The Fight in the Queen's Ante-Chamber

Agravaine is the son of Lot and Morgause and the brother of Gawain. In the Vulgate Lancelot, Agravaine is said to be arrogant and jealous and ready to speak evil words. Although he shows no pity or love, he is a bold knight. In the Vulgate Mort Artu, he tells Arthur that Lancelot loves Guinevere and then traps the lovers in the queen’s room. He is killed by Lancelot in the rescue of the quee...

The Youth Pulled it out Easily

King Arthur is the figure at the heart of the Arthurian legends. He is said to be the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall. Arthur is a near mythic figure in Celtic stories such as Culhwch and Olwen. In early Latin chronicles he is presented as a military leader, the dux bellorum. In later romance he is presented as a king and emperor. One of the questions that has occupied those interes...

The Damsel Warns Sir Balin

The story of Balin is recounted in the Old French Suite du Merlin and in Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Balin and Balan are the tragic brothers who, despite their nobility, wind up killing each other. Balin in particular seems cursed by fate. For example, when he offers protection to a knight, he is unable to foresee--or even see--the danger that kills that knight, the treacherous Garlon who rid...

How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water

Table of Contents Introduction Welsh literature and the early chronicle tradition Twelfth and Thirteenth Century Romance Fourteenth-Century Romance and Malory Tennyson’s Idylls of the King  Modern Fiction, Part 1: Bedivere as Storyteller  Modern Fiction, Part 2: Bedivere in Non-Traditional Roles in “Historical” Novels  Bediv...

Sir Bors Sees the Child Galahad

Bors is an important character in the Vulgate Cycle and in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (which does not include the early adventures of Bors but does tell, in an account similar to that in the Vulgate, of Bors’ part in the Grail quest and in the events leading to the fall of Camelot. Bors is the son of King Bors of Gaunes and the cousin of Lancelot. Along with his brother Lionel, Bors...

"I Shall Never Make Thee Smile Again"

Dagonet, most simply, is King Arthur’s court fool.  Also called Daguenet, and often carrying an epithetical surname such as “the Fool” or “the Coward,” the character is perhaps most interesting in that he did not begin his fictional existence as a fool at all.  Enid Welsford’s 1935 book, The Fool: His Social and Literary History, still the authority on...

How King Mark and Sir Dinadan Heard Sir Palomides Making Great Sorrow and Mourning for La Beale Isoud

Dinadan comes to prominence in the 13th century in the French Prose Tristan, where he is a foil to those knights who unquestioningly accept the assumptions of chivalry and courtly love. In the 14th-century Italian Tavola Ritonda, Dindano is the cousin of Breus sanz Pietà. He comments on the folly of love but becomes devoted to Tristano. When Marco (Mark) is captured after killing Tristano, ...

The Lady of Shalott Floating Toward Camelot

Elaine of Astolat, a character closely related to the Lady of Shalott, is an innocent maiden who falls deeply in love with Sir Lancelot. When he does not return her love, she dies of grief and floats in a barge down the river to Camelot. Elaine’s story is found in important works of literature by authors such as Malory and Tennyson, and she is also frequently represented in artwork. A favori...

How Sir Launcelot Was Known by Dame Elaine

Elaine is the daughter of King Pelles and the mother of Galahad. (The Vulgate Cycle says “she was called Amite though her true name was Helizabel.”) Because she was considered the fairest lady in that country, Elaine was put into a tub of boiling water by Morgan le Fay and the Queen of Northgales and could be freed only by the best knight. After Elaine spends five years in the tub, Lan...

Enid and Geraint Reconciled

Enid and Geraint are the principle figures in the Welsh tale of Geraint the Son of Erbin, to use Lady Charlotte Guest's title, or Geraint and Enid, one of three Welsh stories analogous to romances by Chrétien de Troyes (the others being Owain and Peredur). Chrétien's Erec et Enide, written c. 1170, is his earliest extant Arthurian romance. (Earlier he wrote a Tristan story, w...

The Knight of the Ill-Shapen Coat Chooses His Bride

The "Fair Unknown" is a universally popular folk motif with strong Arthurian connections in which a young man of questionable lineage becomes an integral part of society. Initially appearing in court without an established identity, the Fair Unknown nevertheless boldly demands to be knighted. He tends to be markedly — albeit amusingly — uninhibited because of his isolated upb...

Parsifal Healing King Amfortas

The mysterious Fisher King is a character of the Arthurian tradition, and his story may sound familiar: suffering from wounds, the Fisher King depends for his healing on the successful completion of the hero's task. There are many different versions of the story of the Fisher King, and the character is not represented uniformly in every text. In the Middle Ages, Chrétien de Troyes' ...

The Quest of the White Hart

Gaheris is one of Gawain’s brothers, a son of Lot and Morgause. According to the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Malory, Gaheris kills his mother when he finds her in bed with Lamorak. (In T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, it is Agravaine, not Gaheris, who kills his mother.) Gaheris, along with his brother Gareth, is ordered by Arthur to form part of the guard that takes Guineve...

"This girdle, lords," said she, "is made for the most part of mine own hair, which, while I was yet in the world, I loved most well"

Sir Galahad, the son of Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic, is best known as the knight who achieves the Holy Grail. When Galahad appears, he is the chief Grail knight; in the French and English traditions, he replaces Perceval in this role. Galahad first appears in the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle. The opening part of the Cycle, the Estoire del saint Graal, first mentions Galahad; it predicts hi...

"Lady," replied Sir Beaumains, "a knight is little worth who may not bear with a damsel"

Gareth is the youngest brother of Sir Gawain and the son of Lot and Morgause of Orkney. He plays a significant role in Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Malory's "Tale of Sir Gareth" was apparently created by Malory. It presents Gareth as an exemplar of chivalry who is knighted by and devoted to Sir Lancelot and who acts chivalrously towards Lynette despite her abuse of him. This pict...

Sir Gawaine the Son of Lot, King of Orkney

Gawain, usually the son of King Lot of Orkney and Arthur's sister Morgause, is one of the most pervasive figures of the Arthurian tradition. He appears in nearly all of the major Arthurian stories, medieval and modern, and plays a central role in many. There are, in fact, more medieval romances devoted to Gawain's exploits than to those of any other of Arthur's knights, including Lance...

Sir Launcelot and the Queen Talked Sadly Together

Guinevere is said to be the daughter of Leodegrance of Cameliard in late medieval romance. In many sources, she marries Arthur and then has a love affair with Lancelot which causes the downfall of Camelot. The Welsh Triads speak of "Arthur's Three Great Queens," all named Gwenhwyfar (Triad 56) and name Gwenhwyfar as "more faithless" than the three faithless wives of the Is...

They Rode All Night to Their Own Castle

Igraine is the wife of Uther Pendragon and the mother of Arthur. Uther falls in love with her when she is married to the Duke of Cornwall, who in some sources is named Gorlois. Uther’s attention to Igraine causes a rift between him and her husband, who secures her in his impregnable castle at Tintagel. Enlisted by Uther to help satisfy his lust, Merlin transforms Uther into the shape of the ...

Then fell Sir Ector down upon his knees upon the ground before young Arthur, and Sir Key also with him
Kay

One of the most frequently represented characters in Arthurian literature, Kay has never starred in his own romance. He is not a heroic figure: constantly presented as a hot-tempered, sharp-tongued fellow, he is generally abusive to those whom he perceives as weaker than himself. In romances, Kay is tolerated by the rest of the Round Table because his loyalty is never in question, and he is genera...

The lady of the lake

The Lady of the Lake is an especially ambiguous and shifting character in the Arthurian legends.  She accordingly goes by several other names, most of which are variations on Nimue or Vivianne, the latter derived from a Celtic water-goddess.  In her initial appearances, however, she is nameless: in the Old French Le Chevalier de la Charette Lancelot mentions a powerful ring given to him ...

Lancelot

In Chrétien’s Erec (ca. 1165), Lancelot is said to be the third best knight after Gawain and Erec, but in Chrétien’s Lancelot (1179-1180), Lancelot becomes the central figure and the lover of Guinevere who is willing to take any risk or to suffer any indignity in service of the queen. According to both Chrétien and Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, that Lancelot was raised b...

The Arming of Sir Launfal

Marie de France’s lay Lanval (written in the latter half of the twelfth century) is believed to have been translated into Middle English in a version now lost. This translation influenced the Middle English poem Sir Landevale (written in the first half of the fourteenth century), which in turn influenced Thomas Chestre’s late fourteenth-century Sir Launfal. The lost translation is beli...

This espied King Mark, how she kneeled down and said: 'Sweet Lord Jesu, have mercy upon me, for I may not live after the death of Sir Tristram de Liones'

Mark is King of Cornwall and as brother of Tristan's mother (named Elyzabeth in Malory; Blanscheflur in Gottfried; Blauncheflour in Sir Tristrem) he is Tristan's uncle. Mark appears in early Celtic literature such as the Triad telling the story of Tristan as one of the three powerful swineherds of Britain. In this Triad, "Drystan son of Tallwch" watches over the swine of "Ma...

Sir Mellegrans Interrupts the Sport of the Queen

Meleagant (or Melyag(r)aunce or Melwas) is best known as the wicked knight who abducts Guinevere and is ultimately slain by Lancelot. The earliest form of the name, Melwas, has been interpreted as meaning "prince of death" or "princely youth." The classic account of the abduction story is in Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart, in which Lancelot, ...

Merlin and Vivien

Merlin, Arthur's adviser, prophet and magician, is basically the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in his twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain combined the Welsh traditions about a bard and prophet named Myrddin with the story that the ninth-century chronicler Nennius tells about Ambrosius (that he had no human father and that he prophesied the defeat of the British by the Saxon...

Sir Mordred

Mordred (Modred, Medrawd, or Medraut) has become the quintessential traitorous villain in the Arthurian tradition. According to the majority of texts, he is Arthur's bastard son by his half-sister Morgause, the wife of King Lot. This incestuous begetting, alternately an innocent mistake on the part of both parties, as the French Vulgate portrays it, or a perverted seduction on Morgause's p...

Morgan le Fay was put to school in a nunnery, and there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy

Like many characters in the Arthurian legends, Morgan le Fay has been consistently transformed and interpreted by authors and artists for nearly a millennium. Her character and her narrative significance have varied widely from text to text, and while no easy description of these changes can be made, some general trends and developments can nevertheless be observed. Celtic Origins Morgan le Fay ...

Gareth and Queen Bellicent

Although Morgause remains, even in many modern Arthurian texts, a relatively minor character compared with women like Guinevere and Morgan le Fay, her small role is a crucial one. According to Thomas Malory, she is one of the three daughters of Igrayne and the Duke of Cornwall, half-sister to Arthur, and later, the wife of King Lot of Orkney and the mother of Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, Gareth, a...

And by Him Palomydes, Helmet off, He Fought

Sir Palamedes (var. Palomedes, Palomides, Palamede, and Palomydes) is a minor figure within the literary Arthurian tradition. Palomedes first appears in the 13th century. He is a Saracen knight of the Round Table; unbaptised and thus technically a pagan, but a true Christian at heart; a courtly lover who never achieves his desires; a figure of eternal chivalry in his pursuit of the Questing Beast....

Pelleas

In Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Pelleas is a knight who loves Ettarde. After he wins a tournament and declares her the fairest woman, she scorns him. Just so he can see her, Pelleas lets himself be taken prisoner by her knights even though he has defeated them. Gawain offers to help Pelleas by pretending to have killed him and thereby, presumably, forcing Ettarde to realize that she cares ...

When she saw he would not abide, she prayed unto God to send him as much need of help as she had, and that he might feel it or he died

In the Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal, Pellinore is said to follow the Questing Beast and to be the father of Aglovale, Lamorak, Perceval, Perceval’s sister, and other children. The thirteenth-century Vulgate Merlin says that he is the Maimed King and the brother of Alan the Fisher King and of Pelles. He is also, according to Malory, the father of an illegitimate son named Tor, whose mo...

Sir Percivale Slays the Serpent

Perceval is the Grail knight or one of the Grail knights in numerous medieval and modern stories of the Grail quest. Perceval first appears in Chrétien de Troyes's unfinished Perceval or Conte del Graal (c.1190). The incomplete story prompted a series of "continuations," in the third of which (c. 1230), by an author named Manessier, Perceval achieves the Grail. (An analogue to...

"This girdle, lords," said she, "is made for the most part of mine own hair, which, while I was yet in the world, I loved most well"

In the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal, Perceval’s Sister leads Galahad to Solomon’s ship. From her own hair and from gold and silk, she makes a belt for the sword that Solomon left for Galahad. After agreeing to give her blood to cure a leprous woman even though she knows she will die as a result, Perceval’s sister asks to be buried in the city of Sarras because that is where Gal...

In the coracle lay a sleeping child, clothed in splendid apparel

Taliesin "of the shining brow" is a mytho-historical character generally associated with early Wales and North Western Britain in the 6th century AD. He is a figure belonging to both history, as an important Old Welsh court poet, and to mythology, as a magician and seer in both Celtic and Arthurian legend. The fictive and quasi-fictive literature that uses Taliesin, as either a significa...

The Tiny Courtier

The legend of Tom Thumb began as a folktale of unknown ancient origins that is almost certainly based on an oral tradition. The novelty of Tom's adventures has clearly captured the imagination of people throughout the ages and across cultures, as demonstrated by the multicultural versions, as well as English adaptations to the tale. A significant number of retellings in the English traditions ...

The Queen drank deep of that draught and gave it to Tristan.

Tristan and Isolt's conflict of love and loyalty is one of the classic tales of Western literature; in the Arthurian tradition, their tragic tragectory rivals and complements that of Lancelot and Guinevere. The basic story is one of mis-directed love: Tristan, the heroic nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, is sent to Ireland to escort the Irish king's daughter, the beautiful Isolt, to Cornwal...

Uther-Pendragon

Uther is the brother of Aurelius Ambrosius and Constans and the father of Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth explains that Uther is called Uther Pendragon because of a comet in the shape of a dragon that appeared in the sky before a battle with the Saxons in which his brother Aurelius dies. The dragon is a sign of Aurelius’s death and Uther’s accession. Geoffrey also recounts Uther’s p...

Vivien

Vivien, sometimes called Nineve, Nimue, Niniane, etc., is best known as the woman who seals Merlin in a cave or a tree. Despite foreseeing his fate, Merlin is unable to prevent being captivated and captured by the woman Richard Wilbur has called "a creature to bewitch a sorcerer." Vivien is an ambiguous character. In Malory, for example, even though Nyneve, who is one of the Ladies of th...

Vortigern and Rowena

Gildas refers to a "superbus tyrannus" (proud ruler) who invites the Saxons into Britain. Bede names this figure Vortigern. Nennius tells of Vortigern's attempt to build a tower which will not stand. He is advised to sprinkle the site with the blood of a child with no father. The child—Ambrosius in Nennius's account and Merlin in the accounts of Geoffrey of Monmouth and oth...

Sir Owein, the Knight of the Lion

Yvain is the cousin of Gawain and the son of Morgan le Fay and Uriens. As Owain, he appears in the Welsh tale of The Dream of Rhonabwy and is the hero of the Welsh analogue to Chrétien de Troye's Yvain or the Knight of the Lion. Both Chrétien's tale and the Welsh Owain tell the story of Yvain's (or Owain's) adventures as he defeats a knight guarding a fountain and the...