Arthurian Poetry

On Saturday, I discussed some of the history and prose that helped to give rise to the King Arthur legend we know today. As it turns out, Arthur has a long poetic history as well.

It appears that one of the earliest, Welsh literary references to Arthur is in the poem “Y Gododdin,” attributed to the poet Aneirin. It’s unclear when exactly when this was written, though I’ve seen it suggested it dates back to the seventh century. The manuscript we have is from the thirteenth century. In the poem, Aneirin praises the warrior Gwawrddur of the Gododdin tribe, but appears to hold Arthur in even high esteem.

Another early poem is “Brut” by Layamon written circa the year 1200. It appears to be a poetic adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Another poetic adaptation of Geoffrey’s Arthur story is the poem “Morte Arthure” written circa 1265 by an unknown poet.

The poet Chrétien de Troyes wrote several poems about Arthur’s knights in the twelfth century including “Yvain, the Knight of the Lion”, “Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart”, and “Perceval, the Story of the Grail.” The poetry of de Troyes and the poem “Morte Arthure” likely had a strong influence on Sir Thomas Mallory when he penned “Le Morte d’Arthur” in the fifteenth century.

As with two of the early poets I’ve mentioned, I’ve been strongly inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth. As it turns out, Geoffrey wrote two books related to Arthur and Merlin. The first and most famous is History of the Kings of Britain. His other work is called The Life of Merlin. In History, Geoffrey associates Merlin with Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. However, in The Life of Merlin, Geoffrey associates Merlin with the Welsh king Gwenddoleu and the poet Taliesin who likely would have lived over a century after Uther Pendragon. Geoffrey himself hand-waves this by suggesting Merlin has lived a long time and I wonder if this is the origin of the idea of Merlin living backward in time.

Two of my poems inspired by Geoffrey’s works appear in the current issue of the webzine Eye to the Telescope published by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. As it turns out, Geoffrey’s History is not just the story of King Arthur—though Arthur’s story takes up the lion’s share of the book. It’s also the story of Arthur’s ancestors. One of those is about a fellow named King Coel. I’ve seen some suggestions that Geoffrey’s King Coel is the inspiration for the King Cole of the nursery rhyme. “Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he.” I admit many dispute this, but it still inspired me to play with Geoffrey’s telling of the King Coel story in the form of nursery rhyme.

My other poem in the collection is a revised version of a poem I wrote several years ago. It’s called “The Passage of Merlin” and combines stories found in “The Life of Merlin” with stories from “History of the Kings of Britain to create a picture of a more dynamic Merlin than the trope of an old man in wizard’s robes that we’ve grown accustomed to.

You can read my poems plus other great Arthurian poems by such folks as Mary Soon Lee, Marge Simon, F.J. Bergmann, and Vince Gotera at: EyeToTheTelescope.com

Advertisements

Revisiting Excalibur

As the year began, Lachesis Publishing decided to put the ebook of Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order on sale for 99 cents through January 21. Because of that, I’ve been thinking back to some of the inspiration for the novel.

I’ve long been a fan of Arthurian lore. In many ways, that fandom began back during my university days soon after watching John Boorman’s film Excalibur. After the film, I remember hot debate about how closely the film followed the “true” legend of King Arthur. I found myself wondering what exactly people meant by “the ‘true’ legend of King Arthur.” Soon after that, I was at a used bookstore in Albuquerque where I found a book with the historical and early literary texts that were the root of the Arthur legend. This opened up a whole new world to me and told me that the Arthur story is far more nuanced than I originally thought.

What most people think of as the “true” story of Arthur is based on the novel Le Morte d’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Mallory in 1485. It includes many of the familiar elements of the story including Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to become king, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s also written approximately a thousand years after the historical Arthur would have lived. It’s built up from numerous folk tales Mallory would have known and put together into a single narrative. In fact, the sword in the stone, Lancelot, and the Holy Grail don’t appear in the earliest Arthur narratives.

As it turns out, the earliest Arthurian history from a Welsh monk named Nennius can be summed up as: “Arthur was a warlord who won many battles against the Saxons, until he finally defeated them at Badon Hill.” Even this version of the story wasn’t written until almost three or four hundred years after Arthur would have lived. Since that time, numerous folk tales developed. Many are reminiscent in tone to the tall tales of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan from the American frontier. I’ve read speculation that Lancelot started as the star of his own set of French Celtic folk tales and was then grafted onto the Arthur stories. Others say he has antecedents in minor characters from the earlier Celtic stories of Arthur.

This past week, I watched Excalibur for the first time in about twenty years. Admittedly, it’s been about fifteen years or so since I last read Le Morte d’Arthur, but it struck me that the movie did a tolerably good job following the plot of Mallory’s novel. Many have criticized the movie for its depiction of Arthur and his knights in bright, shiny armor. However, it struck me that this is a valid interpretation of Mallory, in much the same way as it would be valid to present a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with characters in Elizabethan garb. One can make a case it’s the way it would have been visualized by audiences at the time of the novel’s release.

Back when I wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order, one of the characters mentioned that the vampire Drake was, “a British peer, a Dragon serving King Ambrosius.” The character goes on to explain “Ambrosius was King of the Britons before King Arthur. This was all around the year 480 A.D.” When I decided to write Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order which tells Drake’s origin story, I thought it would be fun to explore what I’d learned about Arthurian history and lore.

As an author, I put together some of my favorite ideas and pet theories of what the “true” King Arthur story was like. I knew people would expect to see Lancelot so I created a reason for him to be there, yet “erased” from history. It was a fun exercise and we also travel to other points in history as well. We go to ancient Greece and to England just after the Norman invasion. The novel ends in Mallory’s time in Eastern Europe where a certain famous nobleman often associated with vampires is coming to power. You can pick up Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order as an ebook at the following retailers. But hurry, the 99 cent special ends this weekend!