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Legacy of the Arthurian Legend

Dr. Lizabeth Johnson,
Core: Humanities     



As evidenced by some of the earliest written documents in human history, human beings need heroes. Heroes are the figures, whether male or female, that we admire, respect, view with awe, and, in some cases, rely on for protection from that which threatens us individually or collectively.  While the earliest hero tales in Western Civilization originated in the Near East and in Greece between 2800 and 1200 BCE, only one hero has had an extremely long life in terms of the number of stories told about him over time, and those stories themselves show the remarkable degree to which this hero, and his companions, have been modified over time to suit the needs and desires of successive audiences.  That hero is King Arthur.  The earliest stories about King Arthur surfaced in the early seventh century in Britain and, over the next seven centuries, spread to all parts of Western Europe, such that the original British hero came to have French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Scandinavian personae.  Similarly, King Arthur’s companions, the Knights of the Round Table, and his wife, Guinevere, became more and more popular over the course of time, such that some of these originally marginal characters came to have their own story cycles and adventure tales. 

While the Reformation era saw a decline in interest in the Arthurian legend, that interest was renewed during the Romantic era, in the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Morris, and the pre-Raphaelite painters.  This interest continued to be lively into the twentieth century, with authors such as T.H. White and Marion Zimmer Bradley using the Arthurian characters and their, by now, well-known adventures to respond to modern issues, such as world wars and women’s rights.  In short, few Western heroes have been as loved as Arthur, and none have legends that have proved to be as flexible as that of Arthur, whose legend encompasses ideas that any and all readers can embrace and sympathize with:  how our personal choices or actions affect us and those around us; the conflict that can arise between love and loyalty; the search for a higher purpose in life; and the creation and dissolution of friendship.  In this class, we’ll examine the development of the Arthurian legend over the course of the past 1500 years and how different societies have embraced these heroic figures and used them to express their own hopes, dreams, doubts, and fears.


King Arthur and His Knights:  Selected Tales, edited by Eugene Vinaver, Oxford University Press, 1975, ISBN 978-0195019056.

In addition, students must purchase a copy packet from the UNM Copy Center.  The copy packet will provide the majority of our early readings in the class.


•              Active participation in class discussions

•              One 10-minute oral presentation on topic of the student’s choice

•              Two 3-4 page analytical papers on class readings

•              One 5-7 page synthesis paper on class readings

•              Participation in a group creative project and presentation


Dr. Lizabeth Johnson has a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval History.  She teaches courses on law, gender, science, the environment, and social responses to disease outbreaks.  She has published several articles and book reviews on medieval British history, specifically in the area of women’s activities in courts of law.  The Arthurian Legend has long been one of her favorite subjects in medieval history.