Top 10 things to know about the Legend of King Arthur

Recently, The Independent revealed that around 60 royal tombs, dating back to the time of King Arthur, have been discovered in England and Wales. If the tombs have been known for several years, British researchers have just confirmed their royal character. The identification of the deceased is still in progress… Which gives us time to review the basics and learn a little more about the legend of King Arthur!

1. The man behind the legend is Arthur Pendragon

He would have been born in 475 in Tintagel (England) and would be the son of Uther Pendragon (Breton king) and Ygraine of Cornwall (wife of one of his vassals… Oops). According to legend, he was hidden by the magician Merlin, because of his status as an illegitimate son. The enchanter is said to have taken charge of his education and raised him as a knight, keeping his membership of the royal family a secret. The rest, we all know it (more or less): on the death of his father, he proves that he is indeed his descendant by releasing the sword of Excalibur, and takes over from him.

2. Its real existence is debated….

While for many this is just a legend, some historians believe that Arthur was a 2nd century Roman general or a warlord who lived during the war between the Britons and the Saxons in the 6th century. . Its legendary figure only developed from the 12th century under the pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth, but historians have detected some elements that can be linked to its history in older sources (in particular Welsh or Breton tales and poems, chronicles and records based on oral traditions).

3. … and its history is subject to various hypotheses

On the Welsh side, the first appearance of the king is attributed to Welsh legends, even before it is found in the romances of chivalry of the 12th century. For them, Arthur was not born in England, but in Wales. For the Romans, King Arthur did exist in the person of various Roman figures. The syncretic hypothesis underlines the fact that “Arthur” is a common first name at the time, given to several chiefs, and therefore, that his story could bring together passages from their lives. Finally, the mythological hypothesis places Arthur as a Celtic demi-god.

4. Merlin has its origins in Welsh Celtic mythology

In the Middle Ages, Merlin appears under the name “Myrddin” in some Celtic poems. He is described there as a prince of the 6th century, who would have gone mad after seeing his lord Gwendolleu die during a battle. He would have in him a gift of prophecy, which he would use for the people he meets. Hidden in a forest, it is said to live in the trees and is, for this reason, often depicted as hairy and shaggy like an animal. It is also confused with the Celtic mythological characters of Suibhne in Ireland or Lailoken in Scotland. As for his disappearance, there are different versions. The best known: his confinement in a cave or an air prison sealed by a spell, by the fairy Viviane with whom he fell in love.

Top 10 things to know about the legend of king arthur
Photo credits (Public Domain): Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

5. King Arthur also plays a political role

King Arthur, as he is portrayed in the legend, would have united the Breton peoples and those of the British Isles to counter the Germans. In the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur appears as the king who managed to establish an empire by bringing together the island of Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and several territories of Gaul.

6. The round table is the symbol of this legend

In 1155, the “round table” appeared for the first time in The Novel of Brut, written by the poet Wace. It is then taken up in many works, in particular in the great majority of those of Chrétien de Troyes. It’s around this round table, in the heart of the court of Camelot (does that remind you of anything?) that the legendary order of King Arthur’s knights meets, to achieve its ultimate goal… Find the Holy Grail! Several interpretations in the “round” character of the table: it could refer to the old Celtic custom according to which the warriors sat around the king. Medieval authors explain that it is a reference to the roundness of the world.

7. … Ok, but what is the Grail?

It is the mythical object of the Arthurian legend. It appears for the first time at the end of the 12th century in the novel Perceval or the Tale of the Grail of Chretien de Troyes. According to legend, it was Merlin the enchanter who would have instructed the best knights in the kingdom to go find him, to heal the king. It then presents itself as a precious stone, a crystal, a dish or even a kind of cornucopia, producing miraculous nourishment capable of being renewed every day. From the 13th century, it was taken over by the Catholic Church and assimilated to the Holy Chalice (the cup that would have collected the blood of Christ). We then speak of the Holy Grail.

Top 10 things to know about the legend of king arthur
Photo credits (Public Domain): Sir Edward Burne-Jones, overall design and figures; William Morris, overall design and execution; John Henry Dearle, flowers and decorative details.

8. Arthur’s son was born from an incestuous relationship

Ok, there, it’s more glaucous. When his wife, Genièvre, cheats on him with Lancelot (the best knight in the world and close friend of the king), he takes refuge with his half-sister, the fairy Morgane, in the forest of Brocéliande. According to the versions, it is with her, or with his other sister (Morgause) that Arthur would have a son: Mordred. Basically, the versions do not agree on which of the two women is concerned, but all are ok to say that… Arthur had a child with one of his sisters. Creepy. This same son will kill him. Even cooler. But suddenly… Should we say that he killed his father or his uncle?

9. The legend gave birth to a literary style

We speak of “Arthurian literature”, and it is the French writer, Chrétien de Troyes, who is said to have introduced it in the 12th century. In his works, he was inspired by King Arthur and Breton legends, wrote stories of chivalry, imagined the characters of Lancelot du Lac and Perceval, was the first to speak of the quest for the Grail… This Arthurian literature flourished throughout of the Middle Ages.

10. There are several references to the legend of King Arthur in Harry Potter.

In the legend, Merlin entrusts Arthur to Sir Ector, just as Dumbledore leaves Harry to the Dursleys. The two boys have in common to grow up ignoring their family heritage. Arthur proves his legitimacy by releasing the sword of Excalibur, Harry Potter seizes the sword of Grodric Gryffindor as he is worthy of his house. Arthur forms a trio with Juniper and Lancelot, Harry with Ron and Hermione. The two young men have a quest: the grail on one side, the philosopher’s stone on the other. Finally, the character of Merlin is also addressed in the saga! It appears on Chocolate Frog cards and gives rise to the expressions “Beard of Merlin” and “The Order of Merlin”.

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