Essay: Arthurian Legend

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  • Subject area(s): History
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  • Published on: 10th June 2012
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Arthurian Legend

One of the most intriguing factors of the Arthur legend is none other than his queen Guinevere. When tales of Arthur first emerged, she was a loving, noble, and faithful wife. As time went on her reputation diminished. In recent stories she has become the heart of the problems at Camelot. Her infidelity is renowned, her many affairs the highlight of her existence and the reason for her involvement in the legend at all. De Troyes was the first to introduce the famous love triangle between Guinevere, Arthur, and his champion Lancelot. Though different stories disagree about the origin of her appearance, whether she was first betrothed to Lancelot, and then married by the king himself, or started as the King's wife and cheated on him with Lancelot, almost all of them include this scandal. They say that this was the beginning of the downfall of Camelot. Her infidelity, and the King's inability to control her led to theories of undermined authority throughout the many Knights of the Round Table.
Guinevere becomes the scapegoat. Who better than a classic femme fatale character to blame Camelot's problems on. The legend emerged in a man's world, women always the evil. She meddles and seduces and gets in the way of the ideals and situations Camelot is involved in. The woman became a representation of the faults of women, and the reason that men may be led astray from their duties. It is shown that she is completely in the wrong, that it is all her fault, the actions of both Arthur and Lancelot, and whichever other men, are irrelevant; only the woman is at fault.
Merlin is also a huge component of Arthurian legend. In some ways, his fame has surpassed that of Arthur's. In the legend itself, this is true, everyone knows of the sorcerer Merlin. He was created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his early writings. In different eras and different stories, Merlin's image changes. When wisdom directly correlated to age, Merlin was depicted as an old, wizened man, with wrinkles and a long white beard. In others, immortality was popular and he is shown to never exceed his middle ages, looking roughly 35 for centuries. In more recent times, youth can beckon towards innovation, and Merlin is a young boy ever developing his powers.
The most accepted theory about Merlin's origin is that of him being a collection of prophets and bards famous at the time. He is most commonly associated with Myrddin and the chronicler Nennius. As time went on though, and the world changed, his powers grew far more vast than simple prophecy. In some mediums, he can conjure flame and heal others and plenty more.
Since the creation of the great sorcerer, Arthurian legend has grown to place Merlin as the sole man responsible for both Arthur's conception and his long lasting reign. It is said that Arthur was conceived while his mother Igraine was still married to the Duke of Cornwall. Uther requested that Merlin change his own face to that of the Duke, so he may have Igraine for a night. After his birth, Arthur was ushered to a small farming family and told to grow up there. Igraine was forbidden to search for her son. When Arthur reached the age of 20, Merlin went to fetch him from Ector (his adopted parents) and bring him back into the royal fold, where he would begin his reign.
The other most curious aspect of Merlin is the legend some stories claim he concocted himself, within the Arthur legend. That legend is the famous Sword in the Stone. Within the story itself, Arthur and Igraine uncover that Merlin himself must have placed the sword there and created the famous story, hoping that one like Arthur might come along. Merlin alone knows how to pull the sword from that stone and when Arthur came of age, he passed on the knowledge and the prophecy of the future king was fulfilled.

Perhaps Arthur's most famous accomplishment is known as the Knights of the Round Table. In most stories, in fact, the Knights were nearly more prominent than the King himself, as they are portrayed mostly as the heroes. The big three and most powerful of the Knights are Sir Bedivere, Sir Gawain, and Sir Kay, who is later surpassed by Sir Lancelot. The number of Knights differ from source to source, ever expanding. Historians have deduced that the Table seems to have started with 50 seats or so, then found evidence in Malory's text that the Table had near 150 seats, then grow to an unlikely number such has 1600 in even more recent stories.
Many of the Knights of the Round Table were only mentioned in passing, though a few names seem more prominent than others because of their frequent mention and more obvious collection of information we have on them today. King Arthur presided over these men as the head of Knights. The other were known as Balan, Balin, Bedivere, Galahad, Gareth, Geraint, Gawain, Kay, Lancelot, Meleagant, Percival, Yvain (sometimes known as Owain or Owen) and Tristan.
Excalibur: the legendary sword of King Arthur. It was originally mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouths story 'The History of the Kings of Britain'. In this account, the sword was called Caliburn, crafted on the Isle of Avalon. Robert de Boron (1200) wrote into his story the character Merlin, and Caliburn was forever more known as Excalibur. De Boron invented Excalibur as the famous Sword in the Stone, which in turn gave Arthur the credit and recognition of being the true King of Britain and heir to the throne of King Uther Pendragon. From this stemmed many more speculations of Arthur's arms. There was now introduced the sword given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake (known sometimes as Avalon's ruler or the educator of Lancelot or Merlin's true love and apprentice, until of course her own powers surpassed his. The Lady is known through every story however, as the one to give Arthur his beloved and famous sword, and then taking it back when Bedivere threw it back into the lake); this sword coming to be known as Excalibur. The stone sword and the Lady's sword are two different ones. King Arthur used the Lady's sword in actual combat, while the stone's sword was merely ornamental, proof of Arthur's valor and position in Britain. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin, Excalibur was given to Arthur through an outstretched hand, one rising from a lake. This blade could cut through anything in its path and was said to have made the wearer invincible.
Lately, it has come to researchers attention that the Sword in the Stone might be in fact nothing more than an error in translation of early texts. The Latin word for stone is 'saxo' and the Germanic invaders that Arthur fought against were the Saxon. There is speculation that the original story included no stone, only Arthur killing a Saxon leader and pulling the victorious sword from the dead warriors body. It might very well be that in copying down the story, the scribe just forgot and missed the last letter in Saxon.
The story teller Nennius (AD 796) has it said that King Arthur fought in twelve courageous and major battles. Nennius, the Easter Annals and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle points to the several places these battles were geographically fought but most of these locations are up for serious debate.

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