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Arthurian Legends 101: The Ultimate Guide

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The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table has long permeated our culture, it is one of the most rich mythologies out there.

Ironically, when I started researching King Arthur, I thought it would be less work to wrap my head around these legends then other mythologies.

Boy, was I wrong.

The Arthurian legends are some of the most complex and evolving stories I have ever come across. There are literally hundreds of sources, thousands of characters, and the number of books that have been written about King Arthur are practically endless.

Nevertheless, I have done my best to distill it all into the absolute essentials.

So let’s get into it.

Timelines and Guides

First, here are a few of the featured posts related to Arthurian legends, featuring my famous lists and timelines. Below that, you will find a complete list of all of the articles I have written on the subject.

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This is a complete list of Arthurian characters, featuring several thousand entries of Arthurian names and groups.

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This is a complete list of stories and tales relating to King Arthur. I’ve assembled them all as a timeline of hypothetical events.

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A complete list of Arthurian literature from the earliest days until the 19th century, including many international texts about King Arthur.

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Want a nice book to read that involves King Arthur and the knights of the round table? Have I got a list for you.

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A complete list of all the animals, beasts, and mythical creatures found in the Arthurian legends featuring King Arthur.

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As with many mythologies, the Arthurian Legends take place surrounding real locations. In fact, many think that some characters and events might have actually existed. This is our list of Arthurian locations that takes you to some of these possibilities.

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The Arthurian mythos is expansive and requires an insane amount of research to master. Fortunately, we’ve put together a list of resources to help you out. This is our list of the best Arthurian resources and reference books out there.

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The Arthurian Mythos has no shortage of magical and mythical items, not the least of which is the legendary Excalibur. This is our list of Arthurian artifacts.

Latest Entries

What Are Arthurian Legends?

Each Arthurian legend is a story about the character of King Arthur, or one of the surrounding characters such as Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, or Mordred.

The legend of King Arthur and his knights is a fundamental part of British mythology and English literature (not to mention many other languages), even though it is relatively recent in its conception.

It is a blend of Celtic Mythology, blended with medieval romance. King Arthur was the superhero of his time, the embodiment of a perfect king, surrounded by knights that exemplified all of the ideal chivalric values.

The only thing that could tear such beauty down, was a terrible betrayal from within, and deep fundamental flaws that blossomed into a catastrophe. It is both an inspiring and truly tragic story, and it is no wonder that these legends have persisted until today.

The Arthurian legends have grown and evolved over centuries, starting with inspirations that would be completely foreign to our view of King Arthur today. Every author took what came before and retold the story, making it their own, and what we have now is a composite of over a millennia of storytelling.

But let’s address the question that almost everyone asks first…

Is There Truth to the Legends?

Was King Arthur a real person? Did his knights actually exist? Was there a Camelot? An Avalon? Was any of it real?

The answer is: yes and no.

The answer is mostly no because everything we associate with King Arthur from him being a king, to most of the characters of the Round Table, to the sword Excalibur, etc. is all a fabrication. None of it ever existed.

However, there is some evidence to suggest that there was a man, of various disputed names, who rose up and became a hero during the Britonic fight against the Saxons. But this person would have looked much different than how we envision Arthur today. For example:

  • He would have been a war chief, not a king
  • There was no Round Table or Knights of the Round Table (this was a much later literary addition)
  • Characters like Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, etc. are all literary inventions (although there is some evidence for certain other characters, such as Merlin, but they would have been quite different than we imagine today)
  • If Camelot existed, it would have been a hillfort, not a castle

You get the idea.

A better question to ask is: what is the origin of the myth? Because whether Arthur was real or not, the myths had to have an origin.

In truth, the Arthur legends are a composite story, coming from many authors over the centuries. One author would introduce the concept of Arthur as a king, then another would introduce the element of the Round Table, and yet another would introduce the sword Excalibur, etc.

So while there might be some origins in reality, most of what we think of today as the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, is a purely mythical fabrication.

Thankfully, this makes it no less enjoyable!

Read more about the historicity of Arthur here:

Prominent King Arthur Stories

Of the many individual stories involving King Arthur (and there are hundreds), there are a few that stand out, including:

  • The Sword in the Stone:the classic origin story when King Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, confirming that he is the rightful king of all England.
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the most prominent standalone story to involve a character other than Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a beautiful poem about Sir Gawain as he is tested by a mysterious lord and lady, demonstrating his idyllic chivalry in the face of temptation.
  • The Lady of Shallot: this comes from a relatively newer, but classic poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, in which a lady is cursed for looking out her window when she catches sight of Lancelot in her mirror.
  • Tristan and Iseult:though only tangentially related to King Arthur, the story of Tristan and Iseult is a tragic romance. Iseult is married to Tristan’s uncle, King Mark, and the story is very similar to the Lancelot and Guinevere affair.
  • The Quest for the Holy Grail: long before it was a series of Monty Python sketches, the quest for the Holy Grail was an epic series of adventures by multiple knights as they tried to find the Cup of Christ. Many tried, most failed, but a few succeeded in finding it.
  • The Death of Arthur: following Lancelot and Guinevere’s betrayal, Arthur is attacked by Mordred, knights turn against each other, and Arthur ultimately suffers a fatal blow.

You can learn more about these and other Arthurian tales here:

King Arthur and Other Characters

Next, let’s examine some of the key figures in the Arthurian legends:

  • King Arthur: King Arthur is the most prominent character. He is a king that ushers in a golden age for all of Britain, starting from the time that he pulled the sword from the stone, and ending with his death by his son, Mordred.
  • Merlin: Merlin, who may have actually been based on a real person, is the magician/advisor to King Arthur. He helps to raise and educate Arthur, and was responsible for placing the sword in the stone.
  • Lancelot: Sir Lancelot is Arthur’s best knight, with the greatest strength, and perfect skill. He starts out with a pure heart, but slowly degrades as he engages in an affair with Guinevere. Only one person is able to succeed where he failed: his son, Galahad.
  • Guinevere: the wife of King Arthur, and the love of his life, Queen Guinevere eventually betrays Arthur, together with Lancelot, which ultimately leads to the downfall of Camelot.
  • Gawain: besides Lancelot, Gawain is probably the most important and famous Knight of the Round Table. He takes part in several solo adventures, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
  • Morgan le Fay: Morgan is the sister of King Arthur, and an enchantress. In earlier legends, she is a benevolent enchantress from Avalon, but as the legends grew, she eventually became a villain.
  • Mordred: in earlier myths, Mordred is King Arthur’s son by Morgause (not Morgan le Fay or Morgana, as she would later be called). He is the product of incest, and eventually orchestrates the downfall of Camelot and the death of his father.

There are so many more I could mention, like the Fisher King, King Lot, Sir Kay, Sir Percival, King Uther Pendragon, and more, but the above are definitely the most prominent.

You can learn more about all the different Arthurian characters here:

Arthurian Sources

There are literally hundreds of texts that at least mention Arthur in some way, but here are a few of the most important, the ones that shaped the myths going forward:

  • History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) was the first time that any author collected the folklore of Arthur and created an epic narrative with it. This book was a huge bestseller at its time, and the first time that the legend of King Arthur began to be spread worldwide.
  • The Works of Chrétien de Troyes: Chrétien was a French author who gave us much of the Arthurian Romance that we know today. He is responsible for inventing the character of Lancelot, suggesting the affair with Guinevere, and potentially giving us the Holy Grail narrative.
  • The Vulgate Cycle: in the early 13th century, one or many authors took all of the various legends and condense them into one enormous version of the story. This became known as The Vulgate Cycle, and it served as the primary inspiration for many authors to come, including our next entry on this list…
  • Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory: this is by far the most important version of the King Arthur myths, at least in terms of the effect it has had on our modern perception of the character. Most of what we think of when we imagine King Arthur and the Knights of the round table, comes from this work. It was based on The Vulgate Cycle, and was written during the War of the Roses. It has since received enormous acclaim, and remains the most influential version of the King Arthur tales to this day.

You can learn more about the primary sources of Arthurian Literature here:

Famous Arthurian Artifacts

Talk of King Arthur is not complete without a mention of some of these famous objects:

  • Excalibur: this is the famous sword that Arthur retrieved from the Lady of the Lake. He carried it into battle multiple times, and it was given back to the Lady of the Lake upon his death. Note, this is not the same sword as the one that Arthur pulled from the stone.
  • The Holy Grail: this famous chalice was the cup that caught the blood of Christ at his crucifixion, and is one of the more prominent macguffins in the Arthurian story. Many knights tried to find it, but only a few ever managed to see it.
  • The Round Table: Arthur had a famous Round Table where he and his knights would sit, so that none of them sat at the head of the table. While this was a later invention, it is one of the most well-known today.
  • The Siege Perilous: this was a famous chair at the Round Table that no knight was allowed to sit in, save one who was pure of heart. Only Galahad ever managed to sit in it and survive.

You can learn more about these artifacts and others here:

Arthurian Creatures

There are not many unique beasts or creatures in the stories of King Arthur, but here are a few that pop up from time to time:

  • The Questing Beast: this is a unique creature with the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the legs of a lion, and the feet of a deer. It is said to appear to those who have committed great sexual sin.
  • The White Stag: while not unique to the Arthurian legends, a White stag often appears in various stories, and is often the inciting incident that leads to an adventure later on.

Arthurian Legends in Popular Culture

In addition to many famous stories throughout the centuries, King Arthur has become an integral part of our pop culture. Here are a few modern examples of the Arthurian myths in action:

  • The Once and Future King, by T. H. White: of all the stories told in the last century, this is perhaps the most influential. It gave us the concept of Merlin aging backwards, Arthur establishing a democratic system of justice, and more. The Disney animated Sword in the Stone movie was based on this book, as was the musical Camelot.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): while being extremely low budget, and completely over the top, Monty Python and the Holy Grail actually gets a lot right about the spirit of the Arthurian tale. Plus, it is one of the most hilarious things you will ever see.
  • Excalibur (1981): the film, Excalibur, by John Boorman is one of the few films to attempt an adaptation of Le Morte d’Arthur and get it right. It is a faithful adaptation, albeit a bit rushed, and one of the most influential modern adaptations of the myth.
  • Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1982): this book is a reimagining of the Arthur myths from a feminist point of view, focusing more on the character of Morgan and her story. It is a beautiful and rich adaptation of the Arthurian myth.
  • Merlin (2008): while not exactly a faithful adaptation of the Arthurian legend, Merlin is an enjoyable show overall. It features a young Merlin, and shows his relationship with a young Arthur as they grow older. The show certainly did a lot to revitalize interest in Arthurian legends.

While there have been many more adaptations, including a few recent films, we have selected the most influential here.

You can learn more about King Arthur in pop culture at this link:

Where to Learn More

There are so many resources to learn more about the King Arthur story. In addition to this website, which I encourage you to poke around in, I have assembled another list of resources here:

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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.