How has the King Arthur legend endured?

How do we still know about King Arthur today? There are many legends from ages past that haven’t endured… why has this one? Author Scott Telek, author of The Swithen series of Arthurian novels, explains.


The legend of an ancient warrior

There probably was a real person—the few existing historical sources reference a warrior involved in a few major battles—who all these fictional, fantastic stories started to grow around (which is what marks it as a true legend). These stories were remembered in the mind and told orally by storytellers… and we can only imagine how the story grew and changed as one storyteller added this part, or forgot that one, added this character, merged these two stories…

The first written record of the Arthurian legend

None of this was written down until 1136, in Geoffery of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. This has the earliest version of the Arthurian legend as we know it today, and this is also the book where Shakespeare got the inspiration for King Lear, so that’s how old it is… 500 years before Shakespeare.

Changing the direction of a story in progress

From that point on, other writers began to write their own versions, and their own stories taking place in that world. One of the best-known and best-preserved is by French writer Chretien de Troyes. He actually invented the character of Lancelot, and he added the story that Lancelot of Guinevere were having a longstanding affair. So he completely changed the direction that the story took from then on.

Then, at a certain point the church looked at this, which was incredibly popular, like the comic books of the day, and like comic books, also incredibly violent, which they weren’t sure what to do with. They tried to Christianize the story, adding a moralistic tone and trying to shape it as an inducement to live a religious life. They added on the quest for the Holy Grail and several other story wrinkles, such as that Merlin was the son of the Christian devil and adding a number of holy hermits who live in the forests, conveniently on hand to explain the Christian meanings of the events as they occur. Still, the story existed only in all these different, sometimes contradictory versions.

Thomas Malory brings it all together

Then, around 1485, this knight Thomas Malory was in prison for a bunch of terrible things, and what he did—presumably to while away the time—was that he combined and condensed all of these versions into one loose—emphasis on loose—overarching story. And this was Le Morte D’Arthur, which was short, convenient and all in one place, which made it the most accessible version of the legend. It also received the benefit of one very important newly-invented technology.

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One of the printing press’ first hits

Because Le Morte D’Arthur was published just after the invention of the printing press, combined with its brevity and convenience as one centralized version, this became the most popular and widely-read version of the legend. It exploded in popularity, and was rediscovered at various points in history (notably during the Victorian era), its entrancing vision of a society of bravery, art, beauty magic and chivalry captivating readers of every generation. Popularity (and accessibility) bred popularity, and this became the primary version of the Arthurian legend–and is largely responsible for why we still know this legend today

Legends come and go

There have been numerous legends, pieces of folklore and myth, but most of them have become obscure over time, moving into the realm of academics and historians. Because of the path to popularity and preservation we have discussed here, the timeless themes, classic tale of heroism and romance contained in the Arthurian legend have lasted where so many others have been consigned to the past.

Go to the next article:
What is the Arthurian Legend really about?




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