The legends of Arthur and his knights are among those great stories of the world which have been told and retold through centuries, changing their form with successive periods. They are rich in characters and situations of wide human appeal and in the elements of heroic idealism and romantic love which refresh the mind in times when men feel a need for heroes and lovers.
This book presents briefly, in picture and in story, some of the most outstanding tales as they were known in the Middle Ages and as they were revived in the nineteenth century, and suggests the social backgrounds which led to different treatments of the legends in different periods. Some narratives have been taken from French and German romances, but Sir Thomas Malory fifteenth-century English masterpiece, the Morte d'Arthur, has been followed whenever possible, for with his book the international story of this British hero became one of the glories of English literature.
The story of Arthur began more than fourteen centuries ago, but its record in literature and art is not quite so long. The historic Arthur lived about A.D. 500. He was probably a battle leader of the Britons against the Anglo- Saxons who invaded Britain after the Romans had withdrawn. His deeds left such a lasting impression upon his fellow countrymen that, after the Celtic Britons had been absorbed by the invaders or driven into Wales and Cornwall or across the Channel into Brittany, the legend grew up that he was not dead but recovering from his wounds in the fairy island of Avalon and would come again to help his country. In the fanciful tales told among the Welsh and Cornish and their kin, the Bretons of Brittany, Arthur was said to be the king of a band of warriors who could perform all kinds of supernatural feats; he himself had magical powers and possessions and was an invincible giant killer. But the first written record of Arthur, which is found in the Latin chronicle of the Welshman Nennius, dating about 826, does not call him a king. Nennius called Arthur dux bellorum-- "leader of battles"--and said that he fought beside the kings of the Britons against the Saxon invaders. His real position may have been like that of the Roman Count of Britain, who had general charge of all military forces in the country.
When the Normans conquered Britain in 1066, the legend of Arthur was already familiar in Normandy as well as in Britain. The Celtic national chieftain was a satisfactory hero to both the Norman conquerors and the vanquished Anglo-Saxons, for he belonged to neither side. Both could appreciate the comment on Arthur made by William of Malmesbury, an English monk, in a Latin chronicle about 1125: "He is the Arthur about whom the Britons [Bretons] rave in empty words, but who, in truth, is worthy to be the subject, not of deceitful tales and dreams, but of true history; for he was long the prop of his tottering fatherland, and spurred the broken spirits of his countrymen on to war."
It was a chronicler of Norman England who first gave literary form to the mass of Arthurian legends and created the heroic figure of Arthur as a great warrior and king. About 1136 this chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, described Arthur's deeds at length in his Latin . . .