Explorations in Arthurian History

A Literature ReviewPart 4: Wace, Layamon, and the Alliterative Morte Arthur

A Frenchman named Wace was so impressed with Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain that he wanted to write his own version. He did so, calling it Roman de Brut. Wace started with Brutus the Trojan, as did Geoffrey, and traced the lineage of British rulers down through the years.

In Wace's work (which is verse, not prose) we see the rise of romantic love, a concept so tantamount to our modern understanding of the Matter of Britain that it is difficult to imagine a time when such things weren't part of discussions of matters Arthurian. Yet, there it is: Wace gives us the first glimpse of courtly love. He also gives us the first picture of the Round Table:

"For the noble barons he had, of whom each felt that he was superioreach one believed himself to be the best, and noone could tell the worst King Arthur, of whom the Britons tell many stories, established the Round Table. There sat the vassals, all of them at the tablehead, and all equal. They were placed at the table as equals. None of them could boast that he was seated higher than his peer."

Wace says that Arthur established the Round Table, but he doesn't say Arthur sat at it. This is our first glimpse of the concept, and it is a rough one indeed. The knights sit inside the circle that the table forms. Arthur sits on a dais, at a higher table, in the world of Wace. The importance of his idea is not that Arthur sit equal with his knights but that they all sit equal with each other. Again, this is an idea that was not part of the Matter of Britain until Wace wrote Roman de Brut.

Wace also gives us the familiar name of Arthur's swordExcalibur, adapting Geoffrey's Caliburn. The contributions of Wace to the popular lexicon of Arthurian terms cannot be overstated.

From France back to Britain we go for another Brut, this one by a parish priest in Worcestershire. His name: Layamon. His masterwork is also his only work, but it is a masterwork indeed. He borrows full swing from Wace in translating the Roman de Brut into English and then piles on concepts of his own, including the idea that all that courtly love Wace introduced shouldn't be in there in the first place. Whereas Wace used imagery and vivid language to enhance his descriptions of deeds and loves, Layamon hearkens back to the AngloSaxon days, when things were straightforward and warriors didn't have time to pursue affairs because they were too busy keeping themselves from being killed in battle. As such, we are back to Welsh roots.

The importance of Layamon's Brut is the focal point's being Arthur himself, with a court at London. In previous and successive versions of events, Arthur and his court or capital are the backdrop before which other characters have adventures. To Layamon, Arthur is the story. According to Layamon, Arthur's life is nasty, brutish, and short.

Layamon does include the Round Table, of course, although his is the product of a chance meeting between Arthur and a Cornwall carpenter who offered to make a table that could be folded up and carried anywhere while at the same be able to seat 1,600. The number, as with many numbers in historical tradition, is suspect. In fact, the entire description of this Round Table is open to question. But in Brut it resides.

Lastly, Layamon continues the perception that Arthur will come again, quoting Merlin as saying, "that an Arthur should yet come to help the English."

The last examination in our historical journey is the "alliterative Morte Arthure," a poem written during the late 14th century. The anonymous author set out to write an Arthurian story but at the same time be bound by the rules of alliteration. As such, the story is alive with a rich vocabulary, full of obscure words and resonant phrases.

The main source is Geoffrey of Monmouth, though elements of Wace and Layamon enter in as well. And as with these authors, the imagery therein echoes the signs of the times. Descriptions of battles and landscapes mirror historical events. This was true of Geoffrey as well and explains why the Bretons are Arthur's best allies: Geoffrey was writing at the height of the Norman Period, after all.

Echoing Layamon, the Morte Arthure presents Arthur as a towering figure, bound not by court conventions but by the code of survival. Arthur is cruel, commanding, and majesticall at the same time. He towers over other figures (including Gawain and Mordred and Kay and Bedivere) in a way that hasn't been seen since.

Thus we reach the end of the search for a historical Arthur in literature. To find a rounder picture, we must turn to geography.

To continue paging through the ideals of Arthurian literature (with the understanding that it is now the stuff of legends, not facts) click here.

Alliterative Morte Arthur full text


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