The king arthur and the Knights of the Round Table became the literary heroes of Arthurian cycle whose success has been immense since the Middle Ages. King Arthur brews a host of myths, the first of which is himself. King-knight, defender of his kingdom against the Saxons, owner of the legendary Excalibur, protege of theenchanting Merlin, Arthur is also the product of adultery, a cuckolded husband, a betrayed friend and an incestuous brother. A heroic and tragic figure, therefore. But did Arthur exist? How did his myth develop and what has been its posterity to this day?
King Arthur: a legend?
Debates about the historical reality of Arthur's existence have never really ceased. For some historians, he was a Roman general of the 2nd century. But for the most part he would have been a warlord who lived in the context of the war between the Britons and the Saxons at the turn of the 6th century. Context taken up by the main Arthurian legends. If the figure of Arthur does not really appear until the 12th century in The History of the Kings of Brittany from Geoffroy de Monmouth, there are some clues in older sources. While the chronicler Gildas and Bede the Venerable recount the events in which Arthur would have participated, but without mentioning his name, it is Nennius, in his Historia Brittonum (early 9th century), who evokes a dux bellorum named Arthur, victorious over the Saxons in the battle of Mont Badon.
In the 10th century, theCambriae Annals tell the story of two battles in which Arthur would have participated, including that of Camlann (539), where he would have died with a certain Mordred. We can add to these sources Welsh legends of the 7th century, where we come across an Arthur sometimes brave, sometimes tyrannical, married to a Guinevere, and surrounded by companions among whom Cai (or Kai, or Keu). In these legends, too, Arthur did stop the Saxons.
In the 12th century, besides Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was in the service of ’Henry II Plantagenêt, we can cite William of Malmesbury and hisFacts of the Kings of England (c. 1125), which made Arthur a courageous king who defended Christendom in the face of paganism. Monmouth’s work is then extended by theRoman de Brut, by Norman Wace. If the chroniclers and the princes of the time do not question the existence of Arthur, and this at least until Edward IV, the works in which he is quoted cannot obviously be regarded as reliable evidence of his existence.
These chronicles are policy instruments, especially under the Plantagenets, to inscribe the English kings in the line of the Trojans of Brutus, son of Aeneas, in the context of the rivalry with the Capetians (who also claim a Trojan heritage). The character of Arthur, although of Celtic origin, is himself incorporated into this tradition by Geoffroy de Monmouth and his English and Norman successors.
A biography "
Do a Arthur's historical biography is therefore impossible, but to make a legendary biography of it is not so easy as the character has inspired chroniclers and poets. By bringing together the major works of his legend and the Arthurian cycle, but also of the Quest for the Grail, we can still try.
Arthur would be the son of the Breton king Uther Pendragon and the wife of one of his vassals, Ygern (or Ygraine). A ploy of Merlin the wizard would have allowed Uther to assume the appearance of the Duke of Cornwall. Arthur was born in Tintagel and, as an illegitimate son, he is hidden by Merlin who entrusts him to a little nobleman. When he comes of age, when his father is long dead (killed in action? Poisoned by drinking from a spring?), Arthur is recognized as the legitimate king of the Bretons by managing to free the sword Excalibur (or Caliburnus) of the rock Uther had planted it in. However, some barons dispute its legitimacy, and King Arthur spent the first years of his reign fighting them. He began to surround himself with knights, including one of the most illustrious of what would become the Round Table, his nephew Gauvain. Ally of Léodagant, king of Carmelid, Arthur goes so far as to fight in Gaul and, victorious, he marries Guinevere, daughter of Léodagant.
Begins a period of prosperity, until Lancelot of the Lake, the best knight in the world, arrives at Arthur's court in Camelot. Very quickly a close friend of the king, the young man falls in love with Queen Guinevere, with whom an adulterous relationship begins, heralding the kingdom's decadence. Arthur himself succumbs to adultery, seduced by the enchantress Camille. Lancelot's adventures, however, allow a reconciliation between the two friends (especially when the knight defeats the felon Méléagant), who go to Gaul to punish Claudas, usurper of Lancelot's father, who above all took Guinevere prisoner. Victorious and the queen freed, begins the Quest for the Grail in which however do not participate Lancelot and Arthur, much too impure vis-a-vis Gauvain, Perceval and other Galaad…
The drama, however, is never very far at Arthur's court. And it's the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot that makes matters worse; the betrayed king is taken in by his half-sister the Morgane fairy, who lives in the Brocéliande forest. The versions differ then: it would be her, or their other sister Morgause, who would be the mother of Arthur’s son, Mordred. Either way, Arthur is guilty of incest, and breeds the one who will bring his downfall. Back to Camelot, he must defend the honor of his queen, accused of attempted poisoning by Mador de la Porte. A disguised knight (actually Lancelot) championed Guinevere, and Guinevere’s honor is safe. Only a while since she falls back into sin with her valiant knight ... It is too much for Arthur, who condemns his wife to the stake; but she is once again saved by Lancelot!
The fight between the two friends ends with the victory of Lancelot, who spares the king for yet another reconciliation. The king's best knight disappears, and Arthur - who has also forgiven his queen - decides to resume his conquests in Gaul, and entrusts his kingdom to the son of Morgana (or Morgause therefore), Mordred. Bad idea: his nephew / son takes a liking to power, and especially to Guinevere, whom he even ends up molesting! Arthur returns to Brittany and confronts Mordred at the Battle of Camlann (or Salisbury); father and son kill each other, and most Knights of the Round Table also pass away!
Before dying, the king orders one of the survivors, Girflet, to throw Excalibur into a nearby lake: a female hand (that of the Lady of the Lake, who raised Lancelot) retrieves the sword. Meanwhile, Morgana took Arthur's body to the Isle of Avalon.
King Arthur's tomb
Having become a popular hero in the Middle Ages, Arthur is also, as we have mentioned, a political stake. The most famous example is its recovery by the King of England Henry II Plantagenêt at the end of the 12th century. Taking advantage of the popularity of Arthurian legend, Henry II came to terms with the Benedictine monks ofGlastonbur Abbeythere so that they can discover the tomb of King Arthur! This timely update allows the famous abbey to assert itself against Canterbury, and even to declare itself the place of legendary island of Avalon.
As for the King of England, he does a double blow: he definitely kills Arthur, the pride of the Welsh still quick to rebel to his throne, and recovers his legend for his own benefit by integrating the King of the Bretons into the history of kings of England, thus posing as one of Arthur's successors.
The Knights of the Round Table
Arthur’s popularity quickly overtook England, especially from Chrétien de Troyes, who makes the Breton king the (admittedly passive) center of his work, even if the main characters in his writings are more Lancelot, Perceval, Yvain or Gauvain. It is therefore quite logical that he was integrated at the beginning of the 14th century among the Nine Valiant. These are heroic characters brought together by Jacques de Longuyon, a writer from Lorraine, in his Novel of Alexander: Hector, Alexandre, César, Josué, David, Judas Macchabée, Arthur, Charlemagne, Godefroy de Bouillon.
The legendary king thus appears among the Valiant Christians, and then developed a rich iconography during the 14th century, and the following ones. We can cite the illuminations ofBook of the knight errant (Thomas de Saluces, 1395), the murals of the castle of La Manta, in Piedmont (in the years 1415-1430), tapestries belonging to Louis d'Anjou, Charles V and Philippe le Bon, or even medallions in enamel in the 16th century. Arthur's presence among the Nine Knights contributes almost as much to his posterity as the success of Arthurian legends and the works of Chrétien de Troyes.
Arthur's popularity soon spreads throughoutMedieval europe, largely exceeding France and England, reaching as much Norway as Italy or Germany. Popularity which lasts to this day, mainly through the work of Chrétien de Troyes, but even more of Thomas Malory and hisThe death of Arthur, which John Boorman draws heavily on in his filmExcalibur (1981), which remains the cinema reference on the Arthurian subject to this day.
- T. Delcourt (dir), The legend of King Arthur, BNF / Seuil, 2009.
- King Arthur, by Alban Gautier. PUF, 2018.
- Mr. Aurell,The legend of King Arthur, Perrin, 2007.