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  • The Historical Arthur: Dryden’s Great Leap Backwards
  • David N. Klausner

This paper has two purposes. Let me admit from the start that neither one is exactly central to a discussion of the Dryden/Purcell King Arthur; both, however, are major strands of the history of Arthurian narrative, and both are generally ignored in any discussion of Dryden’s text. Abandoning chronology, I want to begin by considering briefly the vicissitudes of Arthurian narrative from the late Middle Ages to the end of the seventeenth century with a view to relating Dryden’s text to what might best be called the canonical narratives.1 Second, I want to review the historical sources for Arthur, such as they are, since Dryden’s aim is clearly to place his story in an historical context, and my particular interest is the filters through which Dryden may have accessed this context.

It has long been recognized that the medieval narrative of King Arthur, rex quondam rexque futurus, survives in two quite different narrative strands. Most scholars identify these as a “chronicle” tradition, deriving almost entirely from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (written about 1138), and a slightly later “romance” tradition, deriving largely from Chretien de Troyes and his continuators, as well as from the sprawling anonymous French prose cycle of Arthurian stories known as the Vulgate cycle. For the most part, medieval writers kept these two traditions quite separate. The chronicle tradition tells the story of Arthur’s confrontation with a Roman embassy and his refusal to pay tribute to the Emperor Lucius. Arthur leaves his kingdom in the hands of his nephew, Mordred, in order to pursue his war with Rome on the continent, a war which concludes with Arthur’s siege of Rome and victory – a victory made bittersweet by Mordred’s treachery at home – and the death of both Arthur and Mordred in a final battle.2 [End Page 21]

The romance tradition, in contrast, deals largely with the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere, culminating in some texts with the story of the quest for the holy grail and Lancelot’s redemption through his son Perceval. Almost as important as these two narratives in creating Arthur’s world-wide fame was his appearance as one of the Nine Worthies. This common topos, intended to describe the pinnacle of human achievement and the ideal of chivalry, linked three prominent figures from the biblical Jewish world (Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus), three from the classical pagan world (Hector, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great), and three from the contemporary, that is medieval, world (Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon).

The question of whether either of these narrative traditions – chronicle and romance – might have some basis in historical sources which have not survived is a vexed one. Geoffrey of Monmouth claims in his dedicatory epistle to Robert, earl of Gloucester, to have based his work on a “certain very ancient book in the British (that is, Welsh) language” (quendam britannici sermonis librum uetustissimum) which had been loaned to him by his friend, archdeacon Walter of Oxford (Faletra 1). No trace of such a book has been found, and scholarship is divided over whether it existed, or was a figment of Geoffrey’s fertile imagination intended to provide textual authority for an otherwise fictional narrative. Similarly, the route by which Chretien might have become acquainted with Arthurian story is far from clear. There is general agreement that his tales derive ultimately from Welsh sources, but how they got to France is uncertain. In 1966, in a seminal lecture, Constance Bullock-Davies cited evidence for bi- or multi-lingual entertainers who also doubled as interpreters at the manors of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy in the marches of Wales. These interpreters were fluent in both French and Breton (a language quite close to Welsh) and, in addition to their performing abilities, would have acted as linguistic intermediaries between the local Welsh speakers and their French-speaking overlords. Bullock-Davies postulated that such multi-talented and multi-lingual performers may have provided the vector for Arthurian story to move between Welsh and French, coming eventually in that form to Chretien’s notice. So, in both cases – Geoffrey and...


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