The Cultural Diversity of the Round Table

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.

The Role of the Woman: Then vs. Now

In honor of International Women’s Day, (I’m late but it still counts!) I wanted to discuss the role of the woman in Arthurian legend. It’s changed drastically since the 1180’s, when women started to play a more central part in the tales. From submissive maidens floating around towers to warrior women dominating and bending societal standards to their will…the woman plays an ever-important role in our legend that stars a bunch of guys. But is that role, no matter how independent, still relevant with today’s expectations of women?

Let’s start with a gal we all know. Guinevere was the ideal woman. French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, was the first to pen the story of Lancelot and Guinevere in The Knight of the Cart. Guinevere was everything a woman was expected to be. She was inhumanly beautiful, elegant, graceful, well-spoken… um…that’s about it. That’s all that was allowed. (Aside from obedience, which we all know she was not, at least not in her love life.)

Lady Enide was the same, in Chrétien’s Erec and Enide. “More beautiful than ever a lady has been described before or since”, as Chrétien says; elegant, graceful…un-spoken. Even better. Enide is married off to Sir Erec by her father, as a prize for Erec’s win in a tournament. She had no say in the matter. Oh, except for when Erec told her she needed a new dress if she was going to be his wife, and asked if she wanted one, and she said yes because she didn’t want to be punished. On the way back to Camelot, he made sure she was riding her horse behind his– never in front, or even on the side– and that she was only speaking when spoken to. Normal, right? I mean, how dare she speak up on the road to warn him of thieves and brigands up ahead. Twice, at that. Luckily, Erec sort of sees the error of his ways by the end of the story. Kind of. Regardless, this behavior was expected of all women that were not of nobility. Are you Queen Guinevere? No? Then shut your yipper.

Lady Blanchefleur is another perfect example, in The Story of the Grail. Once again, inhumanly beautiful, elegant, graceful…ooh, and a damsel in distress. Bonus points! The weaker and more desperate a woman was, especially if she was crying, the more desirable she was. (Sir Yvain even finds the weeping Lady Laudine insanely attractive the more she cries.) This was the case from Chrétien’s work all the way up until T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, where the role of women was allowed a bit more bravery and independence. Back to Blanchefleur– she literally enters Sir Perceval’s room in the middle of the night, weeping her eyes out because she’s afraid he won’t fight her enemy the next day. (Which he never once said he wouldn’t do. Also, might I clarify that her enemy is a man who has vowed daily to take her from her home and marry her against her will, though she’s never said a single word to defy him, or even beg otherwise, even though she’s the lady of the house.) She staggers over to Perceval’s bed– because she’s too weak from sobbing to walk like a normal person– crawls on top of him and cries each tear onto his eyes, so that he’ll wake up. Cause, y’know, gently nudging his shoulder would have been far too nonchalant for a damsel.

But to her defense, this is how you won a man over. With beautiful, twinkling tears and sighing breaths and fainting atop his chest. I call these girls the “damsels”.

Lady Laudine was a “damsel”. Her husband was killed and now she has to run a manor and a town all by herself. How inappropriate for a woman! What in the name of Camelot was a woman to do with that kind of power? What a terrible dilemma. Isolde was another “damsel”. Fenice and Soreadamors from the Greek romance, Cligés…both damsels. The Lady of Shalott? The epitome of the word. And don’t even get me started on poor Igraine, mother of Arthur, himself. Like. Girl. Hear me out: a creepy-ass king disguises himself as the man you love, makes love to you, begets you a child and upon revealing himself, you give him no punishment? Oh, and then Merlin comes to take away your newborn baby because he made a sketchy deal with that king and you’re never to see your baby again. And the creepy king gets to kill the man you love and marry you now. Oh, and your first-born daughter is heir to the throne, not you, so you don’t even get to be queen. AND your daughter thinks you’ll get in the way, even though you’ve been nothing but a kind, sweet mother this entire time, so she sends you to a convent. And you go with no fight. THAT, ladies and gentleman, is a damsel.

But the thing is…women agreed with this. This was what men desired. And so it was honestly what you desired. It was simply what was done; to only speak when asked, to ride behind your husband, to provide his every will. You were simply to be a beautiful prize for young, lusty knights to snatch away on any given day, and bear him beautiful children. Or you were nothing.

Perhaps that’s why the “nothing” girls are the most exciting ones.

Lunete is one. Featured as Laudine’s maid in The Knight with the Lion, Lunete is a plain, unremarkably-faced servant who behaves as it pleases her. And that doesn’t get her very far in society. When she goes to Camelot to ask for help, not only do they turn up their noses and refuse, but they laugh. She is not “beautiful”. She is not elegant and graceful; she is clumsy and has a deep voice and laughs heartily. So society casts her out with every other woman of the lower class. But it is because of her sharp mind and her witty tongue and her bold manner– all qualities fit for a man– that she convinces Lady Laudine to ever marry the gallant Sir Yvain at all. It’s a wonder anything gets done in that manor without her.

As the 12th century left and the 15th century rolled in, the role of the woman began to adjust. There had been a few fiery, lion-hearted queens in Europe by now. The writers of the new Arthurian tradition were inspired. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell features Ragnell, the Loathly Lady. It is the ugliest description of a person one has ever put to paper. Every detail from her teeth, to the snot in her nose, to the stuff in her hair that I don’t want to think about, to her body odor… a disgrace to the human eye, thanks to a curse laid on her by a witch. Yet she, the highest possible level of a “nothing” girl, was the one singular person in all of Britain who could save King Arthur’s life. Because she knew what women want most in the world.

In a nutshell, she tells him that we simply want “the freedom to make our own decisions”.

She also, in an obviously unconventional way for a woman, forces Arthur to make Gawain marry her, in exchange for telling him this sacred knowledge. Which he does. Of course, it’s also a nice detail that this knowledge provokes Gawain to ask the very question that breaks Ragnell’s curse. A decision about her beauty, or lack thereof, that he could have easily made for himself, as man of the relationship. But he let it fall to her. Thus, because woman got to choose her own fate, the curse was broken and she was made beautiful again. And not just on the outside.

Women became bolder after this. On the topic of my boy, Gawain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features the lady in a green belt that we all know. Sir Bertilak’s wife does a superb job of taking the great and mighty Sir Gawain and trapping him helplessly in his bed, like a deer in headlights, simply with some whispered words and a kiss. The role of Guinevere even thickened a little. Then there’s Morgan. Morgan le Fay, everyone’s favorite badass, becomes a much stronger character throughout the years. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur turns her into a dark and powerful sorceress. Though she doooes become one of the staple Arthurian villains of all time, one has to admit that she doesn’t lie victim to her problems. She does not take her tragedies and become a “damsel” but instead, finds something higher, stronger, to master and use against her enemies, doing what she thinks is right.

Then we enter modern day. Women’s rights and equality boomed after the 1920s– at least more than it did in the 14th century! And it only kept growing. The role of the woman changed in society; so it had to change in Arthurian legend. Newer retellings gave women much more power. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, for example. Mary Stuart’s The Crystal Cave and the rest of her Arthurian Saga, Vivian Vande Velde’s The Book of Mordred, or Lisa Ann Sandell’s Song of the Sparrow. Even television and film retellings improved the voice of the Arthurian woman. BBC’s Merlin series is a favorite of many, where Guinevere is portrayed with elegant strength, wisdom, power, kindness, unconditional love (for the right man this time), and even diversity. The film, King Arthur, stars Kiera Knightly as a fierce, pagan warrior version of Guinevere. The film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, features a powerful and mystical sorceress who helps Arthur along the way in his journey to bring peace to Britain. Even Gerald Morris’s children’s series, The Squire’s Tales, is filled to the brim with several stories of strong, courageous young girls and women who look danger in the face and chase their goals with a sparkling ferocity. It makes me wish I could befriend them all.

And still, even with this rise in women’s equality throughout the centuries, the ancient tradition of Arthurian women is still somewhat relatable. Granted, not as relatable as it might have been a few hundred years ago. We wear pants now, for heaven’s sake. But we, as women, all still relate to wanting to be loved, just as they did then. We relate to seeking equality. Most of us relate to wanting to be beautiful, many of us relate to seeking adventure and destiny. Sadly, some of us, in some parts of the world, still relate to longing to be more than a man’s plaything; longing for vocality, for freedom, for liberation. And we all still desire what Dame Ragnell said best: the ability to make our own decisions. We always will. Thank goodness most of us do.

So, yes, the Arthurian woman may often have issues that seem distant to us. But there will always be a small flame of something in them that we have within us, too. Whether hearing the tale of a delicate damsel, or a quirky servant, or a warrior queen…women are women. There is beautiful strength lodged within us, if we only look. And as long as new storytellers keep writing of that strength and beautiful depth, no matter the century…the picture of the Arthurian woman will only continue to grow more complete.

“Come and be Welcome.”

Welcome one, welcome all.

“With the opening of any Arthurian book begins a new adventure!”

~ Helen Borrello, Professor of Arthurian Literature (my college professor!)

Why Arthurian legend?

Arthurian legend is an entire world in itself.

Little kids really do still play “pretend”, pretending to be a cool king who pulls a sword out of a stone. Or a badass wizard with amazing powers. Students study the literature in school. Historians delve into ancient manuscripts and Romano-British excavations to find any clue to a real Arthur. Fantasy authors pour out novels every year of a fascinating new retelling of the legend. New movies and fantasy TV series are booming now more than ever, with subtle ties to Arthuriana. Shakespeare even drew inspiration from a few of the tales. Hell, even “Sonic the Hedgehog” has a video game based on the Knights of the Round Table.

Arthurian legend is not dead. It is alive now more than ever. Perhaps it’s because we, as a society, need it now more than ever. We need stories of justice; of righting the wrongs of greedy kings and granting mercy even to those who don’t always deserve it, so that they may learn and live more wholesome lives. Stories of true, honest to goodness chivalry, where heroic knights treat women with an almost incomprehensible respect. Where women make the most of their situations and find their way to freedom, vocality and happiness in a world where such things were rare to come by. Stories of danger and adventure, of bravery and sacrifice, of love and wisdom and victory against all odds. Stories of magic.

Thus, I’ve decided to start an Arthurian blog!! *cough* *finally* I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time, if only to get some topics off my chest that keep me awake at night. Everything from ancient texts, to more recent books, to movies, travel, to discussions about romance, revenge, portrayal and adaptation… The list goes on! So if you think you might be interested, I’d be honored if you’d be so kind as to give this page a follow! (I’d be eternally grateful. Having these sort of conversations with oneself only goes so far.)

I’m an actor, fantasy writer, studier of medieval British history and culture, and an overall Arthurian fanatic. So I hope to keep these posts interesting, and while I by no means call myself anywhere near an expert, I pledge to at least remain mildly entertaining. 🙂

For more, follow my Arthurian podcast, “Of Swords and Magic”, on SoundCloud or Podomatic, and follow me on Instagram @ofswordsandmagic.podcast for more updates! More posts to come soon! Until then, brush up your Arthuriana…there’s a lot of legend out there!

~LJ Bertini