Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Tennyson's Idylls of the King
Son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall
King Arthur was a legendary ruler of Britain whose life and deeds became the basis for a collection of tales known as the Arthurian legends. As the leading figure in British mythology, King Arthur is a national hero and a symbol of Britain's heroic heritage. But his appeal is not limited to Britain. The Arthurian story—with its elements of mystery, magic, love, war, adventure, betrayal, and fate—has touched the popular imagination and has become part of the world's shared mythology.
The Celts blended stories of the warrior Arthur with those of much older mythological characters, such as Gwydion (pronounced GWID-yon), a Welsh priest-king. Old Welsh tales and poems place Arthur in traditional Celtic legends, including a hunt for an enchanted wild pig and a search for a magic cauldron, or kettle. In addition, Arthur is surrounded by a band of loyal followers who greatly resemble the disciples of Finn , the legendary Irish hero.
As time went on, the old Celtic elements of King Arthur's story were buried under new layers of myth. Some versions claimed that Arthur was descended from Aeneas (pronounced i-NEE-uhs), the legendary founder of Rome. This detail linked British mythology with that of ancient Greece and Rome. As Britain came under Anglo-Saxon rule, Arthur became an idealized leader, a symbol of national identity who had once united all the warring chiefdoms of the British Isles. In some accounts, he led his armies across Europe, much like Alexander the Great of the ancient world.
Christianity also played a role in the stories about Arthur. Some scholars have compared Arthur, a good man betrayed by those closest to him, to Jesus, who was betrayed by his trusted disciple Judas. In time, Arthur's story would be interpreted as a tale of Christian virtues and vices.
Literary Development Modern scholars can trace the changes in King Arthur's story through the works of particular medieval writers. The most important of these writers was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived and worked between about 1100 and 1155. His History of the Kings of Britain contains the most detailed account of King Arthur written up to that time. Geoffrey drew upon Welsh folklore and possibly upon earlier histories; but his Arthur, a conquering national hero, is mainly his own literary creation.
Geoffrey's work introduced King Arthur to a wide audience. Soon, English and European writers were producing their own versions of Arthur's life and adding new characters, adventures, and details. Sir Thomas Malory, an English writer, wove various strands of myth and history into a lengthy volume called Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) that placed King Arthur firmly in the medieval world. Published in 1485, it became the best-known and most widely read account of the legendary king. Modern images of Arthur—illustrated in books, movies, comic books, and cartoons—are largely based on Malory's story.
Arthur's Life and Deeds Arthurian legends are filled with themes common to ancient stories shared around the globe. Although supernatural elements, such as magic, wizards, and giants , play key roles in the story, at its heart is the simple drama of a man struggling to live by the highest standards in a world of human weakness. According to Malory, Arthur was the son of a king named Uther (pronounced OO-ther) Pendragon, who fell in love with Igraine (pronounced EE-grain), wife of Duke Gorlois (pronounced gor-LOW-iss) of Cornwall. With the aid of a wizard named Merlin , Uther disguised himself as Gorlois and conceived a child with Igraine. (Some versions say that Uther married Igraine after Gorlois died.) Their child, born at Tintagel (pronounced tin-TAJ-uhl) Castle in Cornwall, was named Arthur.
Merlin took charge of the boy's upbringing, arranging for a knight named Sir Hector to raise Arthur as his foster son. When King Uther died, he left no known heir to the throne. It was said that the person who succeeded in pulling the magical sword Excalibur from the stone that held it would be the next king. The greatest knights in the land accepted the challenge, but none managed to extract the sword. When Sir Hector brought young Arthur to London, the boy was able to withdraw the sword with ease, thus proving that he was meant to be king of England; at a later point in Arthur's story, however, Malory says that he received the sword from a mysterious figure called the Lady of the Lake. Either way, Arthur became king and gained possession of Excalibur. The wise magician Merlin helped him defeat the rebellious lesser kings and nobles who did not want Arthur to be king.
King Arthur was visited by Morgause (pronounced mor-GAWZ), wife of King Lot of the Orkney Islands. Morgause, a daughter of Igraine, was Arthur's half-sister. Among her children was Gawain (pronounced gah-WAYN), Arthur's nephew, who later became one of his loyal supporters. Morgause then bore a younger son, Mordred. In some versions of the story, Mordred was Arthur's child, the result of a relationship with his half-sister.
The Fate of the King Arthur fell in love with Guinevere (pronounced GWEN-uh-veer), daughter of King Leodegrance (pronounced lee-oh-duh-GRANTZ) of Cameliard, in southern England. But Merlin said that Arthur must fight in France before he could marry. As a result, Arthur and Guinevere were married after his triumphant return from France. As a present, Guinevere's parents gave Arthur a large round table for the knights who made up his court. This Round Table became the symbol of the fellowship of the brave knights who went on quests to defeat evil, help those in danger, and keep the kingdom safe. Among their quests was the search for the Holy Grail , the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper.
King Arthur made Camelot the seat of his court, and Merlin built a castle with a special chamber for the Round Table. After a time, though, trouble arose. Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot , Arthur's best friend and champion, became lovers. Mordred accused the queen of having an affair, an offense punishable by death. Lancelot defended her honor successfully, but the conflict destroyed the unity of the court. Some knights sided with Arthur, and others with Mordred. After several battles, Guinevere returned to Arthur.
Arthur left Mordred in charge of the kingdom while he went off to fight a military campaign. While the king was away, Mordred plotted against him, planning to marry Guinevere and become ruler of Britain. When Arthur returned and learned of the plot, he challenged Mordred to a battle.
Arthur and Mordred assembled their armies near the town of Salisbury, in southern England. While the two commanders discussed peace terms, someone saw a snake in the grass and drew his sword. In a flash, all the knights drew their weapons and started to fight. Arthur killed Mordred but suffered his own mortal wound in the process. He asked the sole survivor of the battle, Sir Bedivere, to take Excalibur and throw it into a particular lake. At first Sir Bedivere hesitated, but eventually he followed Arthur's command. As he did so, a hand rose from beneath the water, the hand of the Lady of the Lake, and caught the sword. Then a mysterious barge appeared. Sir Bedivere placed King Arthur on the barge, which carried him away to Avalon, a mythical and sacred isle in the west. There he would be cared for by Morgan Le Fay and healed of his wounds. Legend said that he would return one day when England once again needed him.
King Arthur in Context
King Arthur was born somewhere in the misty region where history and imagination meet. The original legends may have been based on a real person, but scholars have yet to determine who that person was. Whether real or imaginary, the story of Arthur has been shaped by the ancient myths and literary creations that developed around him. The courtly medieval king who appears in the best-known versions of Arthur's story is a creation of a later time.
Almost fifteen hundred years after the first known reference to Arthur was written, scholars still debate whether or not Arthur was based on a real person. Some believe that King Arthur may be based on a Romano-British war leader, possibly named Artorius, who defended the native Celtic people of Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders after Rome withdrew its troops from the British Isles in 410 ce. References to this hero appear in a book written around 550 by a Celtic monk named Gildas; in a work by Nennius, a Celtic historian of around 800; and in a genealogy from Wales compiled around 955 from earlier sources. According to these accounts, Artorius fought a series of battles against the Saxons sometime between 500 and 537.
A British researcher named Geoffrey Ashe proposed a different identity for Arthur. He based his theory on a letter that a Roman nobleman wrote around 460 to a British king named Riothamus. Linking this letter with medieval accounts of Arthur's deeds in France, Ashe suggested that Riothamus, who led a British army into France, was the man upon whom the Arthurian legends are based.
King Arthur has also been linked with Glastonbury in southwestern Britain. Old traditions claimed that early British Christians founded Glastonbury Abbey in the first or second century CE, with the earliest stone structure established in the seventh century. The abbey stood until a fire destroyed it in 1184. According to legend, Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, were buried nearby. Arthur's tomb bore these words: “Here lies Arthur, king that was, king that shall be.” Some chronicles say that King Henry II ordered the tomb opened in 1150 and that it contained Arthur's skeleton and sword. Modern scholars, though, have been unable to separate fact from legend.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the main themes of the King Arthur legend is the notion that “might makes right,” or that strength and power can be used to enforce a moral code. This moral code was known as chivalry, and included traits such as generosity, bravery, courtesy, and respect toward women. For a time, Camelot, the seat of King Arthur's court, seemed to be a perfect realm, free from wickedness. The Round Table represented the unbroken unity of the knights and their common purpose; however, the very knights charged with maintaining a moral standard ended up failing to uphold the standard themselves.
King Arthur in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Aside from the numerous retellings of the legend of King Arthur in classic literature, the character has remained popular in contemporary culture and art. His traditional story has been brought to newer generations by books such as T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958) and John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), which attempted to modernize the language of the tales for contemporary audiences.
King Arthur has also proven to be a popular character in film. Several versions of his legend have been created, including the 1963 Disney animated version The Sword in the Stone (based on T. H. White's novel) and the more historically based 2004 film King Arthur. Camelot (I960) was a successful Broadway musical production that was adapted to film in 1967. Excalibur, a 1981 John Boorman film based on the writings of Thomas Malory, is considered by some to be the finest adaptation of the King Arthur legend.
Many other books and films are based far more loosely on the legend of King Arthur, or simply include King Arthur as a character. Examples include Mark Twain's novels Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and films such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Shrek the Third (2007).
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
King Arthur and his court pledged themselves to behave in accordance with the code of chivalry. The code bound the knights to defend women from harm and treat them with honor as part of their knightly duties. Some modern feminists have criticized this attitude because it suggests that women are too weak to defend themselves and are dependent on men for help. At the same time, the modern phrase “Chivalry is dead” expresses a regret that men no longer treat women with the kind of respect that was once part of the code of chivalry. Can society have it both ways? Is it possible to treat all members of society with respect without fostering inequality? Some have argued that the death of chivalry is an unavoidable outcome of greater equality between the sexes. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Legendary king of England, son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine. It seems likely that Arthur was a sixth-century leader whose life and deeds became interwoven with romance mythology. The character of King Arthur is strongly identified with occult legends. Not only do we find his court a veritable center of happenings more or less supernatural, but his mysterious origin and the subsequent events of his career contain matter of considerable interest from an occult standpoint.
He is connected with one of the greatest magical names of early times— Merlin the Enchanter. It is possible that Merlin was originally a British deity who in later times degenerated from his high position in the popular imagination. There are many accounts concerning him, one of which states that he was the direct offspring of Satan himself, but that a zealous priest succeeded in baptizing him before his infernal parent could carry him off.
From Merlin, Arthur received much good advice, both magical and rational. Merlin was present when the king was gifted with his magic sword, Excalibur, which endowed him with practical invulnerability, and all through his career Merlin was deep in the king's counsels. Merlin's tragic imprisonment by the Lady Viviana, who shut him up eternally in a rock through the agency of one of his own spells, removed him from his sphere of activity at the Arthurian Court, and from that time the shadows were seen to gather swiftly around Arthur's head.
Innumerable are the tales concerning the knights of his court who met with magical adventures, and as the stories grew older in the popular mind, additions to these naturally became the rule. Of note is the offshoot of the Arthurian epic, known as the Holy Grail, in which the knights who go in quest of it encounter every description of sorcery for the purpose of retarding their progress.
Arthur's end is as strange as his origin, for he is wafted away by fairy hands, or at least by invisible agency, to the Isle of Avil-lion, which probably is the same place as the Celtic otherworld across the ocean.
As a legend and a tradition, that of Arthur is undoubtedly the most powerful and persistent in the British imagination. It has employed the pens and enhanced the dreams of many of the giants of English literature from the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth to the present day. Some claim Arthur was buried at Glastonbury, and tourists who visit are shown a tomb site and may purchase the replica of a cross with an inscription concerning Arthur.
De Troyes, Chrétien. Arthurian Romances (Erec and Enide; Cligés; Yvain; Lancelot). London, 1914.
Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986.
Reiss, Edmund, Louise Horner Reiss, and Beverly Taylor. Arthurian Legend and Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.
White, Terence H. The Once and Future King. London: Collins, 1958.
Wilhelm, James J., and Laila Zamuelis Gross, eds. The Romance of Arthur. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.
King Arthur ★★½ 2004 (PG-13)
The noble knights are recast as centurions fighting for Rome in Britain circa 500 A.D. Arthur is Artorius, a mercenary from a backwater colony fighting to earn back his freedom by pacifying Celts. He and his men don't like this one bit, especially when sent to rescue a rich brat favored by the Pope from encroaching Saxon invaders. The filmmakers claim historical accuracy. Well…maybe, but it's still just an excuse to recycle a classic western/war story: corrupt command sends band of hardened roughnecks on suicide mission. Nothing feels very novel about this novel idea, but it is a fun ride. Owen is a terrific Arthur, all brooding and steely. Knightley is perhaps the sexiest (and most proactive) Guinevere ever. Skaargard hams it up as a nasty proto-fascist villain. 130m/C DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD . GB IR Clive Owen, Stephen (Dillon) Dillane, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgard, Ray Winstone, Hugh Dancy, Ray Stevenson, Charlie Creed-Miles, Joel Edgerton, Ken Stott, Til Schweiger, Mads Mikkelsen, Sean Gilder, Ivano Marescotti, Lorenzo De Angelis; D: Antoine Fuqua; W: David Franzoni; C: Slawomir Idziak; M: Hans Zimmer.
King Arthur: see Arthurian legend.