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The Arthurian Legend

Sentry of Camelot

A retelling drawing from many different versions. There is no one, true version.

An Island Divided

In the years of upheaval after the Roman withdrawal in 410 AD, Britain became an island of small kingdoms. Aurelius Ambrosius tried to unite the small Romano-Celtic kingdoms against their common enemies-- the Irish, the Picts and the Saxons. According to legend, after the death of Aurelius, he was followed in his quest by Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur.

Prior to this, however, was the business of Vortigern. It was he who supposedly invited the Saxons into Britain, to aid in repelling the invasions of the Picts. Vortigern's people (most notably his sons) objected to the presence of the Saxons, and attempted to expel the Saxons. Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon leaders fought back. Vortigern tried to make a peace, but at a peace-meeting, Hengist and his Saxons pulled daggers from their boots, turned on the unarmed British lords, and slew them all.

Merlin and Excalibur

Vortigern and Merlin

"He assembled stonemasons from different parts of the country and ordered them to build a tower for him. The masons gathered and began to lay the foundations of their tower. However much they built one day the earth swallowed up the next, in such a way that they had no idea where their work had vanished to." (Geoffrey of Monmouth 166)

Merlin approaches Vortigern

Vortigern consulted his magicians, and they told him he should find a boy without a father, and kill him and incorporate his bones and blood into the foundations of the castle. Vortigern sent out messengers, who "came to a town which was afterwards called Kaermerdin and there they saw some lads playing by the town gate.... a sudden quarrel broke out between the two lads, whose names were Merlin and Dinabutius. As they argued, Dinabutius said to Merlin: '...How can we two be equal in skill? I myself am of royal blood on both sides of my family. As for you, nobody knows who you are, for you never had a father!'" (Geoffrey of Monmouth 167). Having found what they sought, the messengers dragged the boy back with them to Vortigern.

Merlin

Merlin objected to being killed, of course, and thus it was that when confronted with his death, he called Vortigern's great magicians liars, and promised to solve the problem of the castle foundations himself. He told the King that the foundations fell every night because there was a pool of water beneath the foundation stones. He also told the King that beneath the pool, two dragons lay sleeping. And when Vortigern dug under the foundations, he found the pool. And when he drained the pool, the two dragons awoke, and began to fight, and Merlin began to prophesy:

"Alas for the Red Dragon, for its end is near. Its cavernous dens shall be occupied by the White Dragon, which stands for the Saxons which you have invited over. The Red Dragon represents the people of Britain, who will be overrun by the White One..." (Geoffrey of Monmouth 171)

Dragons in the Pool

Merlin proceeded to warn Vortigern that Aurelius Ambrosius, the son of the man that Vortigern had betrayed to assume the throne, would come to drive out the Saxons and to kill Vortigern. Merlin then departed Vortigern's doomed presence, and went to Aurelius Ambrosius and became his chief advisor, who succeeded in all the things that Merlin had prophesied that he would, driving out the Saxons, and indeed, killing Vortigern.

Uther Pendragon

Uther Pendragon

During the reign of Aurelius Ambrosius, a comet appeared in the sky. Shortly thereafter, Aurelius was poisoned by an agent of one of Vortigern's sons, and Uther Pendragon assumed the throne. He was told by Merlin that the comet had signified his rise to power. Uther continued to drive back the Saxons, and once victorious, cast about him for a wife. Unfortunately, his eye settled upon a woman who was already married, one Igraine, wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. It was not long before Uther and Gorlois went to battle over the woman, and once again, the island was at war.

Uther and Gorlois fought for some time, before Uther cornered Gorlois in Cornwall, near Tintagel Castle. The night before they were about to have the final battle, Uther demanded of Merlin that he have Igraine. Merlin agreed for a price to be named at a future date. Merlin disguised Uther as Gorlois by spellcraft, and sneaked him into the castle. Igraine received him there, thinking Uther was her husband. She became pregnant with Arthur from the night's work. The next day, Uther took the field and killed Gorlois in battle. Igraine became Uther's wife not long after.

In most versions of the story, Arthur was born to Igraine and taken away from his parents secretly by Merlin for fostering. There are usually a variety of reasons given for this-- that there were too many doubts about Arthur's parentage (Igraine herself thought she lay with Gorlois on the night of Arthur's conception), and thus Uther did not want to keep a son who might not be his; that there were too many dangers to a child that might be Uther's or might be Gorlois' in the political climate; or that this was the price Merlin had requested from Uther for the night with Igraine. Whatever the reason, Arthur was not usually represented to have grown up with his mother and father, nor his half-sister, Morgan, the child from his mother's first marriage. He was, instead, given by Merlin to be fostered by Sir Ector, and raised with Kay.

In the meantime, the island fell to warring once more, for not all who were loyal to Aurelius were so taken with his brother. Uther, constantly embattled, grew ill with the stress of his wars, and his health began to fail. By the time Arthur was a young man, Uther was near death.

In some stories, Arthur was then taken by his tutor Merlin to meet with the dying king on the field of battle. Uther turned over the armies to Arthur's command, and Arthur that day defeated the Saxons, and proved to his father's armies that he was the rightful heir.

The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone

In other stories, Uther died without ever seeing his son, and the island was left without a king. All the great lords of Britain turned out for a tournament, whose victor would become the next King.

Kay, newly knighted, fought in the tournament, and Arthur acted as his squire. As they left their lodgings one morning for the tournament field, Arthur in his excitement forgot Kay's sword. As they approached the field, Kay asked Arthur where it was, and when he found out that Arthur had forgotten it, sent the boy back to fetch it with all due haste. Arthur, trying to be as quick as possible, came across the sword in a stone in the courtyard of an abbey. Without thought, he ran up, grabbed the sword, pulled it out, and ran back to Kay. Kay was surprised at Arthur's speed. He looked suspiciously at the sword-- and was amazed. He recognized it as the sword in the stone. He showed it to his father, who eventually got the truth from both Kay and Arthur, that Arthur had pulled it from the stone. Written on the sword was "whosoever shall pull me from the stone shall be the next King of Britain."

Ector called an end to the tournament, and showed the lords of the realm the sword that his foster son had pulled from the stone. Various tests were imposed, but eventually it became clear that Arthur had indeed pulled the sword from the stone, and was the next King of Britain.

The Rightful King

The Young King

Young king Arthur was faced with difficulties from the beginning. He had to drive the Saxons back. In order to do this, though, he needed to unify the petty kings of Britain to fight the Saxons. He also had to develop an effective fighting force, and somewhere along the way, get married.

Depending on the version of the story, the unification of the petty kings was as easy as forming a Round Table where everyone was equal in the eyes of the King and had a voice in the affairs of the realm, or as difficult as beating the rebellious leaders into submission. After this was accomplished, the united forces of Romano-Celtic Britain began the long and arduous task of fighting the Saxons. The famous Twelve Battles of Arthur, as listed first by Nennius, document the long, uphill struggle to free the island-- or at least to drive back the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The battles ended with the climax of the Battle of Badon, in which Arthur is said to have worn the banner of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders.

After the Battle of Badon came peace, and the King cast about him for a wife. His eye fell on Guinevere-- depending on the version, once again, he married one, two or even three women by this name. They did not meet before their marriage, and Lancelot, Arthur's most trusted knight, went to fetch her and bring her back to Camelot. Along the way, they are supposed to have fallen in love. Their courtly love was doomed from the beginning, of course, as courtly romances are supposed to be.

A time of peace finally settled on the land.

Sinister Things Afoot

In all the medieval romances, this early part of Arthur's reign was strange and mysterious. The knights were kept busy with numerous quests, such as the White Stag, the Loathly Lady and the Green Knight. In older versions of the Matter, there were such diversions as Cullwch and Olwen or the Cad Pagur. And in between times there were mundane events such as tournaments to keep everyone entertained as well.

But at the same time, the evil half-sister was plotting her brother's demise. In several stories, Morgan went to great lengths to end Arthur's reign. Morgan's plots ranged from False Excalibur to stirring up jealousy between the King and Lancelot to conceiving a son (Mordred) with her brother.

holy_grail

The Holy Grail

As Arthur aged, Camelot went into decline. The evil work of Morgan began to take over the once glorious kingdom; the knights became mean, lost their chivalry, turned to in-fighting. Merlin, in an effort to save Camelot, suggested a grander quest than any of the others he had previously created, and told the King to send his knights to quest for the Holy Grail. The Grail, which brings healing and eternal life, would be the key to lifting the King's spirits and bringing his health back, and thus also the health of the realm.

The knights scatter to the four corners of the earth. Perceval was caught in a wasteland belonging to a maimed king; Galahad, the most innocent of knights, the only man pure enough to sit in the Perilous Seat, died on his quest; and flawed Lancelot several times came close to finding the grail but always failed. He returned a madman in some versions. In other versions, Galahad was successful, but then disappeared from the mortal realm forever. The Grail was never brought to Camelot, however.

The Imprisonment of Merlin

Morgan is sometimes credited for also thinking a method of disposing of Merlin, though in other versions, Niniane acted alone.

Niniane wished to acquire all of Merlin's powers and secrets. She went to great lengths to seduce him, and steal his powers while he slept; in some versions, Merlin's celibacy that kept him powerful, in others it is merely that with his guard down he could not defend himself against a lesser sorcerer.

When Niniane stripped him of his power, she imprisoned him in a crystal cave or in an oak tree, for she was unable to kill him. Sometimes she merely wished to usurp Merlin's place at Arthur's side; other times, she eliminated Merlin on Morgan's behalf.

Mordred

Meanwhile, far from court, Morgan had raised her son to despise Arthur, and sent him to his father when he reached adulthood. If his heritage was found out, it made Arthur look bad, at the very least; at best, Mordred would work to bring about the fall of Arthur.

In the medieval versions, the court of Camelot had declined substantially in morals during Mordred's childhood and adolescence, and a general malaise surrounded the King. Mordred would at that point only be aiding in the inevitable. In older versions of the story, Mordred is not evil, and exemplifies the uncle/nephew relationship of Celtic myth. In some modern versions, Mordred is merely a mortal caught between the desires of his parents.

Lancelot

The Betrayal of Lancelot

Traditionally, Mordred noticed the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot off the bat, and tried to discredit both the King's wife and the King's best friend, to create a niche for himself. When he found out that Lancelot and Guinevere have gone off on a tryst together, he called together some of his fathers loyal knights, and had them barge in on the lovers, having them both taken prisoner. Lancelot managed to escape.

Sometimes Arthur is on the scene, and other times he is off negotiating or fighting wars. Invariably, the decision is made that Guinevere must be executed for her treachery upon the King's return. In at least one version, the scene is very dramatic-- Guinevere is led to the stake to be burned for adultery; Arthur looks on, stone-faced; Lancelot swoops in on his horse, rescues her, and runs away with her to the Joyous Gard (his castle), where they live for some time.

Arthur has no time to get her back, either by wooing or warfare. For on the horizon, is war.

Carlisle Castle

The Fall of Camelot

The versions are countless. Arthur is attacked by Romans, by Goths, by Saxons, by Picts, by the French, by the Irish, by Lancelot, by Morgan le Fay, by Mordred, by rebellious subject kings-- you name it, in some version, they are the group that brings about the fall of Camelot. But of course, Camelot had already fallen, in the betrayal of the King's wife and friend, and in the deterioration of the moral values of the men in charge of guarding the kingdom. The last battle, the battle of Camlann, marks the fall of the great King. He lies dying.

And while the details of Arthur's death are varied as well, one scene in particular always stands out in my mind, so I will present it here as definitive.

The great king lay dying at the edge of the battle. Bedivere, his oldest companion, knelt next to him, seeking to comfort his friend in his last moments. "My lord," he said, "My king, Arthur, what can I do?"

Arthur turned to him and said, "Take my sword, Excalibur, and go to the water's edge. Throw it in, and then return to tell me what you saw."

Bedivere agreed to do his bidding, and took Excalibur and walked down to the water's edge. But when he lifted his hand to throw the sword into the water, he found he could not. This was the sword of a great king; this was the sword that should be passed on to the next king. If the next king were a boy, as Arthur had been, or if there were some doubt amongst the people, this sword could give them confidence that there was a worthy successor to Arthur on the throne.Bedivere hid the sword under a bush, and marked the spot, intending to retrieve it later.

bedivere_sword_lakeBedivere returned to his king.

"Have you done as I have asked?"

"Aye, my lord," Bedivere replied.

"Tell me what you saw," the king commanded.

"I saw nothing but the ripple of the water as the sword fell into it, and heard the crying of the water birds."

At this, Arthur grew angry, and said, "Friend, you have not done what I asked. Go you forth and throw my sword Excalibur into the lake!"

Troubled, Bedivere rose to his feet and returned to the place where he had left the sword, and intending to do his liege's bidding, lifted the sword over his head to throw it forth.

But his eyes were caught by the gleam of the setting sun on the blade, and he thought how faithful the sword had been to the King in battle; surely the blade deserved better than to be cast into the water, to rust and rot. So Bedivere took the sword and hid it under a bush again, and marked the spot so he might retrieve it later.

"I have done your bidding, my lord," Bedivere said, when he returned to Arthur's side.

"And what did you see?" the king asked.

"I saw the splash when the sword hit the water, and the dying sun's rays bright on the waves."

"You have not done what I asked!" the king said angrily. "Go forth, Bedivere, and if you love me, throw my sword Excalibur into the lake!"

Bedivere, even more troubled, left his king, took the sword from its hiding place, and went to the water's edge. Then he lifted it high over his head, and hurled it out over the lake.

Lady of the Lake

The sword did not have a chance to hit the water; for a hand rose from the deep center of the lake, and caught the sword neatly. It saluted Bedivere three times, and then sank beneath the surface, until all that was left were the waves lapping at the bank, and the wind in the reeds.

Bedivere returned to his king, and said, "I have done your bidding."

"What did you see?"

"I saw a hand rise from the lake and catch the sword; they saluted three times, and disappeared beneath the water, and left nothing more than the lapping of the water at the bank, and the sound of the wind in the reeds."

"Thank you, my friend," Arthur said, and closed his eyes.

And Bedivere stayed with his mortally wounded friend, as the sun set, and the stars came out. And from the darkness came nine women dressed like queens. Bedivere was frozen at the sight of them. They tenderly lifted the dying king from his rough bed on the ground, and bore him off. Bedivere was anxious to see where they were going, so he followed as quickly as he could. But it was as though lead weighted his feet, and he did not catch up with them until the nine queens had loaded Arthur onto a barge and had sailed half-way across the lake.

Bedivere returned to the battlefield, and found his brother, and together, they went back to the world.


 

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