One of the books in my special pre-Christmas parcel was Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the Arthurian legends. I fell in love with King Arthur and his knights of the round table through reading Mary Stewart when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t read any other versions since, mostly because I had such lovely memories I didn’t want them overwritten. In fact now, the only memory that remains is that of the pleasure I took in reading. The stories themselves I had almost completely forgotten. Rosemary Sutcliff’s version derives mostly from Mallory, and comes in the form of a trilogy – The Sword and the Circle, which tells of the start of Arthur’s court and the creation of the round table, detailing the famous legends of the knights: Lancelot and Guenever, Lancelot and Elaine, Tristan and Isolde, Gawain and the Green Knight, and so on; The Light Beyond The Forest, which tells of the quest for the Holy Grail and The Road to Camlann, concerning the fall of Arthur. Her voice recalls the traditional oral storytellers who carried these tales through the centuries, clear, vivid, rich in incident and mystery. It’s been a very satisfying read, and a surprisingly appropriate one for the season.
The origin of the Arthurian romances is complex. If there was a real Arthur, then he was a warrior in the fifth to sixth centuries, immortalized in Celtic myth. The stories we know rose to prominence in the twelfth century through the jolly and highly inventive history of British Kings written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which the coming of Arthur heralded the only bright spot of the Dark Ages. But it took the French poet, Chretien de Troyes, to turn them into a literary genre. He added a much larger list of characters and moved the action away from Arthur (who ends up a bit idle and bland in consequence) to encompass the broad range of legends we have today. They were particularly popular with women readers, who otherwise had the likes of Beowulf (solely about men at war) or else Chaucer (bawdy comedy) on their bookshelves. But their influence was far more pervasive. De Troyes was writing about an ideal society, one that didn’t exist in his own time, but one whose values and morals would become increasingly important over the next two centuries.
The Knights of the Round Table embody the principles of chivalry, a mixture of social codes and moral ethics, profoundly influenced by Christianity. There was a distinct set of rules and regulations to be followed, including the protection of the liege, or lord, defence of the weak or poor, obedience to those in authority, dedication to the pursuit of honor, truth and glory, the refusal of financial gain, as well as of deceit or injustice, commitment to the cause of right above might, acceptance of all challenges and the maintenance of loyalty to one’s fellow knights, and to the tenets of the church. The stories that have passed down to us find Arthur’s Knights being challenged over and again to abide by their principles, even under the most taxing of circumstances. Those that succeed are rewarded by love, glory or simply an enhanced reputation, but they are most affected by their own appraisal of their self-worth. A Knight is judged most severely by his own heart, as to whether or not he has fulfilled his duty to valour. Effectively, this was a way of civilizing the man of war; no longer would he be driven by pure aggression or greed; instead, fighting became stylized, idealized and grounded in principles. But for all that Christianity had entered the heart of the feudal soldier, so the cause of warfare had entered the heart of the Church, as the Crusades (which lasted from 1095 to 1291) ably showed.
But it wasn’t all about fighting. In fact, love was every bit as important. The era of courtly love was ushered in by the Arthurian romances, and exemplified by the stories of Lancelot and Guenever and Tristan and Isolde. Essentially, the courtly love affair took place between the Knight and the wife of his Lord; it was a relationship that stood to be adulterous, only the point of it was idealized longing. In the name of his Lady, to whom he would be as loyal and dedicated as to his Lord, the Knight engaged in battle in order to bring honor to her name. At a time when marriage was an affair of lands and money, it was all too likely that a Lady would prefer the dashing young Knight, usually a penniless younger son who sought a living in her household, to her husband. Some historians think that the concept of courtly love was in part a way of guiding and regulating these sorts of relationships. But for the literary dimension of these tales, courtly love was a sort of fictional exploration of character under the extreme duress of unrequited adoration. There was a real interest in what love could do to people, particularly at its outer limits. And the legacy of courtly love was to make the whole arena of romance the domain of women, not that this had any real impact on their rights or their social situation, but it gave them a permitted realm of power and imaginative adventure.
Finally, it is intriguing to watch the magical and the supernatural become subsumed into the power of religion in these tales. The first book in Sutcliff’s trilogy, The Sword and the Circle, begins with Merlin, a human embodiment of magical power, and part of a race of people who have access to mystical ways. Over the course of their wanderings, knights will often come across enchanted domains, or combatants wielding special abilities, and only their innate goodness and their adherence to the rules keeps them safe and out of danger. By the second book, The Light Through The Forest, the aimless searching for adventure that is part of the Knight’s duty becomes a giving over of the self to God and his unfolding plan. God is evoked repeatedly as the dispenser of salvation or judgment, and all numinous occurrences become proof of his existence. This book is concerned with the quest for the Holy Grail, or the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, and it appears to the court of Camelot in blinding white light, transforms the meal they are eating into something more delicious than earthly food, and disappears abruptly. Otherworldly power becomes inseparable from the divine, and the divine is the realm of the Christian God. This is spirituality as sublime awe, and it makes a formidable conjunction with the ethics that lie at the heart of the Arthurian court. If there was a Golden Age of religion, it must surely have been this era.
But there is no need to read the books for any of these broader meanings. The Arthurian legends are beautiful stories in their own right, passionate and exciting and poignant. I’ve loved becoming acquainted with them again. And given that Arthur’s court met regularly at Christmas and Pentecost, they are surprisingly full of seasonal scenes.
* from Kellscraft Studio’s version of King Arthur