Arthur

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Arthurian legend

Arthurian legend, the mass of legend, popular in medieval lore, concerning King Arthur of Britain and his knights.

Medieval Sources

The battle of Mt. Badon—in which, according to the Annales Cambriae (c.1150), Arthur carried the Cross of Jesus on his shoulders—but not Arthur's name, is mentioned (c.540) by Gildas. The earliest apparent mention of Arthur in any known literature is a brief reference to a mighty warrior in the Welsh poem Gododdin (c.600). Arthur next appears in Nennius (c.800) as a Celtic warrior who fought (c.600) 12 victorious battles against the Saxon invaders.

These and several subsequent references indicate that his legend had already developed into a considerable literature before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia (c.1135), in which he elaborated on the feats of King Arthur whom he represented as the conqueror of Western Europe. After Geoffrey's Historia came Wace's Roman de Brut (c.1155), which infused the legend with the spirit of chivalric romance. The Brut (c.1200) of Layamon, modeled on Wace's work, gives one of the best pictures of Arthur as a national hero.

Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th-century French poet, wrote five romances dealing with the knights of Arthur's court. His Perceval contains the earliest extant literary version of the quest of the Holy Grail (see Grail, Holy). Two medieval German poets important in the development of Arthurian legend are Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg. The latter's Tristan was the first great literary treatment of the Tristram and Isolde story.

After 1225 no significant medieval Arthurian literature was produced on the Continent. In England, however, the legend continued to flourish. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1370), one of the best Middle English romances, embodies the ideal of chivalric knighthood. The last important medieval work dealing with the Arthurian legend is the Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory, whose tales have become the source for most subsequent Arthurian material. Many writers have used Arthurian themes since Malory, notably Tennyson in his Idylls of the King. Swinburne, William Morris, and Edwin Arlington Robinson also wrote poetic works based on the legend. T. H. White's trilogy The Once and Future King (1958) is a charming and decidedly 20th-century retelling of the Arthurian story.

The Link to Celtic Mythology

Formerly, it was thought that the Arthurian legend was the work of several inventive poets and romancers of the Middle Ages. The generally accepted theory now is that Arthurian legend developed out of stories of Celtic mythology. The most archaic form in which these occur in British sources is the Welsh Mabinogion, but much of Irish mythology is palpably identical with Arthurian romance.

It is probable that traditional Irish hero stories fused in Britain with those of the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Celts of North Britain. The resultant legend with its hero, Arthur, was transmitted to their Breton cousins on the Continent probably by the year 1000. The Bretons, famous as wandering minstrels, followed Norman armies over Western Europe and used the legend's stories for their repertory. By 1100, therefore, Arthurian stories were well known even in Italy.

The Story

Although there are innumerable variations of the Arthurian legend, the basic story has remained the same. Arthur was the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, and Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall. After the death of Uther, Arthur, who had been reared in secrecy, won acknowledgment as king of Britain by successfully withdrawing a sword from a stone. Merlin, the court magician, then revealed the new king's parentage. Arthur, reigning in his court at Camelot, proved to be a noble king and a mighty warrior. He was the possessor of the miraculous sword Excalibur, given to him by the mysterious Lady of the Lake.

Of Arthur's several enemies, the most treacherous were his sister Morgan le Fay and his nephew Mordred. Morgan le Fay was usually represented as an evil sorceress, scheming to win Arthur's throne for herself and her lover. Mordred (or Modred) was variously Arthur's nephew or his son by his sister Morgawse. He seized Arthur's throne during the king's absence. Later he was slain in battle by Arthur, but not before he had fatally wounded the king. Arthur was borne away to the isle of Avalon, where it was expected that he would be healed of his wounds and that he would someday return to his people.

Two of the most invincible knights in Arthur's realm were Sir Tristram and Sir Launcelot of the Lake. Both of them, however, were involved in illicit and tragic love unions—Tristram with Isolde, the queen of Tristram's uncle, King Mark; Launcelot with Guinevere, the queen of his sovereign, King Arthur. Other knights of importance include the naive Sir Pelleas, who fell helplessly in love with the heartless Ettarre (or Ettard) and Sir Gawain, Arthur's nephew, who appeared variously as the ideal of knightly courtesy and as the bitter enemy of Launcelot.

Also significant are Sir Balin and Sir Balan, two devoted brothers who unwittingly slew one another; Sir Galahad, Launcelot's son, who was the hero of the quest for the Holy Grail; Sir Kay, Arthur's villainous foster brother; Sir Percivale (or Parsifal); Sir Gareth; Sir Geraint; Sir Bedivere; and other knights of the Round Table. To modern readers, Arthurian legend has become the mirror of the ideal of medieval knighthood and chivalry.

Bibliography

See studies by R. H. Fletcher (2d ed. 1966), R. L. Loomis (1949; 1956; 1927, repr. 1969; 1963, repr. 1970), L. Alcock (1972), J. Morris (1973), and R. W. Barber (1973); J. L. Weston, tr., Arthurian Romances Unrepresented in Malory's Morte d'Arthur (8 vol., 1907; repr. 1971); N. J. Lacy et al., ed., The Arthurian Encyclopedia (1987); E. Archibald and A. Putter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legends (2009).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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Engraving depicting the death of King Arthur, based on an 1869 painting by Joseph Noel Patton. Fortean Picture Library.

Arthur

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table can be read on many levels. They are, at the very least, entertaining adventure tales. On a deeper level, they are a rich mythological source, examining the depths of human nature from ancient Celtic myth to medieval Christian values. Certainly there are those who read them to discover more about what was going in the historical period in which they were written. But fascinating insights can also be derived by reading them from a religious perspective.

Arthur is portrayed as a hinge between two worlds. Assisted by the wizard Merlin, who is perhaps a Druid, Arthur stands as the last of the pagan kings, but with a foot in the Christian world as well. Seen in this light, the Arthurian legend is the story of all the gods becoming one God, of pagan Europe being transformed to Christianity. When young Arthur draws Excalibur from the stone, he is freeing the source of magic from the dark, hard places of the earth and exposing them to work in the air and light of day. He never really becomes a Christian, however, so at his death the sword, having done its work, is returned to the Lady of the Lake, the goddess. The sword is represented now by the many pagan customs "baptized" or adapted and wielded by Christianity. Easter celebrations, bunnies and eggs, Christmas trees and lights— all are examples of Excalibur, still flashing in the light of triumphant Christianity. But rest assured, the legend reminds us, that when the male God of Christianity has done his work, the sword will be returned to its rightful owner, the goddess, who has been the real source of power all along.

In the fifth century, Rome was pressured to draw its legions back from England to protect itself from the Barbarian hordes nipping away at its borders. The Pax Romana, or Peace of Rome, was removed. It had been a peace enforced by the sword, but a peace nevertheless. The crust of Roman civilization in Britain began to crumble under invasion from without and rebellion from within. Christianity had been the official religion of Rome, but it had never managed to eliminate the pagan religion that had been at the heart of the people of Britain, who now looked for protection so they could plow their fields and support their families. They needed leadership. But they were also searching for spiritual nourishment. Many had adopted the new religion but would not forsake the old. The shrines of roadside gods still held peasant offerings. Christian bishops battled pagan priests for the soul of Britain, and both needed political protection from Saxon ships pillaging their shores.

This is the drama into which Arthur, if he ever lived at all, was born. His birth and ascension were magical. Merlin, the mysterious, shadowy background figure, seems to be at home in both mystical Avalon and the castle of Camelot, a Druid who has elements of Mithras, the soldier's god, and Christ. He is, of course, suspected by all and accepted by none but Arthur, but his magic and insight guide the young king to establish, for a short time, an empire open to all.

By the time of the Middle Ages the stories take on a distinctly Christian aura with the Grail legends. The Holy Grail was the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Brought to England, some say by angels, others by Joseph of Arimathea, it was hidden away, to be found only by the pure of heart.

At this point it is important to remember that the Grail legend predates Christianity by centuries. Celtic lore refers to several magic cauldrons that heroes undergo quests to find. It was another pagan myth that, like the Christmas tree, the Easter bunny, and the Yule Log, was "baptized" by the church to incorporate pagan customs the people refused to abandon.

But to study the Grail legends is to delve into the very heart of religion and human psychology. Galahad, who achieved the quest, becomes a study of purity and noble purpose. Thirteenth-century German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival discovers the Fisher King (keeper of the Holy Grail), drinks from the Grail, and becomes the Grail King himself. When he is baptized by its water, an inscription appears on the cup: "If any member of this community should, by the grace of God, become the ruler of an alien people, let him see to it that they are given their rights."

Joseph Campbell believes this to be the first time in history that such a thought was expressed. The idea that a king must rule in the name of his people, rather than in his own name, didn't come to fruition until the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

When Parzival meets a hermit he is told, "You, through your tenacity of purpose, have changed God's law." The idea of a human being wrestling with God and winning is new to Christianity, although the Hebrew Bible tells the story going back all the way to Jacob in the book of Genesis.

We see here the concept of evolving religion. Paganism is enveloped by Christianity. Christianity adapts to the importance of the individual over the divine right of feudal lords.

This idea is captured beautifully by Mary Stewart in her recent series of books based on the legend of Merlin. In the final scene of The Hollow Hills, Arthur has drawn the sword from the stone and Merlin is left alone where magic fire has scoured the pagan altar. Merlin speaks:

I carried the nine lamps out of the chapel. Come daylight, I would take them where they now belonged, up to the caves of the hollow hills, where their gods had gone... my sight blurred and darkened as if still blind with vision, or with tears.... The tears showed me the altar now, bare of the nine-fold light that had pleasured the old, small gods; bare of the soldier's sword and the name of the soldier's god. All it held now was the hilt of the sword standing in the stone like a cross, and the letters still deep and distinct above it: TO HIM UNCONQUERED.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.

Arthur

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Arthur, asteroid 2,597 (the 2,597th asteroid to be discovered, on August 8, 1980), is approximately 20 kilometers in diameter and has an orbital period of 5.2 years. Arthur was named after the semi-mythic king of England. The Celtic artos means “bear.” According to J. Lee Lehman, the person in whose natal chart this asteroid is prominent is a “hero who presides. The heroic nature of this asteroid comes from properly executing the duty of assigning someone else the job of the quest.” Jacob Schwartz gives the astrological significance of Arthur as “heroism and cleverness, and delegating authority, with support from the public.”

Sources:

Kowal, Charles T. Asteroids: Their Nature and Utilization. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Ellis Horwood Limited, 1988.
Lehman, J. Lee. The Ultimate Asteroid Book. West Chester, PA: Whitford Press, 1988.
Schwartz, Jacob. Asteroid Name Encyclopedia. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.
The Astrology Book, Second Edition © 2003 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.

Arthur

king and hero of Scotland, Wales, and England. [Arthurian Legend: Parrinder, 28]
See: Heroism
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Arthur

1. a legendary king of the Britons in the sixth century ad, who led Celtic resistance against the Saxons: possibly based on a historical figure; represented as leader of the Knights of the Round Table at Camelot
2. Chester Alan. 1830--86, 21st president of the US (1881--85)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Pagan King Arthur Pendragon - formerly known John Rothwell - set up camp on the edge of the site in June 2008 and had until 4pm yesterday to leave after a court issued an eviction order.
LIFE AND TIMES: Arthur Pendragon appeared at Spellbound Gifts in Nuneaton to sign copies of his biography with his co-writer, Christopher James Stone.
Mr Carter was assisted in court by another veteran campaigner, King Arthur Pendragon, who sat beside him in a white robe and was visibly emotional after the judge's ruling.
As a pagan, King Arthur Pendragon, who changed his name from John Rothwell, said he would not swear on the Bible or religious texts.
Morgan is joined by rising star Bradley James, who plays the young Arthur Pendragon, long before he took the sword from the stone and became King.
Druid King Arthur Pendragon, 51, led "warriors" - students from East London - in a dance to honour Mother Nature.
Acting as his legal adviser during the short hearing at Portsmouth Magistrates yesterday was chief druid King Arthur Pendragon, sword-bearer of Britain.
Yesterday, dressed in flowing white robes and green velvet cloak, Arthur Pendragon appeared in court charged with possessing a sword and a dagger.