How does the messiah archetype refer to king Arthur and Galahad? Why are the messiah's births so mysterious and what does that say about their purposes in life?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The suggestion that King Arthur is a Christ-figure appears early in Tennyson's Idylls of the King:

I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not.
I waged His wars, and I pass and die (960, 9-12)

And shortly after this, in line 22, "For I, being simple, thought to work His will" echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 26 when He prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, and asks that the cup be taken from Him, but if not, He will follow His father's will. King Arthur's willingness to enter into fatal battle with Mordred certainly parallels Christ's self-sacrifice: "Nay--God my Christ--/I pass but shall not die (960, 27-28). His passing is likened to the crucifixion and his possible return is a hope for his "faithful."

Earlier, too, Arthur fits the messiah archetype:

  • He is a king whose father is unknown and his birth is mysterious. While Mary had the immaculate conception, Arthur was conceived in the "Great Guiding Goddess," a mythical figure.
  • He is a king who desires law and order. While Jesus taught that people must obey the Ten Commandments and be virtuous, as well, with charity as the greatest of all virtues, King Arthur established a chivalric code for his knights, a code that includes guidelines for proper behavior around women, how to act concerning the church, and how to uphold one's honor.
  • Arthur created the Knights of the Round Table; similar to the apostles, they vowed to serve their king.
  • Like Christ, Arthur does not realize his purpose in life as a youth. It is not until he removes Excalibur from the stone that he realizes he is "anointed" for greater deeds. 
  • Arthur comes to a hostile world, but restores peace and harmony and virtue. He dedicates his life to the goals of maintaining the happiness of others.

Sir Galahad, the illegitimate son of Lancelot also has a rather mysterious birth as Elaine, his mother, disguised by magic to look like Guinevere seduced Lancelot. Supposedly, Elaine is descended from St. Joseph of Arimathea who held a grail under Jesus's wounds as he hung upon the cross.

  • Galahad meets his father as a young man and is anointed by Lancelot.
  • Galahad seems to be "chosen" as he is the only one who is capable of sitting in the mysterious Siege Perilous, the seat reserved for the knight who will seek the Grail.
  • King Arthur takes Galahad where a sword is embedded in a stone and Galahad is able to miraculously remove it.
  • Sir Galahad experiences a brief vision of the Grail and begins his quest.
  • When he reaches the Grail Chapel, Galahad is permitted to look upon the great cup.
  • Sir Galahad pursues a difficult path, making great sacrifice for an ideal
  • He finds the Holy Grail and his mission is complete.
  • Because his life then is complete and he sees a beatific vision, Sir Galahad is lifted to heaven just as Christ ascended to heaven. 

The mysterious births of King Arthur and Sir Galahad keep them from belonging to a mother, making their lives phenomenal as they belong more to the world and destiny from birth. Arthur and Galahad, as chosen ones, bring virtue and honor to their lands, but neither of them are of this world. Sir Galahad is pure: 

My strength is as the strength of ten
Because my heart is pure....
I never felt the kiss of love
Nor maiden's heart in mine.

Sir Galahad is conceived for the purpose of finding the Grail, and his life is dedicated to this purpose, and Arthur is born to restore peace and harmony to Britain as he fights battles with the Anglo-Saxons and the Irish.

Read the study guide:
Le Morte d'Arthur

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