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Medieval Literary Sources

By Greg Stafford ( 2008)
Arms rendered by Frank Sultana.

I find the history of Arthurian literature almost as interesting as the stories themselves. Newcomers to Malory have no idea that he jammed stories from several sources together into his collection of books, giving them all a similar treatment and authorial hand that unites them in a way that the originals were not.

Intense, scholarly research has been done by researchers far more educated and erudite than I. These essays are just some personal reflections that Ive had on what those people have said, and upon the medieval stories that Ive read.

Literary scholars generally agree that the massive Arthurian legend is a fusion of five great stories which had, previously, a separate life of their own, but were drawn in and fused with the tale of the worlds greatest king. Those five sources are:
King Arthur
Merlin
Tristram
Lancelot
The Holy Grail

King Arthur

Brythonic Origins

King Arthur himself is undoubtedly of historical origin, though apparently he picked up some characteristics of an older figure (some sort of British bear god, something to do with the ancient sleeping god" reported by the ancients).

But many of his companions came right out of formerly Pagan lore that was borne barely-altered into Christian form by those Britons later called the Welsh. Therein are Kai and Bedivere, both legendary heroes in their own right. Other figures found with him in Chuluch and Olwen include some that did not make it to the canon: Mabon son of Modron (Son son of Mother), the dying and reborn god; and many who did: Gwalamachi (Hawk of May) who became Gawaine; Bran the Blessed as Brandegoris, Brandiles, Brian dIles; and so on.

Certainly much of the fantastic setting and marvels come from the rich Celtic/British imagination that fascinated medieval folk and us, and apparently contrasted so sharply with the heroic but dry tales of Charlemagne.

The Great King

The stories of King Arthur began shortly after, if not during, his lifetime in the late 5th or early 6th century. I do not doubt that he was an extraordinary military leader who stemmed the Saxon conquest for the better part of a generation, giving an extraordinary period of peace during a brutally violent world.

These stories were told in the halls and around the campfires of the British survivors of the Saxon conquest that resumed upon Arthurs death. They joined in with the other legends of the people.

You say he was a great king?"

The best, the greatest. So great that every famous warrior came to his hall."

Like who?"

You remember the great Kei, who never shirked a battle? He was there! You remember the giant Bran of Gor? He was there! You remember Mabon the son of Modron? He was there too!!"

These were popular in Brittany, of course, where remnants of the British people lived. Then the bards became popular raconteurs first among the powerful Normans, who must have left their Viking storyteller home or something, so badly did they want to hear more stories to replace the glory of their French rivals, told of Emperor Charlemagne. Then those storytellers went everywhere on the continent, as part of the spread of Norman customs that revolutionized feudal affairs. And for each audience they were altered slightly to conform to the customs of the time. The doughty Welsh chief became the great King.

Madoc, son of Uther

One of the things I tried to do with Great Pendragon Campaign was to include materials from non-Malorian sources in order to surprise people who had a familiarity with the canon of le Mort. One of these surprises is Madoc, son of Uther.

Madoc himself does not appear in any known source. His name appears only once, in a poem called Arthur and the Eagle, in which Eliwlod mab Madoc mab Uther appears in the form of an eagle to scold and warn Arthur about the dangers of his great pride.

I wanted someone more contemporary with the player knights in Uthers reign, who the player knights might even approach. Madoc filled the bill perfectly. Hence occurred the appearance of this son of Uther, an older brother to King Arthur who he will never know.

Other notes and stories about King Arthur, yet to come
Heraldry of King Arthur and the Pendragons

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Merlin

Merlin is never called a druid anywhere in Medieval literature. If the medieval authors knew anything at all about the druids it was from Caesar and other Roman propaganda, where they were so monstrously portrayed that the Christian writers would have equated them with the devil, not indigenous religion and magic.

Merlins origins appear to be a fusion of several contemporary 5th century people: holy madman of the woods, a saint and a lucid court poet driven mad by heroic tragedy; all of whose lives drew from and were laid on top of ancient indigenous custom.

I keep reading about the colorful and particular Celtic imagination as if its a unique phenomenon. Im confident all peoples had a vast, vivid and entertaining myth cycles and concurrent local legends to interface with Nature and populate imagination. We actually have a very limited bunch of material, even combining all the Irish and Welsh and Scottish and Breton stories at hand. I think we love these Celtic stories and move deeply to their emotional power because: 1. We have enough of the stories to open our imaginations to speculations, creative and scholarly inquiry, and 2. They are good, likable or meaningful stories, and 3. They are the stories of European (and also, importantly for me) my cultural ancestors.

Certainly people who did some kind of pre-Christian folk practice, local peasant ritual, practical hearth superstition customs also kept some story of the wise man, knowing in the ways of magic, the benevolent advisor to kings. It is as if the bearded old king and his vigorous, impetuous advisor in the myth of Math Hen and Gwydion had changed roles to make the old wise magician advising the impetuous young king.

Magic is usually bad in the medieval literature, because everyone knows it comes from the devil. The story of his demonic conception and baptism immediately upon birth explains the origin of his infernal power. I note that none of the women who use magic have such demonic origin or salvation. Morgan learns it in a nunnery, treacherous Nimue from Merlin while Vivian just simply is magic, wearing just the simplest veil over the pagan past.

Of course the monks wrote the stories down, and even the wise and benevolent advisor was not a good guy. He never talks about the destiny of Britain, and although his spells and conspiracies are certainly long-term, he always has a moment for a charlatans disguise, and his actions ultimately seem to have some other agenda. Phyllis Ann Karrs perspective puts it well. For all his foresight, Merlin had a habit of arriving just a little too late to do the most good." (King Arthur Companion, 1st edition, page 74.)

Notes about stories of Merlin
The Madman
The Saint
The Poet

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Tristram

Notes about stories of Tristram
Pre-Arthurian Tristram
New characters of the Prose Tristram
How I Play Sir Tristram

TO BE CONTINUED

Lancelot

Notes about stories of Lancelot
Understanding Lancelot, the Origin of the Lancelot character
Romance and the Codependant Relationship

The Holy Grail

Notes about stories of The Holy Grail
My opinion on the Origin of the Grail Legend.
Malory's Three Grail Heroes, I mean 12. 13.

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