Tag Archives: Britain

Le Morte d’Arthur

sketch of King Arthur based on a painting by Howard Pyle

Thomas Malory was a gifted writer (and convict*) who in 1470 brought the Arthurian stories together and organized them into a grand epic novel. His book has a French title, Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), though the text is Middle English with some French and Latin thrown in. The title is kind of a spoiler. For a while Britain was ruled justly and happily, but Camelot was ultimately doomed because nothing lasts forever. The high ideals that shaped Arthur’s reign were abandoned with the passage of time. Even knights of the Round Table are born weak and live in a broken world. Arthur’s closest allies betrayed him. His court fell apart. It was fun while it lasted. And yet, Malory gives us hope that Arthur and Camelot may return someday: on Arthur’s tomb is written, ‘Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus’ (Here lies Arthur, the once and future king).

I was a King Arthur geek when I was a tween. I did read Malory’s book and it was a glorious long slog. The version I read wasn’t in Middle English but somehow had the flavor of it (it was a library book and I can’t remember who translated it). Malory built the ‘once and future’ Camelot** word by word—the fellowship of the Table Round; the knights with their odd mannerisms and creaky old way of speaking; the exalted idealism; the shameful weaknesses. He showed me a sword magically embedded in an anvil and stone; a lady, naked as a needle, cursed to stand in boiling water until she was rescued by a very pure knight; a weird animal whose belly made the noise of a pack of hounds; ogres; giants; awkward love triangles; the Holy Grail (the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper). Malory conjured a dear old island that stood in that very misty spot where paganism hadn’t quite taken its leave and Christianity was just getting started.

* Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while he was serving time—probably as a political prisoner—at Newgate Prison. The prisons of the Middle Ages seem to have been full to bursting with authors cranking out the classics of Western Lit.

**The French poet Chretien de Troyes invented the name Camelot and created Sir Launcelot. That’s a lot.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Morte_d%27Arthur
https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/l/le-morte-darthur/book-summary
I can’t top this article about Malory and his book—
https://www.worldhistory.org/Thomas_Malory/

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

A wooden statue of Geoffrey of Monmouth at Tintern Station https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6023609

King Arthur Pendragon may not have even existed. He was a figure from the mists of Welsh legend and made it into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of The Kings of Britain which he wrote in the 1100s. Geoffrey was not good at verifying historical facts—or he liked his history fanciful—but he gave us Arthur and Camelot. I’m a hopeless romantic so I like to think there really was a King Arthur.

During the 3 or four centuries after Geoffrey’s book came out, legends and folk tales emerged under the general heading of Arthurian. Figures of Arthur’s court came into being and had their own stories or they were given stories from older lore. Knights went on quests to prove themselves spiritually worthy. They fought wickedness when they found it and offered protection to the powerless. There was a mystical quality that surrounded Camelot and all of Arthur’s Britain—dragons, beasts, enchantments, sorceresses and Merlin the wizard. There was a beautiful young queen.

https://www.bl.uk/people/geoffrey-of-monmouth
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_of_Monmouth
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prophetiae_Merlini

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The once and future blog post

“Who so pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.”

During the thousand years before the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, life for the British was one stinkin’ thing after another. If it wasn’t the Romans, it was the Angles. If it wasn’t the Angles, it was the Saxons. Or the Jutes. Or the Frisians. Everybody invaded Britain back then, it was the thing to do. Sometime during the ad 500s the British were in a life-and-death struggle to keep the Saxons from taking over their island. The Roman Empire had imploded and the Brits were on their own. The Saxons were unrelenting, ruthless and seemingly invincible. The British desperately needed a leader: someone just and moral; someone who could out-general the invaders; someone with a trusted band of mighty warrior-heroes; someone who would rally his countrymen to save their sceptre’d isle. They got one. The catch was that this chieftain and his friends were doomed—their time was to be only one brief shining moment. This chieftain? His name is Arthur.

Wow! That was some pretty good writing, huh? I should get a Brit actor like Kenneth Branagh or that Cumberbatch fella to read it out loud, backed up by an orchestra quietly playing the overture to Camelot.

https://www.history.com/news/was-king-arthur-a-real-person
https://www.history.org.uk/primary/resource/3860/teaching-romans-anglo-saxons-and-vikings-in-brit
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AR9mk83VQ4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8h7E5rtnFH4

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