Arthurian Romances

mike bailey-gates

I got a special request by a reader to 'introduce' and 'review' some Arthurian Romances. I couldn't say no, as I love this genre. Reading Arthurian Romances is something that I started doing when I was an undergraduate studying English. Getting through Sir Thomas Malory's Complete Works, written in the 15th century, is one of my biggest reading achievements. Most people cite James Joyce's Ulysses or Shakespeare's plays as tough reading, but for me, Malory's Arthurian tales were the hardest. Written in a language that is obscure to modern audiences, Malory's Arthurian Romances are nevertheless some of the most fascinating things I've ever read. Don't let anyone tell you that worthwhile reading is always 'easy' reading. The months that I slogged through Malory have given me a literary foundation, since so many subsequent authors in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and even twenty-first centuries obliquely or explicitly rely on a reader's knowledge of the myths and folklore that Malory brings to the page.

That being said, there are numerous literary texts for Arthurian Romances. I've always been fascinated by these myths and reading them makes me feel like I'm on a floating boat, in the middle of a vast ocean, lost in a space that belongs to no place and no time. Sort of like the girl in the above image. And isn't it a stunning image? It's by Mike Bailey-Gates, as are all the other photos in this post. I was absolutely amazed, as I was browsing through Mike's flickr account, by how perfectly his photographs fit with the narratives, language and imagery of Arthurian Romances. I want to point out that I asked Mike for permission to use his images here, as I've done with all my other book reviews. Thanks Mike, I really appreciate it. I'd like to think that the works I'm quoting here compliment your beautiful photography.

There is such a wealth of Arthurian literature, I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps here ...

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And she came, with a robe of flame-red silk about her, and around her maiden's neck a torque of red gold, and precious pearls thereon and rubies. Yellower was her head than the flower of the broom, whiter was her flesh than the foam of a wave; whiter were her palms and fingers than the shoots of the marsh trefoil from amidst the fine gravel of a welling spring. Neither the eye of the mewed hawk, nor the eye of the thrice-mewed falcon, not an eye was there fairer than hers. Whiter were her breasts than the breast of the white swan, redder were her cheeks than the reddest foxgloves. Whoso beheld her would be filled with love of her. Four white trefoils sprang up behind her wherever she went; and for that reason she was called 'Olwen' [a word symbolising both 'Fair' and 'Beautiful'].

-The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, London: Everyman, 1993, p. 93.

The Mabinogion is considered to be one of the finest examples of medieval and Celtic storytelling. Comprising of eleven prose tales written in the 11th century (or perhaps earlier), it is one of earliest examples of Arthurian legends. True to their oral storytelling origins, these tales have an immediacy to them that makes you feel as if you are being spun a tale by the fireplace, on a cold and lonely night. What I always find fascinating about them is the extreme detail that went into the description of clothing, hair and settings.

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Arthur, the good King of Britain, whose noble qualities teach us that we ourselves should be honorable and courtly, held a court of truly regal splendour for that most sumptuous festival that is properly called Pentecost. The court was at Carlisle in Wales. After the meal, throughout the halls, the knights gathered where they were called by the ladies, damsels and maidens. Some related anecdotes; others spoke of love, of the torments and sorrows and of the great blessings that often come to the members of its order, which at that time was powerful and thriving.

-Chretien de Troyes, 'Yvain, the Knight with the Lion', in Arthurian Romances, translated by D. D. R. Owen, London: Everyman, 2001, p. 281.

While it's widely acknowledged that the 12th-century author, Chretien de Troyes, did not invent Arthurian legends, he is however credited with being the 'father' of Arthurian Romances. Without him, it's quite possible that we may not have even heard of Arthur, or his knights and maidens. Chretien gave Arthurian Romances a sophisticated language and narrative structure. Written at the height of courtly and chivalric notions of love and honour, the Arthurian legends became emblems of the code of chivalry through Chretien's hands. His romances were originally written in French, under the patronage of Marie, Countess of Champagne. Chretien makes numerous references to Marie within his Arthurian tales, drawing explicit parallels between the maidens of Arthur's court and Marie herself. Storytelling and the art of refined poetry and speech were forms of power in medieval courts, and for women, one of the few tangible forms of power and intelligence they could display. Reading Chretien's Arthurian tales is therefore both a journey into the beauty of a mythic world, and also a snapshot of the politics of the 12th-century French court.

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In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale-yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower'd Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse--
Like some bold seër in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance--
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.


-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'The Lady of Shalott' (1832, 1842), in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, edited by Carol T. Christ, New York: Norton, 2000, pp. 1206-1207.

Tennyson's 19th-century Arthurian poetry is by far my favourite Arthurian literature. Tennyson obviously brings to his work Victorian values, preoccupations and morality, but that's what makes it interesting. In the throes of industrial and political revolutions and huge social changes, the 19th-century saw a nostalgic medieval revival. While many aspects of this revival were nationalistic and conservative in nature, it also exposed the social concerns of the day. Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott' is a great example, because hidden beneath the flowery and beautiful language are numerous 19th-century debates about women, sexuality, class and industrialisation. I always find this poem incredibly fascinating and it has so much potential as a piece of myth-making built on multiple layers of meaning. In particular, I find the following passage so evocative:

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Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Thro' the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'The Lady of Shalott' (1832, 1842), in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, edited by Carol T. Christ, New York: Norton, 2000, p. 1207.

There are so many things I could say about this, but I'll let the imagery speak for itself. Another one of Tennyson's Arthurian poems which I find fascinating is 'The Passing of Arthur', describing Arthur's death and retreat into the mystical isle of Avalon:

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Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,
Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
Beneath them; and descending they were ware
That all the decks were dense with stately forms,
Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream--by these
Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose
A cry that shivered to the tingling stars,
And, as it were one voice, an agony
Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills
All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
Or hath come, since the making of the world.


-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'The Passing of Arthur' (1832, 1842), in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, edited by Carol T. Christ, New York: Norton, 2000, p. 1301.

Here, it's almost like Tennyson is literally painting images with words. And yet, there is potential to move between his lines with your own imagery. While he describes the three queens that carry Arthur to Avalon with crowns of gold, I always picture them like Arthur's knights, donned in gray and blue armour, and completely androgynous. I also love the lines that follow Arthur's departure into Avalon:

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"The King is gone."
And therewithal came on him the weird rhyme,
"From the great deep to the great deep he goes."

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'The Passing of Arthur' (1832, 1842), in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, edited by Carol T. Christ, New York: Norton, 2000, p. 1301.

The 'great deep' is the depth of myth, and Arthur is to be resurrected, time and again from the mists of Avalon, through literature.

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Morgaine Speaks ...

In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen. Now in truth I have come to be wise-woman, and a time may come when these things may need to be known.

-Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, London: Sphere Books, 1982, p. ix.

Lastly, there have been numerous modern re-workings of Arthurian legends, but one of my favourite ones is Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'feminist' novel, The Mists of Avalon. This is a huge sprawling novel, spanning over 1000 pages. But it's easy to read and draws you in from the first page, so you never really feel like it's a chore to get through. One of the things I like best about this novel is how Bradley shifts perspectives and considers the many faces of the 'good' and 'bad' characters of Arthurian Romances, particularly Morgaine, (or Morganna, Morgan le Fay, etc.). The breadth of detail about Celtic mythology, Christian symbolism and traditional folklore in Western culture is just astounding in this book. But I ultimately enjoyed reading it because of its descriptive detail, such as this passage in the first few pages:

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Tintagel ... there were still those who believed the castle had been raised, on the crag at the far end of the long causeway into the sea, by the magic of the ancient folk of Ys. ... In the four years since she had come here as Gorlois's bride, Ingraine had seen land, good land, crumble into the Cornish sea. Long arms of black rock, sharp and craggy, extended into the ocean from the coast. When the sun shone, it could be as brilliant as the jewels Gorlois had heaped on her on the day when she told him she bore his first child. But Ingraine had never liked wearing them. The jewel which hung now at her throat had been given to her in Avalon: a moonstone which sometimes reflected the blue brilliance of sky and sea; but in the fog, today, even the jewel looked shadowed.

-Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, London: Sphere Books, 1982, p. 3.

Passages like this one are what I take away from the novel - shifting, yet memorable images of characters reflecting many facets of interpretation. I always picture Ingraine, Arthur's mother, with her red hair and moonstone amidst the sea, like an ancient towering queen. I partly owe that image to Bradley's novel.

Wow, this has been a long post. I doubt many people will have the patience to read it, but I really hope the reader who sent me the request for a 'review' of Arthurian literature enjoyed this post. Believe it or not, writing this post has helped me sort out some of my own ideas about myth.

mike bailey-gates

All images are by Mike Bailey-Gates. Visit his website and flickr account to see more. Please ask Mike for permission if you'd like to re-blog his images - thanks.