A nineteenth century wood engraving
of the Round Table preserved
in Winchester Castle.
From Malory we have the best known version of the origin of the Round Table. This centrepiece of King Arthur's court was made by Merlin to symbolise the 'roundness and rightness of the world.' At first it was in the possession of Uther Pendragon, who gave it to the father of Guinevere, King Leodegrance of Cameliard, with a complement of one hundred and fifty knights. While the table was in the possession of Leodegrance fifty of the knights died in battles, but their seats were not refilled. When Guinevere married King Arthur, Leodegrance gave Arthur the Round Table with it's knights as a wedding gift. The table accompanied Guinevere when she was escorted to London by Merlin for her marriage to Arthur.
Although the Round Table was central feature of Arthur's court in Malory. Where it was a great honour to sit and only the best knights of the court were given a seat. It is astounding that the table did not feature at all in the earliest stories of Arthur.
For instance, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the pioneering publicist for King Arthur, does not mention the Round Table in his 'History of the Kings of Britain' (completed about 1136). Though he does have Merlin and Uther Pendragon involved in the moving of another circular object (Stonehenge) to Britain: of which more later.
It has been suggested that there had been a British tradition of King Arthur having had a Round Table. A tradition was forgotten in Britain but was preserved on the continent. In his Study of Celtic Literature, first published in 1867, Matthew Arnold wrote:-
....in the eleventh (century), twenty or thirty years before the new literary epoch began, we hear of Rhys ap Tudor having "brought with him from Brittany the system of the Round Table, which at home had become quite forgotten, and he restored it as it is, with regard to minstrels and bards, as it had been at Caerlion-upon-Usk, under the Emperor Arthur, in the time of the sovreignty of the race of the Cymry over the island of Britain and its adjacent islands.
It is to one of Geoffrey's rewriters, the monk Wace, who first introduces the 'Round Table' into the story of Arthur. Writing in Brittany, he completed a Norman-French translation and adaptation of Geoffrey's book in 1155. Wace describes the table and it's purpose as follows: -
"On account of his noble barons - each one felt he was superior, each considered himself the best, and none could say who was the worst - Arthur had the Round Table made, about which the British tell many a tale. There sat the vassals, all equal, all leaders; they were placed equally around the table, and equally served. None could boast he sat higher than his peer; all were seated near the place of honour, none far away."
Wace and Lawman: the Life of King Arthur, trans. Weiss, J., Allen, R., Dent 1997.
By the 'British', who had many tales of the Round Table, Wace probably meant the people of Brittany - not of the British Isles. This suggests that the tradition Wace recorded came from the continent.
The ancient Greeks were aware of a Celtic feasting practice that could have been transformed into the Round Table. A Greek called Poseidonus wrote of Celtic nobles and warriors being seated in a circle at a feast. The custom he described was followed by the Celts who had migrated eastward and had settled in Galatia (in the centre of the modern state of Turkey). Poseidonus wrote about the early third century BCE. Chieftains at feasts were seated in a circle in order of their status. While their weapon bearers enjoyed the same feast seated in a separate circle. Like Arthur's fraternity of Round Table knights, the weapon bearers most likely shared the same status.
"When a large number feast together they sit around in a circle with the most influential chieftain at the centre, like the leader of a chorus. His position is accorded on whether he surpasses the others in warlike skills, or nobility of his family, or his wealth. Beside him sits the person giving the feast and on either side of them sit the others in order of their distinction or merit. Their shield holders stand behind them while their weapon bearers are seated in a circle on the opposite side of the room and feast in common with their lords. The servers carried the drink in terracotta or silver jars like spouted jugs."
From Peter Berresford Ellis, 'Celt and Greek', P.39.
When the English priest Lawman transformed Wace's Norman-French version of Geoffrey's Latin original into English verse, he introduced a great deal of dramatic action and reported speech. He also had a Cornishman suggest that all the king's court be seated around a circular table to prevent any other arguments over precedence erupting. This Cornish genius then made a circular table to seat sixteen hundred men.
There are three works from the thirteenth century attributed to Robert de Boron; Joseph of Aramathea, Merlin and Perceval. In these the Round Table is given Christian significance and it's creation comes close to the account found in Malory.
Merlin had knowledge of both the past and the future. The former came from the demon who fathered him, while the latter came from God. He advised Uther Pendragon to build a Round Table at Carduel in Wales. The ultimate predecessor of this was the table at which Jesus Christ shared the Last Supper with his disciples. Inspired by this table, Uther's table has one vacant seat in remembrance of the seat that had been occupied by Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Chirst to the Romans. This is the seat that Malory called the Siege Perilous. The seat in which none but the worthiest knight may safely sit.
Merlin chose fifty of the worthiest men from Uther's subjects to sit at the Round Table, at the religious feast of Pentecost. Originally a Jewish harvest festival, Pentecost was when Christians honoured the Holy Ghost. It is nowadays called Whitsun. When the fifty men sat at the Round Table they experienced both a sense of peace and one of brotherhood with their Round Table fellows.
In Arthur's reign, the Round Table has only space for twelve occupants! No explanation is given of this reduction in numbers, but it does bring the Round Table more in tune with table at which Jesus Christ shared the Last Supper with his disciples.
When Perceval had persuaded Arthur to allow him to sit in the vacant seat one Pentecost, it split under him with a dreadful moan. Then a disembodied voice criticised King Arthur for allowing Perceval to sit in the seat and made portentous predictions. That the seat did not cast Perceval into 'the abyss' was due to him being a member of the Grail family. Though his imperfections did cause the stone seat to split under him. This breaking of the vacant seat signals the start the Grail quest.
When Perceval had perfected himself through knight errantry on the Grail quest, he became worthy to achieve that quest. When he had accomplished the Grail quest, the vacant seat was magically mended.
However, the achieving of the Grail by Perceval caused the destruction of all the enchantments and adventures of the island of Britain. Dispirited by the unexciting future that would follow this destruction, the knights of the Round Table decide to leave Arthur's court and to seek adventures overseas. To prevent the loss of the Round Table knights, Kay persuades Arthur is to undertake a campaign of foreign conquest. Arthur's absence from Britain on this campaign, allows Mordred to usurp his throne. Arthur reurns to fight Mordred. Mordred retreats to Ireland, where he is killed. In this final battle Arthur was wounded and withdrew to Avalon. Merlin then, also forsakes the world for the Grail castle where Perceval is now the Grail king.
Malory followed Robert de Boron, by having Merlin make the Round Table . However, there are two new episodes added: the Round Table coming into the possession of King Leodegrance of Cameliard and forming the dowry of Guinevere on her marriage to King Arthur.
It is Malory who called the seat which would destroy any unworthy knight who sat in it the 'Siege Perilous'. Yet the seat was not alone and seems to have been one of a group of three seats without names upon their backs. These seats were reserved for the pre-eminent knights of the Round Table.
Of course the unmarked seat known as the Siege Perilous was occupied by Galahad. Another was occupied by Percivale, who was Robert de Boron's grail hero. Though in Malory's telling Percivale was secondary to Galahad as a Grail hero. The third seat was occupied by Lancelot, the father of Galahad. It is worth noting that Galahad, Lancelot and Percivale had family ties to Joseph of Aramathea, the first guardian of the Holy Grail. Malory gives a long and confusing line of ancestors that connect Galahad and Lancelot with Joseph of Aramathea. While Percivale, in Robert de Boron, was a descendant of Joseph of Aramathea's brother-in-law, Bron.
Another event occurs in Malory and not in Robert de Boron: the miraculous appearance of the Holy Grail at the Round Table. This occured when Galahad occupied the Siege Perilous at Pentecost. The event was accompanied by overawing noise, and with the closing of shutters without the diminution of light in the banqueting hall. Although covered, so that none present could see it, the presence of the Holy Grail filled the Round Table knights with a feeling mystical brotherhood and fed each of them with the food that they most desired. In Robert de Boron, merely sitting at the Round Table filled Uther's knights with this sense of mystical unity, but the Holy Grail never appeared at the table.
The two accounts by Wace and Lawman are far from the story of the Round Table's origin that we know. It was not made by Merlin and was never owned by Uther Pendragon. Yet both Wace and Lawman also include another story that they copied from Geoffrey of Monmouth: the story of the origin of Stonehenge. When we compare Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale with the description of the Round Table's origin that we find in Sir Thomas Malory, we can find interesting parallels. For both Stonehenge and the Round Table were circular objects, and Stonehenge was transported to Britain by Merlin for Uther Pendragon.
Stonehenge was originally a ring of stones, the 'Giants Ring', that stood on Mount Killaraus in Ireland. Giants who had once inhabited Ireland had brought this ring of magical stones from Africa. Not only was the 'Giants Ring' the venue for secret religious rites, but it's stones possessed curative properties. Baths had been built at the bases of the stones to catch water poured over them. In these baths wounded men's injuries were healed. The healing properties of the water were augmented by herbs placed in the baths.
Merlin had suggested to the then king, Aurelius Ambrosius, that the 'Giants Ring' would provide an ideal monument for a group of Britons who had been treacherously murdered by Saxons at a peace conference. Aurelius Ambrosius ridiculed Merlin because he could not see how such gigantic stones could be moved from a distant country to England. However, the Britons decided that they must have the 'Giants Ring' to commemorate their dead and Merlin, with an army under Utherpendragon, was sent to Ireland to obtain it.
After Utherpendragon and his force had routed an Irish army commanded by Gillomanius, they went to Mount Killaraus. Here Merlin set the army the task of moving the stones of the 'Giants Ring' and laughed uproariously when they failed. Merlin now set up his own equipment, and the stones were easily moved and taken on board the ships of the British fleet. In England the 'Giants Ring' was erected at Mount Ambrius, the site of both the massacre and of the graveyard of the massacred Britons. This graveyard was later used as a royal cemetery. Here the kings Aurelius Ambrosius, Utherpendragon and Constantine III were buried. Aurelius Ambrosius was brother to Utherpendragon and preceded him as the King of Britain, while Constantine III was son to Cador Duke of Cornwall and succeeded Arthur as king. In England the Giants Ring became known as Stonehenge.
These common features in the story of the making of the Round Table in Malory and the myth told of the origin of Stonehenge, suggest that we are looking at two stories that came from a common source. One author, John Darrah, has suggested that the the Round Table and Stonehenge shared the common feature of having been centres for rituals that were connected with sacred kingship. He feels that Geoffrey of Monmouth's account (dated about 1136) of the moving of Stonehenge from Ireland could have come from a distorted folk memory of the construction of the first phase of Stonehenge. This phase took place about 2100-2000 BCE and involved the moving of the stones that formed the bluestone circle over sea and land. This journey involved taking the stones from their only known source, the Prescelly Mountains in Wales, across the Severn Estuary to Wiltshire. Those interested can read of John Darrah's reasons for making connections between the Round Table and Stonehenge in his controversial book 'The Real Camelot: Paganism and the Arthurian Romances'.
That the Round Table could be visible in the sky above us is such an unusual notion that it must have a place in a website devoted to the 'Alternative King Arthur', particularly as both the sources for this notion claim to possess Celtic antecedents. In his book 'The Light of Britannia' Owen Morgan (Morien) asserted that Druidic tradition taught that the circumpolar circle traced by the rotation of the constellation of the Plough around the Pole Star was called Arthur's Round Table. For Morien, the stars of the Plough were Arthur's heifers.
The second author, Fiona Macleod whose ideas were based upon Scottish tradition, a vision of the Plough seen by Arthur being the inspiration for the building of the Round Table. Here the seven stars of the Plough symbolised the seven knights who Arthur chose as his Round Table Knights.
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