|Questions for the epic of King Arthur
1. How does the back-story provided in the prologue about Arthur’s ancestry and in Merlin’s recounting of Arthur’s conception by Igraine and Uther shape the chaotic and tumultuous nature of the story’s setting? How does this age of violence, discord, deception, self-interest and war shape the kind of hero Arthur is in his story?
2. Like many early epics, a woman is portrayed as temptation. From Helen and the story of the siege of Troy to several of the female characters in the Arthurian legends, this archetype expresses the dual nature of romance, the danger of unrestrained and self-serving passion with the stability of selfless and loyal love. How does the author reconcile the good and bad aspects of romance? In Merlin’s use of magic to create illusions to deceive Igraine, how do you view him as an archetypal character? Do Merlin’s and Arthur’s means—what they do—justify the ends they achieve? How does making women the temptation serve to excuse the male characters from what would otherwise be viewed as ignoble and un-heroic acts?
3. Along with female characters who are portrayed as temptations, there are also females who play important, positive roles, such as the Lady of the Lake. In some versions of the stories, especially very early versions and some modern retellings, some of the women who were temptresses or femme fatales were actually goddesses or healers. One of these characters is Morgan le Fay, also known as Morgan and Morgana. In earlier stories, Morgan is one of the magical women of the Isle of Avalon, the place where Arthur is taken to heal from his wounds. Over time, Morgan was written as an antagonist to Arthur, secretly plotting to overthrow him and become Queen. In some versions, she is Arthur’s half-sister who seduces him and gives birth to their son Mordred. How does the portrayal of female characters express some of the cultural biases of male authors in patriarchal societies?
4. Arthur, like his father, desires a married woman, Queen Margawse, and has an affair with her. This leads to the conception and birth of their son, Mordred, who is prophesied to bring ruin to the kingdom and kill Arthur. How does this imply the author’s definition of heroism and virtue and, through Arthur’s failing, the author’s definition of harmatia and vice? What other actions does Arthur commit that undermine his goodness? What does this imply about the heroic ideal?
5. What is the significance of fate in the Arthurian legends? How do you interpret characters ignoring the warnings they are given about their choices? If these fates are predestined, what purpose would these warnings serve? At one point, Merlin advises Arthur that he has fallen from God’s favor. How does this reveal the archetypes of tragedy and redemption in the Arthurian epic?
6. One of the warnings that Arthur ignores concerns his desire to marry Guinevere. How does Arthur’s insistence on marrying her despite Merlin’s warning that she and Lancelot truly love each other reveal Arthur’s tragic flaw? How does this express the author’s commentary on human nature?
7. What role does public pressure play in Arthur’s decision to punish Guinevere and Lancelot? How does this reveal a key issue in leading, especially political leadership? Is Arthur a good leader? Does this change over the course of his story?
8. Why do Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot all lie about the romantic relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot? How do they each rationalize their deceptions? Why does this issue become something Agravain and Mordred refuse to ignore, despite Gawain’s warnings of the war this will lead to?
9. After refusing to condemn Either Guinevere or Lancelot, Gawain turns after Lancelot unknowingly kills Gawain’s brothers, Gareth and Gaheris, who were both unarmored and unarmed. Why is Gawain unable to forgive Lancelot for this act, even though Lancelot had killed two of Gawain’s sons and another brother in previous confrontations? How does Gawain’s anger contribute to the fall of the kingdom and King Arthur?
10. Before his battle with Mordred, Arthur has a dream of seating on a chair attached to a wheel, above dark waters filled with monsters. In the dream, the wheel turns and Arthur falls into the waters. This is an allusion to the Wheel of Fortune, an ancient symbol in many cultures that, in its most basic form, symbolizes the circle of life. More specifically, it expresses the archetypal ideas of triumph and tragedy, success and failure, and the experiences of consequences and redemption. How does Arthur’s story highlight both the tragic fall and the possibility of redemption?
11. In what ways are Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Gawain tragic heroes? How does each character’s story follow the Classical Tragic Form? For the characters, along with a realization of their failings, is there a sense of redemption? Mordred, on the other hand, is usually cast as the villain. What are some ways his story could be understood that might cast him in the role of a tragic hero as well, rather than simply as the villain?
12. There are many versions of the epic of King Arthur, and there are many stories of the other knights of the Round Table, such as Percival and Galahad. One of the most important of these stories is the quest for the Holy Grail. In Christian mythology, the Holy Grail is the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. In Arthurian mythology, Arthur sends his knights to search for the Grail because of its magical healing powers. Arthur believes that this will restore peace to his war-torn country. The Holy Grail was an important symbol in the specific story “The Fisher King.” In his film titled The Fisher King, writer Terry Gilliam has one of his characters recount a version of the story:
Did you ever hear the story of the Fisher King? It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he's visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, symbol of God's divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, "You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men." But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn't love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn't see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, "What ails you friend?" The king replied, "I'm thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat". So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the Holy Grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, "How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?" And the fool replied, "I don't know. I only knew that you were thirsty."
How does the story of the Fisher King echo the major themes of Arthur’s story? How do the failings of the wounded king echo the failings of Arthur?
13. The Lady of the Lake gives Arthur the magical sword Excalibur and its magical sheath. Merlin asks Arthur which one he finds more valuable. When he says the sword, Merlin chastises him for not understanding the power and value of the sheath. What are some of the implications of the sheath being more valuable than the sword? How does this imply the author’s message about the necessity of struggle and opposing injustice, but also the right way to do this?
14. In the various versions of the story, Arthur loses the sheath of Excalibur, which allows him to be wounded in battle. How does the epic of King Arthur reveal the philosophical struggle to understand our mortality, both at the individual level but also civilization as a whole?
15. Like many cultures’ mythos, the Arthurian stories suggest an end to the world. What brings about this end? How does the story provide hope for a rebirth of civilization?