Why do we love the legend of King Arthur?

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1. A once and future king

In 1485 the story of a 5th Century Celtic war leader was so popular that it became one of the first books ever published in England. Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur is still in print today. Arthur has captivated writers and readers ever since.

With a major new film set to hit the screens in 2017, the legend shows no signs of dying out. Find out why the story of a king, who almost certainly never existed, became one the most enduring myths of the Western world and embedded itself so firmly in our national identity.

2. What do you know about the legend of Arthur?

Arthurian legend contains many themes that crop up in stories today. Click to explore the elements that have made Arthur's tale a classic.

A treasure hunt

Arthur’s knights went in search of the Holy Grail, a Christian relic associated with Jesus' Last Supper.

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The Holy Grail

Like most literary treasure hunts, the search for the Holy Grail asks questions about the human condition. Only the purest knight would succeed.

A love triangle

The affair between Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, and his favoured knight, Sir Lancelot, led to the downfall of Arthur's court.

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Lancelot and Guinevere

It has become one of the most famous love stories of all time.

A magical weapon

A gift from the Lady of the Lake, Arthur’s sword Excalibur was imbued with magical powers.

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Excalibur

Strengthening its bearer and protecting them from harm, Excalibur is sometimes confused with the sword in the stone that confirms Arthur's right to the throne.

A Round Table

This is the famed table around which Arthur and his knights met.

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Knights of the Round Table

When Arthur’s knights are seated, each has an equal place. The round table represents the unity and the chivalry associated with Arthur's court.

3. A hero's journey

The legend of Arthur that we know today is the product of many different versions of the story told at many different times.

The Celtic warrior

One of the first references to Arthur appears in the 9th Century work A History of Britons by Welsh monk Nennius. He is portrayed not as a king, but as a Christian war commander who defends Britain against pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders.

A fuller story emerges

In the 12th Century the first full-length story of Arthur was written by another Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Here Arthur is now king of the Britons, born at Tintagel, married to Guinevere and buried at Avalon. Monmouth also introduces Arthur’s adviser Merlin and the king's legendary sword Excalibur.

Arthur in France

Monmouth’s story was so well loved that it was picked up in the 12th Century French courts. Under the writer Christian de Troyes, the story gained a romantic twist. He introduced the tale of Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair, one of the first literary love stories of its kind.

An enduring legend

Inspired by the earlier reworkings of the story, the Warwickshire knight Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur while in prison. The text, published in 1485, was written during the turbulent period of the War of the Roses. The chivalry and idealism of Arthur's court would have been a far cry from the battling York and Lancaster dynasties that were tearing Malory's England apart.

A 20th Century fantasy

The most famous and influential 20th Century rendering of the story came from TH White with his 1958 five-part fantasy novel The Once and Future King. Although influenced by a number of traditional sources, Malory in particular, White introduces the story of Arthur's childhood for the first time and reinvents traditional accounts of Lancelot and Guinevere's love and Arthur's end for a post-war audience.

4. Arthur re-imagined

Perhaps the secrets of Arthur's success are the universal human themes that drive the story. Love, conflict, death, loyalty and betrayal have appealed to readers down the centuries. Every age reworks these themes for its own purposes.

The influence of the Arthurian legend can be seen in poetry such as Tennyson's popular Idylls of the King, written between 1856-74. Tennyson drew on many Arthurian sources, which he felt embodied spiritual values not found in his own time.

Illustration from Idylls

Bridgeman

Disenchanted by the ugly materialism of the industrial revolution, pre-Raphaelite artists of the 19th Century drew upon myths like King Arthur. This famous work is John William Waterhouse's 1888 painting of Arthurian character The Lady of Shalott.

Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse

Tate

The legend has resurfaced in operas such as Wagner’s Parsifal (1882), which is loosely based on the Arthurian knight Parsifal's quest for the Holy Grail.

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Arthur arrived on the comic book scene in Hal Foster's Prince Valiant (1937). As well as the traditional Arthurian tales, the comic features Prince Valiant travelling to North America. It was honoured on this US postal stamp in 1995.

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Arthurian musicals emerged in the 20th Century, such as Lerner and Loewe's Broadway hit Camelot (1960),which starred Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in its debut run. The script was inspired by TH White’s The Once and Future King.

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Disney adapted the tale for children, inspired by TH White. The Sword in the Stone (1963) features 12-year-old orphaned Arthur who, against the odds, lifts the sword and is named King of England.

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail used satire and subversive humour to reinvent the story in 1975. It used the traditional characters and plots to comment on contemporary attitudes towards politics, religion, nationalism and the role of women.

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John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) is loosely based on Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. It tells the story of the Grail quest, Guinvere and Lancelot's betrayal, the wisdom of Merlin and the treachery of Arthur's son Mordred by his half-sister Morgana.

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Director Guy Ritchie is also trying his hand at recreating the legend in Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, an epic adventure set for release in 2017 and starring Charlie Hunnam as Arthur.

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5. Where does the legend resurface today?

The story of King Arthur is still alive in British culture. Click to discover more.

Spirituality

The story of Arthur has long been associated with mysticism.

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Druidism

The legend that Arthur is buried at Glastonbury continues to inspire pagans and neo-druids, making the town a pilgrimage site for new-age spirituality.

Tradition

One of the oldest and most prestigious honours that the Queen bestows is making someone a member of the Order of the Garter,

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The Order of the Garter

It was founded by Edward III in 1348. Fascinated by King Arthur, the exemplar of knightly virtue, he sought to establish a similar fraternity of knights.

Language

The Arthurian legend has seeped into our culture and can be heard through our language.

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Language

You may hear somebody at the office refer to a round table discussion, a meeting that involves equal group participation and problem solving.

Branding

The operator of the lottery named itself after Arthur's legendary court, Camelot.

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National Lottery

Each lottery machine also has a name taken from the story, like Guinevere and Lancelot.