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ONE of the great riddles of literary history is: whence, why, and how did the great mass of fiction centred about Arthur arise and become the favourite reading of lords and ladies, young and old, not only in England and France, but also in Italy, Spain, and Germany? Even as early as 1170 the spread of Arthur's renown caused a certain Alanus to exclaim: 'Whither has not flying fame spread and familiarized the name of Arthur the Briton, even as far as the empire of Christendom extends? Who does not speak of Arthur the Briton, since he is almost better known to the peoples of Asia Minor than to the Britanni [the Welsh and Cornish]?' Apparently, reports of Arthur's prowess had been carried by the Crusaders to the Near East. The greatest of medieval authors were captivated by the bizarre adventures of the knights of the Round Table. In the thirteenth century Wolfram von Eschenbach composed his masterpiece, Parzival, the main inspiration of Wagner's opera. In the next century Dante expressed his admiration for the most beautiful mazes of Arthurian story. Only with the Renaissance and the Reformation did these centuries-old tales of quest and conquest, of fairy loves and fatal passion, 'of tourneys and of trophies hung, of forests and enchantments drear, where more is meant than meets the ear', go out of fashion. But not without leaving many permanent effects on life and literature. The word 'romance' itself owes its main connotations to the romances of the Round Table—strange adventure and idealistic love.
Anyone endowed with a modicum of curiosity who considers this fact and who reads widely in the literature concerned with Arthur, Guenevere, Merlin, Vivien, Lancelot, Tristram, and Galahad, will come to realize that here is not one problem that calls for solution, but many problems. If in childhood you were fascinated by the wild tales of the Welsh Mabinogion, were later introduced to the Idylls of the King, and still later have listened enthralled to Wagner's operas of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal, you must have asked yourself whence these legends came, whether there was in them any kernel of historic fact, how they came to be recorded in Welsh, English, and German, and why there are such amazing inconsistencies, even in the same poem or book, as to the characters and their careers.
If, in bewilderment, you have sought information from authoritative sources, you may have found no general agreement among them as to the historicity of Arthur; the contribution of the Irish and the Welsh to the French romances and their derivatives; the presence or absence of Celtic myths in the stories of Tristan, Morgan le Fay, and Gawain; the amount of influence which that fraudulent chronicle, the History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, exerted on the early romances. As for the origin and meaning of the Grail legend, one may take one's pick at of least a score of rival theories, supported by much erudition. In recent years we have been offered arcane symbolisms and structural subtleties as affording the true explanations of the eccentricities of Arthurian romance, and there is no author whose character, originality, and intentions are not the subjects of debate.
Of course, this situation is not unique and not confined to medieval literature. Who has not heard of the Homeric question, the Baconian, the Marlovian, and the Oxfordian theories of the identity of Shakespeare, and the multiple interpretations of Melville's Moby Dick. But the Arthurian problems are more difficult to solve since they take us into very remote times, places, cultures, and literatures with which few of us are familiar; and the evidence is not only strange but also complex. Practical-minded persons and aesthetically sensitive critics may well demand whether it is worth while to follow up studies so exotic and intricate in order to attain results so uncertain. Is it not enough to read the Mabinogion or Malory's prose epic or Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan or Tennyson's Idylls or T. H. White's The Once and Future King for pure enjoyment? Is not the search for origins and influences really a 'flight from the masterpiece'?
Now the raison d'être of any work of art lies in the responses of those who see, hear, or read it, but its value lies only in the responses of those who are attuned to it; and in the realm of literature that means those who understand it. In its fullest sense, understanding means knowing its creator, the materials he worked with, what he did with them, and why. When one cannot know the author, one must be content with some knowledge of his milieu and his age. The reader who is content with his subjective reactions alone runs the risk of interpreting the work of art in a fashion which would evoke peals of laughter from the author. He also shows his lack of interest in the creative process which produced the work of art.
This book assumes an interest in the vast and complicated process which produced a literature that fascinated and still fascinates its readers, even in spite of crudities and obscurities. This book will attempt to cover the history of that literature from its beginnings down to 1500 in such a way as to make it understandable, and, in the case of the major works, to that extent more enjoyable. After all, in spite of clashing theories, there has accumulated in the past hundred years enough evidence to settle most of the crucial questions relating to the origin and development of the Arthurian cycle, the Matter of Britain as it has been called. Many minor mysteries will remain. Where precisely did Arthur inflict those defeats on the Saxon invaders which made him the idol and the hope of the Welsh for over a thousand years? How much of fact and how much of 'frame-up' was in the criminal indictments against Sir Thomas Malory? What were the dates of the early French romances? How would Chrétien de Troyes have ended his poem on the Grail if he had lived to complete it? The history which I will sketch and the interpretations I will offer will not go undisputed, but they are the result of a lifetime of study and reflection and a conscientious attempt to weigh the evidence for rival theories. And now for a consideration of Arthur himself and the earliest forms of his story.
Was King Arthur a man or a myth? That is the question on everyone's tongue as soon as the name is mentioned. If it had been put to a panel of experts two generations ago, the majority would probably have pronounced in favour of myth. But they would not have agreed as to whether he was a battle-god, a bear-god, a 'culture-hero', a Celtic Zeus, or a deity presiding over agriculture. Today, if the same question were put to a similar panel, there would be a strong majority who would agree that he was a man. But there would still be violent disagreement as to whether the narratives which grew up about him and the knights of the Round Table contained a considerable element of Celtic mythology.
We know the names of quite a few divinities worshipped in the British Isles, some recorded in inscriptions, some in the Mabinogion, but there is not one god who bears a name resembling Arthur's. On the other hand, the experts agree that the Roman name Artorius was not unknown in Britain and that it would have developed normally into the Welsh form Arthur, just as Constantinus became Custennin. Arthur, then, was human, not divine. What kind of man was he? The earliest reference which suggests the answer to this question is found in a Welsh poem, the Gododdin, most of which goes back to the seventh century or earlier. It is a lament for the British warriors who fell in battle with the Angles somewhere in northern England. Of one warrior it is said that 'he glutted black ravens on the rampart of the fort, though he was not Arthur'. In other words, he did not feed the corbies with as many carcasses as did Arthur, the nonpareil.
The locus classicus for the historic Arthur and his activities is a passage in the Historia Britonum, composed by Nennius, a priest of South Wales, about 800. There we read that after the death of Hengist (c.488), the Jutish conqueror of Kent, his son Octa came down from the north, and that Arthur fought against him, together with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was the battle-leader —in modern parlance, the commander-in-chief. There follows a list of twelve victories, and their sites are named. The eighth took place at castellum Guinnion, 'when Arthur bore the image of the holy Virgin Mary on his shoulders [probably a mistranslation of the Welsh word for shield], and when the pagans were put to flight and a great slaughter made of them through the might of our Lord Jesus Christ and of Holy Mary his mother'. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon, where there fell nine hundred and sixty men before Arthur's single onset. Though one detects in this account error and gross exaggeration, there is certainly corroboration of his physical prowess; and his Christianity, though probably genuine enough, was of the muscular variety. The list of battle sites does not seem to be reliable, for though two of them can be identified with certainty —Coet Celidon and the City of the Legion, namely, the forest region of Strathclyde and Chester —it is most unlikely that there were, at the time indicated, any Germanic invaders for Arthur to fight so far to the north and west. There can be no doubt, however, that the battle of Mount Badon was a great victory of the Britons, for the British St Gildas, writing about 540, assures us that as a result the Saxon conquest of southern England was checked, and forty-four years of peace followed. Though Gildas does not mention Arthur, it is hard to refuse credit to the renowned battle-leader for this memorable triumph. The date may safely be set about the year 500, and though Mount Badon has not been identified, it must lie in the pathway of the Saxon conquest, west of Kent and east of the Salisbury plain.
We have only to realize what the situation of the Britons was at the end of the fifth century in order to understand why the victor of Mount Badon was enshrined in the memory of their descendants for a thousand years as the incomparable hero of their race. Gildas gives us a lurid picture.
The columns [of the churches] were levelled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the farmers routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled round them on every side ... In the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press, and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of houses or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds.
From this fate, as if by a miracle, Arthur delivered his countrymen for a time. Three hundred and seventy-five years later Alfred delivered the English from the heathen Danes, and so became 'England's darling'. By the victory of Mount Badon, it seems, Arthur became the Messiah of the Britons, destined to return one day as their Saviour even after they had been driven down into Cornwall or across the Channel to Brittany. For the peace came to an end; the Saxon drive westward was resumed; in 552 the Britons were defeated at Old Sarum and were relentlessly pushed back to the line of the Severn. But the memory of that bright period when Arthur had given them security and confidence once more still glowed in their hearts.
The Annals of Wales, compiled about 950, contain two entries relating to Arthur. The first assigns the victory of Badon to the year 516, and the second records under the year 537 the battle of Camlann, at which Arthur and Medraut fell. These datings have been questioned and may be ten or fifteen years off either way. The second makes it certain that Modred was a historical person, and it is probable that, in accordance with later literary tradition, he and Arthur were opposed in battle. But we are not told that he was Arthur's nephew and a treacherous villain, nor does anyone know where Camlann is. What we can be sure of is that about this battle developed what many consider the most majestic scenes of all Arthurian romance.
From Gildas, Nennius, and the Annals of Wales, which give us what little we know about the historic Arthur, let us turn to the early Welsh fragments of a non-historic tradition. In them he appears as a redoubtable warrior, but he is not yet a king, and, strange to say, there is not a word of the Saxons. Included in Nennius's Historia Britonum there is a list of mirabilia, wonderful phenomena, and among them are two connected with Arthurus miles. Near Builth was a cairn, and on top of it was a remarkable stone which had been marked with the footprint of Arthur's hound Cabal during the hunting of the boar named Troit. The boar and the hound reappear, as we shall see, in the Welsh tale of Kulhwch and Olwen, and the name Cam Cavall, the Cairn of Cabal, still clings to a hill in the region. A second marvel Nennius claims to have observed himself —the grave or tomb of Arthur's son Amr, which, when measured, varied in length from six to fifteen feet. This elastic grave is no longer to be seen, but the site can be visited, for a spring near by, called Licat Amr, has been identified with the source of the River Gamber in Herefordshire.
Far more significant than these local legends for the light they shed on the development of Arthurian romance are two Welsh poems of the tenth or the eleventh century. The first is a fragmentary dialogue between Arthur and a gate-warden, who demands that Arthur name his companions. Arthur complies and also tells the exploits of some of them. We easily recognize Kay (Kei) and Bedivere (Beduir), though it is startling to find that the often discomfited seneschal of the later romances is here exalted above all the rest of Arthur's retinue as a destroyer of lions and witches, and as more than a match for a demon cat, Cath Paluc, doubtless the Chapalu whom Arthur is credited with overcoming in a French romance of Merlin. Highly significant is the presence among Arthur's warriors of three Celtic deities. Mabon is Apollo Maponos, worshipped in pre-Christian Britain. Manawidan son of Llyr is the Welsh counterpart of the Irish sea-god Manannan son of Ler. Lluch Llauynnauc, there is good reason to believe, was similarly derived from the Irish god of sun and storm, Lugh or Luch Lamhfada.
Here, then, there has been a startling evolution. Arthur is not yet elevated to the rank of king, but he is associating with gods, not as an equal, but as a superior. It is not difficult to see what this implies. Though Britain, under Roman domination, had been partly Christianized in the second century, the Welsh in the tenth century still remembered the heathen divinities as beings, endowed with supernatural powers, who had lived long ago. The clergy might condemn them as devils, but the laity were more tolerant. To be sure, the reputation of these gods and goddesses was variable, but, roughly speaking, they seem to have played in the imagination of the Welsh a part not unlike that of the deities in Homer. In the oldest literature of Wales there is a mingling of the divine with the human and real which reminds one of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Another most noteworthy fact is that, though Mabon was in origin a god of the Britons, Manawidan son of Llyr and Lluch Llauynnauc were imported from Ireland. Far from being exceptional, this absorption of Irish mythic and heroic lore into Welsh literature was entirely normal, and it has been proved that certain stories in the Welsh Mabinogion can be understood only by comparison with Irish analogues. Accordingly, when in due course we shall discern in the fabric of French and English fictions of the Arthurian cycle Irish narrative patterns blended with Welsh, there is no cause for surprise or scepticism. It is no wonder that the career of the Irish god Lugh Lamhfada corresponds on eight points to that of Lancelot du Lac.
Excerpted from The Development of Arthurian Romance by Roger Sherman Loomis. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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