A Welshman named Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to describe the characters and stories we are familiar with today. In his
Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey tells of Arthur's siring through an adulterous relationship between Uther Pendragon and
Igraine. He also introduces the magician Merlin and describes Arthur's eventual resting place on the Isle of Avalon. In later treatments
of the Arthurian legends, such as Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, Arthur is depicted as a
more "two-dimensional" character. He is still symbolic of
the chivalry of Camelot, but there is a very naïve, obstinate, and at times even a pathetic side to him. Even the manner in which he becomes
king is outside of his control; as a young squire, he is asked to retrieve a sword for his knight and inadvertently pulls the sword
from the stone, fulfulling his pre-ordained fate to be King.
An example of Arthur in his most helpless state may be found in "The Wedding of Gawain and Dame Ragnell." In this story Arthur gets into a jam, and similar to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Arthur once again allows Gawain to bail him out. Arthur practically grovels in front of Gawain, begging to be saved. In Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, we again see Arthur as naïve and unaware. He refuses to see the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot even though there are many warnings. And when the affair is revealed, Arthur’s impetuous actions begin the downfall of his court. He rashly condemns Guinevere to death, forcing Lancelot to rescue her. Because of the honor in which Lancelot is held a schism is created between knights loyal to Arthur and knights loyal to Lancelot. In addition, in rescuing Guinevere Lancelot inadvertently kills Gawain’s brothers, creating an unresolvable feud between two men who had been best friends. Throughout, Arthur is rash and naïve, and is swept up by events outside of his control. He is not the virtuous ruler in control of his actions, but a puppet in a play over which he has no control.
According to some Arthurian folklore, Arthur and Merlin are not dead, but sleeping in the blessed isles or in the hollow hills, images that are symbolic representations of the UnderWorld of the Celts. In the following audio file (click here to play), I have presented a monologue (click here for the text version) that the sleeping Arthur might speak upon awakening in the 20th century. Arthur would be confused by today’s culture; however, today's democratic institutions might not seem so unfamiliar. Although an absolute ruler, Arthur had a strong sense of "rule of law," and there is evidence that fair trials were a mainstay of his court.