Myers Literary Guide:
The existence of an historical King Arthur, as opposed to the glorious fiction of Camelot is very problematic. He was a folk hero as early as the 9th century, but the (unreliable) historical sources are vague and confusing. Northern battle sites are certainly mentioned, including High Rochester in Northumberland (the Roman fort Bremenium) and another long-standing tradition located Mons Badonicus, Arthur's great victory over the invading Saxons, at Binchester. One chronicle refers to the fight at Camlann, supposedly in AD 537, where 'Arthur and Medraut were killed'. Opinion concerning the whereabouts of Camlann favours Camboglanna, close to the Roman fort at Birdoswald on the Wall. The Camlann battle became a byword for a tragic, irretrievable disaster, as Michael Wood puts it in his book In Search of the Dark Ages. We also know that 'Medraut' became the traitor figure Mordred in the later Arthurian legends. Could a struggle between chieftains on the edge of Northumberland have given rise to one of the greatest figures in world literature?
Rachel Bromwich argues that Arthur was one of the Men of the North, a tradition of heroic figures of northern British history later relocalised in Wales or the South. These include such warriors as Urien of Rheged, whose son Owain was later to become the hero of French 12th century romance in Chretien de Troyes' Yvain. There was also Merlin (v. Aneirin) and Drystan (Tristan) who in French romances is called Leonois (of Lothian) but is relocated in the romances to Cornwall.
Whether the 'historic' Arthur was a Northern chieftain or not, the North (and Northumberland in particular) is constantly, and tantalisingly evoked in Arthurian literature, and itself continued to produce Arthurian work of quality. Later mediaeval writings of note include The Awntyrs of Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne (The Adventures of Arthur at the Tarn Wadling) a 715-line alliterative poem probably dating from c. 1350-70. It is impressively written in complex 13-line stanzas and is one of the most admired alliterative poems. The Avowynge of King Arthur, Sir Gawain, Sir Kaye and Sir Bawdewyn of Bretan, an anonymous poem written in tail-rhyme stanzas seems to date from c. 1425 and is again set near Tarn Wadling not far from Penrith. This tarn, with its magical reputation, appears with remarkable prominence on Gough's fine map of England (c. 1360). Another Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell takes place in Engelwood Forest near Carlisle (v. THOMAS PERCY and BEN JOHNSON with regard to Clym of the Cleugh).
Sir Thomas Malory (d.c.1471) was the author of Le Morte D'Arthur which brings most of the Arthurian legends into a graspable whole and has served to inspire later authors like Tennyson, Swinburne, Mark Twain, T.H. White (in The Once and Future King), and John Steinbeck among others. Malory seems to have made use of the heroic northern stanzaic epic Morte Arthur, the finest mediaeval treatment of the central Arthurian themes before Malory himself. Little is known about Malory the man, but his language hints at a northern origin, and the North East figures prominently in his great work. He apparently soldiered on the Yorkist side under the great Warwick in 1462-63 during the Wars of the Roses. He was present at Edward IV's sieges of Alnwick and Bamburgh castles, where the king deployed Newcastle his greatest gun; London the second gun of iron; Dijon, the brass gun from Burgundy and Edward and Richard, the bombardels.
Later, Malory seems to have changed sides with Warwick and some have seen his writing as reflecting a parallel between the decline of the Lancastrian cause and that of Arthur. He states that Blaise the Hermit, Merlin's master, lived in the forests of Northumberland and 'wrote down Arthur's battles word for word' as Merlin (a frequent visitor) told him. Malory also places Joyous Gard, Sir Lancelot's castle, somewhere in Northumberland, either at Alnwick or Bamburgh, where King Arthur and Guinevere come to visit Lancelot. When Queen Guinevere is sentenced to death at Carlisle, Lancelot rescues her and takes her off to Joyous Gard, where he is soon besieged by King Arthur's knights. The North in Malory is generally seen as being on the outside - 'they of the North', and the northern kings are sometimes listed as among Arthur's enemies. One enemy, Sir Epynogris, is the son of the king of Northumberland. The northerners are usually the opposition in tournaments.
Arthur's main court, Camelot, first described (c. 1177) by Chretien de Troyes in his Lancelot, is identified by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Caerleon, nearby in South Wales, based on its name of City of the Legions, but this can equally well apply to Chester and Carlisle. Interestingly, in 1361, Froissart (v. Thomas Percy) regarded Carlisle as Arthur's capital.
Malory says that Tristram kept Isoud at Joyous Gard for three years, and Algernon Swinburne (q.v.) in his Tristram and Iseult, describes Bamburgh castle, '... this noblest hold of all the north,' in thrilling verse:
They saw the strength and help of Joyous Gard.The Hexham-born poet, Wilfrid Gibson, incidentally, places Joyous Gard at Dunstanburgh castle in an effectively atmospheric poem.
In Malory, Balin and Balan are knightly brothers from Northumberland. Balin, the more notable of the two, was the only Arthurian knight to carry two swords. He was also known as Balin le Sauvage and is conspicuously missing from most descriptions of Arthur's knights and Holllywood depictions of Camelot. He was in fact banished from court for decapitating the (or a) Lady of the Lake, who had demanded Balin's head from King Arthur as the price of the sword Excalibur. Subsequently, Balin fought for King Arthur in Wales and against King Lot of Orkney. In the course of his adventures, he also wounded King Pellam with the Dolorous Stroke, bringing about the death of all the people in Pellam's castle and the devastation of three kingdoms. Merlin prophesies that this Waste Land will only be healed by the achievement of the Grail by Sir Galahad. After Balin and Balan are tricked into slaying one another, King Arthur laments:
'Alas', said King Arthur, 'this is the greatest pity that ever I heard of two knights, for in the world I know not such two knights'.Malory concludes: 'Thus endeth the tale of Balin and Balan, two brethren born in Northumberland, good knights.' Balin's sword is placed in a stone by Merlin, to be withdrawn by Galahad. Merlin links this narrative obscurely with the decline of the whole world of Arthur. The story is the starting point of the anthropological investigation in J.L. Weston's book From Ritual to Romance (1920), which in turn influenced one of the greatest poems of the 20th century T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922). Swinburne based his Tale of Balen (1896) on these events, coupling it with a rapturous celebration of Northumberland and his own youth as a reckless horseman riding 'the northland border'. Tennyson's most ambitious work is the series of episodes known as the Idylls of the King. It is also the most ambitious contribution to Arthurian literature since Malory himself. The last of the Idylls to be written was 'Balin and Balan' an altered version of Malory, published in Tiresias and Other Stories (1885).
Tennyson's aunt married Matthew Russell of the wealthy Sunderland family, and from 1818 onwards Russell spent vast sums in giving the old Neville stronghold at Brancepeth the mediaeval (or Arthurian) look it has today. Tennyson was invited to Brancepeth Castle for his honeymoon in 1850, but in the end he went to the Lake District, where he had spent time in his youth. It had then supplied the backdrop for his celebrated poem Morte d'Arthur (1842); now it prompted the Idylls of the King, which includes the phrase 'crag-carved above the streaming Gelt'. The Gelt is a tributary of the Eden, and rises high in the North Pennines on the Northumberland border.