Arthur from the Renaissance to the Present

In 1485, William Caxton published a book titled Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Translated into English, this means The Death of Arthur. This was a compilation of many tales about Arthur, as well as some new material which Malory wrote himself.

Although we know that the author of this book was named Thomas Malory, we aren't quite sure which Thomas Malory it was who wrote it, as there were at least six people with that name in England at the time. All we know of him comes from what he tells us in his book, which is that he was a knight who was imprisoned during the time he was writing it. Several of the Thomas Malorys who are known to have been alive at the time were knights, or at least came from noble families, and some of them are known to have been imprisoned in their lives. Complicating matters further is the fact that many of them were imprisoned for offenses such as physical assault, or even rape, crimes which are inconsistent with the chivalrous nature of the book.

Whichever Thomas Malory it was who wrote Le Morte d'Arthur, he left us with a body of material which is now considered among many Arthurian scholars to be the best–known and most authoritative source of the legend of King Arthur.

After publication of Malory's work, interest in King Arthur and his knights declined. The Renaissance was just starting to spread across Europe, and many older, medieval tales were forgotten in the light of its newly–found skepticism. Nikolai Tolstoy, an historian and distant relative of the famous nineteenth–century novelist, tells us that King Arthur's legend might too have been forgotten, had it not been for a chance occurrence.

Richard III, the king of England at the time, was challenged by Henry Tudor, a Welsh contender for the throne. Just three weeks after publication of Le Morte d'Arthur, the two men met on the battlefield to wage war over the right to rule England. At first, Richard's army outnumbered Henry's. But several of his allies were killed or switched sides mid–battle. The resulting changes significantly weakened Richard's army, and in the end, he was overcome by Henry's forces. After the battle, Henry was crowned King Henry VII of England.

Henry VII's victory led many of his contemporaries to believe this was a sign that the prophecy in The History of the Kings of Britain was finally coming to pass: the Britons (now called the Welsh) would finally, once again, rule over England. Even patriotic Englishmen joined the Welsh in hailing this event, which they viewed as evidence that their sons and grandsons would rise to turn Britain into a vast empire once more.

Storytellers once again retold and embellished tales of Arthur and his knights, and the invention of the printing press helped to spread his stories across Europe again. It wasn't until the seventeenth century that scholarly skepticism took over, and people began to look at Geoffrey of Monmouth's History with a much more skeptical eye. It soon became clear that Geoffrey's History, which spoke of giants and magic spells, wasn't a "History" at all. Many scholars denounced him as a charlatan, and vehemently argued that he had made up his entire work.

For the next several centuries, little literature was devoted to King Arthur. The king remained well–known to general audiences, and some occasional works did feature him. But for the most part, the public had lost interest in him now. While he had once been hailed as a genuine king of British history, and a source of great pride for the British people, the general public now knew that his legends were only myths.

In the nineteenth century, there was a revival of interest in medieval history, and storytellers began to take up the legend again. Between 1856 and 1885, Alfred, Lord Tennyson published a series of poems known as the Idylls of the King, which retell the Arthurian Legend from a virtuous, Victorian perspective. In 1889, Mark Twain published his humorous novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which features a man from his own time who is transported back to the time of King Arthur. In it, Merlin is depicted as a charlatan who uses people's own superstitions to advance his position.

Between 1938 and 1941, T. H. White published a series of novels which he later compiled into a collection called The Once and Future King. It retold the King Arthur story once again, with a focus on White's pacifist and moralistic views. The first book in the series, The Sword in the Stone, was adapted into the Disney movie of the same name.

In the 1970s, Mary Stewart published her Merlin Trilogy, a collection of three books telling the life of Merlin from a modern, adult perspective. In it, Merlin is depicted as a brilliant inventor gifted with psychic abilities. His inventions lead the superstitious people of his time to believe he is a worker of magic, and eventually, tales spread of him being a great wizard. Stewart later added two more books to the series.

In 1982, Marion Zimmer Bradley published her novel, The Mists of Avalon, which retold the Arthurian Legend from the perspective of its female characters. The 1995 film First Knight focused on the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, while ignoring the aspects of the legend dealing with mythology and magic. The 2004 film King Arthur focused on the theory that the historical figure Lucius Artorius Castus may have been the basis for a historical Arthur. In 1998, the American television network NBC aired Hallmark Hall of Fame's miniseries Merlin, with a unique take on the Arthurian tradition, and boasting state–of–the–art (for the time) special effects. Again in 2009, NBC aired another series, also titled Merlin, this time produced by the BBC. This series tells the life of the wizard as a young man who comes to Camelot and finds himself at odds with a rich, spoiled prince named Arthur.

Tales of Arthur and his knights continue to be predominant in our culture and literature. The legend's characters are classic, and continue to be reshaped by each society which retells the story from its own perspective. T. H. White's novels focused on paralleling King Arthur's court with the events of World War II, which were taking place in his own time. And while Guinevere was once depicted as a treacherous adulterous, in modern times she has come to be viewed as a sympathetic character, torn between her loyalty to her husband and her love for another man.

As each society retells the legend and adds a bit of its own flavor to the story, the legend is reshaped and given renewed meaning for each generation. But underneath it all remain very basic stories which form a core part of our humanity. These stories have featured prominently in all the great civilizations of the past which have long since crumbled to dust. They are the stories of a great king born by magic; of a boy raised in ignorance of his noble heritage; of a quest for a sacred object; of a forbidden love affair that forever casts humanity out of paradise; and of a hero who is killed in battle, but will one day return to defend his people.

While these stories have featured prominently in other great legends of ages passed, none of these legends has lent itself to being retold and reshaped through the ages. The nature of books like the Bible specifically preclude any possibility of reshaping their stories, and for whatever reason, other ancient tales, such as The Song of Gilgamesh, never lent themselves to being reshaped. Perhaps it is this unique quality of the Arthurian Legend which has caused it to remain so popular and so well–known, even more than a millennium later. As other historians have noted, no one living in medieval–age Britain expected that the legends would still be popular a thousand years later. And it is entirely possible that the legends will still be famous in another thousand years.