One larger-than-life hero—who probably did exist and so was not technically an entirely mythic figure—was King Arthur, a king of Britain in the Middle Ages (about the 400’s through the 1400’s). Historians know little about Arthur, but he may have been a British leader who defeated German invaders in the early 500’s. Whatever the historical truth, it is Arthur’s legend that has captivated people’s imaginations for centuries. The exploits of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are among the most famous of Western literature, and—real or not—Arthur is one of the most admired heroes in the history of British culture.
In the Latin version of Arthur’s legend (there are similar Celtic and French versions), his father was King Uther Pendragon of Britain. The king fell in love with Igrayne, the wife of his rival, the Duke of Cornwall. With the aid of Merlin, a Celtic magician, Uther took the form of the duke to deceive Igrayne, who then gave birth to Arthur. Arthur, unaware of his royal father, later pulled the magic sword Excalibur from a block of stone—a miraculous act that proved him to be the rightful heir to the throne of Britain. Arthur then became king and married Princess Guenevere.
Legends about Arthur and his knights accumulated through the years. The Knights of the Round Table included such famous medieval heroes as Sir Galahad, Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristram, Sir Gawain, and Sir Launfal. Many Arthurian stories portray the knights’ quest for the Holy Grail, the cup or bowl that Jesus Christ used during the Last Supper. Many Arthurian stories take place in and around Camelot, the king’s castle in southern England. Some stories describe a love affair between between Queen Guenevere and Sir Lancelot that caused pain and suffering in the kingdom and led to the eventual breakup of the Round Table.
Legend says that King Arthur fought a war against the Roman Emperor Lucius and conquered much of western Europe. In one version of the story, Arthur returned home after hearing that Modred, a knight who was either his nephew or his son, had seized his kingdom and queen. Arthur killed Modred in combat but died from wounds received in the fight. Some legends don’t end there, however, and say that Arthur went to the otherworldly island of Avalon to be healed. There the noble king awaits his country’s call in time of need.
Top image: This illustration of young King Arthur comes from the children’s book King Arthur’s Wood by Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, a fairy tale version of the Arthurian legend. Credit: © “King Arthur’s Wood” by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes (Fine Art Photographic Library/SuperStock)
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