Lofty Depths and Tragic Brilliance: The Interweaving of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Mythology and Literature in the Arthurian Legends
By Melissa Rogers
Master’s Thesis, Liberty University, 2010
Abstract: The Arthurian story has endured in the English speaking world from the Middle Ages to the modern day, with ever increasing fame. He is not just a legendary king; he is the legendary king. His literary power owes its existence to the wonderful and extraordinary themes and mystical, yet entirely English world that appear consistently in his stories. Arthur and his knights are set apart from other literary heroes because of their unique construct, a blending of two cultures into one legend. The Celts invested in Arthur a strong mythological tradition. They bestowed on the legends an Otherworldly magic, a fantastic and alluring landscape, and a sense of timelessness. The Anglo-Saxons infused the stories with an entirely separate tradition: the Germanic/Norse mythology. They brought to the British Isles a new set of motifs: a belief in a darker, more transient world and a disparity between the Other of nature and the familiarity of hearth and home. These beliefs are so opposing to the Celts that it seems impossible they could converge into a single, identifiable legend. However, in Arthur, they do more than exist side by side. The Arthurian legends intertwine these two different threads and create a legendary identity that has lasted for centuries.
Introduction: In the fabulous court of Camelot, King Arthur presides over the valiant, chivalrous knights of the Round Table. Queen Guinevere is the most beautiful lady in a kingdom filled with beautiful ladies. Lancelot is the greatest knight in a company of illustrious knights. No sword is more fantastic than Excalibur. No quest is more noble than that of the Holy Grail. No king could ever be greater than King Arthur. The Arthurian legends of the modern imagination weave a medieval tapestry of bright colors and graceful forms. The tales of the Middle Ages embrace the tragic love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and a multitude of stories that are an integral part of the Arthurian identity. Without the drama of the medieval chivalry and courtly love or the Grail quest, the stories would become something foreign to the popular imaginings of Arthur and his court. Without these familiar portraits of knights in shining armor, damsels in high towers, and a splendid, medieval king presiding over all, the Arthurian cycle would likely lose its established identity. However, a closer look at the complex and colorful tapestry of the Arthurian legend reveals a series of subtle threads that work their way through every well-known scene and popular romance. While the image created is that of a medieval romance, the threads are formed from the history, culture, mythology, literature, and legends of the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. The medieval imagery provides a surface identity for Arthur and his knights, but the underlying Anglo-Celtic threads are responsible for the captivating, vibrant, and ultimately enduring essence of the Arthurian legends