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

13 June 2022 St. Antony of Padua

Robert de Boron’s Perceval, translated by Nigel Bryant (in Merlin and the Grail, published by Brewer).

115/ Perceval is the son of Alain li Gros (thus the grandson of Bron the Rich Fisher, who was brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, p. 119).

117-118/ The love of Perceval and Elainne the sister of Gawain. As her champion, Perceval defeats all the knights with whom he enters into contest, including Lancelot.

119/ Perceval wrongly insists on seating himself in the empty chair at the Round Table. Arthur reluctantly permits this. When Perceval sits down, the stone on which the chair was set splits, and an “anguished groan” is heard and everything grows dark. King Arthur is reproached for disobeying Merlin’s command, and told that Perceval would have “‘fallen into the abyss and died the terrible death that Moyse suffered when he wrongfully sat at the place that Joseph had forbidden him,’” if not for the goodness of Perceval’s father and grandfather.

120/ The voice further tells King Arthur that the Fisher King “‘has fallen into a great sickness and infirmity, and will never be healed – nor will the stone be mended in the place where Perceval sat at the Round Table – until one of the knights seated here has performed enough feats of arms and goodness and prowess. When such a knight is exalted above all other men,,, then God will guide him to the house of the rich Fisher King. And then, when he is asked what this Grail is for and who is served with it, then, when he has asked that question, the Fisher King will be healed, and the stone will mend beneath the place at the Round Table, and the enchantments which now lie upon the land of Britain will be cast out.’” The knights set out in the quest, but Robert says he will not tell the adventures of Gawain and others.

121-125/ Perceval’s adventure of the foul dwarf and the giant.

125ff./ Perceval and the chessboard with a seemingly invisible player (or the board itself is magical). When he loses, Perceval prepares to throw the chesspieces into the water (of a moat, I take it). A beautiful damsel begs him not to and he agrees, falling in love with her at first sight (so much for Elainne, I guess). She says she will give him her love, and make him lord of the castle, if he will bring her the head of a white hart. She loans him her dog for the hunt.

He gets the hart’s head, but an old woman steals the damsel’s hound. She says she will return it if Perceval fights with the black-armored knight who emerges from a tomb. The battle is a hard one, but Perceval is winning till the knight flees back into his tomb. Meanwhile a knight steals hound and hart’s-head. The old woman refuses to tell him who the thief is, if she even knows, and gets Perceval’s curse.
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.

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-----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-----
No Lancelot in Monmouth, is that right?
That’s right, Bick. I don’t think Lancelot appears till Chretien de Troyes, later than Geoffrey in the 12th century.
16 June 2022 St. Lutgard

130/Perceval is reunited with his sister, not named here but in other works called Dindrane. She tells him to go to a hermit and confess to him, the hermit being a brother of Alain li Gros, the father of Perceval and his sister. The hermit came from Jerusalem and told her that Bron, grandfather of Perceval and his sister, is the Fisher King, and has “‘the vessel in which the blood of Our Lord was gathered. This vessel is called the Grail, and he said that Our Lord declared that it should come to you, and that you must search until you find it’” (p. 130).

Translator Nigel Bryant says that it was the idea of Robert de Boron “to make the Grail clearly, unambiguously Christian by giving it a Biblical early history. It is very easy, especially when coming to Arthurian literature for the first time, to forget that the so-called ‘Holy Grail’, connected with Christ, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, is not explicitly Christian in the first Grail romance” (p. 4), namely the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, an unfinished work that “in the mid-1180s, introduced the Grail to an intrigued world” (p. 3). “The decisive Christianisation of the Grail is Robert’s vital contribution” (p. 6). Bryant thinks it likely that Robert saw in “the mightily suggestive [bleeding] lance … and a radiant vessel suddenly, briefly and tantalizingly revealed to be containing a Host” (my capital) the possibility for making the Grail “unequivocally Christian by giving it an origin in the Biblical past,” with the story of Joseph of Arimathea (p. 7).

Perceval and his sister go to the hermit. He tells Perceval that he, the hermit, is son of the Fisher King Bron, and that he and Bron at supper once “‘once heard the [divine voice] commanding us to go to far-off lands in the West… and that to Alian li Gros would be born an heir who would have the Grail in his keeping, and that the Fisher King could not die until you had been to his court – and when you had done so, he would be healed and would bestow his grace and the vessel upon you, and you would be lord of the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ’” (p. 130). The hermit further counsels Perceval not to kill other knights and to pray for mercy, for his mother died from grief on his account (p. 131). Almost immediately, though, Perceval gets into a fight with another knight and kills him evidently in self-defense (p. 132).

132ff. Perceval encounters a knight whose sweetheart is grotesquely ugly – she seems to Perceval as if she might not be human at all but a demon (p. 133). Perceval defeats this knight and sends him and his paramour to Arthur’s court to declare himself bested by Perceval. When the knight and the loathsome lady arrive, Kay too, like the knight, sees the paramour as being beautiful, while everyone else there sees her as Perceval did. The knight and his paramour, Rosete, are allowed to stay, and – where I might have expected that Kay and the knight would come to see the ghastly truth – she “became thereafter the most beautiful damsel anywhere” (p. 135)!

136-139/ Adventure of the ford. Perceval bests another knight, but his lady and her damsels take the forms of black birds and attack Perceval. He wounds one, which turns into a woman. The knight tells him not to worry because she is not actually in danger and “‘she’ll now be in Avalon’” (p. 138).

139/ Perceval encounters two naked children, about six years old, playing together and climbing a tree. Robert does not state the sex of either child. One of them says that [God] sent them from the earthly Paradise to direct Perceval to take the right-hand path for his Grail quest.

140/ He is unsure whether or not to trust the marvel. An immense shadow appears and a voice tells Perceval that Merlin says to trust the children. He goes that way. Unfortunately, when he sees the Fisher King in the middle of a boat, he does not know who he is. The Fisher King gives directions that seem to turn out false, and Perceval curses the old man – not, I think, in his presence, but as he wanders.

141/ But afterwards Perceval does see the Fisher King’s castle. There, he sees the Grail and the bleeding lance but refrains from asking about them, although the Fisher King tries to get him to do so.

142-143/ A damsel curses Perceval, after he leaves the castle – which is uninhabited when he gets up in the morning. Then Perceval tries to find the castle but is unable to.

143ff./ Perceval encounters a beautiful woman with a fine palfrey, and sees, tied to a tree branch by her, the hart’s head that he had taken before and that had been stolen from him. A doe comes running by, chased by a dog that Perceval recognizes as the one stolen from him. Perceval defeats this knight and learns that the knight of the tomb was his brother, with whom a “‘beautiful fairy’” had fallen in love. Perceval had encountered her when she appeared to be an old woman (p. 144). The damsel who had given Perceval the hound was this fairy-woman’s sister and also her enemy (p. 145). Perceval returns the hound to the woman who had provided him with it. She is disappointed when he does not stay with her, but he had vowed not to sleep more than one night in the same place while on the quest (p. 146).
18 June 2022 St. Ephraim of Syria (commemorated on 10 June according to the Anglican calendar)

146ff./ Seven years pass and Perceval takes no thought of God or church. The episode of the White Castle tournament: Perceval defeats all his opponents as he fights with his identity kept secret. This may be “sport,” but it may be fatal: Gawain kills a man, evidently intentionally (p. 153).

After a day’s combat and a night’s rest, Perceval is heading for the tournament scene when he is accosted by an old man with a scythe, who turns out to be Merlin, reappearing on the scene after many pages. Merlin reminds Perceval of the Grail quest and the night immediately sets forth on it again. That very day he comes to the Fisher King’s castle. He sees the bleeding lance and the Grail and, this time, eagerly asks the required question of his grandfather, the purpose of these things. Instantly the old man is healed (p. 154).

Translator Bryant’s Introduction noted that a “modern novelist” would likely write more copiously at certain points, but holds that a “medieval writer had no need to do this, because he knew that a skilled performer” – a reader-aloud of his text – “would reveal the subtextual emotions and reactions in his delivery to the gathered, communal listeners.” The spare style is not a fault (pp. 11-12). Sioned Davies says much the same thing in her introduction to her translation of The Mabinogion.

Thus the Grail quest is achieved in what, to the modern reader’s eye, might seem to be told in an offhand manner. Perceval retires from chivalry.

The remainder of the book named for Perceval concerns Arthur’s war with Rome and his death. In this version, Arthur is urged by Kay to make war on France, and then his barons urge him to conquer Rome as well (p. 157). After Arthur subjugates France, ambassadors from Rome demand that he pay tribute to the emperor, since the French king had done so (pp. 161-162). King Lot of Orkney tells Arthur about how there’d been a time when nephews of King Casibelan united with Julius Caesar against the British king, who was victorious. But Brennius and Belinus (here Brenes and Belin) revolt against Roman rule and conquer Rome, with Brenes/Brennius being crowned emperor there; hence the case for Arthur being legitimate ruler of Rome (pp. 163-164). Moreover, Merlin had prophesied that Arthur would rule France and Rome (p. 157).

It’s while Arthur’s abroad on his war of conquest that Mordred seizes the throne and marries Arthur’s queen, in this telling. There’s no adultery of Lancelot and Arthur making war on him. The Roman emperor marries the Sultan’s daughter and his armies are joined by those of the Saracens against Arthur’s (p. 165-166). Tremendous slaughter occurs as the armies battle. Robert mentions the idea that Gawain’s strength increases “after midday” (p. 168). However, Arthur calls off his plan to be crowned in Rome when messengers inform him of Mordred’s treachery (p. 169).

Mordred has gathered Saxon allies – and “‘banned the singing of mass or matins’” (p. 169). An unnamed Saxon kills Gawain – here again Robert seems merely to mention something we might expect would be written up more fully. Kay, Bedivere, and other nobles of Arthur’s are also killed (p. 170). Robert tells us simply that “Mordred was killed” in the land to which he had fled from Arthur’s forces. “And King Arthur was mortally wounded” – we are not told who struck the blow! He says, “‘Stop this grieving, for I shall not die. I shall be carried to Avalon, where my wounds will be tended by my sister Morgan.’ And so Arthur was borne to Avalon, telling his people to wait for him, for he would return. …And I tell you, some people have seen him since out hunting in the forests, and have heard his hounds with him; so that others have long lived in the hope that he would return” (p. 171).

Perceval has become a holy man, often granted divine visitations as he faithfully keeps the Grail. Merlin takes leave of him and of Merlin’s master Blaise, who has been writing down all these things. He says he shall dwell outside Perceval’s house, remaining alive till the end of the world but never will be seen again (pp. 171-172). Robert doesn’t say just where or in what Merlin lives. We may, I suppose, imagine an underground chamber. There is nothing to suggest that Merlin is lured by some sort of Vivienne/Nimue. The painting below doesn't match Robert's telling.

Thus concludes the trilogy by Robert de Boron (and perhaps one or more redactors).
23 June 2022 day after St. Alban's Day

When I read Brian Stone's delightful translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a college freshman, the professor (a great guy) said that green would suggest death, when the Green Knight first appears. Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbolism notes the association of green with vegetation and fertility, "but also with death and lividness." I wondered if anyone here has studied the poem in the original language and, if so, if there are indications therein that would support the death-association with the Green Knight's color. In Stone's translation, the GK's face is a handsome one, except, evidently, for its hue; the greenness is strange but not necessarily ghastly.
I always assumed the Green Knight was derived from the Green Man, that odd pagan hangover which is carved into obscure nooks and crannies in many of the older churches in the uk.
I've seen various remarks that the Green Knight-Green Man connection is a modern association. R. S. Loomis, in The Development of Arthurian Romance, says there's nothing to connect the two except the adjective "green" (p. 163). I wonder what's the earliest available recorded linkage.


is amusing; the author suggests that Lovecraft's invented Cthulhu is older the Green Man as a supposed pagan deity.
I've seen various remarks that the Green Knight-Green Man connection is a modern association. R. S. Loomis, in The Development of Arthurian Romance, says there's nothing to connect the two except the adjective "green" (p. 163). I wonder what's the earliest available recorded linkage.


is amusing; the author suggests that Lovecraft's invented Cthulhu is older the Green Man as a supposed pagan deity.
Thanks for that article.
My response would be that whatever the original significance and symbolism of the Green Man,, the image is pervasive in Britain since peri-roman times. Mythology and festivities have grown around it, and these are, at least superficially, reflected in the Green Knight.
Or it could be something as silly and simple as "green knight" sounds better than "blue knight" or some such. And you have to make the knight a different colour so the audience knows something "eldrich" is going on, e.g. glowing green fairy lights aka marsh gas?
24 June 2022 Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Any reading of the poem that wants to find a symbolic reference in the greenness of the Green Knight should deal with "the final choice of the green baldric by the knights and ladies of the Round Table" (Loomis Development, p. 163). They all start wearing green. That seems to fit Elentarri's point immediately above, i.e. the people of King Arthur's folk are recalling Gawain's brave encounter with his uniquely formidable, "eldritch" (nice use of the word!) opponent, and they show their respect and love for him in doing so. The greenness of the Green Knight evidently doesn't have a hidden symbolism that would, then, have been appropriated, even assimilated, by the knights and ladies.

But a meaning encoded by the author, meant to be evident to some of his readers/hearers but not to others, seems unlikely (not that Hitmouse was arguing for an esoteric message). Loomis points out that the Gawain-poet makes quite sure the symbolism is decoded rightly by his audience when he describes the pentangle on Gawain's shield, which definitely is a symbolic object. Conversely, hidden meanings not made clear by the poet are likely to be artifacts of the reader's ingenuity rather than the author's. Loomis quotes a remark by C. S. Lewis: "Some published fantasies of my own have had foisted upon them (often by the kindliest critics) so many admirable allegorical meanings that I never dreamed of as to throw me into doubt whether it is possible for the wit of man to devise anything in which the wit of some other man cannot find, and plausibly find, an allegory" (p. 162).
4 July 2022 St. Andrew of Crete

Some Arthurian scholarship you might like to look at when/while it is available for free:

31 July 2022 St. Joseph of Arimathea

Given the feast day, I'm reading an alliterative poem dated to ca. 1350 about the saint. The poem as we have it begins with Joseph being taken from prison. To him, three days seem to have passed, but in fact 40 years have passed. Now, with his company, Joseph goes to Sarras, to preach the Gospel to the pagan king there...
11 Feb. 2023 St. Benedict of Aniane

The Darkly Bright site presents a review of The High History of the Holy Graal translated by Sebastian Evans from the medieval Perlesvaus here:

This book was of note for Arthur Machen, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. Interesting to find this Arthurian book in the background of all four of these fantasists!

25 May 2023 Bede the Venerable

The picture above shows a Penguin edition of Bede's famous History, which I will begin to read today, and which I believe has some relevance to Arthurian studies; a commentary on the same book; and two books with pages for the commemoration of Bede, the Episcopalian (Anglican) Lesser Feasts and Fasts on top, and a Lutheran (LCMS) prayer book. In the LF&F, we read that "Bede was clearly ahead of his time. He consulted many documents, carefully evaluated their reliability, and cited his sources. His interpretations were balanced and judicious."

As soon as I'd taken the picture of the books, Kimble jumped up on the desk and posed for his picture. Martha looks on.


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I am so late to this thread. As a point of interest I live not far from Lismore Castle where Spenser composed the The Faerie Queen and visit the castle regularly. It has a great Farmers Market held just outside the castle walls every Sunday. I will post more anon pertaining to Gildas, Nennius, the Welsh Triads and some select poems from the Middle Ages, bur could very well be older.
The Welsh Triads are interesting for quite a number of reasons. I believe the earliest extant versions are from the 13/14th century. It is clear that some draw on much earlier traditions. However in relation to this thread we have Arthur mentioned in the Triads. The interesting question is who influenced who? Did the French romances of Chretien impact the Triads and were an import from Norman influence in Wales. Or is it the reverse?

For example as far as I know Chretien is the first to mention the Grail and Sir Percival. Wolfram embellishes this story further with his Parsifel.

Yet the we have a Welsh Triad talking about the 3 guardians of the Grail at Arthur's court.

I have always found it fascinating how the story of an obscure Romano-British warlord became The Epic of the Middle-Ages and still resonates today.
The poem Y Godiddon by the bard Aneirin composed in the early 7th century is an elegy to a warband of Brittonic warriors who died in a campaign against the Saxons at a place called Catreath. The earliest version we have is from the 13th century however some linguists like John Koch have argued the antiquity of the poem from the form of Welsh used.

Of interest to this thread is that it is the first ever literary reference to Arthur.

'He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur
Among the powerful ones in battle
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade'

It speaks
of Arthur in the past tense. He is already dead but such is his reputation that warriors of that time are been compared to him and found wanting.
"In Llongborth I saw Arthur,
And brave men who hewed down with steel,
Emperor, and conductor of the toil.

In Llongborth Geraint was slain,
A brave man from the region of Dyvnaint,
And before they were overpowered, they committed slaughter."

The Middle Welsh poem Gereint mab Erbin is another early mention of Arthur. Here he is seen fighting alongside Gereint the King of Dumnonia. This could be the same Gereint from the story of Gereint and Enid, which could have being influenced by Chretien's Erec and Enid.

Again what we are seeing is the Norman-French influence in Welsh folktales or mayhap it is a two way process. Another argument is the Chretien and composer of the Gereint story were working off some now lost work.

Point of note. The Gereint in the poem above lived over a hundred years after supposed floruit of Arthur.

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