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Arthurian Legend

King Arthur is the figure at the heart of the Arthurian legends. He is said to be the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall. One of the questions that has occupied those interested in King Arthur is whether or not he is a historical figure. The debate has raged since the Renaissance when Arthur's historicity was vigorously defended, partly because the Tudor monarchs traced their lineage to Arthur and used that connection as a justification for their reign. Modern scholarship has generally assumed that there was some actual person at the heart of the legends, though not of course a king with a band of knights in shining armor. If there is a historical basis to the character, it is clear that he would have gained fame as a warrior battling the Germanic invaders of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Since there is no conclusive evidence for or against Arthur's historicity, the debate will continue. But what can not be denied is the influence of the figure of Arthur on literature, art, music, and society from the Middle Ages to the present. Though there have been numerous historical novels that try to put Arthur into a sixth-century setting, it is the legendary figure of the late Middle Ages who has most captured the imagination. It is such a figure, the designer of an order of the best knights in the world, that figures in the major versions of the legend from Malory to Tennyson to T. H. White. Central to the myth is the downfall of Arthur's kingdom. It is undermined in the chronicle tradition by the treachery of Mordred. In the romance tradition that treachery is made possible because of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Guinevere is said to be the daughter of Leodegrance of Cameliard in late medieval romance. She marries Arthur and then has a love affair with Lancelot which causes the downfall of Camelot. One of the earliest Arthurian stories is about the abduction of Guinevere by Meleagant (or Melyagaunce or Melwas). The story of the abduction is the central action in Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot and appears in Malory. Tennyson presents Guinevere as a sinner who "spoilt the purpose" of Arthur's life.


Lancelot is the greatest of Arthur's knights. Son of King Ban of Benwick, he is known as Lancelot of the Lake or Lancelot du Lac because he was raised by the Lady of the Lake. Among his many adventures are the rescue of the abducted Queen Guinevere from Meleagant, an unsuccessful quest for the holy grail and the rescue of the queen after she is condemned to be burned to death for adultery. Lancelot is loved by Elaine of Astolat, who dies because her love is unrequited. Elaine, the daugher of King Pelles, tricks Lancelot into sleeping with her and from that union galahad is born. His love for Guinevere ultimately brings about the downfall of Arthur's realm.

Arthur's adviser, prophet and magician, is basically the creation of Geoffrey of monmouth. In Geoffrey's book, Merlin assists Uther Pendragon and is responsible for transporting the stones of Stonehenge from Ireland, but he is not associated with Arthur. Merlin became very popular in the Middle Ages. He is central to a major text of the thirteenth-century French Vulgate cycle, and he figures in a number of other French and English romances. Sir Thomas Malory, in the Morte d'Arthur presents him as the adviser and guide to Arthur. In the modern period Merlin's popularity has remained constant. He figures in works from the Renaissance to the modern period. .Numerous novels, poems and plays center around Merlin. In American literature and popular culture, Merlin is perhaps the most frequently portrayed Arthurian character.

Vivien, sometimes called Nineve, Nimue, Niniane, etc., is best known as the woman who seals Merlin in a cave or a tree. Despite foreseeing his fate, Merlin is unable to prevent being captivated and captured by the woman Richard Wilbur has called "a creature to bewitch a sorcerer." Vivien is an ambiguous character. In Malory, for example, even though Nyneve, who is one of the Ladies of the Lake, deprives Arthur of Merlin's service, she rescues him twice, first by saving him from Accolon who has been given Excalibur by Morgan le Fay to use against Arthur, and then by preventing him from donning the destructive cloak sent to him by Morgan.

Mordred is the illegitimate son of Arthur by his half-sister Morgause.

Morgan le Fay is, in Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Arthur's half sister, the daughter of Arthur's mother Igraine and her first husband, the Duke of Cornwall. She is also presented as an adversary of Arthur's: she gives Excalibur to her lover Accolon so he can use it against arthur and, when that plot fails, she steals the scabbard of Excalibur which protects Arthur and throws it into a lake. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight she is presented as the instigator of the Green Knight's visit to Arthur's court, partly motivated by her desire to frighten guinevere. Despite the motif of Morgan's enmity towards Arthur and Guinevere, she is also presented as one of the women who takes Arthur in a barge to Avalon to be healed. This view of Morgan as healer has its roots in the earliest accounts of her and perhaps to her origin in Celtic mythology.

Meleagant (or Melyag(r)aunce or Melwas) is best known as the wicked knight who abducts Guinevere and is ultimately slain by Lancelot. The earliest form of the name, Melwas, has been interpreted as meaning "prince of death" or "princely youth." The classic account of the abduction story is in Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart, in which Lancelot, because of his great love for Guinevere, suffers the ignominy of riding in a cart, a form of transportation reserved for criminals so that he can continue his quest to free her.

Gawain is generally said to be the nephew of Arthur. His parents are Lot of Orkney and Morgause. Upon the death of Lot, he becomes the head of the Orkney clan, which includes in many sources his brothers Aggravain, Gaheris, and Gareth, and his half-brother mordred. Gawain figures prominently in many romances. In France he is generally presented as one who has adventures paralleling in diptych fashion but not overshadowing the hero's, whether that hero be lancelot or Perceval. In the English tradition, however, it is much more common for Gawain to be the principal hero and the exemplar of courtesy and chivalry, as he is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other Arthurian romances of the Alliterative Revival. In Malory's Morte d'Arthur, however, he has a role similar to that in the French romances, in that Lancelot is the principal hero.

Elaine of Astolat is the maiden who dies of unrequited love for Lancelot and floats in a barge to Camelot with a letter for Lancelot clutched in her lifeless hand. She appears in Malory and in Tennyson's idyll of "lancelot and elaine." The figure of Elaine in the barge became one of the most popular Victorian images.

Galahad is the son of lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic. Galahad was conceived when Elaine tricked Lancelot into thinking he was meeting and sleeping with guinevere. Galahad is best known as the knight who achieves the quest for the holy grail.


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