King Arthur (Part 2 of 3): Literary Origins

King Arthur (Part 2 of 3): Literary Origins


– Even if you’ve never read any Arthurian literature before, you probably recognize most, if not all, of the items on this list of what makes Arthurian
literature Arthurian, what the story of King
Arthur and his knights is. You know that he’s the King of Britain, you know that he has a
sword called Excalibur that he either pulled out of a stone, in order to claim his Kingship, or he received it from the
Lady of the Lake, or both, you know that there’s
a wizard named Merlin, who helped him do one or both
of those sword retrievals, you know that he becomes King and has his knights sit at a round table, they all abide by a Code of Chivalry, he has a queen named Guinevere, he has an enemy in his half-sister, the magician, Morgan le Fey, his knights go out on quests on their own, they’re called Knights errant, they include Lancelot, who’s
probably the most famous, Bedivere, Gawain, or Gow-in, Percecal, Yvain, or E-vain, Tristan, or Tristram, Galahad, and Kay. All these knights go on a
quest for the Holy Grail, there’s an affair between
Lancelot, Arthur’s best knight, and Guinevere, his Queen, he’s betrayed by his
illegitimate son or nephew, or both, Mordred, and after the final battle at Camlann, he’s taken to the Isle
of Avalon to be healed. All of these elements are present in the 1470 book, Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Malory was an Englishman, and
he was writing in English, but the French title
of the book gives away that he was dependent on
a lot of French sources, for reasons I covered in the last lecture. So much of the source material during the 1200s and 1300s was being worked on and written in France, and these were the sources Malory used, and all of these elements
that we know today as part of King Arthur’s story, Malory was pulling from
these French sources. However, as we’ve learned
in the past in this class, when you redact multiple sources, you tend to find doublets, you tend to run into contradictions. Some of the stories
disagree with each other, some of them agree too
much, in other words, there’s two versions of the same thing. We have that sort of situation happen for Malory with the sword, Excalibur. Is Excalibur the sword that
Arthur pulls from the stone? Or is it the sword that he receives from the Lady of the Lake? In Malory, Malory seems to be confused. He refers to both swords
as Excalibur at one point. Now, the movie in the
1970s called Excalibur tried to solve this
problem by having Arthur pull Excalibur from the stone, break it in a fight with Lancelot, and then he gave it to
the Lady of the Lake who put it back together
and gave it back to him, but that’s not what’s in Malory. Malory just gives both
versions of the sword. It seems that Malory maybe didn’t intend to make the sword in the stone Excalibur, but he does use the word Excalibur to refer to it one time. So, if we go back in literary history and look at Malory’s
sources, and their sources, and maybe even their sources sources, we find in the 1135 work, History of the Kings of Britain
by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the first really extended version of the story of Arthur. We see that he has a
sword called Caliburnus, and that’s the Latin root
for the name Excalibur. However, Geoffrey doesn’t tell us whether the sword was
pulled from the stone or where it came from. The name Caliburnus is the Latin version, root, of Excalibur, but it also seems to be the Latin version of the Welsh name for a
sword called Caledfwlch. And Caledfwlch is what the sword is called in the Mabinogion story
of Culhwch and Olwen. And Culhwch and Olwen, even
though it’s in the Mabinogion with some narratives that
were produced at a later date, it probably dates back, the work itself, dates to around 1100, which
is before Geoffrey’s time, and it seems to be an iteration of a story that goes back maybe
centuries before that. One of the Welsh stores
that Welsh bards would tell during the six, seven, 800s. And that sword, Caledfwlch,
itself seems to resemble the name for an Irish sword, mythological sword, called Caladbolg that many early Irish heroes
used at one time or another, including Cú Chulainn. But in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s
narrative of Arthur, we have no explanation of
where the sword came from or what happens to it in the end. In the stone story, Arthur has been raised anonymously because Merlin took him after he enabled Uther Pendragon, the former King, to have the woman that we wanted, even though that woman was
married to a rival King. Merlin said that, “I’m
going to take the child,” and he takes him away from Uther because he knows Uther is doomed. He gives the boy to a knight named Ector, Ector raises him, but Arthur
doesn’t know who he is, and the whole land is divided
among contending Kings, until a sword appears one day, in a stone, and inscribed on it says, “Whoever pulls this
sword from this stone,” and anvil, there was an
anvil in the early version, “Is rightwise King of all England.” So, all the nobles tried to pull the sword to try to become King, none of them can, but only Arthur can, easily. And once the others are
fighting at a tournament and no one’s paying attention to it, he goes and pulls the
sword from the stone. In the other story, the story
of the Lady of the Lake, again, Merlin is guiding Arthur, he’s his mentor. And he takes him to this lake, which is connected to the Elder world, there’s something very
supernatural about it. A woman lives in the lake, later, variously named Nimue or Vivien, or some combination of those two. And the Lady of the Lake gives Arthur the sword and a scabbard, and Merlin asks Arthur, “Which do you think is more valuable? “The sword, Excalibur, or the scabbard?” And Arthur says, “Well,
of course the sword. “The scabbard’s just what you keep it in.” And Merlin said, “Actually that scabbard “will stop your wounds from bleeding, “so if you ever get cut,
you won’t bleed to death, “that could save your life “more easily than the sword could.” Well, these two versions
both appeared decades, even a century, after Geoffrey of Monmouth first gives us that connection of the sword, Excalibur, with King Arthur. So, if we put this on a timeline, so we can figure out how far back our evidence of the sword
connected with Arthur goes, we see that the sword in the stone goes back to about 1210, the sword from the Lady of the Lake goes back to about 1240, the earliest text that tells us Excalibur came from the Lady of the Lake was from what’s called
the Post-Vulgate Cycle, which is a whole series of French works, which were based on
sometimes other French works, which were based on either
Welsh or Britain works, often borrowing from Geoffrey of Monmouth, sometimes taking from troubadour poetry. And it was in one of these,
called Suite de Merlin, that the first narrative
iteration of the Lady of the Lake giving Arthur the sword
and the scabbard comes. Now, the sword in the stone story, whether or not it is Excalibur, the earliest version of
that is from another work named after Merlin, and this
one is by Robert de Boron, writing in the year 1210. And he gives the first account
of Arthur pulling the sword and proving that he’s the rightful king, although, in Robert de Boron’s
version, it’s not Excalibur. Everything before that
that mentions Excalibur, or some variation on that name, doesn’t tells us where
the sword came from, it just tells us it’s a great sword. And so, if we a sword with this many connections to other stories, if we have Excalibur in the
Latin form of Caliburnus, and it’s in the Welsh from of Caledfwlch, and both of these come from sources that are heavily dependent
on Welsh oral tradition, and it also resembles the
name of this Irish sword. That tends to indicate that this probably had a long
oral history, the sword. The thing is, it would have
to be really long oral history to get back to a time of
a historical King Arthur, if the historical King Arthur fought at the Battle of the
Badon around the year 500. Remember that the Battle of Mount Badon was where the Britons defeated the Saxons, and at least for a while
stopped the advance of Anglo-Saxons into the Isle of Britain. That’s the time we wanna get back to, that’s where the references
to certain identifiable kings, like Ambrosius or Remianus, and identifiable battles that are later associated with Arthur, that’s when they took place. So, if we can get any of
these narrative elements back to that point in history, we’ve got something that
will tell us something about a historical King Arthur. But so far, with Excalibur, we only get specific references to it, starting with the year 1100, and evidence that it
probably goes back further, but we can’t tell how far. Another story element that
seems to be inseparable from Arthurian literature
is the ideal of chivalry. Thomas Malory has Arthur’s knights swear what is called the Pentecostal Oath because they swear it on
the Feast of Pentecost. In Malory’s account, every
year at the Feast of Pentecost, all the knights had to swear
that they would do the things that we today still
use to define chivalry. He charged them never to do outrageousity or never do murder, and
always to flee treason, and by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto
him that asketh for mercy, upon forfeiture of their
worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore. In other words, they their honor and the lose whatever lands and titles that King Arthur had given to them. And always to do good to ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen succor,
upon pain of death. In other words, go out of your
way to help women in need. Also, that no man take no battles in wrongful quarrel for no law, nor for the world’s goods. So, you don’t fight in
order to take things for your own greed, you shouldn’t be motivated
by greed or arrogance. And this seems like a very necessary code for knights to abide by, when we’re talking about people
who were extremely powerful, who have the capacity
to do great violence, you don’t wanna have to
worry about them using that violence to hurt
those weaker than them, or to harass people that
have what they want. And even if you’re King Arthur, you need to keep your soldiers in check because they could be a threat to you, they could also be a threat to the people who would then blame
you for their behavior. So the Pentecostal Oath establishes, for a very practical reason, the higher order value of chivalry that we associate with Arthurian
literature to this day. However, not all Arthurian
literature is so chivalrous. Writing in the year
1190, an English writer, this is actually the
first Arthurian narrative in modern English. Geoffrey of Monmouth was
British, but he wrote in Latin. But this writer, named Layamon, it looks like Lay-a-man,
and I’ll say Lay-a-man because it’s easier than La-ha-man. But he’s actually translating
Geoffrey of Monmouth, but he’s adding a lot more material and we don’t know where he got
all of this other material. But Layamon’s version of Arthur doesn’t seem very chivalrous. Multiple times, Arthur is
using his military strength for conquest, and
conquest for its own end. Never mind the weak, never mind helping people that need help, just use force to show
that we’re the strongest and no one can stop us. And even in fits of rage, when a knight starts a fight in court, Arthur is so aggravated by this that he threatens to not
only punish that knight, that knight will be
drowned in a nearby swamp, but then he says, “Take
you all his dearest kin “that you can find and
strike the heads off of them “with your broad swords. “The women that you
find of his nearest kin, “cut of their noses, “and let their beauty go to destruction. “And I will destroy the whole
race that he came from.” In other words, all of his
family and all of the people that are of his identity group. And then he says that if
anybody else ever does, starts a fight in my court
the way this guys does, nothing’s gonna save him, he won’t be able to buy his way out of it. And Arthur wants everybody to
know that how serious he is, so he says, “Bring me
these religious relics, “and I will swear on them “that I will always
punish everyone this way.” For something that we
might see as something that should be restrained, but something that doesn’t justify Arthur’s lack of restraint, hurting not only the person who started a fight in Arthur’s Court, but also killing and
mutilating all of his kin and the people that
are from his community. Not exactly the chivalrous ideal. Now, these aren’t the only two
representations of chivalry, or lack of chivalry, but they show two, sort of, extremes. And we see literature evolving as ideas about martial valor revolving in the Middle Ages because knights are such a
powerful, potential threat, that’s precisely why culture
put some sort of reign on them, to keep them in check, keep
them from turning violent against people who
can’t defend themselves, keep them from becoming
a threat to society. And we do see chivalry being
developed in the literature, but it’s being developed gradually, and it’s not always consistent. And that sort of
channeling male aggression and sending it out into
the world is a theme, at the individual level, within what’s called the knight errant, that is a knight who wanders, who goes out in search of adventure. And most of Arthurian literature isn’t actually about King Arthur, or at least, King Arthur’s
a background character. Most narratives are
about one of his knights. That wasn’t always the case, with Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Layamon, and another French author named Wace, the initial focus was about
what Arthur himself did. And that was doing things
like conquering Rome, and fighting a giant, on the way to Rome, he stops at Mont-Saint-Michel, an island off the coast of
France, and fights a giant. That’s what the picture
in the middle depicts. The picture in the top left has King Arthur standing above the crowns of all of these kingdoms all over Europe that he supposedly conquered. Most of these earlier
works are about Arthur’s individual actions, but
most of the later works feature him as a background character, and it’s some other knight that rides out in search of adventure,
taking his aggression, his potential to do
violence and channeling it, hopefully, for good. He goes out looking for damsels to save or injustices to right. And, of course, he always find it. A narrative without conflict
isn’t gonna keep us interested. And, of course, the conflict is usually in the form of another knight
or several other knights, knights who do not show
the same level of chivalry, knights who are looking
for a fight just to fight, just to show their own strength, or knights who are abusing
the weaker people around them, it’s these knights that Arthur’s knights have to seek out, find, and beat, and kill them if necessary, but, of course, if any of
the knights that they defeat ask for mercy, they’re
supposed to give them mercy. But what we’re also gonna
see in some of the literature that we’re gonna read in this class is that sending knights
out helps to keep them from hanging around the court and ending up in fights with each other, but it also is itself a threat to Arthur because as long as his best
knights are out on adventures, they’re not there protecting
Arthur in his court, so that leaves Arthur
vulnerable to attacks from the usual enemies, the Saxons, the Irish coming across the sea, the Scots and Picts coming
down from the north, so there’s this balance. We have to keep most of
the knights around Arthur, but then send a few out at a time to go do things to
improve the wider realm. But we don’t want them
to stay gone too long, and we don’t want too many
knights to be gone at one time because then the kingdom’s in jeopardy. Another way to keep the knights from fighting with each other is to keep their egos in check, and you do that by not having a long table where the most important knights sit to the left and right of the king himself, and then every seat
further away from the king is a seat of less importance. Instead, Arthur, of
course, has the Round Table where everyone is equal,
everyone can see everyone else, there’s not an end of the table. In some versions, the Round Table can seat 1,600 knights, and Layamon tells us this, the Vulgate Tradition says more like 200, Robert de Boron says 50. One of these seats is the Siege Perilous, it’s the seat that is set aside for one unnamed knight that
is gonna be the purest knight and the most perfect knight, and eventually, that is
revealed to be Galahad, the son of Lancelot, who
eventually wins the Holy Grail in the Vulgate Tradition. And with the Round
Table, it just so happens that we have a physical
object we can point to and say, “There’s the Round Table.” In the top right corner, that
is the Winchester round table, which was discovered during
the Wars of the Roses and just so happened to have the colors of the House of Tudor painted on it, and so, quite conveniently,
for the Tudors, it pointed to the fact that they were descended from King Arthur. Well, if this seems a
little too convenient for the Tudors, who were
fighting with other families to prove their claim to the throne after a long and bloody and
divisive series of wars, that’s because it is. The dendrochronology, the counting the rings to
see how old the tree was, shows that it probably was
cut down around the year 1250, between 1250 and 1280. At the earliest, it probably dates back to the reign of Edward I, who was very found of
finding Arthurian artifacts that proved his descent from King Arthur. And not to be outdone,
Henry VIII had a picture of King Arthur painted on the table, and it just so happened King Arthur looked pretty much exactly like Henry VIII. So, is the Round Table historical? Well, yes, the thing is, the
history it tells us about is the history of the Wars of the Roses and not anything to do with King Arthur. But the story of the
Round Table first appears in a work called Roman de Brute by the French poet, Wace. Roman, we’re gonna see the
word Roman in a lot of titles, that’s just a French word
for novel or story of. And Brut here refers to
the legendary founder of Britain, named Brutus. But even though Wace is
translating Geoffrey of Monmouth, he’s adding a lot of things,
just like Layamon did. And one of the things he adds is the story about the Round Table. “Because of these lords about his hall “of whom each knight pained himself “to be the hardiest champion, “and none would count him
the least praiseworthy. “Arthur made a Round Table,
so reputed of the Britons.” So, Arthur’s creating this
table so that no one fights over who’s more praiseworthy
than anyone else. And when they sit down
to meet, to their dinner, their chairs should be high alike, equally prestigious. Their service is equally prestigious, equally relevant. “And none before or after his comrade,” no one is before or after, in front of or behind, his fellow knight. “Thus no man could boast “that he was exalted above his fellows, “for all alike were
gathered round the table, “and none was alien at the
breaking of Arthur’s bread.” So, the Round Table
that you can still visit hanging in the Winchester
Castle in southern England, unfortunately, can’t date back
beyond around the year 1250. The story is about 100
years older than that, but it only goes back to around 1155. Another characteristic
of Arthurian literature and of Knights of the Round Table is the ideal of courtly love. The High Middle Ages solved, sort of, a culture revolution when
it came to ideas about love. For much of the Middle Ages, at least if you were in the upper class, you had to marry who your
parents chose for you, there were arranged
marriages that had more to do with property than they
did with actual connection between two people. We see in the literature,
especially French literature, of the High Middle
Ages, and by that I mean late 1100s, early 1200s, and on. This idea that love transgresses the culturally established boundaries of what marriage is supposed to be. And courtly love, in particular, is not just being in love with someone, there’s always some sort
of conflict to the love. Either the love is unrequited and the lady doesn’t love
the knight that loves her, or there’s a love triangle, or frequently involves adultery, the woman that the knight
loves is already married, but he can’t put her out of his mind and he obsesses over the
object of his affection. The women in these portrayals
tend to be pretty passive, even if they’re in love with the knight, they don’t express it or
they express the opposite, the act as if they didn’t
want anything to do with him, even if they later admit that they were in love with him the whole
time or something like that. But something is preventing the love from going to the next level and being recognized and being legitimate in the cultural terms established
for people at this time. Now, even though that term, courtly love, dates back to a work
of scholarship in 1883, the idea that it describes, the scholar was actually describing the work called Lancelot,
or the Knight of the Cart, from the year 1177 by Chrétien de Troyes. And this is the first Arthurian step into the genre of courtly love. Now, the possible
exception of that statement is the story of Tristan, or Tristram, this seems to have been a story on its own that Tristan wasn’t originally
one of King Arthur knights, but it was such a popular
story about this knight who was in love with the wife of his king. And that just was such a
popular tale at the time, that it seems to have influenced Chrétien’s depiction of Lancelot in his text, the Knight of the Cart. But it was Chrétien de Troyes who really cemented this idea that the best kind of love story is a story where people can’t be together,
even if they want to be. Now, there were certain
conventions to courtly love, almost so formulaic that it
was the subject of parody in another one of Chrétien’s works, which is Perceval, or
the Story of the Grail, and in that, Perceval,
in the very beginning, is this very naive kid whose mother raised him away
from the rest of society, so he didn’t know anything
about how high society behaved. So, his mother told him
that, “You’ll meet a woman “that you’ll fall in love with, “and she’ll give you a kiss
and a token of her affection, “like a ring or something like that, “and that’s how you’ll know “that the courtship process has begun.” Well, he goes out and
the first woman he meets that he thinks is beautiful, he walks up and kisses
her and takes her ring without her consent, and
she’s just flabbergasted. So, some of these conventions
were already in place, were already being made fun of by 1182 by the same person who
really popularized this idea with Arthurian literature. But it’s that earlier
work, Chrétien’s Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, that has really linked Arthurian literature with this idea, and specifically with the
character of Lancelot. Lancelot, frequently
called Lancelot du Lac, Lancelot of the Lake, and he goes to Arthur’s Court and is the best knight. He’s the most chivalrous knight, but he’s also the most powerful knight. And he falls in love with
Guinevere, the Queen, who’s married to Arthur. And they can’t be together,
but Guinevere loves him, and he loves Guinevere. And in Chrétien’s accounts, they never actually get together, although the story of
their adultery does become a very powerful narrative thread within the French tradition, especially, and then eventually with Malory, it becomes one of the foundations
of Arthurian literature. But in this story, the Knight of the Cart, we see Lancelot for the first time. This is the first time
Lancelot has ever been named in any Arthurian literature
or any other literature, for that matter. The title, the Knight of the
Cart, comes from an episode in which Lancelot is on
his way to rescue Guinevere after she’s been captured
by an evil knight, and he rides all of the horses
that he can get ahold of until they die underneath him, he’s that obsessed, he’s in that much of
a hurry to get to her. And, of course, he’s a
knight, he’s wearing armor, he can’t just sprint, so once all the horses
he’s ridden are dead, his only way to get to where she is is to get on this cart,
and this guy comes along pulling a cart and he says,
“I’ll let you on my cart, “but be aware that we use this cart “to transport criminals.” So people don’t just ride around on carts, if we see somebody on the back of a cart, that means this person
is being taken to prison, this is a person of ill repute. So, he hesitates for two steps, but then he eventually gets on the cart. The driver takes him
to where Guinevere is, he fights several battles
and duels to get her back, and she refuses to speak to him, and he can’t imagine why
she refuses to speak to him. And along the way, everyone says, “Oh, that’s the Knight of the Cart, “that’s the shameful knight “who must have done something
horrible, dishonorable, “to be carried around on
the back of that cart.” And we at first think,
well, maybe Guinevere thinks that he’s done something shameful, that’s why he was on this cart. But it turns out she knew
that he hesitated two steps, she’s angry at him that he didn’t immediately jump on the cart, she’s angry at him for hesitating. So, it’s almost sort of a parody before the genre really takes off. But this our first look at Lancelot, and this one text set the paradigm for what courtly love romance should be. There should be this knight
who’s the best of all knights who goes and does the
usual things knights do, which is fight battles,
but that’s still not enough because the love that he seeks is one that he can’t fully achieve. In later literature,
Lancelot and Guinevere actually do sleep together, and they do carry on a
long adulterous affair without Arthur’s knowledge, but eventually, Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fey, finds out. Mordred, Arthur’s nephew and possible son, and later combined to be both, in later literature finds out,
and uses this as an excuse, to turn King Arthur against Lancelot. And this leads to a battle
between Lancelot and his allies and King Arthur and his allies. And the remaining Knights
of the Round Table who haven’t left to side with Lancelot. And it’s while there in France, fighting it out with each other, that Mordred tries to
take over the throne, and when he finds out, Arthur comes back, but it’s almost too late. He’s able to defeat Mordred, but he’s fatally wounded in the process. So, what starts out as a
simple, lighthearted tale about this knight who really
wants to prove himself to the woman that loves but he can’t have, turns into the fall of Camelot. But, despite being an adulterous affair, and despite setting in motion the fall of Arthur’s Round Table, this affair, in particular, and the idea of love
triangles and adultery and that sort of thing
in this genre of romance is treated very sympathetically. And, in fact, in a lot of the literature, it’s the ones who actually want to catch them and punish them, or the ones who want to
put an end to this affair that are shown to be the vengeful ones or the jealous ones or whatever. It’s Lancelot we’re
intended to sympathize with, even more so than Arthur. Arthur becomes even more
pathetic at this point. Not only, in later literature, does he just remain in the background and not going out like his knights do and going on quests, but now, his wife is cheating on him with his greatest knight,
his greatest ally. But we’re meant to think that, “Well, this is hurting Lancelot, too. “He doesn’t want this situation to be. “As it is, he can’t choose
who he falls in love with.” But he can’t not be preoccupied with her. But before Chrétien’s Lancelot, Knight of the Cart, narrative, there was no Lancelot. There was a tradition of Guinevere being an unfaithful queen. Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions that she was notoriously unfaithful to Arthur, but he conspicuously says,
“I’ll say no more about that.” He brings it up, but then he drops it, he doesn’t go into detail. But in Geoffrey’s account, it’s after Arthur goes to war
with Rome and then comes back that Mordred and Guinevere
have gotten together and tried to take the crown,
tried to take over the throne. So, in Geoffrey’s version, it’s Guinevere plotting along with Mordred to make Mordred the King. Whereas, in later accounts, Mordred kidnaps Guinevere,
but she’s there unwillingly, she’d much rather be with Lancelot. In Lancelot, Knight of the
Cart, by Chrétien de Troyes, and in later French literature, almost all later literature,
including Sir Thomas Malory, who uses the French
literature as his sources, Lancelot is the greatest knight, and Sir Gawain, or frequently in America,
pronounced Ga-Wane, but I’m gonna try to
stay closer to the Welsh, at least the modern Welsh
pronunciation of Gawain. Sir Gawain is the foil, he’s the one who is not as good in combat, he’s the one that’s not as honorable, not as courtly, not as
chivalrous as Sir Lancelot, so he’s usually represented
as very arrogant and self-righteous, and
he acts before he thinks. The thing is, this starts
with Chrétien de Troye’s Lancelot, Knight of the Cart, and it seems to be Gawain, in particular, who’s chosen to be a foil
with Lancelot for two reasons. One, is a pun on his name in French. In French, it’s Gauvain, and the last four letters being V-A-I-N, meaning the same thing French
as they do in English, vain. So, someone who looks the part, but doesn’t have the interior substance. The irony there being that this character is being portrayed a certain way just because of four letters
of his name, a sort of pun. But the other reason seems to be that he was, before Chrétien was writing, seems to be Arthur’s number one champion. This was the greatest of Arthur’s knights, and if you want to
introduce a new character, you have to do like the
Hollywood movies do, you can’t just say, “Here’s my version,” you have to say, “My version’s better “than everybody else’s
that has come before.” And that’s what Chrétien de Troyes does, and that’s that the
later French authors do. Of course, as a Frenchman,
Chrétien creates a French knight, Lancelot comes from Brittany. And, of course, the
French knight is gonna be better than the British knights in the eyes of the French author. But with Sir Gawain, we have a character that’s clearly much older. He shows up in the early Medieval story of Culhwch and Olwen as
one of Arthur’s knights, although his name in Welsh is Gwalchmai. He’s in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of
Britain as Gualganus. He shows up in Dutch and
German romances as Walewein, although if you read these in
the Dutch romance of Moriaen, it’s usually translated into Gawain, that’s the English version. Gawain appears in more
Arthurian literature than any other of Arthur’s knights because he was around before Lancelot, he had a headstart. But he even shows up in most
of the Lancelot narratives as the foil, as the one who’s
one of the best knights, but he’s not quite as good as Lancelot. This is just used to show
how good Lancelot really is. But by the time we get to Thomas Malory, he’s become almost the worst knight, the most arrogant, the most unchivalrous. And even his own brother, Sir Gareth, who shows up in Moriaen as Guerrehet, even he wants to be a good knight, so he idolized Lancelot and
not his own brother, Gawain. But this whole tradition of Gawain as this vengeful or vain or arrogant or brash or unchivalrous knight, all of this comes from
the French tradition, the Vulgate Cycle, and that comes from
Chrétien’s use of Gawain as the not quite as good
as Lancelot character. This is the tradition that Malory picks up in Le Morte d’Arthur. And because Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the most comprehensive accumulation of Arthurian narratives, that’s the representation of Gawain that makes it back into English. Now, if you read Gawain
and the Green Knight, you see a very different characterization of the same knight. He’s very virtuous, very chivalrous, very much the best knight in battle, but also the best knight for his virtue. And this goes all the way
back to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey tells the story of
Arthur’s invasion of Rome. In that battle, it’s Gawain
that actually turns the tide. Gawain leads a counterattack
against the Romans, and that’s why Arthur’s army
is ultimately successful. And that’s what you see depicted in the picture to the top right. So, without question, in
the earliest literature, Gawain is the most important
of Arthur’s knights. In the literature we’re
gonna read in this class, we’re gonna see that
that’s still the case, independent of the French tradition. Even in the case of Moriaen, we have the Dutch translation of the Lancelot Grail
Cycle, the Vulgate Cycle, that is looking at the French source, which does try to portray
Gawain negatively. But yet, this Dutch source is gonna rehabilitate Gawain, make him back into the formidable and virtuous
knight that he once was. We’ll also see his prominent role in the Marriage of Gawain and Ragnelle, where he thinks he’s making self-sacrifice, in order to benefit Arthur, to extract Arthur from a very
socially difficult situation. It turns out to be to his benefit, but he didn’t know that at the time. So, despite his negative treatment in a lot of the French narratives, and then later in Sir Thomas Malory, he does have his own tradition,
he does remain the hero in a lot of iterations
of Arthurian narrative. And in certain accounts, he’s even the one who achieves the Grail. By the way, if you’re
wondering about the three Coats of Arms at the top of the page, all three of those has been
attributed to Sir Gawain. The one in the middle is
probably the most famous because it’s described in detail in the poem, Gawain and the Green Knight, and it has all sorts of significance that the author of the poem goes on about, the symbolism of the five
points of the pentangle on the red shield. For the most part, in this class, I’m gonna use the one on the right because it’s the one that shows
up in a lot of the artwork, especially a lot of the later artwork. You can identify Gawain in the
Roman battle at the top right because he’s got the double eagle on his shield and on
his horse’s trappings. The thing is, these aren’t
consistent across literature, this is one of the things that
varies in all of the knights. But I’m just using these in this class to help visually represent the
knights we’re talking about. Well, if there’s one character
from Arthurian literature, other than Arthur himself,
and other than his knights, that would cause a text seem incomplete without his presence, that is the wizard, Merlin. Most versions that we’re
probably familiar with have Merlin involved
early in Arthur’s life where he enables Arthur’s birth by allowing Arthur’s
father, Uther Pendragon, to disguise himself as
the Duke of Tintagel, so that he can sleep with the
woman that he is in love with, although he’s in disguise. And then, after he dies, Merlin takes Arthur to
be raised anonymously. And when it’s time for
Arthur to show his Kingship, it’s Merlin that takes him to the sword where he pulls the sword
and reveals his identity, he takes him to the Lady of the Lake where he gets the same
sword or another sword, depending on the version. And shortly after that, his
narrative utility runs out, and so, he is seduced by either the Lady of
the Lake or Morgan le Fey or one of his pupils
with whom he’s in love who demands that if he wants her love, then he has to teach her all
of his magical abilities. He does this, and then
she uses this to trap him, either in a stone or in a tree or in a tower or several
different versions. But Merlin is definitely
an interesting character in his own right. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who
gives us the most complete story of the life of Arthur
earlier than anyone else, spends as much if not more
time telling about Merlin. In fact, he wrote a whole other work besides History of the Kings of Britain, called Vita Merlini, which
is The Life of Merlin. It is Geoffrey who first tells us the story of when Merlin was a child, he didn’t know who his father was and the implication is
he had been fathered by some supernatural father. And when King Vortigern
was building a tower to help in his defense
against the invading Saxons, the tower kept falling every
time his men tried to build it and Vortigern’s magicians told him, “If you have the blood
of a boy with no father, “we can sprinkle that
blood on the ground here “and that will enable
us to build a tower.” They overhear that
Merlin, who’s still a boy, has no father, so they bring him there, and they’re gonna sacrifice him, but he asks what this
is about, they tell him, and he tells the
magicians, “You’re idiots. “You don’t know what you’re doing. “Don’t you know what’s underneath there? “Underneath the ground is
a lake, an underwater pond, “and in that lake is a container
with two dragons in it, “a red one and a white one, “and they’re fighting with each others, “and that’s why you
can’t build their tower.” So, they dig up the two dragons, they find it’s exactly as he said, and the red dragon eventually
defeats the white dragon and then flies away, and this
is a sign of future events. The white dragon represents
the Saxon invaders, and the red dragon
represents the native Welsh, and eventually, the Welsh
are gonna defeat the invaders and be victorious. So, a story that involves
prophecy and magic seems like the perfect
origin story for Merlin. The only problem is that
long before Geoffrey gives us this account about Merlin, the Welsh Annals tells us
about a guy named Ambrosius, in Latin, in Welsh, it’s Emrys, who does exactly the same thing. He’s the kid that tells the story about the red dragon underneath the ground where Vortigern is building his tower. And this Emyrs, or Ambrosius Aurelianus, we’re going to see is an
actual historical figure, and is mentioned in Arthurian
literature very early, as either a brother of Vortigern or a brother of Arthur’s father, Uther, but it doesn’t seems to be Merlin. And it seems that in
Geoffrey’s imagination, Ambrosius and Merlin are the same person. But Merlin is also based on a possibly historical
figure named Lailoken, who was a bard from northern Britain, either Scotland or the
very far north of England. And even though many people tend to assume that Merlin has some sort of origin as a druid figure, a Celtic druid, he’s actually called a bard, and, of course, a bard is someone who travels around singing stories, but bards for centuries
before the conversion of the Britons to Christianity, Julius Caesar and others confirmed that bards had an almost
semi-divine status, just like the druids did. The druids were the ones
who performed the rituals and made laws and that sort of thing, but the bards were the ones
who were the knowledge keepers. They were the ones who
could remember the past because they could remember the stories, and potentially, they were the ones who could see into the future. And this bard, Lailoken, was
at the Battle of Arfderydd, and his allies lost the battle, and he seems to have
blamed himself and gone mad and went to live out in
the woods as a wild man. And it was at this time that
he got the gift of prophecy. This figure of Lailoken later merges with the name, Myrddin,
which seems to come from the Welsh city of Caerfyrddin, or Carmarthen, as it’s pronounced today, and seems to be a back formation where somebody said, “Well, Caer is the name for a fortress. “And so, that’s Caerfyrddin,
is the fortress of Myrddin, “so this must be the found of this city.” Well, these two names merged
into the same character. And it’s this Myrddin that
Geoffrey is writing about, the problem is he’s writing in Latin, and if you translate Myrddin
into it’s Latin equivatlent, it would be Merddin, and to a Norman French speaker, it sounds like you’re saying
this is Shitty, the Bard. So, he chooses the more
elegant name, Merlin, that rolls off the tongue
a little bit better. So, Geoffrey develops this character, combines lots of different
narrative threads into this one character, and has him having the gift of prophecy, but also has him directing
and mentoring King Arthur, but also, seems to
acknowledge that he lived much longer than a normal human lifespan, and he also has him building Stonehenge as a battlefield marker. Geoffrey implies that Merlin’s parentage is supernatural on his father’s side, but he doesn’t go much further than that. Later, Robert de Boron, his tale of Merlin develops the story to have Merlin’s mother is a nun who is raped in the night
by a demon, an incubus. And this was a part of a demonic plan to have an anti-Christ on earth, it would do the devil’s bidding. The thing is, Merlin turned on them, and he retained his evil magical powers, but he used them for good instead of evil. And again, that starts
with Robert de Boron around the year 1200. Later traditions, like the Vulgate Cycle, introduced the narrative
about him being seduced by Nimue or Vivien or the Lady of the Lake or all of the above, using his own magic
against him to entrap him. But that comes much later
and it doesn’t coincide with the idea that he lives long after the fall of King Arthur. So, it appears that one of the reasons that Merlin is such an
interesting character is because he was developed so
many times by so many authors but he also seems to have evolved from so many different characters from so many different narratives. Another element of Arthurian mythology, which seems to be just as
integral as Merlin to the mythos, and yet, has been through
probably just as many changes, is the Holy Grail. Now, as we understand
it today, the Holy Grail is the cup that Jesus
used at the Last Supper, and in which Joseph of Arimathea caught his blood when he was on the Cross. And the tradition holds
that Joseph of Arimathea brought that cup, as well as the lance, that appears to Jesus’ side, and the platter that was
used at the Last Supper, brought all three of
those items to England, where it was kept at a
chapel that Arthur’s knights eventually had to go and find. But it remained hidden, all
these items remained hidden, until the Grail appeared to Arthur and his Knights at the Round Table, and Arthur’s knights
all went off after that miraculous appearance, went off on a quest in order to find it and recover it and bring it back. But only the purist of all
Arthur’s knights could find it, and that is Sir Galahad,
the son of Lancelot. Now, if you’re scratching your head because you don’t remember anything about the Holy Grail in the Bible, even reading about the Last Supper, there’s no mention of specifically
what kind of cup he used and what happened to it after that, well, that’s because it’s
not a Biblical story. The Grail, as it’s described
in Arthurian literature, dates back only to the Perceval, or the Story of the Grail
by Chrétien de Troyes, the same author who introduced Lancelot. Chrétien’s Le Conte du Graal,
The Story of the Grail, in 1182, is the first
text to mention the Grail. And it’s not described as the Holy Grail, it’s just a grail, it has no origin story. The young knight, Sir Perceval, comes upon this otherworldly castle, and there’s a wounded king
there called the Fisher King, and while he’s talking
with the Fisher King, he sees this procession
of these three objects, a lance, a platter, and a grail, and he doesn’t ask what these things are. And earlier in the narrative, Perceval had asked all sorts of questions because he didn’t know anything about knighthood and courtly society, and he’d been embarrassed
for asking these questions by people who mocked him
for not knowing the answers. So, he’s sort of given up his curiosity, or he’s suppressed it, and
it becomes a great tragedy because he finds out afterwards, after he’s wakes up the next morning in a forest with no castle around. He finds out that if he only
asked who did the grail serve, then he would’ve healed
the Fisher King’s wound and ended this curse that
was put on the castle and all the people there. After this event, he
tells Arthur’s knights about what he’s seen and he
vies go to find that grail and find that castle
again and ask this time, so that he can heal the King. We don’t know if he’s successful because Chrétien didn’t finish the story, so that leaves it
well-open for speculation. It wasn’t until Robert de
Boron picked up the story and his history of the Grail and another story called Perlesvaus, or Perceval, around the year 1200. That’s when the Grail
becomes the Holy Grail, that’s when the Grail
becomes the Cup of Christ. It’s Robert de Boron that has Joseph of Arimathea come to Britain, there’s no apparent
source material for this. Just like in his Merlin text, Robert de Boron takes a material that has been in oral tradition, or it comes from Chrétien, or maybe both, and he puts a distinctly religious interpretation to everything. So, Merlin is no longer just a prophet, he’s someone who must’ve been, because Robert de Boron
and Christians at the time refused to see pre-Christian
Celtic mythology, or supernatural beliefs, as anything other than devil worship. So, that meant that if
Merlin was a magician, he had to be connected to the devil, so that’s when Robert de Boron creates the story that he
was part of a demonic plan, but he chose to do the
right thing instead, rejected and turned away
from the devil, converted. Similarly, the Grail couldn’t just be some sort of magic vessel
that keeps this person alive, it can’t be of significance, unless it’s this very religious object that’s connected directly
to God or to Jesus. And the way both he and Chrétien
describe the Grail itself is kind of vague, as far as
what the object looks like, we typically have a
concept of this chalice because that ends up being how it’s represented in later art, but if you’ll notice the
picture on the left side, it just looks like this sort of soup bowl that Joseph is using to
catch Christ’s blood. And that’s originally what grail meant, it wasn’t a platter, but it wasn’t a cup, it was a sort of a bowl. And after Robert de Boron,
it’s in the Vulgate Cycle, in the Prose Lancelot,
that Galahad is introduced. The character of Galahad
is new at this point. He’s the son of Lancelot,
and he’s pure of mind, pure of body, specifically, sexually pure, and, of course, in a tradition that is frequently being
written down by monks, like Robert de Boron, people who have taken vows of chastity. Well, of course, the
highest virtue is chastity, so Galahad is the most
chaste of all the knights, so he’s the one that is the purest and he’s the only one
that gets to actually achieve the Grail. In this later version,
Perceval is also a virgin, but he has lusted,
whereas Galahad has never even been tempted to sexual sin. So, Perceval doesn’t
actually achieve the Grail. And, of course, Lancelot, despite being the best of all the knights, in combat and in chivalry,
and that sort of thing, he has had an affair with
Guinevere, so he’s ruled out. He gets to see the Grail at a distance, but he doesn’t actually get
to find the Grail castle, like Galahad and Perceval do. But like Merlin, there
seems to be some connection to beliefs of a pre-Christian world that Robert de Boron and other authors had to really reinterpret to
give religious significance to. If we look further back
in Arthurian literature, we can look to Culhwch
and Olwen around 1100, in which one of the quests
that King Arthur goes on is a quest to obtain a magic cauldron that serves unlimited food to whoever possesses it. And that’s certainly not
the only Celtic story about a magic cauldron. In the Irish book, the Labor Gabala Erenn, the Book of Invasions of Ireland, we get the story of the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the head of that family of gods is called the Dagda, or the Good God, and he has two magical objects. One is a club that can
kill people at one end and bring them back to
life at the other end, and the other thing is this magic cauldron that never runs dry. The Dagda seems to be the Irish version of the Continental God, Sucellus, that has a club or a hammer in one hand and this bowl in the other, a bowl of everlasting rejuvenation. And across the Celtic world, and even on the borders and
outside the Celtic world, we find Celtic objects like this cauldron, this is called the Gundestrup cauldron, it’s from the location of Gundestrup in the northern tip of Denmark, which is primarily Norse cultural area, but we find this cauldron thrown into a bog and the designs are very clearly Celtic. Although, it was actually made in Thrace, which is almost down to Greece, but in an area that was settled by Celts for most of the Iron Age. And the reason it was thrown into a bog is same reason we find
a lot of Celtic objects across Europe down in the bottom of lakes and that sort of thing, where they seem to be
thrown for sacrifices. And these are really ornate objects, really wealthy, signs of wealth, that people aren’t just losing, but they’re actually throwing
them down into these lakes, and this is very likely the
origin of a current custom of throwing money into
fountains, especially coins. A version of this God, the Dagda, is actually portrayed on
the Gundestrup cauldron. In this image, it shows these
warriors walking toward him and being dipped into this cauldron and then riding away on horseback, presumably, this procession of warriors in life eventually go to the other world and they are given this
new life after being, not just getting a sip from the cauldron, but actually being dipped
headfirst into this cauldron. So, whatever its origin, the Holy Grail, or at least cauldrons that
warriors win in quest of that could give them better health or everlasting life or whatever, goes way, way back in
Celtic oral tradition, and it shows up here and there in the literature that we have. But, of course, we get very
clear change in the narrative in Chrétien’s Perceval,
or the Story of the Grail. But then, it’s still just a grail, it has magical properties,
it’s part of a ritual, and it’s actually used for communion, but there’s in indication
it’s the Cup of Christ, there’s no indication that
the lance is the Holy Lance, and that sort of thing. It’s only with Robert de Boron
that we have this deliberate re-crafting of a secular and
potentially mythological tale that is re-crafted into a very symbolic Christian allegory. And, of course, it doesn’t end there, there’s gonna be different
variations on the grail, some coming very quickly in 1210, Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German, has a very global
narrative about the grail. So, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsival has a very international scope, there are Muslims there, there are people from the Middle East, there are people from India, they’re all part of this
brotherhood of the grail. The thing is, the grail
isn’t a cup or a chalice, or a bowl at all, it’s a stone. The one thing it seems to
have in common with the grail is it’s something you
have to go in quest of. And that’s why we use the phrase “the Holy Grail of” something to indicate there’s this one thing
everybody in this domain is trying to find, the
one thing that would change the world if we
only had access to it. And in that sense, that’s
the way it functions in all of Arthurian
literature, it’s not so much what the grail itself does
or where it comes from or what it’s composed of, it’s the fact that it’s
something to go in quest after. It is an object of the quest. So, it so may not surprise us that some of the more fanciful elements of Arthurian literature have
a particular point of origin, Merlin, Excalibur, the Holy
Grail, the Round Table, these things we may not except
to have historical ties. But we still wonder, we still want to find where did the core come from? Who was Arthur himself? Where was Camelot? When and where and why
did something happen that set these stories into motion? And we’ll talk about
that in the next lecture.

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