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, chivalry, and fate, has touched the popular imagination and has become part of the world's shared mythology.
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, and the courtly medieval king who appears in the best-known versions of Arthur's story is a creation of a later time.
chivalry rules and customs of medieval knighthood
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about A . D . 500 to 1500
Historical Clues. Was there a real Arthur? Almost 1,500 years after the first known written reference to Arthur, scholars still debate this question. Some believe that King Arthur may be based on a 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 A . D . 410. 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
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
800; and in a history of Wales compiled around 955. According to these accounts, Artorius fought a series of battles against the Saxons sometime between 500 and 537.
A 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 source of the Arthur legend.
Mythological Connections. A historical figure may have contributed to the Arthur legend, but so did Celtic lore. The Celts blended stories of the warrior Arthur with those of much older mythological characters, such as Gwydion, 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. In addition, Arthur is surrounded by a band of loyal followers who greatly resemble those associated with the legendary Irish hero Finn.
As time went on, the old pagan and Celtic features of King Arthur's story were buried under new layers of myth. Some versions claimed that Arthur was descended from Aeneas*, the legendary founder of Rome. This detail connected 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 kingdoms of the British Isles. In some accounts, he led his armies across Europe, a mighty conqueror like Alexander the Great of the ancient world.
Christianity also played a role in the stories about Arthur. Some commentators have compared Arthur, a good man who was betrayed by those closest to him, to Jesus, who was betrayed by his trusted disciple Judas. In time, Arthur's story could 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.
cauldron large kettle
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
Geoffrey's work introduced King Arthur to a wider audience. Soon English and European writers were producing their own
Arthur's Life and Deeds
King Arthur's life includes many features found in myths from around the world, from his secret parentage to his final voyage to a paradise across the waters. 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 with human weakness.
Birth and Upbringing. According to Malory, Arthur was the son of a king named Uther Pendragon, who fell in love with Igraine, wife of Duke Gorlois 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 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 pull out the sword. When Sir Hector brought the young Arthur to London, he 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 Merlin helped him defeat the rebellious kings and nobles who opposed his kingship.
In time, King Arthur was visited by Morgause, wife of King Lot of the Orkney Islands. Morgause, a daughter of Igraine, was Arthur's half sister. Among her children was Gawain, Arthur's nephew, who became a loyal supporter of the king. Morgause then bore a much younger son, Mordred or Modred. In some versions of the story, Mordred was Arthur's child, the result of an incestuous relationship and thus, perhaps, destined to be the seed of Arthur's destruction.
King Arthur has long been linked with Glastonbury in southwestern Britain. Old traditions claimed that early British Christians founded an abbey church in Glastonbury in A . D . 166. The church 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 disentangle fact from legend.
The Fate of the King. Arthur fell in love with Guinevere, daughter of King Leodegran of Scotland. But Merlin said that Arthur must fight a campaign in France before he could marry. Once
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Arthur returned in triumph from France, the wedding took place. 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 undertook quests to defeat evil, help those in danger, and keep the land free. Among their quests was the search for the Holy Grail.
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 in the realm. Queen Guinevere and Lancelot, Arthur's friend and champion knight, became lovers. Mordred had the queen accused of adultery. Lancelot defended her honor, but the conflict destroyed the unity of the court. Some knights sided with Arthur, others with Mordred. After several battles, Guinevere returned to Arthur.
At a later time, 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 take over as ruler of Britain. When Arthur returned and learned of the plot, he went to battle with Mordred.
Holy Grail sacred cup said to have been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper
adultery sexual relationship between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse
The armies of Arthur and Mordred met near the town of Salisbury. 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 set upon one another. Arthur killed Mordred but was gravely wounded. He asked the sole survivor, Sir Bedivere, to throw Excalibur into a lake. At first, Sir Bedivere hesitated, but eventually he did as instructed. 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 sacred island 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's need of him was great.