The New International Encyclopædia/Arthur (king)

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The New International Encyclopædia
Arthur (king)
Edition of 1905. Written by Fred Norris RobinsonSee also King Arthur on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ARTHUR. A half-legendary king of the Britons, supposed to have reigned in the Sixth Century. He was the great national hero of the British Celts, and became the central figure of one of the principal cycles of mediæval romance. Nothing is absolutely known of his history, and his existence has sometimes been denied altogether. The more usual view, however, recognizes at least an historic starting-point for the great body of tradition that centres in his name. In accordance with a favorite theory of modern mythologists, Arthur is often regarded as a combination of an actual British hero with one or more ancient Celtic gods. Thus, Professor Rhys, who connects Arthur's name with an Aryan root which means ‘to plough,’ thinks that some elements in his legend belonged originally to a culture-god described on Continental inscriptions as Mercurius Artaois, or Mercurius Cultor, while perhaps other elements were derived from an old sky-god, a kind of Celtic Zeus.

The usual account of Arthur is briefly as follows: He was the son of Uther Pendragon, King of Britain, and Igerne, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, whose union was effected by a device of Merlin the Wizard. After the death of the Duke, Uther made Igerne his queen, and in due time Arthur succeeded to the throne. Upon becoming King, Arthur at once took the lead of his people in their wars with the Saxons, and defeated the invaders on every hand. Encouraged by victory, he extended his conquests to Ireland, the Orkneys, and even to Norway and Gaul. Meanwhile he established a great court at Cærleon-on-Usk, where, with his Queen Guinevere (or Guanhumara), he was surrounded by a grand assemblage of knights and kings. After a time a message came from the Emperor of Rome demanding tribute, and Arthur, ably supported by Gawain, conducted a successful expedition against the forces of the Empire. In the midst of his victories on the Continent Arthur was recalled to defend his kingdom and queen from the traitorous Modred, who had seized upon both in his absence. Arthur undertook to put down the rebellion, and in the first battle his forces were victorious, but Gawain was slain. Then, in the battle of Camlan, Modred was defeated and killed, but Arthur himself was grievously wounded and carried off to the Island of Avalon to be healed. The hope was long cherished by the British people that Arthur would some day return and restore them to power.

Much of this narrative is obviously unhistoric, and very little of it can be traced with certainty to sources older than the Ninth Century. The first recorded mention of Arthur is in the Historia Britonum of Nennius, a work which assumed its present shape about 850. He is there described as a dux bellorum, who, along with other leaders of the Britons, fought twelve battles against the Saxons. The Annales Cambriæ (probably written in the Tenth Century) also mention him, giving the year 537 as the date of his death. The Vita Gildæ (usually ascribed to the Twelfth Century) speaks of him as a king of all Britain. But not till we come to the Historia Regum Britanniæ of Geoffrey of Monmouth (written about 1136) do we find the more fully developed story of which an outline has just been given. The question with regard to Geoffrey's sources is very difficult, and may never be fully settled. The later chroniclers — Wace, Layamon, Robert of Gloucester, and the rest — for the most part repeat the same account, with minor modifications. Thus Wace (who wrote in 1155) first mentions the Round Table, an element which he surely did not invent, but must have derived from current Celtic traditions.

It was not in the chronicles, however, that the material about Arthur found its fullest and best expression. The fame of his court was most widely celebrated in the romances of chivalry. Of this class of literature one of the earliest and greatest representatives was the French poet, Chrestien de Troyes, who wrote in the latter half of the Twelfth Century. He had many followers in France, and the French romances were widely translated and imitated in the other European languages. The relation between the romances and the chronicles is not entirely clear, but the latter cannot be looked upon as the source of any considerable part of the material in the former. In the romances, less attention is paid to Arthur and his conquests, and far more to the lives and exploits of his several knights; so that the King, while remaining the central figure of all the poems, is the hero of hardly any. Gawain, Ywain, Lancelot, and Perceval are celebrated in turn, until they, too, give place to new knights, the favorites of new poets. Most of the earlier romances (like those of Chrestien) were metrical; but the stories soon began to be worked over in prose, and finally great prose cycles were written, in which the scattered episodes were woven together with as much consistency as could be obtained. The great example in English of this stage of development is the Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory, which has been the source of Arthurian lore most consulted by English readers and writers since the Fifteenth Century.

The origin of the material in the romances and the manner of its transmission has long been the subject of voluminous discussion. Some scholars have maintained that there is nothing distinctively Celtic in the cycle beyond the names, the geographical setting, and an occasional incident. Others, holding the stories to have been in large part the property of the Celtic races, have discussed whether they were transmitted to the French poets in England or on the Continent, whether through the Armoricans or through the Welsh. Each of these theories of transmission has at present its adherents among scholars; but in the course of recent investigations the Celtic character and origin of the great body of the material has been steadily made clearer. The ‘matter of Britain’ has not been misnamed. Unfortunately, the remains of early Welsh literature are scanty, and little or nothing can be learned from them of the direct sources of the Arthurian stories. But the national hero tales of the Irish have been preserved in large quantities from very early times, and a comparison of this saga-material with the medieval romances has developed many striking parallelisms which cannot be explained except by some theory of common origin. The pursuit of this line of investigation has yielded most important results in the last few years.

The story of Arthur and his Round Table has been less treated in modern than in early English literature. Still, it has engaged the attention of great poets. Spenser introduced Arthur into the Faerie Queene, but preserved very little of the substance of the old romances. Milton and Dryden both planned Arthurian epics, and then gave them up for other subjects. The romantic revival of the Nineteenth Century brought the ‘matter of Britain,’ along with other mediæval subjects, once more to the front. A number of episodes from the cycle were treated by the lesser poets of the period, and Tennyson produced in the Idylls of the King what is now without doubt the best-known version of these ancient tales.

Bibliography. On the mythology: J. Rhys, The Hibbert Lectures (London, 1886); Studies in the Arthurian Legend (Oxford, 1891); H. Zimmer, Nennius Vindicatus (Berlin, 1893). On the transmission of the material of the romances: Gaston Paris, Histoire littéraire de la France, Vol. XXX. (Paris, 1888); and Zimmer, Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen (Göttingen, 1890); also a series of articles by Paris, and others in Romania, Vols. X. (Paris, 1881) and following. The works of Chrestien are being edited by W. Förster, and selections from his romances have been admirably translated into English by W. W. Newell in King Arthur and the Table Round (Boston, 1897). On the romances consult also: Paris, Les romans de la Table-Ronde (Paris, 1868-77), and Ward, Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1883); for the early Welsh poetry, Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Edinburgh, 1868); and for the bearing of Irish literature on the Arthurian question, A. C. L. Brown, Ywain: a Study in the Origins of Arthurian Romance (Boston, 1902); for a discussion of later Arthurian literature, MacCallum, Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Arthurian Story from the Sixteenth Century (Glasgow, 1894). See Avalon; Marinogion; Perceval; and Tristram.