The most popular of the four matters was the Arthurian theme, the matter of Britain, which was treated extensively by writers in England and on the Continent. The treatment accorded the story of Arthur, surely one of the most famous figures in European literature, well exemplifies the change in literary expression from epic to romance. The earliest accounts in which Arthur appears portray him as a historical hero who comes to assume national importance. By the twelfth century he has been transformed by courtly writers from a historical and national hero to a hero of romance.
Apparently the first historian to mention Arthur is Nennius, whose ninth century Historia Brittonum, a redaction of previous chronicles from the seventh and eighth centuries, describes Arthur as dux bellorum, “the leader of battles,” who slaughters many pagans. Carrying the image of the Virgin Mary on his shield and invoking the name of the Mother of God as a battle cry, Arthur is said to have single-handedly slain 960 men in one day. A similar but much briefer account of Arthur’s prowess in battle is found in the Annales Cambriae, the tenth century work of a Welsh writer who states that Arthur, having carried the cross of Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, was victorious in the Battle of Badon. Around 1125, William of Malmesbury, in his Gesta regum Anglorum (The Deeds of the Kings of the English, 1847), attests Arthur’s historicity while he simultaneously acknowledges that myth-making concerning Arthur is taking place; he differentiates between the Arthur of truthful histories and the Arthur of false myths produced by the Britons. In fact, the Arthurian legend expanded greatly during this time, both in Britain and on the Continent; with every crossing of the English Channel the legend accumulated more and more material, so that the actual historicity of Arthur became increasingly difficult to verify.
These historical and pseudohistorical accounts provided the basis for the more deliberately imaginative Arthurian writings, the major sources of contemporary Arthurian legend, which begin to appear in the twelfth century. In that century there is a shift from the treatment of Arthur as a historical figure to the treatment of him as a figure of mythic proportion. Much Arthurian material was carried orally by Breton conteurs. The widespread influence of these bilingual (Breton and French) storytellers was in no little way aided by the military and political success of their patrons, the Normans. As Anglo-Norman power spread by conquest and marriage, the conteurs found welcome in courts in Britain, France, Scotland, Germany, Spain, and Italy. The nature of the Arthurian tales was modified as they traveled.
Traditions and motifs from Celtic legend and folklore were the earliest accruals to the legend of Arthur. The Welsh invested Arthur with the trappings of kingship. Prominent in the early verse is his position at the head of a band of heroes renowned for their skill at slaying monsters. Among these heroes listed and described in Culhwch ac Olwen (c. 1100) are some who survived into later legend including Cai (Sir Kay), Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere), and Mabon, son of Modron. The quest motif became an integral part of the Arthurian legend in Welsh tradition. One version of the quest is told in Culhwch ac Olwen when Arthur travels to the Otherworld to steal a cauldron, reputed to be able to restore the dead to life. The theme of a hero traveling to far-off lands, even into the Otherworld, to bring back gifts to his people, is also a basic story in folklore and myth worldwide. That the Welsh tales are the prototypes for the Grail quest has been the matter of much argument, but at least it can be said that here the theme of the questing hero was first connected to Arthurian legend. Jeffrey Gantz, translator of the Mabinogion (1976), connects the quest in Culhwch ac Olwen to similar raids in the other tales in which a hero ventures forth to capture an object—a bowl, a cauldron, or a woman—which...