King Arthur and Christianity
This essay was submitted as part of academic coursework for American Military University’s English literature course.
King Arthur has been honored through the ages as being a noble, fair and chivalrous king as well as being a brilliant soldier. He is the epitome of British nobility and chivalry and for centuries, kings of England have claimed to have ties to his noble linage. Arthur’s story begins in magic and miracles but ends in the gritty reality of blood and tragedy. The death of King Arthur is symbolic as it ushers in the end of two eras, of Camelot and of magic, where the old Pagan religion has been swept away and replaced by Christianity.
King Arthur’s true beginning is in a magical deception of the Duke of Cornwall’s wife, Igraine by King Uther Pendragon. Merlin cast a spell called a “glamour” upon Pendragon that gave him the physical appearance of the absent Duke that enabled Pendragon and Igraine to conceive Arthur without the duchess knowing the truth of Pendragon’s identity. (Malory, 3) Magical transformations are a reoccurring theme in Pagan mythology as a method for the gods to woo and bed beautiful mortal women that are resistant to their regular charms. The children born from these god/mortal unions grew up to be great heroes and in this way, Arthur was predestined by the magical nature of his birth to become a hero as well. The overwriting destiny that Arthur came into was the kingship of England by means of the Christian ordained miracle of the sword in the stone on Christmas.
“(…) that Jesus, that was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, for to show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realm,” (Malory, 7). The act of pulling the sword from the stone was considered a miracle by the people but the nobles were resistant to the idea of a squire becoming their king until Merlin informed them of Arthur’s royal linage. The notion of God ordaining a man to be king over another man was not a new concept introduced by the Arthurian legend but a concept used by monarchical lines for ages; for example, in Egypt kings were almost considered on the same level as Gods themselves for their right to rule was granted by the Gods. Once Arthur had been established as king he went about the earthly duties of being king and waged wars to win many territories in the surrounding are to include Ireland and some of Wales. It was on the battlefield he confirmed his strength and through these victories he was able to prove his prowess as a warrior and as all kings do, he finally took a wife.
It was on the matter of love that Arthur was weakest, he so loved his wife, Guinevere and his knight, Lancelot that he refused to believe the stories of their affair from his son, Mordred. But the infidelity was foreseen by Merlin and he tried to subtly warn Arthur that Guinevere would be loved by and fall in love with Lancelot if she became queen. (Malory, 79-80) Since Arthur’s weakness was his love of Guinevere, it was this that Mordred exploited to divide the loyalty of the knights of the table but it wasn’t by any sort of magical means- it was done by regular gossip and entrapment. Like Judas, Mordred was trusted by his fellows so the treachery was unexpected and this led to Arthur’s and Mordred’s mutual deaths at each other’s hands.
In Arthur’s dying moments, he had one of his surviving knights return his magical sword, Excalibur to the mystic Lady of the Lake by casting the blade into the waters of the Lake. It was only after the sword was returned that Arthur himself died. As a consequence for all the bloodshed caused by the affair, both Guinevere and Lancelot turned to God for penance and respectively became a nun and a priest. (Malory, 922-931) These actions are very telling of the additions of Christian values into the Arthurian mythos but still keeping with the original story. The inclusion of both magic and repentance are elements that were important to help ease the populace into the notion of Christianity. It is with Arthur’s death that the reality that the age of magic and Camelot are gone- almost all of the Knights of the Round Table are dead and Excalibur has been returned to the Lady of the Lake. In the end, the pagan beliefs were lost to Christianity.
Hamiliton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011. Print.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. New York: The Modern Library, 1994. Print.