Almost every culture eventually develops a corpus of tales that serves both to partially explain the culture's origin(s) as well as to indicate what makes it distinct from others.
For the Chinese, this work would likely be the Romance of the Three Kingdoms; for the Jews, it would almost certainly be the Tanakh and the Talmud. For the United States of
America, the body of work in question would be a combination of the works of Mark Twain and Sergio Leone, the first three seasons of Roseanne, and any old NASCAR races that have
been recorded onto VHS tapes that are still extant. In Great Britain -- and perhaps more specifically England -- the comparable body of work is a literary cycle known as the Matter of
Britain. In both style and substance, it is similar to other cycles like the Matter of France, the Matter of Rome, and the Epic Cycle (i.e. the full oeuvre of material about the Trojan
War from classical antiquity). Ironically, the majority of the works that comprise the Matter of Britain were not written by Britons or in the English language.
The Matter of Britain is made up of exactly what you would think it would be: all of the most important works about the Arthurian mythos, the Canterbury Tales, tales about
the early semi-mythical kings of Britain, and everything in between. The works are of various genres, including romances, poetry, satirical comedies, songs, and allegedly scholarly
documents. The different works span several centuries, dating conservatively from the 9th to 15th but going perhaps as far back as the 6th; your opinion on this subject will be determined by
whether or not you believe that the bard Taliesin was a real person who lived in the 6th century and that if he was, the poems and songs attributed to him in the much later Book of Taliesin
are historically legitimate representations of his works. Regardless of the dating, this is an impressively extensive compilation of tales that reveals much about King Arthur, his comrades in arms, Celtic mythology, and medieval European cultural values, as well as changing perceptions about these and many other topics.
It is impossible to summarize the "story" of the Matter of Britain because it is comprised of at least 50 separate works, many of which are not connected to one another in any conceivable way
but which are nevertheless considered part of the overall canon. Likewise, it would be disingenuous of me to try to do this because I cannot truthfully claim to have read the entirety of the Matter
of Britain or indeed anything close to it. Instead, I'll describe the overall themes of the works and try as best as I can to contextualize and categorize the ones that are commonly accepted as
belonging to the cycle.
While the bulk of the Matter of Britain is certainly comprised of romances and chansons de geste (literally "songs of quests"), the most significant works to me are the ones that
purport to describe actual historical occurrences. The two most famous examples of this type are Nennius' Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, c. 870) and Geoffrey of Monmouth's
Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1140). The separate books are remarkably similar since Geoffrey used Nennius' work as the main literary source for his own,
although he also utilized Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, c. 550). It is interesting that De Excidio is not considered part of the
Matter of Britain since it contains much of the same information presented in the later works, but I digress. Both Nennius and Geoffrey repeat the claim that "historical" Britain was first settled
in the 12th century BC by a figure known as Trojan Brutus, the grandson of the mythological founder of the city of Rome (and refugee from the destruction of Troy) Aeneas. Geoffrey goes on to
say that Brutus' descendants agree to subdivide Britain amongst themselves and even conquer Rome at some point. Later, Geoffrey awards the kingship of Britain to figures like King Lear (who is in
turn based on the Celtic sea god Llyr), Old King Cole (he of the popular childrens' song of the same name), Octavius (a nonexistent half-brother of the Roman Emperor Constantine), a certain
Ambrosius Aurelianus, and of course King Arthur. Nennius also references Ambrosius, though he does not seem to describe him as a king.
Ambrosius is important because he is often seen as being one of the most likely candidates for the historical King Arthur. Perhaps more appropriately, he's seen as one of the men upon whom
Arthur was based. Assuming that he is an actual historical figure, he would have lived in the 5th century after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain in 410. Obviously, he would have been of
at least partial Roman extraction and he is said to have been a great war leader of noble Roman birth who dealt the invading Saxons several crushing defeats. Nennius and Geoffrey agree on
this point, and much is made of the similarities between the descriptions of his activities with those of King Arthur, specifically the fact that both men are supposed to have defeated the Saxons
in battles located at Badon Hill. Geoffrey also directly states that Aurelianus was the uncle of King Arthur.
In addition to ruling Britain as an idyllic utopia from Camelot, Arthur comes into conflict with a nonexistent Roman Emperor named Lucius Tiberius, who demands that Britain return to the
Roman fold. In response, Arthur sacks Rome and conquers Western Europe, although the victory is short-lived since his nephew Mordred has usurped his kingship at home. Forced to abandon his
continental holdings, Arthur returns to reclaim his throne and despite killing Mordred in the climactic battle, he himself is mortally wounded and carried off to Avalon to recuperate until he can
make his return. The problem with both Nennius' and Geoffrey's works is not that they are fictional but rather that they conflate and intertwine fact with fable and legend and myth and other
contradictory facts on top of it all. Actual documented rulers and events are mentioned and described fairly accurately but are then turned on their heads with the inclusion of some detail like Old
King Cole being the grandfather of Constantine the Great or a rather, shall we say, unbelievable British conquest of Europe in the 5th century. Obviously, parsing out actual historical events from
these works into some sort of coherent narrative is a difficult proposition. Despite the negligible degree of historicity, these works are extremely valuable sources for understanding the political
and military situation in Britain as well as the natives' perceptions of the tumultuous years between the exit of the Roman Empire and the Germanic conquests.
Aside from the works presented as being historically accurate, several definite and acknowledged works of fiction that do much to illuminate the origins of the Arthurian legend can
be found in the Matter of Britain. Probably the most important works of this type are the ones written about the heroic knight Ywain (Chretien de Troyes, Hartmann van Aue), Welsh myths (the
Book of Taliesin, the Mabinogion), and stories relating to the familiar tale of Tristan and Iseult (too many to mention). The Matter of Britain is a fascinating thing to try to
unravel because while there might not be any obvious connection between something like Marie de France's stories and poems about courtly love and Wolfram von Eschenbach's tale about hunting for
the Holy Grail, each different work serves as a thread tying all the others together, whereby Marie's works demonstrate didactic points about relationships between men and women, which are
demonstrated in the cases of Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Sir Gawain and his host's wife, of whom the latter two are knights of the Round Table
who quested after the Holy Grail, a theme picked up on in Wolfram's Parzival (among others, of course).
Although he is most frequently associated with England, it is in the Welsh Mabinogion -- a collection of native Celtic/Brythonic folk tales -- that we find the earliest references to Arthur. The
stories do not really fit into the more familiar body of Arthurian legend since they feature as protagonists characters either ancillary to or uninvolved with the main mythos. The character of
Yvaine (alternately spelled Ywain, Owain, Owen, or any other number of variations) is more important to the Welsh part of the cycle, being the subject of numerous works. He is based on an
historical figure called Owain mab Urien who ruled as a regional king in the 6th century. Like Arthur, Ywain was an accomplished warrior who fought against invading Germanic tribesmen. Ywain is
mentioned by Taliesin, which could place references to him as early as the 7th century (assuming the book of Taliesin is based on actual contemporary songs and not later conceits). He features
prominently in other parts of the Matter of Britain and to further establish a connection between the various works is also said to have been the brother-in-law of Iseult, the doomed lover of
The story of Tristan and Iseult is interesting because at its earliest stages it seems to have been completely unrelated to the Arthurian legend. The basic premise is that King Mark tasks the
knight Tristan with a mission to retrieve the lady Iseult from Ireland to be his wife. Naturally, Tristan and Iseult fall in love and have a torrid affair which must be constantly hidden from the
king. Depending upon which version you read, the lovers are either exiled, executed, or some other variation on this theme. The most common result is that Tristan is either killed in a duel or dies
of a broken heart and Iseult faints to death over his corpse. If you're vaguely familiar with Arthurian legend, you'll see the immediate connection between this love triangle and the one involving
King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. It is pretty easy to theorize, in fact, that Tristan and Iseult formed the basis for the forbidden love of Lancelot and Guinevere, especially given the nature
of the relationship between the three parties. Tristan and Lancelot both love and revere their respective kings but still engage in an egregious betrayal of trust against them; Iseult and Guinevere
are wives of powerful men who fail to be happy in their marriages; Mark and Arthur are completely oblivious to any unseemly relationship between their wives and their most trusted knights until
it's far too late. It is supposed that the Tristan and Iseult story preceded the major Arthurian cycles by at least a century and the main elements were incorporated into later traditions. Perhaps
to underscore this, later traditions have Tristan being a knight of the Round Table and, as mentioned above, have Iseult being the sister of Ywain's wife.
The Holy Grail
Of course, what most people really think about when they're reminded of the Arthurian tales is the quest for the Holy Grail. To put it more accurately, perhaps, would be to say "the
quests for the Holy Grail." Actually, it seems like Grail questing was pretty much the hobby of all the Knights of the Round Table for one reason or another. It's sort of bizarre that almost
all of Arthur's really important knights go after it at some point, but there is never any suggestion that Arthur himself should find it. Likewise, accounts that are simultaneously considered
canonical feature mutually exclusive discoveries of the Holy Grail by various knights, especially Perceval.
Not helping matters is that there's absolutely no consensus as to what the grail actually is. Chretien's Perceval says the grail is a bowl while Wolfram's own version says
that it's a stone that fell from heaven. Indeed, Chretien doesn't even identify the grail as particularly "holy," ascribing more importance to a spear (likely the Spear of Destiny, the weapon
that is supposed to have pierced Christ's side) that is located near it. The anonymous Peredur even features the grail in the form of a severed head on a platter! The grail as we know it
-- the cup that caught the falling blood of Jesus at the crucifixion -- was likely conflated with a distinct relic called the Holy Chalice that is identified as the vessel that
Jesus used to serve the wine at the Last Supper. Robert de Boron's Joseph of Arimathea (obviously based on the biblical figure of the same name) is the first work to establish the Holy
Grail as this particular item. Written in the early 13th century (or so), this conception of the Holy Grail would evolve into the standard interpretation of the relic.
Tied up with the idea of the grail -- holy or otherwise -- is a figure known as the Fisher King. The Fisher King is the hospitable but powerless ruler over a formerly great
domain. The kingdom is a wasteland and the king is frail, almost always incapable of getting around on his own (due to a debilitating injury to his legs or his groin). His name comes from the
fact that he leads a boring, fruitless existence, idly filling his days by fishing. The Fisher King is kept alive solely by the sustenance he receives from the grail, typically identified as a
magically regenerating communion wafer. Occasionally, the Fisher King is two separate individuals, usually a father and son, the former of whom is bed-bound because of the injury and the latter
of whom meets visitors and recreationally fishes. The identity of the Fisher King is in dispute because his actual name is never the same in two different works. It is agreed in almost all versions
that the Fisher King was wounded in battle against Sir Balin.
To make a long story short, the Fisher King is the protector of the grail in its various incarnations. The health of the Fisher King is intimately tied to that of the land -- and I
mean "intimately" quite literally since it is implied that the Fisher King is impotent as a result of his injury, which causes the land itself to be infertile. Chretien's depiction of
the grail-as-bowl and the lance may relate a vaginal/phallic subtext to this, but then again, it may not. Perceval, Galahad, and Bors all encounter the Fisher King in their quests for the
grail, sometimes together, sometimes separately. The main point of these quests is not so much in physically locating the Holy Grail as it is healing the king and thus the land. In Chretien's
Perceval, the title character fails to heal the king and thus does not attain the grail. Likewise, neither Lancelot nor Gawain were able to attain the Grail in most versions of the story,
the former because of his indiscretions with Guinevere and the latter due to his generally wild and intemperate nature. Wolfram von Eschenbach has Perceval at last attain the grail not by healing
the king but rather through introspection and spiritual fulfillment; however, Chretien's story was left unfinished, so various continuations exist which have him actually healing the king. Sir
Thomas Malory has Galahad (Lancelot's son) achieve the grail with the help of Perceval and Bors. While the accounts vary as to how the Fisher King is precisely healed, Chretien says that it is by
asking "who does the grail serve?" and "why does the lance bleed?"
Regardless of what the grail really is or who actually gets it, the salient point is that winning it leads to spiritual completion. It's an almost gnostic concept, that
the attainment of a perfect soul is contingent upon a quest for an esoteric item. The wisdom required to acquire the grail is more important than actually getting it. This is ultimately the lesson
and meaning behind the Holy Grail, which explains why the concept of a physically cohesive grail failed to solidify until about a century after its introduction. Perceval could not originally win
the grail because he was too restrained, while Gawain and Lancelot were too passionate. Galahad, depicted as the most virtuous knight ever conceived, was the only logical grail champion.
The collection of these tales under the rubric of "the Matter of Britain" is extremely telling. While most of them were not even written in Britain or in the English language (in
its various historical forms), they all derive from a set of ideas that extends back to the pre-Christian era of the British isles. Arthurian legends are extremely interesting from a mythographer's
point of view because they represent a coalescing of Christian and pagan legends into one basically coherent whole. Arthur's status as "the once and future king" and the circumstances of his death are reminiscent of both reincarnated pagan fertility gods like Dionysus as well as very plainly Christian influences, specifically the messianic ideal embodied
by Christ. The narrative flow of the final cataclysmic battle between Arthur and the usurper Mordred is similar to the ancient Germanic myths about Ragnarok and Avalon is clearly an analogue
The early stories about the Holy Grail and the Fisher King are likely derived from ancient Celtic pagan beliefs, specifically the tale of Bran the Blessed. Bran was a king who
suffered a grievous wound in battle who was kept alive by a cauldron that magically replenished its contents. Indeed, Robert de Boron refers to the original Fisher King as a figure named "Bron."
Bran/Bron asked that his head be severed and placed on a platter, which is recalled in Peredur when the titular character encounters a similar sight. The esoteric nature of the grail as a
concept transcends both Christianity and paganism since it stands for a spiritual (but not religious) form of enlightenment.
The Matter of Britain ultimately represents what were considered the most important factors in the development of that nation. Arthur appeals to so many people because he can be so
many different things: maybe he was a Welsh national hero, a brave Roman warrior, a Norse god, a chivalrous and fatally trusting leader, or any combination of these and so many more. The other
characters all speak to us because they were not in the slightest bit perfect or complete, showing that people have had the same concerns about the world and one's place in it for centuries. The
great love story of Lancelot and Guinevere (or Tristan and Iseult) is only important because it is illicit and displays the complex emotions that must be involved in serving and betraying a great
man. The non-Arthurian works -- i.e. the Mabinogion, Marie's poems, and the "historical" tracts -- are important because they are the bones that give the mass of the rest of the body a shape and a
context. When compiling a group of works to represent the best and most significant aspects of a culture, one could do much worse than the corpus we call the Matter of Britain.