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

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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.

Iseult

“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.

Vivien