This year in the World of the book exhibition, a special display explores the rich cultural legacy of King Arthur. Guest curator Adelaide Greig charts the rise and rise of Arthur, a king for the ages.

Each evening from December to December, before you drift to sleep upon your cot, think back on all the tales that you remember, of Camelot. Ask every person if he’s heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if he has not, that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory, called Camelot.

Final Ultimo, Camelot the Musical (1960)

In December 1963, Life magazine published an interview with the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy. She shared details of a life with her husband, President John F Kennedy, before it came so shockingly to an end, including his fondness for a certain popular Broadway musical, one which retold the ancient legend of a brave and tragic king, and that he had a fondness for playing over the Victrola in the evenings.

“There will be great presidents”, Jackie concluded, “But there will never be another Camelot”.

This likeness between John Kennedy and King Arthur swept across the public consciousness and gilded over his playboy tendencies and lurking connections to the Mob, replacing veracity with myth. Kennedy was remembered as righteous leader of outstanding morality, surrounded by gallant knight officials and of course, Jackie, his self-proclaimed Guenevere. The lost presidency and the lost Camelot: utopias to be mourned and remembered.

Jackie Kennedy and her children at John F Kennedy's funeral, a photograph on the cover of Life magazine for 6 December 1963.
The cover of the December 1963 edition of Life featuring the interview with Jackie Kennedy

Whether Kennedy’s Camelot existed or not has been as hotly debated as the veracity of the original tale itself, but reality is not of consequence when discussing the significance of legends. The success of Jackie’s allusions to King Arthur proves that by the 20th century, more than a millennium since the great leader may have sat at his round table, the legend had become so malleable, multifarious, and ubiquitous that it could be detached from one its most defining features: Britishness. It seems that the story of King Arthur has transcended even the bounds of its own legend, attaching to the image of a man who led a country which was founded on the central tenant of being, above anything else, very much not part of Britain.

King Arthur’s journey from a figure of early medieval pseudo-history to one of the most recognisable figures within the Western cultural consciousness has always been founded in writers and readers, from the early medieval Welsh bards who first wrote of Arthur’s glory, to the 30 million people who bought and read Jackie’s interview when it was released. While it is easy from our contemporary perspective to look back and consider both Arthur and the writers who recorded his tale as ‘medieval’, if Arthur existed, it was many centuries before the majority of the texts featuring him were written. Arthur lived around the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, when Britain was abandoned by its Roman conquerors whose military power was required back in the motherland, to protect the heart of the empire against Germanic raiders from the north. Arthur, most likely, was a military leader of the Celtic indigenous peoples who were now left without support against the same invaders who ravaged Rome. There will always be debate as to whether King Arthur ever actually existed, but to quote Dr Stephanie L Budin, ‘… the opinion has now shifted to the rather practical stance that the early evidence for the war leader Arthur is much easier to explain if we simply accept that, at some level, the man did exist.’ [1]

The earliest known written reference to Arthur is from a 7th century CE Welsh poem titled Y Gododdin, attributed to the bard Aneirin, in which the warrior Gwawrddur is praised for his prowess ‘[a]lthough he was no Arthur’ (emphasis added). Composed in the 7th century, retold through an oral storytelling tradition and then recorded by the bard in the 9th century, it seems that within a few hundred years of his death, the mysterious Arthur was already the standard by which all future leaders should measure their glory.

The magical elements of the Arthur legend begin to creep in between 900 and 1150 CE, again from Welsh poets and myth. In the poem Preiddeu Annwfn, Arthur, who is now accompanied by a band of knights, travels to the Welsh otherworld Annwfn, a combination of fairyland and a realm of the dead, to find a magic cauldron which provides poetic inspiration. The cauldron served its purpose in providing creative stimulus, as this tale is generally considered as the source of Arthur’s greatest quest, albeit only after a very thorough Christian rebrand: the search for the Holy Grail. Many of these stories are compiled within the compendium of Welsh fairytales, The Mabinogion; a Golden Cockerel Press edition (1948) of this text is now on display in World of the book.

The next leap in Arthur’s story was penned in 1136 CE by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae, ‘The history of the kings of Britain’. Monmouth presents the first “historical biography” of Arthur, although many of the events are clearly fictitious and grounded in a desire to create a British counterpart to the very real and very impressive deeds of the Frankish Charlemagne. While historians can be confident that no British king actually achieved a conquering of Europe, Monmouth established key aspects of the Arthurian legend which have been retold ever since. The involvement of the wizard Merlin, Arthur’s wife Guenevere and his death at the hands of his nephew (and, according to the later Vulgate cycle, also son) Mordred became canon due to Monmouth’s history.

Arthur moves fluidly in the grey area between man and myth. Since its conception, his legend has been called upon to serve as a plot device in both entertaining fantasies and significant recordings of history. Arthur is evoked to serve the requirements of the individual writers, as a king who can fight giants and visit fairylands as well as bring Europe to its knees for the glory of his small, damp island.

Despite Monmouth’s efforts to use Arthur as a tactic for one-upping the French, the next significant contributions to the legend were made in the 12th cent. by writers from the courts of King Henry II and his defiantly French wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, a marriage which had made the countries even more inextricably linked. Sir Lancelot du Lac, along with his adulterous passion for the Queen, first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ ‘The knight of the cart’. Undeniably products of the ‘courts of love’ established by Eleanor and her daughter Marie de Champagne, de Troyes’ writing features considerably less of Arthur voraciously chopping off Saxon heads and more of his knights on chivalric quests to impress their lady loves.

By 1468, when Englishman Sir Thomas Malory sat down to compile the generous amount of sources available to him into one master text he titled ‘The whole book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the round table’, there were few details of the legend left to be composed. Malory’s contribution was in gathering the numerous sources together into one easily consumable story, a task which would have taken a considerable amount of work and time. It will always be ironic that the man who succeeded in uniting centuries of stories regarding honour, glory, and chivalry, had the time to do so because he was in jail for a litany of unpleasant crimes. While Malory’s behaviour would, in our modern times, undoubtedly spark debates as to separating the art from the artist, much of our understanding of the legend does owe itself to Malory’s work, achieved due to his obviously comfortable jail cell with access to a library and writing materials. William Caxton, who brought the first printing press to England, published Malory’s work until the title Le morte darthur (as it was spelled in the original Middle French) in 1485. Only two full copies of this edition have survived – we have a single precious leaf of this text on display in World of the book.

A detail of the Winchester manuscript, handwritten medieval text in black ink with red highlights.
A snippet of the precious Winchester Manuscript, the earliest known copy of Le morte darthur (as it was spelled in the original Middle French), held at the British Library

Over the centuries, the number of new texts about Arthur began to dwindle, but he was, of course, not forgotten. Although the 16th century and onwards saw a significant turn away from romantic, ‘papist’, medieval mysticism in favour of Protestant ‘logic’, the Arthur legend was a source of great inspiration to the artists and writers compelled to revive this long-lost age of magic, epic lovers, and great deeds. Pre-Raphaelite artists such as John Everett-Millais, John William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones often drew on Arthurian material for their pursuit of emotion and naturalism in their work, to contrast with the refined perfection of the neo-classical. These works of medievalism, (a term still contentious in definition amongst academics but generally considered to mean works created in a fantasied memory or image of the Middle Ages rather than based in definite history), fed into each other to create new aspects of the legend. One of Waterhouse’s most famous paintings The Lady of Shalott (1888) is inspired not by a medieval romance but a poem of the same name penned less than 50 years earlier by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Elaine of Astolat sits in a boat prior to her death by drowning, distraught at being abandoned by Lancelot. Rich medieval tapestries adorn the boat; she wears a white dress with flowing sleeves and has long red hair.
The Lady of Shallot, by John William Waterhouse (1888), currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia, on loan from the Tate Museum

In 1892, a new edition of Le morte darthur published by JM Dent & Co featured illustrations from the young but brilliant Aubrey Beardsley, thus combining age old plot lines with a defiantly modern artistic style; you can view a third edition of this beautiful text in World of the book. Children’s books with abridged retellings of the Arthur legend were published throughout the early 20th century, thus bringing the tale once again into everyday homes. The once and future king by TH White, a response to Malory, was published in 1958, which in turn was the source for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1960 musical Camelot, so lovingly played at home by an American president, the memory of his kingdom soon to form yet another layer in the eternally expanding universe surrounding the life and death of a Celtic warrior.

Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Sir Thomas Malory’s The birth, life and acts of King Arthur (Edinburgh, Turnbull & Speats, 1927), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria  

While a basic understanding of medievalism would suggest it is an artistic movement originating in the 19th century, Arthur’s journey from man to myth demonstrates how stories of valour and romance have been revived, relived and rewritten since their conception and by countless generations since. A legend like Arthur’s subtly shapeshifts to suit the new ear and mouth receiving it and passing it on, and always looks back with a determined nostalgia to see something better, more noble, more faithful, more romantic, but always ephemeral, to be remembered, called upon, invoked. The legend tells how King Arthur will rise again and seize Excalibur when Britain is in need, but perhaps he has already risen again, many times, buttressed by the medieval dreams of writers, readers, and storytellers alike.


[1] SL Budin, ‘Introduction,’ in Le morte D’Arthur: King Arthur and the knights of the round table, eds JoAnn Padgett and Melinda Allman (San Diego: Canterbury Classics, 2015), vii

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This article has 1 comment

  1. What about the version most familiar to me and my fellow Generation Xers – “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”?

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