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The Knights of the Round Table are all known to be perfectly English. For some reason.
The first thought that usually comes to mind upon hearing the words, “King Arthur”, is Medieval England. And it should be. It has become an English legend, after all. But Medieval England held much more cultural diversity within itself than many people know! The Round Table knights aren’t all syrupy, fluffy guys with pretty armor and poetic tongues. Some are. Don’t get me wrong. But not nearly as many as most think. (And the ones that are have good reason for it!) The birthplace of each of our main characters– a topic not often talked about– tells us so much more about them and their characteristic behaviors.
First, we have to remember that legend’s origins trace back to the 6th century. A time when Britain was definitely not all one kingdom. Therefore, we must bear in mind everyone’s perception of the different areas of Britain at the time.
Let’s start with our main crazy family. Uther was king of Camelot. Or Carlisle, or Cadbury, or whatever area of Britain you believe to have been the “real Camelot”. Either way, it was usually thought to be somewhere in western England. So Uther was English. (Romano-English but it still counts.)
Igraine, Gorlois and their daughters, Morgan and Morgause, were from Cornwall. Which is also in England. Same country, same culture, right?
Not quite. That would be like saying backcountry Texas and Manhattan, New York are the same because they’re both in the US.
6th century Cornwall was hardly considered part of Wessex– where Camelot is thought to have been– or the rest of England, for that matter. It was its own kingdom called Dumnonia (or Cornweal, by the Anglo-Saxons, later “Cornwall”), ruled until the 5th century by the Celtic tribe known as the Dumnoni. Between the 5th and 6th centuries, different tribal leaders ruled over Cornwall. In our legend, Gorlois rules from Cornwall’s castle of Tintagel. There, he marries Igraine, whereupon they have their two daughters (three, if you count Elaine). And eventually, by Uther’s hand, little Arthur is born in Tintagel, too.
The kicker here is that by this time, Christianity was beginning to spread throughout Britain. But a few Celtic lands still clung to their pagan traditions.
Cornwall was one of them. As time went on, much of Cornwall grew a reputation for sorcery and witchcraft– “magic” that could not be explained by the Christian eye. Thus, Morgan le Fay, Morgause and the Arthurian women of Cornwall are commonly portrayed as witches or enchantresses. (Also, that huge divide between Cornwall and Wessex adds another juicy layer to Gorlois and Uther’s rivalry. I don’t know about you but I’m HERE for that drama.)
The point is, Arthur and most of his family– even Guinevere, in many versions– were all Cornish. That was a big deal for someone who was to be king of a Christian kingdom. So it makes it all the sweeter when Arthur unites both Christianity and the Old Religion under his rule, in Camelot. Way to hold on to your roots, bud!
Another Celtic country still “behind” in the Christian conversion was Wales. A land of pagan tradition, said to be full of magic and mystical realms. In fact, Wales was where the Arthurian legend truly began. Some of the first Welsh Arthurian authors were the first to write of the great Merlin, or “Meryddin Emrys”, claiming him to have been a native of Wales. There’s even a place in Snowdonia named after him called Dinas Emrys. Merlin is a prime example of a character with amazing magic and great otherworldly power, partially thanks to the mystical land he was raised in.
On the subject of Wales, Sir Percival is another example of the “otherworldly”. A native not only of Wales but of the Welsh forests, Percival is portrayed as the Pure of Heart amongst the Round Table; the one with power enough to obtain the Holy Grail. (Until this role is replaced with the very English Sir Galahad.) Similarly to Merlin, Percival is often portrayed with an almost supernatural ability to connect with the natural world– sometimes even faery realms– thanks to his upbringing in Welsh wilderness.
Welsh culture was also heavily steeped in oral tradition, as opposed to writing, as it still is today. So Percy’s poetic words (once accustomed to society, that is!) makes perfect sense, considering the traditionally Welsh upbringing his mother provided him.
Moving away from the Celtic lands, we look to France. A place that was proudly Christian by the time many of our French characters were written. Sir Lancelot, the one and only, is the son of King Ban of Benoic; Benoic being a mythical kingdom in France.
I’ve casually mentioned his upbringing in conversation to some friends, and I’ll never understand why they act so surprised. His name is Lancelot du Lac, for heaven’s sake. And the way he so dramatically expresses his love for Guinevere? The literal definition of extra. Of course he’s French. And it’s what makes him the Lancelot we all know and love! He’s a fierce fighter and intensely passionate. The ideal example of chivalry. He is kind and loving to all; he sings and recites poetry. He’s well-versed in many languages, including the language of loooove. And he’s Christian. (Even though his mother is the Lady of the Lake, a pagan goddess, but shhhh, we don’t talk about that.)
The first authors who wrote of Lancelot were, of course, French (Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and Walter Map) and wrote these tales in the 12th and 13th centuries. By then, France and England had been through quite a few fights: the Anglo-Norman War, the Anglo-French War, and let’s not forget the OG: the Norman Conquest. So it’s no surprise that the French would ensure their characters were much more civilized and sophisticated than those primitive English. And let’s not even mention the Scottish!
Scotland and France have always had very strong, um…differences since about forever. (I just really love that Lancelot is French and Gawain is Scottish. And that Lance and Gawain neeeever quite got along. Very representative of their home countries. Just gonna throw that in there.) Anyway, Lancelot was the first to get the “French Arthurian treatment”. No wonder he became the star of Arthuriana as we know it.
It was also a very French ideal of the court for true love to be forbidden. The more the lovers ached for one another, the more romantic and “true” it was. Therefore, the French deemed that there was no better love story than that of Lancelot and Guinevere’s secret affair.
Another Frenchman was Sir Yvain. Son of King Urien of Gorre (a region in west-central France), Yvain was also known for his deep passion. Whether to Lady Laudine, (*cough* or even to Sir Gawain), Yvain expresses his love like a “wildfire does to an open night sky.” Bold, raw and lion-hearted. A very French characteristic.
And if you’re going to have characters from France, England, Cornwall and Wales, you might as well add the last (but not least) of the UK in there, too. Scotland was considered a wild land by its neighboring countries. Most of it was still primarily pagan, ruled by Celtic tribes. One of the most popular were the Picts– a ruthless warrior tribe. King Lot was their leader, hailing from south Lothian. From there, he moved to the Orkney Isles– the furthermost northeast region of Scotland. There, he marries Morgause and has five sons. One of which was our pal, Gawain.
Now, Orkney seems to be tricky territory for some Arthurian authors to really understand. Orkney is technically Scottish, yes. But at the time that written stories of Gawain were beginning to develop (the 12th century), Orkney was hardly even considered part of Scotland. It’s right across the water from Denmark, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. (All Viking countries that were currently working hard to invade Britain.) Many of the Saxons came from these and Germanic lands, settling first into the Orkney Isles. So Orkney quickly became rather Scandinavian in culture by the 12th century. Gawain and all his brothers would have undoubtedly been raised to be warriors from a very young age. Their people, the Picts, were still Celtic and would have fought hard to retain their culture in the ever-growing flood of Nordic tradition.
This is why I find Gawain’s behavior in The Green Knight so funny. He’s so naïve and meek and polite, and “the weakest of Arthur’s knights”, as he calls himself. Oh, and Christian. A fluffy young Englishman, who makes sure to pray to the Virgin Mary every day and night. Every movie adaptation does the same thing. I appreciate and admire the Christian Arthurian tradition… It’s beautiful and a major part of what makes the legend as powerful as it is. But come on. Is it too much to ask for Gawain to be portrayed as the wild, Pictish-Orcadian warrior prince that he was, in tales told around Celtic hearths? At least in Chrétien’s tales, he has a bit more grit to him while still remaining the kind man that he is. This is my favorite soapbox lecture, if you couldn’t tell.
Nonetheless, no matter how he’s portrayed, Scotland adds yet another color to the Round Table. But if you want some actual color, perhaps we should mention the real VIP.
Sir Palomides, ladies and gentlemen. Enter the prince of Babylon.
Palomides, or Ferifez in some versions, is the son of a Moorish king (a king with dark skin), who ruled over Babylon (modern-day Iraq) and a few countries besides. These countries included Arabian lands and parts of northern Africa. Later, Palomides becomes known as the “Knight of the Questing Beast”, who aids Arthur’s knights in several quests. One was the most famous of all; the quest for the Holy Grail. Arthur is so impressed by his fierce combative skills, his gracious manner and his unmatched strength that he makes him a knight of Camelot.
YES, folks, this is not a drill. There IS, in fact, a Knight of the Round Table who is black. And I’m sure you’ve never heard of him. (As a half-black woman, myself, I squealed when I first discovered him. Gerald Morris portrays him wonderfully in his Squire’s Tales book series!)
Though his background is hardly ever mentioned in earlier stories, some later versions go into further detail, especially in the tales where he and Percival go in search of the Grail together. I always wondered if perhaps that’s why he and Percival got along so well; both were treated in some versions as outcasts because of their upbringing and background.
Oh, and in case Babylon wasn’t enough for you…to finish us off, Chrétien throws in Greece, as well. Alexander the Great, hero of Greece, has a son named Cligés. Later, Cligés escapes the duties of princehood by becoming a knight of Arthur’s, helping to fight his battles.
Arthurian legend is absolutely notorious for this. If you get nothing else from this article, at least you can walk away knowing that Lancelot, Gawain, Yvain, Palomides and even Cligés– most of Arthur’s best knights– were all princes who literally gave up their duties of the throne to serve him. In case we ever had a doubt of how great of a king Arthur was.
There are several other characters from different parts of the world, too– Queen Isolde of Ireland, being one of them. But there are far too many to mention.
All this to say that the Knights of the Round Table, and all the characters that make up the legend, hail from a variety of cultures and traditions. The Round Table is comprised of men from all over the world, with a multitude of different personalities, different religions, different views of the world, different training, accents, languages, minds.
Yet they are all united by one common goal. To serve King Arthur.
So films and TV shows can make everyone stereotypically English all they like. But knowing how diverse the Round Table truly is, at least for me, just makes the legend all that much more beautiful.