The saga of King Arthur and his knights and ladies is perhaps the most enduringly popular mythic tradition of Western civilization. For over 1500 years, the Arthurian narrative has enthralled writers, artists, and a limitless audience in countries spanning the Western world and beyond—and its appeal continues unabated in our own times.
With origins in the exploits of a 5th-century Celtic warrior, the legend of a noble king and his knightly cohort caught fire across Europe, spawning a vast literary tradition that reached its height in the Middle Ages, with major contributions from writers both in Britain and throughout the Continent.
But the appeal of the saga far outlived the medieval era. It remained dynamically alive in folk culture and theater through the Renaissance, only to see an epic literary and artistic resurgence in the 19th century, which continues to the present day in multiple forms—from fiction writing and visual arts to film and popular culture. No other heroic figure in literature compares with King Arthur in terms of global popularity and longevity; today, each year sees literally thousands of new versions of the story appear across diverse media.
What does this amazing phenomenon tell us about our culture, our civilization, and ourselves? What is it about this particular story that has so deeply gripped the human imagination for so many centuries, in so many places?
King Arthur: History and Legend speaks deeply to these key questions and many more, revealing the full and astonishing scope of the Arthurian tradition, from its beginnings in post-Roman Britain to its extraordinary trajectory across the centuries and its latest incarnations in our own times. Within 24 content-rich lectures, you’ll encounter all of the most essential portrayals of the Arthurian saga in literature and art, encompassing:
- the preeminent treatments of the legend in Latin, Welsh, and English texts, including milestone versions from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King;
- seminal versions of the narrative and major thematic additions by writers in France, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and other European countries, including monumental texts such as the Perlesvaus and the Prose Lancelot;
- iconic representations of Arthurian themes in visual art, from medieval stonework and woodcarving to the flowering of the saga in 19th-century painting and decorative art; and
- the remarkable transformations of the stories in 20th- and 21st-century literature, art, and film.
Your pathfinder in this world of mythic adventure and romance is Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University, an expert Arthurian scholar and current editor-in-chief of the academic journal Arthuriana, who brings rare insight and depth to this most unusual and compelling inquiry. Through her incisive commentary, you’ll draw out the core archetypes and cultural values that drive the saga, exploring in depth its elemental themes of kingship, courage, virtue, loyalty, romantic love, and devotion to God.
You’ll also trace how the myth developed across time, clarifying many misunderstood aspects of the narrative, such as the origins of the Round Table and the figure of Merlin, the illicit love between Lancelot and Guenevere, and the varied manifestations of the magical Holy Grail. You’ll discover how the legend was appropriated and assimilated by differing cultures, and how each writer in the tradition reflected and commented, through the Arthurian narrative, on the concerns of their own time and place. The result is an illuminating look at one of the most engaging, entertaining, and impactful legendary traditions the world has ever known.
A Myth for the Ages
In the course’s opening section, you’ll delve into the historical mystery behind the figure of Arthur, finding that the real-life model for the legend bore little resemblance to the noble monarch so many of us imagine. Within the grand legacy of Arthurian literature, you’ll study integral elements of the tradition such as:
- The History of the Kings of Britain: Take the measure of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century blockbuster bestseller, perhaps the single most significant Arthurian text. Assess the acutely political nature of the work, and observe how Geoffrey established many core features of the legend as we’ve come to know it.
- King Arthur and the French: Discover how French writers working between the 12th and 14th centuries expanded the Arthurian narrative in essential ways, fully developing the ethos of courtly love, contributing characters such as the heroic figure of Lancelot, and linking Arthur’s knightly community with spiritual and religious endeavors.
- The German Arthurian Tradition: Grasp the vital impact of German treatments of the saga. Note how German writers grappled with philosophical questions of the relation of worldly undertakings to devotion to God, and see how they developed important narrative strands such as the Tristan legend and the Grail quest.
- Le Morte Darthur: Explore Sir Thomas Malory’s definitive 15th-century account of the story, which essentially “set” the legend for all subsequent writers. Observe how Malory brought together the entire Arthurian narrative in a comprehensive retelling, and also introduced the Pentecostal Oath, a knightly code of honor and key thematic element.
- Idylls of the King: Learn how Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poetic cycle—some of the most beautiful, idealized writing in the tradition—almost singlehandedly triggered a huge resurgence in Arthurian expression in the 19th century and deeply influenced Victorian visual art.
- The Mists of Avalon: Among noteworthy 20th-century treatments of the legend, contemplate Marion Zimmer Bradley’s revolutionary feminist retelling of the saga, portraying Arthur’s rise and fall through the perspectives of Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine and the druidic faith of the Mother Goddess.
A Tradition of Astounding Richness and Diversity
In the course’s final section, you’ll travel into many additional areas of Arthurian expression. Within the realm of visual art, you’ll trace the remarkable contributions of the artists of the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite movement. Marvel at the Arthurian paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Edmund Leighton, and others, as well as the decorative art in stained glass and tapestry of William Morris and his circle.
You’ll take account of how Richard Wagner adapted and modified the legend in his two Arthurian operas, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, and how Mark Twain lampooned both British and American society in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Finally, you’ll track the saga into our own times in examples ranging from Mary Stewart’s remarkable Merlin trilogy to the ingenious comic book rendering of Camelot 3000 and noteworthy film treatments such as John Boorman’s Excalibur and Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur.
Demonstrating both encyclopedic knowledge and an infectious passion for the subject, Professor Armstrong is the perfect guide in this epic quest. The lectures are enriched with striking visual images, including important manuscripts, photos of locations associated with the legend, and Arthurian-related art and architecture from around the world.
King Arthur: History and Legend offers you a comprehensive and detailed overview of the Arthurian phenomenon in all of its extraordinary diversity and enduring impact. These fascinating lectures speak to the essence of what is arguably the Western world’s most beloved and deeply cherished myth.
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