For centuries, the Arthurian legend has inspired (and continues to inspire) countless books, poems, movies, and television shows. Most recently, a new film titled The Green Knight is releasing in theaters today.
The film is based on one of the best-known Arthurian legends in particular: a romantic poem called “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, and Joel Edgerton, The Green Knight is a retelling of the classic poem which follows Sir Gawain on his journey to confront the mysterious Green Knight, coming face-to-face with thieves, ghosts, schemers, and giants along the way.
In honor of The Green Knight, here are five incredible classic stories about King Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the other iconic characters from the Arthurian legends.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Gawain Poet
Since this list was inspired by the new film, the first recommendation I have for you is dedicated to the poem on which the movie is based. The poem has been translated numerous times from the original, anonymous source.
During a Christmas feast at Camelot, a bizarre knight with green hair and green skin, riding a green horse, enters the hall. He issues a surprising challenge: any knight may strike him with a single blow of a battle-ax. A year from now, the Green Knight will return the knight’s blow. Sir Gawain accepts the knight’s challenge and beheads him.
However, to the amazement of everyone at the feast, the Green Knight picks up his decapitated head and rides away, not before reminding Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel a year and a day from now. The rest of the poem tells the story of Gawain’s quest to meet the Green Knight again, and all the events that he experienced throughout the year.
The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Finished in 1136, The History of the Kings of Britain is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s linear history of pre-Saxon Britain, beginning with its founding from “Trojan exiles” and ending with “the loss of British (Celtic) sovereignty” at the hands of German (Saxon) invaders. Geoffrey introduces readers to iconic characters from classic literature including King Lear, Cymbeline, Merlin, Vortigern, and (most importantly) King Arthur.
Geoffrey chronicles Arthur’s life from his birth to his death and describes Arthur’s triumphs, losses, challenges, heroism, and more. Geoffrey’s work served as the inspiration for many Arthurian legends throughout history, up to the modern-day. His influence can be noticed in the works of famous literary writers such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Malory.
Malory’s retelling of the Arthurian legends is arguably the most significant and influential out of the classic Arthurian stories. He consulted both English and French sources to “give an epic unity to the Arthur myth.” In 1485, William Caxton edited and published this work, and the rest is history.
The tale begins with Arthur’s birth and recounts all of the most important moments in Arthur’s life, including his claiming of Excalibur, his marriage to Guenever, his clashes with Morgan le Fay, and the adventures of his Knights of the Round Table. Love, adventure, battle, and enchantment are woven together into a magical tapestry that transports readers back to the medieval world.
The second volume continues on with tales about Arthur but also gives attention to some of Arthur’s more famous knights such as Sir Tristram and Sir Lancelot. The famous story about the Quest for the Holy Grail is told, along with Arthur’s final, fatal battle with Mordred.
The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle
In this Arthurian retelling, Pyle splits his narration of Arthur’s life into two major sections, each having three smaller parts: The first is “The Book of King Arthur” and the second is “The Book of Three Worthies.”
In “The Book of King Arthur,” Pyle begins with Arthur’s childhood and upbringing. He recounts the miraculous event where Arthur first pulls the sword out of the stone. Pyle then tells of Arthur’s loss to King Pellinore and his quest to find the sword Excalibur and his second meeting with King Pellinore. Finally, the last major story in the first section is Arthur’s wooing of Guinevere and the challenges he overcomes before Guinevere becomes his bride.
The first story in “The Book of Three Worthies” tells how the sorcerer Merlin fell under the enchantment of Vivien, a friend of Arthur’s evil sister Morgan le Fay. Pyle also describes how Arthur and his knight Sir Acclon became prisoners to Sir Nomas le Noir and the circumstances that not only led the two friends to fight each other nearly to death but also how Arthur fell under Vivien’s care and how she stole Excalibur from him.
The second story is centered around Sir Pellias and his strange journey to the court of Grantmesnle to determine if Lady Ettard is more beautiful than Queen Guinevere. While on the way to the court, Sir Pellias journeys into the Forest of Adventure, where strange events befall the knight. The tale also tells of both Sir Pellias and Sir Gawain’s infatuation with the Lady of the Lake, and what their love and lust for causes to happen thereof.
Finally, the third story in “The Book of Three Worthies” is focused on Sir Gawaine. The events that serve as the catalyst for Gawaine’s adventures are when he, King Arthur, and the other men of Arthur’s court see a dog hunting a deer and the attack and capture of a lady by another knight. Gawaine looks into the strange events, hoping to make sense of what he and the others witnessed.
Aside from the bizarre adventures of Gawaine, the final tale also features King Arthur and his meeting with an old knight who challenges Arthur to a duel. Arthur wins and promises the knight to return in a year to answer a riddle. He meets an old woman who tells him that she can help answer the riddle, but he must allow her to marry one of his knights (of her choosing) in return.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
In this Arthurian retelling, Wart is a young boy tutored by the magician Merlyn. Wart’s future is beyond anything he could ever imagine and Merlyn knows exactly who the boy is (and who he will become). Wart will befriend and ally himself with the greatest, most chivalrous knights who ever lived. He will take a beautiful woman as his queen. Under Wart’s rule, a country will unite and uphold the code of chivalry for all to see. Wart will become King Arthur of the Britons. Camelot will emerge as a shining star in the Dark Ages.
However, Wart’s future is not as ideal and clear as it may seem. Merlyn knows what ills will befall Arthur: his queen’s forbidden romance with Lancelot, Morgause’s evil schemes against her brother, and the abhorrence Morgause implanted within Mordred. The latter is perhaps the most dangerous of all, as Mordred’s hatred for Arthur will bring ruin not only to the king but to the people of Britain as well.