The Arthurian legends, stories that revolve around the character of King Arthur, form an important part of Britain's national mythology. Arthur may be based on a historical person, possibly a Celtic * warlord of the A . D . 400s. The legends, however, have little to do with history. A blend of Celtic mythology and medieval romance, they feature such well-known elements as the magic sword Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail.
romance in medieval literature, a tale based on legend, love, and adventure, often set in a distant place or time
Holy Grail sacred cup said to have been J used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper
allegory literary and artistic device in J which characters represent an idea or a religious or moral principle
The Arthurian legends exist in numerous versions and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. They include tales of adventure filled with battles and marvels, a tragic love story, a Christian allegory, an examination of kingship, and an exploration of the conflict between love and duty. The legends tell the story of a mighty king 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 led to his death.
The King and His Knights. At the center of the legends is King Arthur. Like many heroes of myth and legend, he is of royal birth. But until he comes of age and claims his throne, his parents are unknown. Arthur must overcome many enemies to establish his claim to the throne, and some of the kings and noblemen he defeats are so impressed by him that they swear loyalty to him.
When Arthur finally falls in battle he is carried away to Avalon, a sacred island, to be healed of his wounds so that he can return to Britain during a future crisis. Some scholars have seen in Arthur echoes of pagan sun gods who die and sink into the west only to be reborn.
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 setting of the tales was fixed 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, Galahad, and Lancelot—emerge as distinct personalities with strengths and weaknesses.
Not all the legends focus on King Arthur. Many deal with the Knights of the Round Table, who ride out from the 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. Only Galahad is pure enough to succeed in this quest.
Magical Power and Human Weakness. Supernatural beings and events abound in the Arthurian legends. Even before Arthur's birth 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.
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
Arthur becomes king by gaining possession of the enchanted sword Excalibur, a token of power similar to many magical devices in mythology. Other supernatural elements in the Arthurian legends include the giants and monsters that Arthur and the knights frequently battle.
The tragic aspect of the legends, however, arises not from wicked sorcerers or vicious enemies but from the people closest to the king. Guinevere, his queen, and Lancelot, his beloved friend and champion knight, betray the king by becoming lovers. Like the appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, their adultery introduces discord and deception into what had been a perfect world.
Mordred, Arthur's jealous nephew, uses Guinevere's affair to tear the comradeship of the Round Table apart, and he eventually goes to war against Arthur. Some versions of the story make Mordred the son of Arthur and his half sister Morgause, placing part of the blame for the fall of Camelot on the king's youthful sin of incest.
Development of the Legends
The Arthurian legends took shape over hundreds of years. The versions that survive today reflect a number of sources and influences.
Early Sources. The earliest forms of the Arthurian legends blended Celtic history and myth. Scholars have not been able to determine whether King Arthur is based on a historical personage who really existed, although several early histories of Britain mention him. He may have been a Celtic war leader who helped defend Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders in the A . D . 400 S or 500s.
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, and Merlin clearly comes from Myrddin, 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, when the Celts began to attach familiar myths to new stories about a war hero named Arthur.
Medieval Literary Influences. Writers during the Middle Ages created new versions of the Arthurian legends. In the early 1100s, an Englishman named Geoffrey of Monmouth produced the History of the Kings of Britain, which presented Arthur as a national hero.
New influences, such as Christianity, entered the legends. An old Celtic tale about a search for a magic cauldron, for example, became transformed into the quest for the Holy Grail. Another key influence was the medieval concept of chivalry, the code of conduct that inspired the courtly behavior of the Knights of the Round Table.
The main Celtic source of the Arthurian legends was 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 new Irish stories. In one such story from the 1400s, Sir Gawain helps the king of India, who has been turned into a dog, recover his proper form.
adultery sexual relationship between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse
cauldron large kettle
chivalry rules and customs of medieval knighthood
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 around 1200. Other romances of the period developed the character of Merlin and 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 been the basis of most modern interpretations.
Modern Versions. 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). 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 (1960) and movies such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1948).
See also Arthur, King ; Avalon ; Camelot ; Celtic Mythology ; Excalibur ; Finn ; Galahad ; Guinevere ; Holy Grail ; Lady of the Lake ; Lancelot ; Merlin ; Morgan Le Fay ; Round Table ; Shallot, the Lady of .