Arthurian Romance

The Sword in the Stone*

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.

Lancelot and Guinevere

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

11 thoughts on “Arthurian Romance

  1. I didn’t know Sutcliff had so many Arthur books. I read her Sword at Sunset and liked it very much. It is more modern, historical approach to the story, no magic no legends, just fallible people. I’ll have to give these a go sometime.

  2. I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon as an older teenager and loved it. It definitely got me interested in the Arthurian legends. I shall have to try the Sutcliff books. But I must say that most of my Arthur education comes from the French TV comedy called Kaamelott. If you haven’t seen this Litlove, you must go to youtube or Daily Motion and check out a few episodes. They are all five minutes long and absolutely hilarious. The earlier seasons are much more funny than the later seasons, when the show turned a bit more dramatic. But Alexandre Astier (the creator who also plays Arthur) tried very hard to remain faithful to many of the legends, despite the fact that it’s a comedy.

  3. I’ve never read the Arthurian legends in any form, so what I know about them comes from what other people have said (and this is a very informative post!). Perhaps I should read them one day. Sutcliffe’s retelling sounds like a good place to do that.

  4. So you received your parcel? I hope that cheered you up a bit 🙂
    Maybe I should try one day to read something like this. I wouldn’t have liked it before, but as my tastes are changing, I might enjoy it now…

  5. I hope this means your errant package found its way home? I also read the Mary Stewart books and was captivated by them and you might not be surprised that that started a little binge of all sorts of book collecting having to do with Arthur and the Knights, though sadly it’s a task I’ve not taken up to read my books. I have the Mallory in a nice hefty volume, which I’m a little afraid I might be lost reading, but maybe I should start with the Sutcliffe books. I tend to be the sort of person that does just read for the broader story, but I do love hearing the deeper meanings to these tales. Maybe I should make reading Arthurian tales another little project for next year….

  6. This post – fascinating! I also loved your reply to my comment a while a go – had no idea Lancelot was ugly, but irresistible. I don’t suppose you know whether he was ugly by the standards of the day, or if it sounds like we would view him as still ugly now? Did you watch Simon Armitage’s look at the origins and changes to the legend during BBC2’s Norman season did you? Very interesting to hear about the possible Welsh origins of Arthur (got to dig out that book about the Welsh wars). You’ve really made me want to pull out my illustrated copy of Mallorey’s tale in January.

  7. Lilian – you’re very welcome! I found out that I loved them still.

    Stefanie – ahh, I thought there ought to be a novelistic approach but couldn’t find it – this was what came up first in my search. I will have to look out for that one, too!

    Michelle – I will certainly look those episodes up on youtube – I hadn’t heard of that series at all! I wondered about reading Marion Zimmer Bradley, but it was a bit long for the time I had available. One of these days, though, I hope to get to it!

    Melissa – some of the stories will be wonderful for your boys, Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance. The more romantic ones will depend on their tastes as they grow up! But they are good read-aloud stories, that’s for sure.

    Dorothy – I’m wondering whether these legends aren’t so well known in America as in Britain? They are quite bound up with our culture and its traditional stories, one way or another. I’d love to know what you think of them if you do read them!

    Em – yes! My books did eventually arrive, and they cheered me up enormously. And I also found that my tastes changed a lot over the years, and that they change still. Thankfully, I seem to just like more things, not less! 🙂

    Danielle – I’m wondering about reading more Arthurian legend in different forms. I’ve got Philip Reeve’s version, Here Lies Arthur, and also the first two of the Bernard Cornwall trilogy. So I’ll join you if you feel like reading more! Perhaps I should revisit Mary Stewart, because they were just fab, weren’t they? I don’t think it matters what you read for – these are wonderful stories, whatever level you engage with them. 🙂

    Jodie – I almost got my copy out to quote! But the book describes him as asymmetrical in his face, one side with calm features, the other wild, and one of his exploits turns him prematurely grey. So, I guess the implication is that his face is strange and unusual by anyone’s standards. I never saw the Simon Armitage program! I’ll have to see if it’s available on catch-up – that sounds really interesting. And I ought to look out the original Mallory – it is true that reading about King Arthur leads to more reading about King Arthur!

    Anthony – thank you for that – I had no idea I’d done it! I’ll edit the post accordingly….

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