English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3




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Syllabus & Schedule



How to read

How to Journal



1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam

***   5. ROMANCE   ***


The Norman Birth of Arthur


Vol. 1A, pages 12-20, 163-200 in Longman 3rd ed.
"Social and Religious Order," "Continental and Insular Cultures," "Women, Courtliness and Courtly Love," and "Romance" 1A 12-20. "Arthurian Myth" and "Marie de France" 1A 163-200.



The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings or parts of them that interest you. If there is time after summarizing, try one of the following questions:

Why is the Arthurian legend so powerful?

What uses did Arthur serve in

How are the relations between the sexes portrayed in the readings in this lesson? Is this different from the treatment of the sexes in literature of earlier times?

Consider World War II, when Britain fought Germany and Italy. Was this war in any sense a repeat of early British history, when British people fought Saxon and Roman invaders? (Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur, in portions of the text omitted by our editors, fought German tribes and captured Rome.) Does the coincidence of medieval and modern history explain the popularity of neo-medieval fantasy literature such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter?

  See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

Adapted and much enlarged from David Damrosch, et al., Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003)

Do you believe in Arthur?

You have heard of Arthur? Gawain? Morgan le Fay? Selections in Volume 1A of our Longman anthology illustrate the emergence of Arthurian literature and development of Arthurian legend in its golden age from 1136 to 1485 AD.

  •  In a seemingly primitive Celtic source, in the Welsh Mabinogion, a tribal chief named Arthur initiates young warriors into his spiritual fellowship, and he battles totemic beasts. (Like the name "Beowulf" in Saxon, the name "Arthur" in Welsh means bear.) Early Celtic sources, however, are impossible to date with assurance. Perhaps none referring to Arthur were written until after 1136 when Geoffrey of Monmouth established Arthur's fame (below).

  • Latin chronicles that mention the years after departure of the Roman legions from Britain refer to a British victory over the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, and the name Arthur is associated with this battle in the annals of Wales (composed 970?). However, the name may have been inserted in Norman times. Bede and other early sources mention Badon but not Arthur, and these omissions cast serious doubt on Arthur's historicity.

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1155), a Welshman writing in Latin for Anglo-Norman nobles in the west of England, gives the earliest surviving detailed accounts of Arthur. Geoffrey's History of the Kings of England (1136) portrays Arthur as both a new Aeneas and as a conqueror of Rome, but it surrounds this Romanesque figure in Celtic detail, including Arthur's Cornish mother Igraine, his father Uther Pendragon, adviser Merlin, the sword Excalibur, his birth at Tintagel, his death at Camlann and final rest in Avalon.

  • Geoffrey's work is translated into Norman French by Wace (Roman de Brut 1155) which inspires self-serving Angevin and Plantagenet kings (Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III) to invoke Arthur's name as they invade Celtic territories. As the Anglo-Norman empire expands into Aquitaine and other parts of France, French writers after Geoffrey, notably beginning with Chrétien de Troyes, add the chivalric Round Table, courtly love, the Lancelot/Guinevere affair, and the Holy Grail mystery.

  •  Old French writer

  • Marie de France (herself probably connected to the court of  Henry II) uses a "once upon a time" Arthurian backdrop to critique royal power, and to assert a place for dominant women and erotic fantasy.

  • In the turbulent 14th century, the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight looks back at Arthurian romance nostalgically as the model of the chivalric ideal and good manners of bygone times.  More on this great poem in Lesson 6 of this course.

  • Also in 14th century Chaucer’s Wife of Bath uses the Arthurian court in her Canterbury Tale to protest sexual violence and misogynist bias supporting that same chivalric ideal. More on Chaucer's highly creative uses of romance in Lessons 8-9.

  • And the largest elaboration of Arthurian matter in Britain in the 15th century,  Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, composed in prison during an extended civil war, darkly echoes that strife in the tragic final days of Arthur’s Britain. More on Malory, the first printed book on Arthur, in Lesson 7.



Left: ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, the largest cathedral in Britain before it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539. Is this where Glaston was buried--or Arthur?


















Arthur may be a Norman invention designed to justify Norman conquests in Britain and Ireland. The Tudors return to the Arthurian myth while brutally subduing Ireland in the 16th century (see Edmund Spenser's The Faeries Queene.) Imperialist Victorians follow suit in the 19th century. Why Celtic peoples feel such affinity for Arthur after all of this propaganda is one of great unresolved mysteries of British literature  




Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of England
On its publication Geoffrey’s asserted translation of ancient Celtic Arthurian material was met by dismissive skepticism (even outrage). Of all people, why should an Oxford scholar like Geoffrey write such fiction and claim that it is history?

Much as Bede and other monastics used stories of saints and miracles to cultivate the church, Norman and Angevin rulers in Britain after 1066 used pseudo-history to support their rights or pretensions to political legitimacy in Britain. They retained scholars and bards in their courts to do the "research" or spinning. Geoffrey wrote History of the Kings of England for Robert Duke of Gloucester who was the half brother and principal champion of Henry I's daughter the Empress Matilda, and he was uncle and tutor to Matilda's son, the future Henry II (the powerful king of "Lion in Winter" fame). The ambitious Matilda and her father and son were decendents of William the Conqueror, but they posed as full blooded Brits not only to naturalize their rule in England but also to win British support for their wars against their rivals in France.

It was just here in the twelfth century that the British Empire was first imagined. Geoffrey's Arthur is descended from both ancient British kings and a Roman imperial family derived from Constantine the Great. This Arthur is the founder of the future Norman kingdoms as he expands his British empire to the continent, and settles his retainers there in Anjou (Sir Kay) and Normandy (Sir Bedivere). After hearing this backstory, you come to see the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 as a reunification of Arthur's glorious old empire. You realize that when William the Conqueror took lands from the English nobles and gave them to his supporters, he was restoring the better social order that used to exist long ago!

For this trick of historiography, Geoffrey follows his literary master, the Roman poet Virgil, whose Trojan hero Aeneas’ travels to Latium in Italy and takes it over from the natives. But by speaking with ghosts, Aeneas learns that Latium is not a foreign place at all--no, it is the place from which the founders of Troy had originated in the very distant past. Therefore, the Latins are not the rightful, ancestral owners that they appear to be. The Trojans are the real natives, and so Aeneas is entitled to the Latin princess. Anyone who resists is a Rutulian and can be killed.

You see the argument? This is like proposing that Columbus' ancestors had lived for many generations in the New World long long ago during the golden age, before any of the so-called "Native American" Indians arrived, and therefore the European re-conquest of the New World after Columbus was simply the restoration of ancient homelands to their proper owners! Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, manuscript technology made it easy to forge any source documents necessary to support revisions of history. "Scholars" like Geoffrey of Monmouth were free to create any past that the present desired.

Geoffrey says his story of Arthur and the other old kings is based on a "very ancient book written in the British language," by which he may have meant early Welsh or some other Brythonic language, but no such source book has ever been found. If indeed it existed, it would show the degree to which Geoffrey reshaped its content to fit the concerns of his audience. Geoffrey's repeated emphasis on political infidelity and division fits the context of "the anarchy" or civil war between Matilda and usurper Stephen after 1135.

Geoffrey's narrative does contain some elements that are plausibly British, however. For instance, Geoffrey's prophet and magician Merlin may be based on ancient Celtic Druidism. Merlin knows the future and guides it into being, sometimes by shape-shifting and manipulative illusion. He has independence, like the high poets of early Wales and Ireland, as he mocks or criticizes his king with impunity. The "Giant's Ring" Stonehenge, which Merlin magically transports from Ireland as a memorial to dead heroes in the British struggle against the Saxons, is a place in which the sick can be cured. The dead heroes apparently have healing powers, as in various Greek and Celtic rites of necromancy.

Gerald of Wales
The prince's story-book came true. It was Henry II, tutored by Geoffrey's history, whose court prophet told the monks of Glastonbury where they would find Arthur's body, if they dug deep enough. Like a dead saint's bones, Arthur's relics then aided the king as his territories grew beyond Britain and Normandy to include Aquitaine, Brittany, and even Ireland. (The Arthur story was bigger in geographical scope than anyone previously had realized!) The monks made out very well, too, as their abbey became a shrine, a popular tourist destination. Folk come there even today by the bus load looking for signs of Arthur.




Geoffrey's Arthur seems modeled in part on Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor crowned at York who (with the help of British soldiers) fought Germanic tribes on the continent and captured Rome (312 AD).



Edward I (1239-1307)
Edward I and his queen Eleanor on Lincoln Cathedral.When it suited their purpose, royals took Geoffrey's history as their gospel. More than 100 years after Geoffrey's time, English King Edward I used Geoffrey’s story of the Trojan foundation of Britain to show that the whole of the British Isles was set up originally as one kingdom. (Hence it should return to one kingdom--his!) Edward’s letter tells the story of the division of the island among the three sons of Brutus (ancestors for England, Scotland and Wales), but it adds the crucial detail of Locrine (Mr. England) retaining "royal dignity" as first born retaining rights to all of Britain. So the overlordship of Scotland should be restored to England!

The Scots’ reply to Edward of course critiqued the Trojan myth and told Edward the story of how the female founder of Scotland, Scota, came there from  Ireland and not Troy. One pseudo-history is answered easily by another.

Marie de France, Prologue to the Lais
In Angevin times, including the time of Marie de France (mid to late 1100's), there was presumptive common ancestry of the British people and their near-Continental neighbors: on one side of the English channel there were "Britons" from Britain, and on the other side there were "Bretons" from Brittany. The Bretons were imagined to have fled from Britain in the sixth century when they were displaced during the Saxon invasions. In Anglo-Norman political circles, Breton culture thus could be supposed to reveal ancient British culture as it had existed prior to contamination by the barbarian Saxons.

Marie de France's view of Arthur's world is nothing like the view of Geoffrey of Monmouth, even though her lais appear to have been dedicated to the same Henry II who backed the dig for Arthur at Glastonbury, and who in his youth was taught Geoffrey of Monmouth's history. In her preface, Marie says that she has personal purposes in writing, to keep vice at a distance and free herself from sorrow (prologue l. 23-27). She also says that she is not the inventor of her stories. These apologies may have given her a cover of deniability in case her writings came under attack, but they do not obscure her view that Arthur's world was far from heroic. 






Left: King Edward I and his queen Eleanor on Lincoln Cathedral.



As in so many later fairy tales, Marie situates events of her marvelous stories in realistic settings, and in "Lanval" the spot light exposes Arthur's court. Lanval isn't paid properly; Arthur ignores him, apparently because he's a foreigner. Then, when Lanval suddenly comes into riches, Gawain and the lords begin to hang out with him to partake of his generosity, and faithless Guinevere is attracted, too. This court is a loveless, expensive, dangerous place to be, in contrast to the enchanting countryside--and in contrast to Arthur's court as presented in mainstream romance.

Such protection as there is at court derives from laws which protect the knights from the arbitrary judgments of the king and queen. Legal procedure in this tale is consistent with legal practices in the reign of Henry II, a period that produced Glanvill's famous Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Realm of England (ed. C. D. G. Hall, [1965]), the earliest known comprehensive statement of British Common Law. There is a formal accusation; Arthur consults with a baronial court; Lanval is free pending trial in exchange for pledges; witnesses are demanded in court, and the peers will decide sentencing. (Note that Arthur wants Lanval killed, but the peers will order only banishment, if they find Lanval guilty, and they are reluctant to find guilt. Arthur is both vengeful and constrained by the better judgment of his knights.)

The fairy mistress, when she does arrive, is at once an irrefutable witness and a sort of mounted champion in  trial by battle, an alternative to court procedure. With its magical resolution, the lai suggests the possibility that the fairy world is an interior state. The lady and her attendants appear as if in a dream. She promises to be with him "when you want," and apparently anywhere—perhaps in his imagination?--as long as he does not disclose her existence to others.

Mainstream versions of the Arthurian story in the Middle Ages emphasized strong kingship, powerful knights, territorial battle and the maintenance of aristocratic order. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, women and romance play a very small role, and even marvels and prophecy tend to be linked with national destiny. By contrast, the famous Gawain and Yvain are not central to Marie's  tale. Lanval is passive. He has no specific ambition or quest to fulfill. His goal is simply the pursuit of happiness, which desire cannot be fulfilled at Arthur's court..

Left: Marie de France goes at it with both hands in a medieval manuscript illumination.



EU, The Normans, A European People

Domesday Book (William the Conqueror's survey of England cir 1085) from the UK National Archive.  William the Conqueror's Statutes from Yale Law School


The Camelot Project from University of Rochester

Glastonbury Abbey has a web site. See Gerald of Wales, Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur from the Fordham Medieval Sourcebook, also Two accounts of the exhumation of Arthur's body from Britannia.com. And for current travel plans see the University of Idaho site, Arthurian Sites in England.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's history appears in translation by Sebantian Evans at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/index.htm

Thomas Green's Arthurian Resources.

Britannia History: King Arthur

Celtic Literature Collective: Welsh Texts

And of course King Arthur the movie

But in the end I found the real Prince Arthur, and his story is more interesting than the legend.

Marie de France

Marie de France Lais

International Marie de France Society


Students are not examined on these "other resources and amusements." However, if you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008-2012 by Gary Homer Gutchess.