In matters of medieval mythology, King himself was Arthur. The others were just cards from the deck.
It was celebrated in verse and prose throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, in countries far away from his native England. Their myths have survived long enough to become movies, books, and even video games. Hundreds of years after his death, British monarchs intertwined their stories with Arthur's origin and conquests. Everyone wanted to connect with the greatest king of all.
If Arthur entered myths as the founding figure of England, ironically, he never fought alongside the English. Arthur is a legend of Celtic origin, created in Wales, the region where the original inhabitants of Great Britain took refuge after the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons from present-day Germany – those who would found England.
At the battle of Mount Badon around 500, Arthur would have toppled over 900 Saxons, delaying the invasion – and the founding of England – by decades. King Uther Pendragon's bastard son, Arthur spent his whole life with his tutor and adviser, the wizard Merlin.
It is in Merlin that the legend takes on its most supernatural (and typical Celtic culture) tones. Conceived in a strange relationship between the princess of Dyfed and an angel (or demon, depending on the author), the wizard is central to the king's decisions and the events of Camelot's reign. Merlin was in love with Viviana (or Nimue), the Lady of the Lake. She stated that she would only surrender to Merlin if he taught her all his power, and it was done.
The wizard introduced young Arthur to the magic sword, Excalibur – which meant "cut steel." Merlin led Arthur to the lake, where Nimue's hand emerged from the depth with the gun. Unbreakable in blade, it had been forged by an elven smith from the legendary island of Avalon. But the power itself was in the sheath, which would give the king his body locked in battle. With the sword in his hand, Arthur reveals himself to his father, Uther, inheriting the throne at age 15.
In Search of the Grail
The Battle of Badon is only one at the beginning of the king's career who, from his castle in Camelot, would vastly expand his father's domain, gathering more and more followers around him. Merlin then creates the Round Table. The shape of the table was a strategy to avoid power disputes, since in a round table everyone is geometrically equal.
More than a hundred warriors sat around the legendary table. But that did not contain the ambition of one of them. Years and battles later, Arthur had to leave the country in a war against "Rome" – a general name for a half-generic enemy. One of the knights, Sir Mordred, then usurped the throne. He was the son of Morgana, Arthur's manipulative half sister. According to some authors, Mordred's father would be Arthur himself, deceived by her to have an incestuous union.
Then comes the Battle of Camlann, the last of the great king. But the situation was against him. Merlin could not help her master, for she had been imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake, afraid that he would enslave her with his obsession. Morgana had stolen Excalibur, which was recovered, but without the magic sheath. Without protection, Arthur and his nephew / son engage in combat, and strike each other.
Mordred falls right there. Arthur is mortally wounded. Then he orders the knight Bedivere to return Excalibur to the lake, which is received by the same hand that delivered it.
The convalescent Arthur then has a vision that only the Grail, the cup with which Joseph of Arimathea collected the blood of Jesus, could heal him and save his kingdom.
The search for the miraculous cup took years, during which time the warriors scoured Britain from north to south and had various adventures. But the searches were in vain. Arthur is taken by Merlin to find his end on the island of Avalon.
ROUND TABLE KNIGHTS
THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE – From left to right: 1) ECTOR – Arthur's adoptive father, raises the boy without knowing his identity as heir to the crown. He is the first to swear allegiance to the new king, along with his son Kay. 2) PERCIVAL – First to have contact with the Holy Grail. He comes across a procession carrying the object, but fails to investigate because he didn't want to ask questions. 3) LANCELOT – The most skilled of all knights, son of King Ban de Benoic and Queen Helena of Benwich. He falls out of favor after having an affair with Arthur's wife. 4) YWAIN – Always accompanied by a lion that he rescued from a serpent. Just lost on a mission to avenge the death of his cousin Calogrenant. 5) GAWAIN – He was not Lancelot, the girls' favorite. Famous for his confrontation with the mysterious Green Knight, who he beheaded but survived. 6) GALAHAD – Only knight who survived the forbidden chair, the seat reserved for the one who would find the Grail. But it is taken to heaven instead of returning.
FROM HISTORY TO MYTH
The story you just read is basically the version told by Geoffrey Monmouth and Chrètien de Troyes, authors of the 12th century. They were the first to describe a complete mythology of King Arthur.
Later writers added different details, such as the 13th century poet Robert de Boron, for whom Excalibur is taken from a stone, not given by the Lady of the Lake, fulfilling a prophecy that makes Arthur the king. Lancelot's affair with Queen Guinevere is also a later creation.
The battle of Mount Badon, the one where Arthur would have killed 900 Saxons, was first mentioned by St. Gildas in the 6th century, a few decades after it occurred. In this account, there is no Arthur.
The first time the name came up was in Historia Brittonum (British History), book written in 828 by the monk Nennius. But this Arthur was just a warrior. It was not until 1136, with Geoffrey de Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Breton Kings), that Arthur became king – and the magician Merlin and other central characters emerged.
If there was a king Arthur, there is no trace of his kingdom. There is only speculation and literature.
"Geoffrey's work has created a complete life story for Arthur, but there is no evidence that he actually existed," says John Withrington, a professor at Exeter University in England. Monmouth, like his predecessors, was a Catholic religious from Wales and, like them, believed he was making a historical account, not literature or mythology.
It took history to cross the English Channel to lift Arthur to a world myth. It was in the texts of Chrètien de Troyes (1135-1191) that the king's story became epic literature, and went through a moralizing process, coexisting with the idea of sin and chaste conduct, corresponding to the cavalry values of the time. Interestingly, in the 6th century, when the eventual historical Arthur would have lived, there were no knights yet.
Morgana, Excalibur the Grail: Everything had a foot in the old mythology.
If there was a king Arthur, there is no trace of his kingdom. There is only speculation and rich literature – which is probably much more interesting than reality.
The little Christian origins of the legend.
The legend of King Arthur arose in Wales, the region that continued to be dominated by the Celts, in contrast to England, taken by the Anglo-Saxons in the 6th century. Several elements of the legend denote this origin. Starting with Merlin, who at all looks like a druid from ancient times: a wise man in contact with nature, responsible for advising kings and helping them with magical powers.
Then Excalibur: the Celts famously made swords that were among the best in Europe, which were copied by the Romans. They had sacred value, and giving these weapons a wake on a lake, as in legend, was an old tradition when their owner died.
The Grail itself, a seemingly Christian craze that has spread throughout Europe, has the same format and healing powers as the cauldrons of Celtic mythology, in which they were related to the goddess of inspiration. Arthur's sister Morgana is derived from the Celtic goddess Modron, who appears in ancient versions of the legend.