As a child my favorite section in the library was mythology, fairy tales, and folklore. I loved reading stories from other cultures, and imagined myself as an anthropologist, learning their ways and values from the stories they told. Japanese stories told of honor and ancestors and tsunami. Haitian stories used different animals to represent different vices and virtues. British stories are of kings and outlaws.
The legend of King Arthur is one of the most enduring British myths. Originally a Celtic tale about a possibly fictitious 5th century warrior who fought off Saxon invaders, the earliest remaining record of the story dates to the beginning of the 9th century. “The History of the Britons” by Nennius portrays Arthur as a Christian Briton general fending off Anglo-Saxons. By that time Arthur’s transformation to full myth had begun.
In 1066 Normans invaded the British Isles, leading to anxieties and unrest, but also a profusion of Celtic literature. The Arthurian legend had a revival in popularity as a Celtic national hero and warrior. Geoffrey of Monmouth published in 1136 “Historia regum Brittainie” or “History of Kings of Britain”. Geoffrey claimed his writings were based on ancient Celtic manuscripts only he could read. The story was reworked to portray unity across the British Isles, and now Arthur fought off Norman invaders.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, a French Duchess in her own right and a former Queen of France, was wed to Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, who was crowned King Henry II of England in 1154. This union stabilized Anglo-French relations somewhat, and produced eight children in thirteen years, including five sons, three who would become kings.
Eleanor was an emphatic patron of the arts and supported French and English poets, artists, and troubadours. In the court of Henry and Eleanor, Arthurian tales adopted a decidedly romantic tone, in the spirit of courtly love. Chrétien de Troyes was possibly the most influential Arthurian author of the era. He introduced the Holy Grail to the story, a potent symbol of questing and now a defining feature of the tales.
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