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Facharbeit: King Arthur- Legend and Literature

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King Arthur - Legend and Literature

Table of contents
Introduction 1
1. The evolution of the Arthurian legend 2
1.1 The origin of the Arthurian story by Geoffrey of Monmouth 2
1.2 Creation of the “Round Table” by Robert Wace 3
1.3 “Arthurian Literature” 5
2. Why did the story evolve this way? 6
2.1 About Wace 6
2.2 Britain at the time of Wace's “Romance of Brutus” 7
2.2.1 Feudal system 8
2.2.2 Knighthood 9
3. The Round Table - Romantic feature or political device? 10
4. The heritage of the Round Table 12
5. Conclusion 13
6. Bibliography 14

Legends generally describe stories that at least in their core are based on reality, although they usually contain a lot of fantasy and exaggeration hiding the truth. Therefore the problem in analysing legends or in tracing them back to their historical origin is that most legends have their roots in a time where events were usually not recorded by historians but passed on from generation to generation by oral tradition. That makes it very difficult to distinguish between exaggeration and truth.
Legends are no stories once written and never changed again. On the contrary, they have been adapted, amended and retold, translated and written down several times by different authors who changed the story for different reasons: Some may have changed it because they wanted to give the story their individual handwriting or to make it more spectacular, others may have done it for ideological or political reasons.
The legend of King Arthur as we know it today is one of those legends. It did not appear and was told from than on in a certain version. The Arthurian legend has been evolving – unlike other legends- from a source that meant to be a historical report. This origin story was taken up several times by various poets and writers, who extended, enriched and amended it. Elements like the Round Table or the Quest for the Holy Grail could not be found in the original version. Even the names and biographical data of the Arthurian Knights were added later.
I want to analyse why especially one of these additions namely the Round Table was made. Did the author have different sources? Was it just added to make the story a more romantic one? Or were there serious reasons that made the author add this element?
In the first part of my coursework I will show how the Round Table found its way into Arthurian Literature, introducing different stages of its evolution. Secondly, I want to analyse the political, social and structural situation in Britain at the time the addition was made as possible reasons for adding the Round Table. In the end I will explain the current, supranational meaning of Round Tables.
1. The evolution of the Arthurian legend
The Arthurian literature that we know today is a patchwork product of different writers, who each of them added themes to the origin story until it turned more and more into a legend.
Although the first mention of King Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth did not tell anything about it, the “Round Table” and the “Knights of the Round Table” are the first things that come into mind when talking about King Arthur. But why is especially this theme the most popular about the Arthurian stories?
In the first subchapter of the “Evolution of the Round Table” I will give a short summary of the story of King Arthur that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote down in his “Historia Regum Britanniae”. In the next subchapter I will go into the particulars of the development of the Arthurian legend with regard to the Round Table. Furthermore you will get to know the basis of the today most popular version of the story of King Arthur in English literature.
The origin of the Arthurian story by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Arthur is born at Tintagel castle in Cornwall as the son of the British King Uther Pendragon. Following his father to the throne Arthur becomes king of Britain at the age of 15. Shortly after, he asserts authority when defeating his barbarian enemies in the Battle of Bath. Wielding his “magical” sword “Caliburn”, that is said to be forged on the mysterious Isle of Avalon, Arthur wins over the Scots and unifies the nation. After he had fought Ireland and Iceland, Arthur establishes during a 12 year lasting peaceful regency at his court in Caerlon, where he lives with his queen Guinevere an order of “knights” consisting of notorious warriors. Together with his army and these “knights” he conquers Norway, Denmark and Gaul.
When nine years later delegates of the roman ruler Lucius appear at Arthur’s court demanding tribute from him, Arthur decides to conquer the Roman Empire.
This is what Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us in his “Historia Regum Britanniae” about King Arthur. As we see, there is no mention of the Round Table in Geoffrey’s report and the story is almost free of fantastical elements.
Creation of the “Round Table” by Robert Wace
“Because of the noble Lords that he had around him, each of whom considered himself the best and of whom none could have said who was the least good, Arthur created the Round Table, about which the Britons/Bretons tell many stories. The noblemen used to sit at it, all at favoured places, and all equal. They were seated at the table as equals, and were served their food as equals; none of them could boast that he had a seat of higher dignity than his companion”
The legend that we know today is, as mentioned above, not the origin of the Arthurian narrations. It is the result of an evolution that is based on the first mention of King Arthur in the “Historia Regum Britanniae” written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1135.
Historians agree that the “Historia” was not meant to be read as fiction but that it claims to be a historical record on British monarchies.
On the basis of the “Historia” the Jersey poet Robert Wace wrote in 1155 the “Romance of Brutus” in French. Taking up the historical “facts” collected by Geoffrey, he created the Round Table. The translated extract above is part of the poem in which Wace refers to the Round Table.
Later his poem was amended and extended by Chrétien de Troyes, who was responsible for establishing the Arthurian legend into romantic literature between 1160 and 1180. He completed the story of the Round Table by inventing the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur’s Queen and Camelot, the fortress where Arthur held court.
In the end of the 12th century the English priest and poet Layamon translated the work of Wace into middle-English and embroidered the story of the Round Table. Layamon raised King Arthur to a messiah-like status by claiming his soul to be immortal and letting Arthur promise that he will come back when Britain needs him.
Inspired by the stories that developed surrounding the legendary King Arthur the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron wrote a trilogy of Arthurian verses interpolating the most popular story of the today's Arthurian legend, the Quest for the Holy Grail.
The combination of the Arthurian legends containing the original story and the additions made by Wace, de Troyes, de Boron and Layamon was in the 13th century known as “The vulgate Cycle” and accepted as the Arthurian legend.
In 1470 the Vulgate Cycle was taken up again and produced by Sir Thomas Malory in his work “le Morte d’Arthur” which is the most popular version of the legend of King Arthur, consisting of 21 books and containing all added themes and stories.
Since the legend of King Arthur has found its way into English literature even today writers and film producers are fascinated by the pure endless material that King Arthur provides. To this day numerous books and movies on King Arthur have arisen, and not only British writers and movie makers have dealt with it. For instance, one of the most popular Arthurian youth books was written by Mark Twain.
The latest movie on King Arthur tries to show King Arthur as historians claim to have him identified. The Film “King Arthur” by Jerry Bruckheimer shows Arthur as a roman commander who holds, together with a couple of mercenaries the last roman fortress behind the Hadrian Wall. Despite all the discrepancies between the movies or books about the legendary King Arthur there is one theme that since the 12th century is present in almost every version of the legend: the Round Table.,

“Arthurian Literature

In the course of time, the Arthurian legend has developed to, what we know today as the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The heart of this legend, on which “le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory is based, reads as follows:
“In a far-off time, when Britain was divided and without a king barbarian hordes devastated the once fertile countryside. The throne lay vacant for a just and righteous man, who could free the people from their servile yoke and drive the invaders from the land. But only he who drew from the stone a magnificent sword could prove himself the rightful heir. Years passed and many tried, but the mysterious sword stood firm and unmoveable in the ancient weathered rock.
Then one day a young man emerged from the forest and, to the amazement of all, succeeded where even the strongest had failed. The people celebrated the arrival of their king, and his name was Arthur. On accession to the highest office in the land, Arthur began restoring the shattered country. After building the impregnable fortress of Camelot, and founding an order of valiant warriors, the Knights of the Round Table, the King rode forth to sweep aside the evil which had beset the land. The liberated peasants quickly took him to their hearts, and Arthur reigned justly over his newly prosperous kingdom, taking for his queen the beautiful lady Guinevere.
Even a terrible plague which ravaged the country was overcome by the newfound resolve of Arthur’s Knights, who went on to discover the Holy Grail, a fabulous chalice that held the secret cure for all ills.
But as happens so often during an age of plenty there are those whom power corrupts. Soon a rebellion tore the Kingdom apart, an armed uprising, led by Modred, Arthur’s traitorous nephew. And there was another one; possessed by dark forces, who lay at the heart of the strife: the mysterious and satanic enchantress; Morganna. In a final Battle, Modred was at least defeated and Morganna destroyed by Merlin the court magician. But all did not go well, for Arthur himself was mortally wounded.
As he lay dying on the field of the battle; the last request by the mighty king was that Excalibur, the source of all his power, be cast into a sacred lake and lost forever to mortal man. When the magical Sword fell to the water a sylphid arm rose from the surface, catching it by the hilt and taking it down into the crystal depths. When the great King was close to death, he was spirited away on a barge to the mystical isles of Avalon, accompanied by three mysterious maidens, each dressed completely in white. Many say that he died and was buried upon the isle, yet there are those who believe that Arthur’s soul is not to be found amongst the dead. It is said that he only sleeps and will one day return.”
2. Why did the story evolve this way?
Now as we have outlined the history of origins of the “Round Table”, the question arises, why the addition of the “Round Table” was made, and whether it had to do with the political, social or structural situation at Wace’s lifetime? Maybe he had more information than Geoffrey had or - what seems less possible - he was a visionary.
Wace completed his poem „Romance of Brutus” in 1155, twenty years after the “Historia Regum Brittanniae” was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. We know already from the development of the Round Table that the “Historia” was meant to be a historical report. But what was the “Romance of Brutus” meant to be?
To find answers on these questions it is important to investigate the life of Wace and the political and social situation which he lived in. The following subchapters will give information about Wace and explain the circumstances of the 12th century.

About Wace
The English poet Robert Wace was born about 1100 at Jersey, a British island, into a noble family. Due to the position of his grandfather who was a chamberlain to the Duke Robert of Normandy he was well informed about the political problems of the 12th century. In his teens it was already clear that Robert was destined for the church. So he was sent to Caen and later to Paris to study.
Between 1130 and 1135 he worked for King Henry I as clerc lisant at his court in Caen. Because of his bad living conditions, as he got just the bare necessities from the king, he tried to improve his situation by starting to write for lords, who wanted to have Latin books translated for their understanding.
His most popular works are “The life of St. Margaret”, “The life of St. Nicholas” and the “Romance of Brutus”. As to the “Romance of Brutus” historians are not sure who it was written for, but Wace presented it to the Queen of England.
1174 Robert Wace died at Bayeux.
Britain at the time of Wace's “Romance of Brutus”
The 11th and the 12th century in Britain were full of agitating events that changed nearly every aspect of live in medieval Britain. Beginning with the call for the first crusade in 1095 there were several social, structural and political alterations.
After the death of the English king Henry I in 1135 and already in 1134, his daughter Mathilda who was to be his successor in the Normandy had to fight armed riots against the King because the Normans did not want to accept neither her nor her husband Gottfried as their new king and queen. When Henry I died Stephen of Blois, a nephew of Henry I, took the absence of the heir of the throne as chance and rushed to England where he was crowned by the citizens of London.
He was protected against Mathilda by the English bishops whom he won because of his kind character, which is described as knightly, generous and good-natured - the extreme opposite of the deceased Henry I.
Stephen reformed several matters of public interest during his regency. For instance, he draw up a document promising the pope freedom for the church, and the end of the appropriation of the property of deceased bishops, which was a bad abuse that came up under the regency of former kings.
For the unity of Britain Stephen saw the necessity of a good relationship towards the high noblemen of Britain, therefore he made contracts with them to strengthen his position.
In 1137 he thought himself powerful enough to enforce his claim towards the Normandy which was by that time already under the control of Mathilda. The operation failed because Stephen was not able to convince the army of the legitimacy of his claims, so he made armistices with his enemies. As the result of Stephen’s weakness, the Earl Robert of Gloucester invaded northern England together with the Scottish King and an army of different groups of soldiers. In addition to this Mathilda invaded England from the south-west. Although Stephen was able to defend England from the Scots, he had big effort to prevent a Norman invasion. The powerlessness of the English king ended in an anarchy: The noblemen and high churchmen were the only ones who profited from this situation. While Stephen was in conflict with Mathilda the noblemen changed their loyalty depending on who was the best choice for the pursuit of their interests. They used the absence of the royal authority to circumvent the royal fortification-monopole, building their own castles from which they fought their private disputes. Stephen himself did also contribute to his fall by blaming his biggest allies, the bishops of England. At the end of his regency after he was for a short time held prisoner by Mathilda’s allies Stephen gave in to Henry II who forced Stephen to adopt him as his true heir of the throne but respected the regency of Stephen till the end of his life.,

2.2.1 Feudal system
After the Norman Conquest that took place in 1066 class differences increased, leading to the development of the feudal system to which the whole medieval society adapted in the 12th century.
The feudal system was built on mutual service and obligation between Lord and vassal: The landlord lent land to the vassal and assured him and his family protection. On countermove the vassal had to work on the land of his landlord, to serve him and to go to war with his landlord.
Usually the landlords had several vassals who each of them, depending on the size of their land may have had their vassals either, whom they had to protect and who on their part had to serve them. Accordingly the landlords had often more power and were able to build up stronger armies than the king himself. On account of the distribution of power in the feudal system the king was also called chief feudal lord.
As a result of the feudal system the social structure arranged pyramidal: While the chief feudal lord/ king built the top of it, there were the poorest smallholders on the bottom. They were the biggest group, but had no power in medieval Britain, and were exposed to the despotism of the high noblemen. The middle of the social pyramid was the class of landlords/crown vassals, vassals and under vassals.

2.2.2 Knighthood
The Middle Ages were also the time where knighthood and chivalry emerged in Britain: Roughly speaking knighthood was the child of the feudal system. Since the system of mutual service and obligation included also support in event of war, a new social class formed. For that reason knighthood began in the 11th century as a class of professional warriors. Its members were vassals and came out of each social layer, but since knights needed big amounts of money to afford their special training and equipment they were, as a rule, just vassals of the upper layers, who were in the possession of a certain wealth. The vassals of the lower layers could usually not bring up the money to buy armour and weapons and rise to the status of knights.
During the 12th century knights started to organize in so called knight orders and knighthood came to its height: While the number of knight orders, like the order of the Knights of Templar, which was the first such military order increased, another aspect of knighthood namely “chivalry” developed. Whereas the term “knighthood” names the structure of knight orders, “chivalry” describes the ideals and the strict system of values that these orders were based on. Being a knight meant honesty as well as religiousness.
The religiousness of knighthood can be traced back to the monks of the cloister Cluny, who were strong believers and tried to live as religious as possible. The cloister Cluny perhaps had also strong influence on the crusades.
The Round Table - Romantic feature or political device?
Having pointed out different aspects that could have been decisive for the development of the legend of King Arthur, it is now time to connect the information given in the former chapters.
On top of the discussion on the Round Table it is necessary to clarify what a Round Table is. Of course, as its name implies, a Round Table has a round form and subsequently no edges and dissimilar tilts. Each seat at a Round Table has the same distance from the centre. That means equal ranking of all places at a Round Table and all persons sitting around it. Nobody holds the chairmanship, nobody is privileged, nobody in disadvantage.
On the basis of the definition of the Round Table I want to come back to the question I am dealing with: Why did Wace add the Round Table to the Arthurian legend?
Referring only to each of the factors which I explained above two alone will probably never bring us to a rather true reason for the addition of the Round Table. On the contrary, to find a possible answer to my question requires to see the situation at the time of Wace’s life on the whole. Each of the mentioned factors itself could have caused the invention of the Round Table, but more logical is that the interaction of them was decisive for the alteration of the legend since all of the factors are interdependent.
Robert Wace was appointed at King Henry’s court as clerc lisant. So it is probable that Wace, being well educated was informed about the latest political events of his time. Possibly he was a critical observer of the inner political situation of medieval Britain.
Considering the social structure what concerns distribution of power, the feudal system may have been a difficulty that Wace could have been dealing with. His addition of the Round Table might have been the solution for King Stephen’s legitimating problem. As it was significant of the feudal system the king was only in theory the ruler, but in fact was ruled by the needs of his vassals. Let us assume the case of a conflict between two of the high noblemen who were direct under vassals of the king. Since the king had promised protection to both of them when lending them land he had to solve the conflict in a peaceful way, without putting one of them in a disadvantage. Furthermore he had to assure himself again and again of the loyalty of his other vassals, because without any vassals in support, the king would never be able to put anyone under pressure, for he himself did not have a big army. What the king needed was a communicational basis for the functionality of the feudal system.
The feudal system caused the increasing emerge of knight orders and the upcoming of chivalry values which fitted almost perfectly on the personality of Stephen and later on the idea of the Round Table.
Another point that I would like to mention in this context is the contrast between Henry I and his successor Stephen of Blois. Stephen is described as the complete opposite of Henry I, because of his chivalry qualities i.e. honesty, fairness and religiousness. Perhaps this contrast and the effect, that it firstly had on the British lords inspired Wace.
Improbable is that the synchrony of the development in history and the creation of the Round Table were just by chance. Both, the values of chivalry and knighthood comply too much with the criteria of the Round Table; moreover the idea of the Round Table seems to be the best solution for the stability of the feudal system.
In the introduction I explained different intentions that are conceivable motifs for adding the Round Table to the legend. Now, I am convinced that Wace was not trying to make the legend more imaginatively, or romantic, but that he was creating a solution for the problematic that came up with the emerge of class differences that have affected the social structure and the balance of power negatively. The Round Table ought to be a useful instrument helping the chief landlord/king to peacefully settle disputes between his noblemen.
4. The heritage of the Round Table
How far the affect of the legend of King Arthur and the idea of the Round Table reached and still reaches becomes clear when looking at the handling of problems today. The idea of the Round Table is still up to date: In today’s politics round tables have a special importance as they are used as an instrument to discuss controversial topics with different dialog partners. The Round Table stands for a careful and thorough discourse and weighing up of subjects of high relevance.
Round Tables are not only in politics, but even in other parts of social life popular. They are installed to deal with complex topics of common interest. So for instance the evangelical-Lutheran Church of Germany discussed how to deal with homosexuality at a Round Table.
It is amazing that although the Round Table idea is estimated and practised in politics of many countries all over the world, Great Britain seems politically not to be inspired by it. On the other hand, when searching in the Internet you can find many pages about the “Round Table Association of Great Britain and Ireland” which are federations of young men between 18 and 45, who follow the principles of the Round Table of King Arthur/ Robert Wace.
But Wace’s Round Table had already effect on the British in the 14th century, when Edward III of Winchester had a Round Table rebuilt, which can still be visited in the Hall of Winchester Castle. It is said that King Edward wanted to revive the Arthurian Knighthood. In the end of the middle ages in Britain, the Kings even used to celebrate Arthurian feasts and slipped into the rolls of Arthurian knights.

5. Conclusion

Summing up the information of the individual chapters, the steps of my work on “King Arthur in Legend and Literature” lead to the following conclusion:
The study on King Arthur in legend and literature with regard to its history of origins, from the story of King Arthur to the Arthurian legend raised a number of questions. One of these questions which I dealt with was: Why did Wace add the Round Table?
My Consideration was that the reason why Wace added the Round Table could be found in the situation of Britain at the time of Wace and in his biography. Since I did not think that the authors at that time were writing without having a political or social intention in mind, I was quite sure that there was a specific intention that motivated Wace.
The investigation on Wace’s life and on the historical situation produced some possible evidence for my assertion, as there is the feudal system, the emergence of knighthood and Wace’s own course of life, which is characterized by his strong affection to the noblemen and kings of Britain.
On the basis of this I argued that these interdependent factors are support of my thesis. After getting to know parts of Wace’s world I think he was a critical observer of inner politics in medieval Britain and was interested in solutions for the problems of that time.
Finally I pointed out the topicality of the legend of King Arthur, giving examples on the heirs of the Round Table, proving that the Arthurian Legend represents a piece of literature that will probably never lose its appeal, since it has already survived about nine centuries.
6. Bibliography
Ashe, Geoffrey, “Kelten, Druiden und König Artus - Mythologie der Britischen Inseln“, London, 1990
Ashe, Geoffrey, “König Arthur – Die Entdeckung von Avalon“, Düsseldorf und Wien, 1986
Barron, W.R.J. (ed.), Wace’s Roman de Brut’, Cardiff, 1999a
Bradshaw, Gillian, “Der Falke des Lichts – Die Ritter der Tafelrunde“
“The New Encyclopaedia Britannica – Volume One, Fifteenth Edition”, Chicago, 1985
Malory, Sir Thomas, “le Morte d’Arthur”, Volumes 1- 3, (?), 1470
Goodrich, Norma Lorre, “King Arthur“, New York, 1986
Herm, Gerhard, “Die Kelten – Das Volk das aus dem Dunkel kam“, Dusseldorf und Wien, 1975
Krieger, Karl Friedrich, “Geschichte Englands- von den Anfängen bis zum 15.Jh“, München, 1999
Phillips, Graham and Keatman, Martin, “King Arthur – The true story”, London, 1992
Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1100?-1155, Welsh cleric, later bishop of Asaph
consisting of northern Italy, France, Belgium and parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland
cf. Geoffrey Ashe, Kelten, Druiden und König Artus- Mythologie der Britischen Inseln, London, 1990, pp 235-236
‘Wace’s Roman de Brut’ in W.R.J. Barron (ed.), Cardiff, 1999a, pp.19-20
Robert Wace, born in Jersey about 1100
Sir Thomas Malory, c. 1405-1471
cf. Graham Phillips/Martin Keatman, King Arthur – The true story, London, 1992, pp. 5-7
cf. The new Encyclopaedia Britannica - Volume one, Fifteenth Edition, Chicago, 1985
Graham Phillips/Martin Keatman, King Arthur, pp 1-2
=reader, clergymen were often employed by noblemen and kings because they were able to read and write.
cf. Karl Friedrich, Krieger– Geschichte Englands- von den Anfängen bis zum 15.Jh, Verlag C.H. Beck, 1999, pp 99- 103
founded by Hugues de Payens
The age of the table was proved with the help of the “Radeoncarbonemethod” which can give instructive information on the age of historical findings.
cf Geoffrey Ashe, Kelten, Druiden und König Arthur, pp 247-248
- 1 -
Englisch-Facharbeit: Die Entwicklung der Artussage und die Entstehung der Tafelrunde vor dem historischen Hintergrund des mittelalterlichen Britanniens.

Table of contents:

1. The evolution of the Arthurian legend
1.1 The origin of the Arthurian story by Geoffrey of Monmouth
1.2 Creation of the “Round Table” by Robert Wace
1.3 “Arthurian Literature”
2. Why did the story evolve this way?
2.1 About Wace
2.2 Britain at the time of Wace"s “Romance of Brutus”
2.2.1 Feudal system
2.2.2 Knighthood
3. The Round Table - Romantic feature or political device?
4. The heritage of the Round Table
5. Conclusion
6. Bibliography

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