From the twelfth-century grail romances to Jack Kennedy's brief shining moment, profiling the ideals of a nobler age, Arthur and his knights have been more than a fairy tale. Each century has contributed to the Arthurian cycle--through poetry, prose, on stage or screen--a tale with a distinctive cast.
The most popular twentieth-century stories of King Arthur's Camelot--from Lerner and Loewe's Broadway musical to Warner Bros.' movie to Disney's The Sword in the Stone (not to mention Monty Python's spoof)--do not approach the Holy Grail. Their tales are the culmination of centuries of elaboration. But some are convinced that these elaborations have their roots in fact.
Arthur himself was a real figure, dubbed the "Great King of the Britons." According to Arthurian expert Geoffrey Ashe, he was a warrior king who lived in Britain and fought in Gaul, in what is now France, in the late fifth century. Ashe's new research reveals an Arthur "considerably more cultured" than recent historians have pictured him. The tales of Camelot are as diverse as a royal banquet. The authors of King Arthur stories, like guests eating the most of their favorite dish, tended to indulge in their favorite subject. Some told of courtly love, chivalrous deeds, or chargers and tournaments. Others of nymphs, magicians, and evil spirits in dim forests and dark castles.
Whatever else there may be, there is always the questing knight championing the cause of justice, slaying dragons in the woods of course, seeking romance or adventure, but more often something higher--the Holy Grail. He is immortalized in our collective memory--the pure knight who had "the strength of ten." Searching, ever-striving, overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal.
The mystic vessel of great sanctity played an important role in the stories of the Table Round. It flickered in and out of myriad tales--now clothed in white samite, now veiled in shining mist. It appeared only to those who had most closely attained the ideal of the fellowship--Galahad, Bors, Lancelot, and Percival. It provided the spiritual raison d'être of Arthur's kingdom.