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Myths & Legends
KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY
THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
Geoffrey of Monmouth wasn’t the first, or the only person to write about Arthur. In his Dedication at the beginning of History Geoffrey himself mentions his source material as coming from “a certain very ancient book written in the British language ”. This book has never been found. He tells us that he received the ancient book from his friend, Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford who was “well-informed about the history of foreign countries.”
So what are Geoffrey’s earlier sources that we do know about? Is there anything that sheds any further light on Arthur’s connections with France? He himself mentions the monk Gildas and historian Bede as his sources in his text, although neither mentions Arthur by name. Then of course there are the songs, legends, myths, poems and ballads – the collected oral tradition of troubadours and jongleurs - which are probably the source of many of the Arthurian stories. The ones that were written down – eventually – especially those originating in France, may add to our knowledge about Arthur’s French adventures.
"The oldest document recording the existence of Arthur was written by monks in 1120 AD purporting to be copied from an earlier manuscript written in 830 AD."
In a landscape almost empty of any historical reference, one more early source is very important. The oldest document recording the existence of Arthur was written by monks in 1120 AD purporting to be copied from an earlier manuscript written in 830 AD by a Welsh monk from Bangor called Nennius. It was called Historia Brittonum. Nennius used Gildas and Bede, but he also, probably, used other earlier manuscripts, now lost. His contribution is muddled and insecure historically (he himself refers to it as ‘a heap of all that I have found’). His main contribution was to call Arthur a ‘Dux Bellorum’ – a war overlord. He never refers to him as a king. His locations of the ‘twelve battles’ that Arthur is supposed to have fought has had academics foxed for years. It is obvious that Geoffrey of Monmouth used Nennius as there is a close relationship between Geoffrey’s and Nennius’ named battles. But, there are five battles which Nennius names which are not contained in Geoffrey’s account. If they are reliable events, then it’s worth looking at whether one or more of these could have taken place in France. Geoffrey Ashei puts forward a theory that the battle of ‘Agned’ as listed in Nennius, might well be ‘Angers’, which would conform to the Riothamus location, a scribal corruption or abbreviation of the Latin ‘Andegavum’.
Finally, there are the historical and ecclesiastical documents of Gaul, Roman letters and accounts, and early original Arthurian literature written by French authors – chief amongst them being Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France. Other sources include local history and legend. Doing the footwork and exploring French cities, towns and countryside for their possible Arthurian connection has been an absorbing quest. Discovering ancient sites, archaeology, maps and old place names gives us a new gazetteer to add to the familiar and evocative Camelot, Tintagel and Avalon.
Looking for the evidence has also had its surprises. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time, the medieval tales grouped together as the Matter of Britain (Arthur) and the Matter of France (Charlemagne) have been classified as separate literary cycles. But the themes of these stories are interlocked in a timeless otherworld where characters, beasts and battles formed layers of myth and meaning centuries before ‘official history’ caught up. Time and again the answers to questions not yet asked have presented themselves from these sources.
Then there are the questions that have been asked in a wealth of books – both fact and fiction - since the turn of the millennium. Does pan-European Celtic legend and folklore stretch even further back and beyond into the ancient civilisation of the Sarmatians? Who was Mary Magdalene and what was her connection with Arthur - with France and the Knights Templar? What is the nature of the Holy Grail? Did merchants and artisans, master masons and architects working on the great cathedrals, have access to arcane knowledge? Did they spread their secrets amongst brotherhoods and guilds as they journeyed around Europe? Are there hidden papers and ‘ancient books’ yet to be discovered that will shed light on these mysteries? In the 21st century all of these questions have been asked. Perhaps the answers are even more relevant now because they have captured the imaginations of a whole new global generation. These universal themes will not lie down. There may yet be new perspectives to add to the world’s abiding fascination with King Arthur - and they may well be discovered in France.
© Marilyn Floyde 2007
Next - Avallon, The Beginning and the End
King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been published by Pegasus Elliot MacKenzie Publishers Ltd. Cambridge, England. Order on Amazon King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy