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.
Sections in this article:
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: English Literature to 1499