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.
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.
5. Where does the legend resurface today?
The story of King Arthur is still alive in British culture. Click to discover more.