From its earliest days to our contemporary epoch, the Arthurian legend and its manifold characters, scenarios, and variations have truly stood the test of time. Today, it is not uncommon to see a plethora of commodities based off of the Arthurian legend—from Roundtable pizza to King Arthur’s flour—indicating that the legend has not only been maintained but commoditized. Artistically, writers from the medieval to the modern have reworked Arthurian material to better help them understand their epoch. Truly, if there is one thing that we can say about King Arthur it is this—he has been a figure of trans-historical importance the world over.
But with a tradition so large and formidable, with literally hundred-of-thousands of texts, how is one supposed to separate what is worth reading from what is not? How is one to find those classical texts which any aspiring scholar needs study? Furthermore, how to simply chart and get the basics facts and then some when so many writers have done so many different things with the tradition in so many different languages? Professor Dorsey Armstrong answers all of these questions and more.
Hosted by The Great Courses, Armstrong’s contribution King Arthur: History and Legend, covers the whole Arthurian gamut. From the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain to the modern Hollywood films, Armstrong tackles the entire canon is a series of twenty-four, thirty-minute lectures.
What I found most handy while listening to each course was its emphasis on cornerstone details. Obviously, with a legend was rich as King Arthur, one could spend far longer on each lesson than a mere thirty-minutes. But Armstrong makes each lesson work: though short, they hit on all of the strong points without sacrificing nuance; you enter a session, learn the essential, and are encouraged to branch out on your own after the conclusion. So in this sense, it is much like a university: you enroll in a course, attend a lecture, and then are expected to uptake your own study independent of the course in order to get the full experience. Armstrong’s erudition is a testament to how well one learns even should one decide to not uptake an independent study and merely listen to the course.
Personally, I found the course most handy in separating Arthurian fact and fiction. My secondary enjoyment was Armstrong’s charting out of the interconnectedness of the series of adaptations which were produced by medieval writers. Together, both of these facets of the course helped me in gaining a bird’s eye view of the legend and know who wrote what, and for what reason, and who adapted those writings for a similar reason and how all of this influenced future generations, and for what reasons.
Prior to this lesson, I was unsure of what I was to expect from a study of the Arthurian legend. I knew that it was an extensive field of study but I did not know to what end it was extensive. After completing Armstrong’s course, however, I know that the legend is far more convoluted than I had previously imagined. Truly, one is not doing one’s self any good unless a handy guide, like Armstrong’s course, is purchased. There are so many adaptations of adaptations that the nuance and rationale behind each version will quickly be lost should one try and wade into this field without the proper precautions.
In the end, I loved this course: it helped me appreciated the Arthurian legend in a whole new light and gave me an appreciation for how and why it was adapted. It cut away the darkness of the newcomer’s confusion and helped shed some light on where to begin. I would be remiss if I did not give this course a five out of five.
King Arthur: History and Legend (The Great Courses)
12:01:01 hours. Published by The Great Courses and Audible; Narrated by Dorsey Armstrong.