During the Middle Ages, tales about King Arthur and his knights were told throughout Europe. Arthur was the son of King Uther Pendragon and Igraine, Duchess of Cornwall. Merlin the magician, who had arranged Uther's meeting with Igraine, became Arthur's tutor and remained his faithful companion. With Merlin's help, Arthur won several great battles and obtained his magic sword, Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake.
After he was crowned king, Arthur lived with Guinevere, his beautiful but unfaithful queen, at Camelot. There, he and the knights of his court sat at the famous Round Table. Since this table had neither head nor foot, each knight had a place of equal importance.
The knights whose adventures make up many of the legends include Lancelot and his son Galahad, Geraint, Gawain, Gareth, Perceval, Tristram, and Modred, Arthur's treacherous nephew. Modred's Intrigues against the king led to a bloody battle in which Modred was killed and Arthur was wounded. Near death, Arthur was carried by a magic barge to the island of Avalon to be healed. For centuries, Britons believed that Arthur would someday return to them.
There is little doubt that Arthur was a real person, but he probably was not a king in the modern sense of the word. Historians believe that he may have been a Roman or Welsh battle leader of the Celts, the chief inhabitants of Britain before the Saxon invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries.
Arthur was first mentioned by name in a history written early in the 9th century, about 300 years after his death. By this time he had already become a legendary figure. The 9th-century account credits Arthur with almost superhuman prowess and describes supernatural happenings associated with his deeds.
Myths and fairy tales mingled with history as the Arthurian legends gradually spread throughout Europe. Sir Thomas Malory included most of them in Le Morte Darthur (1485), on which many later versions of the legends are based. The majority of these tales are about the adventures of Arthur's knights.
Among the outstanding writers inspired by the Arthurian legends were Edmund Spenser, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Morris, Mark Twain, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and T. H. White. Tennyson's Idylls of the King is the most complete poetic version of the legends. Richard Wagner's operas Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and Lohengrin are based on Arthurian romances.