Date of Award


Document Type




First Reader

Dr. Doug Sonheim

Second Reader

Dr. Susan Wink

Third Reader

Dr. Tom Auffenberg


Around 1151, Geoffery of Monmouth, a priest at St. George's college in Oxford, completed a work known as The History of the Kings of Britain (Geoffery, Forward). Geoffery researched older texts and manuscripts in order to present what he considered an accurate account of Britain's history. In this work, Geoffery introduced King Arthur to the English and French as one of the greatest kings of Britain. His work would serve as the foundation for the French chansons de geste, or romances of chivalry, which in turn influenced Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur (1469). Malory's work would go on to serve as the model for countless retellings of the Arthurian legend. Using this foundation, authors such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and T.H. White would go on to build critiques of the problems in their societies.

Geoffery's work considers Arthur as an actual historical figure. His history shows everything from the moment of Arthur's crowning to his death, including the prophecy of the ''once and future king," which states that if Britain ever has a need, her greatest king will rise from the dead and assist her. Geoffery introduces Arthur as "a young man, only fifteen years old; but he was of outstanding courage and generosity, and his inborn goodness gave him such grace that he was loved by almost all the people" (212). The Arthur of Geoffery's version has a brilliant military mind, and through many battles, he finally manages to send the Roman invaders away from Britain's shores. The king's death, as outlined by Geoffery, shows the love and adoration he received from his subjects. Geoffery reports , "Arthur himself , our renowned king, was wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avilion so that his wounds might be attended to" (26 1). Geoffery certainly considers Arthur to be one of the greatest kings of England.

In her monograph, King Arthur, Norma Loree Goodrich also discusses the historicity of Arthur and the stories surrounding him. Goodrich maintains that Arthur actually existed, not as ruler of all of England, but as a warlord, most likely Celtic, who fought twelve battles to free Britain from the Romans . She writes,

King Arthur lived in an unsettled world. . . . he is the one man who successfully opposed floods of invasion all his life , if not forever. King Arthur seems to demonstrate the heroic theory of history , which holds that an individual can permanently alter the course of events. (13)

However, none of this explains why the French authors of the chansons de geste would center their fictitious works around a historical British hero like Arthur. Most likely they chose Arthur because many of their ancestors would have been dispersed Celts who were living in France, in what is now Brittany. The Arthur of these works barely resembles the war lord of Geoffery. In the French romances, Arthur's birth is shrouded in mystery and his death is embellished . Also, the code of chivalry seems to be present in the chansons de geste but not in the historical research of Geoffery . It seems that the authors of the chansons de geste are the ones who managed to transform the historical figure of Arthur into a purely fictitious figure. How they achieved this remains unclear, and the transformation of Arthur from historical king to literary myth continues to be a mystery.

Today there are few people not familiar with at least the names associated with Arthur and his realm, if not the entire series of Arthurian legends. The basic foundation of the story always remains the same. The majority of this foundation comes not from the historical work of Geoffery, but from the embellishments of the chansons de geste. Traditionally, Arthur receives the legendary sword Excalibur in some magical way, and the sword proves his right to be king. Arthur then proceeds to form a kingdom based on the code of chivalry. Arthur surrounds himself with the best knights that the British Isle and France can provide. These knights meet together at a round table where all, including King Arthur, are considered equal. Arthur strives to make the code of chivalry law for not only himself, but everyone. He lives with the idea that the code is more important than any man, including himself. The knights of the Round Table have adventures and quests, helping the poor and oppressed. Arthur's kingdom of Camelot appears utopian. However, Camelot crumbles at the king's feet when his code is betrayed by the adulterous love between his wife, Guinevere, and his best friend, Lancelot. Lancelot, formerly considered the best knight in the world, brings about the code's ruin because he disrespects its principles. Corrupted by Lancelot ' s betrayal and disenchanted with a life of peace, the other knights soon begin expressing dissatisfaction with Arthur ' s political system. The resulting schism in the Round Table gives Arthur's son, Mordred, an opportunity to steal the crown. This attempt to usurp the throne leads to both of their deaths in a final battle.

Many authors have used this plot structure, provided by the French romances, to discuss the problems of their society. While Arthur is always portrayed as a good king, the portrayals and the themes addressed by these authors differ greatly. One of the greatest portrayals of Arthur, which was used as a vehicle to discuss personal themes of societal troubles, came from the pen of Sir Thomas Malory. His work, Morte Darthur, also served as the inspiration for Alfred Lord Tennyson's Victorian classic Idylls of the King (1859) and T.H. White's children's book, The Once and Future King (1939) . These three works are prime examples of authors ' using the foundational plot line of the Arthurian legend to portray their own ideas and societal concerns.

In these three works, there are many comparable scenes that would aid in examining the use of the Arthurian legend for societal critique. However, for the sake of brevity, I have chosen to discuss only one scene from each work. The scene that provides ample examples of the authors' themes, while providing enough information for a paper of this length, is the final battle between Arthur and his son, Mordred.



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