Frequently Asked Questions about the Arthurian Legends

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Frequently Asked Questions about the Arthurian Legends

by: Alan Lupack (Author)

[The following are questions frequently asked of librarians who provide "chat" reference service in Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester. The answers have been provided by Alan Lupack (alupack@library.rochester.edu).]


Who was King Arthur and when/where did he live? Is there historical evidence of his existence?

Traditionally called King Arthur, an early chronicler called Nennius refers to him as 'dux bellorum', a term designating a military leader rather than a king. Nennius also names Arthur as the victor in a series of twelve battles against the Saxons, which culminate in a decisive victory at Mount Badon. The early Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen depicts him as the leader of a group of semi-mythological warriors with super powers. Welsh saints's lives sometimes portray him as an enemy of the church, who commandeers its treasures to support his wars. How much, if any, historicity can be assigned to Arthur is a matter of debate. Some have suggested that a person who lived earlier than or contemporary with the time usually associated with Arthur (the late 5th or early 6th century) performed deeds that became attached to a fictional 'Arthur'. Geoffrey Ashe, for example, has called attention to a figure referred to as 'Riothamus', a title meaning 'high king', who led an army to the continent and who, Ashe speculates, may have been associated with Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth (the author of a "history" of the kings of Britain, a work which introduces into the tradition many fictional elements that are now seen as essential parts of the story of Arthur). (Ashe puts forth this theory in The Discovery of King Arthur [1985].) Other scholars believe that the Arthurian legends are not based on any real person. If Arthur or someone who inspired the legends of Arthur did exist, he would have been a warrior of the late fifth and/or early sixth centuries and not the sort of person often depicted in literature, a king living in a castle with knights in shining armor serving him.


Who was Guinevere? Did King Arthur have other lovers?

Guinevere is Arthur's wife and queen; according to the Vulgate Cycle and Malory, she is the daughter of Leodegrance of Carmelide. Though one of the Welsh Triads (Triad 56) speaks of Arthur's three great queens (all named Gwenhwyfar), later romance generally gives him only one wife named Guinevere.

Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces the notion of Guinevere's infidelity (with Modred) while Arthur is fighting on the continent. In Chrétien's Lancelot, Guinevere becomes Lancelot's lover after he rescues her from Meleagant. Generally (though not always) in the romance tradition, Guinevere is portrayed as Lancelot's lover. In the Vulgate Cycle, the first meeting between Guinevere and Lancelot is arranged by Galehaut. She is later accused of not being the true Guinevere by the illegitimate daughter of her father Leodagan and the wife of his seneschal. When Arthur falls in love with the False Guinevere and accepts her as his queen, Guinevere is protected by Lancelot and Galehaut until the truth is revealed.

Malory's Guinevere is jealous and demanding but also a true lover. Her jealousy and anger drive Lancelot mad and lead her to say she wishes he were dead. Nevertheless, she remains true to him. She is accused several times of crimes-infidelity and the murder of Mador's relative-and must be saved by Lancelot, as she is once again when their love is discovered and she is sentenced to be burned at the stake. When Mordred rebels against Arthur and attempts to marry her, she flees first to the Tower of London and then to the nunnery at Amesbury, where she becomes abbess. Lancelot visits her there after the death of Arthur, but she asks him to leave and never to return and refuses even to give him a final kiss. She dies a holy death, of which Lancelot learns in a vision that instructs him to have her buried next to Arthur.

While Malory is understanding of the true love of Guinevere, Tennyson makes her an example of an unfaithful wife. Arthur, before whom she grovels with guilt when he visits her in the nunnery, says that she has "spoilt the purpose of my life."

Malory also writes that Arthur had an affair with Lyonors, the daughter of Earl Sanam. Lyonors bears him a son named Borre, who later becomes a knight of the Round Table.

Who was Merlin and what is his significance to King Arthur?

Merlin plays many roles in Arthurian literature, including bard, prophet, magician, advisor, and warrior. Though usually a figure who supports Arthur and his vision of Camelot, Merlin is, because of the stories in which he is said to be the son of a devil, sometimes presented as a villain.

Celtic tradition contains a number of related figures-the Welsh Myrddin, the Scottish Lailoken, and the Irish Suibhne-who have characteristics similar to those of Merlin. These characters all go mad and become wild men of the woods. Myrddin, who appears in the Welsh poems 'Yr Afallennau' ('The Apple Tree Stanzas') and 'Yr Oianau' ('The Little Pig Stanzas'), is driven mad because of the death of his lord Gwenddolau at the hands of Rhydderch in the Battle of Arfderydd (c. 575). After the battle, Merlin lives in exile in the forest, where he utters prophecies. Geoffrey of Monmouth combines this historical figure, who lived at a time later than that in which a historical Arthur might have lived, with the figure of the youth Ambrosius Aurelianus from Nennius (Geoffrey says that Merlin's second name was Ambrosius); in so doing, he virtually creates the now-traditional Merlin. Geoffrey's Merlin, who is fathered by an incubus, explains why Vortigern's tower will not stand and utters a long series of prophecies. He then serves both Aurelius and Uther. After transporting the Giant's Dance from Ireland to Britain and setting it up as Stonehenge, he assists Uther in satisfying his lust for Ygerna. In Geoffrey's account, Merlin does not serve as an advisor to Arthur; but later writers expand his role to include helping Arthur become king and establish his authority.

In the works of Robert de Boron and in the Vulgate Cycle, Merlin's birth is engineered by the devils in hell. They hope to bring into the world an anti-Christ who will undo the good (or, as they see it, the harm) done by Christ in redeeming mankind. Merlin's mother is impregnated by an incubus; but with the advice of her confessor Blaise she baptizes her son; and he becomes a force for good, not evil. Since he is the son of a devil, he is endowed with the knowledge of all things past, and God bestows on him the gift of knowing the future. He is also instrumental in establishing Arthur's realm and the Round Table, and he serves as an adviser to Athur. Merlin's service to Arthur ends when he is infatuated with Niniane (also called Vivien and Nyneve) and allows her to seal him up with a charm that he himself has taught her.

Perhaps the most influential modern recasting of Merlin is in T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958). White's Merlin, who is both a comic and a philosophic figure, is a tutor who encourages Arthur to think for himself and who is gratified when Arthur arrives at the notion that might should be used for right. White's Merlin knows the future because he lives backwards in time.


Who are Bedivere? Gawain? Mordred? What is their relationship to King Arthur?

Bedivere:

Bedivere and Kay (Bedwyr and Cai in Welsh sources) are among the warriors earliest associated with Arthur. The author of Culhwch and Olwen (ca. 1100) says of Bedwyr that he never shrank from any enterprise on which Cai was bound. Wace says that Bedivere and Kay are Arthur's two most loyal subjects. In the late fourteenth-century Alliterative Morte Arthure and other works that tell the story of the Giant of St. Michael's Mount, Kay and Bedivere accompany Arthur as he sets out to confront the giant.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur gives Bedevere the province of Normandy for his service in the war in Gaul; later, Bedevere is slain in Arthur's continental war against Lucius. In Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Bedivere survives the continental wars and is with Arthur at the end of his final battle. Arthur orders him to return Excalibur to the lake. Tennyson adds to Malory's account a depiction of Bedivere watching the barge bearing Arthur as it grows smaller and smaller and finally disappears.

In Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset and in Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day, Bedwyr takes on the role, usually assigned to Lancelot, of lover of Arthur's queen.


Gawain:

Gawain is Arthur's nephew, and in much Arthurian literature he is presented as the best of Arthur's knights. In a number of sources, his strength is said to increase until noon, at which point it begins to wane. According to the French Mort Artu (Death of Arthur), his strength increases around noon because the priest who baptized him prayed that his strength would increase at noon, the hour he was baptized. Malory says that a holy man gave Gawain the gift of increasing strength from undern (9 a. m.) until noon every day of the year.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's history, Gawain is one of Arthur's most valorous knights in his continental wars, and he dies in the struggle against Modred when Arthur returns to Britain. The author of The Rise of Gawain (twelfth century) tells of Gawain's being brought to Rome by Viamundus, the fisherman who stole the boy from the merchants to whom Anna, his mother, had entrusted him because he was born before she was married to Loth (Lot). There, he is knighted by and serves the Emperor. Gawain is said by Chrétien in his Perceval (1180s) to be the most courteous knight in the world. In this work, and in numerous others by various authors, Gawain is contrasted to Kay, whose boorishness is a foil to Gawain's courtliness. In several Dutch romances, Gawain is called the Father of Adventure, and he has great skill in healing as well as in fighting and diplomacy. In many of the French romances of the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, Gawain is the most important hero; but Lancelot eventually replaces him in this role.

In the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle, Gawain is presented as the second-best worldly knight after Lancelot. He refuses to join in Agravain's accusation against Lancelot and Guinevere; later, out of grief for his brothers-particularly his favorite Gaheriet (Gareth)-who are slain in the rescue of the queen, he insists on pursuing and fighting with Lancelot. Although Lancelot refuses to slay him when he has the opportunity, Gawain ultimately dies from a head wound received in their fight. Nevertheless, before his death Gawain realizes that Lancelot was the best and most generous knight, wishes he could ask his forgiveness before his death, and advises Arthur to ask him for help.

In Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Gawain is at times brave and noble and at times vengeful and treacherous. He keeps alive the feud between the house of Lot and the house of Pellinore by treacherously killing Pellinore and then Lamorak. He is also unforgiving when Lancelot accidentally kills Gareth, and he refuses to allow Arthur to make peace with him. He does, however, try to dissuade Mordred and Agravain from accusing Lancelot; and he finally realizes that Lancelot is noble and Mordred wicked.


Mordred:

The Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) mentions Medraut as a participant in the battle of Camlann but does not make clear whether he is an enemy or an ally of Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces the notion of Mordred's usurpation of the throne and his adulterous relationship with Guinevere while Arthur is fighting his continental wars. Geoffrey names Mordred as one of two sons of Lot and Anna (the other being Gawain). Mordred in turn has two sons who survive him but are killed by Constantine, Arthur's successor.

In the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle, Mordred is the son of Arthur by his half-sister, who is Lot's wife. Although, in the Vulgate Mort Artu, it is Agravain who accuses Lancelot and Guinevere of adultery and leads the knights who trap them in the queen's chamber, Mordred betrays Arthur's trust when he is left in charge of the kingdom and the queen by forging a letter said to be from a dying Arthur declaring Mordred king and urging him to marry Guinevere. In the final battle of Salisbury Plain, Arthur kills Mordred but is fatally wounded by him. Mordred leaves behind two sons, the elder called Melehan and the younger unnamed. Bors kills Melehan, who has slain Lionel; and Lancelot kills the younger son.

In Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Mordred is the illegitimate son of Arthur and Morgause. When Arthur, who is unaware that she is related to him when they sleep together, learns that he has had a child by his half-sister, he attempts to kill Mordred by condemning all the children born on May Day to be set adrift on the sea. But his son survives when the ship he is in breaks up and he is cast up on the shore and found by a good man, who raises him until he is fourteen. Even before Mordred accuses Lancelot and Guinevere and plans to trap them, his villainy is clear. When Gawain and his brothers treacherously attack and slay Lamorak, it is Mordred who gives him a fatal wound in the back. While Arthur is besieging Lancelot's castle in France, Mordred forges letters saying that Arthur is dead, claims the throne, and intends to marry Guinevere. In the final battle, Arthur gives Mordred a fatal wound; but Mordred thrusts himself up the length of Arthur's spear so he can strike his father.


What is the Round Table?

The twelfth-century chronicler Wace first introduces the notion of the Round Table, which he says Arthur had made so that all of the noble barons whom he attracted to his court would be equally placed and served and none could boast that he had a higher position at the table than the others. Layamon expands on this notion, describing a riot at which many nobles vie for place and precedence at Arthur's table. A skilled craftsman then offers to make Arthur a table that will seat more than sixteen hundred and at which high and low will be on an equal footing because the table is round.

According to the prose rendition of Robert de Boron's Merlin and the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle, Uther Pendragon, instructed by Merlin, established the Round Table to symbolize the table of the Last Supper and the Grail Table established by Joseph of Arimathea at the command of the Holy Spirit. Uther gives the Round Table to Guinevere's father Leodegan, who in turn gives it to Arthur when he weds Guinevere.

The number of seats at the Round Table varies in different sources, sometimes being said to seat twelve knights and the king, sometimes as many as 150.

The Round Table has come to stand not only for the physical object at which Arthur and his knights sat but also for the order of knighthood and the code to which the knights committed themselves. The symbolic nature of the Round Table survives even into the youth groups of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. The founders of one of those clubs, the Knights of King Arthur, saw the roundness of Arthur's table and the equality it implied as representing 'democracy under leadership' and thus an ideal structure for a club for boys.


What do we know about the sword Excalibur?

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon all observe that Arthur's sword Caliburn was forged on the Isle of Avalon. In Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Excalibur is the name given to the sword Arthur receives from the Lady of the Lake and entrusts to Bedivere to return to the water after his final battle. Malory, following his French source, explains the name Excalibur as meaning 'Kutte [Cut] Steele'. (There is only one place in the Morte where the sword drawn from the stone is referred to as Excalibur: in his battle with the kings who will not accept him, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, on Merlin's advice, only when he is losing the battle. When he draws 'his swerd Excalibur', it gives the light of thirty torches and helps him to put his enemies to flight.) When this sword from the stone breaks in two as Arthur fights Pellinore, Merlin saves Arthur by casting an enchantment over Pellinore and then takes the king to receive another sword, Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake. Merlin tells Arthur that Excalibur's scabbard is even more valuable than the sword itself because while he wears it he will not lose any blood or be severely wounded. Morgan le Fay, to whom Arthur has entrusted the care of Excalibur, gives the sword to her lover Accolon to use against Arthur. Provided with a counterfeit Excalibur, Arthur is saved by Nyneve (a character sometimes called Vivien, Niniane, or Nimue). Morgan then steals the scabbard and throws it into a lake so it can no longer protect Arthur. Excalibur must be returned to the water at the end of Arthur's life, a task assigned to Bedivere in Malory's account-but to others in different medieval versions of Arthur's story.


What was the Holy Grail?

The Holy Grail is generally considered to be the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch his blood as he hung on the cross. This significance, however, was introduced into the Arthurian legends by Robert de Boron in his verse romance Joseph d'Arimathie (sometimes also called Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal), which was probably written in the last decade of the twelfth century or the first few years of the thirteenth. In earlier sources as well as in some later ones, the Grail is sometimes something quite different. The term 'grail' comes from the Latin gradale, which means a dish brought to the table during various stages (Latin 'gradus') or courses of a meal. In Chrétien de Troyes and other early writers, the term 'grail' suggests such a plate. Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (first decade of the thirteenth century) presents the Grail as a stone which provides sustenance and prevents anyone who beholds it from dying within that week. In medieval romance, the Grail was said to have been brought to Glastonbury in Britain by Joseph of Arimathea and his followers. In the time of Arthur, the quest for the Grail was the highest spiritual pursuit. For Chrétien, author of Perceval, and his continuators, Perceval is the knight who must achieve the Grail. For some other French authors, as for Malory, Galahad is the chief Grail knight, though others (Perceval and Bors in Malory's Morte d'Arthur) also achieve the quest.


Where was Camelot?

Camelot is an imaginary place and thus it is perhaps pointless to speak of its location. In literary sources, it is usually situated in the south of England. Some have speculated that if Arthur actually existed he would have needed a base of operations. John Leland identified Camelot with Cadbury Castle, a hill fort in Somerset. Excavations carried out at the site in 1966-1970 confirmed that this large hill fort (with 1200 yards of perimeter surrounding an eighteen-acre enclosure and rising about 250 feet above the surrounding countryside) was refortified in the Arthurian era and was occupied by a powerful leader and his followers.

In many medieval texts Arthur holds court at Caerleon or some other city. Camelot is first mentioned in the twelfth century in Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot. In the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle, Camelot is said to have been converted by the son of Joseph of Arimathea, Josephus, who had built there the Church of St. Stephen, in which some texts say Arthur and Guinevere were married. Camelot becomes the principal city of Arthur's realm and remains so in many, though not all, later texts. In his Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory identifies Camelot as Winchester.


What modern allusions are there to Camelot?

The image most modern readers have of Camelot coincides with Tennyson's description of it in "The Lady of Shalott" as "many-tower'd Camelot." More recently, largely through the influence of T. H. White, Camelot has come to be associated with the values that Arthur and his realm are believed to have represented (White's 'Might for Right'). Because of John F. Kennedy's fondness for the play Camelot and an interest in the legends that originated with his childhood reading of a version of Malory, John F. Kennedy's his presidency has been referred to as 'Camelot'. Actually, the identification between Kennedy and Camelot first occurred soon after Kennedy's death, when Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy urged her friend, reporter and historian Theodore H. White, to label her late husband's historical myth in specifically Arthurian terms. Other historians also associated Kennedy's presidency, particularly some of its more idealistic programs, with the legend of Arthur. The moral overtones of Camelot are reflected in other areas as well, but sometimes 'Camelot' is used only to represent an ideal place.