The Arthurian legend

See the texts of Historia regum Britanniae and the Mabinogion



Marie from France:

Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and Anonymous:


The Mabinogions:

The three romances (Y Tair Rhamant):

The context

The political situation:
Au cinquième siècle, les romains sont installés en Grande-Bretagne et dominent l’île, même si les Scots (peuplade Celtic venue d’Irlande qui finira, au sixième siècle, par s’établir sur la côte ouest de l’Ecosse) et les Picts (peuple préceltique d’Ecosse), entre autres, restent insoumis.
But, from 486, with the conquests of Clovis and the invasions of the Vandals, Visigoths and Ostrogoths, the Roman Empire weakens strongly in its western part. The Romans then lose interest in Great Britain to concentrate on the defense of the Empire, which will not prevent its fall in the 490s.
The Saxons (ancient people Germanic qui s’était étendu vers le sud et avait mené des raids en Gaulle, tout nouvellement arrivé en Grande-Bretagne) en profitent pour essayer de s’emparer de toute l’ île. 

Internal conflicts:
The various leaders Bretons and Welsh are then divided by incessant quarrels, and spend their time fighting among themselves, without much success.
All these kings, postulants to a unifying throne, suffer from a problem of legitimacy: the various invasions have brought about a great diversity of peoples and cultures in the kingdom. No leader succeeds in being recognized throughout the kingdom, and by all peoples. There is, therefore, no supreme leader, much less a king who commands all the inhabitants of Great Britain.
But in front of the important threat of invasion of the Saxons they all line up under the banner of a named Artorius.
This warrior, probably born around 470-475 in Cornwall, is the leader of a highly mobile band of mercenary horsemen. Everyone sees him as the only person capable of standing up to the invader. 

Artorius in power:
Artorius was therefore appointed commander-in-chief of the new army and, all united, the Breton and Welsh kings won, somewhere in the southwest of England around 500-518, a great victory which stopped the invader for about forty years. This is the Battle of Mount Badon (or Bath, or Badbury).
When Artorius died in a great battle, near Camelford in Cornwall, around 540-542, it was the end of Breton independence: at the end of the century, the Saxons occupied three quarters of the island .
The body of Artorius is secretly buried in Glastonbury by his lieutenants, who are anxious to hide his death so as not to demoralize the troops. 

The results :
Devant l’invasion, des milliers de Bretons ont traversé la mer pour s’établir dans la péninsule armoricaine, à laquelle ils donnent le nom de Brittany. They find there compatriots who have arrived since the fourth century. They remain in very close contact with the Bretons who remained on the island. Both keep alive the memory of Artorius and make him a king, which he never was in reality.
On the other hand, the problem of legitimacy always arises, and even more so, after the seizure of power by William the Conqueror (1027-1087), Duke of Normandy, in 1066. The king is a Norman, a minority people. And this situation is all the more boring as the rival dynasty does not have this problem: the Capetians present themselves as the descendants of Charlemagne.
Pour palier à ce grand désavantage, les Normands encouragent les clercs à diffuser ce qui est déjà la legend d’Arthur (nom romain pour Artorius), et plus particulièrement le mythe de sa dormition et de son retour prochain, dans le but de s’allier les Gallois et de défaire les Anglo-Saxons. 

The creation of the myth:
At first, therefore, the legend says that Arthur is not dead. Seriously wounded during the battle of Camlann, he was transported by his sister, the fairy Morgana, to the island of Avalon, where he is being treated, waiting to be able to return to take the head of his people: it is Breton hope.
Mais Henri II (1133-1189) va finalement confisquer la légende d’Arthur, en se présentant comme son héritier légitime, et mettre un terme à l’espoir breton. A des fins de propagande, il demande une mise en langue romance de l’Historia Regum Britanniae, commandée en 1138 par son père, dans le même but, à Geoffroy de Monmouth.
The king, inside his kingdom, needs the support of the Bretons against the Saxons who do not accept Norman domination. But the Bretons are not ready to rally to the Plantagenets banner because of Breton hope.
The novel, in three parts, ends with the description of Arthur's reign: his accession to the throne, his marriage, the creation of the Round Table, until the death of the sovereign.
Finally, in 1191, we discovered the tombs (and the skeletons) of Arthur and Guinevere in the cemetery of the abbey. As for the Isle of Avalon, she is identified with Glastonbury Abbey. This puts an end to Breton hope. 

The extension of the myth:
Around 1100, the legend is so present and strong that the bards graft myths folkloriques, particularités géographiques, traditions chrétiennes et petit héros locaux postérieurs (Yvain par exemple), …
In two or three centuries, therefore, Arthur has become the pivot around which revolves a whole system of independent stories originally, and this set ends up forming a vast and rich reservoir, an immense and inexhaustible myth.
It was Robert Wace, in his Roman de Brut, in 1155, who gave the myth a courteous color. Arthur becomes the ideal monarch, a model of humanity, valor, generosity and delicacy. He was also the first to mention the Round Table, a political symbol of courteous society.
The Arthurian legend is, from the end of the eleventh century, disseminated throughout Europe, and even beyond, by the professional storytellers who accompany the armies leaving for the Holy Land on the occasion of the first two crusades.

The legend

Arthur's birth:
Arthur is the son of King Uter Pendragon and Duchess Ygerne of Cornwall.
His mother had been married for the first time to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall and vassal of Uter. Thanks to Merlin, one evening Uter takes the appearance of the duke and sleeps with Ygerne. During that same night the duke died in a skirmish outside his castle. Uter then marries Ygerne.
According to the authors, Arthur is entrusted at his birth either to Merlin, who demanded this gift in payment for his services and will raise him as a knight in ignorance of his origins, or to Ectorius and Flavilla, loyal and righteous vassals. , who then raised him with their son Keu.

Accession to the throne:
With the death of Uter, the succession turns out to be a thorny and painful problem because he has no legitimate son.
But at the end of the mass, after the burial, one discovers on the square of the cathedral a sword embedded in an anvil and a rock. There is an inscription there that only the legitimate king can tear the sword from the stone. Many knights attempt the test, but the sword remains in its place. It's only several years after a teenager manages to extract it: it's Arthur 
There are two versions here:
According to the first, the barons refuse to recognize the authority of this adolescent. Eventually, Merlin steps in to reveal that Arthur is the son of Uter and Ygerne, therefore the rightful heir to the throne.
According to the second, Arthur arrives voluntarily to get what is rightfully his. And it is he himself who reveals, in front of an audience of stunned knights, his origins, confirmed by Ygerne and Merlin, present at this scene.
Other differences arise when the acceptance of the new king, sometimes the battle is hard and Arthur must prove his worth, other times, he is greeted with joy, like a liberator. 

The pacification of the kingdom:
While many barons war against Arthur, refusing to swear an oath to him, the Saxon invaders take advantage of the situation to enter the kingdom. The rebellious barons then realize the danger they are running the kingdom and are reconciled with Arthur.
The young king turns out to be a shrewd general and an outstanding knight. In addition, the younger generation, the sons of the barons, had already joined the party of the young king. The barons make their submission to Arthur and crush the Saxons with his help.
It was during this turbulent period that Arthur met Guinevere. He comes to the aid of the king of Carmelid threatened by giants and Saxons (again, there are many variations). Guinevere is the daughter of this vassal king. Arthur marries her and this confirms the end of the war epic and sanctions the opening of an era of peace and prosperity. This is the final sign of his legitimacy as a sovereign.
D’autres textes racontent que le roi Arthur, au début de son règne, avait aidé le roi d’Scotland Leodegraunce contre les Irish, et que celui-ci, pour le remercier, lui a offert sa fille Guenièvre en mariage. Merlin s’oppose dans un premier temps à cette union puisqu’il sait que Guenièvre est amoureuse de Lancelot, le plus prestigieux des Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Mais Merlin finit par accorder sa bénédiction, et durant la cérémonie, il offre la Table Ronde à Arthur en guise de cadeau de mariage. 

The round table :
Then come twelve years of peace where the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table take place. Arthur ceases to be the central hero of the stories, he is surrounded by a certain number of characters:
Keu le Sénéchal, Gauvain, Agravain, Gaheriet, Guerrehet, Sagramor, Lancelot du Lac, Perceval le Gallois, Bohort, Lionnel, Galaad, Mordret ...
Mordret is Arthur's son, whom he had with Morgane, his half-sister (without knowing that they were brother and sister), when he was still only a squire.
To support his sovereignty, Arthur possesses Excalibur, the magical sword of Avalon which is a testament to his friendship with the fairy people. She also gives him a significant power: as long as he fights with her, he will never lose a lot of blood, just a few drops.
The number of the knights of the round table varies according to the moment and the stories, being able to go from 12 to 150. These knights are united by feelings of indissoluble brotherhood. Breaking this solidarity will lead to the final battle. 

The quest for the Grail:
The Grail, according to legend, is the chalice from which Christ drank during the last meal with the apostles. This chalice would have contained his blood after the crucifixion.
The Holy Grail once appears to the Knights of the Round Table, covered in white cloth amidst a dazzling light. When the knights see this light, they are all left speechless and a spicy smell spreads.
Following this apparition, Merlin intervenes and explains to the whole assembly that this cup is an essential element in the harmony between men, that one of the Knights of the Round Table must find it and look at what it contains to keep the world running.
The quest for the Holy Grail is the most difficult and the greatest of the quests of the time of King Arthur, many knights have returned empty-handed. King Arthur told himself that the loyalty and nobility of his knights would never be the same without the illustrious relic of the Holy Grail and he was not mistaken: several of them died before Galahad managed to look into the world. chalice and bring peace to Camelot.

The death of the king:
King Arthur goes with his army to the continent. There are 2 versions to this event:
The oldest indicates that he is marching on Rome, which had dared to claim tribute from Great Britain to the Empire.
During his absence Mordret seizes the kingdom with the help of the Saxons. He was crowned king and married Guinevere. Arthur and his army return. It was then the final battle between the armies of Arthur and Mordret on Salisbury Plain.
The second version is more romantic: Lancelot is surprised with Guinevere. Arthur, ridiculed and betrayed by the two beings he loves the most in the world, orders that Lancelot be killed and that Guinevere be burned alive. He then pursues his rival, who came to save the queen on the day of the execution, as far as Brittany, Lancelot's stronghold, where a gigantic battle develops, opposing the Knights of the Round Table between them.
Either way, all the characters in the legend are killed in battle. It is Cador, Duke of Cornwall, who becomes King of Great Britain. As for Guinevere, she takes the veil in Amesbury.

Authors, books and miscellaneous


* Chrétien de Troyes
* Geoffroy de Monmouth
* Marie of France
* Robert Wace
* Robert de Boron
* Pagan of Maisières
* Raoul de Houdenc
* Rusticello from Pisa
* Thomas Malory
* Ulrich von Zatzikhoven
* Wolfram von Eschenbach

Anonymous books

* The Perilous Hearth
* Blandin de Cornouaille
* The Knight with the Sword
* The Knight at Papegau
* The Lady with the Mule
* Gliglois
* Hunbaut
* The Book of Caradoc
* The Wonders of Rigomer
* Perlesvaus or the High Grail Book
* The Roman de Jaufré


King Arthur's entourage
* Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur
* Ygraine, Ygerne, Ygène, mother of Arthur, wife of the Duke of Cornwall
* Guinevere, wife of Arthur
* Morgane, Arthur's half-sister
* Merlin, "the enchanter", magician, Myrddin in Welsh
* Viviane, known as "The Lady of the Lake"
* Mordred, son of Arthur and Morgause
* Morgause, or Anna

The Knights of the Round Table
* King Arthur
* Galahad (Gilead, Galahad the Valiant)
* Gauvain
* Lancelot (Lancelot du Lac, Le Chevalier de la Charrette)
* Lionel
* Perceval (Parsifal, Perceval le Gallois)
* Yvain (Owain)
* Bohort l'Essillié (Bohor, Bors)
* Bedivere (Bedwir)
* Keu (Kay, Kai)
* Mordred
* Gaheris
* Gareth
* Geraint
* Lamorak of Gulis
* Tristan (Tristram)
* Sagramor
* Accolon
* Leodegrans
* Girflet
* Caradoc
* Calogrenant
* Hunbaut
* Agravain

Other characters
* Brisène
* Caelia
* Claudas
* Dindrane
* Elaine
* Gorlois
* Gwynn ap Nudd
* Iseult, Iseut
* Joseph of Arimathea
* Lot, King of Orkney (or Orcadia)
* Marc'h
* Nimue
* Oberon
* Palamedes
* Pelleas
* Pellinore
* Vortigern, Urtigernus in Latin
* The Green Knight
* The Red Knight
* The Fisher King

Places and objects
* Brocéliande
* Camelot, or Camaloth, Arthur's capital
* Avalon
* Excalibur, Arthur's magic sword
* The Holy Grail
* The round table