Matter of Britain, Le Morte d'Arthur, Idylls of the King
The Arthurian legends are stories about the character of King Arthur. They form an important part of Britain's national mythology. Arthur may be based on a real person from history, possibly a Celtic warlord of the late 400s ce. The legends, however, have little to do with history. They blend Celtic mythology with medieval romance, and feature such well-known elements as the magic sword Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail , the cup from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper. Arthur's court at Camelot has been idealized as a kind of perfect society, with a just and wise king guiding his happy people.
The Arthurian legends exist in numerous versions and can be interpreted in various ways. They include tales of adventure filled with battles and marvels, a tragic love story, an examination of what it means to be king, and an exploration of the conflict between love and duty. The legends tell the story of the mighty King Arthur who brought order to a troubled land. He might have gone on to rule the world if passion and betrayal had not disrupted his perfect realm and contributed to his death.
Like many heroes of myth and legend, Arthur is of royal birth; however, until he comes of age and claims his throne, he does not know the truth about who he is. Arthur must defeat many enemies before becoming king. Some of these defeated kings and noblemen are so impressed by him that they swear to remain his loyal servants.
Like Finn , the legendary Irish hero, Arthur is surrounded by a band of devoted followers. In early versions of the tales, these were warriors and chieftains, but once the tales were set in the Middle Ages, his followers became courtly knights. Their number varies from a dozen to more than a hundred, depending on the source. A few of the knights, especially Gawain (pronounced gah-WAYN), Galahad , and Lancelot , emerge as distinct personalities with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Not all the legends focus on King Arthur. Many deal with the Knights of the Round Table, who ride out from King Arthur's court at Camelot to do good deeds and perform brave feats. The most honorable and difficult of all their actions is the search for the Holy Grail. Of all the knights, only Galahad is pure enough to succeed in this quest.
Magical Power and Human Weakness Supernatural beings and events play an important part in the Arthurian legends. Before Arthur is born, his destiny is shaped by the wizard Merlin , who later serves as the king's adviser and helper. Another powerful magical figure is the witch Morgan Le Fay, who works for good in some versions of the legends and for evil in others. She is sometimes referred to as Arthur's half sister.
Arthur becomes king by gaining possession of the enchanted sword Excalibur. There are two versions of how Arthur gets the sword. In one, Excalibur is in a stone, and all believe that whoever can pull the sword from the stone will be the true king. Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and claims the throne. In the other version, Arthur is given the sword by the ”Lady of the Lake” (a water spirit probably of ancient Celtic origin).
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table battle a number of giants and monsters—supernatural creatures that figure often in the legends—but the tragic aspect of the legends arises not from spells cast by wicked sorcerers or the actions of vicious enemies but from the behavior of people closest to the king. Guinevere (pronounced GWEN-uh-veer), Arthur's queen, and Lancelot, his beloved friend and best knight, betray Arthur by becoming lovers. Like the appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden , their betrayal introduces disorder and deception into what had been a perfect world.
Mordred , Arthur's jealous nephew, uses Guinevere's affair to destroy the unity of the Round Table. Eventually, Mordred goes to war against Arthur. Some versions of the story make Arthur and his half sister Morgause (pronounced mor-GAWZ) Mordred's parents, placing part of the blame for the fall of Camelot on the king's youthful sin of incest.
Arthurian Legends in Context
The earliest Arthurian legends blended Celtic history and myth. Scholars have not been able to determine if King Arthur is based on a person who really existed, even though several early histories of Britain mention him. These histories suggest he may have been a Celtic war leader who helped defend Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders in the 400s or 500s ce.
The role of Celtic mythology in the early Arthurian legends is much more definite. Many of the characters and adventures associated with Arthur come from older myths. Arthur himself may be based on the legendary Welsh priest-king Gwydion (pronounced GWID-yon), and Merlin clearly comes from Myrddin (pronounced MIRTH-in), who appears as both a prophet and a madman in Welsh and Scottish lore. Scholars believe that the Arthurian legends took shape sometime after about 500 ce, when the Celts began to attach familiar myths to new stories about a war hero named Arthur.
Arthurian legends are primarily rooted in the mythology of Wales, but Arthur also appears in Irish folklore and literature. In early tales, he is the son of the king of Britain. He steals dogs belonging to Finn, a legendary Irish hero drawn from the same ancient Celtic sources as Arthur himself. During the Middle Ages, Irish storytellers and writers produced their own versions of the Arthurian tales. They also used Arthurian characters in later Irish stories. In one such story from the 1400s ce, Sir Gawain helps the king of India, who has been turned into a dog, to recover his proper form.
Key Themes and Symbols
The Round Table is a key symbol in the legends of King Arthur. It represents the unbroken bond between the knights, all of whom are dedicated to the same goals. Since the table does not have a “head,” each knight is given a position of equal importance. The idea of equality was important to the knights of Arthurian legend.
Another important theme in Arthurian legend is the idea of Arthur as an eternal, or timeless king. When Arthur finally falls in battle, he is carried away to the mythical and sacred isle of Avalon, off the west coast of Wales. Arthur's wounds heal on Avalon and he returns to Britain to help solve a future crisis. Some scholars have seen similarities between Arthur and sun gods who die and sink into the west only to be reborn.
Arthurian Legends in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Writers during the Middle Ages created new versions of the Arthurian legends. In the early 1100s, an Englishman named Geoffrey ofMonmouth produced the History of the Kings of Britain, which presented Arthur as a national hero. New influences, such as Christianity, transformed the ancient legends. An old Celtic Arthurian tale about the search for a magic cauldron, or kettle, for example, became a quest for the Christian Holy Grail. Another key influence was the medieval concept of chivalry, the code of conduct that inspired the courdy behavior of the Knights of the Round Table.
Numerous versions of the Arthurian legends were produced during the Middle Ages. French writer Chrétien de Troyes wrote poems on Arthurian subjects between 1155 and 1185. He focused on magic and marvels and introduced the theme of the quest for the Holy Grail. The Grail also inspired Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German who wrote his epic poem Parzival around 1200. Other romances of the period developed the character of Merlin and featured the romantic entanglement of Lancelot and Guinevere.
In 1485 Sir Thomas Malory, an Englishman, wove together many strands of the Arthurian legends in a volume called Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur). The best-known version of the legends, Malory's work has served as the basis of most modern interpretations. Many writers since Malory have adapted the Arthurian legends. In 1859 the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson published the first part of Idylls of the King, a book-length poem about Arthur and his knights. Between 1917 and 1927, the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson published three poems on Arthurian subjects: Merlin, Lancelot, and Tristram.
One of the most popular modern Arthurian novels is T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958), which originally appeared in four separate volumes over the course of two decades. Other writers, such as Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley, have retold the Arthurian story from different points of view, including those of the women in Arthur's life. The legends have also inspired the Broadway musical Camelot (I960), made into a film in 1967, and the films A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949) and Excalibur (1981).
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The three years during which President John F. Kennedy led the United States (1961-1963) are sometimes referred to as “Camelot.” Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the brief but memorable administration of President John F. Kennedy. Why do you think this administration was referred to as Camelot? What similarities or differences do you see between it and the Camelot of Arthurian legend? Are there elements, such as the fate of Arthur, that seem to be mirrored in these historical events?