The specific politics of the Anarchy found in Geoffrey’s chronicle, while functioning as important foundations for Geoffrey’s Arthur and direct retellings of the Historia, have become less apparent in the Arthurian tradition as the struggle between Stephen and Matilda passed from both the Arthurian and cultural narrative.
It is the Arthurian romances, not Geoffrey’s Arthur, that contain the
Arthurian elements most recognizable in literary culture. Yet, it is important to note the politics that survive beyond Geoffrey, aspects of the Anarchy that are so entrenched in the King Arthur narrative that they remain staples of the tradition.
Since there are copious amounts of Arthurian literature to sort through, it is best to focus on three main areas of Arthurian texts in regard to Geoffrey: early vernacular translations of the Historia, the 12th-century Arthurian romances, and Thomas Malory’s epic Le Morte D’Arthur, a text that behaves similarly to Geoffrey’s Historia while also serving to establish the elements seen in the Arthurian narrative of today.
An examination of these texts will show that despite Arthur’s growth beyond the Anarchy, certain motifs from that political moment still exist within the tradition, particularly Arthur’s traitorous nephew Mordred.
Arthur serves as the principal hero of the Historia, with more than two of thetext’s twelve books dedicated to him. Yet Arthur is still a means to an end for Geoffrey, a recognizable folkloric figure that he injected with the politics of the Anarchy to show the effects of civil discord.
Despite Geoffrey’s efforts to retain sole custody of his history, and by extension, Arthur, his account of the legendary king proved fated to rise beyond its origin in the Historia, with its utopian depiction of court, kingdoms, and knights.
The Arthurian narrative took on a life of its own, with countless chroniclers and writers adding to and subtracting from
the narrative based on their own political and social preferences after Geoffrey.
The origin of Arthur, however, was born of 12th-century politics, specifically those of the Anarchy’s first years. The remnants of the Historia’s politics are rarely seen in modern Arthurian literature, but some aspects of these original politics, such as Mordred, remain as key features of the tradition.
Arthur, too, remains a political vehicle, proving that a singular narrative can reflect a number of diverse political landscapes, even in societies radically different from the one the narrative was created in.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
Recommended Citation:Pringle, Andrew D. (2018) "The “Anarchy” of King Arthur’s Beginnings: The Politics that Created the Arthurian Tradition," Crossing Borders: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Scholarship: Vol. 3: Iss. 1.
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