Arthur (was Re: Help wanted: arthurian novels)

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Fri Sep 26 06:59:06 EDT 2003


Robyn wrote in reply to me:

(sorry about the delay in reply: I got snatched from the keyboard to a
hospital rather abruptly, having gone to see a GP's practice-nurse about
muscle-pain in my calf -- it turned out to be a deep vein thrombosis, which
makes the medical profession come all over anxious and peremptory.  I
suppose it's reasonable of them really however much it may interrupt one's
ordinary concerns.)

>I don't actually think of Arthurian works as folklore at all. They are more
>like a medieval literary movement. I know there are a lot of people with a
>lot invested in the idea of an historical Arthur, but I am certainly not
>one of them.

I think we may be talking about two different things: you about that body
of *written work* based around what has come to be called "The Matter of
Britain" or less accurately "Arthurian", and me about the *stories* of
which that Matter is made up.

I was carefully not defining Arthur as historical, on the grounds that I am
by no means convinced there was an actual king of that name -- though the
evidence suggests that there was *somebody* notable, after whom several
minor rulers in the British Isles named their sons, because it suddenly
turns up.  A bit like  Wendy not being around before Barrie invented it for
*Peter Pan*, as it were.  The fact of the name being given at and after a
certain date would point to its having an original at that date; if the
play had been lost, we would be able only to postulate that it or something
like it must have existed.  Similarly a man called Athur or some variation
of that name is postulated as having existed to cause the minor nobility of
the British Isles to start naming children for him.

Obviously the "Arthurian" works in their written form are not folklore:
they are the work of an author (named or unnamed), and part of a medieval
literary movement.  Nevertheless, just as Alan Garner's *The Owl Service*
is a re-working of a part of the Mabinogion, they may have their basis in
the reworking of a previous (now unknown, because unwritten and so not
preserved) work.

I don't think there is any doubt that harpers played in Anglo-Saxon courts,
and people sang; I seem to remember a bloke in Beowulf who stood up and
told a story everyone knew, about a battle...   I don't see the Beowulf
audience accepting an account of a chap telling a story in public if this
was something that didn't happen at all.  "Professional" story-tellers
existed; I am not prepared to assume that none of what subsequently became
included in the Matter of Britain ever formed part of their stock-in-trade.

>>Arthur, like Robin Hood, has accrued about him a body of legend, from a
>>variety of sources.
>Another similarly fictional character.

Absolutely.  Much, perhaps even most, of the "Arthurian" cycle is not
really about Arthur anyway, but about the Deeds of the Knights of the Round
Table.  Arthur's a hook to hang stuff off.  My contention is that at least
some of the stuff hung off that hook is older than the time at which it got
written down and included in the "Arthurian Literature", and very likely
older than the "date" now ascribed to the "real" Arthur.  The "Robin Hood"
and the "Arthur" works seem in at least some cases to have used stories
already familiar to the audience in a different context.  As it might be
the Beheading Match: Arthur is not a principal in that, it merely takes
place at his court at midwinter, and Cuchulain's part is played by Gawain
-- who is himself quite possibly a last flowering of a Celtic sun-god
transported into Arthur's court.  It's an old story with the serial numbers
filed off and the names changed to protect the credulous (see Homer,
Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.).  So the *story* is folklore, the written
version of it has now become "part of the Arthur story".  (The story of the
untried knight who is lent a blank shield and some tatty old armour and a
spavined horse for his defence of a lady's honour from a Black Knight turns
up as "Geraint and Enid".  That's also told as how St George got the red
cross on his shield.  Only the names are different, the essence is the
same.)    "This happened when Arthur was King" -- a variation on "Once upon
a time" or "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away".  Stuff about
chivalry gathers round Arthur just as stuff about outlawry gathers about
Robin Hood.

>I am not sure I really believe in an oral tradition of Arthur. It is really
>really hard to find evidence of orality in a large majority of Arthurian
>works, and extremely simple to find evidence of literary "bookishness".

I don't suppose that the people who sang the story of the beheading match
in 200AD set it at Arthur's court; they would have placed it in the court
of a king whose name was familiar to their audience, but remote enough
either in time or in space for the *story* to have credibility.  (Or not
really credibility: the Land of Cokaygne is to be found "Fur in see bi west
Spaygne", and other mythic lands are "West-over-Sea" from wherever one
happens to be, or "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" or "At the back of
the North Wind".)  I think we have discussed the business of "history", and
"truth" versus "fact", before, and the lack of differentiation between the
two concepts.... The "truth" told by that story is that if you undertake to
have your head cut off, honour requires that you turn up to have it done,
and then you may come out of it a Hero.  That transcends actual
personalities, or factual positioning for the tale.

If there is no readily-available evidence for an oral tradition, might it
be because we don't have all that many singers/songmakers from 900Ad
surviving to perform their stuff for us, and precious few recording
Walkmans were around at the time?  Men die and their voices fall silent;
books can be read after the writer's death, and literary evidence is a
great deal easier to come by than "this is how my grandfather told me the
battle happened" spoken by an old man in Alfred's court.  Just because,
unlike the Romans, the British people didn't write stuff down with an
author's name attached, this doesn't mean they didn't compose things or
tell each other stories -- familiar stories, often, because as with modern
fantasy the audience would want "something just the same but just a bit
different".

Would we still have most of the folk-songs we do if Child and others hadn't
hunted them down and *written them down*?  How many border ballads did he
miss?  How many of the ones we do have are obviously incomplete?

>My response was to the notion of 20th century retellings being based on
>folklore. They're not, mostly they are based on Malory.

I agree there.  Apart from anything else, very few people now speak what I
think could be called "proto-Welsh", or even Anglo-Saxon, so modern
retellings are likely not to be based in stuff related but unwritten in
those languages, or even written down in them (if we had it, which mostly
we don't).  How would the retellers know the folk-lore, when the folk whose
lore it was are not around to tell it to them and would be incomprehensible
if they were?

Actually, having read some of the modern retellings, I doubt the authors
have read Malory either, even in a modern translation with all the jousting
cut out because it is somewhat dull, like old copies of Wisden or the
begets in the Bible.  :-)  Based on his work at third or fourth remove,
perhaps.

>>obDWJ, she doesn't use Lancelot in *Hexwood*.  She has Bedevere, Bors,
>>Arthur, Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, a good selection of the Old Gang, but not
>>Lancelot.  He simply wouldn't fit, would he?
>Interesting theory. How do you explain the presence of Wulf/Fitela?

I don't: that would be for DWJ to do -- she says, Wulf is Wotan/Odin, and
why shouldn't she put him in if she wants to, since he seemed to fit like
pounds shillings and ounces?  (I forgot to ask about Fitela because they
came and demanded blood from me at that point and we got distracted.)

Minnow


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