The historical basis of the Arthur-legends is the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain. In the three centuries after the first settlement of the Germanic invaders in that island, the Britons were gradually driven into the mountains of Wales and Cumberland and the peninsula of Cornwall, or they fled across the Channel to turn Armorica into Brittany. Meanwhile they suffered almost uniform defeat. But for a while about the year 500 they won victories that for nearly half a century checked the Saxon advance. Their leader was Arthur, a good general, but probably not a king. Now men much in the public eye attract stories to themselves, as witness the countless anecdotes related of Abraham Lincoln. With peoples of slight civilization, such stories are full of marvels and portents. Thus hero-legends are made; thus the Arthur-legend grew up. Probably immediately after Arthur’s death, popular story began to increase his fame. In the so-called chronicle of a British monk, Nennius, written three hundred years after Arthur’s victories, we have our sole literary glimpse of the romantic hero-legend in the making, for Nennius associates several supernatural tales with the British leader. Presumably among Britons on both sides of the Channel—for Arthur won his victories before the principal migration to Armorica—similar association of marvel and adventure with the national champion was common. By degrees these hero-tales passed to the neighbors of the Britons. Because of their interest and poetic charm they came to be known in both France and England, though always purely popular—“old wives’ tales” beneath the notice of serious writers.

The Norman Conquest, however, had quickened tremendously interest in everything connected with Britain, even its legendary heroes; and so, early in the reign of Stephen, grandson of the Conqueror, the clerk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, drawing on the store of British legend and altering it freely, ventured to publish his “History of the Kings of Britain,” an alleged chronicle in Latin prose. Here we have for the first time in literary form the story of Arthur, King of Britain, of his wide conquests, and of his death at the hands of traitorous Mordred. Soon other authors, mostly Anglo-Norman or subject to Anglo-Norman influence, began to use material similar to Geoffrey’s. They celebrated Arthur’s Round Table, and various knights whom Geoffrey had not mentioned. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the stories of Arthur and his knights had become world literature, for Geoffrey’s “Chronicle” and the first French Arthurian romances had been translated or adapted into every language of western Europe. Wherever they went, these stories retained certain common traits. In all was poetic wonder; in all was utter geographical confusion and historical inaccuracy; kings, knights, and ladies were characters contemporary with the authors who wrote about them; instead of the rough manners of the sixth century, there was the polish of mediæval chivalry. And with the exception of Geoffrey’s work, the first Arthur-stories were in verse, and the adventures of different knights formed the subjects of different romances.

In historical inaccuracies, mediæval authors did not change. Nor, for that matter, did post-mediæval authors; Arthur and his knights remain for all time typical romantic representatives of the age of chivalry. But early in the thirteenth century, writers began to turn metrical romances into prose. Then they began to combine the adventures of one knight with another in one romance, till by degrees there grew up vast jumbles of adventure which clumsily tried to give something like comprehensive tales of the adventures of Arthur and all his principal knights. Owing to multiplicity of sources and mistakes of scribes, these composite stories were sometimes contradictory and confusing in the extreme. A late copy of one of them seems to have been Malory’s principal source. Probably he modified this source by information from other manuscripts, and by independent judgment in putting materials together. However that may be, he has by no means brought order out of chaos. Yet, taken as a whole, Malory’s work has some organic structure. It is the best and clearest comprehensive story of “King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table” that the Middle Ages have left us.

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