The legend of King Arthur, the perfect king who ruled during The Time of Myths with the wizard Merlin at his side, but fell to treachery, and now sleeps, waiting for Britain's hour of greatest need.note
The subject of many a Chivalric Romance, long known as the "Matter of Britain," alongside the Matter of France (the stories of Charlemagne's court and wars with the Saracens) and the Matter of Rome (The Trojan War, The Aeneid and Alexander the Great).note Judging by the number of manuscripts, it was the most popular of the three; there are even such romances written in Hebrew.
A somewhat tragic figure, Arthur is the rightful heir to the throne in most versions of the mythos, whom Merlin took from his father, the previous king Uther Pendragon, to be raised elsewhere. He becomes the King of Britain when he draws a sword from a stone which only the rightful king could do. He then brings order to the land by defeating his rivals and other threats — and then tries his best to be a good ruler, assembling the Knights of the Round Table to serve as paragons of chivalry. His rule is ultimately undone by the plots and shortcomings of his own followers and family. Authors eventually expanded this to include his own failings as a husband in trying to be the perfect king, as he is caught up in a Love Triangle with Guinevere, his queen, and Lancelot, his best knight. His reign comes to an end when he is forced to fight the traitor Mordred, his own nephew (and son). Nevertheless, the romantic Arthurian legend stands for all that was noble and good in the medieval ideal of chivalry, and of how a perfect king should be: compassionate, decisive and just.
Suffers heavily from Anachronism Stew in almost every depiction in movies and literature, where King Arthur and his knights wear shiny full plate armor and live in magnificent Gothic castles, both of which didn't appear until around the 15th and 16th century; the first known Arthurian stories are set almost a thousand years earlier, in post-Roman Britain, a time of wooden manors and hill-forts made of dirt. The setting is also prone to being a Medieval European Fantasy especially with the more fantastical elements of the legend (barring any demythification in specific works).
For the character of King Arthur, see his dedicated page.note
For the many adaptations and derivative works the legend has inspired and keeps inspiring, see here.
Overview of the myth:
According to historical accounts of the period, the Anglo-Saxon conquest was turned back for a generation or two after the British defeated them at the Battle of Mount Badon in the 6th century AD. In later sources, the leader of the Britons is said to be Arthur. However, Arthur is not mentioned in the earliest source dealing with these events, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ("On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain") by the monk Gildas, written in the early 6th century within living memory of the Battle of Mount Badon. Instead, the sole British leader (not called a king) mentioned as resisting the Anglo-Saxons in the past is named Ambrosius, though there is some debated ambiguity about whether Gildas had a Time Skip between his era and the Mount Badon battle. Nor is Arthur mentioned in Bede's history of England written in the 8th century. This has led to many, many debates on whether Arthur was really a historical person or a legendary person added to history.
Scholars who believe Arthur was (or at least based on) a real historical figure note that the Battle of Mount Badon was associated with him early on. The first source to mention Arthur is the 9th-century Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons"), attributed to the monk Nennius, written about 300 years after the events it describes. It records a list of Arthur's battles along with some scattered trivia about him. Oddly enough here, Arthur is just the general of the British armies and implied to be of non-noble birth, while the glorious king is Ambrosius (who in later tradition became a previous king and Arthur's uncle, while other elements of his story became Merlin's.) Arthur also appears in the 10th-century Annales Cambriae ("Annals of Wales") which mentions his triumph at Mount Badon and his final battle at Camlann. He also features in 9th and 10th-century British and Breton stories about local saints.
The Arthurian tales in the Mabinogion and references in poetry like the Welsh Triads and Preiddeu Annwn ("The Spoils of Annwn") likely reflect other early Welsh/Cornish/Breton traditions though they were written down later than the above. Arthur and his men, often with magic items and powers of their own, appear as adventurers facing not only normal human foes but also fantastic creatures like giants, witches, and monsters. Due to this more fantastic strand of the myth with ties to Celtic Mythology, other scholars believe Arthur began as a mythical Folk Hero who was then historicized into the Briton/Anglo-Saxon conflicts — though the reverse, a real person being fictionalized into legend, has happened with Alexander the Great, Charlemagne and others...
The Arthurian myth became even more popular during The High Middle Ages after Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century after the Norman (basically French Viking) conquest of England, brought it to a wider European audience and inspired a slew of other writers in England, France, Germany and elsewhere. Geoffrey presented Arthur as the ultimate warrior-king who carved out an empire with his Cool Sword Caliburn (better known as Excalibur) and almost conquered Rome, but whose reign was cut short by treachery - and after his last battle, was taken to the island of Avalon for healing. Despite the dubious historicity snarked at by even his own contemporaries, Geoffrey's work was a hit.
If you're wondering why all these historical references so far have been literary, it's because there is frankly no solid archaeological evidence for Arthur's existence. The overall picture of Britons vs Anglo-Saxons generally holds up, but while hill-forts like Cadbury Castle were speculated to be linked to Arthur, there is no hard evidence for it. While a few figures from this stage of the myth-like Ambrosius's enemy Vortigern are accepted as real through archaeological findings, Arthur's existence has yet to be confirmed this way, and any supposed evidence so far has been shoddy at best.
The most famous examples of these are the graves and burial cross of Arthur and his queen Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey, said to have been unearthed in 1191 by its monks, though this conflicts with older legends about his mysterious disappearance and eventual return. Nowadays, most scholars dismiss the Glastonbury findings as a financially and/or politically motivated hoax, to enrich the abbey and/or to keep the uppity non-Norman native British/Welsh/Cornish/etc. down. Another relatively recent find which caused a bit of buzz occurred in 1998. A fragment of a tablet speaking of an apparently powerful man named "Artognou" in Latin, which would be "Arthnou" or "Arthneu" in Welsh/Cornish/Breton, was unearthed in Tintagel in Cornwall (where Geoffrey of Monmouth says Arthur was born) and dated from roughly the correct time period. But most scholars have dismissed any connection with Arthur beyond the similar names, reasoning that the variants of Artognou are well-attested as their own names and that there is no real reason to suppose that Arthur, if he existed, was not named "Arthur" as universally recorded in Welsh/Cornish/Breton. Despite this, some fringe theories identify Arthur with undisputed historical figures in or around Britain from roughly the correct time period and make it a nickname or title.
This ties in with the meaning of Arthur's name which is itself disputed. It's usually noted that it's related to the Welsh word for bear, "arth" (descended from an earlier Celtic form, possibly "arto") and linked to the Latin name Artorius as well (which in a roundabout way may be distantly related to the Celtic "arto") but some fringe writers go further and make a certain Lucius Artorius Castus the direct basis for Arthur, which most scholars think is stretching it much, not least because he lived centuries before Vortigern and the first written Arthurian references.
By the latter half of the 12th century and beyond, the hazy line between Arthurian history and literature had been all but overwritten. Chrétien de Troyes and others thoroughly reworked the stories into Chivalric Romance, adding themes such as chivalry and Courtly Love, and iconic items like the Round Table, the Sword in the Stone, and the Holy Grail. These writers reworked or invented entirely new characters, most famously Lancelot and Perceval and later Galahad, to introduce them. The knights of the Round Table, originally characterized as Arthur's champions and chief companions, developed into Knights-Errant in Shining Armour much like what happened to the paladins of Charlemagne. Their adventures tended to overshadow Arthur himself, whose earlier feats were lost in translation.
Thanks to these and other authors, the Arthurian myth became popular throughout much of Europe, far beyond its original British scope. French writers, despite patriotic liking for the Matter of France, agreed that the King Arthur tales were among the best ones of Courtly Love. Also, since their nobles and kings were actually related to Charlemagne and some of his knights, and more claimed to be, even to the fictional ones, tales about King Arthur were safer from people reading political implications into them. note
In the English-speaking world, the medieval version best known today is Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, based on the works of his many, many literary predecessors, including multiple layers of retcons and crossovers. This version incorporates many originally separate stories about the Knights of the Round Table, the theme of Courtly Love, and the myth of the Holy Grail. Malory wrote it in The Late Middle Ages, and thus his work is often considered the "final" pre-modern form of the myth.
But as far as the French are concerned, Chrétien de Troyes' romances are the most important version of the Arthurian myth and for German-speakers it is the verse epics of the trio of Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfried von Straßburg, especially Wolfram's Parzival. This is not only founded on priority, but also on the superior literary quality of these four authors in comparison with their successors. In general, the way the Arthurian myth is viewed can depend very much on the nationality of the viewer; for people from the British Isles (and by extension, from the rest of the Anglosphere), it usually goes without saying that the Welsh (and English) medieval texts reflect an older and more "genuine" version of the myth than the French ones, even though they were in fact written down later. Here a lot is speculation and inference, as the (presumably mostly oral) traditions on which Geoffrey of Monmouth, Maistre Wace, Chrétien de Troyes and others based their works are lost to history.
In addition, since around the 20th century, some authors have drawn upon the earlier stages of the Arthurian legend and focused on the more "primitive" settings and themes of feuding warlords and resistance against foreign invaders.note These elements, which are just as prone to romanticism, both contrast and complement the more "advanced" themes of chivalry and courtly love, depending on who's doing the telling. This all just demonstrates the universality of the legend — like any good story, there's something for everyone in it, and everyone sees what they want in it.
- De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ("On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain") by the British monk Gildas, from the early 6th century. As said above, Arthur is not mentioned in it, but the Battle of Mount Badon is first recorded here, taking place "44 years and a month" before Gildas was writing, and Gildas says he was born in the year the battle took place. Later, the English monk Bede relied on Gildas exclusively while writing about the British resistance to the Anglo-Saxons, thus not mentioning Arthur as well. (He also mistook Gildas's figure of 44 years to mean the Battle of Mount Badon was fought 44 years after the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain.) Much has been said about Gildas not mentioning Arthur, but the work is more of a sermon or diatribe than a proper historical narrative. Gildas himself states that he is writing not so much to praise brave warriors but to castigate lazy and unworthy leaders. He names only a few British leaders during and after the Saxon invasions, praising only one Ambrosius Aurelianus in contrast with his descendants who have not lived up to their noble ancestor (or literally, grandfather). Ambrosius is said to be the leader around whom the Britons rallied as they scored their first victory against the invaders by the grace of God. "From that time on", the Britons both won and lost battles until Mount Badon, "almost the last and certainly not the least slaughter" of the Saxons. The British leader or leaders who won at Mount Badon is/are not directly named and it is unclear if Gildas meant Ambrosius. Gildas is also thought to be the first writer to speak of Vortigern, though he is also not mentioned by name like Arthur, also not yet as a king but only as a usurper or tyrant who, along with a council of leaders, first let the Saxons in.
- Historia Brittonum (or History of the Britons), traditionally ascribed to the Welsh writer Nennius in the 9th century, although it may be much older. While not a story, per se, it contains the oldest written record of Arthur and lists the twelve battles he fought against the invading English, with the last being Mount Badon. Of note is the fact that Arthur is not depicted as a king here but a dux bellorum, "leader of battles", a warlord fighting on behalf of the British kings. He is said to have been so successful against the English that they were forced to bring in further troops and kings from Germany, increasing their numbers dramatically until the island of Britain was finally subjugated. It also includes the story of a "fatherless" boy who sees two battling dragons, symbolizing the British/English conflicts. In the work he is called Ambrosius and turns out not to be fatherless after all, revealed to be the son of a Roman official and eventually becoming a king himself. But later authors starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth made him Merlin, who really has no human father.
- Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? ("What Man is the Gatekeeper?"): a poem found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the oldest known list of Arthur's warband and the first mention of Cei and Bedwyr (later to be Kay and Bedivere). Arthur seeks entrance into a fortress, recalling the heroic feats of his retinue for the gatekeeper. This list was expanded on over the centuries, with each tale adding more and more characters from both history and folklore. A decendant is found in ''How Culhwch Won Olwen'', at which point the retinue has swollen to over 260 warriors, not counting fantastic animals.
- Preiddeu Annwn ("The Spoils of Annwn"): a poem about Arthur's expedition to the Otherworld where he and his men carry off several treasures - including a magic cauldron, thought by some to be the root of the later Grail legend.
- The poems Geraint son of Erbin and Y Gododdin (referring to a British tribe) and the Lives of certain British and Breton saints are not Arthurian works per se but contain very early references to him. Geraint son of Erbin, an elegy for a prince who may be the basis for an Arthurian knight of the same name, mentions Arthur as an "Emperor" of the British. Y Gododdin praises a certain hero but still says "he was not Arthur". The Saints' Lives often show Arthur butting heads with them in sharp contrast to the model Christian king he later became. An anecdote about Gildas, an author mentioned above, offers an explanation to why he never mentions Arthur: he had a brother whom Arthur killed, and he deleted Arthur from his work in revenge.
- Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is thought to have been of mixed Breton and Welsh stock. Completed ca. 1138. Geoffrey's work is the earliest surviving narrative of Arthur's reign from beginning to end. He introduced or codified still-familiar elements like Merlin and his role in Arthur's birth, expanded Arthur's role as an uber-warrior — and, most significantly, was one of the first to explicitly call Arthur a king, in practice a high king ruling over allied kings. Though it focuses on battle, seeds of the chivalric themes that would dominate in later years also appear: Arthur's royal court sets a standard of courtliness imitated by others. Geoffrey retells the story of the boy Ambrosius with Merlin ("also called Ambrosius"), who is the offspring of an incubus and a princess-turned-nun. But he also includes the king Ambrosius as Arthur's uncle and precursor. Geoffrey's work was so pivotal to the development of the legend that scholars often divide it as "pre- and post-Geoffrey" (in fancier terms, "pre-Galfridian" and "post-Galfridian", coming from the Latin form of Geoffrey's name).
- Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecy of Merlin) appeared earlier, ca. 1130-1135, and was mostly incorporated into the larger Historia. The opening has the vision/prophecy of dragons from the older Historia Brittonum which later authors would pass on. The other prophecies mostly seem to refer to stuff happening around Geoffrey's own time, and are generally ignored by later authors. But for some time the work took on a life of its own apart from the larger Historia, treated by some like the much later Nostradamus quatrains.
- Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) was Geoffrey's sequel completed ca. 1150, in which he combined some recaps of the Historia with adapted Welsh stories of Myrddin the wild prophet whose name he had used for Merlin. This Myrddin, a bard who went crazy, was originally unconnected to Arthur and was said to have lived after his time, so Geoffrey's Merlin goes on to have a career long after Arthur's reign. The work also has the first appearance of the magical healer Morgen, who would later undergo major Adaptational Villainy as Morgan le Fay. But here she is the benevolent ruler of Avalon who personally tends to Arthur after his last battle. Merlin also meets Taliesin, another legendary bard with his own body of Celtic legends and poetry. Geoffrey is also one of the first to write that Arthur may one day return to save his people, as expressed by Taliesin.
- Roman de Brut (Romance of Brutus) by Maistre Wace from Jersey, an expanded version of Geoffrey's Historia written for king Henry II of England in French verse and making even greater use of Breton traditions, completed in 1155. The Round Table is mentioned here for the first time. Wace inserts a little more elements of chivalry and courtly love, though in passing since he follows Geoffrey's focus on war.
- Brut, ca. 1190 to 1215, a retelling of Wace and Geoffrey's works by the English writer Layamon (or Laghamon, or Law(e)man). It's both the earliest Arthurian work in the English language, and the earliest example of Misaimed Fandom regarding the mythos once you consider the early Arthur's enemies. Written in alliterative verse, it is longer and more detailed. For the first time, two ladies escort Arthur to Avalon (three in later works). Queen Argante (Morgan) and her ladies are identified as elves, and the baby Arthur is also blessed by elves. The Round Table is also introduced only after an Escalating Brawl over seating occurs. While later authors ignored this, it may have roots in Celtic legends where feasting warriors fought over precedence (and thus better portions of food).
- Several stories from the Mabinogion, a compilation of prose from several 14th-century Welsh manuscripts. Scholars generally agree that the stories are older, but how much older (and in particular if they are or not older than Geoffrey's Historia or even Chrétien de Troyes' romances) is still a matter of debate. Currently the stories are placed in the years between 1060 and 1200 and it is assumed that the version of the stories of Peredur/Perceval, Geraint and Enid/Erec et Enide, and Owain/Yvain were developed independently by Welsh writers and Chrétien based on the same older sources.
- The 5 poems of Chrétien de Troyes, written ca. 1170 to 1190. Literary historians see Chrétien as the first author to treat the legends as fiction. In many ways, he created Arthurian romance and was very influential on other authors.
- The earliest surviving versions of the Tristan and Iseult romance were written independently ca. around 1150 to 1170 by the poets Béroul and Thomas of England. Later retellings naturally upgraded Tristan to a Knight of the Round Table, but the tale was associated with the wider Arthurian framework from the earliest stages. The main characters can be traced to the Mabinogion and other Celtic material, though there lies no trace of the Star-Crossed Lovers premise of the romance.
- Lanval, one of the lais or lays (shorter than romances) by Marie de France, about a down-on-his-luck knight. Another early example of treating the legends as fodder for fiction. Inspired later works like Syr Launfal, a late 14th-century English poem by Thomas Chestre.
- Lanzelet, a German verse romance by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven composed ca. 1194. An early treatment of Lancelot which notably does not include the Love Triangle, even though it was written later than Chrétien's Lancelot, leading scholars to believe that element started with Chrétien.
- Merlin and Joseph d'Arimathe, ca. 1200, poems by Robert de Boron in French. Merlin has the first appearance of the Sword in the Stone, and Joseph d'Arimathe has one of the first mentions of the Holy Grail.
- Erec and Iwein, German verse romances by Hartmann von Aue, both based on Chrétien de Troyes.
- Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, from the first quarter of the 13th century. The most successful verse epic of the middle ages (by far the most manuscript copies surviving), a retelling and continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' last Arthurian romance. Wolfram also ties in the story of Percival with two other existing legends, making Parzival the father of Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan, and establishing Parzival's half-Moorish elder brother Feirefiz as the ancestor of Prester John. Wolfram started a prequel epic somewhat misleadingly called Titurel (after the first person mentioned in the text) but did not live long enough to finish it.
- Tristan by Gottfried von Straßburg, a contemporary of Hartmann and Wolfram, based on an older form of the story of Tristan and Iseult by the Anglo-Norman Thomas of England (of which only fragments survive). Gottfried did not finish this "classic" version of a much older story (which originally was tangential to the Arthurian myth), so two other Middle High German authors wrote their own endings.
- Lancelot-Grail, or Vulgate Cycle; followed by the Post-Vulgate Cycle - The common label for a cycle of 13th-century French prose epics, originally a trilogy consisting of the so-called Lancelot propre (partly based on Chrétien), the Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest For The Holy Grail, which introduces Galaad/Galahad), and La Mort le Roi Artu and in all likelihood produced by several writers (quite possibly Cistercian monks) according to a general plan. This was followed by two prequels, the Estoire del Saint Graal and the Estoire de Merlin, completing the first cycle to relate the entire story from the beginning of Arthur's rule to his death.
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A 14th-century English poem about Gawain's adventures after being challenged by a mysterious Green Knight. Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, among others.
- The Stanzaic Morte Arthur: A 14th-century English poem about Lancelot's affair with Guinevere and the downfall of Arthur.
- The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A 15th-century English poem about Arthur's rise and fall. Written in alliterative verse and known by that name to distinguish it from the previous entry. Mentions another sword of Arthur's named Clarent (stolen by Mordred) which is sometimes identified as the Sword in the Stone on This Very Wiki and elsewhere without textual basis.
- The Weddyng of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell: A 15th-century poem which uses the motif of the "Loathly Lady", whose roots lie in folklore outside the Arthurian myth. "The Wife of Bath's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales uses the same motif along with an Arthurian setting, but no Arthurian characters proper. By then the Arthurian myth was firmly established as a fairy-tale setting.
- Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory, an Early Modern English compilation of many earlier stories and epics, fusing the French Lancelot cycle with other stories like Tristan and Iseult, completed in 1470 and printed in 1485. Considered to be the ultimate medieval Adaptation Distillation of the legend (in the English-speaking world) due to its late date. Does not use the "Green Knight" and "Dame Ragnell" Gawain tales, though some think Malory is the anonymous author of the latter.
- King Arthur: The Hero, The Captain and The Good King.
- Sir Kay: Arthur's foster brother who became his steward. In earlier works, he is a Boisterous Bruiser, The Snark Knight, Magic Knight, The Big Guy and possibly the original Ace among Arthur's crew. He was also notable for having magical powers including an ability to become as tall as the tallest trees in the forest and being able to generate a fire/heat. In later works, he becomes the resident Jerk with a Heart of Gold and the Butt-Monkey. He is fiercely loyal to Arthur and, in many retellings, also has a good relationship with Guenivere.
- Sir Bedivere: Arthur's oldest companion, besides Kay; Bash Brothers with Kay and vice-versa. As the spotlight shifts to other (newer) characters, both are Demoted to Extra, Bedivere more so than Kay. But he is most known for being the Sole Survivor of Arthur's last battle who returns his magic sword to the lake from whence it came. He's also likely to become a carbon copy of Lancelot in modern novels where the latter isn't present.
- Sir Lancelot: The Ace, The Tragic Hero, The Sixth Ranger, Sailor Earth. He is a latecomer in two senses: first, in that he first appears at the Round Table long after the vast majority of its membership has assembled; and second, because the character entered the myth cycle several hundred years after it was first compiled. Originally found in French-language sources, hence his name. Sometimes upgraded to The Lancer and Number Two in modern works, but in the medieval works Kay has a better case for that since he is more of a heroic Foil for Arthur and he is more often at Arthur's side while Lancelot often goes off on knight-errantry.
- Queen Guinevere: The Heart, Damsel in Distress, The High Queen, and God Save Us from the Queen! in some iterations. Sometimes has a sister, called Gwenhwyfache or the False Guenivere. The former is Mordred's wife. In a Love Triangle with Arthur and Lancelot.
- Sir Gawain: Originally established as The Ace, then wimpified by the French to pump up Lancelot. Modern versions are more forgiving, after their fashion. While either Perceval or Galahad found the grail in most versions, in “Diu Krone” Gawain found the Grail.
- Sir Percival: The young, naive fool who became a knight and saw the Grail... until later stories had Galahad see it instead.
- Sir Galahad: Heroic Bastard son of Lancelot, Messianic Archetype and an early Marty Stu.
- Merlin: The original Wizard, Mentor, The Professor, sometimes half-demon. Based on legendary Welsh mystic Myrddin Wyllt, who wandered the woods as a wild haired mystic and converted to Christianity, later adopted as an oracular figure for Arthur, since both of them were basically Welsh; the Welsh maintain separate accounts of the "historical" Myrddin's life and places he visited.
- Morgan (or sometimes Morgana) Le Fay: Sometimes The Man Behind the Man and would-be Queen, sometimes a Trickster Mentor, almost always an Evil Sorcerer and Lady of Black Magic. Except in certain feminist and/or neo-pagan retellings of the stories, in which she's usually the hero and Arthur is an evil patriarchal Christian bastard, or the pawn of same; in probably her earliest appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth, she's just Arthur's on-staff magical healer and sister; and in recent works calling back to Geoffrey, such as The Magic Treehouse series.
- The Lady of the Lake: Mysterious magical ruler of a lake, to whom Excalibur is returned after Arthur's death. May or may not be the same character as Morgan and/or Nimue.
- Queen Morgause: Arthur's half-sister, the mother of Gawain, Mordred and their brothers, sometimes blended with her sister Morgana. The wife of King Lot, a rival king turned ally.
- Nyneve/Nimue/Vivian: Merlin's pupil, and lover. She eventually goes Deceptive Disciple on him and, in the classical version, places him under an enchantments and seals him in a tree or rock. Whether or not this is justified depends on how she and/or Merlin are portrayed. Frequently blended with Morgan and/or the Lady of the Lake for the convenience of having a Composite Character be responsible for all of Arthur's woes.
- Sir Mordred: Arthur's illegitimate son and nephew, though he was originally just a nephew and foster son on roughly equal footing with Arthur. The Final Boss.
- Arthur's nephews (Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred)
- Tristan and Iseult: Star-Crossed Lovers.
There are many other knights of the round table, each with their own complex storyline, and, just in case you thought that wasn't enough, most of the names also have other, wildly different spellings. The worst offenders are probably 'Guinevere', 'Mordred', and 'Iseult', with special mention going to 'Nyneve', who sometimes gets entirely new names such as 'Nimue' and 'Vivien.' (Then again, try telling those names apart in cramped Gothic handwriting.) It's pretty much up to the individual what you choose to call them.
The main locations:
- Camelot, Arthur's capital and seat of his court. First mentioned by Chrétien de Troyes, though he said Arthur's main seat was at...
- Caerleon, Arthur's capital according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. May still show up as a secondary city even after writers came to prefer Camelot.
- Still earlier traditions shown in Culhwch and Olwen and the Welsh Triads say Arthur held court at "Celliwig in Cernyw" (interpreted as "the forest grove in Cornwall", which is of little help to archaeologists) and two other seats of "tribal thrones". Obscured by the preference for Caerleon and Camelot.
- Caerleon, Arthur's capital according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. May still show up as a secondary city even after writers came to prefer Camelot.
- Tintagel, where Arthur was conceived due to a Bed Trick.
- Avalon, where Arthur was taken to be healed after his last battle.
- Camlann, the site of his last battle. "The Strife of Camlann" appears in the Welsh Annals along with the battle of Mount Badon, and the latter is thought to be a real event regardless of Arthur's existence. But Camlann survived in the retelling of the legends all the way to Malory while Badon fell into obscurity after Geoffrey.
- The Grail Castle, the home of the Holy Grail's keeper.
- Arthur's kingdom is sometimes called Logres, from Lloegr, the Welsh word for England. Arthur is more often just called king of Britain or in later works England (which means "land of the Angles", referring to the Anglo-Saxons who ironically were Arthur's enemies in older material).
- The forest of Brocéliande, where Merlin is supposed to be buried.
The main Public Domain Artifacts:
- Excalibur, Arthur's Cool Sword which is part of the earliest stratum of the legends. Alternately known as Caliburnus in Geoffrey (modernized to Caliburn) and Caledfwlch in the Mabinogion and other Welsh material, plus other Celtic and French language variants like Calesvol and Calabrun, until everyone agreed to use Excalibur.
- There are two origins to Excalibur: the first and older tradition, stating that Arthur received it from a surprisingly benign member of The Fair Folk, the Lady of the Lake, after the Sword in the Stone was broken; the second, that Excalibur was the Sword in the Stone from the beginning - this is a more modern origin, as writers thought it simpler to have only one magical sword, rather than two. The Celtic version of Excalibur predated the Sword in the Stone element, and thus didn't have an origin.
- The only magic power Excalibur was ever traditionally specifically accredited with was glowing brightly, and that not always, but the scabbard was said to stop the wearer from bleeding, making it almost invaluable on the battlefield. It was said that the wielder of Excalibur could never be defeated in combat, but the actual mechanics of how this was possible were never traditionally set in stone (if even stated at all).
- Insane sharpness is another reasonably-constant quality of the sword.
- In some early French works, Gawain is the one to wield "Escalibor".
- The Sword in the Stone, which is featured as an entirely different sword than Excalibur/Caliburn in most versions of Arthurian myth, but is the same sword in others. First introduced by Robert de Boron.
- The Round Table: Barring Excalibur, the most iconic item in Arthurian mythology - the freakin' furniture they installed. The congregation of knights are named for it, after all. Originally introduced by Wace as a symbol of equal status among Arthur's retinue, it came to symbolize their higher order of chivalry as well.
- The Siege Perilous, the last chair of the Round Table to be filled, prophesied to be filled by a knight who would not live long thereafter.
- The Holy Grail, an addition which came to dominate the late medieval version of the myth, though it is often excised in modern works.
Other artifactsThere are also a metric ton of other lesser commonly-known and featured artifacts from the myths. Just a few are:
- The Broken Sword — The Grail Sword
- The Sword of the Red Hilt
- The Shield of Joseph of Arimathea
- The Shield of The Burning Dragon Knight
- The Green Sash
- The Thirteen Treasures of Britain
- The Chessboard of Gwenddolau, son of Ceidio
- The Mantel of Tegau Gold-Breast
- The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd
- The Crock and the Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric
- The Coat of Padarn Beisrudd
- The Knife of Llawfrodedd Farfog
- The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy
- Dyrnwn, the Sword of Rhydderch Hael
- The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn
- The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank
- The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant
- The Horn of Bran the Niggard from the North
- Llen Arthyr yng Nghernyw - The Mantel of Arthur in Cornwall
- The Stone and Ring of Eluned the Fortunate - owned by Merlin; sometimes replaces this in lists.
- The Ship and Armaments of Arthur
- The Scabbard of Excalibur - prevented its wielder from bleeding in battle
- Prydwen - his ship
- Goswhit - his helmet
- Rohngomiant - his spear
- Crewennan - his dagger
- Wigar - his armor
- Wynebgwrthucher - his shield
- Llen Arthyr yng Nghernyw - his mantel
- The enchanted spear of Britomart the Knight of Chastity
- Chrysaor, the sword of Artegal the Knight of Justice
- The Pendragon Banner - magical banner that breathed fire on its enemies; became the Flag of Wales
- The Armaments of Lancelot
- Aroundight/Arondite - his primary sword
- Secace, the Saxon-Slayer - another sword
- The Dispelling Ring of Lancelot - a Ring of Counterspell
- Lancelot's Shield - healed its wielder continuously
- The Shield of Judas Macabee
- Fail-Not, the Bow of Tristan
- The Stone of Giramphiel
- The other swords of Arthur:
- Marmiadoise, the Sword of King Rione - stolen by Arthur
- Morrdure, Gloriana's Gift to Arthur
- The Sword of King Cornwall - stolen by Arthur
- The Shield of Evalach
- Galatine, the Sword of Gawain
- Honoree, the Sword of Marriage, the Sword of Gingalain son of Gawain
- The Armors of Color:
- The Horn of King Cornwall - stolen by Arthur
- Coreiseuse, the Wrathful Sword of King Ban, father of Lancelot
- The Magic Skein of Thread of Ilamert of Lanoeir
The Grail in detail:
- See also King Arthur and the Holy Grail
The history of the Holy Grail is rather complicated. Ostensibly the cup that Jesus drank from during the Last Supper, brought to Glatonsbury by Joseph of Aramathea, it's a Celtic invention that was unknown on the continent before the Arthurian mythos brought it there. It first surfaced in the late 1100s, in an incomplete poem by Chrétien de Troyes (whose contributions to Arthurian canon were action packed and unconcerned with spiritual matters), in which a naive Welsh knight named Perceval meets the Fisher King. A grail appears as part of a larger and quite bizarre mystical procession and is referred simply as "a grail" with no holy context, apart from carrying a host wafer. The word "grail" could also refer to a dish or bowl, not just a cup. Perceval fails in his quest by not asking the Fisher King what the hell's going on (making this story the first ever Sierra adventure game).
Robert de Boron was the first to call the grail the "Holy Grail" and gave it the Biblical origin above. Over subsequent centuries, the Holy Grail grew into the entire raison d'etre of the entire Arthurian Court, when originally the Grail Quest was so singularly dangerous that there was a special chair at the Round Table reserved for those who dared attempt it, called the Siege Perilous. By giving the knights a single sacred focus rather than having them stumbling around Britain falling ass backwards into quests, this transformation made the sprawling tangle of stories more coherent, and elevated the moral standing of the knights.
The Holy Grail itself also grew hugely in significance, in some cases taking on parts of various other magic hamper and cauldron myths, which created a mythological snarl whose origins modern scholars are nowhere close to deciphering (compare to the several lucid theories about the Sword in the Stone that have cropped up in modern scholarship). By the first decade of 13th century, in Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzifal's calling to the Grail Quest is explicitly a calling to a higher and better world than the normal quests of Arthur's court. The text claims that the Grail itself was the stone the neutral angels of Heaven stayed in during the war against Lucifer. By the 15th century, Malory depicts the Grail as so powerful that when Galahad (the most pure and dedicated of all the knights) succeeds on the Grail quest he instantly ascends to Heaven.
The Arthurian Legend provides examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism: Because of Values Dissonance, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are typically made more heroic in modern adaptations which portray them as having slightly more modern, or at least progressive, beliefs. Arthur for example is often more concerned with peace and equality while the version from most stories in the Legend was more concerned with proving his strength against enemies.
- Adaptational Villainy:
- The earliest reference to Mordred only indicates that he's important, so there were actually several takes describing him as Arthur's best, noblest knight. The alternate version, where he's important because he's a bad guy, took off pretty quickly.
- Morgan Le Fay (or Morganna, Morgane, Morgante, etc.) was originally a sort of Fairy Godmother figure, whose main role was taking King Arthur off to be healed on Avalon. She was later turned into a Wicked Witch, a portrayal continued in most modern retellings of the myths.
- Modern versions make Morgause an Expy of evil Morgan. She's the mother of several important knights, including Mordred, so she's automatically tied into the wider mythos better than other villains.
- Adaptation Expansion: Arthur (may have) started out as a prominent
Celtic chieftainRomano-British warlord and leader of a band of warriors. Think Jason and the Argonauts in fur with Cornish or Welsh accents. Several centuries and several foreign conquests later, Arthur has his own entire extensive mythology named after him! Also before Malory, come to that.
- After the End: Every story based on the myths nominally takes place after the Romans left Britain in 410 AD and the Anglo-Saxon invasions afterward, though this context is often obscured to the point of unrecognizability. The linking of the Arthurian legend to the previous Roman era is most pronounced in the early pseudo-historical works and in modern historical-style works drawing upon this stage of the legend's development.
- Anachronism Stew: Knights in shining armor during the fall of the Roman Empire? Why not? Anything pre-19th century is bound to fall into this. Even the earliest Arthurian lore isn't immune from anachronism. Characters like King Uriens, Taliesin, and even Merlin are from separate mythical cycles that place their lifetimes a century or more after Arthur is supposed to have lived.
- Bed Trick:
- Arthur's conception occurs when Uther uses Merlin's magic to make him look like Ygraine's husband, thus enabling him to have sex with her.
- Elaine uses magic to make herself look like Guinevere, which is enough to lure Lancelot into her bed. She later tricks him this way again, and when the real Guinevere catches them, Lancelot is so distraught that he goes temporarily mad.
- Befriending the Enemy: In Prose Lancelot Sir Lancelot manages to befriend Prince Galehaut of Sorelois, who at the time was at war with King Arthur over a disputed territory, which eventually resulted in a peace settlement between the warring royals.
- Bittersweet Ending: Arthur's power is broken at the Battle of Camlann and he departs for Avalon to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence from which he'll return when Britain needs him again.
- Breakout Villain: Mordred, Arthur's nephew/son, and Morgan Le Fay, his half-sister and sometimes Mordred's mother, remain the only villains of the Arthurian legends who are well-known to this day, even though there are loads of others. The popular image of Morgan herself as propagated by Excalibur, The Mists of Avalon and other modern retellings combines her with Arthur's other half-sister Morgause who is Mordred's mother in the older literature.
- Brother–Sister Incest: In later versions of the story, Mordred is both son and nephew of King Arthur. In earlier stories, he's simply Arthur's nephew, which also makes him Arthur's successor (given that either Arthur or Guinevere are barren). In Annales Cambriae, Arthur and Medrawd (Mordred's original name) aren't related at all and are just mentioned to have died at the same battle. It doesn't even say if they were on opposing sides.
- Canon Welding: Sort of. Merlin was created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but was essentially a Composite Character of Myrddin Wyllt and Ambrosius Aurelianus, two older tales with no known connection to King Arthur. With Myrddin seemingly being the primary inspiration behind Merlin along with aspects of Ambrosius, who was eventually made into Arthur's uncle, Merlin's creation brought two stories into the Arthurian Legend.
- Changeling Fantasy: Arthur is raised by Sir Ector. Though treated well, he's considered of lower rank than Ector's biological family, who have no idea of his true identity.
- Child by Rape:
- King Arthur was conceived when Uther Pendragon had a spell cast on him that made Igraine think he was her husband.
- According to the Prose Merlin, an incubus raped Merlin's mother to create The Antichrist. Fortunately, he had free will and decided to use his powers for good.
- Sir Galahad was conceived when Elaine of Corbenic, daughter of the Fisher King, fell in love with Lancelot, and tricked him into believing she was Guinevere, by means of wine and a ring.
- Sir Bors had made a vow of eternal chastity, but a princess who was in love with him used a magic ring to make him sleep with her. Their child, Elyan the White, became a knight himself and later the emperor of Constantinople.
- The Chosen One:
- Merlin predicts Arthur's coming in the form of a vision of a Boar note driving out the Saxons and relieving the Britons.
- Earlier was his predicting of Arthur's father, Uther, whose banner was the red dragon, slaying the usurper Vortigern, whose banner was the white dragon.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: It is unsurprising that as Arthurian legend evolved over the centuries and spread across Europe, many characters faded from existence or were replaced with local variations. Arthur's sons — Amr, Gwydre, Llacheu, Kyduan and Duran — had all vanished by the 12th century. His full sister Anna became the mother of Mordred (who was just Arthur's nephew); she was eventually replaced by Arthur's half-sister Morgause, who is a different character entirely.
- Continuity Snarl:
- To pick one example: who is King Arthur's greatest knight: Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad? In the oldest tales, it was Sir Kay, and then Bedivere.
- Another example: In some versions, Arthur battles the Roman Empire (which fell no later than 476 AD, unless it's assumed Lucius Tiberius was a Byzantine) but his knights include Sir Palomedes the Saracen (which can be taken to mean either the Arab or the Muslim — and Islam began in 610 AD).
- Cool Sword: Excalibur. It glows, it chooses the king of Britain. It's probably the most famous fictional sword in the world.
- Deconstruction Fic: The very earliest Lancelot/Guinevere story (Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart) doesn't have anything bad to say about the adultery, and there's no consequences. Later authors didn't think Sleeping with the Boss's Wife was so harmless and went on to write stories where their affair helps cause the downfall of Camelot.
- Depending on the Writer: Arthur and his court have been reinterpreted by generation after generation over the centuries, to the point where any given Arthur would have great difficulty recognizing any of his counterparts.
- Double In-Law Marriage:
- Brothers Gareth and Gaheris marry sisters Lyonesse and Lynet.
- Lancelot's mother is sister to his cousins' mother, and his father is brother to their father.
- Geographic Flexibility: The earlier stories placed Arthur’s court, or at least one of his courts, in Celliwig ("Forest Grove") in Cornwall. Most writers ignore this and instead place the location as the completely mythical Camelot, if only to not be limited by the location's geography.
- Give Me a Sword: Arthur sometimes pulls out the sword without noticing, because Kay sent him to get him a sword.
- Healing Shiv: Excalibur's scabbard stops its wielder from bleeding, making it invaluable on the battlefield.
- Heroic Bastard: A startlingly large number of the protagonists are illegitimate, to wit:
- King Arthur himself was born of a deception when Merlin disguised Uther Pendragon as Gorlois so Uther could sleep with Gorlois' wife, Igraine. Uther and Igraine did get married before Arthur was born, so he is not of illegitimate birth, just illegitimate conception, so technically qualifies.
- Merlin was said to be the child of a human woman and an incubus. It doesn't seem likely that they were married (some versions also have this being due to rape).
- The "perfect gentle knight" Galahad, one of the Grail-finders, was the bastard son of Lancelot and Elaine.
- Mordred is usually the son of Arthur and his half-sister Morgause (or Morgaine). While many of the older versions of Arthurian myth paint Mordred as a typical double-bastard (evil as well as illegitimate), more recent works (and even some of the older ones) have tried to reform this character, at least so that he's more of a Fallen Hero and Tragic Villain who is utterly broken at the revelation.
- Perceval, in the versions where he's Pellinore's son. And that's just the major characters. To this add Sir Tor (one of the knights of the white hart), Guinglain (Gawaine's long-lost son), Yvain the Bastard (so called to distinguish him from his half-brother also named Yvain), and Sagramore in many of his Hungarian incarnations, plus at least two other bastard sons of Arthur (Logors and Arthur the less) and even more minor characters. As the majority of the fathers in these cases were major knights themselves, the original ballad writers were apparently more concerned with the genealogy than they were the marriage vows.
- Heroic Lineage:
- Mostyn MS. 117 and Bonedd y Saint, Welsh manuscripts dating from the 12th-13th century, describe Arthur as a direct descendant of Llŷr Lledyeith, who also fathered the heroes of the Mabinogion. Historia Regum Britanniae depicts Arthur as the blood relative of Constantine I of the Eastern Roman Empire, and "Maximianus" (based on the historical Magnus Maximus) of the Western Empire.
- This has also been invoked by "descendants" of Arthur on many occasions. Most notably, Henry VII following the Wars of the Roses, who named his first-born son Arthur and claimed him to be the prophesied second coming who would herald the Golden Age. Might have been cool if he'd lived longer than his dad, but we got Henry VIII instead.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Possibly Mordred. He is first mentioned (as Medraut) in the 10th-century Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) as having been killed in the battle of Camlaun along with Arthur, but the entry is ambiguous as to whether they were fighting on opposing sides.
- Immortality Field: King Arthur was sent to Avalon, where its inhabitants live long, so that he may one day return.
- The Lancer: Lancelot to Arthur. Also in a classic early example of a Love Triangle involving The Hero, The Lancer and The Heart.
- The Low Middle Ages: The legend had its roots during this period, though the more familiar forms of it were written down during The High Middle Ages.
- Medieval European Fantasy: The Arthurian mythos is one of the major Ur-Examples (as part of the "Matter of Britain" in general, along with the "Matter of France" with Charlemagne, etc.), especially as it grew to incorporate fantastical elements such as Merlin, Nimue and the Lady of the Lake, and the Chivalric Romance form and setting was developed.
- Merlin and Nimue: The Trope Maker. Merlin's relationship with the pupil that betrays him sets the pattern for the relationship between many future mages and their younger, opposite sex pupils.
- The Middle Ages: Nearly every version of the story is set in a mélange of centuries stretching from about 500 to about 1,000 years (or even more) after Arthur's time. Very few are set properly in the period of the late Roman Empire.
- Moses in the Bulrushes: The young King Arthur; also an embittered anti-Moses, in the form of Mordred, after Arthur (our hero!) had a lot of babies killed. (Different versions put different twists on this last bit.)
- One-Steve Limit: Averted:
- There are four distinct Elaines, three of whom are connected to Lancelot:
- Elaine, Lancelot's mother who dies in childbirth
- Elaine, Galahad's mother who rapes Lancelot because her daddy is an early advocate of eugenics
- Elaine, the lady of Astolat who goes a bit Alex Forrest for Lancelot and ends up dying from her unrequited love
- Elaine, sister of Morgan le Fay and Morgause, who accomplished less than either of them
- It's common in Arthurian mythos for parents to name their different children the same thing. There's Sir Ywain and his half-brother, Ywain the Bastard. Leodegrance names his bastard second daughter Guinevak who, later in life, somehow manages to convince the Knights of the Round Table that she's the real Guinevere and her sister the imposter. Note to future authors, when trying to find inspiration for a villain's scheme, The Importance of Being Earnest is not the place to look.
- There are at least three different Iseults. Tristan marries Iseult of Brittany because he's in love with Iseult of Ireland (daughter of Queen Iseult). The marriage doesn't work out too well, unsurprisingly.
- There are four distinct Elaines, three of whom are connected to Lancelot:
- Only the Worthy May Pass: Why only Arthur can pull the sword in the stone.
- Powers via Weapon: Excalibur came with a scabbard that prevented the wielder's wounds from bleeding, unfortunately King Arthur lost it sometime before his duel with Mordred. In some of the original Welsh traditions he also had a dagger named Carnwennan that shrouded the wielder in shadows, allowing him to kill the Black Witch.
- A Protagonist Shall Lead Them: Arthur's archetype in pretty much every adaptation.
- Related Differently in the Adaptation: Depending on which version of the legend you're reading, Morgan le Fay is either Mordred's aunt or his mother. This is due to Morgan often becoming a Composite Character with her sister Morgause. Furthermore, in some versions, Arthur is only Mordred's uncle and King Lot is his biological father rather than his stepfather, while in others Arthur is both Mordred's uncle and his father.
- The Remnant: In the original legends, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were a band of warriors who sought to protect the Celtic people of Britain from the invading Saxons after the Western Roman Empire left in 410 AD.
- Royal Bastard:
- Arthur was born of deception when Merlin disguised Uther Pendragon as Gorlois so Uther could sleep with Gorlois' wife, Igraine. Though he is not a bastard in the strictest sense, i.e. born out of wedlock, since Uther marries Igraine before he's born.
- Galahad, one of the Grail-finders, is the bastard son of Lancelot and Elaine, and Lancelot is technically a king by blood (his father lost their kingdom to an enemy when he was a kid, and later after he and Arthur defeat the guy he declines the throne to keep serving Arthur).
- Depending on the version, Mordred is both Arthur's Evil Nephew and bastard son from Morgause, or Morgana in modern works.
- Sole Survivor: Only Sir Bedivere survives Arthur's last battle in Malory. Earlier Welsh legends also have just a few survivors: one warrior was so beautiful that he was mistaken for an angel while another was so ugly that he was mistaken for a devil, and thus they escaped harm.
- Spell My Name With An S: Every character's name has multiple spellings.
- Stab the Sky: Many depictions of Arthur after pulling the sword out of the stone show him standing like this.
- Starter Villain:
- Lucius, Emperor of Rome, is pretty much the first major enemy that Arthur has to face as king.
- In some variations, King Lot (or Loth) is the first major enemy. This is usually depicted in such a way that although Arthur has been proclaimed High King, Lot and a number of other lesser rulers defy him and rebel.
- Taking the Veil: In many versions, Queen Guinevere ends up a nun, and Lancelot, a monk.
- Translation Convention: Even though the original setting of the myths are post-Roman Britain, just about every modern adaptation will have Arthur and his friends speak modern British English with RP accents as opposed to the Celtic Brythonic language found in 6th century Cornwall and Wales.
- Token Minority: In spite of Arthurian legend originating in post-Roman Britain, some of the characters in the 13th century French and Dutch romance books are Muslim such as the explicitly "Saracen" Palamedes, Safir and Segwarides, who can be assumed to be Arabs from the Middle East or North Africa since the term was often used to describe Muslims while Aglovale is a Moor and his son Morien is usually depicted as a black African. The German poem Parzival focuses on the titular protagonist's half-brother Feirefiz, the biracial son of Gahmuret and Moorish queen Belcrane of Zazamanc.
- Womanliness as Pathos: Although the myths are populated largely by knights and lords both noble and ignoble, women are responsible for much of the moving and shaking. It is the sorceress Nimue who traps the wise wizard Merlin, the queen Guinevere's affair with Lancelot that ultimately dooms Camelot, and the machinations of the sorceress Morgan le Fay (in later interpretationsnote ) and Arthur's estranged half-sister Morgause that contribute to this.