No other hero is so frequently mentioned. He is the only person so important that triads are enlarged into tetrads to fit him in. (Ashe 45)
The account that did the most to establish Arthur as a prominent historical figure was the History of the Kings of Britain written in 1135 by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh monk, and the book provides a history of the earliest kings of Britain, some 99 in all, including King Coel, known to us today from the nursery rhyme as Old King Cole. About one-fifth of the book is devoted to Arthur, and Geoffrey provides the first organized version of the story. Many of the elements that would be part of the later tradition were missing, however. Arthur's court is not at Camelot but at a place called Caerlon-on-Usk, or City of Legions. Geoffrey contributed at least three new elements to the existing histories of Arthur -- he supplied Arthur with a family tree, told of Arthur's association with Merlin, and described his burial at Avalon. Later chroniclers would use Geoffrey's account as a source and would develop more complex stories establishing Arthur as a king in the popular imagination:
Clearly, Geoffrey's book was not history, as later ages would understand the term. Although it draws on factual information from earlier sources, it includes much that is fanciful and exaggerated, and it easily slides back and forth between history and fiction. (O'Neal 41)
Mallory most certainly used Geoffrey's account, notably for the story of Merlin and the place of that magician in the legend.
The Arthurian stories would become models for chivalrous behavior and would take on a romantic tinge in the nineteenth century as a number of Arthurian cycles were created by poets, painters, and other artists. After Morte d'Arthur, Arthur did not make a very significant appearance until he was rehabilitated by Walter Scott in a number of poems and romances (Girouard 178). The Arthur we remember best today derives from this period, some 13 centuries after the historical Arthur fought his battles in a very different world from that in which he was placed by later generations.
In Mallory's time, a tradition that was defined in the medieval period is known as courtly love. The term generally referred to the love a knight had for a lady not his wife. The knight would love her from afar and pay tradition to her with courtly gestures and flowery language. The key relationship defining this type of live was that of Sir Lancelot for Queen Guinevere. The tradition was modeled on the feudal relationship between a knight and his liege, with loyalty transferred from the liege to a lady in the court. The knight would serve this lady with the same dedication as he served his lord, and with the same degree of blind obedience and loyal devotion. Such a relationship was carried on from a distance, which made it different from a knight plighting his troth to a lady directly. The knight would use various recognizable gestures indicating the object of the knight's love without ever actually speaking of that love. The idea of courtly love cam be found in much of the literature about King Arthur and other medieval subjects. It also is the central issue in many of the works of Dante, whose platonic and distant love for Beatrice was the image of courtly love.
The essence of courtly love is detailed in the twelfth-century work by Andreas Capellanus, the Art of Courtly Love. He addresses the issue of what persons are fit for love, and he describes the type or person to be loved and some of the reasons why they would be worthy of love. He finds that everyone of sound mind and of a certain age -- both not too young and not too old -- is capable of love. One of the elements he notes at this time is particularly interesting: "An excess of passion is a bar to love, because there are men who are slaves to such passionate desire that they cannot be held in the bonds of love -- men who, after they have thought long about some woman or even enjoyed her, when they see another woman straightway desire her embraces, and they forget about the services they have received from their first love and they feel no gratitude for them" (Capellanus 33). The courtly lover is constant, then, and by "passionate" Capellanus appears to refer to changeable lust rather than the depth of love we might consider passionate. Dante's constancy is evident in his feelings for Beatrice, and many more of his works than the La Vita Nuova show this. Capellanus holds that there are three means by which love may be acquired -- a beautiful figure, excellence of character, and extreme readiness of speech (Capellanus 33).
Among the themes explored by Mallory, themes that would be linked from then on to stories of King Arthur, are themes of love and courtly love, honor, knighthood, and religion. These themes again did not originate with Mallory, but he adopted them in a form that would tie them closely to King Arthur and Camelot from that time to this. The character of the knight has a much longer history, extending in England back at least to the Dark Ages and the Anglo-Saxon poetry of the Old English era. In Beowulf, the knight, such as Beowulf, would fight for personal glory and for the glory of his lord. Hrothgar represents the ideal in a leader, and because he does, others flock to his aid and want to be part of his court:
Now was there given to Hrothgar such valor in the van,
Such honor in the onset, that all his kin-of-clan
Eagerly obeyed him, till waxed around his throne
Host of comrade-tribesmen, warrior-youths well-grown (Beowulf 16).
The knight fights for such a man first for the glory of battle and second for the gifts that are bestowed by such a noble ruler on those who serve him well. Beowulf represents the ideal of the knight, ready to lend his sword to fight the evil of Grendl and for the glory of Hrothgar.
Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century is more direct in explaining the proper demeanor and virtues of a knight, for one of his traveler's in the Canterbury Tales is a knight, described in the General Prologue as follows:
knight there was, and he a worthy man,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his liege-lord's war,
And therein had he ridden (none more far)
As well in Christendom as heathenesse,
And honoured everywhere for worthiness (Prologue 4).
Knights do not always live up to these virtues, but Chaucer indicates their importance by the favorable opinion he has of this knight for showing a dedication to chivalry and courtesy above all.
These same virtues are found in the main character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, also from the fourteenth century. Beowulf is from a pre-Christian era, though later emendations to the next added a dedication to Christian virtues to those possessed by Beowulf. The Knight in Chaucer is also a Christian knight and so reflects Christian virtues such as truth, honor, and freedom. Sir Gawain also represents these Christian virtues, and also of great importance is the ability to show absolute courage in the face of the evils of this world. Throughout the story, Sir Gawain is being tested, though he does not always realize for what. He sees his courage as doubted, and he has doubts himself because he has flinched and so shown fear. He does not make the connection between Bercilak and the Green Knight and so does not see the connection between his test of courage with the Green Knight and the way he is tested at Bercilak's castle. He possesses and always lives by the same courtesy as the knight in Chaucer, which parallels the loyalty Beowulf shows the ruler he serves even when that ruler is not over his own country.
The same virtues are elevated by Mallory as characteristics of the proper knight, and these are cited by Maude Radford Warren as she notes the value of these stories to promote "gentleness to the weak, loyalty to friends, mercy to foes. The tales should help to inculcate a love of truth and courage, should show the value of discipline, unselfishness, and courtesy, and should also develop an appreciation of grace and beauty" (para. 4). In the introduction to Le Morte d'Arthur, William Caxton wrote,
Wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder,…