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King Arthur: fact and fiction



Sir Tristam becomes a knight of the Round Table
Sir Tristram becomes a knight of the Round Table

So many legends have grown round the name of King Arthur, and so many fanciful tales have been told about his Knights of the Round Table, that many people believe he is only a legendary king, but there is much evidence to prove that he did in fact exist, although he may perhaps not have been a king.


Dark Ages

He probably lived in the early part of the sixth century, in the time we now call the dark ages of British history because very few historical records of that time remain. It was a time of great confusion in Britain; the Romans had just left after governing the country for nearly five centuries, and the British people, who were then mainly of Celtic origin, were left to manage their own affairs. As soon as it was known that the Romans had left, the Picts from the north and the Saxons from the continent of Europe began making raids into Britain.


King Arthur

It is thought that at this time Arthur, who was a Briton, came to the fore and gathered the British people and led them in battles against the Pict and Saxon raiders. He was certainly a great commander because he won many battles, and he must also have been a man of high repute and good character otherwise his name would not have become associated with chivalry and good deeds. His fame spread through all the Celtic countries, which were then on the western edge of the known world from the Clyde in Scotland down through Wales and Cornwall to Brittany on the edge of France.


Geoffrey of Monmouth

It must be remembered that the stories about Arthur were not written down until about 700 years after his life. Before that the tales were related by word of mouth whenever people met together to hear stories, and probably many of the storytellers added bits of their own invention. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, a cleric, as most of the scribes were in those days, who collected the stories together in a book written in Latin called the History of the King of Britain in the year 1136. That was before printing was invented, so Geoffrey's book was written by hand. It became so popular that today we would call it a best seller. In the 12th and 13th centuries it was copied again and again by monks and scholars, nobody knows how many times, but even today there are about 200 manuscript copies of it remaining, so the original number must have been much greater. Geoffrey of Monmouth's stories create in the mind beautiful pictures that are difficult to forget. For instance Geoffrey relates that when King Arthur received a mortal wound in battle and when he thought that his end had come he asked one of his faithful knights to carry him to a lake. When they got to the edge of the lake the knight saw a barge draw silently up. Equally silently Arthur was laid in the barge and cared for by three beautiful ladies who dressed his wounds, and then, says Geoffrey, 'they sailed away into the sunset'.


Legends

Apart from Geoffrey's stories some of the French versions of the Arthurian romances were collected by a man named Cretien de Troyes. In the 15th century an Englishman, Sir Thomas Malory, published tales in English under the title of Le Morte D'Arthur. This, too, became a very popular book and through it the names of Arthur's knights, Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristam, Sir Bedivere and others became well known, and also the ladies, Guinevere who was Arthur's queen, Morgan le Fay, his treacherous sister, Lynette and La Belle Iseult all of whom later became subjects of romances and poems in the literature of the western countries. The remarkable thing about the Arthurian stories is that though they were first told in a hard and cruel world where man survived by brute force, they glorify love and gentleness, honor, and chivalry. These stories have been told and re-told for centuries and in the retelling much had been added and much has been lost, but after this long period of time since the stories were first told the original tale is clear and full of charm and you see that the knights and their ladies have the same faults and graces of people of our own day.


Excalibur

Excalibur: Arthur was taken to a lake by the wizard, Merlin. Suddenly a sword arose from the middle of the lake and a lady appeared from the waters nearby and told Arthur to take it.

Arthur had a magic sword called Excalibur. It was a beautiful sword, but nobody could handle it except Arthur. It had been given him by the Lady of the Lake, and when Arthur was about to die he handed his sword to his knight Sir Bedivere and told him to throw it into the center if the lake. But when Sir Bedivere saw the sword with all the jewels on the scabbard and girdle he thought he would like it for himself and that it was a pity to throw such a lovely thing into the water, so he hid Excalibur in the rushes by the lake and went back to tell King Arthur that he had done as he was bidden. 'And what did you see?' asked the king. 'I saw nothing but the water rippling through the rushes' said Sir Bedivere. 'Oh false knight' cried King Arthur 'You have not done as you were bid. Go back, and throw the sword into the water'. So sir Bedivere came again to the lake and again he was tempted by the beauty of the sword and did not throw it in but hid it a second time. When the king asked him what he had seen the second time he replied that he had seen nothing but the waves and the king was very angry and sent Sir Bedivere back to the lake a third time. This time Sir Bedivere remembered his honor as a knight of the Round Table, and did as he was told. He wrapped the jeweled girdle round the sword and hurled it with all his might into the center of the lake. Before the sword touched the water a mighty arm came out of the lake and caught the sword before it hit the water, then brandished it three times before drawing it into the water until it vanished out of sight. When Sir Bedivere told King Arthur what he had seen the king knew that he had really thrown the sword into the lake, because it was a magic sword and it had come to a magic end.

There is no account in the stories of the actual death of Arthur, merely that he was badly wounded and taken away in a barge. One version of the stories says that the barge sailed to the Isle of Avalon, which we now know as Glastonbury, and visitors to Glastonbury are still shown a place in the ruins of the abbey where he is said to be buried; but in Brittany and Wales some people do not believe that Arthur is dead. He is said to be sleeping with some of his knights in a hidden cave and they believe that if at any time Britain is in great peril Arthur will awaken again and come forth to lead his people.


Death of Arthur (from Malory)

Then Sir Bedivere took the King upon his back and so went with him to the water's side. And when they were there, even fast by the bank hove a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was the queen, and they all had black hoods, And they all wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur.

'Now put me into that barge,' said the King

So he did softly, and there received him three ladies with great mourning, And so they set him down and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head, And then the Queen said, 'Ah my dear brother! Why have you tarried so long from me? Alas this wound on thy head hath caught overmuch cold.'

And anon they rowed fromward the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all the ladies away from him. Then Sir Bedivere cried and said, 'Ah, my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here among my enemies?'

'Comfort thyself,' said the King, 'and do as well as thou mayest, for in me is no trust for to trust in. For I must into the vale of Avylyon to heal me of my grievous wound. And if thou hear nevermore of me, pray for my soul.'

But ever the Queen and ladies wept and shrieked, that it was pity to hear. And as soon as Sir Bedivere had lost sight of the barge he wept and wailed, and so took to the forest and went all that night.


The quest of the Holy Grail

One night when King Arthur and his Knights were at supper there was a tremendous crash of thunder. Then there appeared in the hall a sunbeam of dazzling brightness and in it there floated a cup. By its glory and by the great peace which it brought, the Knights knew at once that this was the cup our Lord used at the Last Supper; this was called the Holy Grail. Suddenly the cup vanished and the Knights gave thanks to God that they had this marvelous vision. They then made a vow that they would go out and seek the Grail.

The Knights traveled far and wide and had many strange adventures and some of them died. The Grail was eventually found by three Knights, Sir Percivale, Sir Bors, and Sir Galahad. They had set out separately, but had later been brought together by strange signs. After many dangers they came to an old ship, with an alter on it and through a veil gleamed the Holy Grail.