If there is one literary figure responsible for most of what we now consider modern fantasy, it’s that of King Arthur. While we can’t possibly list all of the media in the Arthurian Legends, even just the ancient texts, we can list some of the most significant. This is the Arthurian ancient text timeline.
Also be sure to check out the Arthurian Legends 101 article for links to more resources like this.
What’s on the Ancient Arthurian Text timeline?
This timeline does not attempt to list everything with any connection to the Arthurian legends. Doing so would be all but impossible, even for ancient texts. But I do attempt to list most of the more significant contributions to the Arthurian tradition. And I’ve also attempted to keep my list to that which is easiest to obtain. Some stories are highly obscure and hard to track down. For this reason, we try and stick with the tales that you can easily get your hands on.
This timeline focuses on ancient texts that are related to King Arthur. While most of these are public domain, some of them have English translations that are copyrighted. We’ve tried to provide links to all public domain materials where possible. These texts are restricted to some of the most notable Arthurian texts, those that progressed the mythos forward in important ways.
Timeline of Texts
Below, you will find our timeline of ancient literature related to the Arthurian Legends. This timeline can be sorted and filtered in a variety of ways, and contain links to as many historical sources as we could find.
The Evolution of Arthurian Literature
Over the centuries, the legend of King Arthur has grown from what might not be more than a victorious war chief known from a single battle, to what he is today.
In those centuries, the legend has changed a lot.
So how did this progression get started, and what are some of the key factors at play.
Well here is a basic breakdown of the most important texts, how they contributed/changed the mythos as a whole, how all of them together slowly shaped the Arthurian Legends into what we know them today.
The Earliest Arthurian Texts
In these earliest texts, we get very little (if any) mention of King Arthur, and those where we do, he was not a king. Instead, this list starts with a few minor historical mentions, and some of the earliest legends when Arthur was more of a legendary folk hero, killing monsters and righting wrongs.
- De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), by Gildas: This first text does not actually mention Arthur, but it’s the best historical source we have for the Battle of Badon, of which Arthur is believed to have participated, or at least a war chief of some kind who’s legend would later grow to become Arthur.
- Y Gododdin: The first text to mention Arthur, but as an aside, referring to another hero as being “no Arthur”.
- Historia Brittonum, by Nennius: The first historical text to actually mention Arthur, listing him as winning several battles. However, this was written several centuries after the fact, so the historical accuracy is considered dubious. Still, it is clear that the legend of Arthur had already begun by this point in history.
- Annales Cambriae, by Anonymous: A chronicle of events, mentioning Arthur and some of his battles. Also the first reference to Medraut (Mordred) and the Battle of Camlann.
- Preiddeu Annwfn, by Taliesin: A short poem found in the Book of Taliesin that tells of King Arthur’s journey to Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld.
- Pa Gur, by Anonymous: Also called “Who is the gatekeeper?” this poem shows Arthur boasting to a gatekeeper of Cei (Sir Kay) and his battle with Cath Palug.
- Englynion y Beddau, by Anonymous: A list of resting places for various heroes, where it talks about Arthur’s grave as a mystery. The first indication we have of the Arthurian second coming legend.
- Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Isle of Britain), by Anonymous: There are twelve triads here that reference Arthur, and others that mention Mabon, Tristan, and Kay.
- Culhwch and Olwen, by Anonymous: A 12th century story that tells of Arthur and many of Arthur’s knights helping his cousin Culhwch to win the hand of Olwen.
- Historia Anglorum, by Henry of Huntingdon: A history written in 1129 that mentions Arthur, though this is obviously derived from older sources of dubious historicity.
Lives of the Saints
Some of the Arthurian works that are most prevalent in the early stages were the Lives of the Saints, a series of stories that tell of the great deeds of Saints in Britain, in which Arthur often takes part.
This type of literature was almost a genre of its own at the time, and the dates range from early 11th century to the late 12th. But there are some hidden gems in these.
- The Legend of St. Goeznovius, by Anonymous: Arthur is mentioned as being “recalled from the actions of the world.”
- Vita Sancti Cadoc (Life of Saint Cadoc), by Lifris of Llancarfan: Arthur tries to rape a woman called Gwladys, wife of Gundllauc, but instead (on the advice of Kay and Bedivere), helps them instead. St. Cadoc hides a man who killed Arthur’s men, and no one can take their revenge.
- Vita Sancti Carannog (Life of Saint Carantoc), by Anonymous: Arthur asks Saint Carantoc to tame a dragon, which he does. Kay (Cato in this version) feeds the dragon.
- Vita Sancti Euflami (Life of Saint Efflam), by Anonymous: When Arthur cannot kill a dragon, Efflam instead uses prayer to get the dragon to fall from a rock.
- Vita Sancti Paternus (Life of Saint Padarn), by Anonymous: This Arthurian tale briefly mentions Arthur and Caradoc.
- Vita Sancti Gildae (Life of Saint Gildas), by Caradoc of Llancarfan: This Arthurian narrative contains one of the earliest versions of the Malegant/Guinevere abduction narrative, which is used in many tellings afterword, most notably in the Arthurian Romances by Cliges. The subject of this story, Gildas, is the same Gildas that wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.
- Life of Saint Kentigern, by Jocelyn of Furness: An early tale of Merlin is presented here, though in this version he is called Lailoken.
- Vita Sancti Illtud (Life of Saint Illtud), by Anonymous: Illtud is a Saint that visits Arthur’s court at one point (note that the name Camelot does not exist in literature yet), and King Mark of the Tristan legend is mentioned.
Many of these stories were more about the Saints themselves, then of Arthur. And in some cases, it’s clear that the author(s) didn’t have a high opinion of Arthur.
It is clear that he was more of a folk hero at this point in time, and didn’t really achieve super stardom until…
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Perhaps the single most important name in the popularization of the Arthur legend is Geoffrey of Monmouth.
It was he who assembled all the legends up to that time, put them together in what he called a “history,” but that was really just a piece of historical fiction, and turned it into a bestseller for the time. He’s best known for:
- Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain): A chronicle of kings from a man called Brutus, who allegedly fled the destruction of Troy and founded a nation in Britain. From there, Monmouth chronicles the succession of kings (even mentioning a King Lear, the source of inspiration for Shakespeare’s tragedy), all the way to King Arthur. It is notable for solidifying certain Arthurian story elements, such as the story of Merlin, Uther and the birth of Arthur, Arthur’s war with the Saxons and with the Romans, led by Lucius Hiberius, Avalon, and the Battle of Camlann, where he tied at the hands of Mordred.
- Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin): A poem written about Merlin and his madness, his prophecies with his sister and others. Though not nearly as popular as Historia Regum Britanniae, it still holds considerable influence over writers that follow.
Many of the texts that follow were actually just translations (with some adaptation) of Historia Regum Britanniae into multiple languages. It was truly one of the first international bestsellers in western history.
The French Invasion
Following the huge success of Historia, the Arthurian legend took off, particularly in certain regions of France.
Many of the more influential stories came from France rather than Britain, including one of the most famous additions to the Arthurian myth: Lancelot.
Here are some of the most important French works from this era:
- Roman de Brut, by Wace: A reworking of Historia, with some additions thrown in. Also the first known use of the Round Table in medieval literature.
- Tristan (two versions by Thomas of Britain and Beroul): These two versions became a huge influence on the Tristan legend.
- Lanval and Chevrefoil, from the Lays of Marie de France: Two Arthurian stories show up in Marie de France’s collection of stories. Lanval in particular became a staple of Arthurian literature.
- The Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes: Perhaps most influential from this era are Chretien’s romances, specifically Erec and Enide, Cliges, Yvain: the Knight of the Lion, Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart, and the unfinished Perceval: le Conte du Graal. The Lancelot romance is the first known instance of a Lancelot character, and each of these stories holds considerable influence over the evolution of the legend hereafter.
- The poems of Robert de Boron: Three poems here touching on Joseph d’Arimathie, Merlin, and Perceval, that expanded the grail myths.
- Perlesvaus, by Anonymous: One of the big influences on the Grail myth.
- Prose Tristan, by Luce de Gat and Helie de Boron: Another influential version of the Tristan story.
But if there’s one version of the myths surrounding King Arthur that is most influential, it is…
The French Vulgate
The Arthurian Vulgate Cycle is perhaps the single most important piece of Arthurian literature in its history. While there have been many stepping stones to what we know and love today, the Vulgate was the biggest.
It was created by probably a series of authors, and consists of several parts that are part of the main French Vulgate, and then a few more that were published later as part of the Post-Vulgate Cycle.
The French Vulgate Cycle (also known as Lancelot-Grail)
- History of the Holy Grail: tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea bringing the Holy Grail to Britain.
- History of Merlin: A version of the Merlin story.
- Prose Lancelot: The longest portion that follows the adventures of Lancelot and other Knights of the Round Table. It is divided into three sections of its own: Lancelot Proper, The Quest for the Holy Grail, and the Death of King Arthur.
The Post-Vulgate Cycle
- History of the Holy Grail: Not very different from the original version.
- History of Merlin: Also similar to the Vulgate version, though with a few changes.
- The Quest for the Holy Grail: A version of the Grail quest that is very different from the Vulgate version.
- The Death of Arthur: Similar to the Vulgate version, but with greater chronological cohesion with past versions.
Together, these two versions would make up the foundation of Arthurian mythology moving forward, inspiring possibly the most famous version of the Arthurian mythos: Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory.
Unfortunately, it can be a little difficult to get your hands on an English translation of the French Vulgate, but there is one translation we recommend, if you’re willing to fork out a pretty penny to do so.
The 13th century also saw several other sources come from England and Wales, including:
- Brut, by Layamon: English reworking of Historia Regum Britanniae.
- Brut y Brenhinedd: A Welsh reworking of Historia Regum Britanniae.
- The Black Book of Carmarthen: A Welsh collection of stories that mention Arthur in several places.
The 14th Century saw a continuation of the popularity of the Arthurian literature that exploded in the 12th and 13th centuries. But few had quite the same level of importance, other than one, the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which has become probably the most important story about an Arthurian character other than Arthur or Lancelot.
The most notable additions during the 14th century include:
- Alliterative Morte Arthure
- Stanzaic Morte Arthur
- The Avowyng of Arthur
- The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
- The Awntyrs off Arthure
- Sir Cleges
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by The Pearl Poet
- Sir Launfal by Thomas Chestre
- Sir Libeaus Desconus
- Yvain and Gawain
- Sir Perceval of Galles
- Lancelot of the Laik
In Wales, we also get many of the stories contained in the Mabinogion. This includes the first recorded version of Culhwch and Olwen (though the story itself likely dates a lot further back), and several other stories, including:
- Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain
- Geraint and Enid
- Peredur, son of Efrawg
15th Century and Le Morte d’Arthur
The 15th Century saw the addition of several more pieces of Arthurian literature, including the following:
- Prose Merlin: A translation of a portion of the French Vulgate into English prose.
- King Arthur and King Cornwall: A ballad that includes the Green Knight.
- Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle: An adventure with Gawain where he enters the Otherworld.
But bigger than any of these is the legendary work of Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory.
Like the Vulgate that came before it, Malory tried to condense all the main legends into a single narrative. Though the resulting work is shorter than the epic Vulgate, the latter still served as the primary source of inspiration for Malory.
Today, Le Morte d’Arthur stands as what many would call the core of the Arthurian “canon”, even though such a term is essentially meaningless when it comes to literature about King Arthur.
Le Morte d’Arthur has been the basis for so many adaptations through the 19th century and in the modern day, with even modern films such as Excalibur being directly based on Le Morte d’Arthur.
Interest in the Arthurian legends waned a bit during the 16th through 18th centuries, with only a few notable works produced during this time. These include:
- The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spenser: A sweeping epic that includes some Arthurian characters, but is mostly an allegory praising Queen Elizabeth I.
- The Works of Richard Johnson: including Tom a Lincoln, and The History of Tom Thumbe.
- Works of Richard Blackmore: A massive Jacobean poem that included Prince Arthur, and King Arthur, in several books.
- Vortigern and Rowena, by W. H. Ireland: A tale of Vortigern that Ireland attempted to use as a Shakespeareian forgery.
However, it wouldn’t be until later that the Arthurian mythos would regain its popularity.
19th Century and the Arthurian Revival
Early in the 19th century, interest in the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table increased. Arthurian superstars like Alfred Lord Tennyson and James Knowles came to the forefront, and created a new era, one that we are largely still experiencing today.
Notable works from this era includes:
- The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: One of Tennyson’s best known works, based loosely on the story of Elaine of Astolat and Lancelot.
- The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights, by James Knowles: a simplified version of Le Morte d’Arthur for younger readers.
- The Boy’s King Arthur, by Sidney Lanier: Another simplified version of the Arthur legend meant for younger readers.
- Tristram of Lyonesse, by Algernon Charles Swinburne: A long, epic poem that tells the story of Tristran and Isolde (Tristram and Iseult in this version).
- Idylls of the King, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Tennyson’s longer work recounting his version of the entire Arthurian saga.
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain: A satirical comedy about a Connecticut Yankee who travels backward in time to visit King Arthur at Camelot.
Many of these works are still fresh in our minds today. For instance, A Connecticut Yankee has been adapted many times throughout the 20th century, and Lady of Shalott is still one of the most common poems to find in schools.
The 20th century saw the likes of storytellers like Howard Pyle and T. H. White lend their own imagination to the Arthur myth, but to cover everything that has happened in just the last one-hundred years is beyond the scope of this post.
Therefore, we have another entire post dedicated to the Arthurian Legends in popular culture. We recommend checking that out.
Other International Arthurian Stories
Besides the French, there are many countries that have contributed their own great stories to Arthurian literature. Here are a few of the more notable works.
Besides the Welsh, English and French, the Germans have probably contributed the most to the Arthurian canon. Here are some of the more notable stories to come out of Germany.
- Tristan, by Eilhart von Oberge: One of the more successful versions of the Tristan legend.
- Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven: A version of a lost French version about sir Lancelot, that might actually predate the Troyes famous version.
- Iwein and Erec, by Hartmann von Aue: German adaptations of Yvain and Erec and Enide by Troyes.
- Tristan, by Gottfried von Strassburg: Another version of the Tristan tale.
- Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach: one of the biggest and more elaborate tales of the Grail Quest.
- Daniel von Blumenthal, by Der Stricker: a story of a knight named Daniel who becomes a Knight of the Round Table
- Diu Crone, by Heinrich von dem Turlin: A version of the Grail quest where Gawain is the primary knight who achieves the holy relic.
- The poems of Der Pleier: Three poems that revitalized interest in the Arthurian stories in 13th century Germany.
Norse and Icelandic Texts
- Prose renditions by Brother Robert: Several stories that rework various tales, such as Tristan, Yvain, and Erec and Enide.
- Strengleikar: Translations of Marie de France’s work.
- Skikkju Rimur: A version of an “ill-fitting mantle” story originally published in French.
Other Notable International Texts
- Roman van Ferguut: A Dutch translation and adaptation of an old text called Roman de Fergus.
- The Lancelot-Compilatie: a Dutch adaptation of the French Vulgate.
- Melech Artus: A Hebrew translation of certain parts of the French Vulgate.
- Tavola Rottonda: An Italian text
- Orlando Innamorato: An Italian epic poem about a knight named Orlando, that draws deeply from the Arthurian legend.
- La Faula by Guillem de Torroella: A Catalan text
- Presbys Hippotes: A Greek text
Where to start reading the ancient Arthurian texts?
For those who want a deep dive into the scholarly side of King Arthur, we recommend starting from the beginning. This will give you a solid understanding of how the legends have evolved over time. But for those interested in the most important texts, we recommend The History of the Kings of Britain, Le Morte d’Arthur, and the poems by Tennyson.
We would also recommend the French Vulgate, if it weren’t so hard to get your hands on an English copy. But if that interests you, it is available.
We hope you enjoy this timeline! If you like it, you might want to consider some of our others, including:
- A complete list of Arthurian characters
- A complete list of Arthurian creatures
- A complete list of Arthurian locations
- A complete list of Arthurian artifacts
And if you see any significant text you think we should add, don’t hesitate to let us know!
If you want to know about Arthurian literature specifically, I’d recommend this academic book on the subject.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur