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Undergraduate Paper Topics - Alan Baragona, VMI


The topics below allow you to explore a number of avenues in the study of the medieval Arthurian tradition. All involve a certain amount of research. Some require subjective analysis, while others are more in the nature of reports. If you have an historical bent or just feel like gathering information you might not otherwise learn about the tradition, choose one of the latter. If you want to exercise your critical faculties and express an opinion about something, you may shape your paper towards that end. In either case, keep in mind that this first paper is intended to be background research on some aspect of the legend as a whole or on some specific work. It is not intended to be literary criticism. You should make good use of computer resources, but the bulk of your research should still rely on printed material. Whatever type of subject you choose, keep in mind the following criteria for a paper.

1. Support any assertion you make with evidence from your research or from the text, whether a direct quotation or summary of events. Please do not use footnotes or endnotes. Follow the new MLA format for parenthetical citation (found in The MLA Handbook or any grammar handbook).

2. Whether the paper involves literature or pure history, do not merely repeat what was said in class. There are many ways to avoid it. Obviously, you can attack what I have said in lectures or what classmates have said. You can take two or more things we discussed separately and compare them or apply them in ways that we did not touch on in class. You can use class lecture or discussion as a starting point for further exploration. Or you can address an issue that interests you but never arose in class. I am interested in seeing your thinking and what you learn of other people's thinking --not a rehash of my own.

3. Feel free to quote opinions from the Arthurnet Log on the World Wide Web. Try to distinguish between messages from scholars with considered opinions and those from amateurs writing off the tops of their heads. Use the guidelines on our Arthurian Home Page for citing electronic sources.

4. Use what you have learned in the classroom to be critical of your sources and not accept what they say blindly. Remember that medieval scholarship is a battleground and has changed radically over the years. That doesn't mean the older sources are necessarily bad, but it does mean that if you use an extremely old source, the scholarship may be questionable and you should double check it with more recent work. Above all, if your source makes sweeping generalizations about features of Arthurian Legend as if there were one consistent story instead of different treatments by many writers, you should be very cautious in using it at all. If, for example, your writer says the Grail is the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ at the crucifixion as if that were always the case, then that source is not to be trusted.

A couple of hints to avoid pet peeves of mine that always turn up in somebody's paper. Be careful not to spell Arthur "Author." I know it sounds stupid, but some people do. Always capitalize "Middle Ages." Never use "Middle Aged" as an adjective to refer to the period. The adjective is "medieval." Please learn to spell it, and note that it does not have to be capitalized.


  1. Debate still continues over whether Arthur was an historical person. Research and review the latest opinions (note "review" means both summarize and evaluate). Conversely, do a research paper on the history of opinions, with emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

  2. Research and compare ONE aspect of the social, political, or military conditions in 5th- and 6th-century Britain (the site of the alleged historical Arthur) and 12th-century Europe (the time and place of the first major Arthurian literature). You may focus, for example, on the idea of kingship; military organization, tactics or technology (e.g. armor or siege machinery); the social position and role of women or of commoners; the position of the Church.

  3. Survey the treatment of the Arthur story in historical works from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century (for example, Churchill treats him as real in his History of the English Speaking Peoples), focusing on whether individual historians believed the legends.

  4. Earlier in the century, it was common practice to treat tales of Arthur and his knights as Christianized remnants of pagan myths (this was usually the approach of anthropologists and literary scholars interested in anthropology). Most often, Celtic paganism was identified as the original source of the Arthur story or elements of it. Write a paper in which you choose a single element of the Arthur story (a character, episode, symbol, motif (e.g., Morgan le Fay, Excalibur, white harts), and discuss its possible pagan origins.

  5. Another common approach of Arthurian scholars earlier this century was the psychological, primarily Freudian and Jungian. Research the application of the theories of either Freud or Jung to an element of the Arthur story.

  6. Most recently, Arthurian scholars have downplayed the pagan or Freudian possibilities behind the Arthurian story and concentrated on, among other things, the medieval Christian content, especially its allegorical elements. Find a work that treats any aspect of Arthurian legend (though most commonly the Grail story but other tales, as well) as Christian allegory and summarize and evaluate the argument.

  7. Any other similar topic you can think of having to do with the legend's historical or literary background is fine as long as you discuss it with me well in advance of beginning research.


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The areas below offer many possibilities for topics focusing on Chrétien or Malory. They require some secondary research, but all are primarily "lit crit" topics, requiring you to exercise your own judgment based on close reading of the text (with the work of scholars as a supplement but not a substitute for your own ideas). Clear any alternative topic with me first. For a quick reminder of the guidelines for a standard humanities paper, see below.

a. I don't look for the so-called "5-paragraph essay"--find some interesting way to hook your reader, instead--but do establish your subject and purpose early on. Your statement of purpose must make clear why you chose the subject and why it is worth writing (and reading) about. Your thesis is your opinion or insight. Make sure your thesis is clear, whether it's an assertion at the beginning that the paper defends or a solution at the end to questions the paper raises.

b. Support any assertion you make with evidence from the text.

c. Use class lecture or discussion as a starting point for further exploration. Don't merely repeat what was said in class.



1. Do a character study. This gives you a wide range of choices:

  1. Choose a single character in one of Chrétien's works and study anything that seems significant (e.g. role in the plot, importance to themes, growth of personality, if any, etc.)
  2. Choose a single character that appears in two or more of Chrétien's works and compare the treatment in each.
  3. Choose a character type in one of Chrétien's romances (e.g. magical temptresses) and discuss the use of the type in the work (don't just describe each example; discuss why the author uses them).
  4. Choose a character type that appears in more than one of Chrétien's works and compare its use and importance in them.

2. Do a thematic study. Options are similar to those in #1. Trace a theme in a single work of Chrétien or compare treatment of the same theme in two works.

3. Do a study of the use of a symbol or motif in one or more of Chrétien's works. For this choice, it is especially important to make sure you understand the use of these literary terms. Even if you have done such a paper in the past, review their meaning in a literary handbook, e.g. Hugh Holman's Handbook to Literature.

4. Discuss the treatment of women in Chrétien (you may also include Geoffrey as a point of reference, but the focus should be on Chrétien).


1. Briefly research the background of the War of the Roses (and possibly Malory's role in it) and discuss its influence on his treatment of the Arthurian story. You may find what scholars have said about this influence, or you may apply your historical research to the text on your own, or both.

2. Do a character study of any important character in Malory's work. Remember that if you choose a continuing character like Arthur or Lancelot, you will have to decide whether you consider Malory's romances a unified cycle or separate works. If the former, you will want to trace the development of the character. If the latter, you may deal with the figure in only one romance, or you may compare the figure's treatment in two or more romances.

3. Compare any two important characters in Malory. Same proviso as in number 2.

4. Analyze some significant parallel besides character in Malory's work--parallel events, parallel images, parallels within the work or parallels between it and the Bible--and explain its importance to the story.

5. Identify some important theme in Malory's work and discuss his treatment of it. Examples: love and fidelity, loyalty, blood feud, division, magic, women, heroism, hubris, justice, impulsiveness, fate.


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Alternate Paper Topics

The Gawain-Poet

1. Do a character study of any important character in of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, concentrating on possible controversies of interpretation (should Gawain be ashamed of his behavior? is Bercilak a benevolent figure? what is the role of Morgan le Fay?).

2. Discuss the known Celtic analogues and the possible literary sources of SGGK (for which, see especially Larry Benson's Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and their significance to interpretation of the poem.

3. Analyze the structure of the narrative of SGGK as a key to understanding the themes.

4. Do a study of the symbolism in SGGK with a focus on a particular symbol or set of symbols (the Pentangle, the sash, the animals, the Green Knight himself).

5. Consider the degree to which SGGK (like Chrétien's work) can be read either as an ideal of chivalrous romance or as Christian moral satire.

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Paper Topics (for a Summer School course)

The purpose of this paper is for you to gain a greater sense of the breadth of medieval Arthurian legend by reading other versions from other branches and comparing them to the main stream of Geoffrey, Chrétien, and Malory. Choose one of the topics below. When writing about different versions of the same character, follow the spelling used by the individual text (e.g., "Guinevere" in Chrétien; "Guenivere" in Malory). If you have some other topic in mind, clear it with me first.

Length: 6-8 pages (double spaced, 1-inch margins, 12 point font)

Due date: Thursday, June 17

Topic 1: Arthur

Read Culhwch and Olwen (The Romance of Arthur, 25-58) and compare the depiction of Arthur and his court in the Welsh folk tradition to their depiction in the 12th-century literary traditions of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes. Consider anything that seems pertinent to a comparison/contrast, including characterization, the role of women and of love, the depiction of social customs, types of adventure, and the use of supernatural elements.

Topic 2: The Affair

Read versions of the Tristan story in The Romance of Arthur, 225-303 (Béroul, Marie de France, Thomas of Britain, and the anonymous Cantare on the Death of Tristan) and compare those treatments of the adulterous affair to the treatment of the Lancelot-Guinevere story in eitherChrétien or Malory (not both). Pay particular attention to the way the different stories approach the moral difficulty of adultery through either sympathetic or critical depictions of the people involved.

Topic 3: Gawain

Read The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur (The Romance of Arthur, 365-397), The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (The Romance of Arthur, 467-487), and "The Marriage of Sir Gawaine" (Modern Arthurian Literature, 108-118) and compare the depiction of Gawain in these works with his characterization in Malory. (This may require reading ahead in Malory, since Gawain is an important figure in the last two sections of Le Morte Darthur.)

Topic 4: Merlin

Read the excerpts from The Prose Merlin and The Suite du Merlin (The Romance of Arthur, 305-363), and compare the depiction and function of the character Merlin in these stories with his depiction in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Malory.

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Last revised: August 5, 2014
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