1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Arthur

ARTHUR (Fr. Artus), the central hero of the cycle of romance known as the Matière de Bretagne (see Arthurian Legend). Whether there was an historic Arthur has been much debated; undoubtedly for many centuries after the appearance of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Britonum (circ. 1136), the statements therein recorded of a mighty monarch, who ruled over Britain in the 5th-6th centuries, and carried his conquests far afield, even to the gates of Rome, obtained general, though not universal, credence. Even in the 12th century there were some who detected, and derided, the fictitious character of Geoffrey’s “History.” As was naturally to be expected, the pendulum swung to the other extreme, and in a more critical age the existence of Arthur was roundly denied. The truth probably lies midway between the two. The words of Wace, the Norman poet who translated the Historia into verse, are here admirably to the point. Speaking of the tales told of Arthur, he says:—

“Ne tot mençunge, ne tot veir,
Ne tot fable, ne tot saveir,
Tant ont li contéor conté,
Et li fabléor tant fablé
Por lor contes embeleter
Que tout ont fait fable sembler.”[1]

The opinion now generally accepted by scholars is that the evidence of Nennius, whose Historia Britonum preceded that of Geoffrey by some 400 years, is in the main to be relied on. He tells us that Arthur was Dux bellorum, and led the armies of the British kings against the Saxon invaders, whom he defeated in twelve great battles. Tunc Arthur pugnabat cum regibus Britonum, sed ipse dux erat bellorum.

The traditional site of these battles covers a very wide area, and it is supposed that Arthur held a post analogous to that of the general who, under the Roman occupation, was known as Comes Britanniae, and held a roving commission to defend the island wherever attacked, in contradistinction to the Dux Britanniarum, who had charge of the forces in the north, and the Comes Littoris Saxonici, whose task it was to defend the south-east line. The Welsh texts never call Arthur gwledig (prince), but amheradawr (Latin imperator) or emperor, a title which would be bestowed on the highest official in the island. The truth thus appears to be that, while there was never a King Arthur, there was a noted chieftain and general of that name. If we say that he carried on a successful war against the Saxons, was probably betrayed by his wife and a near kinsman, and fell in battle, we have stated all which can be claimed as an historical nucleus for his legend. It is now generally admitted that the representation of Arthur as world conqueror, Welt-Kaiser, is due to the influence of the Charlemagne cycle. In the 12th century the Matière de France was waning, the Matière de Bretagne waxing in popularity, and public opinion demanded that the central figure of the younger cycle (for whatever the date of the subject matter, as a literary cycle the Arthurian is the younger) should not be inferior in dignity and importance to that of the earlier. When we add to this the fact that the writers of the 12th century represented the personages and events of the 6th in the garb, and under the conditions, of their own time, we can understand the reason of the manifold difficulties which beset the study of the cycle.

But into the figure of Arthur as we know him, other elements have entered; he is not merely an historic personality, but at the same time a survival of pre-historic myth, a hero of romance, and a fairy king; and all these threads are woven together in one fascinating but bewildering web. It is only possible here to summarize the leading features which may be claimed as characteristic of each phase.

Mythic.—Certain elements of the story point to Arthur as a culture hero; as such his name has been identified with the Mercurius Artaius of the Gauls. In this rôle he slays monsters, the boar Twrch Trwyth, the giant of Mont St Michel and the Demon Cat of Losanne (André de Coutances tells us that Arthur was really vanquished and carried off by the Cat, but that one durst not tell that tale before Britons!). He never, it should be noted, rides on purely chivalric ventures, such as aiding distressed damsels, seeking the Grail, &c. His expeditions are all more or less warlike. The story of his youth belongs, as Alfred Nutt (Folk-lore, vol. iv.) has shown, to the group of tales classified as the Aryan Expulsion and Return formula, found in all Aryan lands. Numerous parallels exist between the Arthurian and early Irish heroic cycles, notably the Fenian or Ossianic. This Fenian cycle is very closely connected with the Tuatha de Danaan, the Celtic deities of vegetation and increase; recent research has shown that two notable features of the Arthurian story, the Round Table and the Grail, can be most reasonably accounted for as survivals of this Nature worship, and were probably parts of the legend from the first.

Romantic.—The character of Arthur as a romantic hero is, in reality, very different from that which, mainly through the popularity of Tennyson’s Idylls, English people are wont to suppose. In the earlier poems he is practically a lay figure, his court the point of departure and return for the knights whose adventures are related in detail, but he himself a passive spectator. In the prose romances he is a monarch, the splendour of whose court, whose riches and generosity, are the admiration of all; but morally he is no whit different from the knights who surround him; he takes advantage of his bonnes fortunes as do others. He has two sons, neither of them born in wedlock; one, Modred, is alike his son and his nephew. In certain romances, the Perlesvaus and Diu Crône, he is a veritable roi fainéant, overcome by sloth and luxury. Certain traits of his story appear to show the influence of Northern romance. Such is the story of his begetting, where Uther takes upon him the form of Gorlois to deceive Yguerne, even as Siegfried changed shapes with Gunther to the undoing of Brünnhilde. The sword in the perron (stone pillar or block), the withdrawal of which proves his right to the kingdom, is the sword of the Branstock. Morgain carries him off, mortally wounded, to Avalon, even as the Valkyr bears the Northern hero to Valhal. Morgain herself has many traits in common with the Valkyrie; she is one of nine sisters, she can fly through the air as a bird (Swan maiden); she possesses a marvellous ointment (as does Hilde, the typical Valkyr). The idea of a slumbering hero who shall awake at the hour of his country’s greatest need is world-wide, but the most famous instances are Northern, e.g. Olger Danske and Barbarossa, and depend ultimately on an identification with the gods of the Northern Pantheon, notably Thor. W. Larminie cited an instance of a rhyme current in the Orkneys as a charm against nightmare, which confuses Arthur with Siegfried and his winning of the Valkyr.

Fairy.—We find that at Arthur’s birth (according to Layamon, who here differs from Wace), three ladies appeared and prophesied his future greatness. This incident is also found in the first continuation to the Perceval, where the prediction is due to a lady met with beside a forest spring, clearly here a water fairy. In the late romance of La Bataille de Loquifer Avalon has become a purely fairy kingdom, where Arthur rules in conjunction with Morgain. In Huon de Bordeaux he is Oberon’s heir and successor, while in the romance of Brun de la Montagne, preserved in a unique MS. of the Bibliothèque Nationale, we have the curious statement that all fairy-haunted places, wherever found, belong to Arthur:—

“Et touz ces lieux faés
Sont Artus de Bretagne.”

This brief summary of the leading features of the Arthurian tradition will indicate with what confused and complex material we are here dealing. (See also Arthurian Legend, Grail, Merlin, Round Table; and Celt: Celtic literature.)

Texts. Historic:—Nennius, Historia Britonum; H. Zimmer, Nennius Vindicatus (Berlin, 1893), an examination into the credibility of Nennius; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Britonum (translations of both histories are in Bohn’s Library); Wace, the Brut (ed. by Leroux de Lincey); Layamon (ed. by Sir Fred. Madden).

Romantic:—Merlin—alike in the Ordinary, or Vulgate (ed. Sommer), the Suite or “Huth” Merlin, the 13th century Merlin (ed. by G. Paris and J. Ulrich), and the unpublished and unique version of Bibl. nat. fonds français, 337 (cf. Freymond’s analysis in Zeitschrift für franz. Sprache, xxii.)—devotes considerable space to the elaboration of the material supplied by the chronicles, the beginning of Arthur’s reign, his marriage and wars with the Saxons. The imitation of the Charlemagne romances is here evident; the Saxons bear names of Saracen origin, and camels and elephants appear on the scene. The Morte Arthur, or Mort au roi Artus, a metrical romance, of which a unique English version exists in the Thornton collection (ed. for Early English Text Society), gives an expanded account of the passing of Arthur; in the French prose form it is now always found incorporated with the Lancelot, of which it forms the concluding section. The remains of the Welsh tradition are to be found in the Mabinogion (cf. Nutt’s edition, where the stories are correctly classified), and in the Triads. Professor Rhys’ Studies in the Arthurian Legend are largely based on Welsh material, and may be consulted for details, though the conclusions drawn are not in harmony with recent research. These are the only texts in which Arthur is the central figure; in the great bulk of the romances his is but a subordinate rôle.  (J. L. W.) 

  1. Nor all a lie, nor all true, nor all fable, nor all known, so much have the story-tellers told, and the fablers fabled, in order to embellish their tales, that they have made all seem fable.

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