King Arthur: History and Legend

Course No. 2376
Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
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Course No. 2376
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring a variety of visuals designed to aid in your understanding of the course material. These dynamic visuals include detailed maps that take you back in time and show you how the legends of King Arthur spread across Europe; they also include exquisite examples of illustrations, paintings, and other visual arts inspired by Arthurian legends.
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Course Overview

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

With origins in the exploits of a 5th-century Celtic warrior, the legend of a noble king and his knightly cohort caught fire across Europe, spawning a vast literary tradition that reached its height in the Middle Ages, with major contributions from writers both in Britain and throughout the Continent.

But the appeal of the saga far outlived the medieval era. It remained dynamically alive in folk culture and theater through the Renaissance, only to see an epic literary and artistic resurgence in the 19th century, which continues to the present day in multiple forms—from fiction writing and visual arts to film and popular culture. No other heroic figure in literature compares with King Arthur in terms of global popularity and longevity; today, each year sees literally thousands of new versions of the story appear across diverse media.

What does this amazing phenomenon tell us about our culture, our civilization, and ourselves? What is it about this particular story that has so deeply gripped the human imagination for so many centuries, in so many places?

King Arthur: History and Legend speaks deeply to these key questions and many more, revealing the full and astonishing scope of the Arthurian tradition, from its beginnings in post-Roman Britain to its extraordinary trajectory across the centuries and its latest incarnations in our own times. Within 24 content-rich lectures, you’ll encounter all of the most essential portrayals of the Arthurian saga in literature and art, encompassing:

  • the preeminent treatments of the legend in Latin, Welsh, and English texts, including milestone versions from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King;
  • seminal versions of the narrative and major thematic additions by writers in France, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and other European countries, including monumental texts such as the Perlesvaus and the Prose Lancelot;
  • iconic representations of Arthurian themes in visual art, from medieval stonework and woodcarving to the flowering of the saga in 19th-century painting and decorative art; and
  • the remarkable transformations of the stories in 20th- and 21st-century literature, art, and film.

Your pathfinder in this world of mythic adventure and romance is Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University, an expert Arthurian scholar and current editor-in-chief of the academic journal Arthuriana, who brings rare insight and depth to this most unusual and compelling inquiry. Through her incisive commentary, you’ll draw out the core archetypes and cultural values that drive the saga, exploring in depth its elemental themes of kingship, courage, virtue, loyalty, romantic love, and devotion to God.

You’ll also trace how the myth developed across time, clarifying many misunderstood aspects of the narrative, such as the origins of the Round Table and the figure of Merlin, the illicit love between Lancelot and Guenevere, and the varied manifestations of the magical Holy Grail. You’ll discover how the legend was appropriated and assimilated by differing cultures, and how each writer in the tradition reflected and commented, through the Arthurian narrative, on the concerns of their own time and place. The result is an illuminating look at one of the most engaging, entertaining, and impactful legendary traditions the world has ever known.

A Myth for the Ages

In the course’s opening section, you’ll delve into the historical mystery behind the figure of Arthur, finding that the real-life model for the legend bore little resemblance to the noble monarch so many of us imagine. Within the grand legacy of Arthurian literature, you’ll study integral elements of the tradition such as:

  • The History of the Kings of Britain: Take the measure of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century blockbuster bestseller, perhaps the single most significant Arthurian text. Assess the acutely political nature of the work, and observe how Geoffrey established many core features of the legend as we’ve come to know it.
  • King Arthur and the French: Discover how French writers working between the 12th and 14th centuries expanded the Arthurian narrative in essential ways, fully developing the ethos of courtly love, contributing characters such as the heroic figure of Lancelot, and linking Arthur’s knightly community with spiritual and religious endeavors.
  • The German Arthurian Tradition: Grasp the vital impact of German treatments of the saga. Note how German writers grappled with philosophical questions of the relation of worldly undertakings to devotion to God, and see how they developed important narrative strands such as the Tristan legend and the Grail quest.
  • Le Morte Darthur: Explore Sir Thomas Malory’s definitive 15th-century account of the story, which essentially “set” the legend for all subsequent writers. Observe how Malory brought together the entire Arthurian narrative in a comprehensive retelling, and also introduced the Pentecostal Oath, a knightly code of honor and key thematic element.
  • Idylls of the King: Learn how Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poetic cycle—some of the most beautiful, idealized writing in the tradition—almost singlehandedly triggered a huge resurgence in Arthurian expression in the 19th century and deeply influenced Victorian visual art.
  • The Mists of Avalon: Among noteworthy 20th-century treatments of the legend, contemplate Marion Zimmer Bradley’s revolutionary feminist retelling of the saga, portraying Arthur’s rise and fall through the perspectives of Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine and the druidic faith of the Mother Goddess.

A Tradition of Astounding Richness and Diversity

In the course’s final section, you’ll travel into many additional areas of Arthurian expression. Within the realm of visual art, you’ll trace the remarkable contributions of the artists of the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite movement. Marvel at the Arthurian paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Edmund Leighton, and others, as well as the decorative art in stained glass and tapestry of William Morris and his circle.

You’ll take account of how Richard Wagner adapted and modified the legend in his two Arthurian operas, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, and how Mark Twain lampooned both British and American society in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Finally, you’ll track the saga into our own times in examples ranging from Mary Stewart’s remarkable Merlin trilogy to the ingenious comic book rendering of Camelot 3000 and noteworthy film treatments such as John Boorman’s Excalibur and Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur.

Demonstrating both encyclopedic knowledge and an infectious passion for the subject, Professor Armstrong is the perfect guide in this epic quest. The lectures are enriched with striking visual images, including important manuscripts, photos of locations associated with the legend, and Arthurian-related art and architecture from around the world.

King Arthur: History and Legend offers you a comprehensive and detailed overview of the Arthurian phenomenon in all of its extraordinary diversity and enduring impact. These fascinating lectures speak to the essence of what is arguably the Western world’s most beloved and deeply cherished myth.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Origins of King 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. x
  • 2
    An Arthur-Like Figure in Cornwall
    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. x
  • 3
    King Arthur in the Latin Chronicles
    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. x
  • 4
    King Arthur in Wales - The Mabinogion
    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. x
  • 5
    Monmouth, Merlin, and Courtly Love
    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. x
  • 6
    The Round Table - Arthur in Wace and Layamon
    Discover the contributions of the Anglo-Norman scribe Wace, who translated Geoffrey of Monmouth's text into Old Northern French, and the English cleric Layamon, who created the first comprehensive account of Arthur in English. Compare how Wace advances the notion of courtly chivalry in the saga with Layamon's more brutal portrayal of Arthur's community. x
  • 7
    Chretien de Troyes and Sir Lancelot
    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. x
  • 8
    Arthurian Tales in Brittany and Burgundy
    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. x
  • 9
    The Lancelot-Grail Cycle
    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. x
  • 10
    The Early German Arthurian Tradition
    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. x
  • 11
    King Arthur's Other German Adaptations
    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 Turlin's encyclopedic saga The Crown. x
  • 12
    The Arthurian Sagas of Scandinavia
    Follow the legend of Arthur into the literary traditions of medieval Iceland and Norway. Learn how Norwegian king Hakon Hakonarson 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. x
  • 13
    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    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. x
  • 14
    The Alliterative Morte Arthure
    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. x
  • 15
    Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur
    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. x
  • 16
    Enriching the Legend - Tristan and Isolde
    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. x
  • 17
    The Holy Grail from Chretien to Dan Brown
    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. x
  • 18
    Arthuriana in Medieval Art
    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. x
  • 19
    Spenser, Milton, and the Renaissance Arthur
    In a relatively sparse era of Arthurian literary output, trace noteworthy currents of the saga in Spenser, Milton, and the work of Renaissance historians. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, note the rise of Arthur's presence in popular ballads, songs, and poetry, and his remarkable portrayal on the stage in English and Cornish. x
  • 20
    Idylls of the King - The Victorian Arthur
    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. x
  • 21
    Wagner and Twain - King Arthur in the Late 1800s
    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. x
  • 22
    Once and Future - The 20th-Century 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. x
  • 23
    Camelot Comes to Hollywood
    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. x
  • 24
    King Arthur in the 21st Century and Beyond
    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. x

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Dorsey Armstrong

About Your Professor

Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
Dr. Dorsey Armstrong is Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, where she has taught since 2002. The holder of an A.B. in English and Creative Writing from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from Duke University, she also taught at Centenary College of Louisiana and at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests include medieval women writers,...
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Reviews

King Arthur: History and Legend is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 71.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from King Arthur and his knights This course is taught by Professor Dorsey Armstrong, who is a masterful teacher. She has a thorough knowledge of Arthurian literature and lectures in beautiful, accent-free English. She also has an unusual talent for languages, speaks French flawlessly and recites medieval English without stumbling. The King Arthur story originated in the 5th century and according to the professor, Arthur was probably not a king, but rather a brave warrior, who among other battles, drove out the invading Anglo-Saxons from Britain to save his people. The legend of King Arthur became very popular and was rewritten many times by many authors from different countries, such as France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavian countries and others, to fit their own cultures. Professor Armstrong talks about the evolution of the legend. The earliest versions were not associated with the grail, which was added later and Richard \Wagner used the German Grail legends to compose his operas Parcival and Lohengrin. This course is well worse listening to and will not disappoint..
Date published: 2018-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Trip THrough TIme This course is a wonderful trip through time, exploring the various aspects of the Arthurian legend. Professor Armstrong delivers the lectures with such vivid detail and passion you get pulled into the narrative, making the history come alive. Her proficiency in many different languages makes the many quotes she uses throughout the lectures all the more poignant. She is gifted in explaining, in minute detail, how the stories of Arthur have changed throughout the centuries, morphing into the stories we all know and love today.
Date published: 2018-07-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Literarily complete, not much on historicity or lack of it. There are books much more complete on this. Given the title, I expected more in this aspect.
Date published: 2018-06-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Detailed Review of Arthuriana The King Arthur course put the meat, sinews and tendons onto the bare bones of my knowledge of the Camelot story. The course spent a lot of time probing early texts of the story and was able to modernize it with current references. Is Arthuriana relevant to today’s world. The code of chivalry, justice, and a life-long quest may be even more important today than recent generations past. I think we long for selfless leadership and the golden walls of a place called Camelot. Bravo for presenting this course. I will be looking for more courses by this lecturer.
Date published: 2018-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Adventureous History I had this course on my wish list waiting for it to go on sale. When I got it, I decided to watch it two episodes at a time. It was well worth the wait. I went to Purdue as an engineer and I am glad I didn't get a chance to take it in the mid 60's because I would not have truly appreciated the course. I learned more English/British history as well as European than I expected.
Date published: 2018-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Title describes the course well. I enjoyed every lecture. The instructor was passionate about the topic, and in showed in the depth of information, and the excellent delivery.
Date published: 2018-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brings Arthur to life I have the online Great Courses monthly subscription and Dr. Dorsey is my favorite presenter/lecturer by far. She really helped me to see Arthur as the living and growing in a dynamic cultural context. She is so comfortable with the material (and entertaining) that I have trouble getting anything done because I just want to go to the next one.
Date published: 2018-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly Delightful! I didn't know what to expect from this course and was richly rewarded for my curiosity. The title is accurate: This course covers the legend from the point of view of English literature and also the history (little did I know about the perfidious abandonment of the British Isles by the Romans and the complicated consequences!) Professor Armstrong has a delightful presentation style. She's extremely well prepared and informed and also enjoyable to listen to. I loved this course!
Date published: 2018-03-19
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