Fortuitous Ephiphaneia #7: Down to the Roots - Medieval Literature

Down to the Roots – Medieval Literature

I read this wonderful story last week. It was about a common man that came from the humblest of beginnings to eventually become a wise and just king by his own deeds and merits. Hopelessly outnumbered, he led a ragtag army against the superior forces of an evil tyrant to bring hope into the world. Counseled by an old mage and armed with the legendary weapon of his family lineage, he was able to complete his quest with the aid of his unlikely companions to bring peace and harmony into the world. Sound familiar? It is nearly impossible to find fantasy literature that doesn’t contain at least one of these themes.

Regardless of genre, there are certain elements of stories that we, as human beings, seem to be drawn too. Take into account that there are a finite number of things that a human can experience in a lifetime and it isn’t hard to believe that every story has already been told. As Joseph Cambell demonstrated in his The Hero With A Thousand Faces, the same stories have been told over and over since man first started telling stories while sitting around the fire enjoying an evening meal. The trick to telling (or writing) these never-ending stories is for the storyteller to put their particular spin on it to make it unique.

When I started writing Down To The Roots – Fantasy (Column #5) I was not attempting to write the definitive source of the roots of fantasy. I was merely attempting to highlight some of the sources that have influenced the formulation of fantasy stories leading up to Tolkien. I believe that one of the reasons that I enjoy the fantasy genre so much is that it is so diverse. The author can take elements of history, mythology, religion, legend, romance, and drama and combine them with their own unique creative writing style to develop a pseudo-world which parallels our own in so many ways. Yet, they are telling the same stories over again just like our forefathers did. In this column I will present several areas of early literature that have helped perpetuate the fantasy genre.

Medieval Literature
I can think of no greater example of a composite figure in all of literature than King Arthur. Whether or not Arthur actually existed isn’t important. What is significant is that various storytellers transform his image over hundreds of years so that the final product is so far removed from the original character that he wouldn’t even recognize himself in the mirror. The original stories of Arthur were based on mere bits and pieces of legend and second hand historical accounts spread by minstrels until they were later recorded as factual stories. In the beginning, Arthur was most likely a real life Celtic warlord during the time of the Roman occupation. In the end, he had been transformed into a noble Christian King who led his chivalrous nights on various adventures, most notably, the quest for the Holy Grail.

The transformation of Arthur from Celtic warrior chief to fatherly King can be attributed to the writings of three authors; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chr?tien de Troyes, and Thomas Mallory, with the latter authors building upon the works of the previous. The historical basis (pseudo, or otherwise) was first put forth into writing by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Historia Regum Britanniae” and creates the idea of Arthur as the “once and future King”. Geoffrey also wrote the “Prophecies of Merlin” and the “Life of Merlin” which created a basis for the wise old advisor to Arthur. Shortly after Geoffrey’s works were published, Chr?tien de Troyes wrote his five Arthurian romances and wrote about the affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot for the first time, as well as, the quests for the Holy Grail, and to name Arthur’s kingdom, Camelot. Over the next two hundred years several authors added various pieces to the Arthurian story-puzzle, including an anonymous writing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which was later translated by many other authors including Tolkien).

In the 1400’s Sir Thomas Mallory wrote his “Le Morte d’Arthur” while imprisoned. Though serving time, he was able to visit the local library due to being a nobleman and former member of parliament. This allowed him to piece together his version of the Arthur stories by adopting various parts of all the stories that had been written previously. After a very thorough editing job by William Caxton, who happened to own a printing press, Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” was printed and distributed and became the version of the Arthur stories which most people recognize today.

Many other popular authors have written variations on the Arthur theme since Mallory. A few of these include: Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”, Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”, and Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”.

The romance period of medieval literature can best be divided into two groups of people; those living on the west side of the English channel and those living on the east side. Though I have given much time to King Arthur in this column, romance literature was really started in the area of modern France and owes a great deal to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and her love for stories that began the genre known as “The Romances”. Queen Eleanor was quite an interesting character herself and played a major role in the political climate at the time since she was married to Louis VII and gave him ten children, including Richard the Lionhearted and Prince John (Does Robin Hood come to mind?).

Whereas the British had Arthur, the French had Charlemagne. The major difference between the two is that Charlemagne’s legends are based on actual historical events that occurred during the life of Charles the Great during the 8th and early 9th centuries. Of course, like stories concerning the “fish that got away”, some of the tales get to be pretty tall in the telling depending on whom the author is, but that is part of the fun and mystic that makes up his legend. There are a number of good sources of information on the life of Charlemagne.  Two of them include, “Two Lives of Charlemagne” and Bullfinch’s Mythology that includes writings by Italian authors Pulci, Boiardo, and Ariosto.

My last source of medieval literature is El Cid or, The Song of El Cid, which was written during the 11th century in southern Europe. The Song of El Cid recounts the adventures of Rodrigo Diaz, a Castilian who conquered much of Islamic Spain. Like the Arthurian and Charlemagne works, the authors took creative license to allow for the Cid to prove his valor and loyalty to King Alfonso, though the actual events are historically accurate. Throughout the poem, the Cid is characterized as the classic hero who upholds all that is good and honest and perpetuates the idealistic character traits that are also demonstrated by Arthur and Charlemagne. Thus, even within the same relative time frame and location, we have several different characters being used to illustrate the same stories that people have always loved to hear.

Other medieval literature sources:
[*]Song of Roland
[*]Boccaccio’s Decameron
[*]Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
[*]The Travel’s of Marco Polo
[*]Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
[*]Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Post-medieval Arthurian stories:
[*]Camelot by Lerner & Loewe
[*]Once and Future King by T.H. White
[*]The Book of Merlin by T.H. White
[*]Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
[*]The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Disclaimer: Fortuitous Ephiphaneia is written by Drandimere (Paul J. Darling) and hosted by The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of

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