The sprawling amount of Arthurian literature produced during the middle ages can be daunting to the modern reader. Accustomed to copyrighted works written by identifiable authors produced in one version alone, the modern reader can easily feel lost in the confusing mass of medieval literature: similar stories, rewritings, varying manuscript editions, partial translations, transpositions, etc.
The medieval text was a much more fluid entity than the one we are used to, in part because of the manuscript culture: each recopying was a potential occasion for expansion, deletions, or additions. But another important reason is the nature of the stories themselves: instead of being owned by a large corporate entity jealously guarding its copyright, Arthur, Gawain, Lancelot, and the others were characters about whom everyone could tell a story. Constituting a canvas for stories, a tradition (or matière), the Arthurian characters belong to no one in particular.
Nevertheless, most scholars agree that their traceable origins come from Celtic peoples’ oral tradition—that of the Welsh is foundational in this respect. Its transmission however, has no common measure with the extent of the Welsh material now available. After the success of 12th century works synthesizing traditional and then contemporary materials, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia and Chrétien de Troyes’s romances, Arthurian literature literally exploded all over Europe for the next four centuries. Its fortunes were variable over the following centuries, but the continuing influence of Spanish and Italian romances (Amadís, Orlando furioso, etc.) perpetuated the broader corpus of chivalric literature. The 19th century saw the more systematic and widespread application of philological methods to the study of manuscript cultures. Along with the larger revival of interest in matters medieval, this has fostered the production of critical editions, translations, and adaptations of Arthurian literature.
In the 21st century, we are at the good end of two centuries of rediscovery, philological work, and translation into modern languages. Due to both the demands of scholarship and the public’s continuing interest, we now have available a very broad array of works edited according to rigorous scholarly standards, both in the original and in translation. Hitherto neglected works have benefited from the light cast by persistent scholarly inquiry, and there has never been so many works of Arthurian literature available in print at the same time.