Knights and the Age of King Arthur

Published: Friday, July 2 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

According to legend, he slew 960 men, defeated the enemies of the Britons (which included the Romans), brought peace and prosperity and instituted an order of knights that would become the model for how chivalry would be defined worldwide.

The real Arthur

The King Arthur we recognize today is a composite of many heroes and legends that were compiled by storytellers and writers over the centuries. The real Arthur is much more difficult to pin down. History tells of a 6th-century Celtic warlord who united the Britons and repelled the invading Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon. His prowess as a warrior and his wisdom brought a welcome period of peace and prosperity. Perhaps this leader was the real Arthur.

Roman connection

Some historians believe Arthur may have been a Sarmatian.* Sarmatians were among the soldiers sent by Rome to defend their interests in Britain. A commander, Artorius (Latin for Arthur), may have stayed behind when the Romans pulled out in 410 A.D. His knowledge of cavalry tactics had been instrumental in repelling the Saxons.

(*Area of Russian steppes conquered by Rome.)

Sarmatian legend tells of a hero who owns a magical sword that he threw in a lake upon his death.

Other possible Arthurs include Riothamus, a warlord who led an army of Britons against Gaul, and Magnus Maximus, a Roman commander.

Legendary Arthur

Early Latin and French sources tell how King Uther Pendragon fell in love with Igrayne, wife of the Duke of Cornwall. With the aid of his magician Merlin, Uther took on the form of the duke and conceived Arthur. Arthur was raised without knowing who his parents were.He became king after drawing Excalibur from a stone, thus proving he was the rightful ruler of England.

The story of his reign and the deeds of his knights of the Round Table are taken from Celtic myths and a variety of Welsh legends.

After defeating a Roman army under Emperor Lucius, Arthur returned to Camelot. This was the beginning of a period of peace and the quest for the Holy Grail.

Arthur's demise came about after the grail quest was completed. A love affair between Sir Lancelot (Arthur's champion) and Arthur's wife, Guinevere, started the downward spiral. The kingdom's energy was soon sapped by war against Lancelot. Mordred, who was either Arthur's son or nephew, took this opportunity to seize the kingdom. A battle for control left Arthur dead and Mordred mortally wounded.

Excalibur — Hard lightning*

There are two versions as to how King Arthur aquired his legendary sword.

"Merlin," by Robert Boron (1200)

The sword was embedded in a stone and only Arthur, as the rightful king of England, was able to remove it.

The Latin word for stone is saxum.

This is also the root for the word Saxon, the invaders repelled by Arthur.

The legend of the sword in the stone may have mistaken pulling the sword from a Saxon with pulling a sword from a stone.

"Suite du Merlin" (1230)

The sword is acquired from the Lady of the Lake. Its scabbard made the owner impervious to injury. Arthur commanded that the sword be thrown back into the lake upon his death.

Sir Thomas Malory combined both versions in "Morte d'Arthur."

(*Welsh translation of Excalibur)

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