If you’re looking for something to inspire your next high fantasy or dramatic DnD game, you have no limit of resources to choose from. There are literally thousands of different fantasy novels and movies and television show that you can draw from – and few are better, I find, than Arthurian fantasy.
What is Arthurian Legend?
Arthurian legend (which I like to call Arthuriana) encompasses a long history of stories and characters that relate to King Arthur and his Round Table. Arthur isn’t always the main character (in fact, he usually isn’t), but his presence sets the scene – Camelot. A kingdom within the fantastical realm of Logres, some ambiguous period of medieval Europe in which a truly good and wise king and his noble knights adventured across the land to rescue maidens, best tyrants, and serve God.
Of course, Arthuriana has been built upon for hundreds of years. The setting is ambiguous because it tends to reflect the time period that each individual story was written in. Early works by Geoffrey of Monmouth are vastly different in tone and scope from Chretien du Trois, whose works were vastly altered and built on by the time Sir Thomas Mallory compiled and wrote the most common Morte d’Arthur. And those works have been changed further by contemporary authors like TH White, and digital media adaptations like Disney’s Sword in the Stone and BBC’s The Adventures of Merlin.
Is there a set place for you to start? Nope. Arthurian canon is vast, contradictory, and has something awesome (and something awful) for just about everybody.
If you want a quick introduction to some of my favorite romances, here are a few places to start.
Note: Arthurian “romances” are not necessarily love stories, although many romances do feature a couple. The term “romance” refers to an idealized, romanticized style of literature with some level of magic, powerful and influential main characters, and a ‘romanticized’ presentation of the world
Gawain and the Green Knight – The Gawain Poet, translated by various sources
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the great epic poems in the canon of English literature. It was written during a time when French culture and language dominated in Britain, and pushed back against that by being fully in English, featuring the preeminent British (well, Welsh, in terms of origin) knight, Sir Gawain, who had been somewhat hard done by the French canon.
It tells the story of a very young Sir Gawain, who gets into a game with a magical visitor to Camelot’s court one Christmas. He cuts the man’s head off, to avoid an equal blow in return later, but finds that he’s just doomed himself when the man just stands up and walks out! So, he must travel to find the Green Chapel. And when he gets there, he must play another game in a strange magical manor. And above all, he must balance his desire to fulfill his word and act always honestly and brave with the much more basic desire simply to survive.
It’s a pretty dark, twisty sort of story. And our hero ends the story far from a perfect, idealized knight. Fans of a darker tale or deconstructions of the traditional romance are likely to enjoy this one!
Lancelot, or, Le Chevalier du Charette (The Knight of the Cart) – Chretien du Trois
Where Gawain was the preeminent British knight, Lancelot definitely takes the place of preeminent French knight. In fact, he’s probably the more famous overall. And while he appeared once or twice before this story by Chretien du Trois, The Knight of the Cart is what propelled him into fame.
In this long and winding story, Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by the prince of another kingdom, and several knights go out to rescue her. Among them is Sir Lancelot, her secret lover.
Sir Lancelot journeys through perilous lands and unusual trials to rescue his love. And even once he does, dueling for her freedom, the story doesn’t end there. He still must make his way home to duel her captor once more and contend with the tricks and traps along the way.
I’m not personally the biggest fan of classical Lancelot, but there are plenty of aspects to this story that I love. For one, it includes a fantastic subversion of the ‘maiden in a tower’ trope when Sir Lancelot is trapped in a tower and must be rescued by a handmaiden from the enemy court!
Percival, or, Le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) – Chretien du Trois
Another French classic from Chretien du Trois, this story isn’t the story that you think it is. As Arthuriana became more and more expressly Christian, it evolved from it’s first form (the Fisher King story) into something else entirely (The Quest for the Holy Grail, with the Grail as the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper). And while the later versions are certainly good, I find that Percival makes for much better character inspiration.
This version tells the story of how Percival, a young boy raised alone in the woods by his mother (sometimes as a girl), learned to be a proper Knight of Camelot. He struggles to understand how to behave most honorably. After all, it takes graciousness and kindness to be balanced with physical might and imposition. It takes deference to the people under your rule, while simultaneously taking charge to protect and lead them. And when he comes across a strange, injured king, he fails to ask the question he needs to ask that he might be healed.
Luckily, he has a second chance – but we don’t get to read it here. Du Trois never finished this story! But you can find dozens of different takes and adaptations that tell their own story of how he made things right. The most notable is the German opera Parsifal.
Percival is a true coming-of-age story that really gets at what a paladin-type character can be if you do things right. You really root for the characters and get a few great laughs from his first fumbling into knighthood.
Gareth, or, The Kitchen Knight – Sir Thomas Mallory
Another story of a man earning knighthood, this one is perhaps the most relatable that I’ve encountered for a modern audience. And while it evolved during the French cycle of Arthurian legend, it’s most famous and most accessible version comes from Sir Thomas Mallory’s Lu Cont du Graal.
Gareth, the younger brother of the famous Sir Gawain, is the youngest child of his household, and all his brothers have gone off to become knights. He desperately wants to do the same, but his mother won’t let him! Eventually, she makes him a deal – he can go to Camelot, but only if he hides his identity. If he is to become a knight, he must earn it without his title!
Without a title, he joins the kitchen staff of Camelot. But he makes friends with Sir Lancelot. And when a woman comes begging for Lancelot’s help, he asks that Gareth be allowed to go in his place. The woman isn’t thrilled, but this is the chance for Gareth to prove himself! And prove himself he does.
The Kitchen Knight is a pretty relatable tale, with hidden identities and lots of action and romance. It’s also pretty simple and easy to read, since you don’t have to go through translations to understand it!
Dame Ragnell, or, The Loathly Lady - Sir Thomas Mallory
This story doesn’t only come in Arthuriana. In fact, a version of it appears in the Canterbury Tales. It takes different shapes and forms each time it’s told, but it always looks at the role of women in the medieval period.
In it, King Arthur is searching for the answer to a question – what is it that women want? It’s certainly a tricky one. He sends his knights out, and eventually Sir Gawain finds a woman who claims to know the answer. But she’ll only tell him if he marries her, and she’s, well, loathly. Old and ugly and gross, which would have made him a laughingstock, especially since he would have been required to consummate the marriage. The value of women was often in their looks in those days, after all.
But he agrees and learns that what women want is authority (whether this is over whom they marry, over their husbands, or over themselves and their lives changes by which version you read). He marries her, but of course it doesn’t end there! She reveals to him that, at night, she becomes a beautiful young woman! And he can choose whether she is to take that form at night, when must sleep with her, or during the day, when others will see her. What is a man to choose?
This story is quite sweet, and pretty forward thinking for its time. The granting of personal autonomy to noblewomen was not at all common at the time, and many other Arthurian stories present the voluntary denial of personal will by women as a virtue. Instead, Dame Ragnell takes hold of her own future, and Sir Gawain genuinely learns to respect women!
Have you read any of the above stories? Did you like them? What are some Arthurian stories and romances that you think make great introductions to the legend, and inspire great characters? Let us know in the comments below!