The legend of King Arthur has various versions. Here’s the story behind one of them.
In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name: Merlin.
Or Myrddin. Or Emrys. Wizard, warlock, sorcerer. Mage, advisor, old man, prophet. Magic incarnate, fertility god. As you can see he has had many names and titles, but nearly all of them agree that he was wise and powerful.
In the BBC show Merlin (2008–2012), the character is portrayed as a young man finding his way to Camelot, the citadel where Prince Arthur Pendragon resides. He is shown to have been born with magic and containing inexplicably strong magic, especially for a non-practitioner. After saving Arthur’s life, Merlin is gifted the role of being the servant of the prince, a peasant becoming a servant in the royal household! Merlin is depicted as an insolent, sassy, quick-witted man who questions the young Pendragon’s authority even while saving his life time and again with magic.
In a kingdom where magic is outlawed and punishable by death, Merlin hides his ability and grows ever more powerful and wise.
The show tweaks some aspects of the main storyline, such as depicting both Arthur and Merlin in their youth — but one could say, this is only the latest in a long series or reinterpretations and retellings.
Flashes of Merlin and his magic have appeared in stories for a very long time, all the way back to 1136 CE in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. But he is most well-known in another book that was, perhaps fittingly for a tale of knights and criminals, written by somebody who was in fact both.
Sir Thomas Malory was born in 1415 CE and lived through the War of Roses, a battle between the two royal houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England.
Malory’s identity has been debated through the years, all that we know comes from legal records that refer to him being charged with crimes. Malory was charged with so many crimes–robbery, blackmail, assault, rape, and even attempted murder–that he spent the nineteen years between 1451 and 1470 in and out of prisons!
Eventually, Malory was knighted by the Duke of Warwick. This Duke was incidentally in conflict with the Duke of Buckingham: one supported York, while the other supported Lancaster. Since most of Malory’s alleged crimes involved people associated with Buckingham and he was arrested by them, he was most likely a political prisoner. He was also known to repeatedly escape the various prisons he was sent to, until at last in 1468 he was sent to Newgate Prison in London.
At Newgate, instead of trying to escape the prison, he devoted himself to writing a book: Le Morte D’Arthur, or “The Death of Arthur”.
A year after writing the novel, Thomas Malory passed away, and Le Morte D’Arthur wouldn’t be published until 1485 by William Caxton. Despite its belated release, it is now considered the first novel in English — and, indeed, in Western literature — because (barring one exception) the tales are continuous in narrative: they build on previous events and develop the character’s motivations and emotions.
There are eight tales in Le Morte D’Arthur. The first takes us on a whirlwind tour through Arthur’s childhood: beginning with him being magically conceived by Merlin’s spell, and ending with the establishment of the Round Table and Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere. Next, come two tales introducing Lancelot and showing him as the greatest knight in the world — which is when he and Guinevere feel a connection.
After a show of the knights at their best and a divergence into the mediaeval love-romance of Tristam and Isolde, the Holy Grail appears in a vision in the sixth tale, with its promise of eternal youth. On his quest to find the grail, Sir Lancelot feels conflicted about his role as Arthur’s knight while also loving Guinevere — whom he eventually ends up rescuing from an abduction. Arthur turns a blind eye to their affair, as long as it stays private.
Finally, in the eighth and last tale, Lancelot and Guinevere get caught — the former escaping and the latter sentenced to death. After being rescued by her lover, Guinevere asks for forgiveness from Arthur, but as Lancelot kills one of Arthur’s knights during the rescue, Arthur is forced to go against Lancelot and take his kingdom to war.
Meanwhile, Arthur is betrayed by his son Mordred, leading to the Battle of Camlann in which Mordred dies and Arthur is mortally wounded. Realising he is near death, Arthur commands fellow survivor Sir Bedivere to throw his sword Excalibur into the lake — but the knight cannot bear to throw a thing of such beauty and value. Twice he lies to Arthur, before finally carrying out the command.
The novel ends with Excalibur being returned to the lake, at which point the Lady of the Lake reaches her hand out of the waters to catch it, while Arthur is taken away to the Isle of Avalon.
These stories, like most folktales and legends, weren’t complete fantasy; they were relevant and hopeful to the readers and to Thomas Malory himself. They mirrored the time period during which they were written.
In his stories, Malory wrote about honour, law, and justice, while he himself was accused of so many crimes. His world: growing up during the end of the Hundred Years’ War and being a part of the War of Roses as an adult. Yet, even during battles, betrayals and all the other hardships that Arthur and his fellow companions suffer through, there is a pattern of strength and redemption that can be seen in the stories.
Malory’s classic stories are not meant only to entertain, but also to pass values or character traits that we can aspire to, like being caring, responsible, trusting, and brave. Folktales help to reinforce cultural values and highlight important traditions — even if it’s just a simple “don’t be deceitful” from The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Stories can also give life more of a purpose. Hearing about a brave knight, saving his kingdom from evil, would certainly lift the hopes of common people who face hardships every day.
While the tales of King Arthur are wrapped in myth, they can also provide an insight into parts of history — such as the habits of royalty and ordinary folk, and the way knights were trusted and revered. One could argue it’s the perfect historical novel because it was written in the time where it was set.
Can studying literature and art show us what peoples’ lives were like? That is in fact one of the benefits of studying art history: it gives us clues to what life was like in the past. Today’s photos and yesterday’s portraits were, after all, designed to store memories.
The brotherhood of knights, the betrayal of Guinevere and Lancelot, and Sir Bedivere trying to keep Excalibur — at one level all these incidents show the weaknesses of the characters, but also show them trying to rise above or atone for them. At another level, perhaps they reflect Thomas Malory’s own situation: the circumstances that led him to land up in jail, and how he should cope with it. The novel shows that even the mighty have their shortcomings, the difference being that these people work to overcome them.
And if you take the common and universal lessons, one begins to wonder: are these legends really stories of the past? Or are they also parables for the present?