The Legend of King Arthur – a Pre-Raphaelite Love Story || Alison Smith et al

The Arthurian story is the mythological history of Britain in which a hero triumphs and brings pride and greatness to the nation. Does that sound familiar? Of course it does and almost every age has reinvented the tales for its own time. We all long for that period when our country was great and there is an academic study to be conducted into Golden Ages and how close they are to the current level of decay. It should also be said that all countries and communities have similar longings.

The earliest versions of the Arthurian legend are preserved in Welsh tales, but the story is older. The Celtic tribes of Britain were driven westwards by invasions, most notably the Roman one and, while the main corpus of Arthurian myths is in Wales, elements are to be found in Cornwall (especially the King Mark tales) and Cumbria (inheriting the legend of Govan the Smith who probably became Sir Gawain).

We should say at the outset that there really was a King Arthur. Well, not a King as such, and certainly not of Britain. The most likely figure would be a local ruler, possibly in East Anglia, but also possibly a powerful warrior (the name means The Bear). In the Welsh tales, his companions are Cei (Sir Kay) and Bedwyr (Sir Bedevere). This figure really did have a round table because he lived in a roundhouse, round whose central fire he and his most trusted companions would have sat. He also quite probably got his sword from a stone because it was bronze and therefore cast. It is not impossible to imagine a ceremony around the breaking of the mould and the weapon’s naming by its rightful owner, who would be the only person who could weald it (it being made to measure). Oh and, this being the Bronze Age, it really would have been thrown into a lake, quite possibly by the aforesaid Bedwyr, when Arthur died. There is plenty of archaeological evidence of bronze weapons returned to water . Their reception by the spirit, or lady, of the lake is perfectly credible in terms of the myth.

The full legend of Arthur came to be compiled around the Eleventh Century, probably in response to the Norman invasion. Such a traumatic time needed a heroic legend in response and what is known as the Roman de Brut, or just Brut, is a manuscript attributed simply to Layamon (Layman). It was basically sedition, but the Normans took it sufficiently seriously to pen an answer by Robert Wace, the only difference being that, in the French version, far from returning one day to save his land, Arthur is definitely dead and not coming back, ever.

As a result, the story came to the attention of the French romance writers, such as Chrétien de Troyes, who already had experience with the Charlemagne stories. Arthur gave them new material and their own figure of Lancelot was quickly added to the corpus.

The full story as we know it was assembled by Thomas Malory in the Fifteenth Century and is pretty much the only work of literature to come out of that time, which was troubled by the massive civil war that was the Wars of the Roses. For several hundred years, only the final section, the Morte, was known from the edition printed by William Caxton. It was not until 1934 that the full manuscript was discovered in the library of Winchester College.

All of which massive preamble brings us to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for which such a romance was tailor-made. Absorbing Malory, the French romances and Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, they set to work with a passion. This really rather magnificent book treats not just of the PRB approach, but also examines the Arthurian myth itself, explaining its many ins and outs and placing it in both geographical and historical context. The interpretations are important because the legend itself is almost less important than what it tells us about the ages that adopted it (in one of the French versions of the Mort, Arthur actually goes to Rome and defeats the Romans!).

Understanding their relationship to the Arthurian story is therefore key to understanding the Pre-Raphaelites themselves and this book is magnificently enlightening in this respect. There are many illustrations, both of well- and lesser-known works and also photographs of locations. Although the reproduction is not perhaps quite up to the quality one has come to expect from Sansom, it is perfectly adequate and it is hard to quibble about just how much you get for a really rather modest outlay.

This is definitely an excellent appraisal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a whole through an aspect that is central to understanding them, but also manages to be a really rather good explanation of the Arthurian cycle itself.

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