The Arthurian Romances were written in the 12th century. Yet, before then, the legends of Arthur had existed and had been famous. In fact, Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances is one in a long line of stories sharing the legacy of Arthur. Yet, even Chretien’s famous tales started their own legacies, legacies which are still seen in both academia and pop culture today. King Arthur did not begin with Chretien de Troyes. While it was the Arthurian Romances written by Chretien de Troyes that made who is believed to be the Welsh king popular, there were a couple other stories written about the character beforehand.
He was first mentioned by Gildas during the 6th century in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britiannae. In the 9th century Nennius mentions him in his Historia Brittonum during which he states that Arthur fought 12 battles against the Saxons. This aligns with what historians believe Arthur might have been a part of if he had existed. If Arthur did exist, it is believed that he would have led the charge of the Welsh resistance on the West Saxons during the 5th century and into the early 6th.
These stories of the Welsh king weren’t brought to Europe until the 12th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth spoke of Arthur in his Historia regum Britanniae. After this Chretien begins his rise to fame in terms of Arthurian legends. Written for the Lady of Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor de Aquitaine and Henry II, the classic Arthurian romances were created, including “Eric and Enide” and the “Knight of the Cart” which we read in class. Chretien’s stories were the first of their kind and their legacy was immediate. In the 13th century, the Vulgate cycle stories began.
These stories, originally credited to Walter Map (a clerk of Henry II) and then to a group of Cisterian monks included: L’Estorie del saint Graal, Merlin, and Prose Lancelot. After the Vulgate cycle came the Post-Vulgate cycle which took the stories of Arthur and put them into chronological order. These stories would remain popular, being told time and time again in different forms. The stories of King Arthur are still studied today as seen in not only our class but in universities in the US and Europe as well. One reason that these stories are still studied is because they reflected the desires of those who were listening.
The romances were composed for women in comparison to contemporary pieces like The Song of Roland, for this reason one sees a focus on ideals such as romance and chivalry. Furthermore, since the story is composed for women, there is an increase of women with names and women who are important to the story. While still portrayed in somewhat stereotypical roles of needing to be rescued by men, these women were not merely mentioned in the story once to be flung away once their time in the spotlight is over. The women in the two stories are integral to the story as a whole.
Another reason for the continued study of the romances is the anachronisms within the stories. These anachronisms hint at what is popular at the time said story was written and the author’s perceptions of the past. For example, in Chretien’s romances, jousting and tournaments are not only popular but also major plot points within the stories. However, these activities did not become popular until the 11th century. Lastly, these stories are still studied for their overall effects on history. In British history, a clear example is what happened in the 1480s.
In 1485 King Henry VII took office, hoping to be like Arthur. In 1486, Tomas Malory wrote Death of Arthur, where Camelot falls, singling out Winchester as Camelot and hinting that this was the end of the knightly golden age. To fight this, Henry VII’s oldest son was baptized Prince Arthur. Unfortunately, he died before he could make any changes. This job fell to Arthur’s younger brother who would become King Henry VIII and form the Winchester Round Table. This is only one example in British history where Arthurian ideals were applied to the real world and politics.
Although not American in any way shape or form, many are able to compare America and its history of struggle and triumph to that of Camelot. Throughout the Arthurian legends, the characters are often placed on a quest, going to the unknown to achieve an impossible feat. Some liken this to the westward expansion of the US, where pioneers were heading into the seemingly unknown to try and colonize the ‘wild’. Great risk is associated with both journeys, but the prize is always believed to be worth it. Another instance would be the American Space Race against the Soviet Union.
During the space race, both countries were trying to make it to the mystery of outer space before the other. This was a dangerous journey with a grand prize (being the first to place a man on the moon and have the dominant science space program). The overcoming of adversity is another theme within the romances that rings true in American history. One prominent case of this is with the immigrants who came to this country. Like Lancelot being stigmatized due to being the knight of the cart, immigrants were often given negative stereotypes.
This manifested in terms of housing, where immigrants would be forced into crowded cities in little neighborhoods of people from the same region from them, and the jobs or the people who would hire the immigrants. In more recent times, a comparison has been drawn between John Kennedy and Camelot. This statement came after the assassination of President Kennedy where his wife stated that yes, there will be other good presidents and there have been other great ones in the past, but there will never be another Camelot (John Kennedy).
Camelot is referred to as the epitome of chivalry and success and JFK is considered by his wife to be the same. Outside of history, there have been several enduring motifs from the romances. A popular theme that made its way into popular culture from “The Knight of the Cart” is the idea of the knight in shining armor. In “The Knight of the Cart,” Lancelot is on a journey to rescue Guinevere, thus being her ‘knight in shining honor’. Several movies depict this ideal, such as Shrek, Sleeping Beauty, Batman, and more.
During these movies the knight is trying to prove himself courageous and save his lady. Erec and Enide” pushes another motif of a ‘Prince Charming’, or someone in and takes their lover from rags to riches. Just as Enide was a poor girl with clothes that barely fit her beauty, Cinderella is a beautiful woman kept down by her oppressive family until she is whisked away by a prince. These motifs which had endured to this point are popular of what our culture believed should be the role of men and women and romance. In the past, women were expected to be more dependent, allowing the man to provide for them.
While this archaic train of thought is being replaced by more progressive ideas that represent women as independent, it remains a pertinent aspect of the history of the views of women and how they have changed (and to an extent remained the same) over time. Western culture isn’t the only one to appreciate the Arthurian legends. Arthur and the themes from Arthur have also found their way into Japanese pop culture, generally in the form of an anime. Pokemon for example, uses the Arthurian motif in the march of slowbros.
Each slowbro is trying to catch up to the lead to catch the crown which makes them the king, or King Arthur. Fate/Zero which is a game, book, and movie, also draws on Arthurian motifs. The story itself is about King Arthur and the Fourth Holy Grail War, but just as other Arthurian stories have done in the past, Fate/Zero draws from modern culture and mixes the two. These are not the only examples in which Arthurian Romances have expanded past their western demographic, as the stories are quite popular. The Arthurian Romances are known for their romances and the ideas of knights coming in to save their ladies.
As stated before, this archaic thought is being removed from our society and replaced with a better one, one that properly depicts women as capable beings. However, this begs the question where will the Arthurian legends remain. Before one can answer this, one should first remind oneself that the romances were in fact feminist pieces compared to their contemporaries. The Romances introduced women with names who were integral to the plot. Just as the Romances started a new wave of feminism we are entering a new one as well.
If we mark the Arthurian Romances as a feminist story for its time, it makes the story relevant to the study of the views and roles of women. However, to assume that because we are mo se we are moving away from the love stories presented to us in the romances means that the romances are over is incorrect. The romances have much more to offer us in terms of history and how they were used in history and in general pop culture. The two Japanese examples of Arthur’s legacy have little to do with romance, proving that there is more to Arthur than romance.
Although the two Western motifs, in this presentation, drawn from Arthur are motifs that are actively being moved away from, this does not spell the end of the importance of Arthur as we know it. Whether it is still studied in the classroom, seen in pop culture, or used in politics, the stories of King Arthur and his knights of the round table have left a mark. The themes and messages of the story have carried on and will continue to carry on, with each time the story being appropriated to fit into the culture with which it is being used. Even as times and ideals change, the stories of King Arthur are something that are still shared.