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The Legend Of King Arthur Essay, Research Paper

The Legend of King Arthur

- The Origins and Different Interpretations of the Legend Today -

There are countless versions of the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Most English versions are based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, but where did these tales originate, and what different interpretations are there today? This essay seeks to examine the roots and different renditions of the various legends circulating today. The first section deals with the origins of the legend. The second section speculates on who the “real” King Arthur could have been. A comparison of several different versions, and suggestions of why they differ are given in the third section, and the conclusion presents an analysis on the ambiguity of the legend.

The first question is, when and where did these tales originate? It is said that the earliest stories concerning King Arthur are the Welsh tales “Culhwch and Olwen” and “Dream of Rhonabwy” dating from before the 1lth century (Ford web page).

Around 1139 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote “Historia Regum Britanniae” (History of the Kings of Britain) which ‘glorified Arthur and made him an international warlord’ (Green web page). There seems to be much debate over whether Geoffrey made these stories up or whether he took most of his information from an earlier British source unknown to us as he claims. It cannot be denied, however, that regardless of their historical credibility, it was because of them that the name of Arthur, strictly regional until then, spread to and inspired people all over the world.

The French medieval poet, Chretien de Troys, brought most of the characters and stories we know today to the legend at around 1160-90. He transformed the names of Geoffrey’s characters from Welsh to the medieval French used today, and he was the one who introduced the famous knights, Lancelot, Gawain and Percivale. He was also the first to use the name “Camelot” for Arthur’s headquarters, and it was he who first told us of the Grail, though he didn’t associate any religious meaning to it (It was Robert de Boron who is responsible for transforming the grail into a holy symbol, in 1210). He was “the first to supply the literary form of the romance, to the transmission of the stories of Arthur.” (Britannia web page)

In the early 13th century, the Vulgate Cycle is written, changing the stories from verse to prose. The material begins to take on more historical and religious overtones, and here the idea that Mordred is the incestuous son ofArthur is introduced (David Nash Ford web page).

In the 15th century, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte de Arthur is published. It is “the definitive English Athurian romance” (Britannia web page), and “With one stroke of his pen, he transformed Arthur’s Court from Dark Age obscurity to the height of middle age pageantry” (David Nash Ford web page). It is on this book that many of the modern versions are based, but by this time, it is mainly a work of literature, and there is little history left amongst his pages. From these roots, many famous poets and writers have been inspired. William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Matthew Arnold Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, C.S.Lewis, John Steinbeck, Mary Stuart, and many, many more According to Geoffrey Ashe, the popularity of this legend is due to the fact that the stories “appealed to a wide variety of interests, in an age when there wasn’t much in the way of imaginative fiction,” and that “there was something for everybody”. He also points out that it “embodies the dream of a golden age which is found in many societies and mythologies,” nd that “it’s something we’d like to believe in” (Britannia web page). The number of versions circulating today only goes to show how true this is.

But who exactly was King Arthur, and did he really exist? Various historians have debated over this, and there are many contradictory theories. Geoffrey of Monmouth presents him as a High King of Britain, son of Uther Pendragon and nephew to King Ambrosious. He is said to be born around 465 (Britannia web page). Geoffrey Ash however insists that he is Riothamus, a historical king in Brittany. The problem with this theory is that it pushes King Arthur back fifty years back from his traditional period at the beginning of the sixth century (David Nash Ford web page). Some say he was dated incorrectly and that he was really Caractus, the first century leader of British resistance to Rome, or Lucius Artorious Castus, a Roman commander in the second century (this is the first appearance of the name, Artorious, in history -Britannia website). There are also theories that he was a Welsh king, a Scottish prince, a Northern British king, or even a Roman emperor. When it comes this far, it is impossible to choose the most reliable theory. How can one say he was a British king fighting against the Romans, and a Roman emperor at the same time? Because of this, there is the view that Arthur was probably not originally a historical figure but rather a folkloric, heroic one (Thomas Green web page).

However, as you can tell from the fact that even a real British king – Edward I – claimed to be his successor, everyone wants to be part of that magical and mysterious legend that is King Arthur. It is because he is so shrouded in myth that so many conflicting theories can be founded, and we all feel so drawn to him. He is a myth and as long as he stays a myth, we can all continue speculating and expanding upon our dreams about the legend. It doesn’t really matter who he really was, or even if he existed at all. It is enough that he exists as a legend and continues to inspire us.

What of the legend itself, then? There are so many different versions (as in the case of the identity of King Arthur), and many of them contradict each other. There is also the problem of the relations of the characters. For example, Mordred is introduced as the incestuous son of King Arthur in most cases, but there are versions where he is presented as Morgan Le Faye’s son. One of the reasons may be because of an adaptation for children, but some authors may have blended Morgan Le Faye with her sister Margawse (Britannia web page) – with whom King Arthur is said to have conceived Mordred – in order to make a clear distinction between the forces for and against King Athur. In most versions, Morgan Le Faye’s son is Uwayne, who tries to stop his mother from plotting evil. Even Margwse’s relation to Arthur differs in version. Some present her and Elayne as Queen Igraine’s sisters, whereas others say she and Elayne are Igraine’s daughters.

Sometimes the characters’ relations differ even within the same version. For example, Sir Lyonel is first introduced as Sir Lancelot’s nephew, but comes out later as his cousin. The same with Sir Ector de Marys. He is presented as Sir Lancelot’s cousin , then as his brother.

Why the muddle? Well, the myth on which it is based is a muddle in itself as we can see from its roots. It’s all so very vague it can be changed in any way the author likes. That’s why it’s so popular; no matter how you change it, you can always support your theory with the uncertainty of the facts. In the case of this legend, even the little facts that exist can be supported or denied, and that is what distinguishes it from other legends. Take the death of King Arthur. In 1190, monks in Glastonbury claim to have discovered King Arthur’s grave. It was even inscribed with his name. Yet, it was still debatable. Some said it was not King Arthur but Sir Lancelot; some said it was just an invention by the monks to draw prestige to their abbey. Some insisted he didn’t die, and that he sailed away to Avalon to be cured. Some said the barge that carried him away was his funeral vessel, and that he was buried anonymously. Still others say he sleeps in a cave awaiting to be awakened in Britain’s time of need. Whatever the truth (if there is a truth), the fact remains that we may never know, and that is what makes it so great.

As we have seen, King Arthur and the legends concerning him are highly ambiguous, and will always be open to debate. It is a very muddling topic, and it is impossible to believe just one source, for the moment you believe you have found something significant, you are faced with a theory saying the exact opposite of what you have just read. The only thing that can be concluded from researching this topic is that it is the fact that nothing can be concluded that appeals to us and draws so many people into the enchantment of this legend. The room left for imagination is what made King Arthur and his knights immortal



-Britannia’s website on King Arthur. Includes a timeline, an interview with Geoffrey Ashe, chronology, biography on characters, and much more.


-David Nash Ford s website on King Arthur. Includes a detailed research on the roots of the legend, along with speculations on the identity of the king. Sympathetic to Geoffrey of Monmouth.


-Thomas Green’s website on King Arthur. Explores various aspects of the Arthurian legend and literature. Includes various theories on characters.


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