Arthur, the legendary British king of about the sixth century who held court at Camelot. A number of stories, collectively called the Arthurian legend, developed about feats of bravery and chivalry supposedly performed by either Arthur or his Knights of the Round Table. Arthur has inspired literary works for more than a thousand years.
According to legend, Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon, a Welsh chieftain. As a child, Arthur fulfilled a prophecy and demonstrated his right to the throne of England by easily withdrawing a sword from a stone (or anvil) in which it was embedded. The sword is sometimes called Excalibur, but in most versions of the legend this is the name of a sword he received later, from the Lady of the Lake. At the age of 15, Arthur became king. He established his court at Camelot and wed the beautiful princess Guinevere.
Arthur and his knights defeated Saxon invaders, gained control of all England, and undertook wars of foreign conquest. He was often aided by Merlin the magician. Modred, or Mordred, Arthur's nephew, attempted to seize the kingdom and in the ensuing battle was killed by the king. Arthur was mortally wounded himself and died on the island of Avalon.
The Arthurian legend also contains tales of Queen Guinevere and her adulterous romance with Sir Lancelot, of Sir Galahad's search for the Holy Grail, and of the tragic love of Tristan and Isolde.
Some historians doubt that Arthur existed, but most believe that he was a Welsh or Scottish military leader who fought against Saxon raiders early in the sixth century. Archeologists, in searching for evidence of the existence of Arthur, discovered a possible location for Camelot at South Cadbury, a village in southwestern England. In the 1960's early sixth-century remains were excavated on a hill surrounded by earthenwork defenses, indicating that it could have been the site of Arthur's headquarters. Other sites linked with the Arthurian legend are nearby, such as the ruins of Glastonbury abbey, where Arthur and Guinevere are said to have been buried.
Tales of Arthur's deeds probably originated in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany among Britons who fled from the Anglo-Saxons. The first known written reference to Arthur is the eighth-century Historia Britonum by the Welsh monk Nennius. Arthur is described as a war chief commanding the armies of the British kings against the invading Saxons. He defeated the invaders in 12 battles. The last and greatest was the battle of Mount Badon, about 518. According to the 10th-century Annales Cambriae, Arthur was killed at Camlan in 539.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in Historia Regum Britanniae (12th century), depicted Arthur as a romantic hero. Geoffrey's tale about Arthur was translated into French by Wace, a 12th-century poet. In Roman de Brut, Wace further elaborated on the Arthurian legend, introducing the Round Table. Layamon's Brut, a 13th-century English adaptation of Wace's poem, marked the first appearance of the legend in written English.
Stories and ballads of King Arthur and his knights were told and sung throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The collection of Welsh tales called the Mabinogion (first translated into English 1838-49) contains five stories of the Arthurian legend.
Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), in English prose despite its French title, was first published in 1485. It supplied source material for many other authors. The Italians Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso used Arthurian legends, as did the German Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Edmund Spenser's pictures of knightly courtesy in the Faerie Queene are drawn from tales of the Round Table. Their influence may be traced also in writings of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, and others. James Russell Lowell's The Vision of Sir Launfal is concerned with one of the knights of the Round Table. Mark Twain burlesqued the Camelot court in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1889) brought the legends widespread popularity.
T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone (1939), a novel about the boy King Arthur, was the basis of a Walt Disney animated cartoon feature of the same name (1963). White's The Once and Future King (1958) provided the theme for Camelot (1960), a musical play with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Lowe.