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King Arthur was a legendary High King of the Britons. He was born the illegitimate son of King Uther Pendragon. Even before his birth, his destiny was foretold by the wizard Merlin as a great one: he was to be the hero-king who would unite Britain against its enemies. After Uther's death, the kingdom began to fall apart in the power vacuum as nobles challenged each other for the crown. It was during this time that the young Arthur came across the following sight in a churchyard whilst looking for a sword so that his master Kay could participate in a tournament:
...a great stone four square, like a dressed marble block. In the top middle was a foot tall anvil of steel. Within the anvil was stuck the naked sword by the point. Letters written in gold about the sword stated: Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.
The Knights of the Round Table
Arthur duly did pull the sword from the stone, and was eventually recognised as king. His mentor Merlin was on hand to advise him as Arthur set up a court at Camelot and assembled the cream of knighthood. This was the organisation known as the Knights of the Round Table, and it numbered amongst its 150 members such renowned examples of chivalric warriorhood as Sir Percival, Sir Gawain, Sir Bedivere and the non-pareil of knights, Sir Lancelot of the Lake.
The sword Arthur had drawn from the stone broke in battle, so his druidic advisor Merlin bade him accompany the wizard to a mist-swathed lake. Here, the king saw an arm clad in samite rising from the waters of the lake, holding aloft a sword and scabbard, which he duly accepted. The arm belonged to Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, and the sword was Excalibur, the greatest of weapons. Its blade had no earthly match, and its scabbard protected the wearer from harm.
The Seeds of Destruction
Arthur took for his queen the Lady Guinevere, whose unfortunate lot it was to fall in love with Arthur's champion, Lancelot. By betraying their king, the pair would eventually place the whole kingdom in jeopardy. Also, Arthur had a half-sister, Morgan le Fay, who hated her sibling and used her sorcerous powers to attack him on numerous occasions. She even had a son by him, when she had transformed herself into the likeness of Guinevere, and this incestuous child, Mordred, later joined the Knights of the Round Table. Morgan also stole the mystical scabbard of Excalibur, meaning that Arthur was but a mortal man on the battlefield.
The Holy Grail
It was prophesied that the one chair at the Round Table left unfilled, the Siege Perilous, would one day be filled by the best of knights, and that when this happened, the Knights would have their greatest quest. When the day came to pass that Lancelot's son, Galahad took his place in this seat, the court was visited by King Uriens, the Fisher-King, who had been the guardian of the Holy Grail1 and would remain crippled and the whole kingdom a wasteland until the Grail, now lost, was recovered.
The Knights set out on this ultimate quest, but were all found wanting apart from one of their number, as only the best of knights would be able to recover the Grail. It thus came to pass that Galahad fulfilled his own destiny and discovered the Grail, ascending with it to Heaven, and healing the land in the process.
The Final Battle
Despite the success of the Grailquest, the court of Camelot was stricken by the divisions caused by the queen's adultery and Mordred's plotting. Arthur failed to notice this treachery due to the distraction of his wife's infidelity until too late, by which time Mordred had amassed an army of equal size to Arthur's. They met at Camlann, and both sides nearly wiped each other out. Finally, father faced son over the bloody waste of the battlefield. Mordred inflicted a fatal wound upon Arthur, but was himself killed at the same moment, run through by Arthur's spear.
The dying Arthur requested of his sole surviving knight, Bedivere, that he take Excalibur and throw it into the lake from whence it came, reporting back what he had seen after he had done so. Bedivere took the mighty sword, but was reluctant to let such a fine weapon go to waste, so he hid it in the reeds at the water's edge and went back to his king. When asked, Bedivere replied that he had seen nothing extraordinary, by which statement Arthur knew that he had not carried out his task. The king bade his knight perform the duty properly, which the chastened Bedivere duly did. The samite-clad arm rose from the waters, reclaiming the sword and returning beneath the surface of the lake. When told of this, Arthur asked Bedivere to take him to a nearby shore, where a boat with four mourning women waited to take the king to the sacred and mystical isle of Avalon, where he would remain until such time as the land might have need of him again. Thus did the Once and Future King pass into the mists of legend.