The story of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table is one of the longest shared world stories in Western history.
From what I can tell, there were various mentions of Arthur in poems, especially Welsh ones, before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote up his history of the British Kings in the 1130s—which included tales of Arthur.
However, from anything I can tell Arthur was anything but a good guy in those early traces. It took Geoffrey to start the ‘noble king’ ball rolling, maybe to boost an English king over the continental Charlemagne, maybe because he was just a really good storyteller, but his history is fascinating for its combination of fact and fiction. He maintained he got his info on Arthur from an ancient tome, as you did in those days. Because originality was not a marketing feature.
Whatever his motivation, the Arthurian portion of his history was a huge hit. It spread to the continent, where Chretien de Troyes got into the act, and across Europe and down in Germany, where Wolfram von Eschenbach delighted audiences with tales of the Round Table. (Reading Erec furnishes fascinating snippets of medieval German life, kind of like medieval saints’ paintings.)
Back in England, Arthur was still hot two centuries later. By Edward II’s time in the 1300s, Arthurian merchandizing was extremely hot. If you wanted to make a splash at court, you wore Arthurian stuff, you redid your castle on Arthurian themes.
Arthur zoomed back into literary fashion in the time of Edward IV, when Sir Thomas Malory wrote up his version of the Arthurian tales. These, too, showed glimpses of late medieval life, including styles of fighting from real experience as apparently Malory, when he wasn’t writing, was a brawler and troublemaker.
His Knights of the Round Table are basically young guys in the highest tech of the time roaming around England’s gigantic forests (for this was before the Age of Sail pretty much denuded the island) looking for other brawlers to fight. Pretty much like the gangs of today.
After that there were Arthurian tales that reflected politics and cultural trends of the time, especially in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which—later—Spenser’s Fairie Queene is partly an answer to, and partly a publicity boost for Elizabeth Tudor.
Tennyson’s elegiac Idylls of the King reads a paean to Victorian society, with Camelot’s downfall tied to Guinevere’s lack of purity. Arthur seems to be a tip of the hat to Prince Albert, and the knights are all manly men, but the women seem to be there to be pale, frail, and pure, their identity bound to a man.
The twentieth century saw an explosion of Arthurian tales. Gritty, bitter Camelot, magical Camelot, modern, unmagical Camelot, Camelot on stage, and in the seventies, Marion Zimmer Bradley electrified a whole generation with her (arguably) feminist eco-friendly pagan versus the nasty, smelly, evil male Christian Camelot.
Lots of different Camelots saying lots of different things about the society of the writer.
But after a lifetime of sampling all these various versions, I’ve never really taken to this storyline. It’s a doom and disaster tale that turns on adultery. Not my cuppa.
I did have to teach Malory back in my teaching days, getting puzzled kids through fifteenth century English mainly by teasing out stories that could relate to their lives now, and then painting a picture of life then. We read it in spite of the story, kind of, because personality was pretty sparse: the characters are all pretty much one thing, especially the women.
But there’s one Arthurian story I really like a whole lot, and that’s this one, by Carol Anne Douglas, the first half of which is entitled Lancelot: Her Story. I’ve been reading drafts over a number of years, as she slowly reworked and layered the story into what it is now.
She’s studied those earlier versions, and it shows in the episodic nature of the narrative, the easily accessible prose, and of course the famous people and incidents. But she added a twist: Lancelot is a woman. And Arthur and his Knights don’t know it.
This is the female gaze view of the Camelot story that I’d hoped to see in Mists of Avalon, but didn’t get. I don’t mean to crab on Bradley’s book, for she wrote the version of the story that she wanted to write, and it delighted (and continues to delight) its audience, but I was not part of that audience because it was too heavy-handed in its message, the characters too cartoony. The world unconvincingly black-and-white.
Douglas gets into sex, gender, and identity in ways that I found fascinating, especially in this storyline, where I know the general flow of what is to happen to who, but with twists that add new insight or meaning into the old incidents. And Douglas chooses a simple narrative style that is not post-modern, using language and worldview from an early medieval-feeling time when the Roman hold on Britain is mostly gone, but not quite, and when pagan practice is being replaced by Christianity.
At first it seems that this is another Arthurian with no magic, and indeed most of the characters pretty much don’t think magic exists, or it is fading with the old ways, but Douglas has some nice surprises. Merlin is a mysterious figure who walks in and out of the tales.
One of the most interesting characters is Ninian, who heads a nunnery. Elderly, experienced Ninian remembers the old ways in the old days—and respects and celebrates them still— but there are times when she feels she must pray as a Christian. Arthur’s Christianity is a state religion, his own theology more difficult to define (in that, and in a few other ways, he reminded me rather of Charles I); Guinevere’s is surface; like her queenship she does what is expected of her, but hers is not a religious nature. Lancelot’s is, and a significant part of her personality is her deep, sincere religious struggle.
Gawaine’s take is a cheerful blend of practicality and an acceptance that the world is far weirder than he can compass: he was baptized because Arthur wanted him to be, and he goes to Mass without a problem, but his mother Morgause’s pagan ways are also deeply rooted in him. Gawaine is another of my favorite characters, complex, puzzled, passionate and opinionated, loyal, smart.
As for Lancelot’s identity and how it’s handled. I’ll never forget the Regency novel published in the late seventies or early eighties, in which, on the first page, the heroine when told she was to be presented at Almack’s, which had pretty much become the Heyerian standby trope for intoducing heroines, replied that she didn’t want to–she wanted to, and I quote, “actualize her personhood.” I put the book back down on the library shelf. The thing is, Jane Austen, in being the first to write about what women thought, and making it matter, was doing just that, but in the language and spirit of her time.
We don’t know what Arthur’s time was, since over the centuries the myth has hovered somewhere between the height of the middle ages in certain aspects, and earlier history in others. Douglas, in dealing with the matters of gender, identity, and the expectations of either sex, avoids postmodern language, keeping the myth in its timeless place.
To sum up, I never cared for the gloom and doom of the Arthurian cycle, with its slow, foreordained slide into shipwreck and misery, but this version I am following with fascination. The doom is there, in Morgan’s complicated ambitions, and in glimpses of a very, very angry young Mordred—but given what I’ve read here, I believe that in Lancelot and Guinevere, book two, there will be found beacons of light, which makes me look forward to the second half of the tale.