This image, by the American artist N. C. Wyeth (c. 1882–1945), was created for a 1922 reprint of the famous Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471). As the book’s title suggests, the picture features the legendary King Arthur, accompanied by his wise companion, Merlin. Malory was, by far, not the first writer to tell the tale of King Arthur and his knights. A monk named Nennius wrote of certain deeds of the legendary Arthur as early as the 9th century and another man named Geoffrey of Monmouth (flourished c. 1136) composed long passages about Arthur in his dubiously-titled book, The History of the Kings of Britain. In that book, Geoffrey of Monmouth gave one of the first physical descriptions of King Arthur and his gear:
“Arthur put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her. He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged in the isle of Avalon. A spear called Ron graced his right hand: long, broad in the blade and thirsty for slaughter” (History of the Kings of Britain, IX.4).
The Arthurian tales by Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth did not gain much popularity in early medieval English literary circles. Yet, when French writers of romance and chivalric tales began to author works inspired by the King Arthur legend, British men of letters such as Sir Thomas Malory started to feel the urge to reclaim the Arthurian stories.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966.