Development of Mediaeval Arthurian Romances

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      The Arthurian Romances belong to what is called "The Matter of Britain". There are many romances of this group which are loosely connected with one another by the central personality of King Arthur. The growing tide of patriotism in the land together with the hatred for the foreign conquerors led to the revival of the Arthurian Romances. In Historia Britonum written about 800 A.D. by one Nennis, we learn that Arthur was a war-leader, who fought successfully against the Saxons and retained the independence of his territory Wales, while the rest of the country was swept by Saxon occupation. For a long time the people hugged the memory of the national hero and stories were written about him. In course of time the real historical King was transformed into a legendary figure, as is the case with the French romances on Charlemagne, who is the French counterpart of King Arthur. Arthur was made into a demi-god, whose birth and death are miraculous, and who performs the most marvellous exploits. A band of twelve knights each typifying a particular quality centre around this hero. Probably, the story of Christ had much to do with this transmutation of the original materials. Arthur with his knights is an image of Christ with his twelve disciples. Lastly mediaeval chivalry demanded some national figure that could symbolize the knightly ideals and thus Arthur, the legendary figure was turned into the romantic figure. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who in his Historia Regum Britanniae virtually created the Arthur of romance. He occupies the first place among the writers who contributed to the development of the Arthurian Legend. He drew his materials from scattered writings and oral traditions and with the power of a vivid imagination welded them into a harmonious whole. Geoffrey is a story-teller par excellence. He made his fictions appear real to the imagination of his none too critical age. He ministers to the love of the supernatural and the marvellous that is characteristic of the age. Hence the accretion of many wonderful stories in the romance.

The Arthurian Romances belong to "The Matter of Britain"
Arthurian Romances
      The next writer to contribute to the Arthurian Romances was Wace who lived about 1100-1175. In his Brut he tells how he was not willing to believe the many stories of Arthur told by Geoffrey and would set down only those which he believed to be true. He is the first to place on record the adventures and achievements of the knights of the Round Table. He speaks of Arthur as still a living force, "The Hope of Britain'. He is yet in Avalon, awaited of the Britons for as they say and deem he will return from whence he went and Iive again. Layamon's Brut is another notable work on the subject. He derives mainly from Wace but invest the story with an entirely different atmosphere. The stirring scenes in the life of Arthur, his battles, the life of the woods and fields have a greater attraction for him than the chivalry of the Norman court. His narrative, written partly in aliterative verse and partly in rhymed couplets, has the dignity and splendour of the old English epic, Beowulf.

      After Layamon, the development of the Arthurian Legend is largely continental. Marie de France, a resident at the court of Henry II wrote in French. Cheretien de Troyes of Provence shaped the whole Arthurian cycle into a love sequence courtly love and spiritual love in the case of Percival and The Holy Grail. A religious element entered into the Arthurian legend of heroism and adventure. The quest of the Holy Grail was linked with the Arthurian legend. Sir Galahad, the purest of the knights of the Round Table succeeds in the quest. Sir Tristrem, Arthur and Merlin, Morte de Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are stories incorporated in the Arthurian cycle.

      Sir Thomas Malory compiled and translated Arthurian Romances from a French book. He captures and expresses the essence of Chivalry and romance. It is important as the source book of many Arthurian Romances written by later poets Spenser, Dryden, Tennyson, Swinburne, Morris, Arnold Masefield used Arthurian materials. Milton before undertaking Paradise Lost had planned an epic on Arthur. The contemporary English novel has notably retold the Arthurian story in the Great Captains by Henry Treece and The One and Future King by T.H White.

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