In Search of King ArthurIn a gloomy castle set on a rocky spit of land jutting into the sea, Igrayne awaits the return of her husband, Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. It is not he, however, who comes to her room that
night but rather Uther Pendragon, king of Britain - given the appearance of Gorlois by the magician Merlin in order to satisfy the king's illicit passion for Igrayne. A son is conceived. Thus begins the story of the legendary King Arthur, a tale that has inspired numerous writers and artists a people's imaginations for centuries.
The infant torn to Igrayne is spirited away by Merlin and given to the good Sir Ector to be raised as his own son. Although the king has no other children Igrayne and Gorlois are blessed with three daughters - two of whom are married to other kings while the third is sent to a nunnery. This daughter, Morgana le Fay, somehow acquires magical skills and ultimately plays a fatal role in her half brother's life.
Only when the king is dead and Arthur is 16 does Merlin reveal to him his true paternity, and he does so then only after the youth has succeeded in pulling out a sword embedded in an anvil set on a slab of marble in a churchyard. All who tried had failed the test, which was to be passed only by "the true-born king of all Britain." Merlin also tells of the enchantment cast upon the infant by the fairies of Avalon, the land of mystery. Arthur is to be the best of all knights and the greatest of all kings, and he will live "longer than any man shall ever know." As the people kneel to take an oath to their new sovereign, the archbishop places the crown upon his head.
An Age of ChivalryUnder Arthur's benevolent rule, Britain enjoys 12 years of peace, a time that sees the full flowering of chivalry. To his castle of Camelot, Arthur summons the brave and faithful knights of his realm - Launcelot, Gawain, Percivale, and many others - and seats them about an enormous round table with each of their names engraved in gold at his seat, or siege. Those thus seated are instructed by Merlin to shun murder, cruelty, and wickedness, to fly from treason, lying, and dishonesty, to grant mercy to those who ask it, and, above all, to respect and protect women. From Camelot the knights sally forth to fight dragons, giants, and cunning dwarfs, their encounters with the forces of evil usually taking place in haunted castles, dark forests, and enchanted gardens. Full of pride in their accomplishments, they return to tell their tales at court.
To Camelot, Arthur also brings the fair Guinevere to be his queen. When Launcelot is unable to resist his sinful passion for Guinevere, Arthur's nephew Mordred, the son of Morgana le Fay, exposes the lovers and forces Arthur to condemn his wife to a public burning. Launcelot rescues the queen and escapes with her to France. Before taking his army in pursuit of the couple, Arthur turns his kingdom over to Mordred, who uses the king's absence to stage a coup d'etat. Upon his return to England, Arthur meets Mordred in battle and runs his spear under his nephew's shield and through his body. But before Mordred dies, he gives the king a mortal wound.
Arthur's faithful supporters place the dying king in a boat that glides off through a white mist across the sea to Avalon. "Comfort yourself," Arthur calls out to his grief-stricken knights on the shore. "Be you sure that I will come again when the land of Britain has need of me."
Britain in the Time of ArthurKing Arthur is supposed to have reigned from the late 5th century to the early 6th, with dates for his final battle with Mordred given as 537 or 542. But what actually was the political situation in the island kingdom then? And who ruled there?
A century earlier the Romans had gradually withdrawn from the British colony they had ruled since the conquest of Julius Caesar in 54 B.C. - unable to withstand the invasion of barbarian Jutes, Angles, and Saxons from the European mainland and the pressure from the north of a tribe known as the Picts. In the unsettled times that followed, various warlords came forth to confront the invaders and fight among themselves. There is no record of a unified kingdom or a ruler with anything but local power. Christianity did not gain a toehold in England until the arrival of St. Augustine and his 40 monks in 597. For Britain and for much of Europe, this was the beginning of the Dark Ages.
If the Welsh monk Nennius can be believed, a warrior named Arthur - "together with the kings of the Britons" - led the resistance to the invaders. Writing his History of the Britons about the year 826, Nennius listed 12 battles in which Arthur vanquished the barbarians. In his last victory he personally slew 960 of the enemy.
Some 150 years after Nennius, an anonymous Welshman compiled a chronology of British history, Cambrian Annals For the year 537 he listed, "Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell." It is not difficult to read Mordred for Medraut. Yet another 150 years passed before Arthur was again mentioned by a historian and then it was but a tantalizing reference. Writing in 1125, the monk William of Malmesbury mentions a warlike Arthur, "about whom the Britons rave in empty words, but who, in truth, is worthy to be the subject, not of deceitful tales and dreams, but of true history; for he was long the prop of his tottering fatherland, and spurred the broken spirit of his countrymen on to war." It remained for a contemporary of William's to make Arthur a sovereign.
About 1139 a Welsh deacon and later bishop named Geoffrey of Monmouth completed his monumental History of the Kings of Britain, a sweeping survey of Britain's rulers from Roman times. To the works of such earlier historians as Nennius, Geoffrey added colorful details drawn from local tradition, Celtic and Scandinavian myths, and even biblical history. Two of Geoffrey's 12 books are devoted to Arthur, and in them appear for the first time the enchanter Merlin and the tales of Guinevere's abduction and Mordred's treachery. By embellishing the scanty historical record with imaginative events and introducing personages about whom nothing was really known, Geoffrey established a pattern that was followed for centuries - thus turning a 5th century warrior into a heroic king.
The Transformation of ArthurIn 1155 an Anglo Norman cleric known as Wace translated Geoffrey's narrative into French, making it a romance in which Arthur presides over his court as a hero of chivalry. Toward the end of the century the Anglo Saxon monk Layamon turned Geoffrey's Arthur into a fierce warrior and stern father figure. Both writers mentioned the round table. But it was probably the French poet Chretien de Troyes, writing between 1160 and 1180, who made Arthur an arbiter of courtesy and etiquette and a model of chivalry and courtly love. Early in the following century, two German epics based on the Arthur legend appeared: Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach and Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg.
The posthumously printed work of a 15th century Englishman, Sir Thomas Malory, is responsible for the final transformation of Arthur into an enduring literary figure. Malory condensed, adapted, and rearranged earlier materials into a more or less coherent narrative that introduced all the major figures and pivotal events now associated with the story of Arthur. Ever since it was published in 1485, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur ("The Death of Arthur") has been widely read and used as a source for other works by poets from Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene (1590-96) to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in Idylls of the King (1859-85). A 20th century version of the legend, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, served as the basis for the stage and motion picture musical Camelot.
Unearthing Arthur's CourtWith the story of Arthur so widespread and enduring, it was inevitable that scientists would eventually seek to strip away the literary adornments and establish the truth behind the legend. In 1965 the Camelot Research Committee was formed, its founders bristling at the suggestion that they would be turning up the round table or the Holy Grail. After five years of digging in Somerset, however, the committee's archaeologists identified the ruins of Cadbury Castle near Glastonbury as Camelot.
The hilltop site was fortified in pre-Roman times, chosen no doubt for its commanding view of the plains stretching to the Bristol Channel. Rubbish embedded in a wall above the original fort revealed that Cadbury Castle had continued in use during the centuries of Roman occupation. But the most exciting discovery for the Camelot researchers was pottery suggesting that the site had been used by a British chieftain about the year 500 - after the withdrawal of the Romans and before the Saxon conquest. His headquarters were a hall, 60 feet by 30 feet, of timber construction and probably having a thatch roof. If the chieftain was not the heroic Arthur of legend and literature, he at least was a Briton who strove to preserve Roman civilization against the onslaught of the barbarian invaders. The findings of the Camelot Research Committee were not accepted by the American scholar Norma Lorre Goodrich, who proposed that King Arthur ruled not in England but to the north, in Scotland. Her exhaustive literary research pointed to Stirling, northwest of Edinburgh, rather than Cadbury Castle, as the site of Camelot.
As for Arthur's vaunted chivalry, he reigned in a time of savage warfare in defense of territorial integrity and political independence. Chivalry was far in the future, in those more settled times when historians such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory could appraise their own more peaceful eras and impose their standards and values on an invented past. Yet it is their Arthur, not the obscure warrior of a tumultuous era, who lives. His glorious, never to be forgotten reign, in the words of one commentator, was a "brief period of light set like a star of heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages."