So, what was your first image of (King) Arthur? Was it the old man sitting on a throne handing out quests and knighthoods? Was it the boy pulling the sword out of a stone? The heroic Romano British warrior? Something in between? All of them are legitimate, all of them have their modern authors writing about them, as well as the mediaeval ones.
Here is a post I wrote earlier, about visual Arthurs, to save writing about those again. There are quite a few films and telemovies and even a TV series, Arthur Of The Britons.
I think my first Arthur may have been T.H White’s, via the film Camelot and the Disney Sword In The Stone, both of which I saw as a child. And T.H White’s Once And Future King was based on Malory’s 15th century Morte D’Arthure. This is probably the Arthur most of us think of first when we think of him. Sword in the stone or from the lake, Merlin, Camelot, Lancelot and Guinevere, the Grail Quest.
But there are others. Even Thomas Malory’s Arthur, the king who hands out knighthoods in Camelot gets his moment of warrior glory when he goes to war against Rome and wins. By the way, Malory seems to have written his magnificent work while in prison. He chose the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses(Lancaster while York was in charge), but he may have been locked up for reasons that were not political. Whatever the reasons, he gave us the Arthur everyone imagines even today, though he was using existing French works.
There is a warrior Arthur, who turns up in quite a few modern books, including Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword At Sunset. His first companions did not include Lancelot, who arrived later, from France, but Bedwyr(Bedivere) and Gwalchmai(Gawain). Drust(Tristan) was an early one too, and may even have been a real person.
So, why did Arthur change from warrior to the King of Camelot? I wrote my Honours thesis about that very question. The early, possibly historical, Arthur gets very few mentions in the surviving texts, but if he was around he would have been too busy trying to keep out the post-Roman invaders to sit around handing out quests. And he is not a Christian creation. My conclusion was that by the time you get to Malory he has become a Christian King, and while Christian kings did fight - look what happened to poor Richard III! - the expectation was that they didn’t risk themselves and the kingdom, the land which was one with them, by going into battle. At the start of the Morte Arthur, having won his kingdom in battle against eleven kings who didn’t want to serve “a beardless boy”, decides to have adventures like his knights and goes off alone to have one. He meets up with a mysterious knight who turns out to be King Pellinore, fights and is defeated, having to be rescued by Merlin, who explains to Pellinore who he is. What’s more, he has broken - broken! - that sword which made him king when he pulled it out of the stone. That’s when Merlin arranges for him to get another one, from the Lady of the Lake and you see the arm in white samite. (I wrote a story about that, “The Sword From The Lake”, published in Andromeda Spaceways #5. In my story it was Nimue, who was disobeying orders, desperately trying to get the sword to Arthur).
After that, Arthur never does the adventure thing again. Battle, yes, in the Roman War and, of course, when he has to fight Mordred. And he kills a giant at St Michael’s Mount to save the local community. But none of the silly, “Bet I can beat you!” (to paraphrase Mark Twain) the knights are doing. If he, the anointed king, had died that first time, what would have happened to the kingdom?
I’d compare it to Captains Kirk and Picard. Kirk just runs off every time, taking his second in command, sometimes even his chief engineer and medical officer, and nearly gets killed. Who would run the ship in that emergency without him? Early Picard has to be reminded by his second that it’s not appropriate. Not that he listens for long.
But warrior Arthur is in quite a few early tales including some I will mention in the course of this A to Z. Watch out for them!
And here are two posts I wrote about Arthurian books!