Why did King Arthur have such a great influence in Brittany?

Why did King Arthur have such a great influence in Brittany?


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King Arthur, according to its literature, was a British leader. However, its influence in Brittany is huge. The Brocéliande, the mythical forest where Merlin was buried, is there, lots of family names in Brittany are originally from King's Arthur stories and etc. Why is that?


This question should probably be in the Myth & Folklore SE but let's answer it anyway.

King Arthur is such a major figure in Brittany because Brittany was largely settled by Britons towards the end of the 4th Century and into the 6th Century.

The reasons for this vary by time period, in the earlier wave sources state that Britons were sent to the Amorican peninsula by the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus to enforce his claim in Gaul under Conan Meriadoc (this of course is presented in later documents and should be taken with a grain of salt), later migration is largely considered to be due to the Anglo & Saxon spread westwards (1).

These migrants took their culture with them, hence the similar place names (compare Kernow/Cornwall to Gernow/Cornouaille in the map below) and the Breton language which is in the Brythonic language family with Welsh and Cornish. The later waves migrated at a time when a famous (mythical) warrior named Arthur was popular in Western Britain and of course, took his stories with them. (2)


Sources

(1) Léon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne: l'émigration, Paris, Payot, 1980.

(2) Concepts of Arthur, Chapter 2.


This depends on when you think King Arthur existed. The Bretons moved to France at some time between the fifth and tenth centuries from southern Britain. This is why Britain and Brittany are similar words (identical in French, distinguished only by calling Britain "Great Britain"). They took their language, social structure, folklore, placenames (e.g. there is a Cornwall in Brittany) etc. etc. with them and King Arthur would be part of that, the stories being told in a language that was the same both sides of the Channel, only slowly diverging over time.

They would have identified places with the stories. Depending on dates it is also possible that King Arthur did cross the Channel and that events really did take place in France (as it is now called) but in the same culture and language.


The Celtic Fringe: Changes in Brittany under Norman Control

Brittanny was under the control of the Scandinavian newcomers, the Normans, for a long period after they drove the Bretons out. (Image: andre quinou/Shutterstock)

The Celtic Fringe

The Celtic fringe was formed when the Celtic languages were overthrown in usage by Latin and, in some regions, by English. Much later, when there was a renewed interest in Celtic heritage, the ‘Celtic core’, which consisted of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, was formed, and speakers began to proudly proclaim their Celtic roots. These were all areas controlled by England and where English had displaced the Celtic languages. As a result of this commonality, a kinship emerged amongst speakers from these regions, who could now discuss the idea of Celtic identity and its oppression by the English, ironically, often using the English language. Now, this binding factor served as a cause of alienation for regions like Brittany and Galicia where English was not spoken, and they became doubly marginalized, even having to work hard to fit in within their image as part of the Celtic fringe.

A Brief History of Brittany

Brittany, which was called Armorica in Gaulish, was an area with a strong Celtic identity. Although it had been a prosperous region, the shift of trade routes from the east–west direction to the north–south direction had brought about a decline in its status. However, the economy seemed to pick up later on, and the region spent a series of fairly prosperous centuries under Roman control.

But starting in the fifth century, the sociopolitical paradigm of the area changed as it began to experience a lot of migration from the southwest British regions, now referred to as Cornwall and Devon, and Roman power began to ebb. Their culture carried a lot of prestige, which is perhaps why their languages gradually took over in Brittany.

This Breton hegemony continued to push eastwards into France up until the 10th century, which is when the arrival of the Scandinavian newcomers, the Normans, put a stop to the Breton expansion. After a series of wars, Brittany ended up under Norman control.

Duke William of Normandy

Duke William of Normandy brought Brittany under Norman control. (Image: German Vizulis/Shutterstock)

When Brittany came under the control of the Normans, Duke William of Normandy took control. Even though Brittany had its own duke, he was mostly in William’s shadow.

William was also famous for leading the Norman conquest of England in 1066 which effectively reestablished political ties between Britain and Brittany. A lot of Breton soldiers fought alongside William in the campaign some even settled in Britain after the battle of Hastings, and some migrated to Wales, which harbored a similar language and culture, though not as close as Cornwall did.

King Arthur and the Proud People of Brittany

These events had repercussions that were felt all over medieval Europe and contributed to the growth in popularity of the story of King Arthur. The story starts in the 1130s, when Geoffrey of Monmouth, a man of mixed Breton and Welsh heritage, set up as a cleric in Oxford. There, he produced a Latin text, the History of the Kings of Britain, claiming it to be a translation of an old, probably Welsh book, which recounted Britain’s history from the earliest days to the reign of King Arthur.

The legend of King Arthur became a symbol for the pride of the Bretons caught under the oppression of their overlords. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Though the book contained stories of many different kings, the most popular segments of the text were those that dealt with Arthur. Interestingly, the text drew on common, centuries-old legends from Wales and other British speaking parts of the British Isles perhaps there never was a single book from which this one was translated. Regardless, Geoffrey’s book became very popular, perhaps because the story of it being a ‘translation’ made it more prestigious, and it became the basis for the literary sensation of the 12th century: Arthurian literature.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, together with King Arthur, was a part of the cultural landscape that reintroduced the British speaking world to Brittany. Arthur was adopted as their own by the Bretons, and contributed to fostering a Breton ‘nationalism’. This became an important fact, as Brittany played a key role in the power struggles that France experienced in the 12th century. The English kings at the time were perpetually at war with the French kings, and King Arthur stood as a symbol of a proud people chafing under their overlordship.

The Breton King Arthur

Then, in the late 12th century, Constance, the heiress to the Duchy of Brittany, gave birth to a boy and named him Arthur. By naming their prince after a famous British ruler, the Bretons proclaimed that they were great in the past, and would be in the future as well.

However, Arthur’s fate was far from great. He was involved in the politics of the English throne and was pitted against his uncle, Prince John. In 1202, after a struggle over the succession, John captured Arthur, aged 12, and the boy was never seen again. Of course, rumors circulated, and Arthur was thought to be almost certainly dead. This did not end well for John, either, as it pitted public opinion against him. Within a few years, he had lost most of his French land to the French king. Soon afterward, Brittany was able to reestablish its autonomy within France, essentially becoming independent.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Breton Celtic Identity

After becoming independent, the Bretons adamantly defended their status, despite being opposed by two extremely powerful potential overthrowers: England and France.

They managed to stay independent until the late 15th century, which was when the ducal line had no male heirs, and the Duchess of Brittany, Anne, married two French kings in succession, finally incorporating Brittany within the French empire.

Although the political autonomy of the region came to an end, the Breton language survived, and was, in fact, the most widely spoken of the Celtic languages until fairly recently, having possibly about a million speakers even in the 1980s. However, that number has since fallen to about half a million, and Welsh has overtaken Breton in the number of active speakers.

Despite that, the long survival of the language serves to testify to the strength of the Breton identity, even more so because it was developed and strengthened while being faced with the seemingly insurmountable opposition of the central French government. It is even said that at one time the French government forbade the speaking of Breton in Brittany, although no evidence has been found to support this claim.

Many other aspects of traditional Breton culture still flourish, including their music. Brittany has also given the world a number of famous Bretons, such as the famous medieval cleric, Peter Abelard. He spent some time exiled at a monastery on Brittany’s outskirts, where he was supposedly so infamous that the other monks tried to poison him.

The famous explorer, Jacques Cartier, who claimed Canada for France, and the popular writer Jules Verne, are some other popular Bretons.

All in all, the fact that this region which lay on the fringe of the fringe, within the already oppressed Celtic fringe, nevertheless managed to maintain its identity, even when faced with strong opponents, illustrates the strength of its people and culture.

Common Questions about Brittany under Norman Control

The Celtic fringe was created when the use of Latin overthrew the Celtic language. Many centuries later, when English became common in the ‘Celtic core’ of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, regions such as Brittany and Galicia which did not have English became marginalized even among the Celtic fringe.

The story of King Arthur was a part of the book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, thought to be a translation of an old Welsh book. The prestige of being a translation of an old masterpiece made the story popular and, in fact, laid the groundwork for 12th-century Arthurian literature. King Arthur was seen as a symbol of the proud people of Brittany, fighting against their oppressive overlords.

The Breton Celtic identity was forged in the face of powerful potential overlords, the French and English governments. Despite the end of the political autonomy of Brittany, the Breton language survived, as did many other elements of Breton culture.


Arthurian legend

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Arthurian legend, the body of stories and medieval romances, known as the matter of Britain, centring on the legendary king Arthur. Medieval writers, especially the French, variously treated stories of Arthur’s birth, the adventures of his knights, and the adulterous love between his knight Sir Lancelot and his queen, Guinevere. This last situation and the quest for the Holy Grail (the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and given to Joseph of Arimathea) brought about the dissolution of the knightly fellowship, the death of Arthur, and the destruction of his kingdom.

Stories about Arthur and his court had been popular in Wales before the 11th century European fame came through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (1135–38), celebrating a glorious and triumphant king who defeated a Roman army in eastern France but was mortally wounded in battle during a rebellion at home led by his nephew Mordred. Some features of Geoffrey’s story were marvelous fabrications, and certain features of the Celtic stories were adapted to suit feudal times. The concept of Arthur as a world conqueror was clearly inspired by legends surrounding great leaders such as Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. Later writers, notably Wace of Jersey and Lawamon, filled out certain details, especially in connection with Arthur’s knightly fellowship (the Knights of the Round Table).

Using Celtic sources, Chrétien de Troyes in the late 12th century made Arthur the ruler of a realm of marvels in five romances of adventure. He also introduced the themes of the Grail and the love of Lancelot and Guinevere into Arthurian legend. Prose romances of the 13th century explored these major themes further. An early prose romance centring on Lancelot seems to have become the kernel of a cyclic work known as the Prose Lancelot, or Vulgate cycle (c. 1225).

The Lancelot theme was connected with the Grail story through Lancelot’s son, the pure knight Sir Galahad, who achieved the vision of God through the Grail as fully as is possible in this life, whereas Sir Lancelot was impeded in his progress along the mystic way because of his adultery with Guinevere. Another branch of the Vulgate cycle was based on a very early 13th-century verse romance, the Merlin, by Robert de Boron, that had told of Arthur’s birth and childhood and his winning of the crown by drawing a magic sword (see Excalibur) from a stone. The writer of the Vulgate cycle turned this into prose, adding a pseudo-historical narrative dealing with Arthur’s military exploits. A final branch of the Vulgate cycle contained an account of Arthur’s Roman campaign and war with Mordred, to which was added a story of Lancelot’s renewed adultery with Guinevere and the disastrous war between Lancelot and Sir Gawain that ensued. A later prose romance, known as the post-Vulgate Grail romance (c. 1240), combined Arthurian legend with material from the Tristan romance.


The Round Table of Arthurian Legend

Although the Round Table is today regarded as a symbol of the chivalry, as its seats were occupied by the greatest knights of Arthur’s kingdom. At the time when Wace was writing his Roman de Brut , however, the Round Table was a simple solution to a complicated problem. Whenever Arthur held a council or feast, he would invite his knights, who sat at a table in the king’s main hall.

The knight who sat at the head of the table was considered to have precedence over his peers. Humility does not seem to be a virtue possessed by Arthur’s knights, as they all coveted this place of honor. On one occasion, the knights even fought over the seat.

Having had enough of this, Arthur ordered a round table to be made. Since the table had no ‘head’, no one could claim precedence over the others, and all the knights were equals. In addition, Wace wrote that “At this table sat Britons, Frenchmen, Normans, Angevins, Flemings, Burgundians, and Loherins”, perhaps as a way of demonstrating the multi-ethnic nature of Arthur’s kingdom.

Arthurian legend - Knights of the Round Table from a medieval manuscript. (Michael Hurst / Public Domain )

Subsequently, the story of the Round Table was expanded upon. As an example, Robert de Boron, a French poet who was active during the late 12 th and early 13 th centuries, connected the Round Table to the Holy Grail. According to de Boron, the Holy Grail had been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, and that it was used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion.

The table used at the Last Supper and Joseph of Arimathea’s Grail Table are said to have been the inspiration behind the Round Table. These tables were used by Merlin as his models for the Round Table. In de Boron’s work, the Round Table was created during the reign of Arthur’s father, Uther.

When the king died, the Round Table was inherited by Leodegen of Camelide, the father of Guinevere. The Round Table only came into Arthur’s possession when he married Guinevere. The Round Table, along with 100 knights, was given to him by Leodegen as a wedding gift.

The story of the Round Table would not be complete without its knights. The number of the knights, however, varies according to the source. In de Boron’s version of the story, however, the Round Table had 13 seats, a clear reference to Jesus and his 12 apostles. One of the seats, however, was left empty.

This seat, known as the Perilous Seat, was meant to represent Judas, who betrayed Jesus. The seat was meant to be left unoccupied until the coming of the Grail knight, i.e. the knight who would set out on the quest for the Holy Grail. Anyone else who sat on the Perilous Seat would be killed. In some versions of the tale, the Perilous Seat was meant for Percival, while others claim that Galahad was the Grail knight.

Sir Galahad takes the Perilous Seat in a 15 th century illustration, as mentioned in Arthurian legend. (Pmx / Public Domain )

The quest for the Holy Grail is one of the best-known feats performed by a knight of King Arthur. This, however, was not the only quest found in Arthurian legend. Considering that there were so many knights serving King Arthur (some sources, for instance, claim that the Round Table could accommodate up to 150 knights), the medieval writers had more than enough material to work with.


The Influence Of King Arthur

A good place to start with a King Arthur story is with “The Legend of King Arthur”, read aloud at the 1001 Classic Short Stories and Tales podcast.

Everyone who knows anything about Arthurian legends is fucking LAUGHING at the idea of something being "faithful." Faithful to what? To which version? To which legends? https://t.co/jdu4rdpfOc

&mdash Zack Davisson (@ZackDavisson) February 15, 2021

Since there is no source material, the idea of a "faithful" retelling of the Arthurian legend must mean that all parties in the film are…religious? Timely (ala Old Faithful)? Devoted? Loyal?

I've thought of this so much that I now have no desire to see such a film whatsoever. https://t.co/6cNTyON53N

&mdash Mary Queen of Scots (@McmillionTj) February 16, 2021

Henry Gilbert, King Arthur’s Knights (1911), illustrated by Walter Crane

Charles Ernest Butler – King Arthur 1903

Was King Arthur A Real Person?

King Arthur is a fabled British leader, said in medieval tales and chronicles to have ruled over England and defended it against Saxon invaders following the withdrawal of the Romans in the fifth century. But at the start of the Dark Ages, when the island was under constant threat of invasion, and at various other troubled moments in their history, the inhabitants of Britain longed for a strong leader who could unite their fragmented regions under one rule and enable them to defend themselves. Hence the legend of King Arthur, the saviour king, was hugely appealing, its popularity spreading over the years, thanks especially to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History Regnum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of England’), written in about 1136, and to Thomas Malory’s Le MOrte d’Arthur, published in 1485.

Largely thanks to Malory, the legend of King Arthur was integral to the medieval conception of English history, but with the waning of the Middle Ages came a lessening of belief in the story. While the stories continued to be popular, their truth was disputed. The sixteenth-century humanist scholar Polydor Vergil famously rejected the idea of a post-Roman Arthurian empire, calling it a fabrication — much to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel, in a discussion about the nursery rhyme Good King Arthur.

Features Of Arthurian Stories

Arthurian retellings are generally considered Historical Fantasy (or myth, depending) because there is a lot of magic, so the events aren’t anywhere near believable.

One of the most popular contemporary King Arthur series is the Avalon series by Marion Bradley. Neopaganism also gave King Arthur stories a modern resurgence.

Arthurian Settings

Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485) illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1917)

The Wild is any place knights have to go to prove themselves, usually to the woods or to the mountains.

These settings stopped being so useful after a while, because Victorian writers transformed woods and mountains into pleasant settings. So now storytellers writing Arthurian tales decided to give their heroes less naturalistic settings.

One example is The Dark Tower in a poem/ballad written Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (a Victorian fairy poem, and O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.)

Things Associated With King Arthur

The search for the Holy Grail — the Holy Grail is a sacred cup thought to have been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Sir Galahad found it but died on his way back home (to cut a long story short). The Holy Grail is related to the category of fairy tale known as Fairy Cup Legends.

The magic sword of Excalibur — before he expired Arthur threw his sword into the lake. A hand appeared in the waves and caught it.

The Knights of the Round Table

Merlin (his ally)

Camelot (a perfect community created by himself)

Guinevere (Arthur’s wife)

Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s older half sister) — the aristocratic evolution of the category of fairy who leaves a silver coin in the shoes of tidy maids. Arthur’s enemy, basically. This character was re-visioned as a feminist in the 1970s by Marion Bradley in Mists of Avalon. However battered and bruised she gets, she rises again like a Phoenix, the O.G. Strong Female Character. But she isn’t especially skilful, just resilient. For example, her spells rarely work. In The Once and Future King series by T.H. White Morgan le Fay is a witch archetype out of Hansel and Gretel, who tries to build a castle out of milk and pork hoping to attract children.

NC Wyeth, Ogier and Morgana from Legends of Charlemagne, 1924

Sir Lancelot (one of Arthur’s knights and Guinevere’s lover)

Brave Sir Galahad (the best and purest of King Arthur’s circle, the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot)

Elaine (Galahad’s mum, daughter of King Pelles, employs a sorceress to help her appear in the likeness of Queen Guinevere to trick Lancelot into bed with her)

Mordred — Arthur’s nephew. Mordred murdered Arthur by sword.

The Isle of Avalon — After Arthur was killed a barge happened to pass by on a lake. Three women, one of whom is Morgan le Fay, take him to the Isle of Avalon. Some legends say Arthur died on Avalon. Other legends say he’s sleeping in a cave somewhere. He’ll wake up at England’s greatest need. (If not for Brexit, when, though?)

It's so much easier, isn't it, to paint Morgan le Fey as a scheming temptress than as a powerful, angry, hurting antihero whose mother was deceived and raped and denied justice to see her trickery of Arthur as a purposeful mirror held up to Uther's actions.

&mdash Foz Meadows (@fozmeadows) February 16, 2021

John Mulcaster Carrick – Le Mort d’Arthur

Merlin illustration by Francis (Frank) Godwin (1889-1959). From King Arthur and His Knights, 1927

Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) “The Death of Arthur”, 1910

THE GRAIL LEGENDS

The best known of these is probably ‘The Holy Grail’ by Robert de Boron, but since the grail is such an important symbol in the Arthurian stories, there are more than one.

  • The Story Of The Grail by Chrétien de Troyes (a poem). It was never finished, actually.
  • Various continuations of that poem written by other people
  • A German story called Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
  • There’s a Welsh story
  • etc

Basic Plot of a Grail Legend

  • Joseph of Arimathea acquires the chalice of the Last Supper to collect Christ’s blood upon his removal from the cross.
  • Joseph is thrown in prison, where Christ visits him and explains the mysteries of the blessed cup.
  • Upon his release Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

SYMBOLISM OF ARTHURIAN STORIES

The Grail Legends are full of sexual symbolism.

A knight, usually a very young one whose “manhood” is barely established, sallies forth bearing his lance, which will certainly do until a phallic symbol comes along. The knight becomes the emblem of pure, if untested, maleness in search of a chalice, the Holy Grail, which hit you think about it is a symbol of female sexuality as understood once upon a time: the empty vessel, waiting to be filled. And the reason for seeking to bring together the lance and the chalice? Fertility. (Freud gets help here from Jessie L. Weston, Sir James Frazer and Carl Jung, all of whom explain a great deal about mythic thinking, fertility myths, and archetypes.) Typically the knight rides out from a community that has fallen on hard times. Crops are failing, rains have stopped, livestock and possibly humans are dying or failing to be born, the kingdom is turning into a wasteland. We need to restore fertility and order, says the ageing king, too old now to go in search of fertility symbols. Perhaps he can no longer use his lance, so he sends the young man. It isn’t wanton or wild sex, but it’s still sex.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Problems With The King Arthur Story

King Arthur stories are part of the reason why the male hero has been central since the fifth century. Before that, females were often the main characters in stories, because they were thought to have produced the world.

The Centrality of the Adventure Story, Marjery Hourihan

Examples Of Arthurian Stories

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Shrek The Third
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Star Wars
  • Forrest Gump
  • Ulysses
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — The other Narnia books are Biblical but this one has a distinct Arthurian feel.

The alternative world of Narnia into which CS Lewis’s four children repeatedly escape is beautiful and magical but fraught with danger. Like Nesbit, he explores the possible consequences of magic, but he also provides spiritual balm in the figure of Aslan, the talking lion.

There are many examples of this guiding, protective, mysterious figure in the literature of this Second Golden Age. Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series has a wise, magical old teacher in Merriman Lyon – or Merlin, as he turns out to be. Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan have the wizard Cadellin, and Frodo Baggins’s Companions have Gandalf. All of these draw on national myth, both Celtic, Norse and Arthurian, but above all they draw on the European concept of God, and it’s no surprise to find the same figure popping up more recently in Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore. And no wonder we needed him. In the 1960s, it wasn’t enough for a child to find her father or restore the family fortune. This time, we were told, we needed to save the world. By the time you get to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s not just this world which needs saving, but the multiverse.

Amanda Craig

Arthur Rackham, The Questing Beast, The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, 1917

King Arthur and Westerns

In the characters of the American Western film, [Frank] McConnel notes that we can see, with very little stretching, the heirs to the Arthurian legends. In westerns, the king or founder, is represented by the figure of the frontiersman or the cattle baron who carves out from an inhospitable landscape a space that human beings can live in. Examples are provided by the frontiersman of John Wayne and especially the film Red River. It is a vision created by film director John Ford. Here is the city as it was founded and the audience is left to imagine the way things must have come to be the way they are.

Symbolism of Place

Subverting The Myth of King Arthur

WHEN good king Arthur ruled this land, He was a goodly king He stole three pecks of barley-meal, To make a bag-pudding.
A bag-pudding the king did make,
And stuffed it well with plums: And in it put great lumps of fat,
As big as my two thumbs.
The king and queen did eat thereof,
And noblemen beside And what they could not eat at night,
The queen next morning fried.

Of the above nursery rhyme Jack writes:

This nursery rhyme, with its down-to-earth king and queen, would seem to stem from this period [the 16th century]. After all, far from being a heroic figure of high chivalry — as portrayed by Malory — this goodly king is now a thief. Arthur’s famous banquets, where no one could eat until a marvel had occurred (from headless knights and damsels in distress to visions of the Holy Grail), have turned into a slapstick pudding-making and -eating session. Guinevere, rather than being the mysterious, beautiful queen and object of forbidden love, is demoted to a penny-pinching housewife, thriftily frying up the remains of the pudding for breakfast. It’s hard not to feel that the author of the rhyme must have heard the Arthurian legends one time too many. Opening with When good King Arthur ruled this land, this rhyme mocks both the high-flown poetry of Le Morte d’Arthur and wistfulness for ye goode olde days that almost certainly never were.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel
William Russell Flint illustration for Le morte Darthur the book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the Round table by Sir Thomas Malory, Knt MAD Magazine Special Halloween Issue, 1960 riffing on the headless horseman trope

Header image: William Bell Scott – King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment – 1846-62


Contents

The name may derive from a Brittonic *Cambo-landa ("crooked/twisting-enclosure" or "crooked/twisting open land"), [1] or (less likely) *Cambo-glanna ("crooked/twisting bank (of a river)"), as found in the name of the Roman fort of Camboglanna (Castlesteads) in Cumbria. [2] [3] [4]

The earliest reference to the battle is an entry in the mid 10th-century Welsh annals Annales Cambriae for the year 537, which mentions the "Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was great mortality in Britain and Ireland". [a] This is also the first mention of Medraut (later Mordred), but it does not specify whether he and Arthur fought on the same side or who won the battle. [6]

Andrew Breeze (2020) argues that the battle is historical, and it was an aftermath of the famine associated by the documented extreme weather events of 535–536, which caused, in the words of the Annales Cambriae, "great mortality in Britain and Ireland". He interprets Camlann as a cattle raid on central Britain Breeze cites R.G. Collingwood, to the effect that an identification of Camlann with "Camboglanna on Hadrian's Wall" was "convincing". Discussing further indications suggesting Camlann as Castlesteads, near Carlisle, Breeze concludes: "There is every reason to think that, in 537, when the walls of this stronghold stood high [. ], Arthur was killed [there] by men of Rheged, the British kingdom centred on Penrith." [7] Flint Johnson is in disagreement with Breeze's interpretation of Camlann as a cattle raid, but also agrees that the battle was historical, that the causes would have been political, the date is still uncertain and concluded that: "The most reasonable reason why Arthur’s death was associated with 537 is because as a king he was associated with the fertility of his kingdom and 537 was a period of famine. It would have made perfect sense to a medieval scholar with a British cultural background that the death of a renowned king had caused the widespread infertility of 537." [8]

However, most historians regarded Arthur and the Battle of Camlann as legendary. [9] [10] Nick Higham argued that as Camlann is not mentioned in the list of Arthur's battles in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, the source of the Annales Cambriae entry was probably an Old Welsh elegy or lament about a different Arthur, perhaps one listed in the genealogy of the kings of Dyfed. [11]

Medieval Welsh tradition Edit

Following the Annales Cambriae, Camlann is next mentioned in the circa 9th/10th-century Englynion y Beddau ("Stanzas of the Graves", Stanza 12) from the Black Book of Carmarthen as the site of the grave of Osfran's (unnamed) son. [12] [13] The Welsh prose text Culhwch and Olwen, dated to the 11th or 12th century, mentions the battle twice in connection to heroes who fought there. The text includes a triad naming Morfran ail Tegid, Sandde Bryd Angel, and Cynwyl Sant as the three men who survived Camlann: Morfran because of his fearsome ugliness, Sandde because of his angelic beauty, and Cynwyl because he left Arthur last. [12] [14] This triad shows that Camlann was famous as a battle that few survived. [15] Caitlin Green suggests that "Osfran's son" from the Englynion y Beddau is connected to Morfran from Culhwch and Olwen. [16] The text also mentions Gwyn Hywar, overseer of Cornwall and Devon, one of the nine men who plotted the Battle of Camlann, suggesting a now-lost tradition of complex intrigue underpinning Arthur's last battle. [12] [15]

The Welsh Triads offer clues to the alleged cause of the Battle of Camlann. Triad 51 largely reflects (and is derived from [17] ) Geoffrey (see below): Medrawd (Mordred) rebels against Arthur while the latter is campaigning on the continent and usurps the throne, instigating the battle. Triad 53 lists a slap Gwenhwyvach gave to her sister Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), wife of Arthur, as one of the "Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain", causing the Strife of Camlann. [18] Calling Camlann one of Britain's "Three Futile Battles", Triad 84 also mentions this dispute between sisters. [19] Triad 54 describes Medrawd raiding Arthur's court, throwing Gwenhwyfar to the ground and beating her. Other Triads in which Camlann is mentioned include Triad 30 ("Three Faithless War Bands") and Triad 59 ("Three Unfortunate Counsels"). [15]

Camlann is mentioned in Peniarth MS.37, a 14th-century copy of the Gwentian code of the Cyfraith Hywel (Welsh law), which (according to Peter Bartrum) shows that it was a topic familiar to Welsh writers. The law states "when the queen shall will a song in the chamber, let the bard sing a song respecting Camlan, and that not loud, lest the hall be disturbed." The 15th/16th-century poet Tudur Aled says that the battle came about through the treachery of Medrod and happened "about two nuts". [20] In the 13th/14th-century Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, [21] the immediate cause of the battle is a deliberate provocation by Arthur's rogue peace envoy named Iddawg (Iddawc Cordd Prydain) who intentionally insulted Medrawd. [22]

Chronicle tradition Edit

Geoffrey of Monmouth included the Battle of Camlann in his pseudo-historical chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae, written circa 1136. Geoffrey's version drew on existing Welsh tradition, but embellished the account with invented details. His focus was not on individuals but the 'character of the British nation'. [23] In Books X and IX, Arthur goes to war against the Roman leader Lucius Tiberius, leaving his nephew Modredus (Mordred) in charge of Britain. In Arthur's absence, Modredus secretly marries Arthur's wife Ganhumara (Guinevere) and takes the throne for himself. Arthur returns and his army faces Modredus' at Camblana (the River Camel in Cornwall). Many are killed, including Modredus Arthur is mortally wounded and taken to the Isle of Avalon to recover, passing the crown to his kinsman Constantine. [15] [24]

Geoffrey's work was highly influential, and was adapted into various other languages, including Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut (c. 1155), Layamon's Middle English Brut (early 13th century), and the Welsh Brut y Brenhinedd (mid-13th century). Various later works are based fairly closely on Geoffrey, including the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, written around 1400. [25] The chronicle tradition typically follows Geoffrey in placing Camlann on the Camel in Cornwall: Wace places it at "Camel, over against the entrance to Cornwall," [26] and Layamon specifies the location as Camelford. [27] In Layamon's telling, only Arthur and his two nameless knights are left alive after the battle. Wace wrote: "I neither know who lost, nor who gained that day. No man wists the name of overthrower or of overthrown. All alike are forgotten, the victor with him who died." [28]

Romance tradition Edit

Further traditions about Arthur's final battle are developed in the Arthurian chivalric romances. These often follow Geoffrey's blueprint, but alter many of the details. The legend shifts to the 'character of individuals' and the proposed adultery between Guinevere and Lancelot is first mentioned. [23]

In the Vulgate Mort Artu, [29] part of the French Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate) cycle, Arthur goes to France not to fight the Romans, but to pursue his former prime knight Lancelot, who had engaged in an affair with Guinevere and killed Arthur's nephews (Mordred's and Gawain's siblings) Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth. He leaves Mordred in charge of Britain when he departs, only for Mordred to betray him and seize the throne. Arthur brings his veteran army back to Britain, where they meet Mordred's forces outnumbering them two-to-one with his British supporters and foreign allies (Saxon and Irish) at Salisbury Plain in south central England (Camlann is not mentioned). The fighting begins by an accident of fate, when a startled knight draws his sword to kill an adder during the standoff negotiations between Mordred and Arthur. After great numbers die on both sides (including several other kings and most of the Knights of the Round Table remaining after the Grail Quest), Arthur kills Mordred in a duel, but is himself mortally wounded. The dying Arthur tasks his knight (depending on the telling, either Griflet or Bedivere) with returning his sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and he is then taken to Avalon. The Mort Artu narration laments that the brutal and bloody battle resulted in the deaths of so many that, afterwards, Arthur's "kingdom of Logres was doomed to destruction, and many others [in Britain] with it." [30]

This account of Arthur's last battle was adapted into many subsequent works, including the Old French Post-Vulgate Cycle, the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur, [31] and Thomas Malory's influential Middle English work Le Mort d'Arthur. [32] These works all locate the battle at Salisbury. [33] In the Italian La Tavola Ritonda, Mordred actually survives Arthur's death in their battle, only to be later defeated by Lancelot.

Avalon stories Edit

In a popular motif, introduced by Geoffrey in Historia and elaborated in his later Vita Merlini, [34] Arthur was then taken from the battlefield of Camlann to Avalon, an often otherworldly and magical isle, in hope that he could be saved. Geoffrey has Arthur delivered to Morgen (Morgan le Fay) in Avalon by Taliesin guided by Barinthus, replaced by two unnamed women in the Brut. Later authors of the prose cycles featured Morgan herself (usually with two or more other ladies with her) arriving in a fairy boat to take the king away, the scene made iconic through its inclusion in Le Morte d'Arthur.

Some accounts, such as the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, as well as the commentary by Gerald of Wales, [35] declare that Arthur died in Avalon (identifying it as Glastonbury Tor) and has been buried there. Geoffrey gives only a hopeful possibility (but not assurance) for Arthur's wounds to be healed eventually, but a successful revival of Arthur by Morgan is stated as a fact in the rewrite of Geoffrey in the Gesta Regum Britanniae Wace and Layamon also tell this did happen, claiming that Arthur is about to return. Other versions, like the Vulgate Mort Artu [36] and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, [37] do not give a definitive answer to Arthur's ultimate fate.


Discovering the Palace at Viroconium

Archaeology has, though, uncovered evidence of a possible capital of King Arthur, or at least the person who led the Britons in the late fifth century. Excavations at the old Roman city of Viroconium, near the town of Shrewsbury in central Britain, have unearthed evidence that it was the largest and most heavily defended city in Britain around 500 AD, and at that very time a huge, elaborate mansion was built at its heart. As one of the last classical buildings to be erected in the country for another thousand years, archaeologists believe that it may have been the palace of an extremely influential military figure.

The ruins of Viroconium in central Britain, perhaps the site of the historical Camelot. (Photograph by EarthQuest Photography)

Perhaps this was the person who reorganized the British forces to repel the Anglo-Saxons. If this was the Arthur recorded by Nennius, then he was active in many locations. Nennius records twelve of Arthur’s battles, located in various parts of the country, meaning that although he may ultimately have ruled from a city in the center of Britain, Arthur could have been born just about anywhere. So could he have been born at Tintagel?


Rise of Arthur

Arthur’s sword, Caliburn, was mentioned for the first time. Later writers called the sword, Excalibur. Caliburn was a gift from Avalon. Layamon gave other names to Arthur’s armour and weapons, saying that fairy (elf) smith made Arthur’s byrnie (coat of mail).

With his army, Arthur went to relieve the siege at Bath. In the battle, Arthur single-handed killed Colgrim and Baldulf. Cheldric fled with very few survivors to the hill called Teignwick or the Isle of Thanet. Cador, Arthur’s chief adviser and duke of Cornwall, pursued and killed Emperor Cheldric.

(Note that Geoffrey had identified the battle of Bath with that of the historical(?) battle of Mons Badon).

Arthur then went about a series of campaigns, to punish all those who supported the Saxons. Arthur brought his army to Scotland. The Scots offered no resistances they told Arthur that the Saxons had forced them to side with them. The Scots declared Arthur as their ruler and pay homage to him.

Three brothers – Urien, Auguselus (Angel) and Lot had previously ruled Moray, Scotland and Lothian before the Saxons took over. Arthur restored these kingdoms to the brothers. Lot was Arthur’s brother-in-law, whom had married Arthur’s sister Anna. Lot had two sons (according to Geoffrey, Wace and Layamon), named Gawain (Gualguanus in Geoffrey’s “History”) and Mordred.

When Arthur was wintering in Cornwall, the king met Guinevere (called Guanhumara by Geoffrey), ward of Cador, a young and beautiful woman, who was descended from a noble Roman family.

From Scotland, Arthur next campaign took him to Ireland, to punish their king (Gillomanius) for siding with the Saxons during the war. Arthur defeated the Irish army and captured the king. Gillomanius was restored of his throne in return of becoming a vassal to Arthur.

Wace wrote Roman de Brut (“Story of Brutus”), c. 1155.

Layamon wrote Brut, c. 1200.

Arthur
Charles Ernest Butler
Oil on canvas

According to Wace and Layamon, fighting erupted between the nobles over the seating arrangement. Every kings and barons wanted to be seated at the head of tables or near the Arthur, so that they see themselves of having precedence over others. Barons were feeling envy or jealousy to those of high ranking, for each one thought they were superior over others.

To resolve these problems, Arthur has a large, rounded table constructed. Arthur also had every seated members of the Round Table, served at the same time. The ingenuity of this design, make all the knights equal, regardless if he was a king or a minor baron. Thus, no one would have precedence over others. The writer Wace first introduced this episode of fellowship of the Round Table, while Layamon expanded the legend surrounding this fellowship. Layamon wrote that the table could be folded up and taken anywhere Arthur decided to hold court.

Wace wrote Roman de Brut (“Story of Brutus”), c. 1155.

Layamon wrote Brut, c. 1200.

The Round Table from the Winchester Castle
Winchester Castle, Winchester

Then Arthur turn his attention south, conquering Denmark, before arriving in Gaul (France). The Roman emperor Leo ruled Gaul. Arthur promptly defeated the weak army under the command of Frollo, the Roman governor. Frollo fled to Paris, where Arthur besieged the city. Realising the city couldn’t hold out in a long siege, Frollo challenged Arthur into single combat the victor will have Gaul. Though Frollo wounded the British king, he was killed. Paris surrendered to Arthur. Other regions of France also fell into his domination.

Wace wrote Roman de Brut (“Story of Brutus”), c. 1155.

Layamon wrote Brut, c. 1200.

Arthur
Renacentist statue cast by Peter Vischer to
a design by Albretch Durer
Hofkirche, Innsbruck


King Arthur and Camelot: Why the cultural fascination?

For a man who may or may not have wandered Britain some 1,500 years ago, King Arthur retains the enviable knack of making his regal presence felt.

Merlin, Excalibur, Guinevere, Lancelot, the Lady in the Lake - all the components of his story are instantly familiar both in his erstwhile homeland and in much of the world.

Modern historians might query whether there is any real evidence for his existence, but none doubt his lasting hold over the popular imagination.

His, after all, is a tale that takes in romance, heroism, chivalry, honour and, of course, the promise that its hero will one day return to rescue his people.

Little wonder, then, that the entertainment industry continues to cheerfully plunder it.

Camelot, a Channel 4 drama starring Eva Green and Joseph Fiennes, is only the latest in a series of big-budget takes on Arthurian legend. Recent years have witnessed the 2008 BBC series Merlin, 2007's Colin Firth blockbuster The Last Legion and 2004's King Arthur, starring Keira Knightley and Clive Owen.

Nor is this a recent fad. No less a Hollywood icon than Indiana Jones was confronted by Arthur's mythology in his third big-screen encounter, while John Boorman's 1981 fantasy Excalibur and Robert Bresson's 1972 film Lancelot also re-imagined the saga.

Perhaps most memorable of all, however was 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with its less than reverent take on the story - ("strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government").

What all demonstrate is that somehow, over time, the story of a fifth or sixth-Century Romano-Celtic warrior resisting Anglo-Saxon settlement became the basis of one of the West's most treasured chronicles.

Academics have attempted to identify contemporary figures on whom Arthur may have been based, and his name appears as a military commander in Nennius's 830AD account History of the Britons.

However, most experts agree that the story was popularised by the 12th Century History of the Kings of Britain, written by the Oxford-based Welsh scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth.

According to Geoffrey, his work was based on a secret lost Celtic manuscript to which only he had access. It told of Guinevere, Merlin, the sword Caliburn - later known as Excalibur - and Arthur's final resting place in Avalon.

The historian Michael Wood, who explored the Arthurian sagas in his books In Search of England and In Search of Myths and Heroes, regards Geoffrey's work as, essentially, pro-Celtic propaganda, based on a desire to mythologise Britain's pre-Saxon heritage rather than verifiable fact.

But ultimately, he believes the veracity or otherwise of the legend is irrelevant - more important being the grip it has held on the collective imagination ever since.

"These myths have the power to get recycled by different cultures because they are great stories," says Wood.

"They suggest there was this golden age of lost innocence. They are still living stories that connect with people. He gets appropriated by everybody. It's endlessly repeatable - the hero fighting the dark, evil hordes."

Certainly, the story of Arthur developed a life of its own after Geoffrey's account became the medieval equivalent of a bestseller.

The French writer Chretien de Troyes introduced the Holy Grail to the story as well as Lancelot, who cuckolds Arthur.

In 1191, monks claimed to have discovered the remains of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury abbey. Though latter-day cynics have observed that the building had recently suffered a fire and an influx of tourists would have been of great assistance to the restoration fund, the find cemented the area's status as the focal point of English mysticism and crystal healing shops.

Through this process, over time, Arthur transmogrified from a fierce Celtic warlord to a wise, noble and honourable national father-figure.

Terry Jones, co-director of Monty Python's interpretation of the myth, and a keen historian, says he was always cynical about the Arthurian legend and its supposed virtues for this reason.

But nonetheless, he says he recognised that the universality of the tales made them an ideal backdrop for Pythonic humour.

"The ideas of chivalry are very suspicious," he says. "The reality of the time was of men clad in armour going around beating up undefended people. The whole notion of chivalry was about dressing it up to make it respectable.

"But when we did the Holy Grail we knew it was a good story that everyone recognises. Everybody tries to claim Arthur for themselves - the French and the Welsh, not just the English."

Indeed, Nick Higham, professor in Early Medieval and Landscape History at the University of Manchester and an expert in Arthurian myth, believes the sagas help us chart the development of national identity on these islands.

Although Geoffrey of Monmouth presented Arthur as a Celtic hero, Prof Higham says, this legend was, in turn, appropriated by the Normans, who found the notion of a noble, pan-British, non-Anglo-Saxon hero politically useful.

Likewise, he says, the Tudor dynasty appropriated Arthur on the basis of their Welsh heritage. And in the early 20th Century there was an upswing of interest as contemporary analogies were drawn with a British hero fighting invaders from Germany, Prof Higham argues.

"Because there's nothing known about Arthur in reality, he's incredibly malleable and you can present him however you want him," he says.

"As the consequence of a series of peculiar accidents, Arthur has been portrayed as the solution to our cultural problems down the ages."

Romantics may hope that, one day, Arthur will return to rescue his people.

But if he lives on through his legend, the ancient monarch, it would appear, has never really gone away.


Mark Piggott | Fantasy and Science Fiction Author

The story of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, Guinevere, and Excalibur are timeless reminders of a world lost in time. Goodreads shows more than 720 assorted novels based on the Arthurian legend, including my own, Forever Avalon and The Dark Tides. This doesn’t include a hundred or so plays, operas, comic books, films and television series based on the legend.

The question remains as to why the story of King Arthur still resonates today? Winston Churchill said, “It is all true, or it ought to be and more and better besides.” That’s how many of us feel when we read or watch something based on the legend of King Arthur. He wasn’t just a story, he was a man who brought us the code of chivalry, united a kingdom and marched toward a new beginning.

There are many things that point toward the fact that King Arthur was a real person, not just a legendary figure. Archeologists recently discovered what they believe is the round table mentioned in the mythos. There is even a website dedicated to listing dozens of artifacts with some history related to the Arthurian legend. And let us not forget that the monks of Glastonbury Abbey are said to have discovered the remains of Arthur and Guinevere in the churchyard of St. Dunstan in Glastonbury.

Many believe in the legend of King Arthur so much that they believe he will one day return to lead England. Thomas Mallory wrote in Le Morte d’Arthur that, “Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesus into another place and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross.” All of this just adds more credence to the mythos of King Arthur.

So what do we know?The first mention of King Arthur is in the History of the Britons, penned in 830, and attributed to an author called Nennius. A more elaborate tale of King Arthur came about in the 11th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth published his book The History of the Kings of Britain. Arthur’s entire life is outlined for the first time in this work, right from his birth at Tintagel, to his death, and the legendary figures of Guinevere and Merlin are introduced.

The consensus is that Arthur probably did exist, either as an individual or a composite of several others. Many of the Dark Age heroes were real men upon whom mythical talent and position were often thrust by storytellers. So there is a possibility that Arthur was a Celtic warrior from which the rest of the mythology was formed.

These are just a few examples of the combination of fact and fiction that molded the legend of King Arthur as we know it today. It is that unknown factor that makes this legend so memorable to many and inspires writers like myself. The legend of King Arthur is just the beginning of a story yet to be told. It is as immortal as the man himself.

Forever Avalon is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The Dark Tides is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and iUniverse.


Watch the video: Μπάμπης Στόκας - Ο Βασιλιάς της Μοναξιάς


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