The Evolution of Arthurian and Medieval Romances

GOT Arthurian literature comparison collage v1b

Nowadays people complain that Game of Thrones, The Shannara Chronicles or any other modern dark fantasy is too violent. ‘Everything on TV is too violent.’ And then they go Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons: ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ But did you know that there was a plenty of violence in all the medieval romances where George R.R. Martin, Terry Brooks and countless other fantasy authors have taken inspiration from?

sir gawain and the green knight iii
This medieval drawing depicts a scene from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where Sir Gawain uses the latter’s axe to cut off his head. The Green knight’s head speaks a prophecy before the (now) headless horseman rides off.

We think that this is something recent. That authors in the good old days did not shock their audiences with vivid descriptions of brains splattered all over the stony ground (or wherever it was they did battle), and depraved carnal acts.
They knew better than that!

Well, boys and girls, that’s not how it went down. That is how the late 18th and 19th century writers would want you to believe (and some contemporary novelists) but in reality, medieval romances were filled with carnage and sex.

Just read Le MorteD’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, written at a time when England was embroiled in a violent civil war and you will see what I am talking about. Or better yet, read Chretien de Troyes. You do not have to go through all of his poem, just pick one at random dealing with the legend of King Arthur, and you will see nothing romantic about this legend. That is because our concept of romance is VERY DIFFERENT from what the medieval people saw as romance.

The more I revisit medieval romances, the more I fall in love with them (all over again). They are gory, sadder, than anything written recently. In a way, they were trying to copy their predecessors, Greek and Roman writers.

chretien de troyes
Chretien de Troyes

The way that Chretien, Sir Thomas Mallory, and several other medieval authors portrayed these legendary figures left a lot to be desired. And I do not mean this in a bad way. Arthur was a flawed character, his knights were less than perfect. Whoever wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” perfectly shows this. Sir Gawain sleeps with the Green Knight and (spoilers) after finding out that it was all a trap by the magical Green Knight (whom he previously chopped his head off), he gets angry but his anger turns to regret as he begs his opponent to absolve him.

Chivalry was one of the core tenets of medieval society. People aspired to be greater than their ordinary selves. This code of conduct was reserved for the rich, and only a select class of rich people. Aristocrats, Kings, and Queens, were seen as the moral arbiters of society. They were held to a higher standard than anyone else, people lived and died by their example.
But we are all human; we make mistakes. Some people learn from their mistakes, others refuse to accept any responsibility and continue to make them.
The Arthurian characters erred many times. Most of them picked themselves up and did their best to rectify their mistakes by becoming better people starting with them admitting they had done something wrong.

Arthur death Edward_Burne-Jones.The_last_sleep_of_Arthur

What the 18th and 19th century monarchs were smarter than their predecessors was in their approach to these figures. Rather than aspiring to live up to their example, they took a step back, read between the lives, examined their lives and used their failures as a way to reinforce their moral codes unto society.
What Victorians ended up getting was a morality play set in a pristine place that was ruined by human vice.

A Yankee in king arthur's court book cover

Out of all the writers of this era, the only one that didn’t follow this formula was Mark Twain with his science fantasy novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ Originally intended to be satire, the author’s brutal depiction of the medieval era and use of sarcasm is truer to the medieval romances that popularized this legend than anything his contemporary Victorians wrote.

Gone was the sex and violence and acts that were too much for the Victorians to handle. Gone was also the political commentary. Some scholars believe that Sir Thomas Mallory used the Arthurian legend to criticize the two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty that had plunged England into a bloody dynastic civil war that lasted over three decades.
Victorian writers did not want their audience to read between the lines. It was okay if aristocrats did it with older version of the novels that depicted a cruder and less civilized age, but not for the common populace who wanted something different (and far less complicated).

The end result is the medieval era as the new protagonist of Arthurian lore. An Eden-like setting filled with magic and beauty; the ideal place to escape.
This formula became so successful that it is still employed in TV, movies and other pop culture mediums.
To loosely quote what the character Fry from Futurama said, people do not want to be reminded of their dreary existence. They want to be spoon-fed the same old tired formula because otherwise, they will get confused or scared.

Sources:

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Henry VII and King Arthur: Unifying and Divisive Figures

Henry VII King Arthur collage.jpg

Henry VII, King of England, Lord of Ireland and first monarch of the Tudor Dynasty was a fan of medieval romances. Like most men of the era, he wanted to be seen as the embodiment of the chivalric virtues that his heroes displayed in these tales, primarily King Arthur.

At the time of his birth, a prophecy was made. Its origins lay with an older prophecy that foretold the coming of a king who would unite Britain under his banner and bring order to chaos.

Avid readers of fantasy probably know where this is going. Almost every fantasy writer has used this device. Their protagonists have no idea until they do.  They set out on a dangerous journey where they face every major obstacle known to man, until they fulfill their destiny.  Unlike modern fantasies where the hero almost always wins at the end, medieval romances paralleled Greek tragedies.

The heroes complete their tasks, but it comes at a great cost. Such is Mallory’s take on the Arthurian legend. Prior to its publication, the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table was made up of fragments. Storytellers tried to put their own spin on the legend by focusing on one or two characters (at the most). If such a man existed, he must have originated from Wales., where the tale was born. Like many popular folk tales and legends, the conquerors added their own spin to it. After England became united, the tale was absorbed into English lore and Arthur became more than just a Welsh folk tale, but an English hero.

Published fourteen years after his death, Le Morte deArthur remains to this day the definitive account of King Arthur’s reign and the template for many fantasy authors who have continued to add more to this Welsh-Anglicized myth.

Written during the wars of the roses, some scholars believe that it was a political critique meant to reflect the general sentiment towards both warring Houses, Lancaster and York; the disillusionment from the nobles regarding Edward IV’s union with the fair Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Sir John Grey of Groby, and rewarding her family by marrying them to the high aristocracy; and lastly, the author’s own regarding both Houses.

Henry Tudor was fourteen at the time of the author’s death. He would have cared very little about one more former Lancastrian’s death, except for a passing sorrow given that he had fought on their side during the Lancastrian Readeption. Sir Thomas Mallory’s claim to fame came with this mammoth novel. When it was published, the House of York was in shambles.

What was once seen as England’s greatest hope had now become a source of dread. People looked for an alternative and they found one in the form of Henry Tudor, the exiled Earl of Richmond.

Forced to flee England with his uncle following the defeat of his cousin’s armies and his uncle’s death, Henry and Jasper landed in Brittany where they remained for thirteen years before spending their last year of exile in France.

Henry VII King Arthur

THE PRINCE WHO WAS PROMISED

Seeing a window of opportunity with the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, Henry changed his tune from fighting in their name, to fighting in his name. On Christmas of 1483, at Vannes Cathedral (other sources say Rennes), he swore that he would smite the usurper and marry his fair niece, Elizabeth of York, thus uniting both houses and putting an end to the terrible war.

Henry cast himself in the role of the knight in shining armor, the chosen one who had been chosen by God to rule over their realm. Drawing from other Welsh myths and legends, he had the red dragon that represented Cadwaladr on his main standard.

When he was born, Welsh bards sang songs about him. His father, uncle, and grandfather were beloved in Wales, and they saw Owen Tudor’s descendant as part of a prophecy which foretold the return of King Arthur and of another legendary King, which would rule over all the British Isles.

Henry capitalized on people’s superstitions to build his growing legend. He was the exile who crossed the narrow sea; the heir to a once great House, who had come with a ragtag team of soldiers, fledglings, and mercenaries, to fight a greater army led by a tyrant.

These elements were common in every medieval romance. Henry Tudor claimed descent from King Arthur. He was not the first nor the last to do this. His father-in-law, Elizabeth of York’s father, had done this as well. Out of all of them however, it was Henry who pushed the envelope further by portraying his reign as one of peace, unity, law, and order.

Mallory’s version of King Arthur is far from perfect. He remains a flawed character, with Camelot ending up as nothing more than a fair reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The entire story is bittersweet. And therein lies another sad comparison, one that Henry probably thought he could avoid.

Tudor Rose 4

Henry’s device -which became a national symbol of England and a representation of his dynasty- known as the ‘Tudor Rose’ told an alternative tale of the wars of the roses. As with Arthur who had proven his worth by taking the sword out of the stone, having Excalibur granted to him by the lady of the lake, and other magical tokens; Henry Tudor proved himself in the battlefield. He beat Richard, defeated the rebels, and every pretender that came his way. He was the first English King in hundreds of years to sign a peace with Scotland, remaining on good terms with his ancestral rival and neighbor until his death. Henry also financed the first maritime voyages to the new world. Though not successful like those sponsored by the Queen of Castile and King of Aragon, the Catholic Kings (Isabella I and Ferdinand II), they opened the door for future explorers.
Seeing how well the first Yorkist King’s economic policies had worked, he kept some of them, albeit making them better. Like him, he recognized he had to keep the nobles under a tight leash. Instead of marrying them to his wife’s family, he took their private liveries away. Private liveries gave them the right to a private army. Without one, they posed no serious threat.

Henry VII tomb and Arthur's death

THE END OF CAMELOT

But not all was well in paradise. Like his legendary hero, Henry lost most of his loved ones. His uncle Jasper, his firstborn, and his beloved wife and their infant daughter. This last loss broke him. He became a recluse, and like King Arthur, another bitter reminder of what once was and what could have yet might have been.

Survived by his mother, Henry passed away on April 1509. The last book of Le Morte dArthur has Arthur his illegitimate son to the death. Mordred is slain but Arthur is mortally wounded. Seeing the splatter of brains and other body parts, he weeps and laments his reign. One of his men takes him to a barge where he is watched over by three magical queens who take him to the land of Avalon, where he will rest for eternity. The novel ends with a promise. One day Arthur will rise from the grave and come in the form of a just man to make things right again.

Many English Kings did not see the tale of King Arthur as a cautionary tale. They saw Arthur as their role model. Due to his paternal family’s ties to Wales and his peculiar journeys, Henry believed he had more in common with him, and was worthier than his predecessors to take up his mantle.
Henry was right, the year the novel was printed, was the year his reign began. But rather than having celebrated the similarities, he should have been wary of them.

Henry VII’s crown was inherited by his remaining son, Henry VIII. Unlike the terrible state England had been left in by Arthur’s death, Tudor England did not have to worry about that because in our version of the tale, Merlin was still around to help the next generation before he too passed away. In this version, Merlin was not a wise old man but a woman. Henry VII’s mother ensured that her son had a peaceful transition of power. When he reached his age of majority, she retired and passed away quickly.

The age of Camelot had come to an end. Camelot had become a land of nightmares. After the Tudor dynasty died out and the crown was inherited by a Junior branch (that descended from his eldest daughter) chroniclers took a different view of Henry VII’s reign. Henry VII’s last years in power came to define him, with him being portrayed as the miser-king, a dastardly figure whose mother was equally terrible.

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ONCE AND FUTURE KINGS

Like all the Tudors, Henry VII is a fascinating figure. Le Morte dArthur gives us an Arthur we can all root for and empathize with. He is flawed, and it is those flaws that make him relatable because he is human. Similarly, it is (ironically) thanks to all the bashing that Henry VII has received that has made him one of the more relatable monarchs of his dynasty.

They remain the once and future kings. Nobodies who beat the odds to become England’s celebrated figures, but who ultimately were helpless in the face of personal tragedy. Their dream of a perfect kingdom was inherited by their descendants but died with them. Ultimately though, despite his best efforts, his story took a tragic turn. Unlike his hero, he did not die at the hands of his son, nor see his kingdom descend into chaos. He had his Merlin (in the form of Margaret Beaufort) to thank for that; but he did lose many of his loved ones.Over a century later when the geo-political landscape of the British Isles changed, so did his appeal among chroniclers. Chroniclers began to see him in a negative light, painting him and his mother as a stain in English history and shifting the pendulum to the other side when it came to his rivals (primarily Richard).
In a way, this parallels with Arthur’s demise at the hands of his son, Mordred. At the end Mallory’s novel, Arthur regretfully tells two of his knights after he kills Mordred, that his glory has been snatched from him. Though Henry died of natural causes, recent efforts to vilify his name can be seen as a way of destroying his legacy.

Ironically though, novelists and chroniclers’ efforts to make him into a villain, only serve to make him more appealing. Who wants to be interested in a perfect character? Someone who has no flaws and you can’t relate to when you have a man who beat the odds and became King of England?

Subsequent Kings and Queens would delight themselves with tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table but they were far wiser in how they approached this tale. Instead of seeing Arthur as a role model, they regarded him as a cautionary tale; the perfect example of what happens when someone lets himself be overpowered by his vices.

Sources:

  • de Lisle, Leanda. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
  • Penn, Thomas. Winter King and the Dawn of Tudor England. Simon & Schuster. 2012.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changed English History. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Mallory, Thomas. Le Morte dArthur. 1485.