Greetings, booklings! Today, I’m handing the reins over to Suzannah Rowntree, curator of the wonderful blog, Vintage Novels. Suzannah is the author of four books, the latest of which is Pendragon’s Heir, a historical fantasy based on the legends of King Arthur. If you, like me, are a newcomer to the Arthurian realm, Suzannah here will get you acquainted with some of the great works of Arthurian literature. Now without further ado . . . .
A Tour Guide to Classic Arthurian Literature
by Suzannah Rowntree
Hello, folks! Before we start the tour this morning, I had better introduce myself. I’m Suzannah Rowntree, inveterate medievalist, proprietor of the book review blog Vintage Novels, and proud author of a bouncing new book, Pendragon’s Heir, which made its debut to the thunderous applause of my immediate family and friends last Thursday. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert on Arthurian literature, but during the ten years I laboured over my own Arthurian retelling, I certainly had the chance to familiarise myself with some of the basic texts.
I suppose the first thing to note about Arthurian legend is that there is not really a definitive version. One of the first tellings of the tale, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudohistory, is almost unrecognisable as the bare bones of the legends we know today. What we do have is a paper trail: a series of retellings, each one copying and embellishing the one that preceded it, adding characters, episodes, and plot points until the legend arrives at something like its recognisable form. My hope today is to give you a whirlwind tour of the high points of this paper trail, focusing on the most notable and readable works.
We’ll begin with a slight detour.
I have a soft spot for this book, which I read several years ago in Leo Sherley-Price’s translation. Beginning with the Roman occupation and running all the way up to the early 700’s in Bede’s own lifetime, this book is the major primary source on late antique and early medieval Britain, and a really delightful read. It’s in Book 1, Chapter 16 of Bede’s history that we read of the victory of the Roman Aurelius Ambrosius against the invading Angles and Saxons on Badon Hill.
Later, this victory will be credited in English legend to King Arthur, and later still, scholars will surmise that in the name of Merlin Embries, Arthur’s mentor and magician, an echo of Ambrosius still resounds. As yet, however, the legend has not emerged: all we have is the fact of the battle, and the setting of a struggle against incoming darkness.
We have a number of histories, associated with early monks like Gildas and Nennius, which give some early accounts of Arthur’s life, but the history of Arthurian literature proper begins in 1136 with the completion of The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh priest. It is in this pseudohistory, along with much other English folklore, including the originals for Shakespeare’s plays King Lear and Cymbeline, that we find the first popular account of the life of the legendary Arthur Pendragon, King of Britain.
In this account, Arthur is said to be the nephew of Bede’s Ambrosius, and he is already surrounded by familiar characters—Merlin, Gawain, Guinevere, Mordred. Lancelot is conspicuously absent, as are all the familiar knightly adventures and the Quest of the Holy Grail. Instead, after extending his authority over England and establishing his court at the City of Legions, Arthur is summoned to pay tribute to Rome. Insulted by this demand, he crosses the Channel with his army to conquer the (fictional) Roman Emperor Lucius. During his absence, Mordred, the nephew he has left in charge of his kingdom, usurps his throne and marries Guinevere. Arthur returns to restore his authority, there is a terrible battle at the River Camblam, and “Arthur himself, our renowned King, was mortally wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to.”
Before this, Arthur might have been part of Welsh folklore, but it’s when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history made an international hit that his fame as the great English king really took off. Authors like Wace, Layamon, and the author of the alliterative Morte Arthure poem readily seized upon the Arthur legend, each adding his own accretions to the story. It is over the next three hundred years that the Matter of Britain was definitively forged.
Second Stop: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
It was natural that, as the Arthur legend was passed from hand to hand, it would begin to accumulate a whole series of chivalric adventures to embody the ideals of the medieval age. This Middle English poem, by an unknown poet probably living in the late 1300’s, is a delightful courtly romance/adventure story telling of a quest undertaken by Arthur’s nephew and most trusted knight, Sir Gawain. In a good translation—J. R. R. Tolkien’s is wonderful—this rich little jewel of a poem is a wonderfully accessible bit of medieval storytelling.
Third Stop: The Mabinogion
The Welsh have always had a special claim on the Arthur legends, being the descendants of the Celtic peoples of whom he is said to be the champion. And he features prominently in their national cycle of legends, The Mabinogion. Compiled somewhere between the late 1300’s and the early 1400’s, The Mabinogion is a collection of stories ranging from the dreamlike Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed to the more chivalric-romance-style Peredur, Son of Efrawg. Again, in a good translation, The Mabinogion is highly accessible. In addition, reading this book feels very much like getting in touch with the very earliest Arthurian traditions, possibly still with some shreds of paganism clinging to them.
If the Welsh first dreamed of the legends of Arthur, and the English popularised them, then much of the work in transforming them into their current form was done by the French poet Chretien de Troyes. It was de Troyes who first connected the Holy Grail with Arthurian legend, and invented the character of Sir Lancelot and the love triangle with Guinevere and King Arthur.
Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival evidences the extent both to which the Arthurian tales had spread across Europe—even the Germans were interested by now—and also the extent to which the Holy Grail legend and the associated character of Sir Perceval/Peredur were becoming woven into the Matter of Britain. Significant as they are, though, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading either of these works.
Fifth Stop: Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory
Undoubtedly the closest thing we have to a definitive retelling of the Arthur legend, Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 prose romance is a compendium of the whole Matter of Britain to date, incorporating Monmouth’s account of the expedition against Emperor Lucius, Chretien de Troyes’ Quest of the Grail, the final fall of Arthur at Camlann, and everything in between. Malory’s work is undoubtedly one of genius; here the loose cycle of stories, woven across centuries, is welded into one coherent tale of idealism, a grand attempt to reach heaven and the heartbreaking tragedy that follows failure. And it is Malory who puts the final touches to the legend as we know it, from the addition of Gawain’s brother Sir Gareth to the incorporation from French romance of the Grail Knight, Sir Galahad. A massive book, requiring more patience than The Mabinogion or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Malory’s graceful, chivalrous work is nevertheless monumental, a foundation upon which later authors embroider but may, perhaps, never replace.
Even at the time, it seems, Malory was taken as the last word on the Arthur legend. The next time Arthur appears in a major English work, it is as a knight-errant, the central character in Edmund Spenser’s 1560’s Reformation allegory, but quite disconnected from the characters and trappings of his previous incarnations. Spenser intended his epic to cover twenty-four books, the first twelve depicting the private moral virtues in the person of Arthur as a knight-errant, the second twelve depicting the public virtues in the person of Arthur as a king, however, Spenser died before he could finish. We will never know how Spenser’s whole completed vision might have forever altered Arthurian lore; as it is, the Arthur of The Faerie Queene seems somewhat of an anomaly, cut off as he appears to be from the rest of his attendant myths.
Guest Appearance: The Pre-Raphaelite Artists
With the descent of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, all things medieval and, by extension, Arthurian, fell into disfavour for several centuries. Not until the late 1800’s did a revival of medievalism take place. Right at the vanguard of this movement was a group of artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris, devotees of all things medieval and Arthurian. Before too long, pictures such as “The Damosel of the Sanct Graal” and “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” helped stir up a new interest in the Matter of Britain.
Sixth Stop: The Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The great Victorian cycle of Arthurian poems was completed in 1885 by the great Victorian poet, Lord Tennyson. Like Malory before him, Tennyson welded the old stories into a tighter cycle, abbreviating and editing Malory’s plot considerably. And, like others, Tennyson introduced his own variations into the stories, such as, for example, matching Sir Gareth up with the far more interesting and snappy Lady Lynet rather than her distressed-damsel sister Lyonors.
It is of course to be expected that the Inklings, passionate medievalists all, would have produced at least one treatment of the Arthur legends; in fact, they produced three, not counting C. S. Lewis’s Arthur-influenced That Hideous Strength. Of these, the most notable may be Charles Williams’s two odd and very thoughtful books of Arthurian verse, Taliessin Through Logres and In the Region of the Summer Stars. Again, I’m afraid I have not done more than dip into these poems from time to time.
By the middle 1900’s, many retellings of Arthurian legends for young audiences were available, notably collections by Andrew Lang and Howard Pyle. For my money, however, late Inkling Roger Lancelyn Green’s is the best of all. Beautifully written in a style that preserves the courtesy and grace of the medieval originals, including elements taken not just from Malory, but also from The Mabinogion, Chretien de Troyes, and Middle English ballads, this comprehensive retelling was my earliest introduction to Arthurian legend and retains a special place in my affections. Accessible to very young children and thoroughly enjoyable for adults too, I highly recommend Green’s book as the perfect one-stop introduction to the Matter of Britain.
Tour Finish: Pendragon’s Heir by Suzannah Rowntree
With the popularity of fantasy as a genre in the twentieth century and beyond, it seems the Arthur legend is only getting started on its second wind. One of the most notable recent publications, of course, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s posthumously published fragment The Fall of Arthur, a splendid alliterative take on an early form of the legends, drawing heavily on the Morte Arthure poem mentioned above. Other modern classics include T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (which I have not read), Rosemary Sutcliff’s King Arthur trilogy (which I have barely dipped into) and Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave and its sequels (look, at this point, you might as well just fire me and get a new tour guide).
All the same, I did not fall in love with the Arthur legends because of the more recent works, but because of the original sources. As a medievalist and lover of Arthurian literature, I had to try my hand at my own version. At first, Pendragon’s Heir was only going to retell part of the legend; but as I went along, more and more elements were woven in, until I find that I have produced more or less an overview of the whole latter half of the story. Like everyone else, I have seen fit to make my own changes; I have woven the tales more tightly into a central theme, and I have drawn heavily on other authors, especially the Middle English ballad The Marriage of Sir Gawain, the Le Morte D’Arthur of Thomas Malory, and the King Arthur of Roger Lancelyn Green. In doing this, I see myself as standing in a long tradition of story-tellers reaching all the way back to Geoffrey of Monmouth and beyond, all of us doing substantially the same things for substantially the same reasons. I do hope that, if you’ve acquainted yourself with some of the greater works in this long tradition, you will pick up and enjoy my own.
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It’s been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon’s Heir?
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t traveling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at http://www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, released March 26.
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