Here is the first in a series of articles where I analyze various King Arthur stories and contrast them with the original Welsh stories. At first let’s start with the most famous one, Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as well as the related Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Le Morte d’Arthur
Le Morte d’Arthur – a tome vast in size (almost 1,000 pages) and vast in significance. It is the first novel ever printed in English on the printing press, and continues to be phenomenally popular. It could be considered the bridge between King Arthur as folklore and King Arthur as literature, collecting a wide variety of tales into a single book and serving as the defining force for all later King Arthur stories to respond to. Every Arthur tale after Le Morte d’Arthur is either inspired by it or is defined in opposition to it, the author either saying “how can I use Mallory?” or “how is my story different from Mallory?”
That being the case: “how Welsh are the Mallory stories?” The answer is a simple one: “not Welsh at all.” Mallory defines the Romance Arthur strain, contrasting with both the Pseudo-Historical Arthur and the Welsh Arthur. Any story or interpretation of the “Welsh King Arthur” is defined mainly by how unlike Mallory it is, for the following reasons:
- French Names: Lancelot du Lac, Mogan la Fey, Beaumains, La Cote Male Tayle, the very title itself “Le Morte d’Arthur.” As a book largely based on the French Romances, French names appear throughout Le Morte d’Arthur. As Lancelot himself is supposedly from France, “du Lac” may make sense, but Morgan was raised in Cornwall and then moved to Wales — so why exactly is she “la” Fey? The predominance of such names, along with all the courtly imagery, makes the whole thing feel like French folktales as opposed to Brythonic ones.
- Lancelot and other French heroes: Lancelot and Galahad are characters created by the French romancers, and are treated as the greatest knights of King Arthur’s court. Conversely, many of the early Brythonic champions, such as Kay (Cai) and Gawaine (Gwalchmai) instead become bad-tempered foils for the “real heroes,” while others such as Bedivere (Bedwyr) have become forgetfully minor figures. Having Gawaine as a savage vengeful figure is especially odd, as in the Welsh stories, Gwalchmai’s defining trait is his courtesy. Tristan and Percival are authentically Welsh and treated with respect, but they’re still very clearly second banana to the French figures – Tristan being the second greatest worldly knight after Lancelot and Percival the second holiest knight after Galahad. The Holy Grail itself is not present in any Welsh story, and so its defining role in Mallory (as well as Galahad and Lancelot’s relationship to it) moves the story in a very different direction.
- Courtly Chivalry: The Mallory stories are very much set in the Middle Ages. No mention is given of invading Saxons or Picts, no appearances of Ambrosius, Vortigern, or other semi-historical figures. Furthermore, there is an obsession with tournaments and courtly love, and especially champions jousting against knight after knight, causing each to declare loyalty to the champion and King Arthur. Very different from the much wilder giant-slaying and tribal wars of the earlier native tales.
- Lack of Fantasy: Perhaps the most surprising element of the Mallory stories is the general lack of fantasy elements. They are clearly not the focus. Though there is Merlin, most of his magic is confined to vague prophecies of doom and creating monuments to the knights’ failures. There are very few dragons and giants, barely any fey — most of the more fantastical King Arthur stories (“The Green Knight,” “The Loathley Lady,” etc.) are missing. Though Mallory does include various Christian miracles, including, naturally, the Holy Grail, he is clearly uninterested in most other flights of fancy. For him, much more drama is found in knights tilting against each other than in encountering sorcerers and monsters. This is, of course, very different from the Welsh stories. Most of the Welsh champions have super powers, and they rarely fight human adversaries — giants, dragons, werewolves, witches, fey warriors, talking animals — these are who Arthur and his court pit themselves against.
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.
Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the Inklings, a close friend to J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and the man who most encourage Lewis to publish his Narnia series. Green is best known for his series of mythology adaptations (Greek, Norse, King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.) and for trying to draw upon as wide variety of sources for his books. That’s why Robin Hood gets his treacherous servant Worman and battles the Witch of Papplewick while his take on Norse myths references Saxo Grammaticus and a Faroe Island folktale.
Green freely admits that his main inspiration for King Arthur was Mallory, but he also brings in stuff from other sources, including:
- Saxon References. Though Green doesn’t give any focus to any of the pseudo-historical King Arthur’s Saxon wars, he does reference them at various times, clearly placing his tales in their timeline, even though he doesn’t shy away from knights, tournaments, and other medieval trappings.
- Welsh Romance. Green includes “Geraint and Enid,” one of the three Welsh romances from the Mabinogian.
- Sense of Fantasy. Green adds “The Green Knight,” “The Loathley Lady,” and a non-Mallory version of Tristan. Though none of these are based on specific Welsh stories, they are still stories of heroes wrestling with monsters and enchantment rather than jousts and tournaments. They feel more primal, inspired by old and wild folktales from an old and wild people.
- Less Tournaments and French. Just the fact that Green’s book is far shorter than Mallory’s and adds a lot that Mallory doesn’t include means that a huge amount of Mallory gets cut. A lot of the repetitive jousts after jousts are removed with their variously coloured knights and many of the French names (such as “La Cote Male Tayle” and “Le Morte d’Arthur”) are gone. Tristan, in particular, feels much more like an Celtic folk hero than a Norman knight.
So Green’s book is more “Brythonic” than Mallory’s (it could hardly be less), but still firmly on the Romance side of the Romance vs Welsh divide. Next time we’ll take a look at how some more modern books compare.