The Arthurian cycle is the best known part of the so-called “Matter of Britain”, one of the three great medieval European story cycles. It is an ensemble of all the medieval stories that deal with the legendary heroes of Britain, especially King Arthur.
Its vast success is probably determined by the fact that it unites two stories: one regarding Camelot, and the other regarding the quest for the Holy Grail, the cup that was supposedly used by Jesus during the last supper.
This literary cycle attracted a lot of authors in different time periods, which led to continuous changes to the story and the adding of numerous new characters, which were used to expand the back-story around the knights of the Round Table.
A travelling knight, searching for adventure, was the main protagonist of the stories that were part of this cycle, as this allowed writers to add tension to the story with battles against various enemies.
The main themes of the Arthurian cycle were the typical chivalric values, such as the loyalty to the king, heroism and the faith in God, but there were also new thematics, such as courtly love and the research for adventure.
Another relatively new component was the introduction of magic, with spells and magical potions.
The most famous character of this cycle is without any kind of doubt King Arthur who, as stated in legends, was the king of Cambria, the modern Northern Wales, who led his people against the Saxons, invaders of Britain, and was supposed to have lived in the 5th century, even though the world described in most stories regarding the knights of the Round Table is a timeless place where heroes fought for the love of women and to protect the weak people.
The earliest literary reference to Arthur is found in “Historia Brittonum”, a book written by the Welsh monk Nennius around the 8th century, in which Arthur is the military commander of the Britons’ troops and not a king. He was a monster-hunting warrior, who defended Britain from all kind of threats, the vast majority of which being of supernatural origin.
However, we have to thank Geoffrey of Monmouth for the Arthur we know today: in his “Historia Regum Britannie”, written in 1135, he introduces characters such as Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, and the widely know Merlin, and thanks to the great success of his work many authors were inspired to write about King Arthur’s tale.
The great success that his work received couldn’t have been achieved without the adaptation made by Robert Wace in 1155 titled “Roman De Brut”, which also introduced the famous Round Table for the first time.
With the beginning of romance tradition in the 12th century Arthur’s role and personality changed, taking him closer to the most known version of him: the wise, but inactive king. His courage became blandness and his ferocity turned into dignity.
French literature played a big role into this shift, as it also introduced both Camelot, the castle and court associated with King Arthur, and Lancelot, in “Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charette” (“Lancelot, the knight of the cart”, in English), a book written by Chretien de Troyes.
This author also introduced a very important theme to the Arthurian cycle: the quest for the Holy Grail.
In the following centuries, however, English literature abandoned the subject of chivalry, until when, near the half of the 15th century, Sir Thomas Malory, a mysterious and controversial man, wrote “The death of King Arthur”, which became widely known thanks to the typographic publication.
Another famous author that somewhat contributed to the Arthurian cycle was J.R.R. Tolkien , thanks to “The fall of Arthur”, a still incomplete book which returns to Arthur’s origins as a Celtic military commander.
The Arthurian cycle remains to this day a very important source of inspiration for many films, books and even comics, solidifying its importance through the centuries, proving to be able to attract both adults and kids.