In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher and statesman, describes his disappointment in how the French thought of Marie Antoinette, their Queen: "I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is gone forever."
Like many of his contemporaries, Burke had read Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, a collection of tales and exploits of England's greatest and most world-renown figure: King Arthur. Burke assumes that his reader will immediately understand what he means by "chivalry": defending the honor of a royal woman by means of physical force. This idea of stouthearted men defending helpless ladies — along with the ideals of the Round Table and the Quest for the Holy Grail — may be somewhat clichéd in the twenty-first century, rooted in an imaginary past. Yet these ideas are still very much a part of our experience and culture, and an examination of the Arthurian myth can help clarify the historical and literary sources of such thinking.
Was There a Real King Arthur?
While some modern Americans may think of Great Britain as the cradle of refined, European civilization, medieval Britain was a violent and war-torn place marked by endless invasions, broken alliances, and defeated hopes. Although the Romans intended to stabilize the borders of Briton (and subdue its population of Celts), by 407, the Empire had completely withdrawn all of its forces in order to defend its own interests in Italy. This left Britain a self-governed, yet chaotic, island, and without the Roman legions to defend them, the Britons found themselves under constant attack from different bands of pagan invaders. Picts attacked from the north (present-day Scotland) and Scotts attacked from the west (present-day Northern Ireland). 446 marked the Anglo-Saxon invasion, when hordes of Germanic warriors swept into the island. According to David Day, author of The Search for King Arthur, "If ever a people needed a champion, it was the Britons of the late fifth century." The Britons needed a leader who could unite their forces against the constant threats of invasion.
Such a leader was found in a Romanized Briton named Artorius — "Arthur" in its British form — who led the Britons to victory against the Saxon, Pict, Scot, and Irish hordes. Also known as the Dux Bellorum or "Duke of Battles," Artoris made such an impression on the Britons — and on their enemies — that he became a symbol of strength, defiance, and bravery. Over time, Artoris the Dux Bellorum, was transformed into the legendary King Arthur found in poetry, prose, theater, and film. Although he did not pull a sword from a stone or create a real Round Table, Artoris, through his military prowess, created something much more lasting: a legendary figure that has come to embody all of England's virtues, much in the same way that Superman has done for the United States.
Arthur in Literature
Although the legends of King Arthur had existed for hundreds of years in ballads and popular folk songs, it was not until 1135 that the first extensive biography of Arthur was written. This first recounting of Arthur's life appears in The History of the Kings of Britain, a pseudo-historical work written by a Norman cleric known as Geoffrey of Monmouth (about 1100-1154). Geoffrey's version of the myth lays the groundwork for future versions: He mentions Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, his marriage to Guenever (who, in The History of the Kings of Britain, is the daughter of a Roman nobleman), and the king's betrayal by Mordred. However, Geoffrey also adds that Arthur seized Paris and almost conquered all of Rome, were it not for the fact that the treachery of Mordred called him back to Britain to fight against the usurper. As Shakespeare did with some of his history plays, Geoffrey reconstrued "history" into a story with a clear political agenda: in this case, to use the life of Arthur as a way to justify the idea that the Norman French were destined to become a force as great as the Roman Empire.
The most famous account of Arthur's life, however, is one written by Sir Thomas Malory (about 1410-1471). A criminal who often found himself in jail, Malory was nonetheless gifted with a fantastic imagination that allowed him to compile different versions of the Arthurian myth and shape them into a sometimes uneven but overall coherent whole. His Le Morte D'Arthur ("The Death of Arthur") was written — in prison — between March of 1469 and March of 1470. Using the Vulgate Cycle, a thirteenth century compilation of Old French tales of Lancelot, the Quest for the Grail, and the death of Arthur, Malory fashioned a book so popular that it was one of the first books printed in England. The printer, William Caxton (about 1422-1491) is now believed to have freely edited Malory's book in order to make his separate tales fit into more of a whole. (The book's only surviving manuscript was found in 1934 and was not written in Malory's hand.) Caxton's introduction to Le Morte D'Arthur reveals his moral (as opposed to financial) intentions in publishing the book: "I . . . present this book following; which I have emprised to imprint; and treateth of the noble acts, feats of arms of chivalry, prowess, hardiness, humanity, love, courtesy and very gentleness, with many wonderful histories and adventures."
Le Morte D'Arthur is at once a tumultuous adventure story and a guide to chivalric ideals. Its characters constantly attempt to live by the codes of chivalry — a system of beliefs that holds that the strong must defend the weak; a knight must struggle to maintain his purity; and that the individual must subsume his own desires and even his identity — under the wings of a greater good. Malory's book begins with the betrayal of Cornwall by Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, and ends with the death of Arthur at the hands of Mordred, Arthur's ill-conceived son. In its pages can be found the now-famous stories of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and the adultery of Lancelot and Guenever. All of these tales serve as moral instruction as well as inspiring reading. Like many other epics, Le Morte D'Arthur features a central figure who desperately tries to maintain his ideals despite the constant threats to undo them. Also like many mythical figures, he falls because of his own actions (conceiving Mordred with his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay) and is destroyed because of an event that occurred far in his past.
Since Malory's time, many other writers have shown an interest in the Arthurian myth. The Puritan poet John Milton considered the Arthurian myth as the basis for an epic poem, but eventually decided to use Adam and Eve (the result was Paradise Lost). The Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson reworked many of the legends into his Idylls of the King; Mark Twain saw the legends as a means by which he could satirize his contemporaries and composed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The twenty-first century is showing a great resurgence of Arthurian literature and scholarship: Novelists still draw on the Arthurian legends for inspiration, and universities widely offer courses in Arthurian literature. Although King Arthur is forever associated with England, the values he struggles to preserve and the conflicts he faces are universal, making him a figure with worldwide appeal.