A good place to start with a King Arthur story is with “The Legend of King Arthur”, read aloud at the 1001 Classic Short Stories and Tales podcast.
Was King Arthur A Real Person?
King Arthur is a fabled British leader, said in medieval tales and chronicles to have ruled over England and defended it against Saxon invaders following the withdrawal of the Romans in the fifth century. But at the start of the Dark Ages, when the island was under constant threat of invasion, and at various other troubled moments in their history, the inhabitants of Britain longed for a strong leader who could unite their fragmented regions under one rule and enable them to defend themselves. Hence the legend of King Arthur, the saviour king, was hugely appealing, its popularity spreading over the years, thanks especially to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History Regnum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of England’), written in about 1136, and to Thomas Malory’s Le MOrte d’Arthur, published in 1485.
Largely thanks to Malory, the legend of King Arthur was integral to the medieval conception of English history, but with the waning of the Middle Ages came a lessening of belief in the story. While the stories continued to be popular, their truth was disputed. The sixteenth-century humanist scholar Polydor Vergil famously rejected the idea of a post-Roman Arthurian empire, calling it a fabrication — much to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians.Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel, in a discussion about the nursery rhyme Good King Arthur.
Features Of Arthurian Stories
Arthurian retellings are generally considered Historical Fantasy (or myth, depending) because there is a lot of magic, so the events aren’t anywhere near believable.
One of the most popular contemporary King Arthur series is the Avalon series by Marion Bradley. Neopaganism also gave King Arthur stories a modern resurgence.
The Wild is any place knights have to go to prove themselves, usually to the woods or to the mountains.
These settings stopped being so useful after a while, because Victorian writers transformed woods and mountains into pleasant settings. So now storytellers writing Arthurian tales decided to give their heroes less naturalistic settings.
One example is The Dark Tower in a poem/ballad written Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (a Victorian fairy poem, and O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.)
Things Associated With King Arthur
- The search for the Holy Grail — the Holy Grail is a sacred cup thought to have been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Sir Galahad found it but died on his way back home (to cut a long story short). The Holy Grail is related to the category of fairy tale known as Fairy Cup Legends.
- The magic sword of Excalibur — before he expired Arthur threw his sword into the lake. A hand appeared in the waves and caught it.
- The Knights of the Round Table
- Merlin (his ally)
- Camelot (a perfect community created by himself)
- Guinevere (Arthur’s wife)
- Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s older half sister) — the aristocratic evolution of the category of fairy who leaves a silver coin in the shoes of tidy maids. Arthur’s enemy, basically. This character was re-visioned as a feminist in the 1970s by Marion Bradley in Mists of Avalon. However battered and bruised she gets, she rises again like a Phoenix, the O.G. Strong Female Character. But she isn’t especially skilful, just resilient. For example, her spells rarely work. In The Once and Future King series by T.H. White Morgan le Fay is a witch archetype out of Hansel and Gretel, who tries to build a castle out of milk and pork hoping to attract children.
- Sir Lancelot (one of Arthur’s knights and Guinevere’s lover)
- Brave Sir Galahad (the best and purest of King Arthur’s circle, the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot)
- Elaine (Galahad’s mum, daughter of King Pelles, employs a sorceress to help her appear in the likeness of Queen Guinevere to trick Lancelot into bed with her)
- Mordred — Arthur’s nephew. Mordred murdered Arthur by sword.
- The Isle of Avalon — After Arthur was killed a barge happened to pass by on a lake. Three women, one of whom is Morgan le Fay, take him to the Isle of Avalon. Some legends say Arthur died on Avalon. Other legends say he’s sleeping in a cave somewhere. He’ll wake up at England’s greatest need. (If not for Brexit, when, though?)
THE GRAIL LEGENDS
The best known of these is probably ‘The Holy Grail’ by Robert de Boron, but since the grail is such an important symbol in the Arthurian stories, there are more than one.
- The Story Of The Grail by Chrétien de Troyes (a poem). It was never finished, actually.
- Various continuations of that poem written by other people
- A German story called Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
- There’s a Welsh story
Basic Plot of a Grail Legend
- Joseph of Arimathea acquires the chalice of the Last Supper to collect Christ’s blood upon his removal from the cross.
- Joseph is thrown in prison, where Christ visits him and explains the mysteries of the blessed cup.
- Upon his release Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.
SYMBOLISM OF ARTHURIAN STORIES
The Grail Legends are full of sexual symbolism.
A knight, usually a very young one whose “manhood” is barely established, sallies forth bearing his lance, which will certainly do until a phallic symbol comes along. The knight becomes the emblem of pure, if untested, maleness in search of a chalice, the Holy Grail, which hit you think about it is a symbol of female sexuality as understood once upon a time: the empty vessel, waiting to be filled. And the reason for seeking to bring together the lance and the chalice? Fertility. (Freud gets help here from Jessie L. Weston, Sir James Frazer and Carl Jung, all of whom explain a great deal about mythic thinking, fertility myths, and archetypes.) Typically the knight rides out from a community that has fallen on hard times. Crops are failing, rains have stopped, livestock and possibly humans are dying or failing to be born, the kingdom is turning into a wasteland. We need to restore fertility and order, says the ageing king, too old now to go in search of fertility symbols. Perhaps he can no longer use his lance, so he sends the young man. It isn’t wanton or wild sex, but it’s still sex.How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster
Problems With The King Arthur Story
King Arthur stories are part of the reason why the male hero has been central since the fifth century. Before that, females were often the main characters in stories, because they were thought to have produced the world.The Centrality of the Adventure Story, Marjery Hourihan
Examples Of Arthurian Stories
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- Shrek The Third
- The Usual Suspects
- Star Wars
- Forrest Gump
- Lord of the Rings
- The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — The other Narnia books are Biblical but this one has a distinct Arthurian feel.
The alternative world of Narnia into which CS Lewis’s four children repeatedly escape is beautiful and magical but fraught with danger. Like Nesbit, he explores the possible consequences of magic, but he also provides spiritual balm in the figure of Aslan, the talking lion.
There are many examples of this guiding, protective, mysterious figure in the literature of this Second Golden Age. Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series has a wise, magical old teacher in Merriman Lyon – or Merlin, as he turns out to be. Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan have the wizard Cadellin, and Frodo Baggins’s Companions have Gandalf. All of these draw on national myth, both Celtic, Norse and Arthurian, but above all they draw on the European concept of God, and it’s no surprise to find the same figure popping up more recently in Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore. And no wonder we needed him. In the 1960s, it wasn’t enough for a child to find her father or restore the family fortune. This time, we were told, we needed to save the world. By the time you get to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s not just this world which needs saving, but the multiverse.Amanda Craig
King Arthur and Westerns
In the characters of the American Western film, [Frank] McConnel notes that we can see, with very little stretching, the heirs to the Arthurian legends. In westerns, the king or founder, is represented by the figure of the frontiersman or the cattle baron who carves out from an inhospitable landscape a space that human beings can live in. Examples are provided by the frontiersman of John Wayne and especially the film Red River. It is a vision created by film director John Ford. Here is the city as it was founded and the audience is left to imagine the way things must have come to be the way they are.Symbolism of Place
Subverting The Myth of King Arthur
WHEN good king Arthur ruled this land, He was a goodly king; He stole three pecks of barley-meal, To make a bag-pudding.
A bag-pudding the king did make,
And stuffed it well with plums: And in it put great lumps of fat,
As big as my two thumbs.
The king and queen did eat thereof,
And noblemen beside; And what they could not eat at night,
The queen next morning fried.
Of the above nursery rhyme Jack writes:
This nursery rhyme, with its down-to-earth king and queen, would seem to stem from this period [the 16th century]. After all, far from being a heroic figure of high chivalry — as portrayed by Malory — this goodly king is now a thief. Arthur’s famous banquets, where no one could eat until a marvel had occurred (from headless knights and damsels in distress to visions of the Holy Grail), have turned into a slapstick pudding-making and -eating session. Guinevere, rather than being the mysterious, beautiful queen and object of forbidden love, is demoted to a penny-pinching housewife, thriftily frying up the remains of the pudding for breakfast. It’s hard not to feel that the author of the rhyme must have heard the Arthurian legends one time too many. Opening with When good King Arthur ruled this land, this rhyme mocks both the high-flown poetry of Le Morte d’Arthur and wistfulness for ye goode olde days that almost certainly never were.Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel
Header image: William Bell Scott – King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment – 1846-62