King Arthur of the Arthurian legends is one of the most unique characters in the history of literature. Since he has been depicted by a variety of writers, there is more than a single description of his personality. The Arthur we know is actually a conglomerate of many different interpretations of one character. For this reason, his character and very person haven’t been too consistent through the legends.
The earliest Arthurian Legends which are also some of the earliest medieval works, describe King Arthur as the traditional Anglo-Saxon war hero; but as the time goes by, and the medieval people start to admire different things, he evolves into a different kind of hero, a chivalric one. Thus, over time, the image of King Arthur has changed from that of an epic hero to one of a symbol of chivalry- this is apparent with the difference in characteristic depiction of King Arthur in the early story of Brut and a later legend, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, here there is a noticeable change in his personality.
The earliest depiction of King Arthur was that of a fierce warrior-king, brutal and unforgiving. The early medieval kings were warlords who surrounded themselves with nobles and knights- called thanes, and protected their lands from foreign invaders through bloody wars and battles. The original Arthurian legends portray King Arthur in such a role- he is frequently described as “Arthur the powerful” or “Arthur the brave” and often comes across as bloodthirsty; not unlike Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf.
In reality, these early legends were the Anglo-Saxon cultural perspective of King Arthur. One example of such an Anglo-Saxon view of King Arthur is Brut by Layamon, a British priest; in his poem, he describes Arthur as a savage and fierce warrior, an object of dread to friend and enemy, an epic hero. This is evident in Brut- where in one of his speeches where Arthur curses his enemies, wanting to crush them all: ‘Then said Arthur, noblest of kings: “Alas, alas, that I spared my foe, that I did not starve him to death in the forest,
or cut him to pieces with my sword! [… ] he shall suffer for it the most bitter affliction, harsh treatment – I will be his slayer! I will slaughter both Colgrim and Baldof, and all their followers shall suffer death. [… ] I will fittingly avenge all his wicked deeds. If life might endure in my breast, [… ] never again shall Childric deceive me! ” ‘(lines 10510-10524) These lines show the brutality and unfettered heroism of King Arthur. His vexed and aggrieved speech about his enemy’s escape shows his unforgiving nature.
Such is his anger that King Arthur wishes for the death of not only his enemies but also of all his followers; he even voices his regret of not having cut them to pieces, and wishes to kill them with his own sword. Not only does this speech show Arthur’s merciless disposition, but it is also filled with a vengeance these lines of Arthur are a battle cry as he avows to get his revenge on his enemies. Towards the end of the speech, while vengefully vowing to avenge his defeat, King Arthur’s tone is more than just distressed and agitated, it has a quality of firm determination and tenacity.
All these aspects of Layamon’s perspective of King Arthur: determination, brutality, tenacity, vengeance, might and an unforgiving nature, all combined with the right amount of rage and conceit, show that he is, in all aspects, an epic hero. Akin to Beowulf -who with his strength, firmness and pride was the quintessential Anglo-Saxon warrior and champion- King Arthur is the ideal warrior-king. Eventually as literature progressed towards the heart of the Medieval Era, King Arthur evolved from an epic hero to a symbol of chivalric virtues of Camelot.
He was no longer known as the brave and strong defender of the British, but as the virtuous upholder of all chivalric values in the great court at Camelot. Contradicting the early medieval stories which revolved around King Arthur, these middle Arthurian Legends portray the king as a minor character whose presence is only felt indirectly as a representative of a chivalry and excellency. This is apparent in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Arthur is but a role model for all the knights when it comes to courtly behavior.
The knights regard him with a reverence for his lordly ways. When the Green Knight rudely interrupts their feast by barging into their dining hall, all of them remain silent, in anger and in dread, while King Arthur welcomes him graciously as it is seen in the following excerpt from the poem: “ Therefore chary of answer was many a champion bold, And stunned at his [The green knight’s] strong words stone-still they sat [… ] Then Arthur before the high dais that entrance beholds, And hailed him, as behooved, for he had no fear,
And said, “Fellow, in faith you have found fair welcome;” (lines 20-30) These lines perfectly demonstrate how King Arthur exhibits model knightly behavior. Even though this intruder has disturbed his celebratory feast, he does not lose his temper, instead he follows the first rule of chivalry – hospitality. As we see in this text, the other knights, who sat “stone still” and “chary of answer”, do nothing to welcome the new-comer amongst their midst; nevertheless, Arthur does his duty and warmly invites the Green Knight to his court (line 21, line 20).
In this way we see how King Arthur has unmatched manners in the court of Camelot- this is the most distinguished factor about him in this story, as the main focus of this legend is on Sir Gawain and his quest. Thus, we can say that King Arthur’s one and only role in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is to set a standard for his knights in social behavior, to remind them of the rules of Camelot. These lines demonstrate Arthur’s gallant manner, they also show that Knights of the Round Table have a high place in their minds for him.
While they dreaded even speaking to the alarming stranger, their revered King Arthur, who is described as one who “had no fear”, welcomed him graciously (line 29). Thus, King Arthur is greatly admired by his Knights because they still thought of him as the fearless king of old and also because of his valiant and courtly behavior. This fact greatly impacts most stories of this time because Arthur has a great influence over the Knights of Camelot and most of these stories follow their bold and daring quests.
Even if the king, in these legends, seems removed from the thick of the plot line, his presence is still felt from afar, as a social force – for it has already been established that the Knights admired and imitated his social manner and his lordly ways. This remote influence, too, can be observed in the story of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight where King Arthur is neither the the protagonist of the story nor the source of all action, but is the highest authority and the inspiration for Sir Gawain to take up the challenge posed by the Green Knight.
This inspiration is noticed when Sir Gawain accepts this quest, “Would you grant me the grace,” said Gawain to the king, “To be gone from this bench and stand by you there, [… ] That I have you for uncle is my only praise; My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth;” (lines 117-131). Through Sir Gawain’s speech we can see that the reason that he is taking up this quest is to be a delegate for Camelot. He says that he wishes to “stand by” King Arthur, that is, represent him on this quest(line 117).
This further establishes the fact that King Arthur is not the main character of the story, as it is Sir Gawain who is the one who actually undertakes the quest. Thus, in this legend, and many others written during this time period, King Arthur turns into a minor character –in sharp contrast to the earlier legends which depicted him as the brave warrior at the head of his armies in every battle–he is no longer the main character but his presence is still felt as a significant influence for Sir Gawain to take up this quest.
However, as discussed before, the Knights of Camelot, including Gawain, greatly admired Arthur for his chivalric ideals and manner. So it can be said that in the minds of them of the Round Table, King Arthur is simply a personification of all the values of chivalry which they want to uphold as knights. Sir Gawain especially looks to Arthur as a symbol of all knightly or chivalric virtues. He even humbly acclaims that if it weren’t for Arthur’s blood running in him, he would be nothing, “barren of [his] worth” (line 131).
This confirms the fact that Sir Gawain, and all the other knights use King Arthur as a reassurance, feeling that if they had the values of the king, they could do anything; for they has faith in King Arthur and his Round Table, in the chivalric values of Camelot. Therefore, from these examples present in the story if Sir Gawain and The Green Knight we can conclude that the Knights of the Round Table idolized King Arthur not because he was a warrior-king but because he was, to them, the embodiment of all the honorable values of being a knight.
As we can see, there are many subtle differences between the two interpretations of King Arthur in the stories of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and Brut. In the early legends Arthur is described as the fearless warrior-king, the defender of the Britons whereas the later legends depict him as a virtuous leader and the role model for all the Knights of Camelot. This transformation of King Arthur’s character over time is very obvious when the texts from different time-periods are compared.
In the early legend of Brut, King Arthur is an epic hero- he is the protagonist of the story. The legends of that era revolved around Arthur and his battles. As seen in the story Brut, he is unforgiving and blood thirsty; his thoughts are set on winning and bringing down his enemies rather than trying to settle the conflicts peacefully. This is in contrast to the King Arthur of the later legends, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who welcomes armed strangers into his castle.
In the beginning of this story, when the Green Knight barges into the feast at Camelot on his horse, Arthur welcomes him warmly and invites him to dinner instead of getting insulted and punishing him. He comes across as easygoing and very level headed. Even in moments of anger, this King Arthur of later times remains calm and doesn’t show his emotion; this is seen in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where he remains composed even in the face of danger (in this case- losing one of his best knights, Sir Gawain because of a stranger’s challenge).
In lines 236 and 237 of this legend, it is seen that “Though high-born Arthur at heart had wonder, / he let no sign be seen [… ]”. Thus, in the later legends, King Arthur-who was a symbol of chivalric virtues and courtly manners- controlled his emotions and remained unruffled when he was challenged. This characteristic of the chivalric King Arthur is distinctly different from the earlier perspectives of him in such legends as Brut. This early King Arthur who was an epic hero, was a most forbidding character, he clearly expressed his anger and was often described as “stern-minded” (line 111).
In Brut, King Arthur often asserted his anger, especially during battles when his mind bore nothing but hatred towards his enemy- “He laid the shield to his breast; the king was bursting with anger. He smote Borel the earl right through the breast, So that his heart was split. Arthur cried at once: “The foremost hath met his fate! Now the Lord help you! ” (lines 112-115). These lines show King Arthur’s frustration and his hatred and also portray how he openly displays his anger.
In sharp contrast to the calm and composed Arthur of the later time-periods, this excerpt from an older legend shows that he was “bursting with anger”, clearly portraying how the epic hero Arthur did not control his emotions(line 112). In this way, we can see that King Arthur’s temperament has changed from vengeful and impulsive to poised and chivalric between the two legends. Overall it is discernible that the king’s personality and characteristics have changed over time and this is especially apparent when comparing two works from different time-periods.
In this way we can see that the characteristic depiction of King Arthur has evolved over time from a fearless battle hero to a chivalric and virtuous ruler. The early Arthurian legends such as Brut, which were written when poems like Beowulf were popular, described Arthur as an epic hero. But as the time passed by and the virtues of chivalry came into being, the Arthurian legends of that time, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, started to reflect the social focus and began to depict Arthur as an expert in chivalrous values.
Thus, it is seen that King Arthur’s role in the legends continually changes as the people’s general perspective of a hero changes. The tales of King Arthur have been shaped and reshaped according to the teller of the story. There is not just one perfect depiction of King Arthur, his character is a combination of many perspectives of him. It can be altered to adapt with the times as it has adapted through the Medieval Era. This “evolution” of his portrayal and the fact that he will never die are what make King Arthur one of the most exceptional characters in literature.