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Tales Of King Arthur

Since the romanticizing of the Arthurian legends by Geoffery of

Monmouth, the historian, during the twelfth century, the legendary ‘king

of England’ has been the source of inspiration for kings, poets, artists

and dreamers alike. The most famous work is probably Sir Thomas Malory’s

Le Morte d’Arthur, completed around 1470, and published in many abridged

and complete versions. Malory’s work contains in one the legend that had

been continually added to over the years by many different writers who

introduced such elements as Sir Galahad, and the ill-fated love affair

between Lancelot and Guinevere. Geoffery of Monmouth had been the first

to put the legends surrounding Arthur into literary form in his History

of the Kings of Britain. He described Arthur’s genealogy as the son of

Uther Pendragon and Igerna, or Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall,

and brought in Merlin the magician, who disguised Arthur as the Duke in

order to romance Igerna at Tintagel Castle while the real Duke was away.

Geoffery also introduced Arthur’s famed court (placed at

Caerleon-on-Usk) and his final battle and defeat at the hands of Modred,

his treacherous nephew.

Artos Of The Celts

It is almost certain that Arthur did exist, although it is unlikely he

was a king. He is more likely to have been a warrior and Celtic cavalry

leader. The Saxon invaders, who were unmounted, would have been at a

considerable disadvantage against the speed with which the Celtic

company were able to move around the country, which would make possible

the dozen victories up and down the country that have been attributed to

the shadowy figure of Arthur. Around the fifth century, a resistance

movement against Britain’s invaders, including Saxons and Angles from

the continent, Picts from the North, and Irish from the West, was being

led which maintained a British hold on the South and West. Around this

time, a man named Artos was beginning to be written of as a powerful

soldier who united the leaders of the small British kingdoms against the

invading armies. It seems likely that he was a noble Celt. The first

mention of his victory in battle was written down around 600 AD, in a

set of church annals called the Annales Cambriae. He must have been a

glimmer of hope to the Britons, and it is not surprising that he might

have been thought of as a king.

Guinevere And The Court At Camelot

In the earliest tales of Arthur, there is no mention of his queen,

Guinevere; she was introduced by later writers, possibly to illustrate

how the dream world of Camelot fell from grace. When Guinevere first

appears in early Welsh stories, she is the daughter of a giant, but

later she becomes the daughter of King Leodegrance of the West Country.

In her original Welsh form of Gwenhwyfar, she was an folk figure before

being connected to Arthur, and may originally have been a lesser


Geoffery located Camelot at the very real Roman town of Caerleon in

South Wales; Malory placed it at Winchester, which was the headquarters

of the kings of Wessex and remained a royal seat after the Norman

invasion. Other stories place it near Arthur’s supposed birthplace at

Tintagel. Cadbury Castle in Somerset has been named as another possible

location of Camelot, which has been revealed during excavations to have

been occupied during the time of Arthur and to have been the

headquarters of a leader, if not a king. The real Arthur may have been

buried at Glastonbury Abbey, which lays around twelve miles north-west

of the castle. It is said to have been a secret burial, so the news of

his death would not raise Saxon morale; the mystery may have given rise

to the rumors that he still lived on. In 1190, the monks of Glastonbury

Abbey reported that they had dug up a coffin made from a hollow log, and

a lead cross inscribed with the name of Arthur, or Artos. Within were a

man’s bones, and a woman’s skeleton and mass of yellow hair found in the

same grave were said to belong to his queen, Guinevere.

The Knights Of The Round Table

The legend says that King Arthur chose the round table to ensure that no

one knight would have obvious authority over another. An earlier

addition to the story adds that the original table was part of

Guinevere’s dowry when she was married to Arthur. The Great Hall at

Winchester castle actually contains a round table, this one constructed

around the fourteenth century, and thought to have been built for

Arthurian tournaments held by King Edward III. The first mention of the

Round Table in literature are found in the writings of the poet Robert

Wace in 1155, but he refers to it as famous, and it seems to assume that

the readers would already know of that part of the story. So the actual

years in which the Round Table was introduced are unsure.

Arthur created the Order of the Round Table; an order of knights whose

vows were to live nobly and fight valiantly. King Edward III was so

inspired by the tales that he founded the Order of the Garter from a

wish to revive the loyalty, bravery and comradeship of the Round Table.

The tales of Arthur’s individual knights were added somewhat later that

the element of the Round Table itself. His most famous and loyal knight,

Lancelot, who would eventually betray him by the conducting of an

illicit affair with Guinevere, is not mentioned in any part of the

Celtic material. He is first found as the central hero in the French

Vulgate Cycle, written between 1215 and 1230. Sir Thomas Malory went to

the last three parts of this to find the material for his own work;

Lancelot which follows the knight’s lone adventures, the Queste del

Saint Graal, and the Mort Artu from which he took the romance of

Lancelot and Guinevere and how it brought the downfall of Arthur and


Tristram also enters Malory’s saga from much the same source, another

French collection of tales again from around 1230, called the Prose

Tristan. From here also comes the romance of Lancelot and Elaine of

Corbin, daughter of King Pelles, which resulted in the birth of the

perfect knight, Galahad. It was Galahad who was to succeed in what his

father had failed in persuing, the mystical Holy Grail. Malory draws

again from the French work for the other Elaine, Elaine le Blank, the

maid of Astolat, who died for love of Lancelot after finding he was

willing to be no more than her friend. Tennyson made her sad tale one of

his Arthurian poems, and his other work, The Lady Of Shallot, is also

based upon Elaine, who requested that after her death, her family place

her body in a barge and float it down the river, with a letter in her

hand to tell Lancelot and the royal court of the reason for her death.

The Faerie Queene

Morgan le Fay may be the figure present in the Arthurian saga with the

oldest history. The earliest form of her name is found as the Morrigan,

an Irish goddess of war appearing to heroes on the battlefields. As

Morgan, she is a goddess of healing in the early literature, who rules

over the magical island of Avalon, which seems then to be an afterworld

and place of rebirth. Geoffery of Monmouth made her an enchantress, one

of the ladies who took Arthur away to be healed after his final battle

at Camlan. Malory made her Arthur’s half-sister, one of the three

daughters of Igerna by her first husband the Duke of Cornwall, and the

mother of Modred, Arthur’s son, fathered in an incestuous affair. From

almost her first entrance, she is a dark figure bent on the ruin of

Arthur. Strangely, her last appearance is one of the three queens who,

with Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, Arthur’s good fairy, bears him away to


Out Of Life And Into Legend

The mysterious Isle of Avalon emerged as a legend of it’s own in early

Celtic writings. It was again Geoffery of Monmouth who first drew it’s

name into prominence again by merging it into the Arthurian story. The

most popular location of Avalon has been at Glastonbury in Somerset;

years previously, the hills in the center there were made an island by

the sea flow of the sea into the flat land, and the marshes still exist.

The flooding was later brought under control, and by the time of the

late fourteenth century poem, Le Morte Arthur, Avalon was referred to as

a vale.

According to the legend, Arthur’s nephew or son, Modred, used the

exposed affair of Lancelot and Guinevere to begin civil war, and Arthur

himself was seriously wounded at the battle of Camlan. He was carried

away to Avalon to have his wounds tended. Here can be seen the strongest

remaining influence of the other, older story that became confused with

the legend of Arthur; that of a Celtic god who was said to lay sleeping

in a cave on a remote Western Island. This god had once ruled over a

peaceful and happy kingdom, but had been overthrown. One day he would

rise again and return to rule. There are stories of this ilk that

explicitly name Arthur, such as the Wizard of Alderley edge, in which

Merlin the magician guards Arthur and his knights, who lay sleeping in a

cavern there until England once again needs them. Malory writes that

after Arthur sailed for Avalon, he died, and was buried in some other

place – but that over his grave is written the words, Here lays Arthur:

the once and future king.


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