1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Arthurian Legend
ARTHURIAN LEGEND. By the “Arthurian legend,” or Matière de Bretagne, we mean the subject-matter of that important body of medieval literature known as the Arthurian cycle (see Arthur). The period covered by the texts in their present form represents, roughly speaking, the century 1150–1250. The History of Nennius is, of course, considerably earlier, and that of Geoffrey of Monmouth somewhat antedates 1150 (1136), but with these exceptions the dates above given will be found to cover the composition of all our extant texts.
As to the origin of this Matière de Bretagne, and the circumstances under which it became a favourite theme for literary treatment, two diametrically opposite theories are held. One body of scholars, headed by Professor Wendelin Förster of Bonn, while admitting that, so far as any historic basis can be traced, the events recorded must have happened on insular ground, maintain that the knowledge of these events, and their romantic development, are due entirely to the Bretons of the continent. The British who fled before the Teutonic and Scandinavian invasions of the 6th and 8th centuries, had carried with them to Armorica, and fondly cherished, the remembrance of Arthur and his deeds, which in time had become interwoven with traditions of purely Breton origin. On the other side of the Channel, i.e. in Arthur’s own land, these memories had died out, or at most survived only as the faint echo of historic tradition. Through the medium of French-speaking Bretons these tales came to the cognizance of Northern French poets, notably Chrétien de Troyes, who wove them into romances. According to Professor Förster there were no Arthurian romances previous to Chrétien, and equally, of course, no insular romantic tradition. This theory reposes mainly on the supposed absence of pre-Chrétien poems, and on the writings of Professor H. Zimmer, who derives the Arthurian names largely from Breton roots. This represents the prevailing standpoint of German scholars, and may be called the “continental” theory. In opposition to this the school of which the late Gaston Paris was the leading, and most brilliant, representative, maintains that the Arthurian tradition, romantic equally with historic, was preserved in Wales through the medium of the bards, was by them communicated to their Norman conquerors, worked up into poems by the Anglo-Normans, and by them transmitted to the continental poets. This, the “insular” theory, in spite of its inherent probability, has hitherto been at a disadvantage through lack of positive evidence, but in a recently acquired MS. of the British Museum, Add. 36614, we find the first continuator of the Perceval, Wauchier de Denain, quoting as authority for stories of Gawain a certain Bleheris, whom he states to have been “born and bred in Wales.” The identity of this Bleheris with the Bledhericus mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis as Famosus ille fabulator, living at a bygone and unspecified date, and with the Bréri quoted by Thomas as authority for the Tristan story, has been fully accepted by leading French scholars. Further, on the evidence of certain MSS. of the Perceval, notably the Paris MS. (Bibl. Nat. 1450), it is clear that Chrétien was using, and using freely, the work of a predecessor, large fragments of which have been preserved by the copyists who completed his unfinished work. The evidence of recent discoveries is all in favour of the insular, or French, view.
So far as the character, as distinguished from the provenance, of this subject-matter is concerned, it is largely of folk-lore origin, representing the working over of traditions, in some cases (as e.g. in the account of Arthur’s birth and upbringing) common to all the Aryan peoples, in others specifically Celtic. Thus there are a number of parallels between the Arthurian and the Irish heroic cycles, the precise nature of which has yet to be determined. So far as Arthur himself is concerned these parallels are with the Fenian, or Ossianic, cycle, in the case of Gawain with the Ultonian.
In its literary form the cycle falls into three groups:—pseudo-historic: the Histories of Nennius and Geoffrey, the Brut of Wace and Layamon (see Arthur); poetic: the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas, Raoul de Houdenc and others (see Gawain, Perceval, Tristan, and the writers named above); prose: the largest and most important group (see Grail, Lancelot, Merlin, Tristan). Of these three branches the prose romances offer the most insuperable problems; none can be dated with any certainty; all are of enormous length; and all have undergone several redactions. Of not one do we as yet possess a critical and comparative text, and in the absence of such texts the publication of any definite and detailed theory as to the evolution and relative position of the separate branches of the Arthurian cycle is to be deprecated. The material is so vast in extent, and in so chaotic a condition, that the construction of any such theory is only calculated to invite refutation and discredit.
The best general study of the cycle is to be found in Gaston Paris’s manual La Littérature française au moyen âge (new and revised edition, 1905). See also the introduction to vol. xxx. of Histoire littéraire de la France. For the theories as to origin, see the Introductions to Professor Förster’s editions of the poems of Chrétien de Troyes, notably that to vol. iv., Der Karrenritter, which is a long and elaborate restating of his position. Also Professor H. Zimmer’s articles in Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen, 12 and 20. For the Insular view, Ferd. Lot’s “Études sur la provenance du cycle arthurien,” Romania, vols. xxiv.-xxviii., are very valuable. For a popular treatment of the subject, cf. Nos. i. and iv. of Popular Studies in Romance and Folk-lore (Nutt). Robert Huntington Fletcher’s “The Arthurian Matter in the Chronicles” (vol. x. of Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature), is a most useful summary. (J. L. W.)