19 May 2017
King Arthur: not just a man of the sword?
Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers for all versions of the King Arthur Legend, medieval and modern
A popular hero of our blog, King Arthur, is once again in the news with this week's UK release of Guy Ritchie’s new film, King Arthur, Legend of the Sword. In yet another variation on the legend, the young Arthur in the film is a gangster in the back streets of Londinium, who is unaware of his royal lineage until he draws the sword Excalibur from the stone. He fights to conquer his inner demons, avenge his parents’ murder by defeating the tyrant Vortigern and win back his rightful crown. This all sounds rather violent, and violence is certainly a key element in the Arthurian tales. But there is so much more to the various legends of our favourite hero-king.
Of course, medieval stories about Arthur featured lots of fighting. Medieval manuscripts often depicted Arthur battling demons and giants, as well as heathen kings.
Arthur and the black beast, from L'estoire de Merlin, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 209v
Drawing of King Arthur finding a giant roasting a pig, from Wace, Roman de Brut, England, c. 1325–1350, Egerton MS 3028, f. 49r
Miniature of King Arthur and three knights slaying the heathen kings England, from The Fall of Princes, South-East England (?Bury St Edmunds), Harley MS 1766, f. 218r
Sometimes Arthur and his followers fought to rescue a maiden.
A miniature of Arthur slaying the 'swine-eating' Spanish giant on the island of Mont St Michel, and rescuing Helena, niece of Hoel of Brittany, from Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, volume 1, Royal MS 15 E IV f. 156r
And sometimes they acted in self-defence.
King Arthur and knights are attacked, from Guiron le Courtois, Southern Italy, (Naples?), between 1352 and 1362, Add MS 12228, f. 126v
But often it seems he and his knights just enjoyed a good battle.
A battle, from La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 125r
There are, however, differences between the modern film and common medieval stories about Arthur. Although the film focuses on Arthur’s youth, it does not include a character called 'Merlin', in contrast to medieval legends about Arthur's early life.
Merlin at Arthur's baptism, from Le Livre de Merlin, Northern France (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 66r
This version of the sword in the stone incident is a bit different, too. For a start, it does not feature David Beckham!
Arthur removes the sword from the stone and is blessed by Archbishop Brice, from Le Livre de Merlin, France, N. (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 73v
And in this version of the story, it is Merlin and two dragons who confront Vortigern, not Arthur.
Detail of Merlin showing Vortigern two dragons, in L'estoire de Merlin, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 84v
There are many more stories about Arthur, and not all the incidents emphasize violence. This manuscript of the Chronicles of England features an image of Arthur’s coronation.
The coronation of King Arthur, from the Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, Netherlands, S. (Bruges); after 1471, before 1483, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 141v
Once crowned, King Arthur is busy with many varied activities according to the legend, not all of them involving bloody battles.
King Arthur blowing a horn while hunting with Urien and Accalon, from the Suite de Merlin, Add MS 38117, f. 193r
Arthur dictating to a scribe, from Le Morte Artu, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f. 140r
Arthur on the wheel of fortune, from Le Mort Artu, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294, f. 89r
He seems to end up in prison quite often, although there tends to be a damsel to look after him on these occasions.
Arthur in prison, from Lancelot du Lac, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 144v
And he also enjoys many a great banquet with Lancelot, Guinevere and his courtiers.
Arthur and Guinevere at a banquet, while Lancelot kneels before them, requesting permission to leave the court, La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r
Arthur engaged in conversation with his barons, while Lancelot and Guinevere are whispering together, and on the right, the king and queen presiding over a banquet, from Lancelot du Lac, Southern England (Pleshey Castle), c. 1360–1380, Royal MS 20 D IV, f. 1r
Finally (SPOILER ALERT), in medieval versions there is no happy ending. Arthur is killed at the Battle of Salisbury Plain and his noble vision of the Round Table is destroyed.
The death of Arthur, from Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1479–c.1480; Royal MS 14 E V, f. 439v
But the legend lives on …. on the British Library website. You can find a virtual exhibition of some of our Arthurian manuscripts here.
Of our large collection of Arthurian manuscripts, some are fully digitised online on Digitised Manuscripts:
Add MS 5474: Le Roman de Tristan en prose
Add MS 12228: Guiron le Courtois
Add MS 23929: Le Roman de Tristan en prose
Add MS 23930: Guiron le Courtois
Add MS 32125: Wace, Roman de Brut; the Anglo-Norman Description of England; Estoire del Saint Graal; Robert de Boron, prose Merlin
Add MS 38117: Robert de Boron, Joseph d'Arimathie, Le Livre de Merlin, Suite de Merlin ('the Huth Manuscript')
Add MS 59678: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur
Egerton MS 3028: Wace, Roman de Brut and other texts
Harley MS 4419: Lancelot du Lac
Lansdowne MS 757: Lancelot-Grail
Royal MS 14 E III: Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, Morte Artu
Royal MS 20 A II: Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, the Lament of Edward II, fragments of Arthurian romances
Royal MS 20 D IV: Lancelot du Lac
Prose Brut Chonicles
Royal MS 12 C XII: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts
Royal MS 20 A III: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts
Prophecies of Merlin
Add MS 25014: An excerpt from the prologue of the Prophecies of Merlin and other texts
Add MS 25434: Prophecies of Merlin
Arundel MS 66: Astrological compilation including Prophecies of Merlin
Harley MS 1629: Prophecies of Merlin
Harley MS 3908: Prophecies of Merlin and other texts
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