Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian romances, though an integral and innovative part of the Arthurian tradition, are not the first manifestations of the legends.
The earliest Arthurian references come from Welsh historical chronicles and histories, rather than from romances. The earliest known mention of Arthur is in a text called Gododdin, which has been dated to around 600. The poem is not about Arthur; the legendary King of the Britons only appears through a comparison to a different ruler. The other now familiar members of his court, including Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Galahad, Gawain, and Mordred, appear at various points in other Welsh texts, often under several different guises.
The first key figure in the codification and popularization of Arthurian legend is Geoffrey of Monmouth, an Oxford academic who worked in the early 12th century. In Geoffrey's account of British history, Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur appears as the king of the Britons. Geoffrey of Monmouth provides a fuller biographical sketch of Arthur than previous Welsh texts did, though his chronicle should not be read as an objective or factual account of early British history.
The next important figure to emerge in the Arthurian tradition was Chrétien de Troyes. Arguably the inventor of the romance, Chrétien did much to shape the Arthurian tradition. He gave voices and stories to the knights and ladies of Arthur’s court, fleshing out the templates provided by earlier British histories, and popularizing the king and his court on the continent. Considered some of the most influential texts of the Middle Ages, Chrétien’s romances set the stage for the whole of the subsequent Arthurian tradition (Duggan in Raffel 230).
Chrétien’s romances were compiled in a prose version, known as the Vulgate Cycle, in the thirteenth century. Sir Thomas Malory authored the next largest English addition to the canon, the Le Morte d'Arthur, which appeared between 1469-70. These two texts, along with Chrétien’s romances, form the heart of the Arthurian canon. From the late Middle Ages onwards, references to Arthurian characters, storylines, and themes continued to crop up in important literature. From Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to Spenser’s Faerie Queene, to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, interest in Arthur and his court continued unabated.
Modern readers will note that the Arthurian tradition is alive and well in popular culture. From Lerner and Loewe’s musical, Camelot, to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to the television show Merlin, to the novel The Mists of Avalon (which was later turned into a television show), the stories of Arthur and his knights and ladies are readily accessible. Indeed, the fact that no such figure may have ever existed has done little to dent the popularity and reputation of the great king.
As stories about Arthur and his court have cropped up through Western history, they have done more than merely entertain. Scholar Derek Pearsall eloquently sums up the incredible legacy of the Arthurian tradition for Western culture: “the Arthurian story, in all its manifestations, has provided a medium through which different cultures could express their deepest hopes and aspirations and contain and circumscribe their deepest fears and anxieties” (vii). Though some of the earliest texts of the Arthurian canon are no longer objects of mass consumption, the tradition is not the poorer for it. Rather, one of its greatest strengths is its ability to speak to each subsequent generation, and the tradition's dynamism will ensure its continuation.