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Arthurian Legends A to Z

The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have excited the minds of generations and inspired great works of art by artists of different countries and epochs. They are well-known all over the globe and have become part of popular culture (like the latest bestseller by Dan Brown "The DaVinci Code" employing the myth of the Holy Grail).

 

Why is King Arthur's Myth so vivid and appealing? The answers are different but not ultimate: perhaps because the King and his valiant knights embodied the chivalric values of bravery and loyalty, or because they were good Christians. Perhaps because the stories are full of mystery and magic or because the Camelot brotherhood represented a perfect nation.

 

Before you find  the answer for yourself, have a look into the basic guide to Arthurian legends.

 

A

 

ARTHUR - legendary king of the Britons in the 5th century or, perhaps a minor Welsh freedom fighter; symbol of chivalric virtues, the ultimate saviour of Britain if the country is in  peril

AVALON - the land of the dead, the place to which king Arthur was taken after his death.

 

B

 

Sir BEDIVERE - the last knight, the only one who was by Arthur’s side after the last battle (the Battle of Camlann). Arthur asked him to return his sword, Exaclibur to the lake, which he was reluctant to do

Sir BORS - a pure and modest knight of the Round Table He survived the Battle of Camlann and later travelled to the Holy Land where he took part in the Crusades.

 

C

 

CAMELOT - Arthur’s royal castle. Numerous sites are suggested as possible locations of Camelot, among others: Viriconium in Shropshire, Caerlon in Wales, Chester or Winchester.

CODE OF CHIVALRY - set of rules specifying an ideal of knightly conduct. Knights had to be brave and skilful in battle, modest and generous towards other men, gentle and courteous towards their ladies, loyal to the sovereign, honourable in their deeds, displaying endurance against adversities and discreet in love.

                            These ideals were later adopted by the medieval Crusaders.

CAMLANN - the site of the last battle in which King Arthur died after he had struck the fatal blow to the traitor, Sir Mordred

 

D

 

DOZMARY POOL - a lake on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, supposedly the legendary lake into which Sir Bedivere cast Excalibur, King Arthur’s enchanted sword

 

E

 

ELAINE - the legends of the Round Table mention two Elaines: Elaine of Astalot and Elaine of Corbenic. Both were romantically involved with Sir Launcelot The latter one was to become the mother of Sir Galahad.

 

F

 

the FISHER KING - keeper of the Grail. Bran, a hero of Welsh legend is suggested to be the Fisher King. His castle may be Castell Dinas Bran, at Llangollen, in Clwyd (Wales).

 

G

 

Sir GALAHAD - son of Sir Launcelot and Elaine of Corbenic. Distinguished for his purity. He succeeded in the adventures of the Siege Perilous and the Holy Grail.

Sir GAWAIN - the son of King Lot of Orkney. Best known from the legend “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” where he is a noble hero undergoing a test of faith.

GLASTONBURY - a place in Somerset, UK. Claimed to be Arthur’s burial place.

 

H

 

HOLY GRAIL - according to legend, a chalice from the Last Supper into which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion. Another legend says that Joseph brought it to Glastonbury. It had such a powerful religious significance for the Christian Knights of the Round Table that it became the main motif of the Arthurian stories.

 

I

 

IDYLLS OF THE KING - a series of poems by Alfred Tennyson published between 1859 and 1885. They present the story of Arthur, of the Round Table fellowship and of its failure under the spreading influence of evil, caused by the sin of Launcelot and Guinevere.

ISEULT - (or Isolde) the Irish Princess who was to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Tristan, King Mark’s nephew, was sent to Ireland to bring the bride-to-be. By mistake they drank a love potion to be given to King Mark and Iseult to ensure their happy marriage and they fell passionately in love. When the King discovered their secret, Tristan joined the Round Table fellowship.

 

J

 

JOYOUS GARD - the name of Sir Launcelot’s Castle. Malory speculated it may have been either Bamburgh or Alnwick Castle in north-eastern England.

 

K

 

KAY - Arthur’s foster brother, his boyhood companion, later his faithful and lifelong servant.

 

L

 

Sir LAUNCELOT du LAC -the most famous of King Arthur’s Knights. The son of King Ban of Benwick, the lover of Guinevere and the father of Galahad. His disloyalty to the King eventually led to the downfall and destruction of Arthur’s Kingdom. Still he enjoyed the reputation of a fearless and bold knight.

LADY OF SHALOTT - published in 1852. A poem by Alfred Tennyson included in the „Idylls of the King”. Also a famous painting by J. W. Waterhouse

LADY OF THE LAKE - a supernatural character in the Arthurian legends. She is one of the three queens in the ship in which Arthur is taken to be healed of  his wounds.

                            Sir Launcelot was brought up by her in her underwater kingdom.

LYONESSE - Tristan was a prince of Lyonesse, which was flooded by Merlin to drown Mordred’s knights when they followed Arthur’s army after the battle of Camlann. St Michael’s Mount, off the Cornish coast is said to be part of the legendary kingdom of Lyonesse, which extended as far as the Isles of Scilly.

 

M

 

MERLIN - a good wizard whose magic and advice helped King Arthur. He was the son of an incubus (a malevolent male spirit) and a mortal woman, and therefore he was indestructible Eventually he was entrapped by Vivien, the Lady of the Lake, and bound under a rock for ever. He was famous for his prophecies: he warned Arthur that marrying Guinevere could be disastrous for the kingdom.

Sir MORDRED - (also Modred); the nephew of King Arthur, the son of Lot, king of Norway and Arthur’s sister (other sources claim he was the fruit of a brief liason between Arthur and his half-sister). He disclosed the secret affair betwwe Launcelot and the Queen to Arthur, and when the latter pursued Launceulot Mordred traitorously seized the kingdom and Guinevere. Eventually, he was killed by Arthur in the final battle.

MORGAN le FAY - Arthur’s half-sister by the same mother. She studied magic under Merlin’s guidance. She possessed the powers of healing, the abilities of changing shape and of flight and was more beautiful and skilful than any of her sisters. Her influence with time became more and more harmful.

MALORY, Sir Thomas - (d. 1471), author of “Le Morte Darthur”. He wrote most of the manuscript to keep himself occupied while in prison.

 

N

 

NENNIUS - (8th /9th  century) - the traditional author of the “Historia Britonum”, one of the sources of our knowledge about Arthur. He names 12 battles to which Arthur led the Britons against the Saxons.

 

O

 

ORIGINS of Arthurian legends - they date back to the times between the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the barbaric invasions of Britain. Arthur was the king who saved Britain against the Saxon invaders and established the kingdom in which the values of chivalry, goodness and perfect love dominated. The first mention of him can be traced back to such remote times as ca. 540 in Gildas’ “De Excidio Britanniae” or theWelsh elegy of around 600 entitled “Gododdin”.

 

P

 

Sir PERCEVAL (or Parsifal) - a knight who together with Bors and Galahad went in quest of the Holy Grail. He was so naive that he was commonly named „The Perfect Fool”. His bashfulness did not let him ask the right questions of the warden of the Grail castle and the Fisher King was not healed.

 

Q

 

QUEST of the HOLY GRAIL - the story of the Quest of the Holy Grail was developed after the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslim leader Saladin in 1187. The Crusades mirrored the Grail Quest. The Knights Templar who protected the pilgrims on the road to the Holy City of Jerusalem perceived themselves as the Keepers of the Grail and their surcoats with a red cross resembled Galahad’s shield. The great medieval warriors like Richard the Lionheart resembled Arthur’s knights. Richard is said to have given his sword (supposedly Arthur’s sword) to Tancred, the ruler of Sicily.

 

QUEEN GUINEVERE - King Arthur’s Queen. She had an affair with Sir Launcelot, which led to the destruction of the Round Table fellowship. In Malory’s epic poem she survives Arthur’s death and enters a nunnery

 

R

 

ROUND TABLE - came with Queen Ginevere as part of her dowry. Its roundness was in “the likeness of the world”. It could seat more than 100 knights who were equal in status. Merlin found 50 outstanding and pious knights. 50 more were from Leodegrance (Guinevere’s father, king of Cameliard). They sat together for the first time at the wedding feast of Arthur and Guinevere. This is how the fellowship of the Round Table started. Another version says that the Table was made by Merlin and given to Uther Pendragon. Uther Pendragon, in turn, gave it together with 100 knights to his son as a wedding gift.

 

S

 

STONEHENGE - a magic place on Salisbury Plain. The stones there are said to have been placed by Merlin as a memorial to valiant warriors.

 

the SIEGE PERILOUS - a seat at the Round Table reserved for the knight who would achieve the Quest of the Grail.

 

T

 

TRISTRAM -  the story of his love to Iseult is probably earlier than that about Arthur and Guinevere and has its source in French literature.

The son of the king of Lyonesses, a skilful hunter and harper. The story of his love is described under ISEULT. But there was also another Iseult in his life whom he married. However, it was the first Iseult, that of Ireland, who died by his side.

 

TENNYSON, Alfred (1809-92) - an English poet, author of “The Idylls of the King” and “The Lady of Shalott” who used the medieval myth of King Arthur to show the decline of civilisation.

 

U

 

UTHER PENDRAGON -  king of the Britons and father of Arthur.  In Welsh, “Pendragon”  means “”chief leader in war”.

 

 

V

 

VIRICONIUM - said to be the true capital of Arthur’s kingdom. It used to be a Roman city. Now, only ruins are left. It is located close to Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

 

VIVIEN - the name given to Lady of the Lake. Other names given to her are Nimue and some identify her with Morgan le Fay. Sometimes she is presented as a helpful character and sometimes as malicious. Merlin fell in love with Vivien and she imprisoned him so as to keep him forever.

 

 

W

 

WAGNER Richard - (1813 -83) German composer. Parsifal was his last opera staged in 1882.

 

WACE, Robert - (12th century) - Anglo-Norman poet, author of Le Roman de Brut

 

X

 

EXCALIBUR - the sword which a 15-year old Arthur drew out of the stone. Nobody before him was able to accomplish it. This deed gave him royal power over 30 kingdoms.

 

Y

 

YANKEE - “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, (1889) a comic novel by Mark Twain describing adventures of an American who was moved in time to King Arthur’s times.

Z

 

ZEST - a feeling of pleasure excitement and interest (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary) that you feel when exploring the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.


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