Arthurian Legend, group of tales in several languages that
concern the legendary King Arthur
of the Britons, his realm, and the knights of his inner
circle. The legend is one of the most enduring tales in
recorded history. It first appeared in the 5th or 6th century
AD and took its basic form between the 12th and 15th centuries.
It continues as a popular subject in modern times.
legend presents Arthur as a leader
in ancient times who defeats the Saxons
and other enemies. He thereby unites the people of Britain
in peace and harmony. Eventually his kingdom weakens from
within—in part because of the illicit love between Arthur's
queen, Guinevere, and the knight
Lancelot—and Arthur himself
is struck down by his own illegitimate son, Mordred.
Many stories then say that Arthur is taken to the island
of Avalon for his wounds to be
healed. The legend tells that he will return in the hour
of Britain's greatest need.
Arthur is conceived when King Uther
Pendragon falls in love with a married woman, Ygraine,
and arranges for the magician Merlin
to transform him into the likeness of Ygraine's husband.
The husband, Gorlois, dies in battle, and Arthur's parents
marry soon thereafter.
Merlin exacts a price for his assistance. Uther and Ygraine
must give to him the child who will be born. When Arthur
is born, Merlin delivers him to Hector (also called Antor),
who raises Arthur alongside his own son, Kay, and trains
him to be a squire to Kay once Kay becomes a knight. When
King Uther dies, the land is left without a leader, so one
must be chosen. Ensuing events take different forms from
text to text, but virtually all include the story of the
Sword in the Stone.
to legend, Merlin announces to the assembled barons that
God has established a test to identify the chosen successor
to Uther. Before the cathedral they find a great stone,
topped by an anvil in which a sword is embedded. Merlin
informs them that no one other than the intended king will
be able to draw the sword. All those present try and fail
the test. Meanwhile, Arthur is sent to find Kay's sword.
Unable to do so, he sees the sword in the stone and easily
draws it. The barons make him repeat the test a number of
times because they do not want to be ruled by a young commoner,
but they eventually recognize his claim to the throne.
Merlin as his adviser, Arthur begins his reign. He first
fights Britain's enemies, and early texts describe him defeating
the Saxons, Picts, and Scots and overrunning Ireland and
Iceland. His conquests are made easier because of his marvelous
sword, first called Caliburn and later known as Excalibur.
He receives the sword from a hand that emerges from a lake.
(In some versions of the story, Excalibur is the Sword in
rules his land from Camelot, his favorite castle,
and he meets, courts, and marries a beautiful young woman
named Guinevere. Following his initial wars, he and his
followers enjoy a period of peace, during which he founds
a fellowship of knights known as the society of the Round
Table. The shape of the table that serves as the group's
meeting place ensures that all who sit around it are equal
come from every land to be knighted by Arthur and to seek
fame as members of the Round Table fellowship. One of the
finest knights is a young Frenchman named Lancelot. He quickly
becomes one of Arthur's favorites, but he also falls in
love with Queen Guinevere, and she with him. Their illicit
love is one of the major causes for the eventual destruction
of Arthur's kingdom. But Arthur's own flaws contribute to
his downfall as well. Despite his valor and wisdom, he fathers
a son named Mordred with his half sister Morgause. (Some
versions present Mordred as Arthur's nephew rather than
as his illegitimate son.)
and quests are an essential element of chivalry, and eventually
most of Arthur's knights embark on the greatest quest of
all, the quest for the Holy Grail, which is understood to
be the chalice that Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper.
All the finest knights at the court swear to seek the Grail,
however long the search might take. Arthur is displeased
by these events, because he knows that the quest means the
end of Camelot. Indeed, many of his best knights die in
the quest, some of them even killing one another.
Arthur fathers an illegitimate son, so too does Lancelot,
although he does so while under a spell that makes him think
the woman (named Elaine) is actually Guinevere. Lancelot's
son, Galahad, is entirely free
of sin and weakness, and thus he alone is ultimately qualified
to complete the quest and find the Holy Grail. (Sir Bors
and Sir Percival accompany him, but they are excluded from
the final holy vision that appears to Galahad as he reaches
the quest is ended, peace does not last, and eventually
Arthur's armies are embroiled in new wars, including one
with the Romans, who demand tribute from Arthur and provoke
a battle. Not all the conflicts involve foreign enemies,
however. When Arthur discovers Lancelot and Guinevere's
love affair, his system of justice requires that Guinevere
be arrested and condemned to death. Lancelot flees but then
returns to rescue her. During the ensuing battle, Lancelot
kills the brothers of Sir Gawain, who remain loyal
to Arthur. As a consequence, Gawain and Lancelot, formerly
the closest of friends, become enemies.
absence from court while battling the Romans and pursuing
Lancelot offers Mordred the opportunity to seize the throne.
He attempts to do so by buying the allegiance of Arthur's
barons, and some texts say that he either marries Guinevere
or attempts to do so after lying to her and telling her
that Arthur is dead. The king learns of Mordred's treason
and returns to reclaim his rights.
a great battle on Salisbury Plain, Arthur kills Mordred,
but before dying the young man strikes Arthur a grievous
blow. Arthur orders that his sword be thrown into the lake
to prevent it from falling into unworthy hands. Twice his
orders are disobeyed. The third time they are followed,
and as Excalibur nears the water, a hand mysteriously rises
from beneath the surface to grasp it and disappear.
ultimate fate is uncertain. Some tales say that he dies,
and that his body is either buried or taken away, never
to be seen again. Most stories, however, preserve the idea
of Arthur's immortality. They tell that, although gravely
wounded, Arthur does not die. A group of women (usually
including Arthur's half sister Morgan
le Fay) takes him and they sail away to the island of
Avalon. There his wounds will be healed, and eventually
he will return to Britain.
Literary Treatment of the Legend
Between the 6th and 12th centuries, a number of documents
appeared that mention Arthur briefly or allude to some events
that would later be associated with him. They do not prove
that a historical Arthur existed, but they do provide evidence
of a legend forming around the idea of a great king who
saved the Britons from their Saxon enemies. These texts
include the poem Y Gododdin by 6th-century Welsh bard Aneirin,
the mid-9th century Historia Britonum by Welsh historian
Nennius, and the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales
that first started appearing in the 11th century.
about 1136 Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his
Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain),
which describes King Arthur leading the Britons to victory
and then presiding over a period of peace. Geoffrey's work
is a combination of history, legend, and imagination, and
it launched widespread retellings of the Arthurian legend.
1155 the Anglo-Norman chronicler Wace translated Geoffrey's
work into French as the Roman de Brut (Story of Brutus).
Wace was the first to write of the Round Table. Within a
few years, French writer Chrétien de Troyes created a new
fictional form known as Arthurian romance. Chrétien focused
primarily on the characters surrounding the king. He emphasized
chivalric adventure, although he also suggested that chivalry
can be a vain pursuit as much as an ennobling ideal. Chrétien
first mentioned Camelot, and he also introduced Lancelot.
In his final romance, Perceval, ou le conte du graal (1190?;
Percival, or the Story of the Grail), Chrétien introduced
the theme of the Grail, which was for him a holy object,
although not yet the chalice from which Jesus Christ drank
at the Last Supper (an identification that would be made
soon after Chrétien's death).
themes became the principal subjects of Arthurian texts
composed in virtually every European language. In Germany,
for example, Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote the epic poem
Parzival (1210?). Chrétien's two major innovations—the love
between Lancelot and Guinevere and the quest for the Grail—became
the core of the massive 13th-century Lancelot-Grail Cycle,
also known as the Vulgate Cycle. This cycle of five romances,
running to thousands of pages, depicts the history of the
Grail going as far back as the biblical figures of David,
Solomon, and Joseph of Arimathea before telling of Merlin,
Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the destruction
of the Round Table fellowship.
Vulgate Cycle was translated or adapted even more widely
than were Chrétien's romances. In English it was one of
the major sources for Le morte d'Arthur (1469-1470; The
Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory. Malory drew together
Arthurian stories from a variety of French and English sources,
beginning before Arthur's conception and extending past
his departure to Avalon. Malory's work thus traces the full
rise and fall of the Arthurian world.
influence was immense but not immediate. From the 16th century
through the 18th century, the popularity of the Arthurian
legend waned throughout Europe. But once Malory's work was
rediscovered early in the 19th century, it led to an explosion
of Arthurian literature that has continued to contemporary
English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a series of poems
called Idylls of the King (1859-1885). Tennyson used the
Arthurian past as a model against which he could measure
the ugliness he found in the increasingly industrialized
society of his century. Yet instead of idealizing the Arthurian
reign as an enduring golden age, he emphasized that its
glory was transitory and suggested that sin eventually led
to the ruin of the Arthurian world. In one of the Idylls,
"The Holy Grail," Tennyson moves away from the traditional
depiction of the quest as a noble venture, suggesting instead
that the loss of the Grail is a consequence of sin and that
the search for it distracts knights from more appropriate
Tennyson's pessimism, his poetry, along with Malory's work,
fired the imagination of hundreds of poets, dramatists,
and novelists. Many of them assumed that Arthur had lived
or that, at least, his legend evoked a glorious past in
which ideals and heroism flourished. A few authors took
King Arthur less seriously, seeing an opportunity for humor
and satire in the legend's marvels, magic, and exaggerated
best-known use of humor in an Arthurian creation is A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) by American author
Mark Twain. By having a modern man travel back to Arthur's
time, Twain contrasted medieval and modern customs. The
ingenuity and the technological superiority of the Connecticut
Yankee make him a success in Arthur's world, and he shows
up Merlin as a foolish fraud. Arthur himself is portrayed
as goodhearted but simple and buffoonish. Eventually, the
novel becomes more grim, and Twain suggests that technological
advances, such as guns, have not made people more civilized,
just more efficient.
of the most popular modern Arthurian authors is Englishman
T. H. White. He wrote four novels—The Sword in the Stone
(1938), The Witch in the Wood (1939), The Ill-Made Knight
(1940), and The Candle in the Wind (1958)—that appeared
together in 1958 in the single volume The Once and Future
King. (A fifth work, The Book of Merlyn, was published in
1977, a number of years after White's death.) The Once and
Future King begins on a light and playful tone, as Merlyn
(White's spelling) educates Arthur on how to be king. As
the work progresses, it becomes pessimistic and cynical,
offering observations about cruelty, war, and death. At
the end, Arthur realizes that his vision of a strong and
united England will survive even though Camelot has crumbled.
writer Mary Stewart wrote several Arthurian novels, three
of them forming a trilogy about Merlin: The Crystal Cave
(1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment
(1979). These novels tell the whole life of the magician,
from his youth to the assistance he gives Arthur and on
to his final disappearance from the world. American writer
Marion Zimmer Bradley's work The
Mists of Avalon (1982) is one of a number of modern
novels written about Arthurian women. It tells the traditional
Arthurian story, but through the eyes and perspectives of
the female characters—Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, the lady
Viviane, and others—some of whom are stronger and more independent
than they are in earlier accounts.
addition to the titles discussed in this article, there
are several thousand other Arthurian works, written from
the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) up to present
times. The Arthurian story is not only retold and reinterpreted,
it is also regularly recast in science fiction and fantasy,
in political tracts and social satire, and in light comedies
and serious efforts to depict the sometimes dark realities
of the medieval world.
The Legend in Art, Music, and Motion Pictures
Arthurian themes have appealed to people working in many
branches of the arts. Arthurian subjects frequently appeared
in medieval illuminated manuscripts, and medieval artists
also interpreted the legend through drawings, carvings,
sculpture, and mural painting.
art, like the literature devoted to the legend, became less
popular after the Middle Ages ended in the 15th century,
but, again like the literature, it experienced a dramatic
rebirth in the 19th century and has flourished ever since.
Particularly prominent was a group of artists known as Pre-Raphaelites.
The group was organized in 1848 by English poet and painter
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and joined by other artists and writers,
including Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones and William Morris.
The Pre-Raphaelite group used Arthurian themes in paintings,
murals, tapestries, stained glass, and other media.
have interpreted the Arthurian legend through music since
the times of medieval troubadours. From the post-medieval
period, the most substantial early musical adaptation was
King Arthur, or the British Worthy (1691), a vocal and instrumental
work by English composer Henry Purcell written to accompany
a text by English poet John Dryden. It combines heroic themes
and mysterious rites with moments of lighter music. From
the late 1600s on, and especially since the early 19th century,
composers have created oratorios, instrumental pieces, ballets,
and at least 50 operas based on the legend. The most famous
operas are Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Parsifal (1882)
by German composer Richard Wagner; these works concern characters
closely identified with the Arthurian story. Tristan und
Isolde tells of two characters united in a tragic and irresistible
love. Parsifal presents Percival's spiritual awakening during
his quest for the Holy Grail.
the 20th century, beginning with a 1904 production of Parsifal
by American director Edwin Porter, filmmakers have been
drawn to the story of King Arthur—for example, A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court has been filmed repeatedly.
In English, the most prominent Arthurian motion pictures
are Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Excalibur
(1981), the latter directed by English filmmaker John Boorman.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a comic masterpiece that
captures both the idealism and the absurdity of an endless
adventure. Excalibur, a more serious work, tells the entire
Arthurian story as Sir Thomas Malory presents it, from Arthur's
birth and the Sword in the Stone to Lancelot and Guinevere's
love, and on to the king's final grievous wound.
prominent films include the animated picture The Sword in
the Stone (1963), about the education of the young Arthur,
and Camelot (1967), based on the Broadway musical of the
same name. T. H. White's work inspired both films. Some
movies recast Arthurian motifs in modern form, as in The
Fisher King (1991), a story of personal redemption by characters
involved with a modern Grail. Others, including Indiana
Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), use the Grail as an impetus
for swashbuckling adventure.
films in other languages are less numerous, but in some
cases these films are outstanding. In France, Robert Bresson
directed Lancelot of the Lake (1974), a story of Lancelot's
adventures, and Eric Rohmer directed a rendering of Chrétien
de Troyes's medieval Grail story in Perceval le Gallois
(Perceval the Welshman, 1978). German films include Richard
Blank's Parzival (1980) and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Parsifal
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.
Legend," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 http://encarta.msn.com
© 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.