Legends of King Arthur

Legends of King Arthur

The Arthurian legends are perhaps the most famous part of English folklore. These legends have traveled across the centuries and the world. In this post, we look at a bit of the legends of King Arthur and his court.

What is the medieval history of Arthurian legend?

King Arthur featured in stories before the 11th century. However, the first popular work surrounding this character was the Historia regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It was written around 1135-1138. This story casts the king as a triumphant ruler who defeats a Roman army before being wounded in a battle during a rebellion led by Mordred. Authors later in the 12th century, such as Wace of Jersey and Lawamon, would help to flesh out some of the details, mostly regarding the concept of the Knights of the Round Table.

Another 12th century writer Chretien de Troyes helped to add to the legends. He is the one who introduced the theme of the Holy Grail to the legends. He also added the love of Lancelot and Guinevere into the tales as well. The Vulgate Cycle would explore these themes in more detail.

The Vulgate Cycle was likely written by Cistercian monks, although it was originally attributed to a clerk for King Henry II named Walter Map. This group of Arthurian romances dates to around 1210. Some of the romances would focus specifically on Lancelot, while others would focus on Merlin. One would describe the idea of the sword in the stone. These romances would be transferred from their original French to English through the work of Thomas Malory in the 15th century. His work was called Le Morte d’Arthur.

Legends of King Arthur
King Arthur from the Christian Heroes Tapestry in the Cloisters, circa 1385.
Legends of King Arthur
King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler 1903.

Who are the characters in the King Arthur legends?

In the legends of King Arthur, there are many characters to keep track of. However, the most important ones can be broken down into the main characters and the knights. The main characters include King Arthur of course, as well as Queen Guinevere, Merlin, Morgana Le Fay, and Mordred along with the Lady of the Lake.

Guinevere was married to King Arthur and was said to be extremely beautiful. Her love affair with Sir Lancelot is said to have caused the fall of Camelot. Merlin was the sorcerer who helped guide Arthur, both in his youth and as king. Morgana was the half-sister of Arthur. Her role changes over time towards an antagonist character, especially in the works of Malory. She is also considered the ruler of Avalon. Avalon is a legendary island and a place of rest for King Arthur in various legends. Mordred was either the nephew or son of King Arthur, depending on the legend, and would overthrow the king’s rule at the fall of Camelot. The last main character, the Lady of the Lake, was a magical figure who gave King Arthur his legendary sword Excalibur.

Legends of King Arthur
The Round Table having a vision of the Holy Grail, by Evrard d'Espinques in 1475.

Who were the Knights of the Round Table?

 Of course, the other major characters in the legends were the Knights of the Round Table. There were multiple knights, at least a dozen or so. We are going to focus on the most well-known ones. Easily the best known and perhaps the most infamous knight was Sir Lancelot. This handsome knight would have an affair with Guinevere and help to bring Camelot to ruin in the process. As mentioned previously, Lancelot received multiple legends that focused specifically on him.

A major part of the modern understanding of Arthurian legends focuses on the idea of the quest for the Holy Grail. In the legends, there were three knights who were said to have achieved this legendary goal. These three knights were Sir Galahad, Sir Bors the Younger, and Sir Percival. Meanwhile, there were two other knights that have gotten their own stories or movies in later media. Sir Tristan, while a member of the Round Table, is best known for his own legend in the tale of Tristan and Isolde. This story has its own set of adaptations, especially in film and TV. Meanwhile, the tale of Sir Gawain and his fight against the mysterious Green Knight has gotten its own film in 2021. Speaking of Arthurian characters in film…

How does modern media portray Arthurian Legend?

The legends of King Arthur have repeatedly been featured in modern media. They have appeared in books such as the Once and Future King by T.H. White and the short story of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. White’s work would later influence the creation of the musical Camelot. Other works that feature the legends include the children’s movie the Sword in the Stone and the more adult movie of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. One TV show that revolved around the legends was the TV series Merlin. There are also connections between Harry Potter and Arthurian legend.

There is so much to look at when it comes to the legends of King Arthur and his court. In fact, they serve as an entire body of study. Here, we looked at a quick history of the medieval origins of the legends as well as the major characters and their depictions in media.

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