Arthurian Literature from the Middle Ages to the Victorians Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Arthurian Literature from the Middle Ages to the Victorians

2 Conversations

King Arthur's presence in English literature following the Middle Ages became less marked; ironically, the rise of the novel meant that people became less interested in legends of knights and fantasy and more interested in social reality. Poetry began to develop into a form that explored the nature of the individual and one's relationship to the world - the days of bards having to entertain a court with stories of idealised adventure seemed totally antiquated and unnecessary.

However, there were a few marked exceptions to this. For example, Milton wanted to write a definitive English epic poem, one that would define the English as a race, and his first instinct was naturally to turn to the King with the most mythic renown, Arthur. This never came to pass, though, as Milton decided to increase the scale of his poem to the level of the divine; hence Paradise Lost was written, detailing nothing less than the Fall of Man through Satan's machinations, and subsequent redemption by Christ's sacrifice.

Arthur During the Renaissance

In the mid-16th Century, there was a brief resurgence of interest in Arthuriana in England as such romantically heroic and very real figures as Sir Philip Sidney were making the idea of an aristocratic knight glamorous once again. Sidney was both warrior and poet, and died at a very young age, which is a key element in becoming a romantic icon.

Sir Edmund Spenser also wrote The Faerie Queene around this time, which was an allegorical poem set in an ostensibly Arthurian mythos. Various knightly characters, such as the 'Redcrosse' Knight who represents Holiness, and Britomart, the representation of Chastity, show through their travails how a virtuous man should live.

Once more, though, the Arthurian theme is appropriated to provide resonance to a more contemporary topic. Spenser's idolisation of Queen Elizabeth - the 'faerie queene' of the title - is made explicit by her supposed links to Arthur, the English monarchic ideal, and as a whole the work is heavily flavoured with an anti-Catholic theme.

However, as the Renaissance began to affect Britain, interest in French romances and legendary English figures waned - many texts such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were lost, and in their place came an overriding interest in all things Italian, with revenge drama and much more theologically and philosophically challenging verse such as Dante's Divine Comedy. Arthur and the concept of knights and quests became horridly old-fashioned, as warfare came to be dominated by gunpowder, and courts by Machiavellian values instead of outmoded chivalry.

During the 16th and 17th Centuries, Arthuriana became almost a laughing stock - a twee affectation of medieval superstition whose only place in the new Age of Reason was as a piece of burlesque theatre, or comic opera, treated with derision. The only types of Arthurian literature produced at this point were things like Tom Thumb, or parodic satires placed within a courtly setting.

The Resurgence of Arthur

However, at the end of the 18th Century, the Romantic movement championed a return to Nature and to rejoicing in the past. This embrace of rurality was something of a reaction to the urban sprawl being produced by the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. It combined with an increasing interest in heritage sparked by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, who was fascinated with the idea of the nobility of non-urban people like the native Britons, or their displaced descendants, the Scots highlanders.

Interest in the past began to unearth many of the older manuscripts, lost until this point or discounted as of little literary value. Sir Gawain did not become a printed work until 1839, over 350 years since Caxton had printed Malory's Morte d'Arthur! Such societies as the Early English Text Society did much to restore forgotten masterpieces to the canon of medieval literature.

Arthurian Literature and the Victorians

The Victorian period saw a massive resurgence of interest in the Arthurian legends. The Victorians greatly admired the chivalric code of behaviour, especially the dedication to chastity and virtue, as it echoed many of their own values. Artistic and literary movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood seized upon the romance and tragic glamour of the mythos, and many of their finest works were based upon Arthurian characters or episodes.

The Victorian revival of Arthuriana was given its most notable boost of credibility by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote The Lady of Shalott and Idylls of the King, which were both based in the mythic and mystic setting of the Arthurian legends. The Lady of Shalott, which was subsequently the subject of a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt, bears many similarities to Malory's tale The Maid of Astolat. Tennyson's spin on the legend, though, was to use the glamour of the setting to reflect upon the conflict between Art and Reality in the work of a poet or artist. Tennyson, along with many other authors or poets, had found a rich seam of tales to exploit or adapt in keeping with the trends of the time, as had always been the fate of the Arthurian legends in the past.

Alongside these contemporary adaptations, though, was a gradual shift towards trying to find out more about the historical Arthur, or at least more about the roots of the legends. The Mabinogion was translated into English, allowing scholars to study the origins of the mythos beyond the key texts of the Middle Ages such as Malory. Many of the freshly created fields of science, such as archaeology among others, were employed to create as accurate a background as possible to the legends.

Arthurian myth was of increasing popular as well as scientific interest, and this meant that the legends could be presented as a spectacle once more. In this age, though, it was not as poetic recital, but as more opulent, sophisticated and dramatic work: opera. Wagner's Ring Cycle was one example of medieval Teutonic and Nordic myth being used as source material. Interest in the chivalric tales of such heroes as Siegfried and Lohengrin, while not ostensibly Arthurian, were representative of the public craving for knights and adventure.

The continuing popularity of knights and King Arthur meant that as soon as a new artistic or entertainment technology or medium was developed, it was a fair bet that tales of chivalry, heroism and damsels in distress would soon appear on it. This paved the way for the radio, cinematic and televisual treatments of King Arthur in the 20th Century and beyond...

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more