English literature before Chaucer is divided in two periods: old English (Anglo-Saxon), before the year 1100 and Early Middle English, beginning with the 12th century.
The English Arthurian Legend belongs to the Early Middle English period.
Oral tradition in Old English or Anglo-Saxon culture can be divided into two main ages: the time of the great historian Bede, which produced the finest poetry, and King Alfred´period, when prose began.
The conservation and consolidation of texts, took place in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Anglo-Saxon culture high level with prose but specially its poetry, during the four centuries from Caedmon to the Norman Conquest,old English poetic work is a unique example of how a heroic diction could be adapted to Christian purposes.
Middle English verse and prose, from the beginning of the 12th century to the second half of the 14th show a literature more varied than Old English,developing genres in lyric poetry, in prose and in verse romance,and connecting with the greater Chaucerian age.
ORAL TRADITION IN MEDIEVAL LITERATURE:
OLD ENGLISH POETRY.
The Anglo-Saxons who invade Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. brought a vigorous oral poetic tradition.their alliterative verse had an elaborate heroic diction adapted to the celebrations of wars and leaders, or to the folklore of pagan religions.
The most important event in early Old English poetry is the work of the 7th century poet Caedmon. Caedmon is said to have dictated a series of poems based on free adaptations of biblical material, he used all the technical diction and stylistic devices of the native aristocratic tradition. Of his poetry only nine lines have survived.
Other important Old English poet is Cynewulf (probably 8th century) who in his four poems: “Juliana”,” Christ”,” Elene” and” The Fates of the Apostles”, shows lyric passages of deep feeling.
Most Old English poetry is didactic. Among all the Old English religious poetry, there is one poem that stands out for its excellent quality and historical importance.it is The Dream of the Rood, anonymous. Structured as a vision, it is based on a personification of the Cross (the “Rood”), and ends with an elegiac epilogue.used the symbolism of medieval hymns and the rituals related with the Rood, to create and almost perfect fusion of forma and matter, of pre-Christian and Christian tradition, of individual and universal feeling.”The Dream of the Rood” is one of the great religious poems of Britain.
But the most important Anglo-Saxon contribution to European literature is “Beowulf”, an epic and episodic poem of 3.280 lines composed probably in the mid-8th century.Written in the best traditional style and metre, it narrates the combat between an ideal Germanic hero and demon monsters, with a background of legendary history and Christian symbolism. “Beowulf” is the great poetic monument in Britain before chaucer.
OLD ENGLISH PROSE.
Mainly following Latin models,consists largely of translations.King Alfred (c.848-899) made many translations of Latin philosophic and theological writings,laying the foundations of a native prose. Later 10th century prose became a conscious literary art, with clear stylistic effects in the homilies of Aelfric (950-1020), with his flexible style, correct rhetoric and efficient enlargement of the English vocabulary for the expression of theological lessons. His colloquies, conversations on everyday topics and rural occupations, intended for teaching Latin to boys, are the first known examples of really colloquial Old English.
The most outstanding work in Old English prose is the Anglo-saxon Chronicle, which begins in 7th century and in one of the versions, extends to the 12th century.
Chronicle illustrates four phases of development in Old English prose:
first, the purely utilitarian.
second, the clear narrative without any literary art.
thirdly, an apparent survival of an orally communicated local history associated with the term “saga”.
In the 10th and 11th centuries, the monastic revival created a mature English prose which was primarily didactic, though showing the first signs of interest in writing entirely for enjoyment and serving no utilitarian purposes.
EARLY MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD.
Anglo-Saxon culture had reached a remarkably high level and England,in the time of the great historian bede, was in many ways quite advanced and civilitazed. The norman Conquest can be considered a severe impediment for the development of literature in England.
Though oral tradition persisted in poetry and purely religious prose, there was a period in which the Norman Conquest had obliterated the best tendencies of Old English literature. The old poetic metre and diction ceased to be written, except in remote places. In the 12th century there was a real break in continuity. Latin and Anglo-norman were the languages used in the 12th century and 13th century, though there was probably much popular and religious writing in English that has not survived.
THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND:
The Arthurian Legend is the body of stories concerning King Arthur, themes and incidents treated by medieval writers in most western European languages. The historical basis of the romances concerning the legendary British king has not been demostreted.describes the birth of Arthur, the establishment of the knightly fellowship of the Round table, his own exploits and those of this knights, and the adultery of Lancelot and guinevere, as well as the quest for the Grail, led to the destruction of that fellowship and Arthur´s kingdom and to the death of Arthur himself.
Arthur,legendary king, sovereign of the knights of the round table. In the historian Britonum by Nennius, a 9th century compilation, describes Arthur´s 12 battles against the Saxons. Arthur, described by Nennius as a dux bellorum, was a professional soldier, serving the British kings, who had a trained cavalry force which he moved from place to place. Welsh literature turns Arthur into a king of wonders and marvels, surrounded by a mythological aura. From 12th century Arthurian stories were in circulation in France and others countries in the French cultural sphere. There existed the notion that Arthur (like Charlemagne) had never died, which would explain the absence of this grave.
Guinevere, king Arthur's wife, who is first referred to with the name of Gwenhwyfar, “the first lady of this island”. There is a tradition related with the abduction and infidelity of guinevere. In the French Lancelot by Chrétien de Troyes, she is rescued by Lancelot, and this story is incorporated in the vulgate cycle. It is indeed trough Lancelot's love for her that she is best known in Arthurian romance. Upon reading the description of Lancelot and Guinevere,s first kiss, Dante's Paolo and Francesca succumbed to templation and were dammed.
Merlin, enchanter and counsellor of other pendragon and his son King Arthur. Merlin, to whom many political prophecies were ascribed throughout the middle Ages, is a fascinating, often enigmatic figure with a strange ancestry, half man, half demon. The name appears as myrddin in Welsh tradition. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin can perform extraordinary events, like bringing Stonehenge from Ireland, as well as making prophecies about the future. In the Arthurian romances, there are many inconsistencies and fluctuations in the character of Merlin, in any case he is almost invariably in the prophet of the Grail and the source of much of the magic taking place. In the later versions, Merlin advises Uther to establish the Round table and suggests that his true heir will be revealed by the test of the sword in the stone.
Lancelot, King Ban of Benoyc´s son, also known as Lancelot du Lac and Lancelot
of the lake; one of the greatest knights in Arthurian romance; the lover of guinevere and the father of Galahad. It was Chrétien de troyes who first name Lancelot du Lac in a list of Arthur´s knights, making him the rescuer and lover of guinevere, and mentioning briefly that Lancelot was brought up by a fairy in a lake. In the vulgate cycle of Arthurian romances at the beginning of the 13th century, the lady of the lake´s carefully education of Lancelot combines with the force of his love for Guinevere, producing an almost divine knight, the perfect representative of earthly chivalry. In later versions of the vulgate cycle, Lancelot is surpassed by his own son galahad, and the love that made hime rise so high, causes his failure in the greatest adventure of all, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and sets in motion the fatal chain of events which brings about the death of Arthur and the destruction of the Round Table.
Gawain, one of the most famous heroes of Arthurian romance, son of King Loth of Orkney and nephew to king Arthur on his mother's side. In the historia Regum britannie by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gawain plays an important “pseudo-historic” role; he is sent as an ambassador to the Romans; and when Arthur, at he news of Mordred´s treachery, returns to England, Gawain goes with him and is slain in the subsequent battle. In the famous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , an English anonymous poem of the 14th century, an episode of a decapitation challenge is attributed to him. Although he is not the hero of any of the 12th century romance4s of Chrétien de Troyes, he is always one of the principal characters, and an example for all good knigths. However, in the 13th century Vulgate cycle, the attitude toward gawain changes, connected with a change in attitude to chivalry through the introduction of the grail theme, contrasting his earthly chivalry with Galahad´s heavenly chivalry. Nevertheless, gaiwain´s main role in Arthurian romance is to provide the pattern of Chivalry for every young knight.
Galahad, Lancelot´s son, one of the three Arthurian knights, together with perceval and Bohort, who take part in the Quest. In the Lancelot prose cycle, Galahad is given importance for two reasons. First, to link the Grail Quest closely to the story of Lancelot, and to give it its true significance, the grail winner is Lancelot´s own son, Galahad; second, the Grail theme is given a more a ustere theological significance, demanding a Grial winner whose genealogy could be traced back to David and whose very name, Galahad, has been linked with the biblical place name “Gilead”, one of the mystic appellations of Christ. According to Malory´s Morte Arthur, Galahad is the chief winner of the Grail and consequently entitled to the “Siege Perilous”, the seat at the Round Table reserved for the knight successful in the Grail Quest.
Perceval, important Arthurian hero and winner of the Grail in the oldest existing account of the Quest for the holy Grail, Le Conte del Graal or Roman de Perceval, written at he end of the 12th century by Chrétien de Troyes. In this text his main characteristic is an astonishing innocence, and this remains his dominant feature in Arthurian romance. In Chrétien´s poem, he has a lady, Blancheflor, but unlike Lancelot, his chivalry is not inspired by human love but is given a more spiritual
motivation. As he seeks for the grail, so he gradually learns the true meaning of chivalry and its close connection with the teachings of the Church. Both in the Vulgate cycle and in Malory, though replaced by Galahad as winner of the grail, Perceval still plays an important part. His childlike innocence protects him from the other knights. Unlike galahad, he is not allowed to look into the grail, but he sees in visions many of its mysteries and never returns the Grail to its former glory.
THEMES OF THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND.
Round table, the celebrated table of king Arthur and his knights.
It is first mentioned in the Roman de Brut by wace, in which Arthur has a round table made so that none of his barons can claim precedence over the others. The literary importance of the table lies in the fact that in the French romances it provides the knights of Arthur´s court with a name and a collective personality. The idea of a fellowship of the Round Table is not remarkable in the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and it by is only in the prose cycle of the 13th century that the fellowship becomes comparable to, and in many ways the prototype of great orders of chivalry founded in the later middle Ages. This conception culminates in the Morte Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, for whom the notion of chivalry is inseparable from that of a great military brotherhood established in the household of a great prince.
In the peculiar Messianic grail poem of Robert de Borron, Joseph is commanded to make a table in commemoration of the Last Supper and to leave a place empty to symbolised the seat of Judas.This seat can not be occupied without peril except by the destined finder of the Grail. In his Merlin, Robert relates than Merlin constructed a table for Uther Pendragon following the model of Joseph´s Grail table, with a place left vacant in the same way. In the 13th century the Grail story is fully integrated with the legend of Arthur,the round Table theme attains its “classical” form: the Round table is made for Ulther by merlin,coming to be owned by Leodegran, king of Carmelide, who gives it to Arthur together with a company of knights when the later marries his daughter Guinevere. The order of the Round Table is now a formal order of knighthood; admission to it is reserved to the most valiant, and the Siege Perilous (the empty seat) is left vacant waiting for the arrival of the strange figure of Galahad who will bring the marvels of Arthur´s kingdom to an end.
Holy grail, the origin is controversial,the precise etymology of the world is still uncertain. The first existing text giving is special significance as a mysterious ,holy vessel seems to be Le Conte del Graal or Roman de Perceval, by 12th century Chrétien de troyes. In this poem ,the Grail is given definitely Christian connections. Some scholars have suggested a link between the ritual of the eastern Church and the Grail procession that appears before Perceval, seeing the Grail as the chalice or ciborium.
Robert identifies the grail with the vessel of the Last Supper; in the Vulgate cycle, the real meaning of the Grail has nothing to do with knightly adventure, but is austerely theological.
The grail theme has thus been given a deeply spiritual significance, has come to form the culminating point in Arthurian romance, has proved fruitful as a literary theme.
Scholarly speculations as to its origins have had their influence on works such as T.S.Eliot´s “the Waste Land”
THE LEGENDARY HISTORY OF BRITAIN.
Although stories about King Arthur and his court was extremely popular in Wales before the 11th century, the Arthurian legend as known today is almost wholly the creation of the French Middle Ages. Arthur first achieved European fame though
the “Historia regum Britannie” (c.1135), a Latin account of the british Kings who reigned before Christ.
The basic conception of a great triumphantly defeats the Saxons is taken from Nennius´ “Historia Britonum” (c.800), but geoffrey´s Arthur , not content with repelling the Saxons, subjects Scotland, Norway and France to his rule and, after refusing to pay tribute to Rome,defeats a roman army in eastern France. At this moment of the highest glory he is summoned home to put down a rebellion led by his nephew mordred, who has been left in England as regent and has seized Arthur´s crown and wife. In a last battle on the river camel, Mordred is defeated but Arthur, mortally wounded, disappears to Avalon, a fantastic island from which he never returned.
Some features of this story are obviously complete fabrications when applied to Arthur, for example, the account of how Uther pendragon, aided by Merlin, took the shape of the Gorlois´wife, is an evident adaptation of the classical story of Zeus and the wife of Amphitryon. Even the sword Excalibur and the journey to Avalon are given a strong classical colouring, while Kay and Bevidere, Arthur´s closest companions in the celtic tradition, are transformed into feudal barons.
Wace´s “Roman de Brut” (1155), an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey, and Layamon´s much expanded early Middle English version of wace, “the Brut” (c.1200),does contained material that does not appear in Geoffrey, especially with the connection with the Round Table and Avalon.
“the Brut” is important in literary history for including the earliest surviving English romantic legends of King Arthur. Layamon is indeed, in a sense, the fountainhead of English Arthurian romance. But it was from France, especially from the dominating writings of Chrétien de Troyes in the 13th century, that the romancer which derives mainly from French, got its best influences.
THE SURVIVAL OF ARTHURIAN LEGEND
the legend, as it appears in “the Vulgate cycle” and “the post-Vulgate” romance was transmitted to the later English-speaking world by Sir Thomas Malory. In the 15th century, English Chroniclers showed a renewed interest in Geoffrey¨s historia, and in the Tudor age, the fictitious kings of Britain became more or less incorporated into the official national mythology. Thanks to the chroniclers and Malory, the legend remained alive in England in the 17th century although it had by then lost interest for European readers. Milton meditated an epic ago Arthur. It again became popular in the Victorian era, favoured as it was by medievalizing tendencies in art and religion, and enjoyed a dubois second revival in the works of Tennyson, Swinburne,william Morris and others. In the 20th century writers continued to draw on the legend: the American poet E.A.Robinson wrote an Arthurian trilogy in verse, and in England T.H.White retold the stories in a fine series of novels collected as “The Once and future King” (1958).
-King Arthur and the knights of the Round table, Michael west and D.K. Swan ed.,Longman, 1989.
-La Muerte del Rey Arturo,autor desconocido, ed ., Alianza.
-Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, R.S. Loomis ed., Oxford,1959.
-BENNET,H.S.: Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century, Claredon Press, ed, Oxford, 1976.
-CHAMBERS, E.K.: English literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, Claredon Press Oxford,1976.