Books: Building a Library King Arthur

By Barker, Juliet | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 9, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Books: Building a Library King Arthur


Barker, Juliet, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Although I could fill several libraries with books claiming to have identified the 'real' King Arthur, the simple fact of the matter is that no one knows whether 'the once and future king' ever existed. What is beyond doubt, however, is the identity of the founding father of the Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welsh-born canon living in Oxford and his History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1138, is the starting point for our collection. Posing as a serious historical account, it is in fact a magpie hoard plundered from early chronicles, Celtic folklore and Geoffrey's own powerful imagination. His Arthur is a British warrior- king, conqueror of 30 kingdoms, and a hero designed to rival France's Charlemagne.

Chrtien de Troyes wrote his Arthurian romances only 40 years later, but they are centuries away in spirit from Geoffrey's dark age Britain. In Erec and Enide, Cligs, Yvain and, above all, Lancelot Or The Knight of the Cart, Chrtien set the standard and pattern for all future Arthurian literature, moving Arthur from central stage to preside over an elegant and sophisticated court dedicated to the twin ideals of chivalry and courtly love. His knights errant are now the heroes and genuine characters in their own right, though each one has to undergo the stock-in-trade trial of proving his devotion to his lady not only by his prowess in battle and tournament but also by submitting to her capricious whims.

A generation later, the author of The Quest of the Holy Grail brilliantly subverted the Arthurian story, using its forms and settings but rejecting its worldly values and turning the knight errant into a knight of Christ who seeks the love of God, not the love of his mistress.

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