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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Medieval Tidbit: The Many Incarnations of King Arthur

I usually start my historical tidbits out with "Did you know...?" but today I'm going to talk about the legend of King Arthur. So...of course you know. Everyone's heard one version or another of this story.

King Arthur is a well-known story in today's world, the origins of which are more elusive than most of our other legends.

Was King Arthur a real historical figure or just a legend, like Hercules? Was he a great warrior, defending the Roman empire against it's barbarian enemies, or a more of a European-style king with a court, a straying queen, and a magical sword?

I'm always fascinated to learn what we DO know historically, like this:

The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful and imaginative 12th-centuryHistoria Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain).[4] Some Welsh and Breton tales and poems relating the story of Arthur date from earlier than this work; in these works, Arthur appears either as a great warrior defending Britain from human and supernatural enemies or as a magical figure of folklore, sometimes associated with the Welsh Otherworld, Annwn.[5] How much of Geoffrey's Historia (completed in 1138) was adapted from such earlier sources, rather than invented by Geoffrey himself, is unknown. (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

But, most histories and historians today readily admit that we simply don't know how much is fact and how much fiction. The records for the Dark Ages are so very incomplete.

To me, King Arthur is a figure very similar--not in story but in origin--to Robin Hood. Both these figures have obscure beginnings and very little historical record to back up their existence. I think the most likely scenario is that they are based on true people, but only loosely. A name was picked up and then all kinds of tales about them sprang up.

And this was not a medieval thing. Even today, many incarnations are still springing up of this legend. If you haven't read it, I would highly recommend T.H. White's The Once and Future King. This tells the ENTIRE legend, from when Arthur was a kid learning from Merlin (i.e. Disney's The Sword in the Stone) and goes through his teenage-hood, becoming king, marriage, the Guinevere and Lancelot story, all the way to his death. The thing about this is that it's such an epic tale that no screen version has ever covered the entire story.

For instance, did you know that his most loyal knights such as Gawain and Agravaine were with him since they were all kids? They totally hunted unicorns together! And did you know that aside from the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle there's another one? A woman called Elayne is in love with Lancelot, but he doesn't love her back because he loves Guinevere and that triangle ends in tragedy as well. And did you know that in White's version, Lancelot and Galahad are the same person? Lancelot was such a great swordsman because he was so pure. He takes on the mantel of tragic hero because when he sleeps with Guinevere and loses his purity, he also loses his fighting skills. (Sort of a Sampson-Deliah-hair situation). Which, you know, in turn brings down the entire kingdom. No judging, though.

Didn't know all that, did you? I haven't actually read this in years. I may remedy that in 2013. There might be a read-along. Stay tuned for details! :D

But that's just one version!

The screen has lots as well:

King Arthur starring my man Clive Owen which depicts Arthur as the Roman Warrior. Not my favorite version, but interesting to be sure.


First Knight was one of the first versions of this story I was introduced to and I LOVED it! I may have been just a tinsy bit maniacally obsessed with this film when it came out. But there's really no better pick for any king than Sean Connery, right?


This version is really good, too. Mists of Avalon is told through the POV of Morgan LeFaye, who is Arthur's half-sister, a sorceress, and traditionally a villain. Totally love this version though. I dare you to start it and be able to stop before the end!

And who can forget the irrepressible Richard Burton? I haven't watched this version in years, but the happy, sing-song musical makes the tragic end all that more devastating.

And then there are these guys:

Enough said.


I prefer my King Arthur legend like this:
So mad it got cancelled after only one season! This was a fantastic show. I'd recommend it, but just realize there's ONLY one season. It's criminal. Really.

So what's the point? Does it even matter?

My argument is and always has been that, no matter what the truth, the history of the actual figure is less important than the message. King Arthur's legend has incited the imaginations of our culture for hundreds of years. Like Robin Hood, his legend is one of honor, loyalty, freedom, and yes often tragedy. It's real life mixed with fantasies of Merlin that helps us gain a picture--whether 100% realistic or not--of medieval life and instilling the positive values of the ages.

After all, what is life if not trying to live by the best values we know how to, and dealing with each trial as it presents itself. Life isn't perfect--people definitely aren't--but we strive to be like our heroes of yore, who fought for their countries, were loyal to their friends, and died for things they held most dear.


  1. That's an interesting summary of the King Arthur's incarnations. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Who knew-- I'm all for any incarnation that involves Sean Connery!

  3. I have read a lot about the Arthurian legends already - had to for some medieval English classes last year - and I love them all! So this book is a mixture of Layman's Brut and the whole Mallory legends? Sounds like a winner to mi:)

    And I LOVE Monthy Python and the Holy Grail!

  4. FYI: It was Richard Harris who was in the 60's movie Camelot, not Richard Burton. Richard Harris was also Dumbledore in the first few Harry Potter movies before he died.

  5. I LOVE Arthurian legend (my youngest daughter is named Nimueh). The legends of King Arthur were the vehicle for the rules of courtly love...which are still being used in storytelling to this day...so, yeah, it's one of the best and most important tales of all time. (obviously my opinion). Considering he was a 4th century "king", the movie "Arthur" is likely the most accurate. "Artorius" was a term of respect used at the time.

    Now that I've totally geeked out....

  6. "First Knight" was an amazing movie only because of Sean Connery.