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  • Bonnie Bracken

What are the five major stories in Arthurian Legend?

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Arthurian Legend is a doozy. To start, there are at least four core sources where the stories originate. I will have a post that attempts to deep-dive into that later, but for now, I'll keep it simple. It started with the Celts, then filtered through the Anglo-Saxons. Geoffrey of Monmouth came along with his 1100s hit novel —over 200 copies sold! More than The Canterbury Tales— The History of the Kings of Britain where Arthur made his first 'historical' appearance. Crétien de Troyes added Lancelot in the mid-1100s and then Malory tied all the tales up with a bow in Le Morte D'arthur. So, five primary sources among five cultures spanning over 500 years fed into the stories—there's a lot of source material to work with.

Not to mention the countless modern authors who contributed their own ideas to the cannon. Twain, TH White, Mary Stuart, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to name a few. Fun fact, the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone from 1963 was based on TH White's Once and Future King from 1958. So, did TH White invent the concept of The Sword in the Stone or did it come from somewhere else? After much digging, I can honestly tell you, I'm not sure. Oh, and the historical perspective? That comes from completely different origins. Again, another post is coming that will dig into those details.

Think of Arthurian legend as a big lake with rivers feeding it from each and every direction. It's hard to know which tales came from where, and how exactly they evolved. That also means the stories can take on a 'chose your own adventure' quality, where one major legend can have three or four different endings or different protagonists. Trust me, it's a mess. But I will do my best to summarize the five major parts. For those of you who remember the 80s, think of this. as the micro-machine man version of these stories.

And without further ado, here are the five main parts of Arthurian Legend:

1) Uther and Igraine / Birth of Arthur: Uther Pendragon is the ruler of Tintagel in Cornwall. In some versions, he has a brother named Aurelius, in some he doesn't. Uther has the hots for Igraine, a woman married to the Duke of Gorlois. The two have a daughter who will grow up to become the wily sorcerous Morgan Le Fey. Merlin (in full magic mode) says, no problemo Uther, I will use my powers to turn you into the duke. Abra-cadabra, Uther takes the form of Gorlois and gets busy with Igraine and they conceive Arthur. Then Gorlois is called away to battle and conveniently dies. Uther then takes Igraine as his queen. The whole thing is a bit fishy if you ask me.

2) Arthur's Coming of Age / Sword and the Stone: From a modern perspective, one of the most unusual practices of the medieval world was fostering. If I had a kid back then, once they could make it around on their own, I would have given them to another family to raise, and they would give me theirs. In short, a kid swap. In some stories, Arthur got Merlin as a foster dad, and in others, he got a man named Sir Ector along with a foster brother named Sir Kay. In any case, he was secreted away and the town is looking for their lost leader. Only the one with the right to lead will be able to pull the sword from the stone. Spoiler alert: it's Arthur.

3) The Knight and the Cart: Zzis is v'ere zee French come in to add zee romance. Crétien de Troyes from the 1100's is the primary contributor. Flash-forward, Arthur is grown and married to Queen Guinevère. She's beautiful and perfect except for one flaw: she's barren. It's her most famous quality. One day, Guinevère gets kidnapped by the evil Sir Meleagant, and Arthur sends his best knight, Lancelot, to rescue her. (Arthur doesn't know Lancelot is crushing hard on Guinevère.) Lancelot, in a rush, hitches a ride on the back of a dwarf's cart—this was considered demeaning to his reputation, but he did it anyway in his courtly love for the queen. What a guy!— He then arrives at where Guinevère is being held climbs the tower and says 'ta-da, I'm here to rescue you!' Turns out, she's super into him too, and they get it on. Unfortunately, Lancelot cut up his hand climbing the tower and gets his blood all over the sheets so their affair gets blown wide open, and they become the most famous adultering couple in history.

4) Grail Questing / The Fisher King: Flash forward again, and Arthur is an old man and his country is in ruin. In some accounts, he is a denomination of 'The Fisher King.' The fisher king has a horrible leg and/or groin wound that won't heal and all he can do is sit in his boat and fish. In either version, since the king ails, the country ails, with famine and poverty running rampant. The cure? Find the holy grail and the water it holds will heal the king. In some versions, Percival finds it. In others, Lancelot's son, Galahad, finds it. (You may be asking yourself, dear reader, how can Lancelot have a son if he's hopelessly in love with Guinevère? Don't worry, there's a whole set of sub-stories to cover it called Lancelot and Elaine.)

5) The Final Smackdown: Okay, get ready to dance around and squeal ew ew ew ew ew. So, somewhere between stories two and three, Arthur's sister, Morgan le Fey comes of age and becomes the one-dimensional-standard-bad-guy character of Arthurian Legend. At one point, she uses Merlin-ish magic to disguise herself as Guinevère and sleeps with her own brother (gag) to conceive the anti-hero, Mordred. They become the opposing faction to Arthur, and in the final battle Mordred and Arthur fatally wound each other at the same time and both die. Bummer. Then Guinevère runs off to France and joins a convent, and Lancelot runs off to France and becomes a monk. That left me scratching my chin, did they really do that or did they just have good medieval PR reps?

As a final note, I will leave you with this dear reader: my trilogy, The Lost Century, is also broken up into five parts. It's not an accident. How, you may wonder, did the real history of Anglo-Saxon culture turn into these stories? Read my book and find out!

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