The Arthurian legends are stories about the character of King Arthur. They form an important part of Britain’s national mythology. Arthur may be based on a real person from history, possibly a Celtic warlord of the late 400s CE. The legends, however, have little to do with history. They blend Celtic mythology with medieval romance, and feature such well-known elements as the magic sword Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper. Arthur’s court at Camelot has been idealized as a kind of perfect society, with a just and wise king guiding his happy people.
The Arthurian legends exist in numerous versions and can be interpreted in various ways. They include tales of adventure filled with battles and marvels, a tragic love story, an examination of what it means to be king, and an exploration of the conflict between love and duty. The legends tell the story of the mighty King Arthur who brought order to a troubled land. He might have gone on to rule the world if passion and betrayal had not disrupted his perfect realm and contributed to his death.
Like many heroes of myth and legend, Arthur is of royal birth; however, until he comes of age and claims his throne, he does not know the truth about who he is. Arthur must defeat many enemies before becoming king. Some of these defeated kings and noblemen are so impressed by him that they swear to remain his loyal servants.
Like Finn, the legendary Irish hero, Arthur is surrounded by a band of devoted followers. In early versions of the tales, these were warriors and chieftains, but once the tales were set in the Middle Ages, his followers became courtly knights. Their number varies from a dozen to more than a hundred, depending on the source. A few of the knights, especially Gawain (pronounced gah-WAYN), Galahad, and Lancelot, emerge as distinct personalities with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Not all the legends focus on King Arthur. Many deal with the Knights of the Round Table, who ride out from King Arthur’s court at Camelot to do good deeds and perform brave feats. The most honorable and difficult of all their actions is the search for the Holy Grail. Of all the knights, only Galahad is pure enough to succeed in this quest.
Magical Power and Human Weakness Supernatural beings and events play an important part in the Arthurian legends. Before Arthur is born, his destiny is shaped by the wizard Merlin, who later serves as the king’s adviser and helper. Another powerful magical figure is the witch Morgan Le Fay, who works for good in some versions of the legends and for evil in others. She is sometimes referred to as Arthur’s half sister.
Arthur becomes king by gaining possession of the enchanted sword Excalibur. There are two versions of how Arthur gets the sword. In one, Excalibur is in a stone, and all believe that whoever can pull the sword from the stone will be the true king. Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and claims the throne. In the other version, Arthur is given the sword by the “Lady of the Lake” (a water spirit probably of ancient Celtic origin).
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table battle a number of giants and monsters—supernatural creatures that figure often in the legends—but the tragic aspect of the legends arises not from spells cast by wicked sorcerers or the actions of vicious enemies but from the behavior of people closest to the king. Guinevere (pronounced GWEN-uh-veer), Arthur’s queen, and Lancelot, his beloved friend and best knight, betray Arthur by becoming lovers. Like the appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, their betrayal introduces disorder and deception into what had been a perfect world.
Mordred, Arthur’s jealous nephew, uses Guinevere’s affair to destroy the unity of the Round Table. Eventually, Mordred goes to war against Arthur. Some versions of the story make Arthur and his half sister Morgause (pronounced mor-GAWZ) Mordred’s parents, placing part of the blame for the fall of Camelot on the king’s youthful sin of incest.