Arthur Pendragon, more commonly known as King Arthur, was one of the most famous and legendary kings in ancient Britain. What people know about him is more based on Celtic myths as well as the unofficial history and literature in Middle Ages. In legends, he was the leader of the Knights of the Round Table, a near-mythic legendary figure, and “the Once and Future King”. King Arthur was a figure in ancient myths, and till today there was no substantial evidence that proves his existence. The Arthurian legend, the Sword in the Stone, the legend of the Holy Grail, Merlin, Guinevere and Morgan le Fay, which have been passed down to this days, were mostly from Sir Thomas Malory’s fantasy fiction The Death of King Arthur.
According to legend, Arthur Pendragon was the son of the King Uther and Igraine, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall. With the help of great wizard Merlin, Uther disguised himself as the Duke of Cornwall, entered the castle where Igraine lived and spent a night with her. After that, Igraine was pregnant with Arthur. After the death of the Duke of Cornwall, Igraine remarried King Uther and gave birth to Arthur.
Since his birth, Arthur had been entrusted to wizard Merlin, who secretly took baby Arthur out of the Tintagel Castle to a secret place and raised him up. Therefore, Arthur and Merlin had a very close relationship. According to legend, Merlin could change his own appearance and make himself looked either young or old at will, but for most of the time he appeared as an old man.
King Arthur is said to have a golden hair shining as dazzlingly as the sun, a voice more clear and pleasant than troubadours, and a pair of eyes as green as emerald. He was so handsome and charming that ladies were easily enchanted by him. He scrupulously abided by the chivalry: kindness, integrity, benevolence, loyalty and decorousness; and meanwhile he knew how to think independently and make independent operation plans.
Later, after King Uther passed away, there was domestic instability in Britain. At the suggestion of Merlin, the bishop called the noble knights together, to elect the new king with a sword embedded in a stone in the churchyard. On this sword there was a snippet of inscription read: “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.”. However, nobody could pull the sword out of the stone. Since there was no better way, the knights unanimously decided to elect king by a fight contest.
Arthur went to the contest too, but he was not qualified for the contest. Kay, the son of his foster family, participated on behalf of his family. But Kay forgot to bring his sword, so he asked Arthur to fetch it. Arthur found the gate locked when he went back home, because everybody went to see the contest. It is not hard to imagine what happened next: Arthur had no time to get back to the contest field for the key. In a hurry, he ran to the churchyard where there was no people around, easily pulled the sword out of the stone and gave it to Kay. This shocked everybody. People skeptically embedded the sword back in the stone, but for multiple times no one except Arthur could pull the sword out.
As nobody knew that this boy was the son of King Uther, many of the knights were not convinced. Even after Merlin turned up and told them Arthur’s identity, they still could not believe that Arthur was the new king of Britain. Arthur, who grew up in a foster family, was paid off for all the hardship he had suffered.
During the early phase of Arthur’s reign, this young king showed great dependency on Merlin. Britain ushered in the unprecedented unity and strength. He helped the poor and aided the weak, thus founded a prosperous kingdom.
The days of glory
Britain had been under the oppression of Roman Empire for a long time since the 1st century AD. Later, Saxons, a Germanic tribe invaded and looted Britain. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table led people to rise up in resistance. They successfully repelled the Saxons from north after twelve campaigns. Finally, they smashed the enemy in the Battle of Badon, and drove all the alien invaders out of Britain. During the war against Saxons, the Knights of the Round Table became an important part of the kingdom.
According to legend, King Arthur once had 150 knights. They did not only fight in the battlefield, but also discuss domestic affairs at the Round Table. Although they formed some factions due to the differences in political views, but at the Round Table they were allowed to have free speech regardless of identity and status. Many legendary stories took place on the legendary Round Table, including the quest for the Holy Grail.
King Arthur married beautiful Queen Guinevere. Similar to his father, King Arthur also had an illegitimate child, with his half-sister Morgause. But King Arthur originally had no intention of having an affair. Morgause used some kind of drug to make King Arthur mistake her for Guinevere. King Arthur felt very guilty after he woke up. Despite that Morgause spent only one night with King Arthur, she had a child with King Arthur as she wished. Guinevere happened to witnessed everything, resulting in her affair with Sir Lancelot. Morgause gave birth to an illegitimate child, to whom King Arthur was both uncle and father. This illegitimate child was Mordred, who rebelled and caused the downfall of King Arthur’s kingdom.
As was depicted in The Death of King Arthur written by 15th-century British writer Sir Thomas Malory, King Arthur’s territory kept expanding as time passed, and he even pushed forward to the European inland and defeated the Roman emperor Lucius. In Malory’s fiction, King Arthur declared war on Lucius and rejected the demand for tribute. He commanded his troops to land Europe, killed the giant of Mont St. Michel, and defeated the Roman emperor Lucius in Rome. This was the most glorious days in King Arthur’s legendary life.
Later, King Arthur began to shift his interest to the quest for legendary treasure. His fellow knights left capital Camelot for the legendary Holy Grail either under his order or voluntarily, but most of them never returned. As thus, the knights at the Round Table became fewer and fewer. King Arthur’s strong empire began to go downhill.
The betrayal of Guinevere and Sir Lancelot
As a result of the reliance on Sir Lancelot and the desire for revenge on King Arthur, Guinevere quickly and uncontrollably had a platonic affair with Sir Lancelot. Although Guinevere later regretted when she learnt the truth in a monastery where she hid, her affair with Sir Lancelot still brought adversities to King Arthur.
Soon after, King Arthur learnt the affair between Lancelot and his queen Guinevere. It is said that Lancelot was raised up by the Lady of the Lake, therefore he was also called Lancelot du Lac (meaning Lancelot of the Lake). King Arthur trusted Lancelot very much, and appointed him as the imperial bodyguard that safeguarded the Queen Guinevere. King Arthur was very angry when he learnt the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. But he could not punish them, as their affair was platonic. But King Arthur did not show any anomalies afterwards, and even turned a blind eye to the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, so neither Lancelot nor Guinevere knew that King Arthur had learnt their affair.
Although King Arthur could not punish them, neither did he intend to, but his behavior had caused dissatisfaction among the knights. Whereupon, Gawain and Mordred secretly led 13 knights into Guinevere’s palace, and caught Guinevere and Lancelot in the act. Lancelot fought his way out and escaped, while Guinevere was brought to King Arthur. King Arthur wanted to forgive Guinevere, but under the outrage of knights and to maintain the majesty of a king, he had to sentence his queen to death by fire. Lancelot, who was passionately devoted to Guinevere, led his men to raid the execution ground and took his lover away. They went across the ocean and fled to France.
After the mediation from the Pope, to uphold the honor of a knight, Lancelot sent Guinevere back to Britain. Guinevere learnt that it was her that brought adversities to King Arthur and his country, so she became a nun. But the story did not end there. Gawain, another famous Knight of the Round Table and the niece of King Arthur, resented Lancelot, because his brother was killed by Lancelot when preventing him taking Guinevere away. At last, King Arthur decided to lead an expedition on France by himself.
The death of King Arthur
King Arthur’s expedition on Lancelot provided Mordred a good opportunity to usurp the throne. King Arthur left Mordred to govern his kingdom during his expedition on France. Mordred realized that it was now or never, thereupon, he spread rumor of King Arthur’s death in action, and wanted to marry Guinevere by force. King Arthur returned to Britain immediately once learning the news. When the peace negotiation was undergoing, a snake secretly climbed up a knight, who drew his sword and chopped the snake. This was the sign that a bloody war would soon break out.
Before the Battle of Camlann, King Arthur went to the nunnery where Guinevere lived. There he made a proposal to Guinevere, asked her to be his queen again. Guinevere was so moved that she agreed in tears. But this promise was never fulfilled.
In the Battle of Camlann, both parties suffered heavy casualties. In the end, King Arthur killed Mordred with his sword Excalibur, but he was also hit by Mordred’s deadly strike. Most of the Knights of the Round Table were killed in action, and Bedivere was the only one that stayed with King Arthur.
King Arthur asked Bedivere to throw his sword Excalibur into the lake (Dozmary Pool). Bedivere knew that discarding Excalibur meant the death of his king. For twice he failed to make up his mind at the lakeside. He had to return to King Arthur and lied to his king that the sword had been discarded. But for twice his lies were discerned as he failed to correctly describe how the Lady of the Lake took Excalibur back. At the third time, Bedivere finally threw Excalibur into the lake. At this moment, a lady’s hand reached out of the water, caught the hilt, and then disappeared in the water. King Arthur passed away soon after Bedivere reported back to him. His epitaph was: “Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus.” ”
As is described in many other works of literature regarding King Arthur, the dying King Arthur was shipped to Avalon by several mysterious fairies. He was buried there, but people believed that he did not die and would come back to save them one day. After that, Sir Bedivere left the battlefield, lived secretly in a remote monastery and spent the rest of his life there.
After learning the death of King Arthur, Guinevere decided to spent the rest of her life in the nunnery, confess her sins, help and pray for the people. Later on, Lancelot returned to England to pursue Guinevere, but the queen had become a nun and refused to see him regardless of his beseeching. In the end, Lancelot also became a monk. He and Guinevere never met again. Everyone lost in this internal strife. And the legend of King Arthur came to an end.