Camelot Clearinghouse: Sources for Arthur, Merlin &c. up through AD 1600

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
9,099
19 March St. Joseph, Guardian of Our Lord

There may be a lot of interest amongst Chronsfolk in the legends of King Arthur, and comments on the sources may be scattered around in the forums.

This thread is for notes and comments relating to Arthurian sources no later than AD 1600. The thread, then, invites disucssion of Geraldus Cambrensis and Nennius and Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory and Spenser's Faerie Queene, which has been considered (I think) the last great medieval work (or something close to that), and more, all of these works dating to no later than the beginning of the 17th century.

The thread should be a good place for people who like to read and post comments on Arthurian lore, also for creative writers and artists who want to get right back beyond the modern poets, painters, and novelists ad fontes. If you want to write Arthurian fiction but don't want to be influenced by modern writers and artists, this could be a good resource for you.

What might develop here, among other things, is a growing annotated bibliography of sources, such that this thread becomes a good place for people to visit who are becoming curious about King Arthur, Merlin, the Grail, the Round Table, etc. Some postings might have an academic flavor, others might be more off-the-cuff. Let's try, though, however informal we get, to stick to the boundaries indicated by the thread title. If you search the forums using "king arthur" as your term, you will find a bunch of existing threads about Arthur in pop culture, or even modern classics such as Tennyson's poetry, if it's the more recent material that interests you.

The original Everyman’s Library of a hundred and more years ago provided a very generous selection of Arthurian volumes. Those books appear to have been as follows:
  • Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (2 vols, EL 45 & 46)
  • Mabinogion (EL 97)*
  • Giraldus Cambrensis (EL 272)
  • Spenser’s Faerie Queene (2 vols, EL 443, 444)
  • High History of the Holy Graal (EL 445) (i.e. Perlesvaus)
  • French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France (EL 557)
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain (EL 577)
  • Wace and Layamon, Arthurian Chronicles (EL 578)
  • Morte Arthur: Two Early English Romances (EL 634)
  • Chrétien de Troyes’ Eric and Enid (also known as Arthurian Romances, EL 698)
The Everyman's Library books were issued as volumes to be affordable by as many people as possible -- so look what an Arthurian library one could get without laying out a lot of money!

In our time, Penguin Classics have issued a comparable list of Arthurian sources, which perhaps I will post later. In the meantime, the sources just listed can get us started on a sense of what's out there. There are many more.

I mean to post with dates from the ecclesiastical calendar, as would've been done in the periods covered here I suppose. The St. Joseph mentioned above isn't the Arthurian one, Joseph of Arimathea, whose traditional Roman Catholic feast day had been 17 March but is now 31 August; in the East and in the Anglican communion, Joseph of Arimathea is commemorated on 31 July.
 
Last edited:
I've begun reading the alliterative Morte Arthure in the 1988 Penguin Classic that also includes the stanzaic Le Morte Arthur. These are dated circa 1400 and 1350. The translator is Brian Stone, and readers who love his Penguin rendition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will likely feel that they are in good hands as they begin the alliterative work, which, however, doesn't have the unusual "bob and wheel" poetic feature of the Gawain. The story in the present work concerns envoys who come to Arthur's court to demand homage and amends for conquest to the king of Rome. I've tended to think of the war with Rome as a tedious portion of Malory's Morte d'Arthur (Caxton publication 1485), but I like this poetic version so far.

Here is an obituary for Brian Stone by John Cain. I'd like to draw attention to him for his medieval translations and wartime career, and for personal reasons, in that his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was probably the first Penguin Classic I read (a school library copy when I was 12 or 13, it seems) -- intrigued by his mention there of my favorite author, J. R. R. Tolkien. A few years later, in my first year of college, I read or reread this book in a course taught by my favorite undergraduate teacher, and then some years later I included the book in a course I taught.

BRIAN STONE 1919-1995

Brian Stone was a brilliant teacher, an enthusiast for good English and an exceptionally brave man. He was unmistakable with his jaunty, determined, one-legged walk and air of buoyant optimism.

Stone lost a leg in 1942 when serving as a captain with the Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa and was decorated with the Military Cross. He brought the only remaining tank into Tobruk and was taken prisoner after his tank was hit in the retreat before the battle of El Alamein. His book Prisoner from Alamein (1944), with a glowing introduction by Desmond MacCarthy, demonstrates many of his qualities, including that of forgiveness. He pays tribute to the German medical team which saved his life with an amputation in the desert.


Born in Birmingham in 1919, Stone was educated at Taunton School and worked briefly in the City for Shell. As a Territorial he was in the thick of the Second World War from the beginning, commissioned at 20 and evacuated from St Malo when France fell. Following repatriation in 1943 and discharge from the Army in 1944, he returned to Shell in the Middle East, learned Arabic, took to journalism, writing second leaders for the Jerusalem Post, and married. He was now persuaded that teaching was his vocation and returned to Britain to train under the government emergency scheme. Qualified in 1948 and with a family to support, he started a teaching career which took him into primary and secondary schools while he took external BA and MA degrees in English at London University.

Concurrently he had several operations on his "good" leg, directed plays and became a fine verse speaker. I well remember his brilliant performances at the English Festivals of Spoken Poetry in the early Fifties. He inspired countless students in schools in London and Brighton and, later, in teacher training colleges in Brighton and Loughborough, with his teaching, play productions and acting. There was something particularly poignant about his one-legged portrayal of King Lear and Pirandello's Henry IV.

Stone's literary reputation grew steadily. In 1959, at the instigation of E.V. Rieu, the first Penguin Classics Editor, he produced a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which remains in print. It was the first of a series of distinguished contributions to medieval English literature, including Medieval English Verse (1963), The Owl and the Nightingale, Cleanness, St Erkenwald (1971), Chaucer's Love Visions (1978) and King Arthur's Death (1988).

In 1969 Stone became a founder member of the Open University and Reader in English Literature and it was in this milieu that he spent the rest of his professional life. He followed his "distance-teaching" work with face-to-face teaching, his real love, at the old Westfield College, London, Digby Stuart College, in Roehampton, and, particularly, at residential weekend courses held at Maryland College, Bedfordshire, for which he had immense affection.


With Pat Scorer, a colleague at the Open University whom he married in 1985, he wrote a book for the BBC, Sophocles to Fugard, an illustrated introduction to 16 programmes shown on television as part of the monumental OU Drama Course. Among the course's many distinguished productions was Waiting for Godot, starring Leo McKern and Max Wall.

Certain of the plays, notably Genet's The Balcony, caused the BBC hierarchy anxiety and I remember, as a BBC bureaucrat myself, arguing the case alongside Stone for screenings on Sundays. Towards the end of his OU career he gave much to the course on Romantic Poetry and in 1992 wrote a critical study, The Poetry of Keats, for Penguin.

Brian Stone fought his last, very painful, battle with immense courage. The quotation on the title-page of his war book reads: "Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage."


Brian Ernest Stone, teacher and writer: born 20 December 1919; married 1945 Yvette Valensky (died 1990; four sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980), 1985 Pat Scorer; died London 2 March 1995.
 
The alliterative Morte Arthure -- has anyone here read it? This is a first reading for me -- is moving right along, with armies assembling for a real world war. King Arthur is lord not only in Britain but much of northern Europe; but his enemy, the king of Rome, is gathering forces from places as far apart as Lithuania, Prester John's realm, Egypt, Armenia, India, Greece, Cyprus, Prussia, &c. On Rome's side will fight "sixty giants, fathered by fiends," and the Roman king has "witches and warlocks to watch his tents." As in Brian Stone's other Arthurian Penguin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we have the dating of events by the ecclesiastical calendar, which I forgot I was going to use for postings on this thread till now.

21 March St. Enda, co-founder of monasticism in Ireland

1647892643579.png
 
6 April 2022 Wednesday Before Lazarus Saturday

What would be a good selection of pre-1600 Arthurian works to read, for someone who doesn't intend to read widely? For what my non-expert opinion is worth, here's what I came up with, as of today. I've read these, but there are some major Arthurian works I haven't read yet. Yet I have my doubts about them displacing any of these.

1.Malory's Morte d'Arthur -- no surprise here; I'd be surprised, rather, if anyone didn't award this work the first place.
2.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Brian Stone's Penguin Classics translation is delightful
3.The High History of the Holy Graal, aka Perlesvaus, translated by Sebastian Evans

The High History is not very well-known, but I liked it and, more to the point, it was liked by several of my favorite imaginative authors, namely C. S. Lewis, Arthur Machen, and Charles Williams. J. R. R. Tolkien isn't, so far as I know, on record as liking it, but Cilli's Tolkien's Library shows that the Professor owned a copy of the Everyman's Library edition. I'll post here an article about the High History.

I didn't include the Mabinogion above, since it contains some Arthurian material but is most noted for other elements, etc.
 
Last edited:
Here in several postings is an article about The High History of the Holy Graal. I hope it will encourage Chronsfolk to get hold of this little-known book and give it a serious try. My article is (c) 2022 by Dale Nelson. It was published on the Wormwoodiana blog on 10 October 2019.

The High History of the Holy Graal,

Arthur Machen, and the Inklings​

By Dale Nelson

In Arthur Machen’s 1915 wonder-tale “The Great Return” we hear of marvelous lights, odors, bell-sounds, Welsh saints, the Rich Fisherman, and healings, as the Holy Graal is manifest, briefly, in Wales in the 20th century. The story needs ent of it may be enhanced if we see it – or recognize it – as a “sequel” to one of the great medieval Arthurian works.

That work is the Old French prose romance Perlesvaus, from the early 13 century, which Machen knew in Sebastian Evans’s 1898 translation as The High History of the Holy Graal. The Perlesvaus is a century and a half or more older than Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Readers of Machen’s Hieroglyphics may remember the Morte as belonging to a dozen or so literary works cited as examples of “fine literature,” works of the highest literary art, capable of conveying “ecstasy,” wonder, beauty, the longing for the unknown.

Machen also appreciated Evans’s High History. In his controversial essay “The Secret of the Sangraal,” Machen referred to Sebastian Evans as “the accomplished and admirable, if somewhat archaistic translator of one of the Romances, to which he gave the title The High History of the Holy Graal.” Machen’s friend A. E. Waite wrote, similarly, of the Perlesvaus as having been “translated into English of an archaic kind, beautiful and stately, by Dr. Sebastian Evans, a gorgeous chronicle, full of richly painted pictures and pageants” (in The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal from 1910, page 11).

The “archaic” style to which Machen and Waite refer should pose no difficulties for readers who can enjoy William Morris’s prose romances, such as The Well at the World’s End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Perhaps the main thing that takes a little adjusting to is the use of “and” where modern English uses “if.” The Pre-Raphaelite quality is signaled before the story’s text commences by Edward Burne-Jones’s frontispieces in the two-volume edition, which is available online.
 
2nd of 3 installments

The High History’s imagined era is the first Christian century (so that a mule that had belonged to one of Pilate’s soldiers is still alive when Lancelot and Perceval meet). The Graal is mostly in the background, and there is no official setting-out of the Round Table knights in quest of it. At the long book’s end, Perceval lays down his arms and devotes himself, with his widowed mother and his sister, to the religious life, and we learn that the Graal will be seen no more.

Before this happens, though, we have read of the “rich King Fisherman” and King Arthur has learned that it is God’s will that chalices for the Mass be of the pattern he is shown and that churches be provided with bells.

But Perceval’s mother and sister die, and the moment comes for Perceval’s departure.

“Perceval heard one day a bell sound loud and high without the manor toward the sea. He came to the window of the hall and saw the ship come with the white sail and the Red Cross thereon, and within were the fairest folk that ever he might behold, and they were all robed in such a manner as though they should sing mass.” This sight is accompanied by a fragrance of supernal excellence; “no savour in the world smelleth so sweet.”

Perceval enters the boat and “never thereafter did no earthly man know what became of him.” In the years that follow, the chapel wherein he had resided falls into decay. However, one day, two young Welsh knights investigate the chapel; and they remain there for a long time as hermits. They have holy deaths and the people “of that land called them saints”; but they are not named.

Machen may well have found in such details a number of the germs of his story “The Great Return.” To them he added his devotion to the idea of the ancient Celtic Church.
 
3rd of 3 installments

By the way, Sebastian Evans’s book was there for the three famous Inklings, too.

Charles Williams, like Machen an associate of Waite, discusses it in his unfinished work The Figure of Arthur: “[Perlesvaus] was translated into English [prose] in the nineteenth century by Sebastian Evans. He was a poet of a certain power, though his medievalism is of the usual mannered and slightly picturesque kind common to that period; if not pre-Raphaelite it is at least kindred to that manner.”

Tolkien had a copy in his personal library, as we learn in Oronzo Cilli’s 2019 book.

And C. S. Lewis loved it for years. When he discovered it in his teens, he wrote to his best friend, “It is absolute heaven: it is more mystic & eerie than [Malory’s] ‘Morte’ & has [a] more connected plot.” Almost 30 years later, he wrote to a friend of E. R. Eddison that The High History of the Holy Grail [sic] was among his favorites, in company with Malory’s Morte, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and William Morris’s romances. It’s likely that his weird poem “Launcelot” is derived from the High History rather than Malory.

The High History is episodic and repetitive, and perhaps not a book I will read twice in its entirety, but it was exciting to read a little-known book that mattered to four of my favorite authors. And I wouldn’t have wanted to miss certain details. One is a passing reference to the castle of Joseus, the son of King Pelles. Joseus “‘slew his mother there. Never sithence hath the castle ceased of burning, and I tell you that of this castle and one other will be kindled the fire that shall burn up the world and put it to an end.’”

Note

Machen’s essay “The Secret of the Sangraal” is quoted here from The Shining Pyramid (London: Secker, 1924). The same essay appears as “The Sangraal” in The Glorious Mystery, edited by Vincent Starrett (Chicago: Covici-McGee, 1924).

Nigel Bryant translated the Perlesvaus for 1978 publication as The High Book of the Grail. A little spot-checking shows differences in some word-meanings, perhaps due to use of different texts. Evans’s style seemed to me to fit the matter better than Bryant’s relaxed, contemporary fashion – and I wanted to read the book known to Machen, Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis.
 
19 April 2022 St. Alphege

I've finished the alliterative Morte Arthure. It abounds in mortes. Gawain is killed too. There's a lot of description of how knights meet their deaths -- I won't say, though, that the poem seems "morbid." There is no Grail element. A striking passage is Arthur's dream of Lady Fortune, who exalts him and then turns nasty. The presence of Dame Fortune reminded me of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, one of the greatest of all books of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
1650383744842.png
 
22 April '22 St. Alexander

I really don't intend or expect to be drawn into a lot of Glastonbury woo-woo, but anyway I'm now reading the Lyfe of Joseph of Armathia (1520) as printed in Skeat's Early English Texts volume (title page below). This tells how Joseph was arrested and imprisoned; but, freed by Christ, he hides in his home in Arimathea. He then serves Our Lady 18 years till her Assumption,* then goes to France for a time, and then to Britain. There, 31 years after Christ's Passion, he's imprisoned by the Welsh king, but at a divine command King Mordrayous makes war and the Welsh king submits, and the two rulers are reconciled, with Mordrayous marrying the Welsh king's daughter Labell.
joseph.jpg

*This reflects the Latin tradition of her assumption into heaven, made Roman Catholic dogma relatively recently, while the Eastern (Orthodox) tradition of the Dormition is that she did die, with the surviving disciples gathered there. The late composer John Tavener has a piece in which she says before her death, "Bury my body in Gethsemane, and Thou, my Son and God, receive my spirit."
 
Last edited:
22 April '22 St. Alexander

I really don't intend or expect to be drawn into a lot of Glastonbury woo-woo, but anyway I'm now reading the Lyfe of Joseph of Armathia (1520) as printed in Skeat's Early English Texts volume (title page below). This tells how Joseph was arrested and imprisoned; but, freed by Christ, he hides in his home in Arimathea. He then serves Our Lady 18 years till her Assumption,* then goes to France for a time, and then to Britain. There, 31 years after Christ's Passion, he's imprisoned by the Welsh king, but at a divine command King Mordrayous makes war and the Welsh king submits, and the two rulers are reconciled, with Mordrayous marrying the Welsh king's daughter Labell.
View attachment 88811
*This reflects the Latin tradition of her assumption into heaven, made Roman Catholic dogma relatively recently, while the Eastern (Orthodox) tradition of the Dormition is that she did die, with the surviving disciples gathered there. The late composer John Tavener has a piece in which she says before her death, "Bury my body in Gethsemane, and Thou, my Son and God, receive my spirit."
This remains a popular myth, and is part of the new age nonsense that surrounds Glastonbury. It is a lovely place, and the natural topography, Glastonbury Tor in particular, is conducive to this kind of fantasy for those of a certain mindset. Old Joseph is supposed to have stuck his staff in the ground when he arrived, during a break from looking after the Holy Grail, being a tour guide for the boy Jesus etc. It took root and is still propagated as as the Glastonbury Thorn. As well as the hippy thing, it is also mixed up with the Romantic movement. The words to the hymn Jerusalem are in part related to J of A, and I wonder sometimes how many of those singing what is practically an alternative national anthem have ever thought about just how odd the lyrics are.
1650699705765.jpeg
 
25 April 2022 St. Mark Evangelist

Ten years ago I read much of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain in Sebastian Evans's translation, in the old Everyman's Library. Now I think I'll start Lewis Thorpe's Penguin Classics version. Thorpe said, in Amon Hen #31 (1978), "All my family and I myself have always been admirers of Tolkien's book" -- I think meaning LotR. He was married to Barbara Reynolds, who completed Dorothy L, Sayers's translation of the Divine Comedy and is notable for other accomplishments too.
 
8 May 2022 St. Victor of Marseilles; [Anglican] Dame Julian of Norwich

In my limited knowledge, I suggested the three books listed at the end of this posting for getting started. Now I'm rereading Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and want to recommend it warmly, in Lewis Thorpe's version for Penguin Classics, which has a nice map and a really detailed and useful index of about 80 pages as well as an intriguing brief timeline.

Specifically, one might start shortly before the end of the fourth part on the House of Constantine, with the discovery of the boy Merlin, followed by pages of Merlin's prophecies, and leading into the story of Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, and then the story of King Arthur, which is where I am now in this rereading.


Geoffrey's book was written well before the three books listed below, so, if order of publication interests you, it would be the one to start with if you wanted to get into the Arthurian corpus, or so it seems to me at this point in my own exploration. It's not the earliest work with Arthurian material, but must be the most full version up to its time, though that comment is subject to correction if I learn more and to the contrary.

1652032968348.png
1652033042719.png


-----What would be a good selection of pre-1600 Arthurian works to read, for someone who doesn't intend to read widely? For what my non-expert opinion is worth, here's what I came up with, as of today. I've read these, but there are some major Arthurian works I haven't read yet. Yet I have my doubts about them displacing any of these.

1.Malory's Morte d'Arthur -- no surprise here; I'd be surprised, rather, if anyone didn't award this work the first place.
2.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Brian Stone's Penguin Classics translation is delightful
3.The High History of the Holy Graal, aka Perlesvaus, translated by Sebastian Evans-----
 
8 May 2022 St. Victor of Marseilles; [Anglican] Dame Julian of Norwich

In my limited knowledge, I suggested the three books listed at the end of this posting for getting started. Now I'm rereading Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and want to recommend it warmly, in Lewis Thorpe's version for Penguin Classics, which has a nice map and a really detailed and useful index of about 80 pages as well as an intriguing brief timeline.

Specifically, one might start shortly before the end of the fourth part on the House of Constantine, with the discovery of the boy Merlin, followed by pages of Merlin's prophecies, and leading into the story of Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, and then the story of King Arthur, which is where I am now in this rereading.


Geoffrey's book was written well before the three books listed below, so, if order of publication interests you, it would be the one to start with if you wanted to get into the Arthurian corpus, or so it seems to me at this point in my own exploration. It's not the earliest work with Arthurian material, but must be the most full version up to its time, though that comment is subject to correction if I learn more and to the contrary.

View attachment 89340View attachment 89342

-----What would be a good selection of pre-1600 Arthurian works to read, for someone who doesn't intend to read widely? For what my non-expert opinion is worth, here's what I came up with, as of today. I've read these, but there are some major Arthurian works I haven't read yet. Yet I have my doubts about them displacing any of these.

1.Malory's Morte d'Arthur -- no surprise here; I'd be surprised, rather, if anyone didn't award this work the first place.
2.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Brian Stone's Penguin Classics translation is delightful
3.The High History of the Holy Graal, aka Perlesvaus, translated by Sebastian Evans-----

I have a copy of number 3 slightly different title The Quest For the Holy Grail which I bought as after thought at used bookstore Penguin book translation by P M Matarasso . I also have Parzival by Wolfram Von Eschenback Vintage book edition

Im guessing both theses works predate Mallory.

The Stone Translation of Sir Gawain . How does it compare with Tolkiens?
 

Similar threads


Back
Top