French Mythmaking of King Arthur by Aaron Kestle

The French History Podcast
French Mythmaking of King Arthur by Aaron Kestle
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Gary: Today’s special episode is by Aaron Kestle, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University’s French Department. He is currently preparing a dissertation examining the marvelous in medieval Arthurian literature, focusing on the mythical sorcerer Merlin and his representation in late twelfth and early thirteenth century French romance. His interests also incorporate a broad spectrum of medieval language and literature, including but not limited to Insular Latin sources for Arthurian lore, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Middle Welsh romance.

In this episode he will talk about King Arthur as a cross-Channel literary figure. The legends of Arthur are not limited to England; and much of the iconic myths about this figure wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for French storytellers. With that I will give it over to Aaron to tell us what France contributed to the legends of King Arthur.

 

Arthur and Europe: A Brief Overview of Early Arthurian Romance

Aaron: Today, I want to talk to you about an important element of French identity, King Arthur. That’s right, that Arthur, King of the Britons, the iconic English King who drew the sword from the stone and wielded Excalibur in the quest for the Holy Grail except, of course, for the part where he never actually personally quested for the Grail, just the better part of his court. As you probably well-know, Arthur, as a literary figure, has survived well into modernity proving to be a resilient and ever popular fixture of Romantic and popular fiction from Tennyson to The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon. Cinema likewise cherishes Arthur; numerous movies and televised series have been made, including: Camelot (staring Richard Harris), The First Knight (starring Sean Connery and Richard Gere), 2004’s King Arthur (starring Clive Owen), Merlin (the TV series), Netflix’s Cursed, and of course the unforgettable Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Those true connoisseurs of French popular culture among you will invariably be
familiar with Alexandre Astier’s long-running Kaamelot TV series. If you are anything like me, your first experience with Arthur might have been watching Disney’s Sword in the Stone while you were still a child.

I don’t want to talk about these reinterpretations and reimaginings of Arthur. Rather, I want to go back to some of the first Vernacular treatments of Arthur. Ironically enough, Arthur, who for many today is the very image of English nobility and chivalry, for all intents and purposes, probably hated the English. If he did exist, he would have been a petty British warlord living sometime in the fifth or sixth century and who fought against the English and Saxon invaders who had recently gained a foothold on the eastern part of the Island. For anybody living in the United Kingdom, this may not be hard to understand once you grasp the context, but, for many who ignore the UK’s long history of constructing ethnic identity, it is hard to imagine.

Now, you may be asking: What exactly does Arthur have to do with France? We will get there soon enough, and no, I am not going to talk any more about the French TV series, but I believe that the modern popularity of Arthur can help us to understand how Arthur went from Fighting with the Saxons and the Angles to being loved by them, and it all starts with him first being exported to France of all places.

Where does Arthur start? I ask this question rhetorically of course, but it is still really hard, I would even say impossible, to give a really solid answer to this question. Historians have been hotly debating this issue for some time. Some, for the most part generally earlier scholars, posit that Arthur does have some foundation in history. Many, however, now tend to favor a purely popular or mythical origin for Arthur. Though Arthur does appear in some historical documents, namely the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, he is a relatively late addition to the historical narrative. He is excluded from older and generally more authoritative though still occasionally problematic texts such as Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae and the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Arthur’s late arrival to history is compounded by his tremendously popular mythical dimension. Medieval Welsh literature is rife with references to Arthur, emphasizing his heroic and supernatural qualities. Many of these texts, such as the Pa Gwr yu y Porthaur and the Preiddeu Annwfn, clearly portray Arthur as a heroic standard, who fought over supernatural spoils with superhuman power.

These texts raise interesting questions. Scholars, such as David M. Dumville, place the composition of the body of Historia Brittonum, the first Latin-language source for Arthur, in Wales in the first half of the nineth century though it was subject to numerous subsequent recensions. This in practice makes the Historia Brittonum technically older than the Welsh language texts. The source of the Pa Gwr yv y Porthaur is the Black Book of Carmarthan, a codex dated to the mid-thirteenth century; the source of the Preiddeu Annwfn is the Book of Taliesin, which dates from the first half of the fourteenth century, significantly later than the composition of the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, which is believed to probably derive its Arthurian material from the same Historia Brittonum. The fact that the Latin sources predate the Welsh material is not particularly surprising. Though Welsh is one of the indigenous Brythonic languages of the British Isles, vernacular literature developed quite late in the Middle Ages in numerous languages. And while many vernaculars are attested in marginal notations, the international lingua franca, the language in which reading and composition were studied, was evidently Latin. Take French as an example. Though The Oaths of Strasbourg, which dates from the mid-9th century, is considered one of the earliest monuments of the French language, it wasn’t until the mid-eleventh century with The Life of Saint Alexis that lengthy French-language literary texts began to appear. This was shorty followed by The Song of Roland of which the earliest recension (the Oxford manuscript) dates from either the late eleventh century or early twelfth century and which was the first French-language text to deal with a primarily secular and chivalric matter. Furthermore, it is likely that this text represents the evolution of popular oral traditions surrounding Charlemagne and his court, a subject matter which dates from before The Oaths of Strasbourg, which were struck up between two of Charlemagne’s grandchildren.

There have been numerous arguments for dating Welsh-language texts such as the PaGwr yv y Porthaur and the Preiddeu Annwfn to prior to their respective thirteenth- and fourteenth-century compilations. The earliest date proposed for the Pa Gwr yv y Porthaur is the tenth century. However, as these texts are often dated based on purely linguistic grounds, the current consensus is that most of these texts cannot be dated in their current forms to prior to the twelfth century yet, with the evolution of The Song of Roland as an analog, I do think that these texts can be indicative of an already long-standing and robust mythological identity.

Consequently, it seems fairly probable that as historical Arthur emerged, he already possessed a well-developed mythological persona. This can be seen in the Historia Brittonum, which in at least its subsequent iterations contains a collection of marvels, including a magical cairn, or pile of stones, topped off with a footprint made by Arthur’s dog in the hunt of Twrch Trwyth, a mystical giant wild boar. This hunt comes down to us in its most intact form in the Welsh romance Culhwch ac Olwen. This text was recorded in The Red Book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch so the oldest redaction we possess of the text dates from the mid-fourteenth century. The Culhwch ac Olwen has been dated, once again by linguistic means, to the eleventh century, but this should again be taken with a grain of salt as more conservative estimates place it likewise in the twelfth century. The text does appear though to be a heavily redacted version of some early mythical story or perhaps a loose collection of potentially older Brythonic myths. Furthermore, it contains a distinctly supernatural Arthur, whose court is peopled with superhuman heroes, potentially euhemerized gods by some accounts, who are given numerous supernatural quests to perform in the course of the story. Taking all of these factors into consideration, it seems likely that even as Arthur was tentatively entering history, he already appeared to have a well-established Brythonic mythical identity.

Thomas Green proposed the conundrum perhaps best when he set himself the task of determining whether Arthur was a mythologized historical figure or a historicized mythological figure.1 The near simultaneous emergence of these respective identities compounded by the questionable historical quality of the Historia Brittonum and Arthur’s absence from earlier historical records has led to a consensus among most contemporary historians, including Green,1. that Arthur was probably by all accounts a purely mythical construct. This hasn’t stopped some historians, such as the French scholar Alban Gautier, from doubling down. Gautier, for his part, proposed a “Possible Biographie d’un Possible Arthur,” a tantalizing yet purely-hypothetical biography for what he feels to be the most likely historical origin for Arthur.2 Gautier latches on to key events from Arthur’s historical narrative, namely the battles at Mount Badon and Camlan, as tools for substantiating his existence. In either case, barring the emergence of more primary material, which seems unlikely, all who tackle the issue must invariably confess at least nominal agnosticism in the matter. Michelle Szkilnik, in her assessment of the situation, points to a rather funny problem: There is either too much or too little material for serious and skeptical historian to sift through in order for them to arrive at any serious conclusions.3 At once Arthur possesses very little historical documentation and is the subject of a rich and copious medieval, fictional, vernacular literature, a surprising quantity of which is written in Old French.

So, that is all well and fine, but you may be asking: How did Arthur get from Latin and Welsh speaking Britain to France, and, moreover, why did he ever have to be reimported to Britain? Wouldn’t the English have logically had a privileged role in preserving Arthurian literature, given their proximity to Wales? To be sure, England does have its own Arthurian tradition, which it conserved perhaps to some degree independently from French Arthurian literature, but it was soon clearly infected and frankly dominated by the same. To explain, we first need to see the big names behind French Arthurian romance. There is some evidence that Arthur enjoyed some popularity outside of the British Isles. Critics often cite the Otranto Mosaic, an image of Arthur’s fight with the Cath Paluc, a non-Galfridian story of Arthur’s battle with a supernatural cat-like creature. This image was incorporated in a mid-twelfth-century cathedral in Italy. Inspiration for it probably came with the Normans to Italy after their conquest of England in the eleventh century. British literary culture appeared to experience some sort of vogue in the twelfth century; it was in the late twelfth century when, for example, Marie de France produced her collection of translated Lais. The lai is a Brythonic form of narrative poetry. Marie’s collection even included both an Arthurian lai and a lai derived from the Tristan and Iseult tradition, which though perhaps initially distinct subsequently became conflated with the Arthurian world. This rise of the popularity of Brythonic culture on the continent goes hand in hand with the composition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey was a member of the petty Anglo-Norman aristocracy born in Wales, and his Historia was really the jumping off point for Arthurian tradition. Though he calls his text a history and wrote it in Latin, the medieval international language of erudition, the text is anything but historical. It does however make for great reading and was subsequently recopied and exported from the British Isles. Numerous manuscript editions of this text survived, and it was quickly translated into Li roman de Brut, a French vernacular verse romance, by Wace in the course of the twelfth century. Though many Welsh texts, such as the Pa Gwr yv y Porthaur and the Culhwch ac Olwen incorporate non-Galfridian elements, like the Cath Paluc in Otronto, they were probably only recorded in writing around or after the time Geoffrey of Monmouth turned Arthur into an international sensation. It is impossible to say for certain, however, if these events are merely correlated, or if there is some causal link between the two. Regardless, the rising popularity of Arthur would soon lead to an explosion of Arthurian literature on the continent.

In the last half of the twelfth century, when Marie de France began working on her Brythonic Lais, the Champenois author Chrétien de Troyes launched his own literary career. He wrote numerous verse romances that have survived into modernity. These texts include five Arthurian romances: Érec et Énide, Cligès, Li Chevalier de la Charrette, Li Chevalier au Lion and Li Conte du Graal. Chretien marks an important step in the evolution of Arthurian literature. Chretien is really the first to introduce Arthur to the genre of medieval romance. Marie purports that her Lais are translations of lyrical Breton poems. However, they essentially became short stories in octosyllabic French verse with a rime plate rhyme scheme, a simple pattern of couplets. In a structural sense, they resembled Chrétien’s romances save for the fact that Chretien’s Romances were much longer. “Lanval,” Marie’s Arthurian lai, is 646 verses long whereas Chrétien’s Li Chevalier de la Charrette is 7112 verses long. While most of Marie’s lais are not Arthurian, Chrétien’s romances, on the other hand, all use Arthur and his court as a backdrop. Moreover, Chrétien is the first to introduce the legendary Grail to the Arthurian genre. Unfortunately, it appears that Chrétien never finished his Perceval. Though several continuations were proposed by various authors, it is supposed that Chrétien may have died before being able to provide his own conclusion. Chrétien’s Perceval ou Li Conte du Graal presents us with a strange image of the Grail. Though the character Perceval does experience a certain amount of spiritual growth in the context of the surviving text, the Grail remains surprisingly low-key, appearing in fairly desacralized context of a banquet with Perceval’s host. The Grail serves more as a tool for testing Perceval, a test that, initially at least, he fails. In this context, the Grail does have some association with the Eucharist, which it would later come to represent in a much more direct sense; however, in the Perceval, it is merely the elaborate dish within which the Eucharist is transported. It was Robert de Boron who would soon after give the Grail the meaning that is so familiar to us today.

It was sometime between the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century that Robert de Boron, who probably resided in Bourgogne, France or was at least originally from there, took an interest in Arthurian literature and wrote a series of poetic romances. All we have today are his Li Roman de l’estoire dou Gaal (also known as the Joseph d’Arimathie) and a small selection of his Roman de Merlin. It is in L’estoire dou Graal where the Grail is used to collect the crucified Christ’s blood. Shortly after Robert de Boron wrote his verse romances, the genre of verse romance began to go out of style and was replaced by vernacular prose romance. As a result, prose adaptations of Robert de Boron’s L’estoire dou Graal and his Roman de Merlin were produced in relatively short order. It is also possible that these texts were part of a trilogy, including a final Perceval branch; however, it is unclear if Robert de Boron ever really intended to produce a Perceval text though some propose that the Didot-Perceval fits the ticket. The prose adaptations of his romance were nevertheless and quite plausibly attributed to him. At nearly the same time, the great prose Vulgate Cycle began to appear. This collection centered around Lancelot, a character drawn from Chrétien de Troyes’s Chevalier de la Charrette. It recounts Lancelot’s arrival to Arthur’s court, his affair with Guinevere, the quest for the Holy Grail and the subsequent destruction of Arthur’s kingdom in the final episode, La mort le Roi Artu. Though King Arthur’s death and the loss of his kingdom in civil war marked the end of Arthur, Arthurian literature remained a fairly open canon, still admitting new texts that frequently contradicted or competed with alternative versions. Many alternate versions of the Arthurian universe cropped up: Galahad replaced Perceval as the main protagonist of the Grail Quest, Lancelot replaced Gawain as Arthur’s best knight, and so on and so forth.

The prose Merlin and Estoire du Graal became annexed to the Vulgate Cycle, and there was even a sort of prologue written to help transition from Arthur’s coronation at the end of the Prose Merlin to Lancelot’s birth at the beginning of the Prose Roman de Lancelot called Le Livre d’Artus. But this text soon had competition in the form of the Post-Vulgate Suite du Roman de Merlin, a much longer alternative version of Arthur’s early triumphs and a text which also expanded retroactively upon numerous elements of the Vulgate Cycle, setting the scene for the Vulgate Queste del San Graal. The popularity of these texts led to numerous Arthurian anthologies which turned up in luxury illuminated manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many of which can be found at the BNF or frequently in digital format through Gallica, the BNF’s digital archive.

After spending a great deal of time developing on the continent, Arthurian literature was ready to be reimported anew to the British Isles. It is true that Arthur probably never really left Britain. Brythonic populations, including both the Welsh and the Breton-speakers of Little Brittany, were reported by their medieval contemporaries to have long preserved their belief in Arthur. Furthermore, as French was the principal language of the Angevin dynasty of twelfth and thirteenth-century England, Arthurian literature had surely already been consumed among the Norman insular elites. Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France even had connections to the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. Chrétien likely received patronage from Marie de Champagne, the daughter of Louis the VII of France and Elanor of Aquitaine. Marie de France, in turn, may have had connections to the Plantagenet court. Furthermore, Marie wrote in a distinctly Anglo-Norman dialect and included the English translation of several words in her Lais. Evidently, the Channel was a fairly permeable barrier. As further evidence, numerous texts of the Welsh Mabinogi, namely Iarlles y Ffynnon neu Owain, Peredur fab Efrawg and Geraint fab Erbin neu Geraint ac Enid complicate the narrative of the insular relationship with continental Arthurian literature. All three of these texts bear a strong resemblance to some of Chrétien’s French verse romances: Yvain, Perceval and Erec et Enide, respectively. It is hard to say whether these texts were translated or not from French or if they merely share a common source text. They do seem to have some clear French influences and use numerous French loan words yet, at the same time, they seem to have some uniquely Welsh elements that may be derived from some purely insular source. French and Welsh may have played a key role in peaking an insular interest in Arthurian literature. There is evidence for a growing interest in Arthurian literature among English speakers. There are a handful of texts from the fourteenth century that testify to this, such as: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the English-language Morte Arthur texts and even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Though, by this time, English as a language had already been heavily influenced by a long history of French domination, Chaucer himself was for all intents and purposes a notable Francophile. He even went so far as to produce a partial translation of the Romance of the Rose, a monument of medieval French literature, perhaps one of the more popular French romances and which has survived into modernity in literally hundreds of manuscripts. Chaucer wrote his own Arthurian short-story, The Wife of Bathe’s Tale, part of his Canterbury Tales, sometime in the late fourteenth century. It was likewise in the late fourteenth century that the ever-popular Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was composed. This text was part of a northern revival of a more traditional Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. It was also one of the better-known examples of the Beheading Game, a tradition that can be traced back to older Irish sources, but which could just as easily have found its way into English literature via French or Latin sources. In addition to The Wife of Bathe’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, two English-language adaptations of the Morte Arthur (The Death of King Arthur) were composed sometime between the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. These two texts raise important questions as they differ radically in both form and content. The stanzaic Morte Arthur, quite probably the earlier of the two, is a condensed version of the French tradition drawing heavily upon the narrative of the French Vulgate Cycle. The alliterative Morte Arthur, however, not only employs the traditional Anglo-Saxon verse of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but, more importantly, it portrays Arthur in a very different light from the French-inspired stanzaic poem. Gone is the passive cuckold king whose kingdom is menaced by Lancelot and Guinevere’s antics. Arthur is portrayed rather as a powerful warrior king, who succumbs to his wounds after his battle with the traitor Mordred.

These English-language texts were only the preliminary indicators of a coming literary monument. Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Arthurian romance was booming in France, and, in a certain sense, it never really disappeared. It did however lose momentum. In the late thirteenth century, The Prophecies of Merlin enjoyed a fairly decent distribution both as romance and as a collection of prophetic texts open to political and popular interpretation. Even into the fourteenth century, we still see texts such as Perceforest appear. Perceforest was a sort of late prequel to the Vulgate Cycle and had begun to incorporate lyrical interludes into the body of the text. The development of Renaissance satire came to take over the medieval aristocratic genre, turning it into a subject of no small ridicule. François Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel books played with the Arthurian genre, was a particularly prominent French Satirist, but perhaps the final nail in the Arthurian coffin was none other than the Ingenioso Hidalgo himself, Cervantes’s Don Quijote. This text’s harsh realism and Renaissance humanism beautifully questioned every element of Arthurian literature. Subsequently, Arthur would remain a backward fixture of the medieval period until his revival by the romanticists of the 19th century who were attracted to the ornate gothic novels of medieval Europe.

Well before the Quijote, about the time the French appeared to be losing their interest in Arthur, the English jumped on the bandwagon. It was Sir Thomas Mallory, an English knight who led a rather colorful life, who, probably while incarcerated in the latter-half of the fifteenth century, began a massive undertaking, the translation and synchronization of a complete Arthurian saga in English. Calling upon pre-existing texts from the already extant body of English-language Arthurian literature, such as the stanzaic Morte Arthur, Mallory translated, assembled and correlated French texts from the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles in addition to the whole of the prose Tristan, which had already become firmly installed within the Arthurian literary universe. Mallory told the whole story of Arthur starting from the Roman de Merlin with the birth of Merlin all the way up to the death of Lancelot and Guinevere at the end of La Mort le Roi Artu. Though Mallory is credited for producing the initial manuscript edition of the text, some potentially considerable amount of editing took place when the text was first printed in the last quarter of the fifteenth century by William Caxton under the title Le Morte D’Arthur or The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table. This text brought a large and rich Arthurian tradition into the English imagination. Though the Renaissance saw a sharp decline in interest in Arthur, Arthur lived on exercising an influence upon many English Authors, reappearing for example in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. However, it is with the romanticists of the 19th century that Arthur, and Mallory more precisely, are resurrected. Authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Alfred, Lord Tennyson took a keen interest in the figures of chivalric knighthood.

It may be perhaps oversimplified and somewhat cheeky to suggest, but this is perhaps the reason for which Arthurian characters are frequently represented with strong English accents instead of Welsh ones or even American or Australian ones for that matter. Arthur as a figure has jumped across ethnic and linguistic boundaries on numerous occasions. Though initially British, in the sense that, had he existed, he would have probably spoken some early British language more akin to Welsh, Cornish and Breton than to Goidelic languages like Scottish or Germanic languages like English. His story and the stories of his court were enjoyed in numerous European languages: Welsh, Latin, French, Occitan, Norse, German, Italian, Spanish and English are a few that come to mind. The ethnic and political borders of medieval Europe were extremely porous; popular literature which helped to construct the chivalric identity of the Middle Ages was widely consumed and, in all due likelihood, widely enjoyed. If I were to draw any conclusions from this narrative, it is this: Arthur is neither the property of the English nor necessarily of the Welsh. He is as much a product of French literature as he is of Spanish and Latin. The legend of Arthur grew out of an increasingly interconnected Europe. And, in a sense, he has transcended both language and time. For this reason, I don’t believe Arthur really belongs to any single group or country in particular. Arthur belongs to everybody.

 

Sources:

1.Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur (Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2007), 30.

2. Alban Gautier, Arthur (Paris: Ellipses, 2013), 145-174.
3 Michelle Szkilnik, “Arthur chez les historiens” Médiévales : Langues, Textes, Histoire, 59 (Autumn 2010) 2-3.

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