This lesson explores the growth and transformations of the stories surrounding King Arthur beginning with the period when we first become aware of them as part of the oral tradition in Medieval Europe, follows them as they develop to become important literary works such as Christopher Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in Renaissance England and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in Victorian England, and concludes with a look at them as we find them in modern works such as T.H. White's Once and Future King and the musical Camelot. By looking at the way these stories are presented, both in literature and in the visual arts, students will learn about the cultures that preserve them. As these stories pass from generation to generation, the border between fact and fiction becomes blurred. The stories themselves have a history and in their evolving shape carry the imprint of all the hands though which they have passed. Using the Internet, students can track the growth of a legend like that of King Arthur, from its emergence in the so-called Dark Ages to its arrival on the silver screen.
The legends surrounding King Arthur probably grew out of the struggles of a Celtic chieftain and his warriors in southwestern England against invading Saxons during the 6th century. His name first appears in a long Welsh poem of the 7th century, Y Goddodin. He is referred to by the Welsh chronicler Nennius in the 9th century and figures prominently in British historical annals of the 10th century. In 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the "semi-historical" History of the Kings of Britain, devoting half of his work to the exploits of Arthur. Blending and embellishing many strands of the oral tradition, then setting the action in his own times, he forged the first Arthurian written account. Manuscripts were translated from Latin into Anglo-Saxon and Norman French and widely distributed throughout Britain.
At the end of the 12th century, French poet Chretien de Troyes further embellished the legend, adding new tales of chivalrous knights as well as the tragic romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, including the story of Lancelot and Elaine. A decade later, Robert de Borron reintroduced the theme of the grail from early Celtic folklore and the stories took on greater Christian overtones. The first appearance of Galahad, the son of Lancelot and Elaine who becomes the perfect knight, is in medieval romance in the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle. Although certain pagan elements remained, King Arthur had come to embody the ideal Christian knight. In the 15th century, Sir Thomas Malory reworked the collection of tales into a long unified epic entitled Le Morte d'Artur. Written in English prose rather than Latin, Malory’s work became the definitive version of the story of King Arthur. A wonderful collection of information on Malory is available at the British Library Online Gallery:
In the 19th century Victorian poet Lord Tennyson repopularized the Arthurian legend in his long poetic work, Idylls of the King, and in the early 20th century T.H. White created his well-loved adaptation, The Once and Future King. Arthur and his court of chivalrous knights continue to grace the stage in productions of Lerner and Loewe's musical Camelot and appear year after year in films like Excalibur, First Knight, Merlin, and Tristan.
For the comparative study of the Lancelot and Elaine legend in Activity 5, use the resources available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web. Works available on Victorian website include the text and discussions of many of Tennyson’s poems related to the King Arthur legends, including “Lady of Shalott,” and several poems from The Idylls of the King.
Also, the EDSITEment lesson plan Pictures in Words: Poems of Tennyson and Noyes contains many good suggestions and resources for teaching the poetry of Tennyson.
Begin by asking students to tell the story of King Arthur. Use the chalkboard to take notes on the characters they mention, the places, and motifs (e.g., Camelot, Excalibur, the Round Table, the Holy Grail). Discuss where they have acquired their probably-extensive knowledge about this legendary figure and why his story should persist into our times. Explain that the story of King Arthur has been told and re-told for nearly a thousand years, and that through this story we can find a connection to the world of the Middle Ages and trace its legacy today.
Use the resources of the Labyrinth website to introduce students to the vast historical period embraced by the King Arthur legend, stretching from the 5th century, when he may have lived, to the 15th century when Sir Thomas Malory gave the story its most influential form in Le Morte D’Arthur. Use the following timelines of Early British Kingdoms via the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth.
Have students work in groups to review these timelines by picking out or adding events with which they are already familiar (e.g., the reign of Charlemagne, the Norman Conquest, the signing of the Magna Carta, the Crusades) in order to place the evolving story in its historical context.
You can also have students use the following maps to contextualize medieval geography. Provide students the following instructions: Print out the three maps—Medieval Cities, Physical Geography, and Regional Names—from the Medieval Sourcebook Medieval Map Quiz. Work with a partner to complete the three maps.
Direct students to the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth. In a short extract from De Excidio Britanniae by the 6th-century British monk Gildas, students will find a picture of the world Arthur is supposed to have inhabited. In a brief extract from Historia Brittonum, by the 9th-century British historian Nennius, they will meet an Arthur already passing into legend (see in particular Chapter 56). Discuss the character and significance of Arthur as represented in these early accounts.
Ambitious students may be eager to read some of the medieval romances that gave enduring life to Arthur’s legend. Many are available online in Middle English at the Camelot Project.
Students can prepare individual reports on the principal figures of Arthurian romance: Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain, Galahad, Perceval, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, and Mordred. For Internet research, they can start with the Camelot Project via the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth project, where they will find profiles of these and many other characters. Have students suggest in their reports how these characters might reflect on the ideals and anxieties of medieval society.
Students can also report on important themes of Arthurian romance: feudal loyalty, courtly love, chivalry, the Holy Grail. For information on these topics they can link to ORB, Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, which features a specialized online encyclopedia and is part of the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Medieval Sourcebook, which includes an indexed collection of medieval texts, including many in translation. Direct students to search these sites using their topic as a keyword and have them suggest in their reports how these literary themes might reflect on the real-life values and beliefs of medieval nobility.
Encourage students to be creative in presenting their reports. Some may have the computer skills to produce multimedia presentations. Others may wish to present their findings in a dramatic form, staging a talk show interview with Guinevere, for example, or performing as medieval minstrels schooled in the arts of courtly love. Whatever the format, all students should submit in writing at least an outline of their findings with citations for their sources of information.
Working together, the class can practice their close-reading techniques on the short poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” available via the EDSITEment reviewed Academy of American Poets, before they undertake the group projects in Activity 5. Point out that Alfred, Lord Tennyson began his explorations of the Arthurian legends with “The Lady of Shalott.” This self-contained poem about a woman who loves Sir Lancelot but cannot have him was based on a medieval Italian novelette, Donna di Scalotta, not on Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Remind students that these characters and this narrative might reflect the ideals and anxieties of Victorian society. Scholars suggest Tennyson used the story of Lancelot and the Lady of Shalott to explore his own questions about the role of the artist and the conflicts between the demands of the imagination and those of the real world. Ask students to look for evidence that the poem is about more than a lady in a tower who is distracted by a handsome knight and dies for love. Tennyson later revisited this story in Lancelot and Elaine, one of the poems in Idylls of the King. As well as “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson wrote other short poems on Arthurian subjects, such as “Sir Galahad,” his version of the story of the son of Lancelot and Elaine, and “Morte d'Arthur” before he wrote the individual poems that became the Idylls of the King.
Use the following questions for class discussion of “Lady of Shalott.” These questions can also be used in the group projects section of Activity 5.
The EDSITEment-reviewed site, Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric, is a useful source for definitions of the literary terms.
Tennyson is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language, especially for his wonderful sounds and beautiful word pictures. For more ideas on teaching the sounds of poetry, see the EDSITEment lesson plans Listening to Poetry: Sounds of the Sonnet and Preparing for Poetry: A Reader’s First Steps.
Students can now look closely at how one of the King Arthur legends has been presented through time. Divide the class into groups of three to five students, assigning each group a different version of the Lancelot and Elaine legend. The following versions of the legend represent the transformation of the legend across the centuries. Most of these versions are widely available via the Internet. Students working with T.H. White’s The Once and Future King will need to check the book out of the library.
Students may have discovered other versions appropriate to the work of the class. More than one of the small groups can work on the same version of the legend. However, each small group is expected to present its own 5-minute oral summary of its findings to the class. As in Activity 3, encourage creative presentations using multimedia dramatizations, and other formats. Whatever format a group chooses for its oral presentation, all students in the group must participate in the group presentation. Each group must submit a written outline of the group’s responses to the questions below, including citations for their sources of information. Students will need to be reminded to focus how the version of the story reflects the culture of the times in which it was written.
Questions for group exploration of the different versions of the Lancelot and Elaine story:
Students will now explore visualizations—paintings, images, and so on—reflecting the Arthurian legends. Before students begin to search for examples of their own favorite subjects and objects, direct them to paintings of “The Lady of Shalott.” Remind students that paintings such as those by William Holman Hunt, John William Waterhouse, and other artists are only one way the Arthurian motifs have passed into our visual awareness. Remind them to look for echoes of King Arthur in objects, architecture, and clothing design. Encourage students to browse the entire Camelot Project artist list for visualizations of characters and objects important in the Arthurian legends.
Gallery of Pictures: “The Lady of Shalott”
The EDSITEment lesson Everything in its right place: An Introduction to Composition in Painting provides excellent links and useful vocabulary for writing about works of art. Teachers might consider working with these and other EDSITEment lesson plans on art depending on the length of time dedicated to this activity.
As a supplemental activity, students might create additional works of art based on the Arthurian legends, which may be shared with the class as paintings, prints, comic books/graphic novels, posters, decorations for ceramic objects, jewelry or costumes. Visualizations may be incorporated into the group reports from Activity 5 or created as interdisciplinary projects. This activity is especially appropriate for an interdisciplinary setting including art or theater classes. As students work on their objects, they should address the following questions about their creation. Students may wish to create a class art gallery in which each work of art is displayed with an informative caption answering the questions. Captions answering the questions should be submitted when the object is shared with the class.
Questions for student works of art based on the Arthurian legends.
Conclude this lesson by inviting students to investigate how the Arthurian legend has been adapted in our own times, particularly by filmmakers. The "Camelot Project" website link at Labyrinth has an extensive bibliography of films on Arthurian themes, some of which may already be familiar to students: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, A Kid in King Arthur's Court. Students might form study groups to view a selection of Arthurian films on video and write reviews from an informed medievalist's point of view. Which themes and motifs of Arthurian legend appear in each film? How are the values implicit in the story related to life in our society?
Students need not have completed all the activities in this lesson, but they should have examined the historical origins of the Arthurian legends and investigated how historians, writers, and artists have used the legends of King Arthur to reflect the concerns of their own times. This assessment is a writing assignment which can be presented as an individual paper or as a group paper. This writing activity should take three class sessions: the first session will allow students to discuss the question and then draft their response. During the second session students will write their papers. During the third session students will polish and peer edit their versions. Student papers will be evaluated on the depth of knowledge shown about the King Arthur material studied and the felicity and correctness of the student’s language use.
Review legends studied in the most depth during this unit. Remind students there are many additional legends we have not studied or only briefly explored. Ask the students to write a brief essay detailing how the legends of Arthur that they have experienced in writing and image reflect some of the political or social concerns and/or attitudes of their day. What is the value to a country in creating a written, larger-than-life account of a strong leader such as King Arthur?
As its name implies, the Labyrinth website offers many paths into the Middle Ages. Students interested in this period might go to the Internet Medieval Sourcebook and follow the "England" link to explore the castles of Great Britain and a variety of living history projects that bring medieval times to life. Or they might click on "France" to take a virtual tour of that country's Gothic cathedrals and trace the growth of medieval cities.
4-7 class periods