Arthurian Literature

Stephen Knight

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Arthurian Literature

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The myth of King Arthur has attracted writers and commentators for at least a thousand years. Starting in pre-conquest Britain, the story of a warrior leader who claimed his rightful throne, ruled in glory, and ended in tragic mystery claimed the interest of Europe and eventually the world. The myth’s double power not only celebrates royal rule and civilized grandeur, but also asserts their inherent fragility. Each period has reinterpreted Arthurian splendor and danger in its own terms. The high medieval French monarch gloriously leads but cannot control great knights who represent the barons of France; Tennyson’s Arthur sets male morality against a tide of sensually driven disloyalty; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthur faces modern-seeming forces of politics, religion, and gender. The central texts of the emerging myth were Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur saga, from strange conception to mysterious disappearance, part of his Latin History of the Kings of Britain c. 1136; the late-12th-century single-hero romances of Chrétien de Troyes; and the massive early-13th-century French prose Vulgate Cycle, which fits many chivalric adventures, including the Holy Grail, into the overarching Arthurian story. In both epic and romance form, the Arthur myth spread rapidly across Europe, and into English by 1200, but the real development in England was later and mostly popular, with two masterpieces, the late-14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory’s prose epic of c. 1470, printed by Caxton in 1485 as Le Morte Darthur. The renaissance spirit severely limited interest in the medieval monarch, and in Britain he had the added disadvantage of being inherently Catholic: Jonson, Milton, Dryden, and Pope all turned away from thoughts of an Arthurian epic, and the late-18th-century rise of medievalism did not awaken Arthur in any major way. It was Tennyson’s poetically potent refashioning of the king’s authority as essentially moral that reestablished Arthurian writing in Britain and America. This inspired 20th-century reworkings of the story in both personal and social terms, notably in historical fiction, with an increasing interest in the women characters, and also in the possibly historical Arthur.

Article.  12749 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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