Arthur, King of Britain, son of Uther Pendragon, definition of The Good King and namesake of the Arthurian Legend. The specifics of what he is has varied greatly through the ages, but one constant that remains is his being a leader of renown. The seat of his kingdom is most often given as the famed Camelot.
According to legend, King Arthur was the most glorious ruler of the Britons, long before there ever was an England or a United Kingdom. The Britons were a Celtic people who were colonized by The Roman Empire, and the legend of Arthur grew out of the Empire's decline. Britain was left to fend for itself against the encroaching Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples, distant cousins of the later Vikings.
According to the early legend, the man who led the Britons in battle and stopped the invaders for a while was Arthur. For a while — because the Anglo-Saxons eventually won against the Britons, eventually forming England while independent Briton rule was reduced to pockets like Wales and Cornwall. Nevertheless, the Britons kept the legend of Arthur alive. Many emigrated to Brittany in (what is today) France, eventually lending their name to the region. The Bretons, as they were eventually known, brought the legend of Arthur with them where it eventually found a new audience. More on that later.
Some of Arthur's earliest appearances are in pseudo-historical writings where his material has an air of folklore about it. For instance, in the battle of Mt. Badon, his climactic victory against the Anglo-Saxons, he is said to have slain hundreds of men singlehandedly. Arthur also appears in folk tales and poetry, where he is often a figure from the glorious Celtic afterworld Annwyn who would help heroes on their quests and protect the land from supernatural and mundane enemies alike, or just a champion warrior and leader of men who does the same thing. He has a band of warriors under his command, many with abilities far beyond those of ordinary men. In possibly one of the earliest references to him, found in Y Goddodin — a poem lamenting/celebrating a Briton defeat — a man's obituary says that he slew 300 men though or despite that "he was no Arthur". And Arthur's own death is said to be at the Battle or Strife of Camlann, dying together with one Medraut. But the Britons also said that Arthur's grave was anoeth, something wondrous or mysterious and exceedingly hard or impossible to see or do — in other words, there was no grave at all in the normal sense, and so they believed that he would one day come again to save them in their hour of greatest need.
While historians believe the context of the Briton/Anglo-Saxon conflict is real, including the battle of Mt. Badon, 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 today are based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written after the Norman Conquest of England, and where Arthur comes in near the end as the Breakout Character. Geoffrey was probably the single most influential recounter of the legend. He was one of the first to call Arthur a king — in practice The High King ruling over other kings — as Arthur was more often called just a soldier or war-leader in earlier material. Also, he first wrote down (perhaps made up) Arthur's Origin Story — he was conceived via a Bed Trick thanks to the other Breakout Character, the wizard Merlin. Geoffrey was the first to write of Merlin, Arthur's queen Guinevere, and Arthur's sword 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. He also wrote that after Arthur's final battle with his nephew Modred (later Mordred), he was taken away to the mystic isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds, and implicitly wait until he is needed again.
Geoffrey clearly influenced other writers like Chretien de Troyes in France (who came up with Camelot) 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 of the Round Table. As the knights grew in prominence, new characters were invented and older characters were expanded upon or fell into relative obscurity, and entire new storylines like the quest for the Holy Grail and a Love Triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and his best knight Lancelot were created. Arthur himself was more and more Demoted to Extra until the final stretch of the legend leading to his exit. These writers in turn, down through the centuries, influenced Sir Thomas Malory and other authors up to the present day.
The timing of this narrative resurgence isn't coincidental. The Anglo-Saxons, naturally enough, weren't very interested in retelling the tale of a Briton leader who fought against their ancestors — but the Normans, who had overthrown the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and now found themselves ruling over a mostly Anglo-Saxon population, very much were. Arthurian myth helped portray the Anglo-Saxons as barbaric and, more importantly, illegitimate usurpers and invaders, thus allowing the Normans to portray themselves as righting an ancient wrong and in a sense as picking up where Arthur left off.
And now, a recounting of Arthur's life, mainly according to Malory:
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 some later medieval and modern authors had it because he was illegitimate. Malory insists that Arthur was born legitimate since his parents were married at the time.
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 the earlier Arthurian legend in his own right) that is less favoured, though he later does become one of his Knights of the Round Table. 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 is around 15 years old, he becomes king by pulling a sword out of a stone, which only the rightful king could do. This sword was later replaced by the even cooler Excalibur, given to him by The Lady of the Lake, though sometimes they are the same.
However, many of the nobles and kings of Britain are initially against swearing fealty to a young boy thus a rebellion arose. Eventually Arthur defeats the rebels and marries Guinevere. As a marriage gift, Arthur gets a Round Table around which he decides to form the famed chivalrous brotherhood of knights. Incidentally, the battle of Mt. Badon and the Saxon conflict is completely obscured by this stage. Malory has the fighting between Arthur and the rebels be derailed by Saracens right out of the Crusades instead. Then after defeating the rebels, Arthur is challenged by the Roman Empire, and conquers that too.
When he returns home, Arthur doesn't get up to much then, with most of the medieval tales 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. The quest for the Holy Grail happens around this time, but as the king, Arthur doesn't take part in it.
At some point he is sometimes said to have unwittingly committed incest with one of his sisters, Morgause. This spawns his eventual final foe Mordred who was now both his nephew and son. But this is not hinted at in any earlier material. His sisters Morgause and the more famous Morgan le Fay were also made into his enemies while they weren't originally. Morgause often gets combined with Morgan in modern works.
While Guinevere most famously has an affair with Lancelot which leads to the breaking-apart of the Round Table's fellowship, in earlier tellings starting with Geoffrey, Guinevere hooks up with Mordred while Arthur is away fighting his wars.
The earliest mention of Arthur's final battle only says that Mordred (Medraut) also died there, and the wording is ambiguous on whether they were fighting against or alongside each other. But the tradition is otherwise unanimous in making them enemies. In the earlier tradition, Mordred usurps Arthur when he leaves 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.
After the battle, Arthur is sometimes said to grant his kingdom to a Cornish relative (or pseudo-relative) of his who is of Roman descent. Arthur is then 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 Arthurian Legend. For other Arthurian characters, see here.
- Absurdly Sharp Blade: King Arthur's sword, Excalibur.
- Adaptational Villainy: Morgan Le Fay AKA Morganna, Morgane, Morgante etc was originally a good witch who helped heal King Arthur. She was later turned into a Wicked Witch, a portrayal continued in most modern retellings of the myths.
- 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, who likely represent the Roman Empire, though this is confused as in some accounts the Romans use dragon motifs. A Welsh poem "The Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle" puns on his name by calling him arth gwyr, "bear of men".
- Antagonistic Offspring: Unremarkably, Arthur 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.
- Asskicking Equals Authority: One of his earliest appearances treats him as a war-leader who beat the Saxons in twelve battles, fighting together with the British kings. This implies he himself was not thought to have been a king at this point. A variant text of the same document is more explicit, saying that he was chosen twelve times as commander though many others were of more noble birth.
- 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 McCoolname:
- 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) or Artorigos, 'Bear-King', or Artorigios, 'Son of Artorix' i.e. '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:
- His most iconic "crowning" moment is his acclamation as king by the crowd after he draws the sword from the stone. He's formally crowned later.
- in Geoffrey's account he defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius Tiberius but he's interrupted by Modred's rebellion before he can march on Rome itself. In Malory, this is taken Up to Eleven with Arthur actually becoming Roman Emperor, with all his vassals in attendance and being crowned by the Pope.
- 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.
- Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: The medieval texts don't really describe his physical appearance, except for the relatively late Le Morte D Arthur which only says once that he has grey eyes. But since he's The Hero, modern visual representations will sometimes (if not often) make him blond to signify his personal goodness.
- Particularly if he's younger and his innocence is emphasized, like in the Disney version.
- Subverted until character development set in with his depictions in Merlin and somewhat less successfully Camelot.
- If Mordred is his son, then chances are he will be portrayed as blond too, both to signify their relation and to subvert the Light Is Good image more forcefully (if he's not dark-haired because Dark Is Evil).
- A lot of this applies to Lancelot and Guinevere too, but their appearance is also not really specified in the source texts either.
- The Hero: Trope Codifier.
- Heroes Love Dogs: In the early Welsh stuff he has a dog named Cavall, whose name confusingly enough means "horse".
- Heroic Lineage: In Geoffrey's very creative account, Arthur is related to the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great who here is half-British through his mother St. Helenanote , supposedly the daughter of King Coel (Old King Cole!), as well as to the Roman Emperor Maximianus (based on the historical Magnus Maximus), supposedly also half-British through his father who was King Coel's son and St. Helena's brother. Arthur invokes this to justify his war against the Roman Empire, since Britons have already ruled the Empire from a certain point of view. Also, Arthur's grandfather and Arthur's successor as king, a relative of some sort, are both named Constantine.
- The High King: The sovereign of all of England from his court in Camelot, 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.
- Hormone-Addled Teenager: In Mallory at least, he acts more like a teenager than one would expect in his early career, being kind of stupid, impulsive, and yes, rather horny, and Merlin has to reign him in a few times.
- 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.
- In the Welsh material, his ship is named Prydwen (Fair-Face), his mantle of invisibility is named Gwen (White), his sword (later known as Excalibur) is named Caledfwlch, which most literally translates as "Hard-Gap" or Hard-Cleft (i.e. "hard-cleaver", "hard-cleaving" or "cleaving what is hard") — though caled "hard" is also used poetically to mean "battle" (because battles are hard), his spear is named Rhongomyniad (Striking-Spear), his shield is named Wynebgwrthucher (Evening-Face), and his dagger is named Carnwennan (Little-White-Haft).
- A later English author, Layamon, also named his helmet as Goswhit (Goose-White).
- A few medieval works mention other named swords of Arthur besides or instead of Excalibur and its many different name variations, though usually other characters end up using them. In the Old French Vulgate Cycle, Lancelot borrows a sword from him named Secace or Seure, and in the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, Mordred steals a ceremonial sword named Clarent which is used to deal Arthur's mortal wound. In the Middle French The Knight of the Parrot (Le Chevalier au Papegau), Arthur has a talking parrot sidekick and a sword named Chastiefol, meaning "chastizer of fools". It's unknown if this was supposed to be a different sword from Excalibur, but it may have been derived or mutated from an earlier Celtic form of Excalibur like Cornish Calesvol or Breton Kaledvoulc'h, both equivalent to Welsh Caledfwlch.
- Nice Guy: While somewhat haughty and proud, Arthur is often depicted as a kind and just king, who values and loves his kingdom, his knights and his subjects more than his own life.
- 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.
- One True Love: Many adaptations have Guinevere being this to him, with her affair with Lancelot being just a fling, and Arthur being the love of her life, with Arthur's death sending her into such a deep depression over the loss of her husband she joins a convent and never speaks nor smiles again.
- 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 d'Arthur.
- 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.