Arthur Pendragon King of all Britain is also known as the Once and Future King because of popular belief that he will one day rise from his resting place in Avalon to fight for Britain. Arthur’s tale is one of intrigue and dramatic fights, and it was from the very beginning. Even the tale of Arthur’s conception and birth is something that is the stuff of great court intrigue. Igraine is the mother of Arthur and wife of Other Pendragon after the death of her first husband in battle. Here is the juicy part of that tale Igraine conceived Arthur by Uther Pendragon while Uther had been glamoured by Merlin to look like her first husband (as he was not yet dead in many versions of the tale). A glamour is a type of Magick that is commonly associated with Faeries, and it involves making someone or something appear different than it normally does. Once Igraine learned of her husbands death, and the true identity of her bedmate that day she married Uther.
From this point there are diverging parts of the story, some tellings state that Merlin took Arthur to raise and teach (as well as protect) as soon as he was born (leaving him with foster parents and a foster brother in the Knight Kay). In alternate (often more modern tellings) he was taken from his parents when he was a child (old enough to remember his royal paternity) in order to learn from Merlin.
Upon the death of Uther Pendragon (in most tellings) Merlin tells Arthur it is his time to be king. Now this is also the time when the famous event of pulling the sword from the stone often occurs. Either he pulls Excalibur from the stone at this point, or Arthur encounters the Lady of the Lake and she gifts him with another sword that shows him to be the one true king of all the Britains.
After taking his throne Arthur now needs to meet his knights of the roundtable and marry his Queen Guinevere. In most cases Arthur already knows his knight Sir Kay, as he had been Arthur’s foster brother. Through a series of adventures Arthur meets and knights many other important figures of the legends. The most important of his knights to mention right now is of course Lancelot Du Lac. Lancelot is famously the third member of the infamous love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.
Other famous knights of the round table are Gawain, Percival, Galahad (in most tellings the son of Lancelot), Tristan (in most tellings nephew of Mark King of Cornwall, and another knight to take a queen as his lover), Bedivere, Gareth, Bors the Younger, Geriant, Lamorak, Gaheris, and Palamedes. These being the most commonly known, but of course different tales mention varying numbers of knights of the roundtable. Some even have the total number of Knights at one hundred and fifty!
There are many supposed causes for the love triangle where Lancelot and Guinevere are seen as doomed true lovers. In some tellings it portrays Guinevere as a faithless queen happy to betray the love of her husband, and in others it is experiencing true passion and love for the first time that incites the affair. Some modern writers that have taken on the legends in their fiction have sought to redeem Guinevere (and even had her meet and fall in love with Lancelot first, and then marry Arthur only to do right by her family). It should be noted that Lancelot became an addition to the Arthurian Legends in the 12th century by the French poet Cretien de Troyes. Earlier versions of the legends do exist where the love triangle involved a different knight dallying with Guinevere. There are tellings where Arthur wants Guinevere burned at the stake for high treason, but she is rescued by Lancelot and retired to a nunnery for her safety. The love triangle in itself has from an archetypal perspective can be seen as a challenge for Arthur to face, and possibly a true betrayal that helps send him away from Camelot and to his ultimate doom.
Speaking of Arthur’s doom, it is time to mention Mordred. In most versions of the legend Mordred is Arthur’s illegitimate son born by Morgan Le Fay (or earlier Morgause) the half sister of Arthur who was born during the first marriage of Igraine. Now incest is the ultimate taboo in the modern day, and it was seen as taboo in the medieval times as well. Yet we must remember that close blood relations, within the context of royalty, historically were allowed to marry. This was not done with siblings often (excepting traditions like that of ancient Egypt). The instance of incest here can be seen as a way of Christianity frowning upon the Celtic Pagan traditions that are symbolized by Morgan Le Fay. There are many instances of Mordred being conceived by Morgan using her magic to seduce Arthur into her bed.
In some tellings Arthur knows of Mordred when he was a child and willfully abandons him. Other tellings have Mordred coming to Camelot as an adult and attempting to claim his right of succession as Arthur’s only born child. In some cases Arthur accepts Mordred as his son, and Guinevere treats him as a surrogate son, but Mordred betrays Arthur because he always felt abandoned and wants to take the throne from his father. While Arthur is on a quest or war campaign Mordred comes and seizes Camelot taking Guinevere as his queen (sometimes she consents and betrayed Arthur here, and others she tried to resist but was forced by Mordred to be his queen). Tellings of the legend containing Mordred taking Guinevere as his wife are of course acting out an archetypal Oedipal story.
No matter the specific telling of the legend Le Morte D’Arthur (the death of Arthur) occurs in the final battle of Camlann against Mordred. Usually Arthur and Mordred fatally wound one another at the same time. As Arthur lay dying he asked he last surviving knight to take Excalibur and throw it into the water to return it to the Lady of the Lake for safe keeping. Then Morgan Le Fay comes on a boat from Avalon to take Arthur away to the magical Isle in order heal so that he could one day be resurrected and come to save his beloved Britain when the country needed him the most. That is what gives Arthur the iconic name of Once and Future King!
The legacy of the legendary king of Camelot is absolutely endless. Many historical kings have taken inspiration from the legends in the way they conducted themselves and held their courts. Edward IV of England was a warrior king who was inspired by the exploits of Arthur and his knights. Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, married Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII after defeating Edward’s brother Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field). Henry Tudor claimed decent, through his father’s Welsh blood, to the legendary Arthur (Arthur’s birthplace is believed to be Tintagel Castle in Wales). Henry VII and Elizabeth of York played up the relation to the legendary monarch by naming their first son and heir Arthur Tudor!
These are sources for the information found in this post, and also great reading to further you knowledge of Arthur
- The History of the Kings of England by Geoffrey of Monmouth
- Arthurian Romances by Cretien de Troyes
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
- Once and Future King by T.H. White
- Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir (for more about the connections to the British royals and their connection to Arthur)