What’s that you say? Your understanding of Arthurian legend is limited to a popular musical, a bad 80’s cartoon and Monty Python? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Since most people have lives and probably didn’t grow up consuming these stories like ‘tweens on a Twilight bender, here’s what you need to know about the main characters. (Disclaimer: I may or may not follow these storylines in my book, so some parts may be spoilers and others may not appear at all.)
Arthur Pendragon – Son of Lady Iggraine (Grainne/Ygerna) and High King Uther Pendragon. As the story goes, Uther fell in love with Iggraine while she was married to a lord named Goloris. While Goloris was out at a battle, Uther snuck in to see Iggraine (in some cases Merlin cast a spell on him to make him look like Goloris) and bow-chica-wow-wow, Arthur was conceived. When Merlin found out about the child, he arranged from him to be raised by Lord Ector for his own safety, and so Arthur grew up ignorant of his paternity. Depending on who tells the tale, sometimes it is Merlin who tells him, sometimes Uther, other times he finds out through magical means (i.e. sword in the stone). In some versions of the story, Arthur is Morgan’s brother. He is always Mordred’s father. Arthur traditionally is mortally wounded at Mordred’s hand during the battle of Camlann. Some say he died on the battlefield, others in Avalon, while some say he did not die (just like Elvis) but sleeps, waiting for the call to save the world once again.
Guinevere – Daughter of Lord Leodgrance or Leogden. Nothing is ever said about her mother, siblings or early life. She marries Arthur and becomes High Queen. In most traditions she is Christian, but is sometimes associated with the isle of Avalon. Most of the time she’s barren, but a few authors give her a child, usually a son, who dies in childhood. She is often kidnapped, most famously by a rebellious Lord named Malegant or Melwas, and sometimes even by Mordred. She is famous for her affair with Lancelot, which may or may not have been sexual. When Mordred discovers their affair, Guinevere is sentenced to death for treason, but is rescued by Lancelot. She is said to either have died of grief after Arthur’s death or lived out her days in penance in a convent.
It’s interesting to note that in many traditions, there are two Guineveres (the true and the false), who are sometimes twins, sisters, or lady/serving maid. In Welsh tradition, there are three. As fantasy author Mercedes Lackey points out, Guinevere’s life certainly is adventurous enough for several people!
Lancelot (du Lac) – Arguably the most famous Knight of the Round Table. He is usually from Brittany and sometimes the son of their Lady of the Lake (it’s a title, so there can be more than one), but most often he doesn’t know who is parents are. Lancelot is always known for his skill with a sword, and sometimes also with the ladies. Though the popular musical paints him as arrogant, that is not a common trait. He fights for Guinevere out of love that may be chaste or something more, depending on tradition. He is instrumental in the quest for the Holy Grail and is sometimes one of three knights who are allowed to be in its holy presence (the other two are traditionally Galahad and Perceval). Once his affair is discovered, Arthur banishes him to Brittany, but he comes back in time to save Guinevere from death. He traditionally enters a monastery in repentance for his sins and there eventually passes away.
Merlin – Merlin may be a title given to the Archdruid or it may be a name, no one knows for sure. Merlin is usually the son of a nun and a demon (because that makes sense). He always has prophetic powers and is Arthur’s chief advisor. In some traditions, Merlin doesn’t age, so he provides advice to Vortigern (a king several generations prior to Arthur), aids Uther in Arthur’s conception and guides Arthur throughout his reign – all in a single lifetime (see why I favor the title theory?). In a few stories, he even ages backwards. Merlin is said to have foreseen the affair of Guinevere and Lancelot and the resulting fall of Camelot and so was against Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, as well as his acceptance of Lancelot at court. Merlin’s fate is questionable. Some say he fell in love with Nimue, a witch or priestess who cast a spell on him to steal his power and then entombed him in a glass or air tower or ancient oak. Others say he went mad during a battle (possibly Camlann) and ran raving into the forest, never to be seen again.
Morgan (le fey) – Morgan started out in Arthurian legend as a healer or priestess. She is often cited as one of the nine holy women of Avalon. Somewhere along the way she became Arthur’s sister and all hell broke loose. In some traditions she competes with Arthur for the throne, while in others, she simply wants to kill him. She and Guinevere have a natural dislike of one another and Morgan sometimes tries to kill or sabotage the Queen. No matter her relation to them, Morgan is almost always Mordred’s mother (her sister Morgause/Ana is his mother in early legend) and fights for her son’s claim to the throne. In some versions, she accompanies a mortally wounded Arthur back to Avalon after the battle of Camlann. Beyond that, her final fate is unknown.
Someday I’ll probably do a part two with other famous characters like Elaine, Viviane, Nimue, Tristan, Isolde, Galahad, Mordred, etc. If there is anyone in particular you want to know about, tell me in the comments and I’ll respond. But suffice it to say if I went into all the supporting cast (not to mention the ones I made up), you’d probably nod off. With all the branches of legend, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Arthurian characters and every version treats them slighly differently. If you want to know more, I recommend The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legend. Or just ask me. 🙂