The Legends about King Arthur

In the Middle Ages there was great interest in romantic stories. A certain idea of individualism appeared in the romances when a knight was opposed to the society. The noble knight wandered in the woods and then retired to a lonely castle to live and die there.

The name of King Arthur became important as a figure from the dark past who fought against the Anglo-Saxons in Britain between the 5th 7lh centuries. His name was mentioned in the 10th century by Nennius, a historian. By the 12th century the legends had been mixed with the romantic ideas and myths. The stories of King Arthur were told in the South-West England where the Celts were driven by the Anglo-Saxons. In the Middle Ages writers described the knights and ladies of King Arthur’s court. The name of King Arthur later became a symbol of English history for many years.

Characters, such as the magician Merlin who could go from place to place by magic and change himself into any bird or animal, Queen Guinevere, Sir Ector, Sir Lancelot and others began to appear in English Literature. The myths about the Sword Excalibur, the Round Table, and the Grail were very popular, especially in times of crisis or war. The legends of King Arthur began with the birth of Arthur, the son of King Uther, and the beautiful Princess Igraine. But when Arthur was only three days old Merlin, the magician, took him away and gave the child to a good knight named Sir Ector. Arthur was brought up with Sir Ector’s son Kay. When he became a man, Merlin made Arthur the King with the help of the Sword Excalibur, which Arthur managed to take out of the stone where there was written:

THE MAN WHO CAN TAKE THIS SWORD OUT OF ТНЕ

STONE IS THE KING OF BRITAIN

So Arthur became king and married the beautiful Princess Guinevere. Merlin presented Arthur a Big Round Table and 28 knights. One hundred and twenty-eight knights took their seats at the table, but there were one hundred and fifty places at the table. Each knight had his name written in golden letters on the back of each seat. As time went on, more and more noble knights came, and King Arthur gave them seats. All the knights had to be brave and worship. A knight was a man who historically was a leader in the war, a good fighter and had the word “Sir” before his name: Sir Ector, Sir Galahad, and Sir Lancelot.

One of the legends about King Arthur and his Round Table, “The Grail”, tells a thrilling story how Sir Galahad was given the “Seat Perilous” the place at the Round Table where no knight could sit if he had ever done any bad thing to anyone. If a bad man occupied the “Seat Perilous”, he would die. Thus it was empty for a long time. Only Sir Galahad was given that place, and he managed to see the Grail from which Jesus drank on the night before He died.

Many kings and evil people, such as Queen Morgan le Fay, made war against Arthur, but he routed them all, because Merlin helped him. Nevertheless, the end of King Arthur and his knights was tragic. Unfortunately, they were badly wounded in a great fight with Sir Mordred, an evil knight who wanted to become king instead of Arthur. During that fight all Mordred’s men were killed. Sir Arthur managed to kill Sir Mordred with a spear which went through his body. But Mordred wounded Arthur with his sword. Sir Arthur understood that he would die. That is why he asked Sir Bedivere, who was alive, to take his magic Sword Excalibur, go to the Lake and throw it into the water. At first Sir Bedivere decided to hide the sword not far from the lake, because he saw how beautiful and expensive it was. But later he threw the sword far over the water.

Then an arm came out of the water, caught the sword and disappeared in the lake. Afterwards king Arthur asked Sir Bedivere to take him to the lake where he saw a black ship with many ladies dressed in black. His last wish was to be put on the ship. Finally, Sir Bedivere set him down in the ship, and Sir Arthur went out over the lake.

The stories of Arthur and his knights have attracted many writers. Sir Thomas Malory wrote eight separate stories about King Arthur and his knights. His book was called the “Morte d’Arthur” (“Arthur’s Death”). The book was not in poetry but in prose. Some stories were translated from the French language, because a French writer Wace of Jersey wrote much about the «Round Table». That is why the title of the book was written in French. Furthermore, Sir Thomas Malory was a violent character. He was several times in prison, and there in the prison he wrote at least part of his work. Malory’s book was printed in 1485 after his death when William Caxton joined eight tales of King Arthur and his knights into one long story.

The features of the legends were used by Edmund Spenser in 1590-1596 to praise Queen Elizabeth. In 1660 John Milton mentioned Arthur’s name. In 1842 Alfred Tennyson wrote his “Poems” where the reader came across some of the King Arthur’s legends. The stage and film musical “Camelot” appeared in 1960s. In 1980s another successful film about King Arthur, “Excalibur”, was produced. Thus the name of King Arthur became famous all over the world for many centuries.

However, wars and tragedies shook Britain in the Middle Ages. In the first half of the 14th century Edward III, King of England, wanted to be the King of France as well. There was still to be the Hundred Years War between France and England (1337-1453) as well as the Wars of the Roses between the royal houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. More than that, England suffered from three epidemics of the Plague which brought illness and death to millions of people in England. Then there were social problems with the peasants and townspeople. Nothing made the people so angry as the rich foreign bishops of the Catholic Church who paid no attention to the sufferings of the common people. Even poor priests protested against ignorant bishops and churchmen who didn’t pay any attention to them and didn’t teach the people anything. As a result, everything found an echo in English Literature. What’s more, a good deal of Middle English Literature was religious. John Wycliffe, a priest, translated part of the Bible from Latin to English to educate people who wanted to read Bible, but didn’t know Latin. There were several translations of the book, but the second, made in 1388, was the best one.

The last poet of the Middle Ages and the first English poet was Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) who opened the way to English realistic literature, free of the influence of the Church.

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