Two key things become apparent when you sit down to trace the history of the development of Arthurian literature. First, medieval writers were huge on appropriation of stories. Huge! Second, Arthrui-mania wasn’t just a British thing–the Dutch, Scandinavian, German and, particularly, French were all massive fans and hungry markets for these stories during the middle ages when the stories were new and flourishing.
In fact, the timelines and wide spread of the stories point fairly clearly to their origins being some kind of Celtic tale-in-common and that the stories were already circulating in their earliest forms in several cultures more or less simultaneously. Which makes the collective literature such a gorgeous puzzle. All those pieces and no real idea of what the finished image is supposed to be.
A word about appropriation
Arthurian scholar, Dorsey Armstrong (Purdue University) says that in medieval times “re-working a well-known story was deemed a far superior skill than just to make up something new”. Taking existing texts and re-visioning them for a new (or particular) audience. She cites Chaucer and Malory and (much later) Shakespeare with particular talent.
Indeed, we still do it today, putting new spins on old tales, while treading carefully not to be dirivitive or (worse) plagiaristic. But, back then it was practically a literary must. Interlacing two older tales into one was the hallmark of a very skilled practitioner, adding too much new material was the hallmark of a lesser one. And creating your own tale from scratch…? Pfff, the work of children.
This means that the list to follow are all re-workings to a more or less degree of some kind of origin tales, either singly or grouped or (the best ones) interlaced. So let’s look at those tales as best we can first.
Some of the oldest surviving text of the island of Britain (that we know of) are collected in Welsh manuscripts now called:
The Black, White and Red books (named for the colour of their hide covers and the patron for whom they were collated/scribed) are copied collections of older (probably oral) tales. But these texts date potentially back to around the 6th century (A.D.) and contain tales that could go back as far as 6th century B.C.
Anierin and Taliesin were Welsh’ poets/bards and the ‘books’ were remnant collections of different works believed to be theirs. [I use the word ‘Welsh’ loosely because in pre-AngloSaxon Briton there was no ‘Wales’ only Cymry who spread over much of the southern half of the land mass we know today as Britain.]
All these books are anything from fragments through to full stories/poems but they represent some of ancient Britain’s / Wales’ earliest surviving stories.
There is also the 19th Century translation by Lady Charlotte Guest of a bunch of old Welsh oral tales which she groups under the heading The Mabinogion and which has some stories in common with all the old Welsh texts (but others not). Even Lady Guest couldn’t help but draw some Arthuriana into her tales as an afterthought.
The Origins of Origin Tales
As far as I can see, scholars have found evidence that elements of many French tales of Arthur et al come from origin tales like the old Welsh ones rather than their later (‘widely published’) tales in Latin, leading them to believe that France (particularly) may have had their own origin tales courtesy of Brittany which was (at the time the stories were first generated) full of Celts. Either the Welsh tales migrated into Brittany and then into the French collective unconscious, or (far more likely) the tales told in Wales and those in Brittainy had both evolved from an older set of Celtic origin stories.
But the end result? The French have a very long and passionate sense of ownership of the Arthurian tradition that casts the whole lot somewhere in modern day France.
In Modena, Italy, a 12th century cathedral carries a stone engraving of Arthur, Cai, Gawain and others all battling at some waterlogged castle to rescue the maiden believed to represent the Guinevere figure. This engraving is dated to somewhere in the first years of the 12th century right at the time Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote what had been believed to be the ‘first’ text including tales of the great king, Arthur (Historium Regea Britanea). The engraving was up and in place just a couple of years after that text was released when the Italian cathedral first opened.
So, somehow in Italy (or at least amongst Italian stonemasons) the Arthur stories were familiar enough and revered enough (yet Christian enough) to have occupied a place alongside the bible stories on a Norman cathedral. And they did it within a few years of the ‘first’ Arthurian text. This is strongly suggestive of older story traditions that have had a few centuries to become entrenched/beloved and that come from some kind of central origin tale.
They do ‘prove’ that Arthur was not a medieval creatuion (for those who cling to that belief) and they suggest that he was a real figure of earlier times, and they confirm that older perhaps unrelated tales may have been caught up in the Arthurian frenzy thanks to practices of appropriation and become kind of bonded together through a process of literary accretion.
But mostly they show that the story/s we know today evolved over a thousand years.
Timeline of key literature, authors & their contributions to Arthurian lore
Pre-800AD – a number of the tales that will eventually make it into Arthurian texts likely started life as origin tales either in Wales (and made their way to the Continent via Brittany which was full of ‘Welsh’) or in Brittany (and made its way to Wales at the same time as the Continent more widely). These are (later) captured by scribes but circulated as oral tales that flexed and changed according to the audience. A bard would have been well trained to undertake this kind of appropriation on the spot to favour or flatter patrons or entertain audiences with specific political views. They are filled with early Brythonic people and place names.
830AD – Nennius’ Historium Brittanae (“History of Britain”) – Nennius was a scribe and man of God. His work is largely an opinion piece and a capturing-for-record of historical happenings of the previous century/ies but it does specifically liken a warrior called Gwaddur as still coming up short to Arthur (“but he was no Arthur”). Arthur himself is not explained, scholars say, because presumably to an audience of the time, he was perfectly self-evident. But this text firmly places an Arthur as fra back as at least 8th Century. Nennius’ key contribution: First known mention of ‘Arthur’.
1133AD – Geoffry of Monmouth, Historium Regea Britanea (“History of the Kings of Britain”) Geoffry [also known as Gruffydd ab Arthur]) was a man of God and a scribe and he wrote his book (supposedly) at the urging of his boss the Cardinal who (supposedly) gave him a very old and obscure British text to translate. The resulting new text overtly curries favour from both sides of a battle for power that was happening at the time Geoffry penned it and is deemed to be politically oriented (like most bardic tales before it, really). But it is the oldest literature that we have that describes Arthur and his origins, speaks of Merlin, and also links the legend of Troy and its prince, Brutus, with the origins of the people in the land called ‘Briton’. This work puts Arthur into context and makes the first allusions to the link between prowess as a warrior and romantic love (though it doesn’t pursue it). Geoffry’s key contribution: Arthur in tribal context, Merlin introduced
1155AD – Robert Wace Brut d’Angleterre (“The English King”) Wace was born in the Jersey Isles and identified as French/AngloNorman). He wrote his Arthurian tales in the French vernacular rather than Latin so everyone could access them and he heavily favoured the love/courtly side of the stories (his battle scenes were notably weaker). Wace’s key contributions: The Round Table concept, Arthur’s conception through supernatural influence.
1160-70AD Chretien de Troyes “Parcival- le conte de grail”, “Chavalier au Lion”, “Sir Lancelot du Lac” , “Erec” (Perceval of the Grail; Yvain -The Knight and the Lion; Lancelot – the Knight of the Cart; Eric & Enid) De Troyes is known as the ‘father of medieval romance’ because his stories established the genre and its conventions which have endured until today. De Troyes created a chivalric Arthur (rather than tribal), boosted the courtly love concept, added the Lancelot/Guinevere thread, and first mentioned a grail as a story point (but note: not ‘the’ grail). He wrote his stories for powerful patrons (Marie de Champagne & the Count of Flanders) to help connect them to these massively popular stories. There is some belief that he created Lancelot because he did not agree with the adulterous theme required of his commission and so created a fabulous, torn, honourable new knight to be the adulterer so that Arthur was unimpeached. De Troyes’ key contributions: Lancelot, Lancelot/Guinevere adultery, moving Arthur from ‘tribal’ to ‘chivalric’
1160AD Icelandic translations started to appear, reworked with ‘nordic sensibilities’ and literature styles. High war, low god, no romance.
1190AD – Ulrich von Zatzikhoven Lanzilet (“Lancelot”) This appears to be the earliest German Arthurian contribution, based on what seems strongly to be an earlier Celtic source story than any of his predecessors. Von Zatzikhoven’s Arthur is more tribal (ie: more like the Welsh than the French) and focusses only on the part of the popular Knight in the Cart story relating to the abduction/rescue of Guinevere which is pictured on the cathedral in Modena. Since ‘abduction’ stories were a thing for the Celts, it is possible he limits his story to this aspect because the source does. He introduced several new knight/warrior stories (attributed to ‘Lanzilet’) not seen before but not believed to be the author’s original work and so likely characters from other/related celtic-era tales. No courtly love and no suggestion that Lancelot & Guinevere are having any kind of relationship. Ulrich’s key contribution: early celtic source stories/variants
1189AD to 1216AD – Layamon, Brut (“Brutus”) Priest Layamon translated the ‘history of Britain’ into vernacular English poetry for the first time including tales of Arthur selected from 8th C Bede, 12th C Wace, and some new material from 6th C (Welsh) ‘Book of Taliesin’. The tales were possibly selected and reworked to please/favour Henry III and to lean heavily on the kingly aspects, the battle and glory. Layamon’s portrayal of the love/chivalry aspects was poor. Layamon’s key contributions: Arthur into vernacular English.
1200AD – Hartmann von Aue Erec, Iwein (“Eric and Yvain”) German von Aue first translated Chretiene’s Eric & Enid into German, adds God into both stories.
1200AD – Wolfram von Eschenbach Parzival (“Percival”) – Wolfram took the tales to new heights in Germany, and medieval audiences went wild for it! This story turned the grail from a mere celtic-based serving vessel into a magic stone. Von Eschenbach’s key Contribution: Volume & popularity (in Germany), Grail as magic concept.
1200s – Marie de France Chevrefoil, Lanval (“The Honeysuckle”, “Tristan & Isolde”) Marie de France was the most important female writer of her time. She strongly identifies as French in the opening of the work but was not writing in France. Marie’s key Contribution: Female voice in legend.
1200s – Robert de Boron Joseph d’Aramathe (“Joseph of Aramathea”) and Merlin! (“Merlin”) de Boron from Burgundy first linked Arthur with Christ by including a long backstory about Joseph of Aramathea, took de Troyes’ serving Grail and made it a holy object and included backstory on the birth of Merlin as result of the rape by an incubus. de Boron’s rendering of ideas are widely believed to be far superior to his craft as a poet. De Boron’s key Contributions: The HOLY Grail. Questing in the name of God.
1200s – Lancelot en prose (“Prose Lancelot”) massive ‘translation’ by an unknown author which arranges multiple sources/authors from poetry into prose form. Key Contribution: First prose Arthur stories.
1400 Morte Arthure (“Arthur’s Death”) Another anonymous manuscript (of which only a single known copy survived) was a brilliant alliterative rendering of the tales dated to 1400 when rhyming was out and alliteration was very much in. After generations of Arthur being almost a bystander in his own stories, in this poem he takes centre stage and is the most human and flawed we will ever see him. After he routes the Anglo Saxons, apparently full of his own importance, he takes himself off to Europe not to fight and defend but to conquer and vanquish. This is the only place we see this side of Arthur. While he is away his nephew (only) Mordred usurps his place, marries his wife and does a bang up job of running the country. Key contributions: An imperfect, relatable Arthur, Arthur as central character, Mordred as a successful king and Arthur’s equal (and even better).
1470AD Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, (“The Death of Arthur”) Sir Thomas Malory’s is the version best recognised today. Malory was most commonly believed to be a knight, imprisoned indefinitely during the War of the Roses. He had lots of time on his hands and so he pulled together the most comprehensive compendium of Arthuriana to date. His was the first continuous narrative bringing all the stories together in a logical fashion, focussed very strongly on the concepts of chivalry and Knightly honour and introduced the Pentacostal oath concept that all good knights would swear to [commit no outrage, commit no murder, always help women/the defenceless, flee treason, don’t rape, grant mercy to those who ask for it). Malory starts his text by establishing the Pentacostal Oath ‘rules’ and then structures his text around the testing of them. His Knights do not always triumph over their challenges by sticking to their oath [proving that the oath is good to strive for but won’t save you in all contexts]. Generally, Malory rewarded his knights for trying at least. Perhaps his charges were not so trumped-up as he claimed and this work was a kind of validation? [Interestingly, when William Caxton printed Malory’s work 15 years later he removed the ‘thou shalt not rape’ clause claiming that he didn’t want the general populace thinking that Knights needed to be reminded by oath not to rape women] Malory’s key Contributions: First continuous narrative, new structure, Pentacostal Oath/Rules of Chivalry.
[massive gap when Arthur went out of fashion]
1885 – Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. On four occasions over twenty five years (and while he was Britain’s Poet Laureat), Alfred Lord Tennyson published a cycle of twelve Arthurian Poems, one of his most celebrated works which, combined, form the Idylls of the King. He used Malory’s Morte Darthur and the Welsh Mabinogion as his sources. His first ‘release’ in 1959 showcased the women of the Arthurian world ‘Enid’ ‘Viviene’ ‘Elaine’ and ‘Guinevere’ though not terribly kindly. A decade went by before Tennyson released ‘The Holy Grail and Other Poems’ then in 1871 he published ‘The Last Tournement’ and ‘Gareth & Lynnete’ a year later. ‘Balin & Balan’ was published in a collection of poems in 1885. Tennyson’s key contributions: Almost single-handedly resurrected the Arthurian craze in Britain. Used Arthur as an allegory for the Victorian times.
1889 – Twain’s A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur (later republished as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Mark Twain satirised concepts of chivalry and the idealisation of the Middle Ages as well as criticising the Catholic Church. It also became a foundational text in a different pantheon —science fiction—by being the first to include a time travel concept. Twain’s key contributions: using the re-popular Arthurian medium to make contemporary social comment.