King Arthur was a glorious ruler of the land of the Britons, which never was the UK, instead being some of the Celtic Kingdoms. And Brittany/Bretagne, France. And Iceland. The seat of his kingdom is the famed Camelot — which varies in location by story but is definitely in England, Wales, or France — from which he defeated the invading Saxons in the 5th and 6th century ad.
Arthur first appeared in folk tales and poetry from England, Wales and Cornwall, where he is often a figure from the glorious afterworld Annwyn who would help protect the land from enemies, or just a champion warrior who does the same thing; this is possibly where the legend that he will return in Britain's hour of greatest need comes from. He's also referenced in Y Gododdin, where a man's obituary says that he slew 300 men but still "was no Arthur".
If Arthur and his men are not fighting supernatural enemies in this early material, they're fighting fellow Britons - and more famously, the Anglo-Saxons who invaded/settled Britain after or by the time the Romans left. In real life, the Anglo-Saxons eventually won against the Britons (Y Goddodin is a poem lamenting/celebrating a Briton defeat), hence why much of Great Britain is called "England" and independent Briton rule was reduced to pockets like Wales and Cornwall. But according to Briton lore, Arthur was the man who stopped them for a generation or two at the battle of Mt. Badon. While historians believe the battle is real, Arthur's historicity is rather more contested (as is where Mt. Badon was). He may have been a real guy Shrouded in Myth, or he may have been at first purely folkloric (hence the early supernatural stuff) and he may have been attached to the real events.
Most stories of Arthur are based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittaniæ, which is the first source to call Arthur a king, as he only is called a soldier or leader in earlier material. Geoffrey also introduced Merlin, Guinevere, and Excalibur in their commonly recognizable forms, though their prototypical counterparts appeared in Welsh and Cornish material which was mostly recorded after Geoffrey wrote, giving historians headaches as to which really influenced which. Geoffrey clearly influenced other writers like Chretien de Troyes in France and elsewhere, who then developed the whole Chivalric Romance thing and applied it to Arthur and his warriors, turning them into Arthur and his knights. These writers in turn, down through the centuries, influenced Sir Thomas Malory and other authors up to the present day. And now, a summary of Arthur's life:
c.475 AD, Tintagel Peninsula, Cornwall. On this small island, Arthur is conceived. His father, Uthernote , has been lusting after Igraine, the Duchess of Cornwall, and so convinces Merlin to disguise him as her husband Gorlois. He sneaks into bed and sleeps with her, producing Arthur, with no regard for weird lines of succession. Castle Island, Penn Du, and the Tintagel mainland contain ruins of a castle that was built nearly 1000 years later; evidence does show that it had been inhabited and not Romanised since the early millennium, though. The land is owned by the current Duke of Cornwall, who is appropriately enough the monarch's son.
Initially, in the early Arthurian chronicles, Arthur seemed to have been raised in Uthers court or at least be fully aware who his birth parents were, however, a tradition invented by Robert de Boron, had Arthur be raised by Sir Ector instead. In Robert de Borons account, it was because Merlin wanted Arthur to live a normal life but later medieval and moderns authors had it because he was illegitimate. As it goes in these step-sibling stories, one of them must naturally be more greatly preferred to the other; it's Ector's actual son Kay (who was originally a major figure in Welsh mythology in his own right) that is less favoured and holds some resentment towards Arthur, though later does become one of his Knights of the Round Table (if one of the shittier ones). Arthur lives a happy life with them, as Ector has lots of land, possibly in the Forest Sauvage near Bodmin Moor, and trains them both well. When he is called to the throne, Arthur is shocked and shortly upset that Ector is not his real father.
When Arthur was 15 or 16 years old depending on the version, Arthur because king by (typically)pulling the sword of the stone. However, in the sword in the stone story, many of the nobles of Britain and kings were initially against swearing fealty to a young boy thus a rebellion arose. Eventually Arthur defeated the rebels, Anglo-Saxons and married Guinevere.
Arthur doesn't get up to much then, with most of the medieval myths featuring him as a minor character in relation to the knights. He is offered many battles, but either chooses to or is told to stay at Camelot and protect the kingdom, with the other knights taking his place — namely Lancelot, Gawain, Perceval and Galahad. He does significantly win the Battle of Badon (very real), one of the fights between Celtic Bretons and the Anglo-Saxons, in which the Bretons have a decisive victory and keep the Saxons significantly away for decades.
So, now that he's done definitely the most important thing, he chills out for a bit. He is sometimes said to have unwittingly committed incest with one of his sisters. However, this was invented by the authors of the French prose cycles and therefore has no basis in any earlier material. While Guinevere has an affair with Lancelot, but her lover was initially said to have been Mordred. Arthur does battle against the king Rience (and was initially said to have killed him during his down-period, because Rience keeps challenging him to fight. Arthur continues to fight threats directly against him or his kingdom (except when someone steps up for him) until the Battle of Camlann. He also has some adventures with the Holy Grail, which can be read over at King Arthur and the Holy Grail.
However, there isn't that much solid information on Arthur's final battle, but we do know that Mordred also died there. Because of ambiguous wording in the Annales of Cambraie, Arthur was either fighting against or alongside Mordred, but because of the lack of mention of other characters when it comes to their deaths it is generally believed they were slain by each other's hand.
In the early Arthurian tradition, Mordred usurped Arthur when he went to fight the romans while in the later tradition, Mordred tries to claim the kingdom for his own while Arthur is off chasing Lancelot in either France or Brittany, causing him to return and prepare to fight against Mordred. At the battlefield, Arthur is sometime said to grant his kingdom to a Cornish relative (or pseudo-relative) of his who is of Roman descent. Arthur is ailing and is taken by probably Morgan le Fay, or someone else to Avalon where the waters can heal his wounds.
This is a page about the character in his fictional appearances. For more information of the mythos and Arthurian cycles, and modern adaptations of them, see King Arthur - Myth.
- Absurdly Sharp Blade: King Arthur's sword, Excalibur.
- Animal Motifs: Dragons and bears, though the latter occurs more in modern media than in the medieval texts. Dragon elements pop up now and then, most prominently in the name "Pendragon", and the name "Arthur" is thought to be related to the Celtic word for bear. According to Geoffrey's account, his helmet had a crest shaped like a dragon, and he once dreamed of a dragon defeating a bear, which was taken to mean him as the dragon defeating his enemy the bear. A Welsh poem "The Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle" puns on his name by calling him arth gwyr, "bear of men".
- Arthur And Mordred: Unremarkably, had this relationship with Mordred in the stories where the latter was his son rather than his friend or nephew. Only in a few stories do they actually get along, so it applies for the rest as Arthur treats him like a son even when he's the nephew.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: He owns a magical unbreakable sword that he could only pull if he was the true rightful King (other times given to him by the lady of the lake), and he repeatedly backs up his prowess in the legends.
- "Awesome McCool" Name:
- Arthur is of uncertain etymology, but nearly every proposed meaning or derivation sounds cool. It is often thought to derive from either Latin Artorius (whose meaning is uncertain too), or a Celtic word for 'bear', arto (later, Welsh arth).
- The ur part of Arthur was often theorized in the past to be from a Celtic word for 'man', uiros or wiros (later, Welsh gwr), but nowadays this is considered untenable because then the name would have developed into "Artgur" or "Arthwr", so Arthur can't mean Bear-Man or Man of the Bear as many have suggested.
- Others have tried to link Arthur to the Greek Arktouros and Latin Arcturus, meaning Bear Guardian, which is the name of a star. The bear in this case refers to the constellation Ursa Major, as Arcturus is part of a different constellation, Boötes, and is better understood as 'guardian of the bear'. The similarity is most often explained as the languages being related instead of direct derivation.
- In a roundabout way, Artorius itself may possibly be Celtic in origin, deriving from the hypothetical names Artorix(s), 'Bear-King', Artorigos, 'Bear of Kings', or Artorigios, 'Son of the Bear-King' if we want to split hairs. In other words, Arthur may be a Celtic version of a Roman name, or a Celtic version of a Roman version of a much older Celtic name, all ultimately connected to Celtic words for bears and possibly kings.
- Artorius could simply be Latin for "of/descending from Artor", but then what "Artor" means in Latin remains up in the air. Other attempts to derive Artorius from names in non-Latin ancient Italian languages like Messapic Artorres or Artas most often loop back to assuming the root names mean "bear" in some form like Arthur may, due to the common Indo-European roots of the ancient Celtic and Italian languages. The outlier is Etruscan Arnthur, which may be related to their word for "younger son", but that's boring.
- The origin of Pendragon is clearer: pen is Welsh for 'head' or 'top' and dragon is archaic Welsh for, well, 'dragon', borrowed from Latin draco (possibly by way of French dragon, like in English, and it's draig in modern Welsh). Dragon was also used figuratively in Welsh poetry to mean 'warrior'. So Arthur Pendragon could mean Bear-like Warrior Chief. (We're avoiding Bear-like Dragon Chief only because it's Metaphorgotten, sadly.)
- His father Uther also counts. Uther or Uthyr in Welsh is from the word uthr which means 'terrible' (in the older sense of "awesome", "fear-inducing", "intimidating") so Uther Pendragon really means Dreaded Warrior Chief. Amusingly, one Latin text says Arthur was known as "mab uter", which the author interpreted as "horrible son" (filius horribilis) instead of "son of Uther", and took it to mean that Arthur was a juvenile delinquent. The same author interpreted Arthur to mean "horrible bear" (ursus horribilis), probably thinking of "arth + uthr", but also suggested "iron hammer which breaks lions' teeth", which has confounded scholars about where the hell he got that from.
- Awesome Moment of Crowning: After he defeats Lucius Tiberius, he is apparently declared Roman Emperor in Geoffrey's account.
- Big Good: Especially in later stories focusing on the acts of his knights.
- BrotherSister Incest: His sometimes tryst with his half-sister Morgause produces Mordred, who eventually betrays him. At the time neither was aware of their relation (it was just some good old wholesome adultery), which probably led to some awkwardness later.
- The Captain: While the whole point of the Round Table was that no one knight sat at it's head, Arthur was the king, and thus was the leader of the bunch.
- Casting a Shadow: His dagger, Carnwennan, sometimes is said (in the original Welsh traditions) to shroud its wielder in shadow, which enabled him to kill the Very Black Witch.
- Changeling Fantasy: As a boy King Arthur is raised by Sir Ector, who has no idea of his true identity,
- Character Title: For the Arthurian cycle.
- The Chosen One: Merlin chose him, manipulating events so that he'd be born and taking an active hand in his rise and education.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Arthurs children, usually. His sons were Llacheu (also identified with Loholt and Borre), Amhar, Gwydre, and Cydfan. He also had a daughter, Archfedd.
- In Scottish tradition, he had a son named Smeirbhe (also spelled as Smerbe or Smereviemore). Certain people and Clans have claimed descent from Arthur through Smeirbhe, often for political reasons.
- Arthur himself killed Amhar, no reason given. Gwydre was killed by the Twrch Trwyth (the large boar hunted in Culhwch and Olwen). There are various versions of Llacheus death, while other sources never mention it. Either Llacheu died in battle at Llongborth or he was slain below Llechysgar (area near the court of Madog king of Powys). As Loholt, he is said to have either died by being killed by Kay (but it was Kays only treachery he ever committed) or died after being held captive in the Dolorous Prison.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Rhonabwys Dream, am earlier Welsh satire, has Arthur in this role. During one of his battles, Arthur decides to set up camp and play chess or gwyddbwyll against Owain. As they play, Arthurs men attack Owains ravens. Owain then gets a squire to raise a battle flag and the ravens attack (and kill) some of Arthurs men. It gets to the point that Owains ravens are carrying men into the air and ripping them to pieces. Arthur and Owain keep playing gwyddbwyll until Arthur decides enough is enough and crushes the pieces. Its also worth noting that Arthur is an emperor here, fighting alongside armies from Denmark, Norway, and receiving tribute from Greece.
- Composite Character: One theory is that the tales of King Arthur are based on the exploits of several different leaders over many years rather than the life of a single individual.
- Cool Sword: Excalibur, though Merlin felt the scabbard (which kept wounds from bleeding) was much more useful. It's kind of hard to argue...
- Depending on the Writer: Arthur is pretty much the gauge by which you can read the Author's opinion on proper kingship. Thus, in the Welsh legends he does his own Asskicking Equals Authority and leads from the front and challenges the church on occasion, while to Mallory and the French he's your typical wellmannered and cuckolded King who leads from behind and isn't actually that great of a fighter. Modern writers have made him badass, cowardly, conflicted, compassionate, and tyrannical. And usually they do that while telling the exact same plot!
- Excalibur: The sword Excalibur was wielded by King Arthur.
- The Good King: The good-est. To the point where according to legend, it's him who will lead England in the hour of greatest need.
- Happily Adopted: Arthur actually had quite a happy life with Sir Ector and was extremely upset to learn that he wasn't actually his son. Its even implied that Sir Ector gave Arthur preferable treatment to his own son Kay.
- The Hero: Trope Codifier.
- Heroes Love Dogs: In the early Welsh stuff he has a dog named Cavall, whose name confusingly enough means "horse".
- The High King: The sovereign of all of England from his court in Cameot, to which every other knight and lord swore ultimate fealty.
- Historical Badass Upgrade: Any historical King Arthur who did exist hardly had access to a magical sword in the stone, an immortality inducing scabbard and fought off any villains like Morgan le Fay.
- Historical Hero Upgrade:
- Historians have debated for generations whether Arthur was truly historical at all, but if we accept that the "original Arthur" was a British leader who temporarily stopped the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, he has been greatly transformed and magnified into the Arthur of legend.
- The original Arthur may not have even been a king himself, since he is called dux bellorum or "leader of battles", who fought "together with the kings of the Britons" in twelve great battles against the Anglo-Saxons. He is also called "Arthur the Soldier" in early material. In later works he is called the High King of all Britain and even Emperor, and he even almost conquers Rome, only being interrupted by Mordred's rebellion. In How Culhwch Won Olwen hes a chief of kings, but by the Welsh Romances and Rhonabwys Dream hes either an emperor or king at the least.
- I Am Not Shazam: Arthur himself is never called "Pendragon" in the medieval texts. More properly, that's a name or title for his father Uther (see above). But modern writers tend to make it their family surname (despite being anachronistic, but then again the legend is an Anachronism Stew) so it has stuck. Occasionally it's given to Morgan le Fay as well since she's Arthur's sister. If "Pendragon" remains a title, writers still tend to give it to Arthur as well, often with the definite article ("the Pendragon") but it is not one of his titles in the medieval traditions (unlike lesser known ones like "the Red Ravager").
- King in the Mountain: Foretold to return during Britain's greatest need.
- Messianic Archetype: The "coming back" part mainly, as he is said to reside in the land of Avalon, but will return to lead England in England's hour of greatest need.
- Mutual Kill: With Mordred.
- Named Weapons: Arthur is very fond of this. His ship is named Prydwen, his mantle is named Gwen, his sword (later known as Excalibur) is named Caledfwlch, which literally translates as Breach of Battle. His spear is named Rhongomyniad (Striking-Spear), his shield is named Wynebgwrthucher (Evening-Face), and his dagger is named Carnwennan (Little White Haft).
- Nice Job Breaking It, Herod!: Arthur decides to round up all of the babies born on May Day and send them out on a rickety boat because Merlin prophesied that a child born on this day would destroy him. One baby (Mordred) survived.
- Out of Focus: In the literature, his knights like Lancelot get more and more of the spotlight and he is almost if not actually Demoted to Extra until the story covers his downfall.
- Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Spouts off several in the "Lucius" section of Le Morte Darthur.
- Selective Obliviousness: May have had this in regard to Lancelot and Guinevere's affair.
- To Be Lawful or Good: Modern writers tend to make him quite conflicted over his decision to burn Guinevere at the stake in order to show that the queen isn't above the law, with some even depicting him as secretly hoping Lancelot will save her. Originally, this was very much not the case.