The battle of Mt. Badon—in which, according to the Annales Cambriae (c.1150), Arthur carried the Cross of Jesus on his shoulders—but not Arthur's name, is mentioned (c.540) by Gildas. The earliest apparent mention of Arthur in any known literature is a brief reference to a mighty warrior in the Welsh poem Gododdin (c.600). Arthur next appears in Nennius (c.800) as a Celtic warrior who fought (c.600) 12 victorious battles against the Saxon invaders.
These and several subsequent references indicate that his legend had already developed into a considerable literature before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia (c.1135), in which he elaborated on the feats of King Arthur whom he represented as the conqueror of Western Europe. After Geoffrey's Historia came Wace's Roman de Brut (c.1155), which infused the legend with the spirit of chivalric romance. The Brut (c.1200) of Layamon, modeled on Wace's work, gives one of the best pictures of Arthur as a national hero.
Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th-century French poet, wrote five romances dealing with the knights of Arthur's court. His Perceval contains the earliest extant literary version of the quest of the Holy Grail (see Grail, Holy). Two medieval German poets important in the development of Arthurian legend are Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg. The latter's Tristan was the first great literary treatment of the Tristram and Isolde story.
After 1225 no significant medieval Arthurian literature was produced on the Continent. In England, however, the legend continued to flourish. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1370), one of the best Middle English romances, embodies the ideal of chivalric knighthood. The last important medieval work dealing with the Arthurian legend is the Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory, whose tales have become the source for most subsequent Arthurian material. Many writers have used Arthurian themes since Malory, notably Tennyson in his Idylls of the King. Swinburne, William Morris, and Edwin Arlington Robinson also wrote poetic works based on the legend. T. H. White's trilogy The Once and Future King (1958) is a charming and decidedly 20th-century retelling of the Arthurian story.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.