Comparing the earliest renditions of the Arthurian legend by Bede with the development of the legend in Geoffrey of Monmouth provides valuable insights into the tale’s evolution and the changes that occur. Bede’s historical account, found in his work “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum” (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae” (History of the Kings of Britain) are two significant texts that shed light on the transformation of the Arthurian legend.
Bede, a historian of the 8th century, offers a concise and restrained portrayal of Arthur in his work “Historia ecclesiastica.” Bede briefly acknowledges Arthur as a military leader who bravely opposed the Anglo-Saxons during the 6th century. Within this account, Bede primarily emphasizes Arthur’s military accomplishments, presenting him as a noble and courageous figure who courageously defended the Britons against their adversaries. Bede’s portrayal centers on Arthur’s role as a defender of his people, as he mentions, “Arthur, with all the kings of the Britons, fought against the Saxons” (Bede 115). Bede’s deliberate brevity and absence of embellishments highlight his intention to focus on Arthur’s historical significance rather than delve into the legendary aspects that would later define the Arthurian tale.
In contrast, a 12th-century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, offers a sweeping and embellished account of Arthur’s life and extraordinary achievements in his magnum opus, “Historia Regum Britanniae.” Within this literary work, Geoffrey introduces Arthur as an iconic and legendary king, delving deep into the intricacies of his lineage, birth, upbringing, and myriad adventures. With a masterful stroke, Geoffrey weaves together a tapestry of Arthur’s origin and destiny. Geoffrey’s narrative unfolds with the tale of Arthur’s extraordinary conception, resulting from the passionate union between Uther Pendragon and Igraine. It is through this union that Arthur is born, a child of prophecy and destiny.
Furthermore, Geoffrey takes great care to detail Arthur’s upbringing under the guidance of Sir Ector, an essential figure in the young prince’s life. This emphasis on Arthur’s early years establishes his humble beginnings and portrays him as a figure who rises above his circumstances to fulfill his momentous destiny. Within the pages of “Historia Regum Britanniae,” Arthur emerges as a messianic figure divinely ordained to restore Britain to its former glory. Geoffrey imbues Arthur with a sense of divine purpose, casting him as the savior of the British people. This sacred mission is interwoven into the fabric of Arthur’s character, shaping his motivations and actions throughout the narrative. Geoffrey’s portrayal of Arthur as a messianic figure adds depth to the legend and reflects the religious and spiritual sentiments of the medieval period. Geoffrey’s comprehensive account of Arthur’s life, from his lineage and upbringing to his destined role as Britain’s restorer, showcases the author’s ability to breathe new life into the legend. The embellishments and expansions introduced by Geoffrey contribute to the transformation of Arthur into an iconic figure whose exploits resonate with readers across centuries. Through his adept storytelling, Geoffrey immortalizes Arthur as a legendary king, encompassing his human attributes and extraordinary destiny.
Geoffrey’s Arthurian narrative immerses readers in a world brimming with enchantment as fantastical elements and supernatural occurrences take center stage. Within the tapestry of his work, Geoffrey weaves a rich fabric that includes iconic elements such as Arthur’s renowned sword Excalibur, the enigmatic Lady of the Lake, and the enchanter of great renown, Merlin, who assumes a pivotal role in shaping Arthur’s extraordinary life. Excalibur, Arthur’s legendary sword, assumes a mythical significance within Geoffrey’s narrative. It is portrayed as a weapon of immense power bestowed upon Arthur by the mystical Lady of the Lake. This mystical sword becomes an emblem of Arthur’s authority and a testament to his destined greatness. By introducing Excalibur into the narrative, Geoffrey adds a tangible link between Arthur and the mystical realm, heightening the otherworldly grandeur surrounding the legendary king. The Lady of the Lake, a figure shrouded in mystique and ethereal beauty, emerges as a key character in Arthurian lore as presented by Geoffrey. She bestows upon Arthur the majestic Excalibur, raising him to a divine realm of kingship. Her role as an otherworldly bestower of gifts accentuates the magical aura that permeates the Arthurian legend. Her presence adds an element of wonder and mystery to the narrative, elevating Arthur’s story beyond the boundaries of the mundane and into the realm of the extraordinary.
However, no character is as intricately intertwined with Arthur’s destiny as the wizard Merlin. Geoffrey’s narrative casts Merlin as the mastermind behind the events that shape Arthur’s life. Merlin guides Arthur through his prophetic abilities and remarkable magical prowess, ensuring the young king fulfills his divine purpose. Geoffrey explicitly references Merlin’s intervention, stating, “Merlin had the stone set up in its proper place. It is the stone which men call the Giant’s Dance” (Geoffrey 68). This passage highlights Merlin’s instrumental role in the placement of the famous stone, which will later play a significant part in Arthur’s ascent to power. Merlin’s presence in the tale adds an element of mystery and wisdom, infusing the narrative with an air of enchantment and supernatural guidance. Geoffrey amplifies the fantastical nature of the Arthurian legend by including magical elements and the pivotal role played by characters such as Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, and Merlin. Carefully woven into the narrative, these elements transport readers into a world where the boundaries between reality and myth blur. They contribute to the enduring allure and timeless appeal of Arthurian literature, captivating audiences across generations with a sense of wonder and a yearning for the extraordinary.
Furthermore, Geoffrey expands the scope of Arthur’s conquests beyond Bede’s account. He depicts Arthur as a powerful conqueror who leads successful campaigns against various European nations, such as the Romans and the Gauls. Geoffrey writes, “He subdued Norway, Denmark, and Germany, and brought the islands of the Ocean under his control” (Geoffrey 91). This grandiose portrayal of Arthur’s military conquests amplifies his heroic and legendary status.
The tone and structure of the Arthurian tale undergo significant changes as it moves from Bede’s historical account to Geoffrey’s explicitly literary narrative. Bede’s tone is scholarly and objective, presenting Arthur as a historical figure, while Geoffrey’s is infused with grandeur, fantasy, and a sense of nationalistic pride. Geoffrey’s work blurs the line between history and legend, weaving a captivating tapestry of heroism and chivalry.
The character of Arthur evolves from a historical figure in Bede’s account to a legendary hero in Geoffrey’s narrative. Bede’s Arthur is primarily a warrior leader defending his people, while Geoffrey’s Arthur becomes a symbol of British national identity and a larger-than-life figure. Geoffrey’s inclusion of magical elements, noble lineage, and supernatural aids transforms Arthur into a legendary king. These changes are intriguing as they reflect the cultural and literary shifts over the centuries. Arthur transitions from a historical figure to a mythical hero, embodying the medieval readership’s aspirations, values, and desires.
Bede, Saint. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain: Including the Stories of King Arthur and the Prophesies of Merlin. Gottfried & Fritz,