King Arthur

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What are King Arthur's heroic traits?

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Though he is hugely embedded in our culture and understanding of the early medieval period, most historians concede that King Arthur, or at least our understanding of him, is widely a product of fiction. Most of what we hear of him comes from sources of legend and folklore, with very little basis in actual history. If there ever was a real King Arthur, he was most likely not a king, but a battle leader of the Britons in the sixth century. Any defining characteristics beyond this are purely a product of mythologizing. Because of this, the character of Arthur more or less embodies all of the most idealized characteristics of the time, including a rigid adherence to the code of chivalry.

Like all ideal kings of fiction, Arthur is appointed due to divine providence. One of the most famous legends of Arthur involves him being able to pull a sword from a stone when no one else could do so, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that God had chosen him to be king above all others. Indeed, Arthur seems in many contexts to uphold Christian values, such as being a champion of the weak and poor. Power did not equate to virtue in his eyes, and he sought to do right by everyone. Similar to the epic hero Beowulf, Arthur's character places an incredible emphasis on loyalty, showing incredible valor in defending his knights, who are in turn completely devoted to him. Indeed, Arthur seems to be the embodiment of the ideals of the Round Table.

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All cultures have a mythology.  For the English, the Arthurian legend, with its wonderful characters and stories, serves that purpose.  King Arthur, who may have been an actual fifth century king, ruled over a medieval land that still had barbaric tendencies.  The caste system still functioned with no middle class: there were the nobility and the poor. 

The Arthurian legend as recognized today began with a twelfth century French poet Christian de Troyes. It was his influence which brought the romantic elements to the legend. From his literary treatments, the King Arthur legend that is known today issued.

De Troyes romantic literature included heroic prose and poetry and introduced the chivalric code which guided the behavior of Arthur and his knights. Many other writers have contributed to the legend from Sir Thomas Mallory to the great American writer, John Steinbeck.  Each writer added his own flavor to the story.

Arthur was born illegitimately to Uther Pendragon and married Queen, Igraine.  Merlin, the wizard, actually raised Arthur by placing him in the care of Sir Ector and his son Sir Kay.  Merlin instilled in Arthur many qualities that he carried into his reign and rule over the Knights of the Round Table.

Arthur along with Merlin and some of the knights developed the chivalric code which served as a code of ethics.  From this code, the knights knew the proper behavior which placed God at the forefront of their beliefs.

Christianity also played a role in the stories about Arthur. Some commentators have compared Arthur, a good man who was betrayed by those closest to him, to Jesus, who was betrayed by his trusted disciple Judas. In time, Arthur's story could be interpreted as a tale of Christian virtues and vices.

The character of King Arthur stood as a symbol for the other knights to emulate.  Arthur was human and thus not perfect.  His value system spoke to his love of God and the land. The qualities attributed to Arthur were important in all of the legends that followed and the knights that were from his Round table. Arthur promoted and lived by these qualities:

  • Faith in God
  • Honor
  • Courage
  • Loyalty
  • Depend women, the poor, the weak, and children
  • Work to better than world
  • Charisma
  • Humility

One of the best lessons that he learned from Merlin was that Might does not make Right.  Though someone or some ruler may have more armies, money, or weapons, this does not make his cause the right one.  Right does make might because God will support the ruler who follows the Christian way of life.

Arthur also had some qualities that were less admirable: He was said to be stubborn in his beliefs and did not like to be questioned concerning his decisions. He experienced fear, jealousy, and doubts.  His great love of Guinevere is said to have led to Arthur making poor decisions once he knew that she had fallen in love with his best friend Lancelot.

According to the legend, Arthur will always personify the ideals of the chivalric code and remain a beloved and respected king.  After his mortal wound by his son Mordred, Arthur is said to be in Avalon waiting until he is needed again in England.

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