Archive for February, 2021

That about covers my research into Arthurian Legend. It’s about time I stopped researching and got back to writing the actual story. Meantime, I’m going to blog about something else for a while. I’ve recently finished my third read-through of Gail Carriger’s THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY. I can’t recommend this book highly enough if you’re a writer or reader of heroic fiction.

There are—there have always been—two kinds of heroic journey. We just never hear about or read analysis of anything but the Hero’s Journey. (Gail Carriger gives an excellent analysis of why this is. I won’t repeat it here.) Yet the other journey is at least as prevalent in fiction and movies. This other journey is unfortunately known as the Heroine’s Journey, both by contrast to the better-known Hero’s Journey and because the earliest examples of this type of story are about goddesses.

These two journeys really ought to have non-gendered names, because characters—of whatever sex—can, and often do, undertake either journey. As a culture, we’ve come to a place where we can accept some female characters, like Wonder Woman, as being on a Hero’s Journey. It’s a lot harder to talk about a very masculine male hero undertaking a Heroine’s Journey. People, me included, just have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around that.

So, for the present purpose, I’m going to rename them. Let’s call the Hero’s Journey the Warrior’s Journey instead. Why? Let’s look at a few examples. Frodo goes to Mordor to destroy the One Ring so Sauron can’t use it to enslave all of Middle Earth. Luke Skywalker sets out to deliver the plans to the Death Star and ends up being the one who blows it up. Wonder Woman has to kill Ares in order to end the war. There’s something in common about all of those quite necessary actions. No matter how analysts of this journey try to define it as “retrieving a boon or healing balm”, the Hero’s Journey is most often framed as a zero-sum game requiring the destruction of something (or someone) to win.

Don’t get me wrong; I love a good Hero’s Journey. But that’s not the only kind of heroic journey out there and it shouldn’t be the only kind of story we tell—or recognize when we see it. As Abraham Maslow wrote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” It’s worth knowing both journeys if only to increase our tool sets as writers, readers—and in real life.

More about what makes the two kinds of heroic journey different in the next post.

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One of the fascinating things about researching the legend of Arthur is that you can almost watch the story grow over time.

What turns history (or even pseudo-history) into legend is that it grows and changes in the telling and retelling. Some changes are introduced as later tellers reframe it into a world they recognize—changing Arthur into a king and his companions into knights, for example. Sometimes it grows by plain old-fashioned exaggeration. Sometimes other stories are added to it—older stories or brand new ones.

Not much more about how the legend of Arthur was growing survives until The History of the Britons in the early ninth century—more than 300 years after the Battle of Badon Hill. It’s the first historical source to actually name Arthur, describing him as a warrior and a war leader, but not a king, though it describes him fighting alongside the kings of the Britons. It lists twelve battles, most of which cannot be located from the description. Some of them are listed in other sources, but not attributed to Arthur. The History is also the first historical source to connect Arthur with the Battle of Badon Hill. Though the text also claims that Arthur killed 960 of the enemy all by himself in that battle, somewhat undermining its credibility.

It also repeats the story of Vortigern and Hengist, adding the story of Vortigern’s concessions in return for marriage to Hengist’s daughter, Rowena. And it gives the first version of the story of Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern’s attempt to build a tower on top of the hill was thwarted because the tower kept falling down. Vortigern was advised to sprinkle the blood of a boy without a father over the site to lift the curse. When Emrys is brought to him, the boy reveals that the cause is two dragons fighting underneath the hill.

The next source is the Annals of Cambria, probably written down around the middle of the tenth century, although the earliest surviving copy is from the twelfth century. It adds the detail that both Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were killed in the Battle of Camlann. It doesn’t say whether they were fighting together or against each other, though. There’s also a disputed entry for Merlin. It’s disputed because it uses a form of his name, Merlinus, that only appeared later. The old Welsh form would have been Myrddin or Merdin.

The Welsh texts are mostly frustrating. Most survive as later copies (13th or 14th century) and so may have been changed from the original. And some of them, like the Triads of the Island of Britain and The Stanzas of the Graves, seem to be mnemonics to help oral story tellers remember details, which means they give hints, but don’t actually tell the story. But there are a few things that can be gleaned. Camlann, Arthur’s last battle is mentioned. Arthur, Gawain (Gwalchmai in Welsh), Bedevere (Bedwyr), and Kay (Cei) are also mentioned. So is Yvain (Owain), son of King Uriens of Rheged.

Up to this point, the stories about Arthur were mainly told in Britain and Brittany. But then came Geoffrey of Monmouth and his version of the Arthur story as told in the History of the Kings of Britain in the first half of the twelfth century—after the Norman Conquest. Geoffrey was writing for a new Anglo-Norman/Norman-French audience. He claimed to have had access to an ancient book, now lost. Maybe not, but he might have used some original sources. He certainly added a good amount of imagination, too.

Geoffrey’s Merlin is probably based on at least two actual characters from Welsh tradition—neither of which had any previous connection to Arthur—blended together. He also changed the name from Myrddin to Merlin to better appeal to his French-speaking audience.

Without regard to any actual history, he also has Arthur conquer most of Europe and even Rome. Possibly he conflated Arthur with a fourth-century Roman general with ties to Britannia, Magnus Maximus, who actually did some of that in the 380’s. Maximus was a Roman general stationed in Britannia and he may have married a Welsh princess. But he was not a Briton, having been born in Galicia on the Iberian Peninsula. His legions declared him emperor and he took control of Britannia and Gaul for a while, with at least grudging acceptance of the actual Roman Emperor of the time. He lasted for about four years. When he tried to invade Italy to take Rome, too, Emperor Theodosius I defeated and executed him. Magnus Maximus was definitely not Arthur.

Geoffrey of Monmouth also gives a different account of Mordred than the one we’re more familiar with. According to Geoffrey, while Arthur was in Europe, word reached him that Guinevere and Mordred were having an affair. According to Geoffrey, this is the cause of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur kills Mordred and is mortally wounded himself. But Arthur is carried off to the Isle of Avalon to be healed.

Finally, Geoffrey completes the reframing of the story into a medieval world, rather than the actual context of the Dark Ages. Arthur is a king—in fact, he’s not just a high king, he’s an emperor. His companions are knights. And Geoffrey introduces the very medieval concept of courtly love, as well.

The older versions of the Arthur story were mainly about his battles. But Geoffrey’s version took off, making the legend known—and improved upon—across Europe. After The History of the Kings of Britain, the legend snowballs. Wace adds the Round Table and the idea that Arthur might return some day.

And then Chrétien de Troyes gets hold of it. This is where we get most of the romances. He adds Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world—who just happens to be French. And he starts the story of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere. He also adds Perceval and the Grail Quest.

More and more gets added and changed over time, but that’s where the core of what we know as the legend of Arthur comes from.

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Well, my computer has been glitchy for a week, blue-screening out and restarting every time I tried to use the internet. But I think (knock on wood) that I may have gotten it back on its feet. At least, it was stable all day yesterday. Meanwhile, I’ve got a back-up ordered.

So, back to the Arthurian legend and what there may be of an historical basis for it.

Gildas was a sixth-century monk, trained at Llanilltud Fawr monastery in southeastern Wales, though he later emigrated to Brittany, which may be why his writing survived. (Though there were certainly monasteries that were centers of learning in Britain and there must have been people writing, very little survives from Britain of the Dark Ages and most of that is copies made hundreds of years later.) What Gildas wrote wasn’t a history or the beginning of the Arthurian legend. In fact, he never mentioned Arthur’s name. The nearest modern equivalent I can come up with for what Gildas wrote, is a very angry letter to the editor—only there weren’t newspapers or newspaper editors in the sixth century. The title, translated from the Latin is On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

Gildas begins with a brief history, including the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in Kent, at the invitation of Vortigern. Although Gildas never mentions Vortigern either, but merely refers to the superbus tyrannus. That’s usually interpreted as a play on Vortigern’s name, which means something like “High King” or “Generalissimo” or “Most Kingly”. He goes on to praise Ambrosius effusively for holding back the Saxons, calling him the “last of the Romans”. And then, in the next paragraph, he mentions the Battle of Badon Hill, without using any names. Because it is the next paragraph, sometimes this is interpreted to imply that Ambrosius was the leader of the Britons in that battle, but, again, Gildas doesn’t name anyone in that paragraph and never uses Arthur’s name at all.

One thing he does say, though, is that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill, which he places forty-four years before writing this text. This means that Gildas’s life would have overlapped Arthur’s—if there was an Arthur. And he would certainly have known and grown up around people who had lived through that time.

Back to On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. Gildas goes on to criticize the Britons for continuing to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the Saxons. He denounces the governments as corrupt. And he particularly condemns five contemporary rulers for everything from adultery to murder and sacrilege. Some of that criticism, particularly of Constantine of Dumnonia, has some interesting parallels with some obscure parts of Arthurian legend, but I’ll get back to that.

All of this would seem to indicate that there never was an Arthur. Surely Gildas would have mentioned him if there had been, right? Although, Gildas seems to have been a man of strong opinions and, if there was some reason he didn’t want to praise Arthur he might just not use Arthur’s name as he also refused to use Vortigern’s.

But there’s one little fragment to be found in Scotland—or at least in a poem about a battle that took place on the border between what are now Scotland and England, Y Goddodin. This poem was likely composed shortly after the battle, which probably occurred around the year 600, but the only surviving copies are much later—and probably amended over that time. However, there is one part that, at least according to some, seems to be original. The word forms, apparently, are older and they are integral to the rhyme. (I’m no linguist. I have to take their word for it.) And this part praises one particular warrior for being totally awesome in this battle and the last line of that stanza translates as “though he was no Arthur”.

This would mean a couple of things. First, that some kind of story about Arthur had made it all the way to Scotland by that time. Second, that the poet could reasonably expect his audience to know immediately who Arthur had been and what he was famous for—apparently being a badass warrior.

So, we can place Arthur—if he existed—in the Dark Ages. That it was the Dark Ages means a few things. It means Arthur certainly wasn’t High King of all Britain. There’s no way the fractious British tribal rulers would have accepted any such thing. There wouldn’t be a king even of most of England until Alfred the Great about three centuries later.

And his companions weren’t knights—certainly not in the medieval form. They might have worn chain mail, though leather armor or none at all, other than helmets, was more likely. But they certainly didn’t wear head-to-toe plate mail, because that hadn’t been invented yet. And they didn’t joust, either, because the stirrup, invented on the Eurasian steppes, had not reached Western Europe yet. I can only imagine that a Dark Ages warrior would have laughed himself silly at the concept of chivalry and courtly love.

So where did all that we think of as the legend of Arthur come from?

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