I know--it's long. But it's worth the time.
The Two Eternal Thrones
By Timothy S. Wilkinson
It is unquestionably one of the most celebrated and retold stories in human history. Its heroes are among the most widely recognized characters in the western world. It has not only survived, but remained popular for over a thousand years, and an unceasing stream of books, films, and art still flow from this seemingly inexhaustible reservoir.
It is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
In spite of all of its incarnations, there are elements of the story that remain fairly constant and have become part of popular culture: the otherworldly origin and supernatural powers of the wizard Merlin. King Uther’s lust for Queen Igraine and the unforeseen importance of the offspring of that union. Arthur’s training by Merlin. Arthur’s selection as king by his pulling of the sword from the stone. The new king’s unification of the squabbling tribes of Britain under a powerful, central monarchy. Arthur’s magical sword Excalibur. His gathering of the Knights of the Round Table, including a valiant trinity of brothers from Orkney: Gawain, Gaheris, and Agravayne. The quest for the Holy Grail. The disastrous love triangle between Arthur, his queen Guinevere, and one of his knights, Lancelot. Arthur’s battle against his rebellious son, Modred, at Badon Hill that leads to the downfall of the kingdom. Arthur’s disappearance, and the promise that he will one day return to lead his people to an era of peace and prosperity.
Where did it all come from? Who really was King Arthur, and what is the origin of this enduring, extraordinary story?
The question has been hotly debated for centuries. To some degree, it is a question of what one means by “origin.” The historical origin of a king named Arthur? There is no shortage of candidates to choose from; from the 5th century Brythonic king Riothamus, to the7th century king Anwyn, to the Penine king Arthwys, to another Arthwys, King of Elmet, to a Scottish prince named Artur. (Ford, 2007) One of the leading theories is that he was a “heroic British cavalry general named Arturius” who “halted the pagan Saxon invaders with their Pictish and Anglian allies…and in 517 won a decisive victory at Mount Badon…He fell in 538, at the Battle of Camlan, near Glastonbury, which was both the seat of an ancient pagan cult and a Christian shrine associated with St. Joseph of Arimathea. There his knights secretly buried him.” (Graves, 1962)
But there is more to origin than the source of a name. Perhaps the more important question is: Where did the stories come from? It has been clearly established that, by and large, the events in the Arthurian saga are not historical. So who was the king, and whose the kingdom, on which the legends were based?
I believe that the answer to that question can be found in yet another widely known story, this time a historical account written in the tenth century B.C.E.: the story of King David of Israel.
The Earliest Sources
Let us trace the development of the Arthurian legend to put this theory to the test. The earliest sources that refer to the famous king share almost nothing with the modern legend save the name. Some see references to Arthur in ancient Welsh bardic tales about the hero Bran the Blessed. Bran bore the title Arddu (pronounced Arthū) and possessed a magic cornucopia called Cor Benoit, which appears to have become one of the sources for both the Holy Grail and the name of the Grail castle, Corbenic. (Cor may have been mistranslated as cors, or body, and become a reference to the Body of Christ).
A series of elegies supposedly composed by the bard Aneirin around the year 638 called Y Goddodin contain one of the first known references to Arthur by name when, in discussing the valor of a particular warrior in the tale, the author mentions that he ‘was no Arthur.’ Similarly, the Death Song of Cynddylan (circa 655) metaphorically describes valiant warriors as ‘whelps of Arthur.’ (King Arthur in Literature)
Sometime around the year 730 in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People St. Bede the Venerable records details of the Battle of Badon Hill and names Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern (but not Arthur) as participants. (King Arthur in Literature)
A century later, the Historia Brittonum (attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius) includes tales of the wizard Merlin (called by Nennius “Ambrosius” and based on the Welsh folk-hero Merddyn Wyllt) and the Battle of Badon Hill. (Matthews, 1989) In this account, Arthur is there, but not as king—he leads the army as the dux bellorum, or military commander.
A Latin collection of Welsh history, The Annales Cambriae was written sometime around 970. It also mentions the “Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.” It also includes a reference to “the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.” The Anales also mentions the battle of Arfderydd and says that following the battle “Myrddin (Merlin) went mad.” (Green, 2007)
Arthur next appears in the tenth century Welsh tale The Spoils of Annwfyn, leading his war band (including a knight named Llwch Lleminiawg, considered by many to be the original Lancelot) on a series of expeditions into the underworld. (Matthews, 1989) It is generally accepted that this story summarizes a number of Arthurian tales that already existed when it was written. This tradition continues with the stories Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy in the famous medieval collection The Mabinogion (probably written between 1060 and 1200). Interestingly, several of these tales contain references to the Cauldron of Annwfyn, a bowl that has the power to heal and/or return life to the dead. Some scholars believe that this may be another root of the legend of the Holy Grail, although that is by no means a consensus view. (Matthews, 1989)
In the Mabinogion “the magnetic figure of Arthur drew to him a vast panoply of Celtic heroes, whose honour it became to serve at his court.” (Matthews, 1989) This is, of course, echoed in every following version of the story—the assemblage of the Knights of the Round Table. The Mabinogion details the superhuman exploits of these warriors that brought them to Arthur’s attention.
Here we begin to see the first Biblical parallels—although taken on their own they would seem nothing more than a literary commonality. Nathan the Prophet, author of the Bible book of 2 Samuel follows the same pattern as the author of the Mabinogion. King David gathers his gibborim, his “Mighty Men,” and 2 Samuel chapter 23 gives us the backstories of these knights and their feats of valor.
The History of the Kings of Britain
But the origin of the story as it has come down to us today really begins with the pseudo-historical work of a Bishop of St. Asaph named Geoffrey of Monmouth. Claiming that he was translating a “certain very ancient book written in the British language” given him by one Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, in around 1135 he wrote Historia Regum Britanniae. (Matthews, 1989) In his writings, Geoffrey specifically stated that he intended to portray Arthur as the one who would make Britain “a new Israel.”
Merlin the Enchanter appears early in Historia. He is a prophet with supernatural powers who serves as an advisor to Arthur throughout his reign. When he dies, Arthur’s kingdom begins to fall into decline. He corresponds to the Biblical prophet Samuel, who likewise manifests supernatural powers (1 Samuel 7:10, 1 Samuel 12:18) and serves as an advisor to David. After Samuel’s death, David’s kingdom begins to fail.
In Geoffrey’s account, Vortigern is threatened by Saxon invaders and unwisely shows them mercy, leading to years of warfare. In the Bible book of 1 Samuel, Israelite King Saul is likewise threatened by foreign invaders and shows mercy to their king, Agag (1 Samuel chapter 15). For this he is condemned by the prophet Samuel and told that his kingship will not last (1 Samuel 15:22, 23).
As the story continues, Vortigern’s successor, Uther Pendragon, sees the wife of the Duke of Tintagil, the Lady Igraine, and immediately lusts after her. With the help of Merlin, Uther lures the Duke to his death so that he can bed his wife, a union that results in the birth of a child named Arthur, who is destined to become king. This episode appears to be a clear reference to another event in 1 Samuel. King David sees Bathsheba, the wife of one of his knights, Uriah the Hittite. With the help of his military commander, Joab, David has Uriah sent to his death while the king takes Bathsheba to his bed. (2 Samuel 11) Although the child of this union dies, the son that is born afterward is named Solomon, another prince destined to be king.
In Geoffrey’s account, Arthur follows up his inauguration by defeating the Saxons and his other enemies throughout Europe, eventually uniting “the various petty kings and chieftains who had reasserted their claims to the land after the last vestiges of Roman rule can to an end.” (Matthews, 1989) Arthur’s leadership produces a united monarchy that ushers in a period of peace. According to the Bible writer Samuel, David also welds the feuding (Judges 8:1, 9:1-57, chapter 12:1, 15:11, 20:1-48) tribes into a united monarchy, and then begins expanding the empire’s borders in every direction.
Near the time of his coronation, Geoffrey’s Arthur learns that a giant from a foreign land is terrorizing Britain. The local knights are all too afraid to challenge this champion. Arthur travels to the scene with his knights Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere (rooted in the Celtic fire god Cai and the war-god Bedwyr) but, after seeing the giant, decides to face the monster on his own. The king kills his enemy with a single blow to its brow, and then has its head cut off and carried as a trophy back to their camp. From this and later exploits, Arthur gains the reputation as a giant-killer and eventually rids the kingdom of these monsters. (Green, 2007)
In all likelihood, parts of this story originated in ancient stories of the Welsh hero Lugh who, in Cath Miage Tuired, slays a giant with a slingstone. (Green) It is easy, though, to recognize in this account the famous Biblical story of David and Goliath. Once again, a giant from a foreign land (in this case one of the Rephaim who have settled in the Philistine city of Gath) is terrorizing Israel, and the local knights are too afraid to answer Goliath’s challenge to single combat. David kills Goliath with a single slingstone to the forehead, then cuts off his head and carries it as a trophy back into the Israelite camp. During later years of his reign, he and his knights defeat a number of other giants (1 Samuel chapter 17) until all mention of the Rephaim disappears from the Bible.
In Geoffrey’s account, while Arthur is gone fighting the Romans under Ceaser Tiberius his son Modred steals the king’s throne. Arthur returns to a civil war against his own son which culminates in Modred’s death and Arthur’s mortal wounding. King David faces a similar insurrection when his son, Absalom, steals the throne of Jerusalem and drives the kingdom into civil war. (2 Samuel chapters 15 through 17) In the ensuing battle Absalom is killed and David never recovers from the tragedy. (2 Samuel 18:33)
Wace, the Canon of Bayeaux
We know little about the Anglo-Norman writer Wace, other than that his work, Roman de Brut, written around 1155, is primarily a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. In the “translation” process, however, he does add the idea of the Round Table and gives Arthur’s sword the name Excalibur (from Caledfwlch in Welsh, Latinized to Caliburnus by Geoffrey of Monmouth).
Chrétien de Troyes
The French poet Chrétien de Troyes composed a series of narrative poems between c.1170 and c.1185 supposedly based on an unnamed source book given him by his patron, Count Philip of Flanders. Chrétien gives us the stories of Arthur’s greatest knights. (Matthews, 1989) In Perceval, le Conte du Graal the knight Perceval sees a graal—in this account a wide, deep dish or bowl containing a single Mass wafer which is all that sustains a quasi-Christian character known as The Fisher King.
(Loomis, The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, 1991) Chrétien also introduces Camelot and the tragic love triangle between King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and one of Arthur’s knights, Lancelot (perhaps based on the Irish warrior god Lugh Lamhfada).
Of course, as already mentioned, the love triangle in the Arthurian story mirrors David’s illicit relationship with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of David’s knights.
Gerald of Wales
The famous churchman Gerald of Wales authored seventeen popular and well-respected books of British history between 1156 and 1223. In one of them, he writes that he was at Glastonbury Abbey in 1190 or 1191 when the monks there exhumed the body of King Arthur from his grave. It is now widely accepted that the monks of Glastonbury invented the “exhumation” as a publicity stunt to draw pilgrims to the abbey. I mention the account only to demonstrate that it was not uncommon for churchmen of the time to use the legend of King Arthur for their own agendas—be it by inventing his grave or inventing events in his life.
Robert de Borron
It is to the Burgundian knight and poet Robert de Borron that we owe some of the latest additions to the legend. His work Le Roman du Graal was comprised of three poems: Joseph d’Arimathea, Merlin, and Perceval. I write was because all but one and a half of the poems are lost to history; we known of their contents from prose versions that are also believed to have been written by de Borron between 1191 and 1202.
He also Christianized the legend, explaining Merlin’s supernatural powers by presenting him as the offspring of the devil and a nun, adding some detail to the story of Joseph of Arimathea’s possession of the Grail, and introducing the now-famous character of the Fisher King. Le Roman du Graal is filled with Christian symbology: a fish that represents Christ, the punishment of false disciples, sin as the source of want among the people, a “godhead” of three Grail-keepers. (Matthews, 1989)
But it is from his poem Merlin that de Borron’s most memorable contribution comes. Here we first find mention of the Sword in the Stone, a symbol by which the true king of Britain can be identified. Merlin brings the kings and leaders of the land to his test of their right to rule: a sword plunged through an anvil which sits atop a block of stone. The various tribal leaders of the country are gathered around the stone, and each of them tries his hand unsuccessfully at removing it. But it is the youngest one present who is successful and is proclaimed by Merlin to be the rightful king.
De Borron’s drawing of a sword through an anvil from a stone is, of course, a fairly straightforward metaphor for the production of weapons-grade metal from raw ore, a fitting subject for the story of a leader who may have seen his people through a part of the transition from bronze to iron. King David found himself in the same position. In the days of his predecessor, Saul, the Philistines had established such a monopoly on the production and repair of iron that Samuel reports “there was not a smith to be found in Israel…and all the Israelites would go down to the Philistines to get each one his plowshare or his mattock or his axe or his sickle sharpened.” (1 Samuel 13: 19, 20) The Philistines (believed to be one of the “Sea Peoples” who were driven from Mycenae) had conquered Anatolia not long before this and archaeology indicates that they carried the Hittite secrets of iron-making with them into Palestine, where it remained their secret for many years. The Bible is not specific on the subject, but when David returns to Israel after spending time as a vassal lord in Philistia he begins to consistently win battles against the Philistine army. Did he bring with him the carefully guarded metallurgical secret of the Hittites? It is at around this time that iron tools and weapons begin to show up with regularity in the Israelite archaeological record.
In any case, the drawing of the sword from the stone also reflects two accounts from the Bible, both of which cooperate to make David the undisputed King of Israel. The first is the gathering of the sons of Jesse in 1 Samuel chapter 16. As with the lords assembled around the Sword in the Stone, one by one Samuel presents the men to God, and one by one they are found unworthy. Then the youngest son is summoned from the field; David, still a boy, is selected and anointed as king.
The second account is David’s confrontation with the giant Goliath. Just as with King Arthur, the confirmation of David’s destiny involves a giant, a unique sword, a stone, and a young, unknown contender for a disputed throne.
The swords of both kings deserve additional mention. As we have already seen, Arthur’s sword is the magical Excalibur, received from the quasi-religious figure the Lady of the Lake. David takes Goliath’s sword for his own. Nowhere is it suggested that the sword has magical powers, but imagine the size of a sword forged for a nine-and-a-half foot tall national champion! Not only would it been huge, but it would have been of the finest quality metal that the Philistines had available to them—perhaps even steel forged from meteor-ore. (Two centuries earlier, Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen was buried with a very fine steel dagger lying on his chest. Archaeologists have concluded that the dagger was made of meteor-steel, likely forged by Hittite smiths). (Shawn, 1995) Only twice in the entire canon of the Hebrew Scriptures are any real details given about a specific weapon. One of them is David’s comment regarding Goliath’s sword, a statement that finds no parallel anywhere else in the Bible. When it is returned to him at the hands of the religious figure, High Priest Ahimelech, the future king says, “There is no other like it.” (1 Samuel 21:9) In both Arthur and David’s cases the possession of an extraordinary sword is one of the indications of a divinely-approved ruler. What would David have looked like as he charged into battle with an enormous (possibly two-handed for him) sword against enemies who typically carried blades less than twenty-four inches long? (Herzog, 1997)
The Vulgate Cycle
The next significant development in the Arthurian saga was a series of five volumes of prose written by Cistercian monks under the direction of the famous clergyman Bernard of Clairvaux sometime between 1220 and 1240. (Matthews, 1989)
This religiose retelling adds a number of important elements now considered vital parts of the story. In his old age (according to the Vulgate Cycle), Arthur decides that he desires to be remembered for something more than his military exploits. He seeks a mission of spiritual value, and thus is conceived the Quest for the Holy Grail. The Cistercian monks provide a brief history of the Grail, explaining that Joseph of Arimathea carried the sacred cup, used by Christ at the Last Super, to Britain. The Grail can be found only by a knight who is pure in heart, and the character of Galahad is invented for this purpose, a son of Lancelot’s adulterous affair with the lady Elaine of Carbonek. Galahad is the model of warrior-asceticism, an example for the Knights Templar that Bernard so fervently endorsed. (In fact in the Vulgate Cycle Galahad’s coat of arms is a white shield with a vermilion cross, the same symbol assigned to the Templars by Pope Euguene III, a disciple of Bernard’s). Galahad’s name is a Biblical one, a corruption of Gilead, meaning Witness Heap, suggesting Galahad’s inextricable connection to the “heap” of testimony provided in the Hebrew Scriptures to point toward the coming of the Christ.
(Loomis, The Development of the Arthurian Romance, 2000) He it is who finds the Grail, proving himself more ‘pure in heart’ (as the Tennyson poem, Sir Galahad, expresses it) than Arthur and Lancelot.
During the Grail quest Galahad, Perceval, and Bors all board a boat upon which wait a “strange sword” and a crown. A maiden tells them that the boat had been built by King Solomon in anticipation of a descendent of his who would become the greatest knight in the world and achieve the Grail Quest. She also informs them that the crown was Solomon’s and the sword was King David’s own (taken from the giant Goliath).
Once again the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is highlighted and to the sinful nature of Arthur and his knights is ascribed the downfall of Camelot. Mordred is introduced as Arthur’s son and nephew, the result of the king’s unwitting incest with his sister Morgaine, or Morgan le Fay.
When the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere is uncovered, Lancelot escapes and Guinevere is sentenced to death. Lancelot returns to rescue her but in the process accidentally kills Gaheris and Gareth, the sons of Lot. Driven by the implacable vengeance of their brother Gawain (originally Gwalchmai, a Welsh solar deity), Arthur travels to France to attack Lancelot. While he is there, Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred takes over the kingdom of Britain, claims Arthur is dead, and commands Guinevere to marry him. When Arthur learns of Mordred’s treachery, he returns from France and meets his son in the Battle of Badon Hill. Arthur kills Mordred, and Mordred gives Arthur a mortal wound. At the end of the tale, Arthur is borne away by Morgan le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, to Avalon, with the promise that he will one day return.
(It is interesting to note that Morgan le Fay who had, until this point in history, been portrayed as a healer or as the Celtic battle-goddess Morgana, is now transformed into Arthur’s evil, enchantress half-sister. Apparently this was a result of further religious influence on the story—the Cistercians believed that attributing the powers of healing or prophecy, even in literature, to a woman who was not a member of a religious order was blasphemy).
Once again, the Vulgate Cycle’s version of events parallels those of King David’s reign. In David’s later years, he desired to be remembered for something more than his military exploits. He sought a mission of spiritual value, and determined to build a Temple for his God, Jehovah, in the city of David--Jerusalem. (2 Samuel 7:1, 2) Like Arthur, he is found unworthy to do so (“because of the warfare with which they surrounded him” according to 1 Kings 5:3) and the task is given to one more pure in heart—his son, Solomon. (2 Samuel 7:12, 13)
John Matthews writes that “the grail represents not just a spiritual quest in place of the violent physical, but a connection between the mundane and the spiritual, as well as a means of healing the people and the land, the means to ultimate good. It is only a representation of a more potent reality: the sacrificial blood of Christ which it contains.” (Matthews, 1989)
In all of this it is a potent parallel to the Temple of Solomon, for which this entire description also holds true.
Lancelot’s killing of Gaheris and the ensuing feud echoes an episode early in David’s rule. In 2 Samuel chapter 2, Abner, Saul’s uncle and military commander is pursued by a young Asahel, one of the famous sons of Zeruiah. The veteran Abner begs Asahel to give off the chase because he did not desire to kill the lad. When Asahel refused, “Abner got to strike him in the abdomen with the butt end of the spear, so that the spear came out from his back; and he fell there and died where he was.” (2 Samuel 2:20-23) From that day forward, Asahel’s brothers, Joab and Abishai, driven by their desire for vengeance, murder and manipulate their way through the kingdom (see 2 Samuel 3:22-27, 11:14-25, 18:1-17, 20:8-33, 1 Kings 1:18, 19) until Joab is finally executed by Solomon after David’s death.
As the sons of Lot were key players in the civil war that divided Arthur’s kingdom, Joab was indirectly responsible for the success of David’s son Absalom’s insurrection against David, although in the end it is he who slaughters Absalom against David’s direct orders. (2 Samuel 18: 9-17) And just as Mordred tried to force Guinevere to marry him to give legitimacy to his rule, one of Absalom’s first acts on taking the city of Jerusalem is to “have relations with the concubines of his father” on the roof of the palace “under the eyes of all Israel.” (2 Samuel 16:20-22)
Mordred gave Arthur a wound that would not heal; Absalom’s rebellion and death cast a pall on David from which the king never fully recovers.
Le Morte d’Arthur
In around 1470 a former Member of Parliament was languishing in Newgate prison after a string of bizarre crimes: the ambush and attempted murder of the Duke of Buckingham, robbing Coombe Abbey and insulting the abbot, rape of one Henry Smyth’s wife, large scale cattle theft, and highway robbery. He had already escaped incarceration twice—once by swimming the moat of Coleshill prison and once by making an armed breakout from Colchester Castle.
The accused was Sir Thomas Malory, King Arthur’s most famous biographer. During his years in Newgate, Malory assembled the work of previous chroniclers into the first “coherent history of Arthur from his curious birth to his dramatic death.” (Graves, 1962) Malory called it The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the round table. William Caxton published the work for Malory—posthumously and anonymously (apparently for fear the author’s reputation would decrease sales). He called it Le Morte d’Arthur.
Malory did not add much that was new to the core of the legend (his work seems to be based almost entirely on the Vulgate Cycle), but his decisions as to what to include shaped Le Morte d’Arthur into the most Davidic version of the story at the time. His language and pacing is Biblical. (Matthews, 1989) As an example, note the description of Galahad’s arrival at court, “redolent with New Testament detail”
(Matthews, 1989): “In the Meanwhile came in a good old man, and an ancient, clothed all in white, and there was no knight knew from whence he came. And with him he brought a young knight, both on foot, in red arms, without sword or shield, save a scabbard hanging by his side. And these words he said: ‘Peace be with you, fair lords.’” (Malory, 1962)
Of course, the stories are outspokenly “Christian,” but in name only: they are thick with fornication, adultery, pedophilia, brutality, incest, and vengeance. Robert Graves, in his introduction to the 1962 translation of the work by Keith Baines, observes that Mallory had turned Arthur into “a counter-Christ, with twelve knights of the Round Table to suggest Twelve Apostles, and with a Second Coming.” The intended audience of the work were a people for whom the “ascetic morality preached by Jesus” was completely foreign. Their behavior, much like that of the Knights of the Round Table, was largely shaped by their determination to protect their personal and national honor at all costs. It was difficult to reconcile this attitude with Jesus’ admonitions to humility and ‘turning the other cheek.’ The seigniorial class of the time identified more with their interpretation of the morality of the ancient Israelite warrior who “fought ruthlessly: thrusting women through the belly with his javelin, dashing the little ones against stones, and smiting noncombatants with the edge of his sword.” (Graves, 1962)
But in Malory’s version it is easy to identify the Davidic parallels. Here we find Merlin/Samuel (whose birth is the result of supernatural intervention) becoming a prophet at a young age and manifesting supernatural abilities, responsible for the enthronement of Vortigern/Saul and Arthur/David. Vortigern/Saul unwisely shows mercy to their foreign enemies and is condemned for it. Uther/David falls in lust with Igraine/Bathsheba and beds her while arranging the death of her husband the Duke of Tintagel/Uriah the Hittite. A child of this union, Arthur/Solomon, becomes the next king when his father, Uther/David, on his deathbed, throws his support behind him.
Here we see the leaders of Britain/the sons of Jesse gathered before Merlin/Samuel, one by one rejected until the youngest and humblest among them, Arthur/David, is chosen. Confirmation of the new king involves a unique sword, a battle with a giant, and a stone. Arthur/David takes up his exceptional weapon: Excalibur/the sword of Goliath.
We watch as Arthur/David assembles his knights/mighty men, and we wonder at the supernatural skill and strength they demonstrate as the litany of their achievements is set before us. We note the significance of the sons of Lot/Zeruiah, Gawain, Gaheris and Gareth/Joab, Abishai, and Asahel.
After a life of unparalleled success in battle against his enemies, Arthur/David determines to pursue a more spiritual goal, the Grail Quest/construction of the Temple. But Arthur/David is found unworthy to do so, and the privilege is enjoyed by one more pure in heart, Galahad/Solomon.
Central to Le Morte d’Arthur is the tragic love triangle of Arthur/David, Guinevere/Bathsheba, and Lancelot/Uriah (both foreigners). This transgression in combination with crimes committed by Lancelot/Abner against one of the sons of Lot/Zeruiah plunges the nation into civil war. After driving his father away, Arthur/David’s son, Mordred/Absalom propositions/beds Arthur/David’s wife/concubines. In the ensuing battle, Mordred/Absalom is killed and Arthur/David receives a wound from which he never fully recovers.
As has been clearly documented, the “final” version of the legend of King Arthur is an amalgam of the work of many biographers, historians, and spinners of legend. Its roots are sunk all the way down to pre-Roman times, to Celtic, Welsh, and Irish mythologies. Does not this cumulative origin argue strongly against the idea that the story is based on the Biblical King David?
The Bible is no more (and, arguably, no less) a source than is Y Goddodin, Historia Brittonum, The Mabinogion, Historia Regum Britanniae, Le Roman du Graal, the Vulgate Cycle, or Le Morte d’Arthur. All of the contributors to the medieval Arthurian literary tradition built fresh constructs on the weathered structures left by their predecessors. The real question is: from where did they get their new material? Not from history—that much is sure. It is easy to assume that they were simply the compilers of the work of previous chroniclers, as so many of them claim to be, but that does not put the question to rest. For if Geoffrey did not, in fact, invent the story of the seduction of Igraine, but received it from the author of some “very ancient book”, then whence did that author get the account? The story of Arthur is an amalgam, of course, but the amalgamators threw in additional material of their own as they worked. Certainly, some of the ideas came from their own imaginations, but consider two facts that make it extremely unlikely that all, or even most, of it did so.
First: who were these “compilers?” Geoffrey was a Bishop, Wace was a canon, Chrétien de Troyes was writing for a devout Cathari, Robert de Borron blatantly Christianized the work, Bernard of Clairvaux was an abbot promoting the ideas of the Knights Templar. As has already been noted, several of them admitted to religious aspirations for their writing. To what would they turn when seeking to flesh out the story of Britain’s greatest king? To the greatest king of the Bible, of course—a hero with the human frailties they needed to make him an accessible model for Christian knights.
Second: there are simply too many parallels between the Arthurian story as it has come down to us and the Biblical account of David’s life to be coincidental. It would be a different matter if the Bible (or some other ancient source) were filled with stories of prophet-advised, giant-slaying kings with extraordinary swords who gather knights of superhuman ability, are condemned for their involvement in an illicit love affair, fail to achieve their loftiest goal due to impurity in their hearts, and battle their own sons in a civil war that ends in the son’s death and the father’s ultimate destruction. But the Bible is not filled with such characters and events; nor is any other work of literature. This combination is unique to two tales: David, the greatest king of Israel, and Arthur, the greatest king of Britain.
To the medieval audience for whom these tales were originally written, Arthur represented a unique leader—one who was loved by his subjects, who had human weaknesses and faced human trials. Arthur was presented as a re-incarnation of the values that King David had always been known for. Although Arthur’s life ended in disgrace, the author expresses confidence that he, like Jesus, son of David, will return and rule again with all the traits that made him extraordinary. In Malory’s words: “In many parts of Britain it is believed that King Arthur did not die and that he will return to us and win fresh glory and the Holy Cross of our Lord Jesu Christ…And inscribed on his tomb, men say, is this legend: Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futures.”
For this reason, David is called by Jewish rabbis “the first and the last of the Jewish rulers.” (Shitah Hadashah) Among British historians and bards, Arthur is named “the once and future king.” (Malory, 1962)
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Loomis, R. S. (2000). The Development of Arthurian Romance. Mineloa. Dover Publications.
Malory, S. T. (1962). Le Morte d'Arthur. (K. Baines, Trans.) Garden City: International Collector's
Matthews, J. (1989). The Elements of the Arthurian Tradition. Rockport: Element, Inc.
Shawn, I. a. (1995). The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York: Henry N. Adams, Inc.
Shitah Hadashah 2. . (Zohar I, 82b; III, 84a.).
 It should be acknowledged that some modern historians believe that the Sir Thomas Malory responsible for these crimes is, in fact, a different person than the writer of Le Morte d’Arthur. This is not, however, the predominant view.