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ΑρχικήEnglish EditionIntroduction to the Arthurian legends

Introduction to the Arthurian legends


By Dimitris Topalis,

Introduction

The Arthurian legends are stories about the mythological king of Britain, Arthur. In the majority, the Arthurian legends form most of the British mythology. The real King Arthur may be based on a Celtic warlord, who lived during the 5th century CE (Julian calendar). As we know, the legends of King Arthur have little to do with history. With features like the magical sword Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail, they are a combination of Celtic mythology and medieval romance. The Arthurian legends exist in multiple versions with variations.

One of the biggest developers of the Arthurian legends was Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155). Previous writers had established the existence of a British king who defeated the Saxons during the Battle of Badon. Geoffrey introduces a young king and conqueror of realms, who with his sword, Excalibur, commands the British army. In fact, they respect him so much, that they would follow him to death. The thing that separates Geoffrey from other writers of Arthurian mythology is the fact that he added most of the important characters, a fact that played a major role in the Arthurian legends. The list includes Guinevere, Merlin, Sir Kay, Sir Bedivere, Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Uther Pendragon, and Mordred. Not all of the legends are focused upon King Arthur. Many of them are concentrating on the Knights of the Round Table, who ride out of Camelot to undertake heroic deeds. Some of the Knights of the Round Table, i.e., Gwain, Lancelot, and Galahad, have their own distinctive personalities, with strengths and weaknesses.

Magic in the Arthurian legends

In the Arthurian legends, magic plays some part in the development of some of the stories. Even before his birth, Arthur’s destiny was made by the powerful wizard Merlin, who would later serve as Arthur’s assistance and helper during his reign as king. Arthur’s rise to kinghood began by gaining possession of the magical sword Excalibur. There are two versions of how Arthur got this legendary sword. In one, the Excalibur is deep inside a stone for thousands of years and whoever can pull the sword from the stone will be the King of England. Arthur is the one that pulled Excalibur from the stone and claimed the sword. In another version, the sword Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake (a water spirit who is a part of the Celtic Mythology). Another magical element in the legends is the giants, who Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table fight.

The Lady of the Lake gives the sword Excalibur to King Arthur. Illustration by: James Edwin McConnell. Image source: lookandlearn.com

Human weakness in the Arthurian legends

Despite the existence of magic, the development of most Arthurian legends is based on human weaknesses. A perfect example of this is the legend of Guinevere and Lancelot. In the legend, Guinevere, who is Arthur’s queen and wife, and Sir Lancelot, Arthur’s beloved friend and Knight of the Round Table, have an affair and betray Arthur. That event gave birth to mischief and deception to a previously perfect world. It also sets up a chain of events. Mordred, Arthur’s envious nephew, exploits Sir Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair to break the Round Table’s unity and subsequently goes to battle with Arthur.

Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere by Donato Giancola. Image source: artrenewal.org

The Quest for the Holy Grail

The Knights of the Round Table all headed on a quest to find the Holy Grail. At first, each of the Knights of the Round Table went on separate ways on their quest to find the Holy Grail, but after a while, three of them (Sir Galahad, Bors de Ganis, and Sir Percivale) rejoined forces and then traveled to Carbonek to discover the Holy Grail. Sir Galahad, who is referred to as the perfect knight — perfect in courage, gentleness, courtesy, and chivalry — mended the broken sword and. thus, was allowed to see the Holy Grail. According to legend, after Sir Galahad looked at the Holy Grail, he requested Joseph of Amarithea to die. As expected, his request was granted to him. The legend of King Arthur ends in a brilliant battle, the battle of Camlann. The legendary final battle was between King Arthur and the jealous Mordred, as mentioned above. In the battle, it is said that King Arthur either died or was fatally injured.

‘Sir Galahad – The Quest of the Holy Grail’ (1870). Painting by Arthur Hughes. Image source: wikiart.org/en/

Ending to the Arthurian legends

In the Arthurian legends written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, King Arthur was taken by the battlefield of Camlann to Avalon, a magical isle, so that he could be saved. In the version of Geoffrey, Arthur is delivered to Morgan (a powerful enchantress) in hopes of saving him. In some other versions, Arthur died in Avalon and was buried there. Geoffrey says that Arthur is alive, as well as giving us hope that Arthur’s injuries can be healed. In the re-written version of Geoffrey, it is stated as a fact that King Arthur has recovered and is waiting to return.


References
  • Roger Lancelyn Green, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Puffin Books, England, 1953

TA ΤΕΛΕΥΤΑΙΑ ΑΡΘΡΑ

Dimitris Topalis
He was born in Lamia, Greece in the year 2000. He is a student at the Department of History and Archaeology in Kalamata, Greece. He also works part-time as a waiter. He speaks English and German. He loves history, especially the one regarding the medieval times, as well as, Mythologies. His hobbies include writing, DnD and sports. He is an animal lover.