The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy

Bachelor Thesis, 2006

41 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Preface

2. Myths And Legends
2.1. The Sword Excalibur
2.2. The Quest For The Holy Grail
2.3. Avalon, The Lost Isle
2.4. Tintagel And Glastonbury

3. The Role Of Women.
3.1. Love And Adultery
3.2. Subtle Power
3.3. Guinevere

4. Magical Friends And Foes
4.1. Enchanting Ladies
4.3. Merlin, The Wizard

5. Movie Adaptations and Their Role-Models
5.1. King Arthur (2004
5.2. First Knight (1995
5.3. Merlin (1998

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Preface

“There would be a day – there must be a day – when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none – a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. (…)

The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.


THE BEGINNING” (White, 676-678)

This quote from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is not the only reference to King Arthur’s return we can find when looking through the different Arthurian stories or that which is scattered among folk tales. Arthur is often carried away in a boat to Avalon, or “the Vale of Affalach”, by three queens, to be healed of his wounds and to return afterwards. In Italy, an “Arturo Magno” is believed to live within Mount Etna, occasionally seen, and also waiting for the day of his return. The Irish say he “rides round a rath” with raised sword, to the tune of Londonderry Air. The Scottish swear to him in Edinburgh, believing he presides from Arthur’s Seat, having a legend about “Arthur Knyght / Wha raid on nycht / Wi’ gilten spur / And candel lycht”. The Britons still can hear his horn and see his armour (White, Merlyn, 135). There seems to be a strong yearning within all kinds of people that refuses to let King Arthur die. Gerard of Wales even compared this obsession about the return of Arthur with religion and wrote in his Speculum Ecclesiae from 1216 that “the result of all this is that [the Britons] really expect him to come back, just as the Jews, led astray by even greater stupidity, misfortune and misplaced faith, really expect their Messiah to return” (

The quote from The Once and Future King is also symbolic for the never-ending flow of Arthurian romances and novels. White first published his book in 1958, about one millennium and a century after Nennius wrote about Arthur, the “dux bellorum”, and eight centuries after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s influential book The History of the Kings of Britain was published, and the mystery and fascination about Arthur, his knights, his queen Guinevere and Merlin the wizard is still unbroken.

Even great poets and novelists refer to Arthur in their works: Tennyson envisioned that “There came a bark that, blowing forward, bore/King Arthur, like a modern gentleman/Of stateliest port” (Tennyson, 114), whereas Shakespeare returns his figure Falstaff upon his death not in Abraham’s, but in Arthur’s bosom, and Milton locates Arthur subterranean, “Arturumque etiam sub terris bella moventem” (, “and Arthur, too, stirring up wars beneath the earth” (White, Merlyn, 136).

But what exactly is it that makes the tales of Arthur and his knights so very fascinating that for 1100 years we cannot cease from rewriting and adding to them over and over again? What is it that makes them so interesting that even now modern authors like Marion Zimmer Bradley or movie directors like Antoine Fuqua deem them worthy enough to write novels about them or preserve them on celluloid? We cannot even call one specific figure in history ‘King Arthur’, for there are so many different sources featuring a great warrior Arthur, but they mention different years, different adventures and different contemporaries. While Phillips and Keatman’s favourite is Owain Ddantgwyn, who lived at the time of the sixth battle Nennius attributed to Arthur, which “was above the river which is called Bassas” (Ashley, 138), Mike Ashley has him only at place 15 out of 20 possible candidates. His favourite is Athrwys ap Meurig (~610-680), seventh-century ruler of Gwent and also known as Atroys, Adroes, Athrawes or Adros. A character whom I personally find quite interesting is the Roman prefect Lucius Artorius Castus (140-197) and his Sarmatian warriors, although he only occupies rank 20 in Ashley’s list of contenders. We will, however, meet him again later on in this paper.

Arthur himself is not the only interesting aspect in the legends, however. There are some items and places still holding a certain fascination to mankind. In chapter one, we will explore the fascination with Arthur’s sword Excalibur, a recurrent symbol of power in the original romances and poems as well as in the more modern versions. After Chréthien de Troyes introduced it in his romance Perceval: The Story of the Grail, Arthur’s knights have repeatedly quested for the Holy Grail, with varying success, as we will then see. The mystical island of Avalon, ruled by beautiful and magical fairies and destination of Arthur’s last journey, still eludes us on the world map and gives rise to speculation. The castle of Tintagel and the abbey of Glastonbury will make up the last part of the next chapter, being of interest because they have been declared in various stories as birthplace and place of burial of King Arthur.

The next chapter will then basically cover the relationship between men and women in the Arthurian society. I will start out with love and romances, looking at some of the more popular ones, but also for example at Arthur and Morgan le Fay, a romance which was not treated as such in the original Arthurian Legends, but has gotten more attention in recent times. This will be followed by a part on the position women hold within the Arthurian society, which has also become more interesting and a topic of discussion as of late. Finally, I will give a short account on Guinevere.

Since magic and magical beings have an important and quite big place within the Arthurian world, which is also a factor why the stories are all the more fascinating, the fourth chapter will for one deal with fairies, like Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake as adversary and advisor of Arthur, as well as their role as occasional lovers. Furthermore, we have Merlin, the father-figure of so many wizards, who is seen today as all-knowing, immensely powerful and near invincible.

Before concluding this paper, I will look in my final chapter at three recent movie adaptations of King Arthur, the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot, and the story of Merlin.

2. Myths And Legends

2.1. The Sword Excalibur

Arthur’s sword Excalibur has undergone a certain development throughout the different stories, not unlike the Holy Grail, as we will see in the next chapter.

The name Geoffrey of Monmouth uses for King Arthur’s sword is Caliburn, which was then later modified to Excalibur by Robert Wace in his Roman de Brut and it has kept the name ever since. As to where Monmouth got the idea for the name from is probably either from the Latin word for steel, chalibs, or from earlier Celtic stories. There, in Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur’s sword is called Caledvwlch, which derived from the old Irish word Caladbolg, meaning ‘flashing sword’. If Monmouth created ‘Caliburn’ from ‘Caledvwlch’, the pedigree of Excalibur may indeed reach back as far as the early Welsh stories from the Mabinogion (Phillips/Keatman, 67), which is a collection of old Welsh stories, taken from the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. Malory later states that the name Excalibur “is as much to say as Cut-steel” (Malory 1972, 49).

When Monmouth mentions Arthur’s sword, he describes it as a “wonderful” (Monmouth, 255) and “peerless sword, (…) which was forged in the Isle of Avalon” (Monmouth, 217), and no armour of his enemies “offered (…) protection capable of preventing Caliburn” (Monmouth, 255). Although Excalibur is commonly associated as the weapon of King Arthur, in Chréthien de Troyes’ Perceval: The Story of the Grail, it is Gawain who “is girt with Escalibor, the best sword ever, that cuts through iron like wood” (Chréthien, 452). The weapon surely was magnificent, but just like in The Dream of Rhonabwy, in which the sword is described as having “a design of two serpents on the golden hilt [and] when the sword was unsheathed what was seen from the mouths of the serpents was like two flames of fire” (, The Dream of Rhonabwy), the sword itself apparently did not have magical qualities yet. Those were added later, in the Vulgate Cycle, where Arthur gets Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, and it was the scabbard not the sword which had the magical abilities that were to protect Arthur (Ashley, 185).

In the Vulgate-Cycle, Arthur is lying mortally wounded on the battlefield and wants his knight Girflet to throw the sword back into a bewitched lake. After he has disobeyed twice, he finally throws the sword, which is caught by an arm protruding from the water and dragged back into the depths. Later, this has been used by Malory in Le Morte Darthur, but he changed the knight from Girflet to Sir Bedewere, as did Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem The Passing of Arthur, a part of his probably most ambitious work Idylls of the King. Other authors also use Galahad, Lancelot or Perceval to dispatch the sword (Phillips/Keatman, 68). All of them, however, seem to have one ancestor, which makes an interesting connection between Arthur and the Alans, a Sarmatian tribe invading the Roman Empire in 170 AD. After five years of war, they made a peace deal with the Romans which involved sending 8000 Sarmatian cavalry to serve in the Roman army, 5500 of them stationed in Britain (Ashley, 19). One of their legends, Batraz’ sword, has a very obvious link to the story around Arthur’s death.

“Batratz, belonging to the group of warriors called the Nartamongae (Narts), has wreaked revenge upon those who killed his father, and, now satisfied, is prepared for his own death. He commands that his sword be thrown back into the sea. The sword is so heavy that his men hide it instead, but when Batraz asks them what they saw and they say nothing, he knows they have deceived him. He commands them again and this time they drag the sword to the sea and cast it in. At that point the sea bubbles blood red. They tell Batraz what they saw, and he dies fulfilled.” (Ashley, 334)

Concerning how Arthur acquired his sword, the Lady of the Lake is only one story of two that we have. The other one is the tale of the sword in the stone, after which T. H. White entitles a whole chapter of The Once And Future King, which was then used for the Walt Disney children’s movie The Sword In The Stone.

The stone-motif is apparently adapted from earlier oral stories, although the sword in those tales was not Excalibur, but a different one, as Phillips and Keatman tell us (69). According to them, the motif was found in the romances earlier than the Lady of the Lake-story, and it was not a stone in which the sword was embedded, but in an anvil on top of a stone. Robert de Boron was responsible for introducing this motif, and he could have gotten this idea from the traditions of the Celtic warlords. When they had difficulties finding a new leader, the rivals fought and the winner got a sanctified sword, which had been resting on a stone altar during the fight, as a sign of authority. Furthermore, this motif could have been created by an accidental confusion or a purposefully intended word-play at some point in time between the Latin word for rock, saxum, and the word Saxon, which could refer to an old tale in which Arthur had to prove himself as a leader in a battle against the Saxons (Phillips/Keatman, 70-71). Malory later used this motif in Le Morte d’Arthur, where Arthur pulls a sword out of “a great stone four square”. However, this sword is not Excalibur, which Arthur later gets from the Lady of the Lake. Malory also adds the inscription “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England” (Malory 1972, 10). There is another episode among the Arthurian legends in which a sword is being pulled from a stone. In The Quest of the Holy Grail from around 1215, a sword is embedded in a marble slab and floats down the river to Camelot. The inscription upon the sword reads:


(Quest, 35)

Again, it is not Excalibur in the stone, and the one who happens to be ‘the best knight in the world’ is Galahad, son of Lancelot, who also gets the last free seat at Arthur’s Round Table, just like the seat was reserved for Jesus at the table of the Last Supper. We met another similar scene in Morte d’Arthur, where a maid comes to King Arthur with a girt and a sword around her waist. The sword could only be drawn out of its sheath by a knight “without villainy or treachery, and without treason” (Malory 1972, 46). This time, Balin, a poor knight at Arthur’s court, fits this description, and he is important for the further continuation of the story for he delivers the Dolores Strike to King Pellam, which then will cause the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Be it Arthur, Galahad or Balin, drawing a sword out of a stone or a sheath when no one else is able to anywhere within the Arthurian legends always indicates that the future bearer of the sword will have quite an important role to play in the continuation of the story, be it for better or worse.

2.2. The Quest For The Holy Grail

The story of the Holy Grail is long and full of bends and curves. It took the efforts of many different authors to develop the story to the point it is now, creating its Christian background and the connection to the Templar knights. At the beginning, it does not interfere directly with Arthur’s life, the heroes Percival, Lancelot, Gawain, Bors and Galahad are members of Arthur’s court. This changes only when the knights set out to search the restoring powers of the Holy Grail to save the land from hunger and plagues (Phillips/Keatman, 74). Apart from its whereabouts, different aspects concerning the Holy Grail hold our interest today, mainly the matter of the Grail’s appearance, its function at the Last Supper and the connection to the Templar knights.

The quest was initiated when the Fisher King was wounded by the Dolorous Stroke, having the effect that he could not tend to his land anymore, which became waste. The one asking the right questions within the Grail Castle would return the land to prosperity by becoming the new Fisher King. The first one to mention the Grail was Chréthien de Troyes in his unfinished Perceval: The story of the Grail, or Conte du Graal, from around 1182 . Here, the Grail has no mentionable magical properties, as it will have in later stories, apart from having “so great a radiance (…) that the candles lost their brilliance” (Chréthien, 417). It is described as being made “of pure refined gold” and “set with many kinds of precious stones” (Chréthien, 417), although one cannot discern from the description whether it was a kind of goblet, as the Grail is mostly portrayed nowadays, or a plate or some other kind of dish.

Robert de Boron was the first who gave the Grail the attribute ‘Holy’ in Joseph d’Arimathie (or L’Estoire dou Graal). He associated it with Christ, as the cup used at the Last Supper and as the vessel into which “blood [dripped] from the wounds in His hands and His feet” (Boron, 19) at Christ’s crucifixion. He also let Joseph of Arimathea bring it to Britain when he lead the mission from Palestine. The Vulgate Cycle replaces Joseph with his son Josephus here (Ashley, 436). Joseph of Arimathea was also the one who created the second out of three ‘Grail Tables’, the first having been the table of the Last Supper, the second the table of the Grail Castle, and the third the Round Table of Arthur and his knights (Boron, 113). In the course of Boron’s three romances it was additionally the first time that the Grail definitively became a chalice, having been described as different things before, like “a large salver (…), in which was a man's head, surrounded by a profusion of blood” (, peredur5.html), or simply as a “vessel” (Ashley, 408). However, I think that the Grail de Boron talks about would not be made of gold and inlaid with precious gems, as Chréthien’s is, because I don’t think Christ would have used such a special goblet at the Last Supper. I think it more probable that de Boron’s Grail would be a simple one, made of clay or some ordinary metal. Wolfram von Eschenbach portrays the Grail as a powerful stone, the “lapsit exillîs” (, which could also be a reference to the philosopher’s stone, the “lapis elixier” (Lincoln/Baigent/Leigh, 269).

In Perlesvaus the Grail takes on five different shapes “that none ought not to tell, (…) the last whereof was the change into a chalice” (, 22.htm). The other four shapes are not described, although in Der Heilige Gral und seine Erben they are interpreted as “ein gekrönter und gekreuzigter König; (…) ein kind; (…) ein Mann mit einer Dornenkrone (…)” and the fourth is not described (Lincoln/Baigent/Leigh, 264). This idea of a personification of the Grail is quite interesting and has even been taken up in recent literature. In 2003, Dan Brown developed in his novel The Da Vinci Code the idea that the Holy Grail was Mary Magdalene, whom he construed as having been Jesus’ wife, and who therefore carried the blood of Christ within her, by being pregnant with his child at the time of his crucifixion. Here, the association with a cup or chalice is explained with the ancient symbol of female, which was a broadened and elongated ‘V’ (Brown, 319-323, 327-336, 342).


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The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy
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Nadine Wolf (Author), 2006, The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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