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King Arthur - his role in France

The first ever major French exhibition about Le Roi Arthur runs until January in Rennes.

31 August 2008

KING Arthur and the Knights of the Round-Table have thrilled generations of British children with their exploits.

However, less well-known to Britons is the fact they play a starring role in French folklore and literature as well.

The first ever major French exhibition about Le Roi Arthur, classified by the Culture Ministry as “of national importance,” has opened in Rennes.

It is designed to appeal to everyone from families to experts in the field.

Curator Sarah Toulouse said: “There are beautiful pieces like original illuminated manuscripts from the 13th to 15th Centuries and beautiful 19th Century English pre-Raphaelite paintings, embroidery and stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones.

“There was a major revival of interest in King Arthur in Britain in Victorian times, in art and also by poets like Tennyson and in children's literature. In France it was more the 20th Century, with films and books.”

The show also features pop culture exhibits and two impressive parade giants from Ewell, in Surrey, of Morgan le Fay and the Green Knight - who has been decapitated and is carrying his head.

“Children love it and they can try to pull Excalibur from the stone,” added Ms Toulouse.

She said that, while academics on both sides of the Channel placed Camelot in Britain, some Arthurian adventures took place not in La Grande Bretagne but in what was, in the Middle Ages, known as la Petite Bretagne - modern Brittany.

“The first stories about Arthur are found in Welsh epics sung by bards, in which Arthur appears as a warlord.

“He is very courageous, fights a lot of battles and expels the Saxons.

“Then in the eighth to 10th Centuries he appears in Irish tales of the lives of the saints.

“Stories are also found in Brittany and even in other parts of France, and Spain.
“However Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh historian, is the one who draws the tales together in his History of the Kings of Britain in 1135 - he claims Arthur was king of the British Isles and also of France and wanted to be an emperor.

“However the first time he becomes a real literary figure is across the Channel, in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes, in around 1160.

“There is a lot of French literature about him in the 13th and 14th Centuries and then in the 15th Century the legends cross the channel again and Thomas Malory writes his version - Le Morte d'Arthur.

“This is where it all begins as far as many English readers are concerned, although in some ways he restricts the legend - there are a lot of tales that do not make it into his book, including ones based in Brittany such as how Lancelot was born there and brought up by Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, before he travelled across the Channel, or how she imprisoned Merlin in the forest of Brocéliande.”

Today Brocéliande contains popular Arthurian tourist sites - including “Merlin’s Tomb,” “Viviane’s House”(a megalithic site) and the Valley of No Return, where Morgan le Fay is said to have lain in wait to imprison unfaithful knights.

Its newest attraction is artist François Davin’s golden tree, L'Or de Brocéliande - which symbolises the enduring life of the ancient forest, which survived a five-day fire in 1990.
Arthur's popularity in France has risen and fallen over the years.

He is less famous than in Britain, apart from in Brittany where there are still many place names are associated with him - such as Le Camp d'Arthur in Finistère and L'Ile d'Aval - an island some claim is Arthur's resting place, Avalon.

A recent French television series, Camelot, has made him popular again.

“Throughout history the legends have always been reinvented for new generations. The Disney film is the first introduction for many people, and I love Monty Python and the Holy Grail - we play extracts in the exhibition and people think it is hilarious.”

She added attempts to trace the “real Arthur” - such as the 2004 film which starred Clive Owen as a Roman soldier defending Britain against invaders - were futile.

“What is important is not the historical Arthur, who we don't know and probably never will, but the character.

“He might have historical origins but he has been transformed into a hero and a myth.”

She said his enduring popularity was due to universal themes like love and death.

“However what makes the Arthurian characters different from, say, the heroes of ancient Greece, is that they are more human, the have flaws - the tales tell of betrayals and adulteries.”

King Arthur - A Legend in the Making, is at Les Champs Libres, Rennes until January 4. All notices are in English as well as French.

More details (in English) at www.leschampslibres.com

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