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The legend of King Arthur through time

From a 12th century English text to the smarmy antics of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," no legend has more legs than that of King Arthur and the mythical land of Camelot.

But what makes this particular collection of made-up stories so endlessly pervasive? What, in short, are the ingredients of a successful legend?

Randy P. Schiff, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo's English Department and an expert in Arthurian legend, thinks it has something to do with tragedy.

"If you really look very closely at a lot of the [successful] stories, they're either family conflicts or civil wars. The larger trajectory of the [Arthurian] story is a civil war, and in some versions it's father versus nephew and in some versions it's father versus son. In some it's the Scots versus the English, but it's always people who are inhabiting the same space, who end up destroying one another. And I think those stories, for better or for worse, are always powerful ones for us.

"If you look at most of the world's myths, they generally tend to be self-destructive cultures in the end."

Here's a look, courtesy of Schiff, at the evolution of the Camelot myth through time:

"The History of the Kings of Britain" Penned in 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth, this tome is the first place Arthur pops up. "It put itself forward as fact, but it was actually really just good literature," said Schiff, who noted that it's doubtful that there ever was a King Arthur.

"Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart" and other romances The French poet Chretien de Troyes wrote a series of poems in the late-12th century that took Geoffrey of Monmout's cue and ran with it, creating what Schiff called "a completely fantastic set of stories that were very easy for other people to sort of copy."

"The Vulgate Series" A collection of anonymously authored stories, this 13th century collection served to pile on stories, further fleshing out the characters of Lancelot and the wizard Merlin.

"Le Morte d'Arthur" English Sir Thomas Malory's work from the 15th century which served as the basis for most of the rest of the King Arthur works, including, Schiff said, many 20th century American movies like "Knights of the Round Table" and "Excalibur."

"Idylls of the King" Eighteenth century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, along with participants of the romantic pre-Raphaelite movement of the time, glommed onto the legend to create a great Arthurian revival in painting (Schiff mentioned William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones), writing and poetry.

"Merlin," "Lancelot" and other works These narrative poems from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edward Arlington Robinson were among the first in the 20th century to be based on the Arthurian legend.


The modern development of the "Camelot" legend:

1958: T.H. White releases his famous fantasy book "The Once and Future King," which served as inspiration for Lerner and Loewe's musical.

1960: "Camelot" debuts on Broadway.

1963: In an interview with Life magazine, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reveals that her late husband was a fan of the title song of the musical, establishing the popular reference to JFK's administration as "Camelot."

1967: The film version of "Camelot" comes out.

1975: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is released.

2004: "Spamalot," an adaptation of the 1975 film, hits Broadway.

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