by Emily Reyna and Madeline Ho
Though it cannot be confirmed whether a historical King Arthur actually existed, it is well known that the tales of the knights who served him and their legendary roundtable are certainly fictitious (“Was King Arthur a Real Person?”). But where did this myth come from? Though there most certainly was an older oral tradition, Arthur’s story really takes hold in 1130 CE when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about a King named Arthur who led the defense of Britain against the Anglo-Saxons. His story was then written about again in 1155 CE by Wace, a Norman poet, who first penned stories about Arthur’s Round Table and named Arthur’s famous sword “Excalibur.” Then, his story was interpreted once more in 1190 CE by an English poet named Layamon. Layamon wrote Arthur’s story in much greater detail than the previous two tellings. Through the excerpts below, the authors write of Arthur’s death and his eventual return; to this day, the legend persists that Arthur will arrive again on British shores to take back his rightful throne at the time of England’s greatest peril.
The Myth of Arthur’s Return refers to the series of selections below which allude to Arthur’s “return” to save the people of Britain and restore the nation to its former glory. The excerpts are from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon and begin with the death of King Arthur. Each selection builds upon the next where they all tell the story of Arthur’s mortal wounding and escape to the island of Avalon. Through these excerpts, we can see the evolution of the Arthurian myth that is then further embellished in medieval English literature and continues to be adapted and reworked to this day. In books eight through twelve of The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth details Arthur’s story (“King Arthur”). Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, disguises himself as the husband of Igraine and conceives Arthur. When Uther passes, the successor to the throne is undetermined. Merlin states that whoever is able to draw a mysterious sword out of a stone will reign as Britain’s next king. Arthur comes across the sword Excalibur in a stone and unknowingly draws it out, being proclaimed as the new king. In his reign, Arthur unites Britain and fends off the invading Saxons (“King Arthur”). During his time as king, Arthur was most associated with his most famous quest: the search for the Holy Grail. As time passes, King Arthur marries the daughter of the King of Scotland, Guinevere. Despite Merlin’s words of caution, Arthur eventually discovers that Guinevere and Sir Lancelot are having an affair. When Arthur returns home after following Sir Lancelot to France, he realizes that his nephew Mordred has seized the throne. The two fight, most of Arthur’s knights are killed, and Arthur himself is wounded. Arthur leaves for Avalon where he hopes to be cured of his wounds, leaving his cousin Constantine in charge of the throne. Wace adds details to Geoffrey’s account of King Arthur’s return with a more romantic narrative. Moreover, Layamon is thorough in his report, including all the details that we understand about the story at this point in time (“The Myth of Arthur’s Return”). Through the evolution of the three separate selections, we see the development of the character of King Arthur and the myth that surrounds him.
The History of the Kings of Britain was originally written in Latin and is now regarded as having no historical value. However, it still remains impactful in terms of medieval literature as this is one of the first books to bring to light the legend of King Arthur. Wace originally wrote “Roman de Brut” in the Norman language with a Norman audience in mind. Layamon’s work is longer than both of its predecessors and includes an emphasis on the life of King Arthur, namely the details regarding Arthur’s departure to the island of Avalon (“The Myth of Arthur’s Return”). Influenced in part by Wace’s Roman de Brut, Layamon makes use of alliterative verse and rhyme.
Likely rooted in Celtic mythology, King Arthur’s story has been considered an important part of medieval literature. The story takes place during the fifth century, in a time when Britain had been left defenseless after the fall of Rome and Saxons seized the opportunity to invade the island of Britain, with its fertile lands and relative safety. It was in 410 CE, that the Saxons invaded Britain and stayed for 500 years thereafter (Mark). The legend of King Arthur, then, is the reflection of a wished-for mythology that never truly existed, a “proto-English” bloodline that predated the waves of invaders (the Anglo-Saxons, then Vikings) whose descendants would ultimately become the English people. By inventing their own mythology, the English were able to invent a noble and chivalrous history for themselves.
“King Arthur.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/mythsandheroes/myths_four_arthur.html.
Mark, Joshua J. “King Arthur.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 June 2019, www.ancient.eu/King_Arthur/.
“The Myth of Arthur’s Return.” Reading the Norton Anthology of English Literature, 31 Aug. 2014, readingnorton.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/the-myth-of-arthurs-return/.
“Was King Arthur a Real Person?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 11 May 2017, www.history.com/news/was-king-arthur-a-real-person.
- When Arthur ruled as king, many of his subjects regarded him as a hero. What traits does Arthur possess that make him worthy of this title?
- Why do you think the three authors detailed similar accounts of Arthur’s return? Is there a broader intention for this series of stories?
- What are noticeable differences between the stories of the three authors?
- During the time of Layamon’s writing, England was at a low point. How do think this impacted the tone of his writing?
- King Arthur’s story is one of fiction, so why do you believe Wace and Layamon continued with Geoffrey’s version instead of creating their own?
Reading: From The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
…even the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded; and being carried thence to the isle of Avalon to be cured of his wounds, he gave up the crown of Britain to his kinsman Constantine, the son of Cador, duke of Cornwall, in the five hundred and forty-second year of our Lord’s incarnation. May his soul rest in peace.
Reading: From Roman de Brut by Wace
So the chronicle speaks sooth, Arthur himself was wounded in his body to the death. He caused him to be borne to Avalon for the searching of his hurts. He is yet in Avalon, awaited of the Britons; for as they say and deem he will return from whence he went and live again. Master Wace, the writer of this book, cannot add more to this matter of his end than was spoken by Merlin the prophet. Merlin said of Arthur—if I read aright—that his end should be hidden in doubtfulness. The prophet spoke truly. Men have ever doubted, and—as I am persuaded—will always doubt whether he liveth or is dead. Arthur bade that he should be carried to Avalon in this hope in the year 642 of the Incarnation. The sorer sorrow that he was a childless man. To Constantine, Cador’s son, Earl of Cornwall, and his near kin, Arthur committed the realm, commanding him to hold it as king until he returned to his own. The earl took the land to his keeping. He held it as bidden, but nevertheless Arthur came never again.
Reading: From Brut by Layamon
Arthur was wounded wondrously much. There came to him a lad, who was of his kindred; he was Cador’s son, the Earl of Cornwall; Constantine the lad hight, he was dear to the king. Arthur looked on him, where he lay on the ground, and said these words, with sorrowful heart: “Constantine, thou art welcome; thou wert Cador’s son. I give thee here my kingdom, and defend thou my Britons ever in thy life, and maintain them all the laws that have stood in my days, and all the good laws that in Uther’s days stood. And I will fare to Avalun, to the fairest of all maidens, to Argante the queen, an elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound; make me all whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom, and dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.”
Even with the words there approached from the sea that was a short boat, floating with the waves; and two women therein, wondrously formed; and they took Arthur anon, and bare him quickly, and laid him softly down, and forth they gan depart.
Then was it accomplished that Merlin whilom said, that mickle care should be of Arthur’s departure. The Britons believe yet that he is alive, and dwelleth in Avalun with the fairest of all elves; and the Britons ever yet expect when Arthur shall return. Was never the man born, of ever any lady chosen, that knoweth of the sooth, to say more of Arthur. But whilom was a sage hight Merlin; he said with words—his sayings were sooth—that an Arthur should yet come to help the English.
Thompson, Aaron and J.A. Giles, editors. History of the Kings of Britain. Wikisource, 30 Jan 2019, is licensed under no known copyright.
Layamon. Brut. Trans. Eugene Mason. Project Gutenberg, is licensed under no known copyright.
Wace. Arthurian Chronicles: Roman de Brut. Project Gutenberg, 16 Dec. 2003, Web. 11 Jan. 2019, is licensed under no known copyright.