many parallels in incident and motif with Arthurian romance, which gives us some idea of what we might expect in Welsh literature if it had been preserved in equal fullness. However, the existence among the Mabinogion of a Welsh story like Kullhwch and Olwen with its obviously primitive features is an indication that a well-developed body of Arthurian narrative existed among the Welsh before such stories appear in French literature in the work of Chretien de Troyes.

With the poems of Chretien French romances of Arthurian theme reached their highest perfection in the Middle Ages. But these poems are also the earliest Arthurian romances that come down to us, and therefore, some students are disposed to credit Chretien with the creation of the type. This is somewhat as if the author of Hamlet had been the inventor of English tragedy, or at least of the revenge play. It is not usual for new literary types to spring fully formed from the head of Jove, and such a method of accounting for Hamlet would not carry full conviction even if we could not trace the development of English drama back through the Spanish Tragedy and Gorboduc to the Quem quaeritis. It is due to some such difficulty as this that many scholars find with the view that Chretien was they creator of Arthurian stories that could not have come from Geoffrey of Monmouth were known on the Continent at least by the time Chretien was writing and probably as early as the close of previous century. This is not the place to go into the evidence, which Pio Ranja called attention to, of Italians who had been named after the Arthurian sculpture on the cathedra at Modena in northern Italy, which some scholars date 1099-1106 and others put after the middle of the twelfth century. It is enough for us there to recognize that there are many uncertainties in the early history of the Arthurian legend, many questions on which it is ill-advised to be too dogmatic.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq

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