Watch King Arthur: History and Legend

The saga of King Arthur and his court is the most enduringly popular mythic tradition of Western civilization. For over 1500 years, the Arthurian narrative has enthralled writers, artists, and a limitless audience spanning the Western world and beyond--and its appeal continues unabated in our time.

The Great Courses
1 Season, 24 Episodes
March 5, 2015
History
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King Arthur: History and Legend Full Episode Guide

  • Conclude by assessing the roles of the Arthurian legend in modern culture. Consider the associations of the saga in merchandising and the commercialization of historical sites, as well as its uses in pop culture and media. Finally, grasp the remarkable adaptability of King Arthur as a symbol of courage and hope.

  • From the wealth of Arthurian cinema, investigate major film portrayals of the legend from recent decades. In particular, learn about the brilliant satire of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the weighty symbolism of John Boorman's Excalibur, the modern-day Grail narrative of The Fisher King, and the achievements and shortcomings of Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur.

  • Among significant 20th-century treatments of the saga, begin with T.H. White's The Once and Future King and its ruminations on kingship, power, and governance. Also explore Mary Stewart's highly original Merlin Trilogy, Marion Zimmer Bradley's feminist The Mists of Avalon, and the brilliant comic book series Camelot 3000.

  • In his two overtly Arthurian operas, observe how Richard Wagner adapted and modified the Arthurian legend to dramatize social and religious ideals, linking these ideals with Germany itself. On our own shores, grasp how Mark Twain satirized the saga in Connecticut Yankee, critiquing both European aristocracy and American society.

  • The 19th century witnessed an explosion of interest in the legend. Learn about the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose Idylls of the King inaugurated a new era of Arthurian writing and scholarship. Discover the extraordinary Arthurian works of the pre-Raphaelite painters, and delight in portrayals of Arthurian themes in stained glass, tapestry, and illustration.

  • Uncover rich depictions of Arthurian scenes in cathedrals and churches across Western Europe, as well as in privately commissioned artworks, and grasp why such scenes proliferated in religious settings. Learn also how a massive table, once believed to be the actual Round Table of King Arthur, was put to symbolic use by British royalty.

  • No physical object in the Arthurian canon carries more symbolic weight than the Holy Grail. Discover the origins and varied manifestations of the Grail, explore the most celebrated of the literary Grail narratives, and investigate why the Grail has fired the imagination of writers from the medieval world to the modern one.

  • The Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde was assimilated as a key element of the Arthurian tradition. Study the narrative of the Tristan story as it emerged in two distinct literary traditions, and grasp how the story's appeal led to Sir Tristan being "co-opted" as a knight of the Round Table.

  • Thomas Malory's massive retelling of the Arthurian saga became a benchmark for all writers who came after him. Learn how Malory's text introduced the Pentecostal Oath, a sacred code of ethics sworn to by the knights, which Malory "tests" throughout the narrative as a model for noble thought and action.

  • In this dramatic culmination of the saga, study the events of Arthur's military victory over Rome, and his ensuing degeneration from noble king to ruthless conqueror. Reflect on the poignant final meeting of Mordred and Gawain, the story's bleak denouement, and the poet's implicit message regarding Arthur's character and the nature of war.

  • Delve into the fascinating narrative of this highly sophisticated poem, following the great Sir Gawain through elaborate plot twists on his quest to fulfill an astonishing challenge. Investigate the meaning of his journey, and consider the important questions it raises concerning free will, loyalty, shame, and honor.

  • Follow the legend of Arthur into the literary traditions of medieval Iceland and Norway. Learn how Norwegian king H¡kon H¡konarson commissioned adaptations of Arthurian works into Old Norse, and explore distinct differences in ethos, sensibility, and emphasis between the Continental and Scandinavian versions of the knightly saga.

  • Numerous other German writers made their marks on the legend of Arthur. Among them, contemplate Gottfried von Strassburg's masterful text on the Tristan legend, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's elaborate treatment of Lancelot, Wirnt von Grafenburg's story of the adventure quest of Wigalois, and Heinrich von dem T¼rlin's encyclopedic saga The Crown.

  • Study the key Arthurian texts of Hartmann von Aue, which delve deeply into questions of the balance between noble love, knightly endeavor, and devotion to God. Then grasp the brilliance of Wolfram von Eschenbach's portrayal of Parzival's wisdom quest, involving the magical Grail stone and the legendary Fisher King.

  • This lecture explores the remarkable 13th-century work known as the Prose Lancelot. Discover the text's five parts, highlighting the central section, where Lancelot assumes his place as the greatest Arthurian knight. Delve into the Grail Quest narrative and its theological thrust, as well as the Mort Artu, detailing the tragic outcome of the Arthurian saga.

  • Here, encounter the works of Marie de France, whose Arthurian writings developed themes of romantic love, the magical, and the noble. Then learn how Robert de Boron linked King Arthur to the spiritual and religious realms and introduced the Holy Grail, which figures prominently in the massive, anonymous text of the Perlesvaus.

  • This great Arthurian writer introduced elements of the legend that would become essential. Learn how de Troyes pioneered the genre of the medieval romance, developed the ethos of courtly love in his writings, and introduced the great heroic figure of Lancelot and his adulterous love of Guenevere.

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is arguably the most important literary artifact of the Arthurian tradition. Learn about the political nature of the text, the important elements and characters that Geoffrey wove into it, and how he established the basics of the Arthurian legend as we know it.

  • Grasp how Arthur became a cultural touchstone early in Welsh history. In texts such as the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Triads of the Island of Britain, uncover key references to the Arthurian saga. In the tales of the Mabinogion, observe the portrayal of Arthur as an exalted royal personage.

  • Now explore some of the most significant early witnesses to the Arthurian legend. In Latin texts by the chroniclers Gildas (6th century) and Nennius (9th century) and in the Welsh Annales Cambriae, study accounts of Arthur's exploits and death in battle. Learn how 11th- and 12th-century texts later embellished the legend, elevating Arthur as a godlike hero.

  • Investigate archaeological and historical evidence that support the existence of an Arthur-like figure in early Britain. Learn about the site of Cadbury Castle, the center of operations of a leader of great military and logistical skill who thwarted the Saxon invasion. Learn also about important lore surrounding the supposed tomb of Arthur.

  • First, consider images of the Arthurian legend familiar in Western culture, and their relationship to historical reality. Trace the history of post-Roman Britain, the large-scale invasions of the Anglo-Saxons, and evidence that a single, extraordinary individual rose from the chaos to lead and save his people.

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