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Celtic Mythology in the Arthurian Legend
By Lucie Duzbabová
Master’s Thesis, Masaryk University, 2010
Introduction: The Arthurian legend is one of the most important texts in the English literary tradition. It is one of the core texts of medieval English literature and it is also considered to be one of the most powerful texts of the ancient times. Although its most popular version by Sir Thomas Malory called Le Morte d’Arthur was printed by William Caxton in 1485 it still attracts a wide readership not only from general public but from the academic circles as well all over the world nowadays. However, it is a story covered with certain mystery; although it has been subject of study of numerous scholars nobody has yet said with certainty whether it is a real story or pure fiction or whether it has its roots in ancient Celtic times or not. According to the legend King Arthur lived in Cornwall in the south-western part of Britain, the place with deeply rooted Celtic mythological traditions and therefore it can be assumed that Celtic mythology left some imprints on the legend. On one hand it cannot be said for sure that the legend has its roots in the pagan Celtic times for the historical records are scarce and often imprecise, on the other hand its Celtic origin cannot be utterly dismissed either for Celtic culture and tradition is deeply interwoven with the history and mythology of Great Britain and Ireland. Although we are not sure of the precise origins of the Arthurian legend there is high probability that it was influenced not only by Christianity but it can be assumed that it was to a certain extent influenced by the mythology of the Celtic people living on the British Isles as well.
The aim of this thesis is to find out whether there are some aspects, themes or symbols of the pagan Celtic mythology that appear in the Arthurian legend and if so, what role they play there and to what extent they influence the legend. Although the legend has been studied countless times by various scholars it has mostly been viewed from the Christian point of view and not much attention has been paid to the possible Celtic aspects of the story. The legend will therefore be approached not from the traditional Christian point of view but from a less traditional Celtic perspective.
The first part of the thesis focuses on Celtic myths and mythology in general – it deals with the origins of Celtic mythology, the sources and the main themes of Celtic myths. It tries to identify their characteristics: what characters play important roles in them, what mood and atmosphere the stories have, what purpose the stories served and what was their place in Celtic society. Apart from focusing on the texts only, the first part of the thesis deals with the cultural aspect of Celtic mythology as well. It explores the everyday world of the Celts, it shows the origin of Celtic people, their customs and traditions as well as their everyday life and beliefs, which are then reflected in their mythology. The second part of the thesis explores the Arthurian legend and its relationship and connection with Celtic mythology. It focuses on the origins of the Arthurian legend as well as on the historicity of King Arthur and the appearance of the mythological elements in the story.