The legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table
The legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table is the most powerful and enduring in the western world. King Arthur, Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot did not really exist, but their names conjure up a romantic image of gallant knights in shining armour, elegant ladies in medieval castles, heroic quests for the Holy Grail in a world of honour and romance, and the court of Camelot at the centre of a royal and mystical Britain.
The Arthurian legend has existed for over a thousand years and is just as compelling today as it was in the faraway days of its early creators – Geoffrey of Monmouth, Robert de Boron, Chrétien de Troyes, and most majestically: Sir Thomas Malory in his epic work, Le Morte d’Arthur. Countless writers, poets, and artists (not to mention film-makers and now, webmasters) have been inspired by the life and times of King Arthur.
A comprehensive Arthurian Legend website
• To put the Morte d’Arthur in context, you will also find here an excellent summary of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, a story which is, in turn, put within the context of Arthurian Legend with some general information about the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
• Read carefully-researched and factually accurate analyses of the foremost Arthurian legend author Sir Thomas Malory and important Arthurian legend characters such as Sir Lancelot, Queen Guinevere, and Morgan Le Fay.
The Legend of King Arthur – fact or fiction?
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table never existed in real life. They’re purely figures of legend. There might have been someone called Arturus (or Riothamus) in Britain’s distant past, but if there was, he was probably a Romano-British leader or military general campaigning against the marauding Saxon hordes in the 5th century AD. In that period of history, however, there was no such thing as knights-in-armour – horsemen didn’t even use stirrups until much later, so they couldn’t have worn and fought in armour. There are several theories about the location of the ‘original’ court of Camelot, and although research continues, these are irrelevances: King Arthur and his knights will always be figures of fantasy, and Arthurian legend should be appreciated for what it is: a large and unique body of wonderful early European literature.
Arthur was first identified as a fictional high king from Britain’s past by a monk of Welsh origin, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who chronicled ‘Historia Regum Brittaniae’ – “The History of the Kings of Britain” – early in the 12th Century. In a masterpiece of medieval prose he defined – in latin – the earliest coherent version of the Arthurian legend. He provides a convincing historical context and details King Arthur’s origins and the heroic deeds of his knights, but Geoffrey’s ancient sources have never been found. Nonetheless, the ‘Historia’ was an important cultural influence on medieval society and Geoffrey of Monmouth gave the British consciousness a heroic King to rival Charlemagne, King of the Franks. He also gave the world an extraordinary and evocative tale that has caught the imagination of creative minds through the generations.
Sir Thomas Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur
One of those creative minds was Sir Thomas Malory. His story of Le Morte d’Arthur, completed during the ninth year of the English King Edward IV’s reign (4th March 1469 to 3rd March 1470), is the the definitive and inclusive Arthurian epic and the source of much of the Arthurian legend as we know it today. Le Morte d’Arthur is primarily known from two sources: a version printed and prefaced by the ‘father of British printing’, William Caxton in 1485, and a manuscript discovered at Winchester College in 1934 and edited by Eugène Vinaver in 1947.
Though Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is not the original Arthurian legend – begun over 300 years earlier by Geoffrey of Monmouth – it has become known as the authoritative version. Malory was the writer who really brought together all the different Arthurian stories and related Celtic myths into one more-or-less coherent narrative, even though they don’t always fit together properly: they’re a sometimes contradictory and unrelated hotch-potch of events occuring over a long timescale.
In the years before publication of Le Morte d’Arthur, Caxton divided Malory’s text into twenty-one books, although the manuscript version makes it clear that Malory originally wrote his work as only eight books, or ‘tales’. Caxton’s twenty-one book publication of Le Morte d’Arthur contains a total of 507 chapters and over 300,000 words (written in Middle-English – nowadays available in Modern English).
Malory’s Eight Books of Le Morte d’Arthur
[ Taken from Eugène Vinaver’s Notes to Malory Works, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 1971 ]
1. The Tale of King Arthur
2. The Tale of the Noble King Arthur and the Emperor Lucius
3. The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake
4. The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney
5. The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones
6. The Quest of the Holy Grail (Sangreal)
7. The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere
8. The Tale of the Death of King Arthur
Other important Arthurian legend literature
• ‘Erec et Enide’, ‘Cliges’, ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’, ‘Le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain)’, and ‘Le Conte del Graal (Perceval)’, initiated by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes and continued by others in a large collection of verses, c.1180 to 1240.
• The French poet Robert de Boron’s trilogy of ‘Joseph d’Arimathea’, ‘Merlin’, and ‘Didot-Perceval’, c.1200.
• ‘Parzival’ written by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach between 1205 and 1215.
• The Vulgate Cycle: ‘Estoire del Saint Graal’, ‘Merlin’, ‘Lancelot Propre’, ‘La Queste del Saint Graal’, and ‘La Mort (de Roi) Artu’, believed to have been compiled by Cistercian monks between 1215 and 1235 and which mark the transition between verse and prose versions of the Arthurian legend.
Read press comment about the 2004 King Arthur movie