The story of King Arthur is one of the most flexible and enduring narratives to emerge from mediaeval literature. Having undergone a thousand permutations, it can be found in books (like Arianna Franklin’s Grave Goods) and in films. On the BBC, the tale has been rewritten for the family programme Merlin. Now in its fourth series, the show follows the slow entry into manhood of Arthur, a thoroughly chivalrous but very young king. Although not without faults, the BBC’s Arthur is a paragon of virtue and a knight striving after the heroic ideal who will, so the show promises, usher in a golden age for Britain.
In fact, Arthur’s standing as not only a king, but also as a kind of messianic saviour, is well-attested in the mediaeval Welsh literature. Gerald of Wales, a 12th century clerical author, explained that the Welsh sought the return of Arthur, who would lead them to reconquer the island of Britain and restore it to their rule. The political dimensions of this belief meant that ownership of Arthur’s legend became a contentious affair. The bones of Arthur were even allegedly uncovered on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, where Gerald went to examine them. His description of the scene testifies to the allure and the promise attached to Arthur’s legend:
“In our own lifetime Arthur’s body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot. The body was hidden deep in the earth in a hollowed-out oak bole and between two pyramids….They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and buried it decently there in a marble tomb.” (Gildas, p.281).
Despite finding a body (of goodness knows whom), neither the English nor the Welsh buried his political associations. Thus, in the 13th century, when the conquest of England by Wales was nearly complete, King Edward I ventured to Glastonbury to inter the famous king again. An extravagant piece of political theatre, the gesture demonstrated once and for all that Arthur would not return, that the Welsh would not regain control of the island now dominated by England.
When we travel further back in King Arthur’s history, to the time before he became an international mediaeval phenomenon, we find that his reputation was nearly as contentious. In one of his earliest appearances, the Welsh tale How Culhwch Won Olwen, Arthur is portrayed as the archetypical hero-king. He has all of the possessions a hero requires, including a ship named Prydwen, a sword named Caledfwlch, a spear named Rhongomyniad, a shield named Wynebwrthucher, a dagger named Carnwennan, and a wife, named Gwenhwyfar. He is surrounded by an equally extensive retinue of heroes, who feast at his hall, and he routinely goes out to slay monsters.
This strong, if not perhaps knightly, presentation of Arthur is not at all similar to the way he was viewed by the clerical writer Lifris. In the latter’s biography of Saint Cadog, (a Welsh holy man) Arthur is a lay-about and hooligan–the type of man who, on witnessing the abduction of a young woman, considers snatching her for himself rather than rescuing her. While Arthur’s dire reputation in this text may be a reflection of religious prejudice, it illustrates how radically his image can be alter to serve a purpose.
Is it any surprise that, centuries later, we’re still reinventing his story?
Gerald of Wales’ accounts of the discovery of Arthur’s grave can be found in two of his works, excerpts of which have been translated by Lewis Thorpe, The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales, (London, 1978).
Information about the appropriation of Arthur by Edward I can be found in Marc Morris’s accessible biography A Great and Terrible King, (London, 2008).
How Culhwch Won Olwen, trans. Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (Oxford, 2007), pp.179-213.