How King Arthur Worked

King Arthur Image Gallery King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, 1862 (stained glass). See more pictures of King Arthur.
William Morris/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

The name King Arthur conjures up a very specific image, thanks to his enduring presence in stories, novels, plays, movies and songs. In these, Arthur is a legendary hero and visionary leader who took control of Britain during a troubled time. The fictional king unites various regional British kings against common enemies and fights off countless invaders. He also goes on a quest for the Holy Grail, a chalice Jesus used at the Last Supper that's said to contain the secret of immortality. The story goes that when Britain is most in need of his services, Arthur will return.

There are certain consistencies in every Arthurian legend, but there are also many variations and complexities. For example, in some stories, Arthur pulls his sword, Excalibur, from a stone. In others, his sword was given to him by a mysterious woman who lives in a lake. The man said to be have led to Arthur's eventual downfall, Mordred, was supposedly his son by his half-sister Morgase. But other stories depict Mordred as Arthur's nephew. Which version or versions are right?

The short answer is that it depends on your definition of "right." Although King Arthur was ranked number 51 in a 2002 BBC poll of 100 Greatest Britons, historians and scholars continue to debate whether he existed at all [source: BBC News]. In the next section, we'll take a closer look at the basic Arthurian legend and its variations.