The name King Arthur appears throughout a countless amount of literature, stories, cinema, and legend. King Arthur has always been a long-standing icon of heroism, and heroism is a theme mankind takes pleasure in romanticizing. Arthurian Romance is the classic example of good versus evil, knights in shining armor, forbidden love, and sorcery; the basic elements of a romanticized tale. And in a dark time where religion clashed, empires fought in epic battles, and the people of Britain suffered from poverty and disease, Arthurian legend was needed to lift the spirits of the hopeless.
Arthurian Romance is an accurate portrayal of the time period better known as the Medieval Ages because it takes the woes and misfortunate events of that time and twists them into a heroic soap opera full of love, tragedy, and triumph. The Medieval Ages began around 476 AD, when the Roman emperor of the West abdicated. The period ends in the late fifteenth century with the discovery of the New World.
During this period, different nations conquered and collapsed, society changed, and religion was further divided. During the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire had begun an effort to occupy Britain.
They wanted to drive out the Anglo-Saxons and convert the Pagans to Catholicism. A long lasting relic of Roman involvement in Britain is Hadrian’s Wall, which was a heavily fortified wall running west to east and was probably used to keep barbarian tribes out and regulate trade and passage into Romano-Britain territory. Along with military involvement, Rome also spread Catholicism to a Pagan Britain. Catholicism involves a hierarchy of religious leaders, with the Pope at the top. There are also bishops, priests, monks, and nuns who are apart of the clergy. Other than the clergy, Medieval society was composed of nobles, knights and serfs.
Nobles commonly owned fiefs, an estate of land, and the serfs who worked there. Knights were employed to guard the fief and fight wars with other nobles. This was called Feudalism. When nobles declared a war on each other, many different warfare tactics were used to take down castles. Siege warfare was common, in which scaling ladders, battering rams, siege towers and catapults were utilized in order to enter a fortress. Infantry included archers and cavalry, and there was a broad assortment of weapons used; daggers, long swords, crossbows, throwing axes, clubs, maces, halberds, lances, and many more.
While knights commonly fought for a noble or king, a group of fearsome knights known as the Templar Knights fought in the crusades for religious conquest. The Templar Knights are associated with King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, and some of the knights of the round table are portrayed wearing a large red cross on their breastplate (which is the symbol of the Templar Knights). Knights were also involved with jousting. Jousting was a martial game between two knights mounted on horses and using lances. This was often part of a chivalrous tournament or used as a military tactic of heavily armed cavalry.
Knights and nobles also were encompassed in courtly love, a conception of nobly and chivalrously expressing love and admiration. Courtly love often did not take place between a husband and wife. Instead, a man would shower another woman in gifts and symbols of his love to her and they would keep their affair secret. A famous example of courtly love is the affair between Lancelot du Lac and Queen Guinevere. The Middle Ages had many lows. Many people associate these times with the Black Plague or the Bubonic Plague. When the Mongols from the east attacked Europe, they brought with them a terrible disease that wiped out about 138 million people.
Also during the Middle Ages, there was decrease in scholarly thinking and the quality of art. Religion is blamed for stunting the growth of new ideas and inventions. In fact, religion is the overlying cause for many of the events of the Medieval Ages. The greatest dispute over religion was the East-West Schism that split Christianity into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This split was born from disputes over whether the Pope could marry and iconoclasm (similar to worshipping false idols) and the use of local languages in church.
They were even in dispute regarding the nature of God. The Crusades were another religious dispute. The Crusades were military campaigns undertaken by European Christians of the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries to take other the Holy Land and convert Muslims to Christianity. The First Crusade was a response to the Seljuk Turks conquering the “Holy Land” (present-day Israel and Palestine). However, most of these conquests were failures and achieved nothing except for interactions with the Arab world (in both beneficial and devastating ways). Lastly, there was the Inquisition.
This was a formalized interrogation and persecution process of heretics (including satanic or witch-like behavior). Punishment for people suspected of heresy was torture and execution. The Church in the Middle Ages is clearly an influential factor of these times. The Medieval Ages also saw quite a bit of political changes. The Carolingian, established by Charles Martel, ruled present-day France, Belgium, Germany and Northern Italy. His grandson, Charlemagne established the Holy Roman Empire. In the North, Vikings and other Scandinavian became notorious for raiding Roman Catholic monasteries.
In France, Vikings were referred to as Normans. They conquered Anglo-Saxon England in 1066. As mentioned before, Feudalism was the social, political, and economic system of the Middle Ages. England became a feudalistic society because there was not a unifying force bringing the people together. Many claims to the throne of all Britain were made, which is actually the premise of the King Arthur legend. Nobles and Kings owned land and had armies of Knights who pledged a code of chivalry to them. This was an honor system that strongly condemned betrayal and promoted mutual respect.
In the Feudal society, only males could inherit the land. The land was passed down through primogeniture (to the eldest son). Noblewomen had limited rights. They could sometimes inherit fiefs but could not rule it. Noblewomen were only educated in domestic skills and were supposed to display feminine traits such as compassion and beauty. Peasants, male or female, had almost no rights. They couldn’t leave the manor without the permission of their lord. Over time, serfs (peasants) developed skills other than farming and slowly created a middle class that led Europe into the Renaissance.
In the long run, all of these characteristics of the Medieval Ages are incorporated in the vast collection of Arthurian Romance. In the 1975 King Arthur Parody “Monty Python and The Holy Grail”, there is a scene that describes Arthur quite perfectly. In the scene, Arthur is traveling in a Feudal manor and comes across peasants working in a field outside of a castle. He asks a woman, “I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Whose castle is that? ” The peasant woman looks up and asks, “King of the who? ” Arthur repeats himself to which she replies, “Who are the Britons? ” Arthur, stumped by her ignorance, tells her, “Well, we all are.
We’re all Britons and I am your king. ” The peasant woman shrugs and says, “I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective! ” They argue about this for a moment and then the woman asked, “Well, how did you become king then? ” Arthur dramatically respond with, “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king! ” Another peasant nearby shouts, “Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.
Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony! ” The meaning of the scene is that at the time King Arthur was created as a legend to legitimize the unifying king of Britain that would pull the people out of the Dark Ages. The punch line is that the land was so divided from feudalism and nobles trying to claim a non-existent throne that no one really took anyone seriously. However, Arthurian Romance became the bedtime story born out of the fantastical notion that Britain could be amalgamated into a strong empire.
But let’s start at the beginning of the Arthurian legend. In most legends, Uther Pendragon is portrayed as Arthur’s father and Igraine as his mother. In Sir Thomas Malory’s The Crowning of King Arthur, the prophet Merlin helps a love-stricken Uther get with Igraine for a night. Arthur is born, but part of the agreement with Merlin was to have Arthur raised by another. Many years pass in which Arthur does not know his own nobility until he by chance, pulls the famous sword in the stone (the legend goes: “Who so Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England. ” (Malory, 1069)).
Young Arthur accepts his role as King and unites Britain, defeats the Saxons, and establishes Camelot. In the first fictional story of Arthur’s life (Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the kings of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth), Arthur is placed into a post-Roman Britain. Geoffrey uses the same fable of Arthur’s birth through the deception of Igraine. In this legend, Arthur also defeats the Saxons but he also expands his empire to Norway, Denmark and Gaul, and defeats Roman armies in order to do this. In the end, Arthur returns to Britain to defeat his nephew Modredus (Mordred) who was left in charge of Britain but betrayed Arthur.
Arthur is mortally wounded, taken to Avalon and it is implied he passed away. Arthurian legend, however, is not only about Arthur. There are many huge characters in the stories. One widely known knight is Sir Lancelot du Lac. Lancelot is a tragic figure in Arthurian Romance. He was a Knight of the Round Table and one of King Arthur’s closest friends. His tragedy is that he was in love with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. Lancelot was the son of the King Ban on Benwick and Elaine, but he was raised by the Lady of the Lake (“du lac” actually means “the lake”). The Lady of the Lake sent Lancelot off to become a Knight of the Round Table.
In doing so, he meets and instantly falls in love with Guinevere. Their affair ultimately proves to be destructive. Lancelot is actually tricked by Elaine of Corbenic and sleeps with her, thinking it is Guinevere. When Guinevere hears of this, she is repulsed and banishes Lancelot. Later, Lancelot returns to assist Arthur in the quest for the Holy Grail. Other characters in Arthurian legend are Merlin and Morgaine. Merlin is sometimes a prophet, sometimes a magician, and always an advisor to King Arthur. Merlin’s earliest character depiction was as a bard driven mad by the terrors of war, who become a “man of the woods”.
However, Geoffrey of Monmouth based his Merlin on Myrddin Wyllt (a prophet and a madman) and Aurelius Ambrosius (a fictional version of the historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. Morgaine (also Morgan le Fay) is a sorceress in Arthurian legend. She is the half-sister of Arthur and the daughter of Igraine. In both The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley) and The Vulgate Cycle (13th century French prose) tell of how Morgaine lives in Avalon (mystical island in Arthurian legend) and trains under Merlin and the Lady of the Lake.
Again in the Mists of Avalon, Morgaine is credited with having an unknown affair with Arthur. She gives birth to Mordred, who, in the end, turns out to be the enemy and murderer of King Arthur. In Arthurian Romance, King Arthur’s court is called Camelot. Camelot is where the Knights of the Round Table dwell and it is described as being a utopian land of beauty and peace. Throughout literature, Camelot has been located in many different areas of Britain, giving it no grounded location.
An easy way to understand the basic ideology of Camelot, one can compare the presidency of John F. Kennedy to the term Camelot. His presidency was regarded as a guarantee for a successful future, just like King Arthur gave Britain hope and unification. Kennedy’s assassination is like the fall of Arthur in that both had short lasting but wonderful terms in power that set the bar high for the future. Ultimately, these characters and concepts stem from Medieval life and paint a portrait of what the goals of Middle Age rulers wanted for society at the time. All Arthurian Romance contains the same specific elements: enchantment, quest, conquest, heroic behavior, utopian society, fatal passion and love.
These elements, applied with Medieval life and history, equals a solid Arthurian story. The best example of all of these elements is The Crowning of Arthur from Le Morte d’Arthur (Malory, 1065). In the story, Arthur is conceived through the enchantment Merlin uses on Igraine to trick her into thinking Uther Pendragon is her husband, the Duke. Uther, who is fatally in love with Igraine, makes a deal with Merlin in that he will give the child he and Igraine produce to the wizard. Baby Arthur is taken away and grows up with Sir Ector, whom he grows to love as a father.
The next part of the story is about the sword in the stone. In the story, “many of the nobles tried to pull the sword out the stone” (1069), but failed. When Arthur is sent to find Sir Kay (Ector’s son) a sword, he unknowing grabs the legendary sword from the stone and tugs it free without any effort. When Arthur comes back with the famous sword, everyone is in awe and asks him to demonstrate for them that he really pulled it. To their surprise, it is true. They ask Arthur to assume the role of king and he agrees, establishing the utopian court of Camelot.
Le Morte d’Arthur is “the carefully constructed myth of the rise and fall of a powerful kingdom — a legendary kingdom, but perhaps also, obliquely, the real English kingdom which in Malory’s day seemed as surely doomed by its own corruption as the ancient realm of King Arthur” (Cliffs Notes). What this means is that Arthur’s court reflects the realistic courts of actual kings because it eventually falls. The Crowning of Arthur seems naive in that a boy who just so happens to pull a sword from a stone makes him king. In the end, his kingdom falls. Crowning only sets it up.
The outcome of the Arthurian Legend is quite similar to the reality of kingdoms in England of the Middle Ages, which proves Arthurian Romance is an accurate portrayal. Another story from Le Morte d’Arthur is called Sir Launcelot du Lake. It is a hectic story about Lancelot’s adventure, kidnapping, and battles with enemy knights. In the story, Lancelot decides he is fed up with his ennui and decides to go out with his nephew, Sir Lyonel. Possibly due to enchantment, Lancelot declares, “not for seven years have I felt so sleepy” (1074) and he lies down for a nap.
When he awakes, he realizes three women have kidnapped him. They tell him he has to pick one of them or face his doom. Lancelot picks his death because his is loyal to his lover, Guinevere. Later, the daughter of King Badgemagus rescues him and in return he gives his services to the king. At the end of the story, Lancelot fights off Kind Badgemagus’ enemies. He displays incredible and fictitious strength when he “took another spear and unhorsed sixteen more men… King of North Galys’ knight and, with his next, unhorsed another twelve” (1078).
This story demonstrates chivalry and heroism, and exaggerates Lancelot’s abilities to fight. Literary critic Charles Moorman says “much of the Morte d’Arthur is thus concerned with revealing the corrupt reality beneath the fair chivalric surface. ” However, Sir Launcelot du Lake contradicts that assumption by merely telling a simple story of a great knight who is loyal to his higher-up and to his lady. The story makes the knights of the Medieval Ages appear to bask in honor, goodness and strength. And in a way, they did in real life.
Knights did have a strict code of chivalry as well as total loyalty to their nobles and their lovers. Again, this story gives merit to the fact Arthurian legend portrays Medieval society. The poem The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson is loose depiction of Arthurian Legend. In the poem, a woman is cursed to live in a tower and watch the world of Camelot from a mirror. “And moving through a mirror clear; That hangs before her all the year; Shadows of a world appear; There she sees the highway near; Winding down to Camelot” (verses 46 through 50).
Then one day she sees Sir Lancelot riding in all his beauty and loveliness, and she decides she wants to leave the tower. The Lady of Shalott “left the web” (109) and gets into a boat. Unfortunately, she dies and floats on down to Camelot. Muriel Mellown says “she has chosen contact with Camelot, even at the price of her own destruction. ” This quote illustrates that Camelot seemed like such a perfect utopian world that everyone sought its perfection and illustriousness. However, the Lady of Shalott kicks the bucket, similar to the way Camelot eventually falls.
All good things never last. Lastly, a more modern and feminist take of Arthurian legend is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In Mists, the story of Arthur is told through the worlds of Morgaine, Arthur’s half-sister. In the excerpt read in class, Morgaine and Arthur are children neglected by their parents. Morgaine realizes her role to be Arthur’s protector, even though she feels disdain towards the child at first. When she says, “Mother’s gone, she’s with the king, but I’ll take care of you, brother,” (1085), Morgaine displays a bond of love towards her little brother.
Morgaine is also depicted as a strong feminine character in both this scene and the entire story. Although “this book… wasn’t so much a retelling of the Arthurian legend but only a bunch of Arthurian characters sitting around arguing about Christianity and Paganism,” (LaShawn), “Morgaine’s depiction as a powerful, savvy woman shows her to be the type of woman the feminists would champion as a prime example of what women should aspire to be, in spite of the biases still in place against them” (Ellis).
Mists shines a new light and a new perspective on the events of the Medieval Ages, specifically the disputes of religion. It also represents how women did have influence over what happened in the kingdoms. In real life, noblewomen did have influence over the decisions their husbands made, though not legally. The Mists of Avalon yet again portrays a factor of the Medieval Ages. When push comes to shove, Arthurian Romance generally is regarded as a tall tale of a lost era.
However, the tales depict a clear portrait of Medieval Life. Tragedy, honor, fatal passion and quest all dwell in the Middle Ages and Arthurian Romance. The characters of Arthurian Romance experience the tragedy of life like real life people and Camelot ends up failing, just like many of the empires and kingdoms of the world. The stories represent the dark times of the Medieval Ages and show that nothing is perfect. Therefore, Arthurian Romance is an accurate portrayal of the Medieval Ages.