A famous legendary King of the Britons, and the central figure of a great medieval cycle of romance. His court is represented as a model court for the cultivation of every knightly virtue. He himself presides over the famous Round Table, about which is assembled a band of chosen knights. The adventures of these knights form the subject-matter of the numerous romances of the Arthurian cycle.
The history of the origin and development of the Arthurian legend is not clear. The very existence of Arthur has been doubted, and attempts have been made to reduce him to a myth. But it is now well known that he was an historic figure, a British chieftain of the end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century A.D., who championed the cause of the native Britons against the foreign invaders, especially the Angles and Saxons.
The oldest British chronicler of Wales, Gildas, in his "De Excidio Britanniæ" (c. 540) knows of the great victory of the Britons at Mount Badon, but makes no mention of Arthur. The first record of him is found in the "Historia Brittonum" (written 796), ascribed to Nennius. There he appears already as a legendary figure, the champion of an oppressed people against the cruel invaders, whom he defeats in twelve great battles, the last being fought at Mons Badonis. So by the end of the eighth century the legend of a great champion was already current among the Celtic population of the British Isles and Brittany and this legend was further developed and amplified by the addition of new legendary traits.
It received its literary form in the "Historia regum Brittanniæ", a Latin chronicle, written between 1118 and 1135 by the Welsh monk Godfrey (Galfridus, Gruffydd) of Monmouth. This work, purporting to give a history of the British kings from the mythical Brutus to Cadwallo (689), is a curious medley of fact and fable. The exploits related of Arthur are wholly fabulous. His father is Uther Pendragon (Uther dragon-head), his mother Igerna, wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin the Wizard by a trick has effected their union. Arthur becomes ruler at the age of fifteen and at once enters upon his career of victory by defeating the Saxons. He marries Guanhumara (Gwenhwyvar Ginevra, Guinevere) and establishes a court the fame of which spreads far and wide. In a series of wars he conquers Scotland, Ireland, Norway, and Gaul. Finally he makes war against Rome, but, though victorious, is compelled to turn back to protect his wife and kingdom from the treacherous designs of his nephew Mordred. In the battle of Camlan (Cambula) the latter is killed, but Arthur, too, is mortally wounded and mysteriously removed to the Isle of Avalon, whence he will reappear (so other chronicles relate), some day to restore his people to power.
It is not known with certainty what sources Godfrey used. Probably he drew his information from Welsh chronicles, as well as from oral tradition preserved by Breton story-tellers. Much, also, is his own invention. The work won immediate favour, and became the basis of several other rhymed chronicles, such as the "Brut" of Wace (or Gace) written about 1157, and that of Layamon (c. 1200), the first English work in which the legend of Arthur appears. In Godfrey's history mention is made of Arthur's court as far-famed, but the first explicit reference to the Round Table is found in Wace's "Brut". From this reference it is perfectly clear that this legendary institution was already well known in Brittany when Wace wrote. At a later period, when the Grail legend was fused with that of Arthur, the Round Table was identified with the Grail table instituted by Joseph of Arimathea, and was then said to have been founded by Uther Pendragon at the suggestion of Merlin (so in the Grail romance of Robert de Boron).
Towards the end of the twelfth century the Arthurian legend makes its appearance in French literature in the epics of Chrestien de Troyes. How this material, the matière de Bretagne, was transmitted, is one of the most difficult and disputed questions in connexion with the history of medieval French literature. It is admitted that Godfrey and the chroniclers cannot have been the only sources; the subject matter of the romances is too varied for that, and points to the influence of popular tradition. Moreover, the material has been entirely transformed under the influence of the ideals of knight-errantry and courtly love. These deeds dominated all the Arthurian romances, and gave them their immense vogue with the polite society of the Middle Ages. Arthur plays but a passive rôle in them; the chief stress falls on the adventures of the Knights of the Table Round. Of these Gawain (Gwalchmai, Gauvain) already figured prominently in the history of Godfrey, where he is called Walgannus. Perceval, the Peredur of Welsh folk-tales and of Godfrey, has become especially famous as the hero of the quest of the Holy Grail. Originally his legend, like that of the Grail, was wholly independent of that of Arthur. Other famous legendary heroes like Lancelot and Tristram were also joined to the company of the Table Round, and their legends likewise incorporated into that of Arthur. So the great cycle of Arthurian romances gradually came into existence.
Though French mediation these romances spread through Europe. In Germany they inspired the courtly epics (see GERMANY, sub-title Literature, III). They also came to Italy, Spain, and Norway. In England Sir Thomas Malory gathered them and used them for his famous prose romance "Morte Arthure" (finished 1470, printed by Caxton, 1485). To Malory the legend of Arthur owes its popularity in England. Its influence is felt in Spenser's "Faerie Queene", and Milton, as is well known, thought of writing an English Arthuriad. In modern times Tennyson has revived the legend in his "Idylls of the King".