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LEGACY OF THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND

Dr. Lizabeth Johnson, lizjohnson@unm.edu   

 

COURSE DESCRIPTION

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.

READINGS AND TEXTS

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

In addition, students must purchase a copy packet from the copy center in Dane Smith Hall.  The copy packet will provide the majority of our early readings in the class.

STUDENT REQUIREMENTS

Active participation in class discussions

One 10-minute oral presentation on an Arthurian 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

Oral presentation of the group creative project

ABOUT THE INSTRUCTOR

Dr. Lizabeth Johnson earned her MA in Medieval History from UNM in 2000 and her Ph.D. in Medieval British History from the University of Washington, Seattle in 2008.  She has long had an interest in the Arthurian Legend, particularly the archaeological and documentary evidence for a real Arthur but also the permutations that the legend has gone through in the centuries since Arthur first appeared in literature.