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Arthurian Literature

Arthurian Literature is a category of writing that encompasses stories written during the 12th, 13th, and later centuries that tell the story of King Arthur and his court.

Arthurian literature is not confined to the 12th and 13th centuries when some of the most famous examples were written. Works written during later centuries and even up to the present day are also included in this category. The stories recounted the adventures of Arthur’s knights, ladies, and others close to his life. Below, readers can find a list of some of the characters included in Arthurian literature.

Pronunciation of Arthurian Literature: Ar-thur-ee-in lit-tur-uh-tur
Arthurian Literature definition and book examples

Arthurian Literature Definition

Arthurian literature is a genre of literature that includes stories about and based on the lives of King Arthur’s knights, ladies, and enemies. These stories are based around fundamental Arthurian legend but often take the characters to new and exciting places.

Sometimes, readers are going to come upon stories that are faithful to the traditional depiction of characters, while other times, they may discover that a writer has taken a character in a new direction. 

Arthurian literature includes everything from oral tales to short stories, novels, plays, films and television shows, poems, and more. Readers can explore a few examples of Arthurian literature below. 

Characters in Arthurian Literature 

Below is a list of a few characters that readers could expect to find in Arthurian literature: 

  • Lancelot
  • Guenevere 
  • Gwain
  • Lady of Shallot
  • Erec and Enide 
  • Perceval 
  • Merlin 
  • Morgan le Fay 

Examples of Arthurian Literature 

Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory 

Le Morte d’Arthur, French for The Death of Arthur, is a collection of prose stories that were written in Middle English in the 15th century. Thomas Malory, whose reputation is tied to this well-known and much-loved collection, reworked the stories from traditional legend. He used English and French sources to tell the story of Arthur and his conception of death. The work was written in prison and published in 1485. 

The stories in the book take place in medieval France or Britain. There are a few occasions during which a character travels as far as Rome. Le Morte d’Arthur includes eight books. They are: 

  • From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur
  • The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome
  • The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot of the Lake
  • The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney
  • The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones
  • The Noble Tale of the Sangreal
  • Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenever
  • The Death of Arthur

Below is a quote from the first chapter of the collection. It begins with the lines: “First, How Uther Pendragon sent for the duke of Cornwall and Igraine, his wife, and of their departing suddenly again” and then the first paragraph reads: 

It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagil. And so by means, King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine.

The text above is a translation from the original Middle English. Here are the same lines in Middle English: 

HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when

he was kynge of all Englond  and so regned

that there was a myȝty duke in Cornewaill

that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme  And

the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil  and

so by meanes kynge Vther send for this duk  chargyng hym

to brynge his wyf with hym  for she was called a fair lady 

and a passynge wyse  and her name was called Igrayne

The Lady of Shallot by Alfred, Lord Tennyson 

This example of Arthurian literature is a ballad poem. It was inspired by Donne di Scalotta and told the story of Elaine Astolat. It illustrates the isolation of this young woman confined to a tower along the river up from Camelot. The poem is loosely based around Arthurian legend but also includes Tennyson’s revised version of events. 

The first part of the poem describes the woman in the tower. She’s unknown to most people besides the farmers who live in the area. As the poem goes on, the speaker describes how the woman suffers from a curse that forces her to weave on her loom without ever looking out her window. She can only view life through the window’s reflection in a mirror. 

She eventually sees a man, Lancelot, who is riding by. She stops weaving and looks out her window. The curse goes into effect. The lady leaves the tower and dies before getting to Camelot. The poem ends with these lines: 

Who is this? and what is here?

And in the lighted palace near

Died the sound of royal cheer;

And they cross’d themselves for fear,

       All the knights at Camelot:

But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, “She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace,

       The Lady of Shalott.”

Read more poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson.


What type of literature is King Arthur?

The stories of King Arthur are legends. But, as they get farther and farther from the original, they also become other types of literature: creative, fictional ballads and reimagined adventure stories

Who wrote the Arthurian legends?

It’s believed that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the first version of Arthurian legends. His 12th-century book is regarded as the first life story of Arthur. 

Did King Arthur actually exist?

Historians cannot confirm that King Arthur ever existed. But, some have posed various men throughout history as candidates for the real Arthur. 

How old was King Arthur when he died?

In the legends, it’s believed that Arthur died somewhere between 35 and 50. It’s unknown exactly how old he was at the time. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Legend: a genre of folklore that features stories about human events and actions.
  • Folklore: refers to stories that people tell. These include folk stores, fairy tales, urban legends, and more.
  • Myth: a genre of folklore that usually includes a hero and sometimes fanatical elements.
  • Mythopoeia: a genre of modern literature (and film) that refers to the creation of artificial mythology.
  • Narration: the use of commentary, either written or spoken, to tell a story or “narrative.”
  • Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explain the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.

Other Resources 

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