ARThurian: The Death of Arthur

The most surprising thing I found while researching art inspired by Arthurian legends is the lack of artwork actually depicting King Arthur himself.  As is obvious from my previous posts, characters and events surrounding him are wildly popular, but the man of legend is strangely absent from the realm of well-known art.

Is it because he is the most noble character of them all?  It is because artists are afraid they will downplay him if they try to depict his image?  These are my theories as of yet.  Every single other character in the legends is very flawed, scandalous, tragic, mysterious, etc.  Imperfection is easy to portray.  However, the golden persona of King Arthur as a model for the ideal leader may be more effective if his image is not rendered clearly.

The bit of artwork that does portray King Arthur mostly shows his death and burial.  His death and fate are perhaps the most obscure aspect of Arthurian legend, which is saying a lot.  In most legends, Arthur orders Bedivere to throw Excalibur into the lake as he is dying.  Bedivere eventually obeys and a hand emerges from the water and catches the sword.  This supposedly summons the Lady of the Lake, who arrives in a ship.  In some versions she is accompanied by three other queens, one being Morgan le Fay.  In others she is accompanied by eight other queens.  They bear Arthur off the Avalon on their ship.

It is what happens after this that is so very obscure.  Perhaps he died in Avalon, or perhaps his body was buried somewhere else.  Or perhaps his spirit still lives on and waits to be summoned when Britain is in time of great need.  At least, this is the legacy of the legend as applied to British culture and the spirit of the Arthurian saga.

“Bedivere and Dying Arthur” by John Duncan.  This piece depicts Bedivere at the side of the King, presumably after he has cast Excalibur into the lake.  The mysterious ship that will bear Arthur into Avalon is shown approaching.

Bedivere and Dying Arthur

“Le Mort d’Arthur” by James Archer.  In this painting Arthur is most likely dying, as the four queens mourn over him.  It appears he is having a vision about the grail, as is implied by the image of an angel holding a grail in the top right corner.  The figures on the beach are most likely Merlin and Nimue, and the ship is the one that will take Arthur’s body to Avalon.

Le Mort d'Arthur

“The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” by Edward Burne-Jones.  This masterful tapestry is packed with symbolism.  The golden canopy above his head is decorated with images of the quest for the Holy Grail.  The flowers surrounding the scene depict the peacefulness and beauty of Avalon.  Arthur lies with his head in the lap of Morgan le Fay.  It is unclear which of the women are the queens, but there seem to be seven crowned women surrounding him.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon

“King Arthur’s Tomb” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1854).  Although this portrayal of Arthur’s demise is not traditional, since he actually is in a tomb and not in Avalon, this painting is too unique and emotionally charged to pass up.  I love the portrayal of Guinevere in this.  Since Arthur has died, technically Lancelot and Guinevere are free to be together.  Lancelot’s eagerness clearly shows his stance on the matter.  However, Guinevere’s loyalty is very apparent.  She knows that there is a time for morning.  She also knows that Arthur’s memory is just as great as the man himself, if not greater.  Therefore, betraying his memory would be no better than being unfaithful to him in life.  Her restraint and strength are very admirable in this piece.

King Arthur's Tomb


ARThurian: Tristan and Isolde

The story of Tristan and Isolde was originally an old Celtic romance, established separately from Arthurian legend.  However throughout time it became loosely associated with King Arthur’s Britain and Camelot’s court until Prose Tristan was written after the Vulgate Cycle, which fully establishes Tristan as one of the knights of the Round Table.  Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur did the same.

Both characters have variations of their names:  Tristan is also called Tristram or Drystan, and Isolde is often called Iseult or Yseult or Isoude.  Although there are many small variations of the plot, the basics proceed as follows:

Tristan, one of Arthur’s knights of the round table, sails to Ireland to bring back a bride for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall.  This is done politically to help make peace between Ireland and Cornwall.  The chosen bride happens to be the fair Isolde.  On the way back to Cornwall, they both drink a love potion that causes them to fall desperately in love.  In some versions they do so on purpose, in some by accident.  Of course, Isolde must still marry Mark, so the two lovers progress into an adulterous relationship.  Their fate has many variations.  In some versions they both die by various circumstances, while in others they move on with their lives.  However, in no version do they end up together or happy.  Overall, it is a very tragic story.

Their tale is especially important to Arthurian legend because it mirrors so well the Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot love triangle.  Many scholars think that it actually inspired it.  In each case, each of the three characters loves each of the other, but their actions cause their relationships to fall apart.  It is very possible that the doomed fates of both adulterous couples was a moral commentary in medieval Britain, warning of the follies and heartache caused by unfaithfulness.  The tragedy of Tristan and Isolde has also inspired a proliferation of artwork, much more so than even Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair has.

“Tristram and Isolde” by John William Waterhouse.  This piece, as well as the following, depict Tristan and Isolde drinking the love potion.  They are on the ship, sailing from Ireland back to Cornwall.  Considering the looks on their faces and purposeful poses, it seems that they drank the potion very much on purpose.

Tristram and Isolde

“Tristan and Isolde” by John Duncan.

Tristan and Isolde

“Tristan and Isolde” by Herbert James Draper.  In this scene they are also on the ship back and it seems they have just finished drinking the potion, as is implied by the empty goblet Tristan holds.

Tristan and Isolde

“Tristram and Iseult” by Sidney Meteyard.

Tristram and Iseult

“Tristan and Isolde” by Edmund Blair Leighton.  In Prose Tristan, King Mark kills Tristan with a poisoned lance while Tristan is playing the harp for Isolde.  This painting foreshadows this action, with King Mark suspiciously watching the lovers, as Tristan most likely prepares to play the harp.

Tristan and Isolde

“Tristan and Isolde” by Hughes Merle.

Tristan and Isolde

“Iseult” by Sir Frank Dicksee.  This piece masterfully captures the frustration and heartbreak Isolde must endure, loving someone who is not her husband.  She looks off across the sea, implying that she longs for her life back in Ireland, before she met either Tristan or Mark.


“La Belle Isolde” by Frederick Sandys. 

La Belle Isolde

ARThurian: The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake is perhaps one of the most mysterious and ambiguous characters in Arthurian folklore.  Although she is commonly accepted as being the leader or ruler of Avalon, her character has been attributed with other actions as well.  Some of these include giving Arthur the sword Excalibur from the lake, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after his father died.  She is most frequently called Nimue, Vivien, and Niniane.

The story of her beguiling Merlin is most often attributed to the name Nimue.  While she is a student of Merlin, he becomes enamored of her and falls under her spell, both figuratively and literally.  She convinces him to teach her his magical secrets, withholding her love until he does so.  However, she uses the power and magic from these secrets to trap him in a tree trunk or cave, depending on the version.  She is certainly portrayed as an antagonist, as she takes Merlin away from Arthur and the good of Camelot.

The character who gives Excalibur to Arthur is sometimes called Niniane, though often she is simply ambiguously named “The Lady of the Lake.”  She considered a protagonist and benefactor to Arthur, also helping him in other times of need.

The name Vivien most likely originates from Tennyson’s Idylls of a King, in which she is a villain who ensnares Merlin and dislikes Arthur and Camelot.  Tennyson attributes the bestowal of Excalibur and raising of Arthur to a different Lady of the Lake.

Other actions attributed to the Lady of the Lake are being beheaded by Sir Balin, aiding the Nights of the Round Table in their various quests, becoming Arthur’s adviser, marrying Sir Pelleas, reclaiming Excalibur when Sir Bedivere throws it in the lake after Arthur’s death, and being one of the queens who bear Arthur’s body to Avalon.  One thing is certain: she always appears at pivotal moments in many narratives, especially Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, proving her significance to Arthurian legend despite her ambiguity.

“The Beguiling of Merlin” by Edward Burne-Jones.  This piece illustrates the famous beguiling of Merlin.  The usually powerful and lethal wizard is shown to be helpless in his love for Nimue, and possibly also because she cast a spell on him.  Nimue reads from his book of enchantments, gleaning his usually well-kept secrets.  She looks back at him warily, as if to make sure that he is still enraptured, and not about to punish her for her treachery.  The tree in the background is possibly where she entraps him.

The Beguiling of Merlin

“Nimue, Damosel of the Lake” by Frank Cowper.  This painting is a bit curious, at it doesn’t seem to draw on Nimue’s role in legend.  Perhaps Cowper’s goal was to simply portray her character and traits apart from her actions.  He depicts her as being vain, gentle, and beautiful.

Nimue Damosel of the Lake

“Vivien” by Frederick Sandys.  This piece illustrates Tennyson’s diabolical Vivien.  Her beauty, extravagance, and self-confidence are highlighted, traits that may have allowed her to ensnare Merlin.  The apple in front of her might be a reference to Eve, implying her betrayal and disobedience.


Isle of Man Arthurian Coins

The Isle of ManThe Isle of Man is one of the many of the British Isles in the Irish Sea, between Britain and Ireland.  Very picturesque, from the looks of it.  I had never particularly heard of it until very recently, when I discovered that they had minted five different coins with an Arthurian theme.  English crowns, but specific to the Isle of Man.

They each have Queen Elizabeth II’s regal profile on one side, but there are five different “tails” so to speak.  One pictures King Arthur in all his royal splendor, one the knightly Sir Lancelot, one the fair Queen Guinevere, one the mysterious Merlin, and lastly glorious Camelot.  I think it’s pretty amazing that something so seemingly mundane and everyday as a coin could be such a work of art.

Isle of Man Crowns

I thought this was also an obvious signifier of the impact Arthurian legends have had on British culture.  Even though much of the legend was cultivated by French authors, King Arthur definitely belongs to the English.  Mostly the pictures minted on coins are those of leaders and national symbols.  King Arthur is a combination of these two; a symbol of what a leader should be.  He is the golden standard of English values and their faith in their monarchy.  And his kingdom, filled with chivalrous knights, beautiful queens, magic, and striking castles, represents the ideal and culture of Britain.

New book about King Arthur…by Tolkien?

The Fall of Arthur

My mind has just been blown.  A new epic poem about the last stage of King Arthur’s reign is being published this May.  The author?  J. R. R. TOLKIEN.  Only the greatest fantasy writer of all time… and no longer living, unfortunately.  So how is a book of his being published, you may ask.  Apparently he wrote it before he even wrote The Hobbit, but it was never published.  His son, Christopher Tolkien, has taken on the job of editing and publishing it.  How amazingly fantastic is that?

There are many other eccentricities about this publication.  It is written in narrative poem, 200 pages of it.   And unlike most Arthurian literature, it is centered on the end of Arthur’s reign and his ultimate downfall.  Here is the official synopsis:

The Fall of Arthur recounts in verse the last campaign of King Arthur who, even as he stands at the threshold of Mirkwood is summoned back to Britain by news of the treachery of Mordred. Already weakened in spirit by Guinevere’s infidelity with the now-exiled Lancelot, Arthur must rouse his knights to battle one last time against Mordred’s rebels and foreign mercenaries.

Powerful, passionate and filled with vivid imagery, The Fall of Arthur reveals Tolkien’s gift for storytelling at its brilliant best. Originally composed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s, this work was set aside for The Hobbit and has lain untouched for 80 years.

Now it has been edited for publication by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who contributes three illuminating essays that explore the literary world of King Arthur, reveal the deeper meaning of the verses and the painstaking work that his father applied to bring it to a finished form, and the intriguing links between The Fall of Arthur and his greatest creation, Middle-earth.

Note of clarification: the Mirkwood referred to is the real Mirkwood in Germany, not in Middle-Earth.  Although it would be extremely interesting to see King Arthur alongside Aragorn and Gandalf…

I don’t know how enthusiastic other fans are about reading this, but I know I certainly am.  I will be waiting with anticipation until this is finally released, come the 23rd of May.  Here is a very informative article for those who want more information:


ARThurian: Morgan le Fay

Morgan le Fay is possibly one of the largest enigmas of Arthurian legend.  She has many names, including Morgaine, Morgana, etc.

She was traditionally simply a powerful sorceress in the Arthurian legends, but over time she evolves into an antagonist to King Arthur.  Eventually she becomes his half-sister as well, as she is daughter of Queen Ygraine and her first husband, Gorlois.  In Malory’s version, she is married to King Urien and is the sister of Morgause, another prominent antagonist.  Though she put down to many evil deeds in some tales, such as stealing Excalibur, sending Arthur a fatal cloak, and exposing Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, in many versions she is a character capable of good deeds as well.  Her healing powers are usually mentioned, and some writers include her in the group of enchantresses who carry Arthur to Avalon at his death.  She is also often portrayed as a rival of Guinevere; they alternately try to expose the other’s adulterous affairs in court.  In more recent literature, however, she has been reinterpreted as a strong, female protagonist, most notably in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

In literature she is widely interpreted, from a seductress to a gentle healer to a jealous sister to a wicked sorceress.  Understandably, she is portrayed in many different manners in art as well.

“Morgan le Fay” by John Spencer-Stanhope.  This piece depicts the seductive characteristics of Morgan le Fay.  She is wearing a close-fitting red dress and languidly brushing her long hair.  Flowers litter the grown and furniture around her  The castle shown behind her implies that she is at Camelot, which might mean that she is preparing for a tryst with one of Arthur’s knights who she seduces in some versions of the legend.

Morgan le Fay

“Morgan le Fay” by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys.  In this painting, Morgan le Fay is making the cloak for King Arthur that will light on fire as soon as he puts it on.  In the background is the loom she used to make it.  She passes a lamp in front of the cloak as she casts her spell.  Her clothing, with the animal skins and mysterious symbols, and the objects lying around the floor, hint at a dark magic and draw on preconceived notions of witches and sorceresses.

Morgan le Fay

“The Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse.  Though the character in this piece is not explicitly named as Morgan le Fay, most people assume that is who Waterhouse had in mind, considering his love of Arthurian subjects in his art.  This painting depicts a very sinister, dark, primeval enchantress.  Her dark black hair is very unkempt and wild, signifying some sort of inner spirit.  She draws a circle around her fire, which a thick smoke rises from.  She is in the middle of the wilderness, it seems.  Ravens, frogs, skulls, and other sinister signs can be seen scattered on the ground around her.

The Magic Circle

“Morgan le Fay” by Edward Burne-Jones.  In this painting, Morgan le Fay is collecting herbs in a jar.  Many people interpret that she is using these herbs to cast the spell that reveals Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair.  However, I think it could also be portraying the other side of her character: the powerful, yet gentle healer.  There is nothing in this painting that suggests a sinister motive, so I like to think that Burne-Jones was drawing on the older tales of her healing skills for his inspiration.

Morgan le Fay

“Morgan le Fay with Excalibur” by Dora Curtis.  This last piece is one of the few artworks portraying Morgan le Fay simply as a power-hungry princess.  There is no hint at magic or sorcery.  Her theft of Excalibur reveals her jealousy of Arthur’s power and her wish to defeat him once and for all.

Morgan le Fay with Excalibur

Needless to say, there are many ways that people interpret Morgan le Fay’s character.  Wronged sister?  Wicked witch?  Wise healer?  You decide.

ARThurian: Guinevere

Guinevere, Guennuvar, Gwenhwyfar, Ginovar, Wenhaver, Wennevaria.  Her character is about as widely interpreted as the spellings of her name.  Damsel in distress, cunning adulteress, noble queen.  Every version of the legend (and need I repeat that there are hundreds) seems to have interpreted her differently.  Her portrayal in art is no less varied and complex.  All in all, she is a very multifaceted and real character.  Her actions are not difficult for us imperfect humans to understand, especially given her situation, caught between duty and passion.

“Guenevere” or “La Belle Iseult” by William Morris.  Though this painting is generally thought to depict Guinevere, some think that it may actually portray Isolde.  Nevertheless, the situation is applicable to either.  The rumpled sheets, unfastened belt, and preoccupied expression on her face hint at the sexual guilt of an adulterous queen.  However, it doesn’t necessarily portray her as wicked.  Her expression implies remorse and deep sadness.  This painting is a masterpiece in that it combines multiple sides of Guinevere’s character into a believable portrait.

Guenevere or La Belle Iseult

“Queen Guinevere Maying” by John Collier.  This beautifully executed scene portrays Guinevere Maying with her servants and subjects.  According to many legends, she is separated from the group kidnapped by Melwas while Maying.  However, this scene does not necessarily imply impending doom.  Rather it depicts her regal, almost aloof bearing.  No one could mistake her for being anything less than a queen.  She is an object of wonder, outshining the blossoms held in her hand.

Queen Guinevere Maying

“Lancelot and Guinevere” by Herbert James Draper.  In this whimsical, romantic depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere’s first meeting, Guinevere is preparing for her wedding.  The celebration tents can be seen in the background, as well as the flowers adorning everything.  Their eyes meet as Lancelot passes by on his horse.  This painting portrays Guinevere as beautiful and noble, but also foreshadows her coming betrayal when she chooses her heart over her duty.

Lancelot and Guinevere

“Queen Guinevere” by James Archer.  This is perhaps one of the only artistic portrayals of the burdens of being Arthur’s queen.  It is not clear whether the departing ship is Arthur leaving to fight the Saxons, or is Arthur’s death boat.  Either way, Guinevere must bear the burden of a soldier’s wife, as well as a king’s wife.  She must watch him go off to war, not knowing if and when he will return, left lonely and filled with anxiety.

Queen Guinevere

“Guinevere in her Golden Days” by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.  Ms. Brickdale illustrated a version of Tennyson’s Idylls of a King.  These include many different stages of Guinevere’s life, from an innocent maiden, to a radiant young queen, to a guilt-ridden lover, to a penitent nun.  This one is my personal favorite, depicting Guinevere shortly after becoming queen, but before her affair with Lancelot.  The peace, leisure, and sumptuousness of being queen are well portrayed, as well as her natural beauty and grace.

Guinevere in her Golden Days