Medieval Arthurian legends
(Chrétien de Troyes, the Vulgate Cycle and Thomas Malory)
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As far as the medieval Arthurian stories (from the 12th until the 15th century) is concerned, one can make a rough distinction between two types:

The first one is the episodic novel in verse, in which the hero often starts his quest from Arthur's court and returns there after his mission is completed, which usually does not take more than two years. Chrétien de Troyes poems have been imitated widely in medieval Europe, but have never been surpassed, partly because the imitators lacked his subtle use of irony and mystification. In his courtly vision the love between Lancelot and Guinevere was not yet burdened with guilt and the Grail was not yet the cup of Christ. (More about Chrétiens work further down).

The second type is the chronicle in prose, in which the rise and fall of the kingdom is depicted. This is where the celebration of courtly love is overruled by Christian ethics. The story does not evolve around one or two heroes, but is a mixture of many different story-lines, all tied together, not unlike modern soap operas. There is however one difference, the Arthurian chronicles actually have a point to them; the events lead up to the death of Arthur and the decay of civilisation, triggered by sins like adultery and incest. We are left with some hope though: Arthur is carried away to the isle of Avalon and rumour has it that he will return.

The most important Arthurian chronicle of the thirteenth century is the Lancelot en Prose, also called the Vulgate Cycle. (More about this chronicle further down). Supernatural phenomena are present in both the poems, in which the fantasy of the old Celtic fairy-tales is still recognisable, and the chronicles, in which the wondrous world has a more Christian connotation.
The last of the medieval Arthurian writers is Thomas Malory, whose Morte Dartur seems like one big rčsume of all the previous writings about king Arthur and his knights. His work is usually the starting point for modern Anglo-Saxon versions of the legend. (More about Malory further down).


Lancelot crosses the Swordbridge - Lancelot imprisoned in Gorre

Lancelot Crosses the Swordbridge and Lancelot imprisonned in Gorre (from Lancelot du Lac, French, early fourteenth century)


In many different versions of the legend Lancelot crosses the swordbridge in pursuit of Guinevere who is abducted by an evil knight. In Chrétiens Chevalier de la Charette it shows how far he is willing to go in the name of love. In the Vulgate Cycle it is embedded in many other adventures and Lancelots love Guinevere is tainted with guilt.

Malory mentions the abduction in his Morte Dartur, but not the swordbridge, either because he was in a hurry to tell the story and left out lots of details or because he thought crossing a bridge as sharp as a razorblade was just too improbable.
The abduction of the queen is still part of the action in several modern versions of the legend, with a little imagination one can even detect a faint echo of the swordbridge story in the movie First Knight.


lovers first kiss

Galeholt watches the lovers (Lancelot and Guinevere) first kiss as the seneschal and ladies converse.
ca 1315, Pierpont Morgan Library 805, f. 67
For the same scene in a different manuscript, click: And search for the First Kiss




Chrétien de Troyes

(While reading the summaries below keep in mind that the original stories were written in Old French and in verse)

Chevalier de la Charette (Knight of the Cart)

"Meleagant seizes Queen Guinevere and takes her to Gorre, his fathers country. Kay attempts to save her, but fails miserably. Gawain sets out for the rescue. On the way he meets a nameless knight who is very eager to retrieve the Queen. A dwarf invites both knights to ride a cart (a very shameful thing in those days) in order to reach their goal, and where Gawain refuses, the nameless knights only hesitates for a few seconds before he mounts the cart.

Gawain and the nameless knight part at a crossroad. Gawain will try to reach Gorre through the underwaterbridge, the other knight heads for the swordbridge. After a lot of delays the knight reaches the swordbridge and crosses it although it is sharp as a razor.

The knight arrives in Gorre and agrees to fight Meleagant. Queen Guinevere recognises him as Lancelot. When he is about to win the duel, it is postponed. Afterwards the queen treats him as if he has failed her. Lancelot has no idea what he has done wrong. With an aching heart he rides on to find Gawain, but is attacked by Meleagants men.

Only after rumour has it that Lancelot is dead, Guinevere is sorry about giving him the cool treatment. She forgives him the short hesitation before mounting the cart, which was the reason for her animosity. When Lancelot turns up again, the lovers enjoy a passionate night together.

Meleagant accuses the queen of adultery with Kaye, but it is Lancelot who defends her honour. Again the duel is stopped when Lancelot has the upper hand. They agree to fight again in one years time at king Arthurs court.

Treacherous Meleagant tricks Lancelot into a tower from which there is no escape." (Chrétien left the story unfinished at this point, but it was continued by Godefroi de Leigni). "Lancelot escapes from the tower and reaches king Arthurs court just in time for the duel. He finally defeats Meleagant."

In Chrétiens stories (written between 1170 and 1190) there is always a tension between "amour" and "chevalerie". In Erec et Enide the hero Erec gets preoccupied by his love for Enide to such an extent he forgets his knightly duties. In the end it is Enide who helps him to get his act together.

In Chevalier au Lion it is the other way around. Yvain is so busy to be a good knight that he forgets his lady Laudine. When she denies him her love because of that, Yvain goes mad. He has to do a lot of good deeds to be worthy of his ladies pardon.

Chevalier de la Charette the "amour" is dominant. During the course of the adventure Lancelot frees a lot of prisoners, but it is just a side-effect. His main objective is Guinevere, his love for her is perfect, and it has to be, even a few seconds of doubt are reprehensible.

It is doubtful wether Chrétien agreed with this ideal of courtly love. He was obligated to reflect the ideas of his maecenas, in this case Marie de Champagne. The humorous undertone in his writing might have been his way to put the extremeties of the court into perspective.

In his last poem Chrétien introduces another element: spirituality. There are two heroes: Gawain whose adventure is more or less "traditional", and Perceval:

Conte du Graal

"Perceval grows up in the woods, because his mother does not want him to die on the battlefield like his older brothers. But when he meets a couple of knights in the forest, he decides to be a knight himself. As a very naive and ignorant boy he sets out to find king Arthurs court.

During the course of his adventures his noble descent becomes apparent. Perceval does heroic deeds and falls in love, but the perfect balance between "amour" and "chevalerie" does not mark the end of his path. He is destined for higher purposes and arrives at the castle of the Fisher King. The castle is surrounded by a waste-land and the Fisher King is wounded in the lower part of the body.

Perceval witnesses a procession in which a girl carries a radiating grail. He fails to ask about the grail and thus fails to heal the Fisher King. His failure is connected with an earlier sin against his mother. It is clear that Perceval has to do penance and find the way to God before he can be worthy."

Chrétien left this story unfinished as well, the grail still a mystery. And his contemporaries were probably just as keen to know what ending he had in mind as we are nowadays. Four different continuations were written in the beginning of the thirteenth century, and the grail was soon to be associated with the cup of Christ in the chronicles such as the Vulgate Cycle.




Vulgate Cycle

While reading the summaries, do not forget the original story is an immense and chaotic tangle of narrative threads, written in Old French. The writers wrote the story as a chronicle, as factual history, which of course it is not. The technique of waving narrative threads together, often called "entrelacement", also gave the reader the illusion of reality.

The Lancelot en Prose is a comprehensive trilogy (Lancelot Propre, La Queste del Saint Graal and La Mort de Roi Artu), which was written between 1215 and 1230. It was copied often, by hand, a real monk's work (but by that time the secular prductions were mostly done by craftsmen in proffesional workshops). If you want to see an example, click here. In most manuscripts the Lancelot trilogy was preceded by two other stories: L'Estoire del Saint Graal and Merlin. This compilation is often called the Vulgate Cycle:

L'Estoire del Saint Graal:
"About the descendants of Joseph of Arimathea, who take the Holy Grail (the cup of Christ) with them to Britain, where they build the Grail-castle, in which the long line of Fisher Kings will live, as the keepers of the Grail."

Vulgate Merlin:
"The devil's son Merlin (but his mother is a true Christian and therefore the child is not evil) is Uther Pendragon's confidant and advises the construction of a Round Table. One seat at the table, the Perilous Seat, is meant for a chosen knight, and until this knight arrives nobody is to be seated there, for this person will surely die.

Uther develops a raging passion for Ygraine, the wife of the Duke of Gorlois. With the aid of Merlin's magic Uther makes love to Ygraine and thus Arthur is conceived. The child grows up as stepbrother to Kay. His descent remains a secret until Arthur is the only one capable of drawing the sword from the stone. He is crowned king and has to fight a lot of battles against the Saxons and rebellious vassals. Merlin's advice and magic are on his side.

Arthur marries Guinevere and her father gives him the Round Table as a marriage-gift. Merlin falls in love with the fairy Niniane and teaches her all his magic. But when she is fully-qualified, she locks him up in a tower from which there is no escape."

Lancelot Propre:
"Niniane raises the infant Lancelot in her realm beneath a lake, that is why his name is Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake). As a young man he receives knighthood at king Arthur's court and falls in love with Guinevere the moment he sees her. He rides out, has adventures and meets his best friend Galehout, who initiates the first rendezvous between Lancelot an Guinevere."
(Click here for an image)

During one of his adventures Lancelot is captured by the fairy Morgan, Arthur's half-sister. Several knights of the Round Table undertake quests to find him, but to no avail. Galehout is convinced his friend is dead and dies from sorrow. Morgan's magic can not extinguish Lancelot's love for Guinevere. When she understands it is no use, she lets him go.

Meanwhile Guinevere has been captured by Meleagant and Lancelot sets out to find her. (This is an adaptation of Chrétien's Conte du Graal with a couple of alterations: Lancelot is naturally no longer the "Fair Unknown", the nameless knight; and the lovers passion is no longer a celebration of courtly love, but burdened with guilt). "Lancelot's mission is accomplished.

The knights of the Round Table are regularly on the road, often just to find each other. Lancelot roams the country. Once again he becomes Morgan's prisoner and this time he is locked up for more than two years. To kill the time he paints murals, in which he depicts his love story with Guinevere. One day he sees a rose in the garden which is more beautiful than all the other roses and therefore reminds him of his lady and gives him the strength to break the bars of his prison and escape. He is just in time to join the expedition to Europe that king Arthur undertakes to beat the Romans."

La Queste del Saint Graal:
"During the feast of Whitsun Galahad comes to the court, sits in the Perilous Seat and proves he will be the best knight of all times by drawing a sword from a stone. That night the Holy Grail appears before the court, to disappear as quickly as it came. Gawain swears to reveal the secret of the Grail and the all the knights of the Round Table follow his example.

Soon it becomes clear that the Grail is not their destiny. The knights wander through the country, but the only adventures they have, are duels with each other, because they do not recognise each other before it is too late.

Lancelot comes close to the Grail, but he is not the one because of his adulterous sins. Only Perceval, Bors and Galahad are admitted to the Grail service for which Christ appears. In the end Galahad is the only one who is initiated in the secrets of the Holy Grail. He dies in ecstasy. Bors is the only one to return and tell the tale, because Perceval dies as well."

La Mort le Roi Artu:
"At court Lancelot and Guinevere are subject to a lot of gossip. Arthur ignores the accusations until Morgan shows him the murals Lancelot made during his imprisonment. Guinevere is convicted to burn at the stake, but is saved just in time by Lancelot. In the process he kills Gawain's three brothers.

Arthur's army besieges Lancelot at his castle, but when they are facing each other directly Lancelot refuses to defend himself. Arthur is touched. After months of war the pope acts as a mediator and both sides agree to a compromise. Guinevere is restored to favour and Lancelot withdraws himself to France.

Gawain however is still after revenge for the death of his brothers and Arthur leads his troops to France. Lancelot defeats Gawain in a duel, and the latter will eventually die from his wounds.

Meanwhile in Britain Mordred (at the end of Lancelot Propre it turned out that he was not Gawain's youngest brother but the child of Arthur and his halfsister Morgan) has pronounced himself king and besieges Guinevere, who has fled to London.

The armies of Arthur and Mordred slaughter each other at Salisbury. Arthur kills Mordred but is mortally wounded himself. He orders Excalibur to be thrown into the lake. A hand rises up from the water to receive the sword. Morgan arrives by ship to take Arthur to Avalon.
Lancelot avenges Arthur on Mordred's sons. As a recluse Lancelot finally finds himself at peace with God."


TheVulgate Cycle would be one of the sources for Malory's Morte Dartur.




Thomas Malory

The popularity of the Arthurian stories faded slowly in the fourteenth century, but it was not until the end of the fifteenth century that the English knight Thomas Malory wrote his magnum opus: Morte Dartur.

Malory was not an innovator like Chrétien or the authors of the Lancelot en Prose (which was Malory's main source, but certainly not the only one). His work is one big recapitulation of the medieval stories concerning king Arthur.

Malory paid no heed to pictorial details and tedious descriptions, he was in it for the action. At times his work reads like a long and hyperactive enumeration of battles, tournaments and duels.

The Morte Dartur can be divided in three parts:

The first part deals with Arthur who draws the sword from the stone, becomes king, establishes the Round Table and fights the Romans in France, and with the deeds of the knights of the Round Table, especially Lancelot and Gareth. Merlins part in the events is minimised.

Part two deals mainly with the adventures of Tristan, also a character from the Celtic tradition. In the verse romances of the twelfth century he makes name as the perfect lover of Isolde (Ysolt, Yseut, Isoude). In the Tristan en Prose (ca. 1230) he appears at king Arthur's court for the first time and this was Malory's main source. Malory concentrates on Tristan's deeds as a knight, rather than the sad and passionate story of the lovers.

In part three the Grail quest with Galahad as the hero is quickly told. And then it is time for Malory's best work: the treachery at the court, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and the last battle in which Arthur and Mordred kill each other. Especially touching is the ending (which can not be found in the Lancelot en Prose), when Lancelot and Guinevere meet for one last time after Arthur's death. He wants to ask her to marry him, but she has devoted her life to God, and inspires him to do the same.


Last update: 15-08-2000

© Iman Keuchenius 1998, greatly indebted to dr. Roel Zemel, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.