You Gotta Know These Arthurian Characters
- King Arthur, “The Once and Future King,” was the son of Uther Pendragon and Lady Igraine. Uther disguised himself as Igraine’s husband Gorlois to sleep with her. Arthur wields the legendary sword Excalibur and rules the Britons from the castle of Camelot beside his wife, Queen Guinevere. The stories of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regnum Britanniae, works by Chrétien de Troyes, and Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, among others. The different sources disagree on various details; for instance, some sources state that Arthur received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, while in others he pulls the sword from a stone. After the Battle of Camlann, King Arthur gives Excalibur to his marshal, Sir Bedivere, and is taken to the isle of Avalon to die.
- Merlin is a powerful wizard who serves as Arthur’s chief advisor. When Merlin was a child, King Vortigern was told that the boy’s blood was necessary to keep his tower from constantly collapsing; however, Merlin identified a pool beneath the tower in which two dragons fought as the source of the instability. Some sources credit Merlin with constructing the Round Table as well as Stonehenge. Merlin’s primary apprentice is the sorceress Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister on his mother’s side. Some sources have Merlin wind up trapped in an enchanted tomb (possibly in a cave, possibly in a tree) by a figure identified as Vivien or Nimue (the Lady of the Lake). In other tales, Merlin dies and is buried in the legendary forest Brocéliande.
- Queen Guinevere is the daughter of Leodegrance and the wife of King Arthur. In one story, Guinevere is abducted by Meleagant (or Melwas), a king of Somerset, and rescued by Lancelot, beginning an illicit affair between the two. After the affair is revealed to Arthur (in some sources by Mordred, in others by Agravain), Arthur orders her to be burned at the stake; she is rescued from that fate by Lancelot in a battle that results in the deaths of Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris and the permanent exile of Lancelot. Some sources say that Guinevere spent her final days hiding in the Tower of London or in a nearby convent.
- Sir Lancelot is the foremost among the Knights of the Round Table, an expert swordsman and jouster who is the primary figure of the Vulgate Cycle. The son of King Ban of Benwick, Lancelot was raised by the Lady of the Lake, which earned him the epithet “du Lac” or “of the Lake.” Another of his epithets is “Knight of the Cart,” which he earned for riding in a dwarf’s cart while searching for Guinevere after she was kidnapped. Aside from his adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere, Lancelot is known for fathering Sir Galahad with Elaine of Corbenic, who had tricked Lancelot into sleeping with her by disguising herself as Guinevere. After his betrayal of Arthur was revealed, Lancelot fled to France and was therefore not present during the Battle of Camlann.
- Sir Galahad is a Knight of the Round Table renowned for his purity and honor. Galahad is the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and King Pelles’s daughter Lady Elaine of Corbenic. Sir Galahad is the only member of Arthur’s corps who can sit in the Siege Perilous, a seat at the Round Table set aside by Merlin for the knight who would complete the quest for the Holy Grail. Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail, which he completed alongside Sir Percival and Sir Bors, ended when he encountered the Fisher King, who asked him to take the chalice to Sarras. Galahad is supposedly descended from the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, who later visits him and allows him to ascend to Heaven.
- Sir Percival is a Knight of the Round Table who accompanies Sir Galahad and Sir Bors on the successful quest for the Holy Grail. Percival is one of the sons of King Pellinore. He was raised in the woods by his (unnamed) mother until he turned 15. Although Percival fails to identify the Holy Grail during an early encounter with the wounded Fisher King that involved a bleeding lance, he later heals the Fisher King’s wound at the end of the quest. In some stories, Percival loves a woman named Blanchefleur, and he is named as the father of Lohengrin in many Germanic sources.
- Sir Gawain is a Knight of the Round Table and the son of Morgause and King Lot of Orkney, making him the nephew of King Arthur. He is the hero of the Pearl Poet’s 14th-century romantic epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which Gawain’s loyalty and resolve are tested by the title Green Knight (secretly Lord Bertilak), who survives his beheading at the hands of Gawain and returns a year later to return the favor. Gawain’s brothers Gareth and Gaheris are killed during Lancelot’s rescue of Queen Guinevere, sending Gawain into a frenzy.
- Mordred is King Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgause (they were unaware of their shared parentage), possibly making him the rightful heir to Camelot. Mordred is best known as a traitorous figure who crowns himself King of the Britons while King Arthur is in Gaul fighting the mythical Emperor Lucius of Rome. Mordred is also frequently linked with Queen Guinevere: some accounts say that he reported the queen’s affair with Lancelot to Arthur, some say that Mordred took Guinevere as a concubine during his usurpation of Arthur’s throne, and some say that Mordred’s wife was Guinevere’s sister Gwenhwyfach. Arthur killed Mordred at the Battle of Camlann.
- Tristan and Iseult were a pair of lovers who predate the stories of King Arthur but nonetheless appear in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles. Sir Tristan was a knight who brings Iseult the Fair back to Cornwall to marry his uncle King Mark after killing Morholt, an Irish knight extorting the king. During the return journey, the pair ingest a powerful potion and fall deeply in love with each other, but Iseult nevertheless marries Tristan’s uncle. The love potion, however, forces the pair to continuously seek one another out, and King Mark eventually discovers their affair. Tristan escapes his execution and later marries a different woman known as Iseult of the White Hands. Their story inspired Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.
- The Lady of the Lake is a character who goes by many other names, among them Nimue and Vivien. In many stories, the Lady of the Lake is responsible for bestowing Excalibur upon King Arthur. She also gave Merlin his powers of sorcery and raised Sir Lancelot after his father’s death. The Lady of the Lake is frequently associated with the isle of Avalon and is sometimes conflated with Morgan le Fay.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Justin Millman.