The Grail Code 
Where Arthur does appear in Green

I said earlier that Arthur doesn’t appear in the obvious places in Green’s Short History of the English People. I should elaborate. Arthur does appear in the index under “Arthur, myths and legends of”—a reference that leads me to page 119, where the Norman Conquest has already happened and we’re talking about the flowering of medieval literature. If you’ve been hanging around in our neighborhood for a while, you can probably guess that Arthur’s name first appears in conjunction with Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose blockbuster History of the Kings of Britain was The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter rolled into one.

It makes sense. For Green, Arthur is a figment of romance, so the proper place to deal with him is in the section on the development of romance. Green sticks to his method. Arthur is a tradition, so there’s no place for him in Green’s scientific history. But the romances of Arthur are documentary facts, so here they are in their proper place.

A tone of distinct hostility to the Church developed itself almost from the first among the singers of romance. Romance had long before taken root in the court of Henry the First, where under the patronage of Queen Maud the dreams of Arthur, so long cherished by the Celts of Britanny, and which had traveled to Wales in the train of the exile Rhys ap Tewdor, took shape in the History of the Britons by Geoffry of Monmouth. Myth, legend, tradition, the classical pedantry of the day, Welsh hopes of future triumph over the Saxon, the memories of the Crusades and of the world-wide dominion of Charles the Great, were mingled together by this daring fabulist in a work whose popularity became at once immense. Alfred of Beverly translated Geoffrey’s inventions into the region of sober history, while two Norman trouvères, Gaimar and Wace, translated them into French verse. So complete was the credence they obtained, that Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury was visited by Henry the Second, while the child of his son Geoffry and of Constance of Brittany bore the name of the Celtic hero. Out of Geoffry’s creation grew little by little the poem of the Table Round. Britanny, which had mingled with the story of Arthur the older and more mysterious legend of the Enchanter Merlin, lent that of Lancelot to the wandering minstrels of the day, who moulded it, as they wandered from hall to hall, into the familiar tale of knighthood wrested from its loyalty by the love of woman. The stories of Tristram and Gawayne, at first as independent as that of Lancelot, were drawn with it into the whirlpool of Arthurian romance; and when the Church, jealous of the popularity of the legends of chivalry, invented as a counteracting influence the poem of the Sacred Dish, the San Graal which held the blood of the Cross invisible to all eyes but those of the pure in heart, the genius of a court poet, Walter de Map, wove the rival legends together, sent Arthur and his knights wandering over sea and land in the quest of the San Graal, and crowned the work by the figure of Sir Galahad, the type of ideal knighthood, without fear and without reproach.

Now, as far as I can tell, this one paragraph (and I admit that one paragraph in Green is a pretty long haul, but it’s still less than a page in this case) is absolutely riddled all the way through with misconceptions, and (I’d say) amazingly unscientific ones. I can say with near certainty that the legends of Arthur were not unknown in Wales until Rhys ap Tewdwr, and that the “Church” did not invent the legend of the Holy Grail, and that Walter Map was not the one who invented the idea of setting the quest for the Grail in the world of Arthur.

But there’s a reason why Green went so badly wrong in this paragraph. I’m almost positive he hadn’t read any of the primary sources, with the possible exception of some part of the Walter Map cycle, which he singles out for deserved admiration. These were romances, not historical documents, and Green had no interest in them. He relied on secondary sources—the latest, most scientific literary historians he could get his hands on. And those literary historians, like many of the biblical critics of the day, were taking their own prejudices and half-formed wild guesses and presenting them as scientific conclusions.

But Green is absolutely correct about one thing: the romances of Arthur are one of the most important historical facts of the Middle Ages. He got that right.

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