Jonathan Jones : Europe u-knighted: King Arthur proves how European the British are
Jonathan Jones, The Guardian
King Arthur must be turning in his grave – or emerging from his cave on Snowdon to save us all. That would be cool.
Arthur of the Britons, defender of Albion against the invading hordes – don’t make me laugh. Our greatest national myth is proof of how deeply European we are – and how much Britain has contributed to the idea of Europe. There may be fewer and fewer “good Europeans” left in Britain, as the EU dream apparently becomes a nightmare. But Arthur is their king.
It’s a cultural degradation that so many people nowadays seek the origins of Arthur in Dark Age twilight of battling Brits. The “real” chieftain Arthur, supposedly fighting Saxons in the ruins of Roman Britain, will never be found. What’s more, his paltry traces are dull in comparison to the great European medieval legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The wonderful thing about Arthur is how a hero of British folklore (apparently originating in Wales), with his life recorded in pseudo-factual detail by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first half of the 12th century, became a sublime artefact of European culture. The genius who made Arthur great was not British, but French. In the second half of the 12th century, Chretien de Troyes sang beautiful tales in which Arthur’s court becomes a fabulous place of chivalry and love. Queen Guinevere, Gawain, and Sir Lancelot become romantic characters in his works. The tradition he founded became one of the strongest forces in gothic culture throughout Europe. In France, followers of Chretien told the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere and the pursuit of the Holy Grail in epics of eerie magic. In Britain, the French version of “our” national myth was brought home in the poem of Gawain and the Green Knight. It is no coincidence that when Thomas Malory compiled all the stories of Arthur in 15th-century English, his book was given a French title – Le Morte d’Arthur – for his sources were French.
Arthur did not stop in France. The Arthurian knight Perceval and his quest for the Holy Grail – as told by Chretien de Troyes – became the German epic Parzival. In Italy, the world of King Arthur was painted on the walls of Renaissance palaces in Mantua and Ferrara.
In 19th-century culture, Arthur continued his pan-European reign. While the pre-Raphaelites were painting Arthurian myth, Richard Wagner was dramatising it as opera. What is fascinating is that all through this long European cultural history, the scenography of the legend remained Celtic and western British. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is set in Cornwall and Brittany, just as the tales of Chretien mix Breton place names with places such as Carleon and Tintagel.