Theories on The Round Table

The Round Table at Winchester. By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s one of the most recognizable symbols of Arthurian legend, but it wasn’t part of the original tale. The Round Table as we know it came into Arthurian legend in the late 12th century once French writers and translators got involved in the story. Wace and Layamon were the first to mention a round table at which Arthur and all of his knights sat equally. It was Malory who connected Guinevere and Merlin to the Round Table, Guinevere in bringing it to Arthur as part of her dowry and Merlin in crafting it at Uther’s request. It was also Malory who gave us the idea of each knight’s name being written in gold at his place. Depending on whose story you read, the table could seat anywhere between 13 and 1,600 knights.

The famous Round Table in Winchester Castle in Wessex, which still hangs there today, was long ago proven a fraud. Tests show that the solid oak table, which is 18 feet in diameter and weighs one and a quarter tons, was made during the reign of Edward I, sometime in the late 13th century.  Edward was a great Arthurian enthusiast, who also claimed to have acquired the crown of King Arthur from the Welsh. What we see today is the result of repainting in 1516 and restoration after 1645.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, engraving from the Middle Ages. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many people believe that although the Round Table was a relatively late addition to the stories that demonstrates the ideals of Medieval chivalry, it harkens back, at least symbolically, to an earlier tradition. According to David Day, the idea of all the knights being equal is part of an oral tradition that predates the writing of the tales. He gives as one example the Fiana of the second century, a mounted group of warriors similar to the Knights of the Round. He also mentions that in late Roman Britain, the Dux Bellorum gathered independent Roman chieftains around him. Although they looked to him as their leader in war, in all other ways, they were addressed as equals.

So if the Round Table isn’t a literal table, what could it be? Theories abound. Here are some of the most popular:

A Roman Amphitheatre

  • Leslie Alcock argues that the supposed Round Table at Caerleon was really a Roman amphitheatre.
  • There is another amphitheatre in Chester that is thought by some to be the origins of the Round Table.

A Henge of Stones

  • Alcock also states that the neolithic henge near Penrith associated with the table was an ancient ritual site.
  • Some people have suggested that the Round Table is actually Stonehenge, or that since Merlin is credited with being involved with both, that the two stories at least have a common origin.

A Parcel of Land

  • Norma Lorre Goodrich names the Round Table as an area of land in Stirlingshire that was a key political site because whoever had control of it had access to the eastern Highlands. She says that Guinevere was a Pict and brought the Round Table lands to Arthur in her dowry.

A Chapel or Building to House the Holy Grail

  • Goodrich also refers to a building on this land in Stirling. She describes the Round Table building as “a tabled rotunda constructed on a stone table or foundation” (Guinevere, 49; King Arthur 284-292).

A Tradition Begun by Christ

  • Britainna.com makes an uncited reference to the Round Table coming from a story recorded by St. Luke that Christ and his apostles sat at a round table for the Last Supper. This is a theory I’ve never heard before, but it does raise interesting possible ties to the Holy Grail.

A Constellation

  • A constellation made from the rotation of the Plough around the Pole star is another theory. This makes sense in an odd sort of way, considering the Druids were known for their skills in astronomy.

In the end, we don’t know, and may never know, the true identity of the Round Table. But as on of the most recognizable and enduring symbols of King Arthur’s court, it likely will continue to inspire those who seek equality for generations to come.

What about you? What theories have you heard about the Round Table? Which ones do you believe?

Sources:
Alcock, Leslie. King Arthur’s Britain
David Day, The Search for King Arthur
John Matthews, King Arthur: Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero

Norma Lorre Goodrich, King Arthur
Norma Lorre Goodrich, Guinevere
http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/rtable.html
The Origin of the Round Table

Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 1)

Welcome back to our exciting adventure through the evolution of Arthurian legends. I see you’re a brave soul, since I didn’t scare you away with the historical sources. Now we move on to the literary sources. Even though this isn’t a complete list, it is the top 10 sources, so it’s going to take us two weeks to tackle them all. Fasten your seat belts, because here we go.

Y Gododdin – This bardic poem, written down in the ninth or tenth century, chronicles a battle around the year 600 between a group of Pictish warriors from the Gododdin (hence, the name) and the Angles. It contains one of the first known mentions of Arthur in literature in this line: “He brought down black crows to feed before the walls of the city, though he was no Arthur.” So the warrior hero of this poem was praised for being a great military man, but still he couldn’t live up to Arthur.

The Black Book of Carmarthen – The Black Book (so named for its binding) is a collection of poetry complied in the mid 13th century. It refers to Arthur, Myrdinn (Merlin) and many of the knights we know and love, calling Kay, Bedivere and Lancelot by early translations of their names.

The Mabinogion – This famous collection of Welsh myth and legend was written down in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, but comes from a much older, likely oral, tradition. It includes five stories set in or around Arthur’s court: Culhwch and Olwen, The Dream of Rhonabwy, Geraint Mab Erbin, Peredur son of Evrawc, and Owein. These stories are complex and much has been written about them, so if you want to know more, I suggest you read them, ask my friend Tyler Tichelaar, or Google the stories and commentaries on them. I don’t know them well enough to do them justice.

Geoffrey of Monmouth – Or as I like to call him “the grand-daddy of Arthurian legend.” Geoffrey’s works History of the Kings of Britain and Life of Merlin (written around 1136) are responsible for most of what we automatically think of when we think of King Arthur and his court. He claimed his History was translated from a source no one else ever saw, so it is considered a “pseudo history.” Geoffrey’s contributions to the legends include:

  • Tintagel as Arthur’s birthplace, as well as the story of Arthur’s conception by way of Merlin’s magical disguise of Uther into Goloris, Igraine’s husband
  • The name Caliburnus for Arthur’s sword (it started out as the Welsh Caledfwlch and went on to become Excalibur when the French translated it)
  • The introduction of Morgan as a healer, her nine sisters of Avalon, and details about Avalon
  • The story of Merlin and Vortigern with the tower and the red and white dragons
  • Merlin being responsible for relocating Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain
  • Merlin as advisor to Arthur, including his warning to Arthur about Guinevere’s betrayal
  • The hunting of the white hart
  • The concept of Arthur’s band of knights
  • Descriptions of medieval courts (feasting, ladies, hunts) that we associate with the legends, but are actually from times later in history than the historical Arthur would have lived

Wace – Wace was an Anglo-Norman poet whose Roman de Brut was based on Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain. He brought us the concept of the literal Round Table and it’s ideology of all men being equal around it, as well as idea of Arthur’s Knights of the Round being from all across Europe. (I can’t help but picture an early medieval United Nations.)

Next week we’ll cover the later medieval sources that helped shape the legends into what we know today.

So, what do you know about these sources? Have you read any of them? What surprised you most? What else do you want to know about them?

Historical Sources of Arthurian Legend

Ven. Bede

Have you ever wondered where Arthurian legend comes from? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I didn’t either I until I started working on this series. There are actually both historical and literary sources for the legends we know today. We’ll explore them both over the next few weeks. Since this subject can get dry really quickly if you take it too seriously, forgive me if I get a little irreverent at times.

First up: the historical sources, in chronological order. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, just to cover the highlights. Keep in mind that history to these guys didn’t mean the fact-based linear events we think of today. For them, historical fact was equally valid whether it came from true events, myths, tradition, or out of their own imaginations.

St. Gildas – Born around the year 500, this monk was a possible contemporary to Arthur, depending on when exactly you think Arthur lived. His famous work “On the Destruction of Britain” (or “On the Fall and Conquest of Britain,” depending on who translates the title), was written around the year 540. It’s mostly a diatribe against the tyrannical rulers of the time. Arthur isn’t mentioned by name, but Gildas does mention Vortigern and the Battle of Mount Badon, a victory which was the turning point in the British battles against the Saxons. Gildas’ omission of Arthur is used by some to show he never actually existed, while others say it just means he wasn’t a tyrant (and therefore not on Gildas’ evildoer list.)

Nennius – A Welsh monk, (are you seeing a pattern here?) Nennius lived around the end of the seventh century and is credited with writing the “Historia Brittonum,” (History of the Britons) which covers time from the legendary founding of Britain after the Trojan War through the seventh century. Nennius is known to have liberally mixed together oral history, legends and traditions, and his dates frequently contradict each other, so I like to call him “the dude who made stuff up.” But he is the first to chronicle Arthur’s military career, going so far as to list out Arthur’s 12 famous battles, including Badon (a list which has been hotly debated ever since.) He calls Arthur by the title, “dux bellorum,” which can be translated something like “Duke or Lord of Battles.”

Ven. Bede – Some people call him a saint (even a Doctor of the Church), others just note he was a monk. However you see him, Bede was one important dude. Bede is best known for his work “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” (written around the year 731) in which he traces the spread of Christianity through the kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons. He’s known as Britain’s first historian, but he focuses more on miraculous things that supposedly happened than on pure history – yet he’s considered by many as the most reliable source for his time period. It’s from him we get the story that Vortigern invited the Saxons as allies. We can’t know for sure what his sources were, but it’s likely he had Nennius’, and maybe even Gildas’, works to reference. Fun trivia: Bede is credited with introducing the AD dating system to England.

Annales Cambriae – (or in English, Annals of Wales) These stories were translated around 977. They give us the image of Arthur bearing the cross of Christ at Badon, which ensures his victory. This is also the source of the story of Arthur and Mordred falling together at Camlann, although it doesn’t state if they were on the same or opposing sides.

Many authors note that these sources were written to serve a particular interest – especially that of the Catholic Church and the powerful rulers of Wessex and Gwynedd (modern day northern Wales), so they likely were biased.

What are we to make of all of this “history”? It tells us that there may have been a king or military leader named Arthur who fought battles against the Saxons – who likely were at one time allies of the Britons, thanks to a ruler named Vortigern –  and turned them back after a battle that took place at Mount Badon (wherever that was – that’s a completely separate debate). This Arthur also likely died in battle at a place called Camlann.

Where did the “good stuff,” the rest of the legends come in? For that we have to switch gears and look at the literary sources, which we’ll do over the next two weeks. Stick with me. This stuff actually is interesting if you give it a chance.

Book Review: King Arthur’s Children

I met the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D., while searching online for other Arthurian enthusiasts. When he asked me if I would review his new book, I jumped at the chance.

The book’s title would certainly make me pick it up off a shelf, but it doesn’t do the work justice. This interesting, impeccably researched book profiles several possible sons of Arthur, but also discusses the circumstances in various traditions influencing the actions of Guinevere, Lancelot and Constantine, as well as possible reasons for and outcomes of the battle of Camlann. Interesting twists to the legends explained in this book include:

  • Lancelot and Mordred may have been twins.
  • In some traditions, King Arthur, like the Biblical King Herod, has all the children born around the same time as Mordred drowned.
  • Mordred was not always evil; he was revered in Welsh and some Scottish tales.
  • Guinevere took many other lovers besides Lancelot, including several Knights of the Round, depending on the source.
  • The battle of Camlann may have been written as a tragedy to make the legends more interesting and memorable.
  • Mordred may have lived after Camlann or had sons who did.

King Arthur’s Children is broken up into three sections. The first discusses three possible sons of Arthur in various stories that make up the Welsh collection known as The Mabinogion. These are the likely illegitimate Gwydre; Amr, the child of Arthur’s first wife or mistress/concubine; and Llacheu, who is also mentioned the 10th century poem “Black Book of Carmarthen.” Tichelaar posits that if a historical King Arthur ever existed and had sons, these three are the most likely and were probably later combined to turn history into legend.

Part two of the book is devoted to Arthur’s most famous son, Mordred, who actually  first appeared in Arthurian legend without reference to his relationship to Arthur and then as Arthur’s nephew. Only later did he become the son spawned by incest we know today. (Tichelaar’s section on incest in the legends is uncomfortable to read, but clearly illustrates the reasons why it was once a less taboo subject.) Tichelaar does a remarkable job of showing the dizzying number of ways in which Mordred may have been influenced by or have influenced his Welsh counterparts from part 1. This is also the section where he goes into other Arthurian characters and how they may or may not have been related to Mordred. He then studies the honorable Mordred in Welsh legend, his vacillating virtue among the Scots, and the more sympathetic treatment given him by modern writers.

The conclusion to this section is the one weak spot in the book. Here, Tichelaar’s fascination with genealogy draws him away from his main subject into two chapters on how the English Royal Family and the Scottish clan Campbell both have tried to claim succession from King Arthur. I can see why Tichelaar included this – because by claiming to be descendants, these groups could arguably be King Arthur’s children – but I feel like the discussion of their forced (and possibly faked) lineage distracts from the overall point and flow of the book. However, if you’re a genealogy buff, you’ll probably like this section.

The final part of the book details how King Arthur’s children were handled by medieval, Renaissance and modern writers. Here, Tichelaar does a great job of summarizing works most people probably haven’t read or even had access to, and explaining how each successive generation of writers has added to the legend. Interestingly, he points out that the most recent writers are more likely to invent new children, especially daughters. He also gives a small preview of his own forthcoming work of fiction, King Arthur’s Legacy.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and am proud to be able to include it on my list of resources for my contribution to the legends. King Arthur’s Children is of great value mainly because it expertly explores an area of Arthurian legend that has not (at least to my knowledge) been widely researched before. I would recommend it to anyone who already has solid knowledge of Arthurian legend. To get the most out of it you need a fairly strong background in the legends and at least a cursory knowledge of Welsh legend. My studies of Welsh legend are rudimentary, so some of his comparisons between these and Arthurian legends went over my head. But I’m sure others will be able to better appreciate them.

While Tichelaar plays with (and yearns for) the idea that King Arthur’s bloodline may still exist today, he makes one of his most moving points in reference to the always changing nature of the legends, stating: “Anyone who would be a descendant of King Arthur need not have a fifteen hundred-year-old pedigree to prove it; we need to tell the tales about Arthur, and when people hear these stories, he will then live on in their hearts and his line and descendants will continue to grow” (vi). I, for one, am proud to call myself a daughter of King Arthur in that capacity.