Arthur, legendary king of the Britons in ancient times,
and the major figure in Arthurian
legend. Arthur expelled foreigners
from Britain, brought peace to the country, and established
a kingdom based on justice, law, and morality. He held court
at his castle at Camelot and instituted an order
known as the knights
of the Round Table. Eventually his realm crumbled, and
his illegitimate son Mordred
grievously wounded him in battle. Many versions of Arthurian
legend say that Arthur will someday return, when he is again
needed by Britain.
Arthur is the son of King Uther Pendragon
and the lady Ygraine (who was
married to Gorlois, the duke of Cornwall, when Arthur was
conceived). After Arthur is born, the magician Merlin
gives him to a man named Hector (also called Antor) to be
raised with Hector's son, Kay. Arthur grows up as a commoner,
but then he alone succeeds at a test devised to choose Uther's
successor: Arthur draws a sword from a stone (or, in some
versions of the story, from an anvil).
of his humble origins, Arthur must overcome strong opposition
from the British nobles to his royal claim, but eventually
he is crowned. To help him in his task of leading Britain,
he receives a great sword, Excalibur,
offered by a hand that rises mysteriously from a lake. To
defeat Britain's enemies, Arthur undertakes a series of
wars, conquests, and invasions. After Arthur completes these,
Britain has a long period of peace and security. Arthur
sets up the Round Table as a meeting place for his knights.
The shape of the table ensures that all who sit around it
are equal in status.
meets and marries the lady Guinevere, but she and Lancelot,
one of Arthur's favored knights, eventually fall in love,
and their relationship divides Camelot. The ruin of the
kingdom is hastened by the quest for the Holy Grail, the
sacred cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. However
worthy an enterprise the quest may be, it takes Arthur's
best knights away from court and leads many of them to their
deaths. Once Arthur discovers Lancelot and Guinevere's love
affair, his own system of justice requires that he condemn
his wife to death. Lancelot rescues her, however, initiating
a war between his forces and those of Arthur and the knight
the conflict with Lancelot, Arthur learns that the Romans
plan to attack him. He fights and defeats them, but at the
same time his illegitimate son (or, in some texts, his nephew),
Mordred, tries to usurp the throne. Arthur then battles
Mordred in a terrible conflict on Salisbury Plain that leaves
many knights dead. Arthur kills Mordred, but before dying,
the young man gravely wounds the king.
death, Arthur orders one of his knights (Bedivere or Girflet,
depending on the story) to throw Excalibur into a lake,
so that the sword cannot fall into the wrong hands. Versions
of the legend differ about Arthur's fate thereafter. Some
say that he dies and is buried, others tell that a boat
(usually containing a number of women, including Arthur's
half sister Morgan le Fay) takes
him away to the island of Avalon.
Many works promise that Arthur will return when Britain
again needs him to subdue the nation's enemies and to bring
peace and security to the land.
The Welsh historian Nennius first mentioned Arthur by name
in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons),
but a full account of his life did not appear until about
300 years later, in the Historia Regum Britanniae (1136?;
History of the Kings of Britain) by Welsh writer Geoffrey
of Monmouth. Late-12th-century French writer Chrétien de
Troyes composed romances about the legend, but he was primarily
interested in Arthur's knights, not in the king himself.
The Vulgate Cycle, a series of tales written in French from
1215 to 1235, devotes thousands of pages to the Arthurian
English, one of the most important Arthurian achievements
is Le morte d'Arthur (1469-1470; The Death of Arthur) by
Sir Thomas Malory. This work draws together the full Arthurian
story from a variety of sources. After enduring a period
of lack of interest from the 1500s to the 1700s, Arthurian
themes again became popular in the 1800s. English poet Alfred,
Lord Tennyson helped spur enthusiasm with his Idylls of
the King (1859-1885), a series of poems on Arthurian subjects.
the late 19th century and the 20th century, Arthur and his
knights served as the subjects of hundreds of works. Some
authors offered humorous takes, as in A Connecticut Yankee
in King Arthur's Court (1889) by American writer Mark Twain.
In this book, an American travels back in time to King Arthur's
period, allowing Twain to contrast the modern and medieval
worlds. Most authors, however, took the legend seriously
and either recast the basic story as historical fiction
or adapted it to emphasize particular themes. For example,
English writer T. H. White, in The Once and Future King
(1938-1958), pays special attention to Merlin by approaching
the story through the eyes of a young Arthur being educated
by Merlin. American writer Marion Zimmer Bradley, in The
Mists of Avalon (1982), explores the Arthurian world
from the point of view of the female characters, giving
them more voice than they had in most previous works, and
paying attention to the relationships the women have with
other writers have updated Arthur's story to the present
or adapted it as science fiction, fantasy, or even murder
mystery. Many modern authors make the characters more complex
and more human than earlier writers did, even emphasizing
Arthur's flaws. Yet the majority of those authors have retained
the notion of a King Arthur who, despite his imperfections,
remains a noble and larger-than-life figure.
By: Norris J. Lacy, A.B., M.A., Ph.D. Edwin Erle Sparks
Professor of French, The Pennsylvania State University.
Editor of The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Honorary President,
International Arthurian Society.
Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 http://encarta.msn.com
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