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Jeff
02-29-2008, 03:20 PM
THE MYTH

King Arthur was the hero of many legends and stories of the Middle Ages. According to legend, Merlin, the wizard, arranged for the birth of Arthur by bringing together King Uther Pendragon and Igrayne, Duchess of Cornwall. Raised in secrecy away from his father’s court, Arthur succeeded to Uther’s throne at the age of fifteen, after proving his royalty and chastity by drawing the famous magic sword, Excalibur, from a stone. Soon, he subdued the Saxons, expanded his control over Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and the Orkneys, and established peace for a period of twelve years.
With his wife, the lovely Guinevere, Arthur established his court at Camelot with the Knights of the Round Table as his companions and Merlin, the magician, as his advisor. Arthur dispensed aid and honour from his court and his empire was filled with chivalry and courtly love. Arthur’s knights went forth in quest of adventure and to defeat those hostile to the Round Table and its values, but their chief exploits were concerned with the quest to the Holy Grail. Among the knights, Sir Lancelot was a model of fidelity, bravery, frailty in love, and repentance; Sir Galahad of chastity; Sir Gawain of courtesy. But not all the knights were perfect: Sir Kay represented a rude, boastful knight, and Sir Mordred a treacherous knight. Also, Sir Lancelot had to flee from Camelot when Arthur found out that he was a lover of Queen Guinevere. This event brought about the dissolution of the knightly fellowship, and, eventually, the destruction of the kingdom.
When Roman ambassadors arrived in Camelot demanding tribute, Arthur rejected them and set sail for Europe to confront the Roman forces, leaving his nephew Mordred as vice-regent. Having conquered the Romans, Arthur was about to cross the Alps when word arrived that Mordred had usurped the throne. Arthur returned to Camelot and a bitter battle was fought between the rebels and the loyal subjects. The king killed Mordred, but was severely wounded himself. He was carried away secretly to the isle of Avalon – in Celtic mythology the Island of the Blessed Souls - to be healed of his wounds. Arthur never returned to Camelot, but legends say he will some day come back to rule over England again.


THE HISTORY AND THE GROWTH OF THE LEGEND

Some historians doubt that Arthur ever existed, but most believe that Arthur was a Welsh or Scottish leader who fought against pagan Saxon invaders early in the sixth century. Archeologists, in searching for evidence of the existence of Arthur, discovered a possible location for Camelot at South Cadbury, a village in southwestern England. In the 1960’s early sixth-century remains were excavated on a hill surrounded by earthenwork defenses, indicating that it could have been the site of Arthur’s headquarters.
The earliest mention of Arthur in an extant source comes from the beginning of the 7th century: the long Welsh poem, 'Y Goddodin' alludes to Arthur as a great warrior. As a shadowy ‘historical’ figure Arthur is mentioned under the Latin name Artorius in the late 7th-century 'Historia Brotnum' (usually known by the name of Nennius, its 9th-century editor). Arthur, as a war chief (Dux Bellorum), not king, is said to have led the Britons against the Saxons in twelve great battles culminating in the great victory of Mount Badon (fought between 493 and 516). The 10th-century 'Annales Cambriae', also mention Arthur’s victory at Mount Badon, and record the Battle of Camlan (537), “in which Arthur and Mordred fell”. In the 11th-century Welsh prose romance 'Culhwch and Olwen', Arthur is already presented as a world conqueror. This work also contains the first reference to his wife, Guinevere, his retinue of warriors and Excalibur
The stories, which have King Arthur as their central figure, appear as early as the 12th century and Arthurian Romances owe most to Geoffrey of Monmouth. In 1136 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his famous and influential, though mainly fabulous, 'Historia Regnum Brittanniae', which was purported to be a translation of an ancient Celtic history of Britain. In this Historia Arthur is depicted as a glorious British monarch, and at the height of his career, Emperor of the West, who fights monsters and helps the weak. Monmouth’s Historia was versified in Roman de 'Brut' (1155), which is the first to mention the Round Table. These works were used by Layamon, who in his Brut (1205) adds the story of the fairies at Arthur’s birth, who transported him to Avalon at his death. In France, in the late 12th century, Robert de Borron introduced the legend of the Grail and gave prominence to Merlin. Chrestien de Tryes brought in the tale of the tragic loves of Lancelot and Guinevere. Soon stories and ballads of King Arthur and his knights were told and sung throughout Medieval Europe. Thus the Arthurian writers introduced the romantic spirit of chivalry and courtly manners into European literature and King Arthur became the embodiment of the ideal Christian knight.
Many other Welsh and Breton ballads and romances popularised the legend and the whole corpus was collected and edited by Sir Thomas Malory (d.1471) in his great prose romance 'Le Morte d’Arthur'.
Many English poets and writers, such as Edmund Spencer, John Milton, Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson or William Morris used Malory’s book as a source for their own writing. Richard Wagner based some of his operas, eg. 'Tristan and Isolde' and 'Parsival', on Arthurian tales. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are not forgotten even today. Many films have been made on the theme, most recently 'Excalibur' and 'First Knight'.