a) Arthur – early life – marriage – death
Arthur was son of Uther, King of England and only son born to Igraine of Cornwall. Merlin used his magic to make Uther resemble Gorlois, Igraine’s real husband. After Arthur is born, he is sent away to be raised by Merlin, who gave him to Ector for safekeeping. Arthur grew up to manhood unaware of his own parentage. After Uther’s death, the crown of England was in dispute, so Merlin created a stone with a sword embedded in it. A saying was carved into the stone, which stated that whosoever pulls the sword out of the stone would be king of all England. This Arthur did when he was a youth. Eleven rulers then rebelled against Arthur, and he put down each of these rebellions. Arthur was married to Guinevere, and received the Round Table as his dowry from her father.
After his marriage, Arthur set up his court and capital at Camelot, and ruled a “fair and just” reign over the kingdom. Knights from all over England as well as Europe gathered to his court to receive a place at the fabled Round Table. Among them was Arthur’s bravest and most skilled knight Sir Lancelot, who fell in love with Guinevere and had an affair with her. Note: Lancelot has numerous spellings depending upon the source – some are Launcelot, and Lancelet. The knights of the Table performed many dangerous quests, among them the quest for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. During this quest, Lancelot’s fascination with his queen was discovered. Guinevere was sentenced to death, while Lancelot was banished from the country, eventually returning to rescue Guinevere. The two then fled to the Continent, where Arthur pursued them.
He left his son Mordred in charge of the kingdom while he was across the Channel, Mordred being the offspring of an affair between the unknowing Arthur and his sister Morgause. Mordred then rebelled against Arthur, and Arthur had to return to England to put down Mordred’s rebellion. Arthur’s last battle was fought on Salisbury plain, known to the Welsh as Camlann, where he slew Mordred but was in turn mortally wounded by his son. Arthur was then carried off to Avalon to recover, vowing to return when his kingdom was in its greatest need. These essential facts make up the Arthurian legend, as people know it today.
b) The Round Table – justice, law, honour,
The Round Table was situated in the palace at Camelot; it was a dowry gift from Guinevere’s father on her marriage to Arthur; however, the table originated with Arthur’s father Uther who gave it to King Leodegrance, father of Guinevere. The table is believed to have been made out of solid English Oak. However, legend also has it that it was created by Merlin’s magic for Uther.
One of the good things about a round table is that no one need argue about who has the right and precedence to sit at the head of the table as each knight is worthy, in his own right and status, just as is the knight sitting next to him. This idea grew and the table became the place were Arthur and his ruling knights could feel free to discuss the issues of the day and where Arthur created his unique views on law and justice for all men. The table became symbolic and represented the fairness of Arthur’s reign. Arthur invited worthy knights to sit at the table; these were individuals who had earned the right to be esteemed amongst their peers. To become a member a knight had to prove his valour, and once membership had been granted by Arthur it was permanent until another knight showed superior battle skill.
Legend has it that one particular seat was tainted with bad luck and was referred to by the other knights as the “Perilous Seat” or Siege Perilous; Merlin warned that any unworthy knight who sat there would be instantly killed. This indeed happened when one faithless knight laughed at the warning. One Pentecost holiday, Sir Galahad sat in the seat and the words “this is the siege of Galahad, the haut prince” and the words miraculously appeared on the back of the seat. The fact that Sir Galahad could sit in the seat without being harmed was proof of the goodness and pureness of his heart. It was because Sir Galahad was so pure that he was the only knight who was able to see the Holy Grail in all its purity.
c) Camelot – idea of perfection
Many people believe that Camelot is an imaginary place where an idyllic life exists; the mystic of such a place has become almost a clichéd term in our society as each one of us seeks personal happiness and perfection and maybe peace. Camelot was Arthur’s capitol city of his kingdom and the center of his court and power base. In England there does exist a river Cam and Cambridge University is situated on it.
Arthur’s Camelot is believed to be situated in the West coast of England, either Wiltshire, Somerset, or Devon could be possible locations for its site. Cadbury Castle in Somerset could also be a possible site because archeologists have discovered remains of a leader’s fortified dwelling dating back to the Arthurian period. Historians in the last century have spent time trying to locate Camelot and find evidence for its existence. The city is mentioned by Chrétien de Troyes in his Lancelot romantic poem as the center of Arthur’s court.
d) Merlin – magic and witchcraft
Merlin (Myrddin welsh translation) was a wizard and Arthur’s magician and counselor; legend has it that Merlin was born to an incubus (a male demon and opposite to a succubus and female demon). Vortigern, who was one of the earliest Kings of England, some time after the Roman withdrawal of Britain, was attempting to build a tower; the problems arose when the tower would collapse every time an attempt was made to rebuild it. Vortigern’s counselors told him that he would have to sacrifice a fatherless child to ensure the stability of the tower; Merlin was supposed to have been the sacrifice as it was rumoured he was born to an incubus. However, when Merlin was brought to the tower he showed the king that the real problem was a large pool underneath the foundation of the tower. When Vortigern’s workers dug up the pool they discovered a pair of dragons fighting, one red and one white, the red dragon defeated the white dragon symbolizing the downfall of Vortigern and the rise of Aurelius Ambrosius.
Ambrosius’ banner was a red dragon and Vortigern’s was a white dragon.
Merlin also arranged, as stated above, that Uther was to be disguised as Igraine’s husband Gorlois and Uther had a child with Igraine who was Arthur. Some time after Arthur was crowned king of England Merlin disappears in the legend stories but reappears during the reign when he becomes infatuated with Nimue (who was also called Viviane). Nimue took advantage of Merlin’s infatuation to persuade him to teach her his magical arts, which she then used to imprison him.
Merlin had a great deal of influence over Arthur and helped to guide him wisely during his reign. Merlin was responsible for telling Arthur the location of Excalibur in the lake so that he could retrieve it. Merlin disappears from the legend after Arthur’s death also vowing, like Arthur, to return yet again to Earth when the time is right.
e) Courtly Love/Chivalry
The idea and concept of courtly love and chivalry towards women was originally a French custom. The troubadours with their love poems and songs bewitched the highborn ladies of Europe with their tales of love and undying love. These songs and poems became part of the life of ladies and their knights at this time. Ladies wanted to have knights adore them and knights in turn vowed love and loyalty to their lady of choice. The poetry focused on man’s self-realization and the kind of love that would achieve this end was of course what became known as courtly love.
The troubadours examined love in all its permutations, analyzed it, weighed it: physical love, in the setting of the court, with its manners and customs; the dreamlike love for a distant and unapproachable lady realized only in the imagination; love on a transcendental plane, for God or the Virgin Mary. They defined, it varying terms, good and bad love: Fin’ Amors and Fals’ Amors. Fals’ Amors was always unbridled lust, but Fin’Amors could be otherworldly, or it could be earthy love controlled by reason and moderation or merely practiced according to the ideas of proper court behaviour.
In the Arthurian legend the downfall of the idyllic world of Camelot falls apart when Fals’ Amors, unbridled lust, happens to befall Guinevere and Lancelot. Their love and passion destroy what Arthur has built and their love, even though it is true love and passion ends by destroying what they love most as well.
The idea and concept of chivalry first began with courtly love and came into its own during the nineteenth century, many years after the middle ages. Chivalry in the Arthurian legend stood for right and good deeds as practiced by the Knights of the Round Table and the code for this behaviour was set by Arthur himself. The acts of chivalry had their beginnings in a deed of valour for someone who was in need or distress. A knight became famous through his selfless deeds of chivalry.
The rules of conduct that the poetry of the troubadours prescribed were mainly social: a knight should be courteous, generous, well-spoken, discreet, faithful in the service of love; he should have “pretz e valors,” excellence and worth, as well as good sense. From the chansons de geste came a different model, also secular: a knight should brave, loyal, and honourable, and he should perform deeds that would earn him glory.
f) Excalabur – Lady of the Lake
This was the sword given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake. When Arthur was out touring the countryside, he saw three serfs chasing Merlin with cudgels; they fled as soon as they saw Arthur. Arthur jokingly said he had to save Merlin on this occasion, but Merlin informed Arthur that he could have saved himself. He used this situation to lure Arthur to a place where his own skill would be put to the test. Then a knight who would not let him pass without first jousting with him confronted Arthur. Arthur agreed to this knight’s challenge. Both of their lances shattered early on in the fight; so they both drew their swords; the two men were evenly matched in skill until Arthur’s sword broke. The knight was about to kill Arthur when Merlin cast a spell to put him to sleep. Arthur was upset because he thought Merlin had killed the knight who had indeed shown him self to be the superior knight. Merlin assured Arthur that the knight was only asleep, and prophesied to Arthur that this knight would eventually become another member of the Round Table. Arthur and Merlin journeyed on their way, but Arthur complained that now he lacked a sword; Merlin resolved this problem by showing Arthur to a lake in the middle of which was a white clothed arm holding a sword. The sword was Excalibur and Arthur rode out and took the sword from the Lady of the Lake. Another version of the story also exists where Arthur asks permission of the Lady of the Lake to take the sword and keep it. Merlin then informs Arthur that as long as he kept the scabbard he would remain safe from harm. From this grew the idea that Arthur was protected from harm and the magic of the sword grew to equal Arthur’s deeds.
After Arthur’s last battle as he lay mortally wounded he gave Excalibur to Sir Bedivere to return the sword to its original owner: the Lady of the Lake. As Sir Bedivere threw the sword into the water the white clothed arm appeared in the water and caught the sword in mid air disappearing almost at once. This is all that is known about the history of the magical sword
g) Guinevere – Lancelot
Guinevere married Arthur and became the lover of Sir Lancelot. When their relationship was discovered, Lancelot fled and in the process killed many of Arthur’s knights in his escape. Lancelot escaped to France, while Guinevere was sentenced by the court to burn alive at the stake. Lancelot returned from France to attempt to rescue her and he was successful. Arthur was forced to mount an army to fight the pair. It was during Arthur’s campaign against Lancelot that Mordred rebelled; Arthur returned to deal with Mordred and when Lancelot heard that Arthur was now in trouble trying to defeat Mordred, Lancelot returned to aid him in this quest; however, he was too late and Arthur died.
h) Knights – Heroism/Quests/Adventure
Knights of the Round Table had to prove themselves worthy of having a seat at the famous table. Often, proving himself worthy meant that the knight had to complete a dangerous quest, which always involved defending the principles of chivalry in some way. For example, Sir Perceval had to chase down a Red Knight who had taken a cup from Arthur’s court. He later had to lift the siege of a castle by defeating the attacker in single combat. One of his other quests was to hunt down the knight who had injured the Fisher King. Sir Galahad was involved in the quest for the Holy Grail (Sangreal). Sir Tristan was involved in saving Cornwall from Irish invaders, and later went to Ireland and slew a great dragon living there. Many myths are evident in literature about several of the famous Knights of the Round Table and their specific duels, adventures, and quests.
i) Tournaments – contests
Tournaments and contests became spectacles of fun and were looked forward to by all the community not just the nobility. They were not associated specifically with the Arthurian Legend, but rather with medieval life in general. Kings and nobles often held tournaments and tests of skill in combat for their knights, with the winner of such contests and tournaments taking a grand prize, perhaps the hand of a lady of the court in marriage. These contests were usually jousts, in which both competitors rode warhorses, and charged at each other down a long lane with lances pointed at the other. The object was to use the lance to impact the other’s shield, and thus knock him off his horse. Once the opponent was knocked off his horse, it was then incumbent on the knight to dismount his own horse, draw his sword, and continue the fight on the ground, sword-to-sword or hand-to-hand. Then whoever got knocked to the ground first would lose the joust. In the Arthurian Legend, Lancelot participated in one such joust in order to defend Guinevere after she was sentenced to burn at the stake for her adultery. He appeared at the joust all dressed in black armour, so that none would recognize him.
j) Quest for the Holy Grail – inner peace – love in its highest form
The Holy Grail, called Sangreal, was an object much sought after by the Knights of the Round Table. The Grail was the cup believed to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper, and the Knights of the Round Table were supposed to be the defenders of Christianity, at least in Malory’s text. Perceval, Bors, and Galahad all journeyed to find the Grail, partly to restore the Maimed King (Fisher King) to health and restore fertility to the land. Bors and Perceval both failed to find the Grail, and returned to Arthur’s court, but Galahad found the Grail while in a foreign land, and after seeing it in all its glory, was sent to heaven. Perceval had once seen the Grail being taken through the Grail Castle, but did not recognize the Grail for what it was.
2. History of the Legend and Background notes of Original Sources.
Information on the all the current research and historical data that serious historians have researched – such as the historical evidence for Arthur, Avalon, Camelot, Arthur’s burial place etc. Then the original documents from which the legend grew – Malory’s work for example.
3. Suggestions for media support (films)
Movies – “Camelot”, “First Knight”, “Excalibur”, maybe stuff on magic and witchcraft. Do some current research on the net about the legend – computer games. There are many enduring elements of the legend.
4. Medieval Period in History
Information on the Medieval Period or the early middle Ages – 15th Century. Life at that time in England (Find a good source for information Your Computer Game has notes and information – history book) go to the Robarts library possibly.)
5. Lasting Legacy – concepts and ideas (Kennedy Era)
The idea of goodness – honour – trust – loyalty – service to country –law – justice – freedoms – heroism – chivalry
The struggle for good over evil – decay and corruption of Guinevere and Lancelot ended Camelot and caused Arthur’s death – but ideas continue today in many forms
How these concepts are part of our contemporary society – laws – Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Magna Carta – to be tried by your peers (jury system)
Connections to Literature – in this current course The Great Gatsby is an example of courtly love and chivalry in Gatsby’s love for Daisy.
Historical Romantic Fiction.
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