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There are stories that don’t fit the Tolkien mold. Not as many as there should be, but it’s hard to defy reader expectations.

For my money, the best of these is Lois McMaster Bujold’s SHARING KNIFE series, which consists of four full-length books, and one novella: BEGUILEMENT, LEGACY, PASSAGE, HORIZON, and “Knife Children”.

Like LORD OF THE RINGS, the SHARING KNIFE is not really a series in the classic sense, but more of one long story published in four parts, with the follow-on novella published later. It shares a lot of other similarities with LoTR, too. Intentionally, since the author was consciously writing an answer to LoTR.

The world of THE SHARING KNIFE doesn’t have a single Dark Lord. Instead, an ancient magical experiment went very wrong, seeding the world with an unknown number of dormant monsters called malices or blight bogles that emerge randomly. Each malice essentially eats the essence of the world around it, creating a blight reminiscent of the aftermath of a nuclear blast—everything in the area dies and nothing can live in that area for decades, centuries, or, in extreme cases, millennia. It’s dangerous even to step into such blight. And the longer a malice lives, the more powerful it becomes and the more of the world it blights to sustain itself.

And only one group of humans, called Lake Walkers, can kill malices. Only they, with their innate magic, can make the weapon necessary to kill a malice—a knife made from the thigh bone of a Lake Walker and primed by being plunged into the heart of a dying Lake Walker, so that the knife can capture the essence of that death to share with a malice and teach it to die. Two Lake Walker deaths for each malice death.

Lake Walkers patrol obsessively to find and kill malices before they can do too much damage, with no hope that the threat will be eradicated in their lifetimes. Only hoping that the long war will not be lost in their lifetimes. Their lives are defined by this task. Meanwhile the rest of humanity lives largely in blissful ignorance, most not even believing that blight bogles exist. But if ever a malice escapes such a death, it will destroy the world.

For further analysis of the similarities—and differences—between LotR and THE SHARING KNIFE, try these two articles:

Tussling with Tolkien: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Horizon | Tor.com 

Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes : The Sharing Knife and The Lord of the Rings – DataHead — LiveJournal

I love LotR, but there are more than enough stories now following that pattern. And, frankly, one-dimensional dark lords and simple solutions are beginning to get a little old.

I want more stories like THE SHARING KNIFE, too. And others in which the answer isn’t simple—or immediate. (Simple is not the same as easy. Destroying the ring to destroy Sauron is a simple solution, but anything by easy to accomplish.) But that kind of story—even though it may have many exciting battles—doesn’t seem to satisfy readers of epic fantasy, who have been taught to expect the one battle to end all battles.

I don’t know, maybe we need a new sub-genre of epic fantasy for these kinds of story. But what would we call it?

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THE LORD OF THE RINGS is surely not the first example of epic fantasy. Myths and legends from ancient times have plenty of examples—including the Arthurian legend I’m currently working with. But it has become the archetypal example of the genre, what most people think of first when the subject comes up. It’s a good example of epic fantasy—but not of all that epic fantasy can—or even should—be.

Because part of any story, and particularly speculative fiction, is to reflect the common experience of its time in a way that allows readers to process that experience differently, to look at it in a neutral setting in a way that’s not possible with real world events. Tolkien, in part, did exactly that with LORD OF THE RINGS. But LoTR reflects his experience of war, which is not ours.

Tolkien fought in World War I. So, let’s take a quick look at that war. WWI lasted four years. It was the first major war in which air planes (open-cockpit bi-planes, back then) were used extensively. The first major war in which chemical weapons were used (and they were banned by most of the participants shortly after the war). Much of it was trench warfare.

Just superficially, we can see a lot of parallels with LoTR. The Nazgul are given flying not-quite-dragons. Too close a brush with the Nazgul results in an affliction called “the Black Breath” in which the sufferer sinks slowly into death. In the books, the orcs dig trenches across the Pelennor fields before the battle (though the trenches don’t seem to have any impact on the battle once it starts). But look a little deeper.

Honestly, most of the Fellowship have no business just leaving everything behind and taking off on this quest. Boromir, in particular, is his father’s general and Minas Tirith is already at war. Sam appears to be his Gaffer’s sole support. Most of the others have responsibilities at home, too. If you think about it, it does seem odd that they just take off for the duration.

This does reflect Tolkien’s experience, in which most of the young men went off to war and then returned to pick up their lives when the war was over. Except those who died or were too badly wounded, physically or spiritually, of course.

And not very many wars—or military actions—are completed in only four years anymore. But, again, that was Tolkien’s experience. One side won and everyone, at least on the winning side, could go back to their lives. Which most of the Fellowship also do after the war.

We haven’t lived in that world or experienced war in that way for a couple of generations now. It’s only reasonable that our generation’s epic fantasies should reflect our experience, not our parents’ or grandparents’. Yet reader expectations of epic fantasy still seem to be centered on a big battle to end all battles before the survivors go back home.

I like those exciting—and final—endings, too. Sometimes. But . . . shouldn’t we have both kinds of stories?

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I mostly want to share some of my thoughts about reader expectations of epic fantasy. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

It’s probably best to start by defining what epic fantasy is—and what it’s not. Epic fantasy is defined by the reason the characters attempt whatever it is they’re trying to do and the stakes if they fail. As with the Hero’s (or Warrior’s) Journey, the characters in an epic fantasy set out to accomplish something that will be of benefit to more than just themselves. Frodo goes to save Middle Earth from enslavement by Sauron, for example. (There’s a reason why epic fantasy usually has at least on character who is also on a Hero’s (or Warrior’s) Journey.) And the stakes, if they fail, are greater than just the chance that the hero may die. The stakes in LORD OF THE RINGS are all of the world, including Frodo’s beloved Shire, being cruelly enslaved.

This is what differentiates epic fantasy from its first cousin, sword and sorcery. The two sub-genres are superficially similar. Both tend to be second world fantasies and very often involve a quest. But sword and sorcery is much more about some personal gain for the characters—adventure, treasure, or revenge, most often. And the stakes are usually the risk that a character may die in pursuit of that goal. For sword and sorcery, that’s the ultimate failure. Whereas, in epic fantasy, a character’s death is not a failure so long as it helps to achieve the larger goal.

Sword and sorcery stories are usually smaller in scale to match the smaller goals and stakes, though, of course, the characters may have more than one adventure over the course of a series, like Conan the Barbarian, to name only one classic example. By contrast, epic fantasies have a greater tendency to be . . . well, epically long. The greater stakes can support a bigger—longer—story.

But all of that is not what really defines reader expectations of epic fantasy. That’s more defined by the story that really popularized the sub-genre: LORD OF THE RINGS. More on that in my next post.

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Naming one of these heroic journeys the “Hero’s Journey” has so many consequences. It implicitly devalues the other and denies the heroism of the Leader. But if you believe that Aragorn’s story is a Leader’s Journey, as I do, you have to accept that both journeys are about heroes—just different kinds of heroes. And that opens up thinking about other aspects of these journeys. Valuing or considering just one closes off some of those avenues of thought—and that’s limiting to us all.

Having the tools to recognize the Leader’s Journey as distinct from the Warrior’s enabled me to notice things—like recognizing that Aragorn’s heroic journey was fundamentally different from Frodo’s and why. It adds another dimension to some of my favorite stories. And, even an old favorite, read or watch many times, can get a new shine by noticing the signs of which journey (if any) is being enacted.

It shouldn’t be surprising at this point that stories that involve a team (heists, buddy cop, super hero teams) are usually Leader’s Journeys for the team. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all of the characters are on a Leader’s Journey. It’s interesting (to me, at least) to notice which characters fit nicely into the team. And which find it more difficult, but manage in the end. And which just can’t function as part of a team. (I’m looking at you Tony Stark/Iron Man.)

More, understanding this has made me realize that a number of my stories are actually about Leaders, not Warriors. And that I screwed up. Not in the stories themselves, although I hope to be able to write this journey better now that I have a better grounding in it. More mindfully. But I erred by not telegraphing the correct journey to the readers—in the covers, in the blurbs, in the early chapters. Because if the reader understands what kind of story they’re going to get they are better able to choose and also more likely to be satisfied readers. So that’s definitely something I can learn to do better.

I certainly don’t want to mislead readers about the story they’ll get in one of my books. On the other hand, since I can’t expect readers to know about the Leader’s Journey, even if I call it the Heroine’s Journey (maybe especially then), I’ll have to find another way to set their expectations. Kind of like reader expectations of epic fantasy, but that’s another line of thought. Maybe I’ll blog about that next.

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Here’s where I’m going to go off and argue that some very masculine hero-type male characters are actually on Leader’s Journeys (and why I don’t want to use Heroine’s Journey as a name for this kind of story).

Let’s start with Aragorn. Breathe, I’ll wait. Okay, now that you’ve gotten over your near heart attack, let’s look at the points of his journey—including material from the Appendices.

Aragorn’s father was killed in an orc attack when Aragorn was only two. His mother worried that someone was trying to wipe out the remaining heirs of Isildur, so she took baby Aragorn to Rivendell to be raised as Elrond’s foster son. Elrond shared her fears and gave the baby a different name, Estel (meaning Hope), to protect him. Aragorn didn’t even know who he really was until he came of age. (Disguise and loss of identity.)

Shortly after he found out who he really was—and what he could become—Aragorn met Arwen, who had been away visiting her grandparents, Celeborn and Galadriel, in Lothlorien. And he fell in love with her. Arwen wasn’t immediately as impressed with a very young Aragorn.

Aragorn set about taking up his duties as Chief of the Dunedain of the North and became friends with Gandalf. He was known around Bree as Strider. He also travelled in disguise, using the name Thorongil (Eagle of the Star) to both Rohan and Gondor and even farther afield. (Disguises.) He became a very great warrior and leader. On his return, Aragorn stopped in Lothlorien, where Arwen was again visiting. With help from Galadriel, he made a much better impression this time and the two plighted their troth.

Elrond, however, was not pleased because it meant that Arwen would make the choice to be mortal, rather than go into to West when the last of the elves left. He said he would only give his blessing to the marriage if Aragorn became King of Gondor. (The only family Aragorn has left is his foster family and his foster father is trying to stop Aragorn from forming a new family. His existing support network offers no solutions.)

Time passed and Aragorn joined the Fellowship. When Gandalf fell in Moria, Aragorn took over as leader of the group and he would have gone with Frodo to the end. But Frodo (Hero/Warrior, remember?) chose to go off alone. And Aragorn, as a Leader, accepted that choice. As Boromir was dying, swore to save what was left of the civilization of the Numenoreans. “I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.” Boromir was the first man of Gondor to recognize Aragorn as his king.

But first, Aragorn set out to rescue Merry and Pippin. (A Leader is loyal to his team and doesn’t abandon them.)Aragorn started recruiting more team members almost immediately. Once Gandalf had broken Saruman’s hold over him, Theoden rejected the idea of helping Gondor, “Where was Gondor when the Westfold fell?” But after Aragorn (and his friends) helped to win the Battle of Helm’s Deep, his attitude changed. When Aragorn announced that the beacons were lit and Gondor called for aid, Theoden replied, “And Rohan will answer.”  (The Leader recruits new team members, sometimes by helping them first.)Aragorn even recruited the dead to help him with the Corsairs.

At the battle of the Pelennor Fields, Aragorn flew the banner Arwen had made for him—the banner of a king of Gondor—from the lead Corsair ship, which raised talk of the return of the king in the city. Following the battle, Aragorn set up his tent outside the walls, refusing to enter the city—yet. But he did enter, cloaked and hooded (another disguise), when Gandalf asked for his help with some of the injured. Aragorn was able to help those, like Merry, Eowyn, and Faramir, who were suffering from “the Black Breath”, because, as the saying in Gondor went, “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer”. Talk of the return of the king accelerated.

The power dynamic shifted at this point. Gandalf deferred to Aragorn who was the true general and leader of the combined forces from that point on.  Aragorn proposed and led the assault on the Black Gate to divert attention from Frodo. (The Leader will try to save all of his (or her) team, even the hero. They are the source of the Leader’s strength, after all.) On his return, Faramir greeted him at the gate and recognized him as king.

Finally, Aragorn’s reward is to marry Arwen. (Happy ending, reunited with family, including the new found family of his team.)

See how much easier it is to think of Aragorn as a Leader? No one denies that he was a great warrior, but his path, his journey, was not the Hero’s Journey.

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Archetypal character arcs are another way of looking at . . . well, if not precisely the same thing, something very similar. Just because one of the archetypal character arcs is call the Hero, doesn’t make it exactly the same as the Hero’s Journey. That doesn’t feel quite right to me, but that’s just my opinion. It may only be a matter of perspective. And, really, it doesn’t matter that much. If thinking in terms of character arcs instead of journeys feeds your muse and fuels your creativity, that’s what’s really important.

The interesting thing about the archetypal character arcs—at least, to me—is that they follow one another. In fact, in this analysis, the point of the arc is to level up, as it were, to the next arc. So, a coming-of-age arc would lead to a hero arc, and from there into something like the arc of a Heroine’s/Leaders Journey and then on to still other arcs. That certainly has possibilities for a long series centered, mostly, around a single character. Although, there are plenty of examples out there that prove it’s not the only way to write such a series.

That’s all a little bit beside the point of my current focus on the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey, though. If you want to dive deeper into these character arcs, I recommend starting with K. M. Weiland’s website. She’s doing a series on these arcs, starting here: Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 1: A New Series – Helping Writers Become Authors.

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I don’t think I really need to go into depth about the Warrior’s Journey. We all know the shape of that story. And, anyway, there are a lot of resources for learning more about it. But, maybe we need to look closely at a good example of the Leader’s Journey. Unfortunately, neither Katniss nor Samwise are the best examples of a Leader. Katniss is not very good at creating a team by her own efforts, though she’s extremely loyal to her team once they’ve been recruited. She says it herself, that she’s not good at making friends. In the beginning, both Peeta and Haymitch do more of the recruiting than she does. And, at least initially, she seems just as happy to be off on her own. And then there’s Samwise, who never recruits a team at all. So, for an example of the Leader’s Journey, I’m going to follow Gail Carriger and go back to ancient Greek mythology and the story of Demeter and Persephone. I’ll mark the major points of the Journey in bold.

Demeter was the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest and she had a daughter named Persephone. One day, when Demeter was on Mount Olympus, seat of the Greek gods, tending to business, Persephone went for a walk in the meadows below, picking wild flowers. Suddenly, a chasm opened up beside her and Hades, god of the Underworld, grabbed Persephone and dragged her down to his realm.

Someone dear to Demeter, her daughter, is in danger.

Demeter didn’t know what had happened to Persephone, but she knew something wasn’t right. She appealed to her brother gods for help. (In Greek mythology, quite literally her brothers.) They were sympathetic, but none of them offered any real help or solutions. Demeter threw down her crown and stepped down from her throne, leaving Mount Olympus to search on her own.

Abdication of a position of power and even of a part of her identity, not always voluntarily.

Demeter searched everywhere, but couldn’t find any sign of her daughter until one of her sister goddesses, Hecate, caught up with her. Hecate suggested that they should talk to Helios, the Greek god of the Sun, since he might have seen something as he drove the chariot of the sun across the sky. Helios reluctantly admitted that he saw what happened and told Demeter that Hades took Persephone. But he also advised her to look on the bright side, after all, Hades would make a powerful son-in-law.

The Leader’s team excels at information gathering.

Depressed and feeling even more betrayed by those she expected to help her, Demeter continued to wander, disguising herself as an old woman. In this guise, she was found by the daughters of a local king. The girls took pity on the old woman and took her back to the palace, where she was given a place and made nanny to the infant prince.

The Leader is in the most danger when she (or he) is alone.

Disguises are a common feature of the Leader’s Journey.

Iambe visited with Demeter and told her dirty jokes until Demeter laughed. This lightened her mood and finally began to break her out of her depression.

Humor is much more common on the Leader’s Journey than on the Warrior’s Journey. It can be a source of cohesion within the team as well as breaking the tension.

Demeter now realized that what she needed was a new team—one that would help her recover Persephone. So, she decided to make the infant she was caring for into an immortal so that he could help her. In Greek mythology, this could only be accomplished by burning the mortal part away.

She laid the infant in the fire to begin the process. Just then, the baby’s mother came in and freaked out. (Well, wouldn’t you?). Hearing the uproar, the father came in—and also freaked out. Demeter then dropped her disguise, appearing before them as the goddess. By way of apology, the King built a big, new temple for Demeter and in return Demeter taught their older son the principles of agriculture.

Building or other signs of an increase in civilization are hallmarks of the Leader’s Journey.

Also, the Leader is just as willing to help her team mates as she expects them to be to help her. In fact, she may often recruit her team mates by helping them first.

Once Demeter took the throne in her new temple, the other gods—the ones who hadn’t helped Demeter in the beginning—came to beg her to return to Mount Olympus. Without her, there had been no harvest. There was a famine, and the gods were afraid that if everyone died there’d be no one left to worship them. To each, Demeter replied that she wouldn’t return to Mount Olympus until she saw her daughter.

Finally, Zeus sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to the Underworld to tell Hades that he had to let Persephone go. Hades was reluctant, but agreed to a visit. Hermes led Persephone up to the surface where she and Demeter were reunited.

However, Hades revealed that, while in the Underworld, Persephone had eaten four pomegranate seeds, which tied her to the Underworld. Demeter proposed a compromise. Persephone would spend four months of the year in the Underworld with Hades, and the remainder of the year with Demeter.

The Leader is willing to compromise and find a win/win solution. She (or he) doesn’t care about glory or revenge. She (or he) is all about results. And loyalty to her (or his) team.

Another aspect of the Leader’s Journey not exemplified by this story:

The Leader is also good at delegation, asking each member of the team to undertake the tasks that they are individually best suited for—and giving them the glory for achieving those tasks. When the mission or the team is in jeopardy, the Leader is likely to react as a general, deploying her (or his) team to best effect. This is partly why I chose to call this journey the Leader’s Journey.

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One way to define the two journeys is to look at the differences between them.

Let’s call the Heroine’s Journey the Leader’s Journey. I’ll explain that as I get more into this particular kind of heroic journey. Those are both over simplifications, of course, but so are the gendered names and these are less culturally fraught. Yes, it’s difficult to picture Frodo, who is definitely on a Hero’s Journey, as a Warrior, but no harder than picturing Samwise as a Heroine—or a Leader, for that matter. Yet that is exactly the kind of hero Sam is. And, yes, Heroines are heroic, too. They just have different motivations and methods—and tend to have better endings.

So, what makes the two journeys different?

  1. What the character sets out to do.
  2. What they perceive as strength/power and, conversely, when they experience vulnerability. And how this perception of strength influences their approach to the problem.
  3. How their stories end.

I’ve already given examples of the heroic goals of three Warrior’s Journeys. By contrast, what starts the Leader on her (or his) journey is that someone important to them has been captured, kidnapped, or otherwise threatened and the Leader sets out to save them. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute to save her sister, Prim. Samwise goes along to “take care” of Frodo and, in the process, saves him more than once.

Heroes/Warriors tend to see strength as self-reliance and solitary action against great odds. Therefore, though the Warrior may start out with a group of companions and/or acquire companions along the way, he (or she) will always go off on their own before the climax. The group represents a threat because they impede that solitary action. For Frodo, the Fellowship also represented a more direct threat because Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring revealed that its influence was working inside the group. But Frodo’s greatest struggle was even more isolating by being internal and largely invisible, fighting against the influence the Ring was trying to exert on him. He’s alone in that battle even when he’s surrounded by the Fellowship and even Gandalf couldn’t have helped him with that. And Luke Skywalker is literally always going off by himself—in his fighter to destroy the Death Star, on his tauntaun to “check something out”, off to train with Yoda, and finally to confront his father and the Emperor. He never stays with his team for long.

The Heroine/Leader, on the other hand, is at her (or his) most vulnerable when alone. The Leader may be a very powerful individual, even a great warrior, but she (or he) perceives strength in a team of people who will pool their skills and abilities and work together to solve the problem.

In other words, in a crisis, the Hero/Warrior is most likely to say “Stand back. I’ll handle this.” The Heroine/Leader is more likely to say, “Let’s do this together.”

And finally, the endings. Hero/Warriors are usually too changed by their solitary journeys to fit back into their old lives. Despite Sam’s best efforts, Frodo leaves Middle Earth entirely, going into the West with the elves. Luke seems to have come out all right at the end of “Return of the Jedi”, but just look where he’s found in “The Force Awakens”—alone on a lost planet.  Heroine/Leaders are much more likely to get happy endings, surrounded by a new or recovered family—Katniss and Peeta together, Sam with Rosie and their (thirteen!) children.

It’s important to note that not all elements will be present in every instance of either journey. Also neither journey is necessarily quite this black and white, for several reasons. First, not all stories fit into either heroic journey. Then again, in a big, epic story with multiple “heroes”, like LORD OF THE RINGS, it’s entirely possible for some characters to be on Warrior’s Journeys, while others are acting as Leaders. Or, over the course of a long series, a character may be on one journey overall, yet act, for one “episode” (or more) as if he or she were on the other journey. Sometimes, characters can change journeys, especially over the course of a series. And sometimes, it at least feels like the writer is confused and trying to force a Leader to act like a Warrior, or vice versa.

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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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