The early foundations of the Arthurian legends, which other writers later expanded on, can be found in The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was published sometime around 1136 AD. For centuries, people believed Geoffrey’s accounts were accurate depictions of England’s past. However, it’s now considered a piece of fiction.
Today, it’s still debated if King Arthur was a real person or simply a fictional character. There are no surviving written artifacts that mention him from the time period when he supposedly lived, which was between the 5th and 6th century. However, some scholars think that Arthur may be based on a Roman affiliated soldier that led British military forces against invading Saxons.
As we already mentioned, Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are popular literary characters, and different writers have interpreted their tales in different ways. It is similar to comic book characters; there are many different iterations of the characters and their adventures. So these stories aren’t from one writer – instead, they’re pulled from different, famous Arthurian works. But one thing that does tie them all together is that they are all super messed up.
10. Arthur’s Conception
King Arthur’s father is Uther Pendragon, and how he came to sire Arthur is pretty dark, and very creepy. That picture? That’s Uther. So you can see he’s already got “creepy” down to a science.
The story starts with Uther falling in love with a woman named Igraine. The problem is that Igraine is married to the Duke of Cornwall, Gorlois. Uther and Gorlois get into an argument about it and this leads to Uther invading Gorlois’ land.
A short distance away from his castle, Gorlois is killed. Meanwhile, Uther has Merlin change his appearance so that he would look like Gorlois. He then walks straight into Gorlois’ castle and has sex with his widow. Igraine becomes pregnant with Arthur and when he is born, he is given to Merlin to be raised.
9. Merlin’s Birth
Merlin is arguably the most famous wizard of all time, and is the archetype for all wizards that came after him. He also has the weirdest origin story for a wizard. Yes, even weirder than growing up in a cupboard under some stairs.
Merlin’s origin stretches all the way back to when Jesus died. When Jesus died, it allowed him to save Christian souls and send them to heaven. This made the devils (often called fiends) angry, so they decided to impregnate a human woman, who would give birth to a son that would advance the agenda of the devils. Essentially, they wanted an Antichrist.
After hatching the plan, one of the fiends torments a rich family that has three daughters and one son. The plan is to make them so miserable that they will turn away from God and one of the daughters will become susceptible to getting impregnated. The fiend strangles the son, makes the mother hang herself, the father is so overcome with grief that he kills himself, one of the daughters is seduced and then buried alive, another one of the daughters is forced to be a commoner, and the eldest daughter, who could no longer resist the fiend, finally succumbs and becomes pregnant with the Devil’s baby.
Once she does, she is arrested for fornicating and then locked in a tower. She is sentenced to be executed after she gives birth. While in the tower, she meets with a religious adviser, who tells her how to make sure her son doesn’t grow up to be the Antichrist.
When she does give birth, Merlin is ugly, but clearly intelligent. In fact, when his mother goes to court for fornicating, Merlin is able to eloquently say his mother was guilty of nothing. If anything, he was the guilty party. The judge is amazed and lets Merlin’s mother live.
8. Merlin’s Childhood
Growing up, Merlin lives in the Emrys area of Wales, where the Celtic King Vortigern is building a castle, but the King is having problems with the construction of one of the towers because it keeps falling over.
Vortigern asks his soothsayers what the problem is and they say that in order for the tower to remain strong and standing, he needs to spill the blood of someone who is half-human and half-otherworldly. After the prophecy, it doesn’t take long before Merlin comes to King Vortigern’s attention.
When Merlin arrives at the castle, he says that the soothsayers are lying. He says that the reason the tower keeps falling over is because of what is under the tower, which is an underground lake. Under the lake are rocks and below the rocks are two large and powerful dragons. Every time the King’s men build the tower on the land above the lake, it makes the dragons roll over, which causes tremors that topple the tower.
Merlin is so confident about the dragons that he says if he is wrong, then the King could drag him behind horses. So the King has his men dig, and they find the lake. The lake is drained and beneath the rocks are two dragons: a red one, and a white one.
Vortigern is incredibly impressed with Merlin, and then Merlin tells him to gather his friends because when the dragons wake up, they are going to fight. Vortigern then asks him who will win, and in private, Merlin tells him that the victor will be the white dragon.
For the next day and a half, the two dragons fight and it looks like the red one is going to win, when suddenly the white dragon sprays fire at the red one. The red one dies after being engulfed with fire, and the white one dies three days later.
7. Sir Gawain and Lady Ablamar
One of the most well-known aspects of Arthurian legend is the Knights of the Round Table. The knights were the most elite, and they sat at a round table because there was no head, so it made everyone equals.
Several Arthurian legends revolve around the knights, and one of the most messed up stories is about Sir Gawain, who is Arthur’s nephew. The story begins at the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere. During the reception, a white stag runs through the church and is being pursued by 60 black hounds and one small white one. Merlin tells Arthur that the stag needs to be pursued, so Arthur sends Gawain and his brother after it.
The brothers and six hounds track down the stag, and when they find it, the hounds kill it. However, the stag was owned by the wife of Sir Ablamar of the Marsh. In retaliation, Sir Ablamar kills Gawain’s dogs, which infuriates Gawain. He decides it’s time for Sir Ablamar to die. Ablamar asks for mercy, but his pleas fall on deaf ears, and Gawain swings an ax at his neck. As he swings, Ablamar’s wife steps in the way of the ax and gets decapitated.
The brothers send Ablamar to Camelot to tell King Arthur what happened. Later that night, four knights attack Gawain and his brother as punishment for killing Lady Ablamar. During the fight, four women plead for mercy for Gawain. The knights agree to grant mercy on the condition that Gawain has to wear Lady Ablamar’s head around his neck and display her corpse on his horse as he travels back to Camelot.
Gawain agrees, and when he gets back to Camelot, Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, holds a court of women and they decide that, in the future, Gawain should always fight for a woman if she needs help, and to show mercy when he is asked for it.
6. Morgan Le Fay Tries to Kill Arthur
One of King Arthur’s biggest nemeses is his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay. She and Arthur have the same mother, Igraine, and Morgan’s father is Igraine’s first husband, Gorlois. You remember him; he’s the one Uther killed and… actually, let’s not get into that madness again. We’ve got so much different creepy stuff to get to.
Anyway, why Morgan hates Arthur isn’t always made clear. In fact, in early stories she helps Arthur by healing him. However, in some versions of the legend, the hatred stems from an incident where Arthur killed a knight that she loved.
Nevertheless, Morgan is a powerful sorceress and tries to kill Arthur on several occasions. One of the more diabolical ways happens after she steals a magic scabbard from Arthur. As an apology for her thievery, Morgan has one of her maids deliver a beautiful cloak to her brother.
However, Arthur is suspicious of the gift so he has two of his knights put the cloak on the maid. Suddenly, she bursts into flames and is burned alive. After a few minutes, she is nothing more than ash. So maybe avoid becoming a maid for Arthur, is what we’re saying.
5. Lancelot and Elaine
Another very famous knight of the Round Table is Sir Lancelot, who is often depicted as Arthur’s closest companion. But he is a bit of a jerk, because he has a long term love affair with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. So, ya know. It’s a complicated friendship.
The affair annoys Elaine of Astolat, who is completely in love with Lancelot. She lives in a high tower and watches over his shield, making sure that it doesn’t rust and no harm comes to it. She also nurses Lancelot back to health after he nearly dies from an infection.
However, Lancelot is completely oblivious to her feelings; he loves Guinevere and has no romantic feelings toward Elaine.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have sex. It just wasn’t with Lancelot’s consent. They have sex twice. The first time, Lancelot only does it because Elaine drugs him, and the second time Lancelot is told by Elaine’s servant that Guinevere is waiting for him in a darkened room, where he’s soon taken. Instead of Guinevere, it is Elaine, and they have sex again without Lancelot realizing she isn’t Guinevere. The tryst ultimately results in a son named Galahad.
Later, when Lancelot finds out that Elaine is in love with him, he tells her that he thinks of her as a friend or a sister. So she does the totally logical thing and stops eating and drinking, and dies after several days.
4. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
One of the strangest and most famous Arthurian stories is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story starts on New Year’s Day, with a party at Arthur’s court. Suddenly, in walks a mysterious figure called the Green Knight. The Green Knight lays down a very odd challenge. He says that a man can strike him with an ax, on the condition that the challenger finds him the following New Year’s Day to receive the same strike.
Arthur agrees to do it, but Gawain feels uneasy and volunteers instead. He grabs his ax and in one swing, he decapitates the Green Knight. The Green Knight then shocks the court by picking up his severed head, repeats the terms of the challenge, and walks out of the party.
Gawain sets off from Camelot on November 1, which is the Day of All Saints, and on his journey, he becomes cold, hungry, and sick. On Christmas day, he finds a castle where a man named Bertilak, his wife, and an old woman reside. Bertilak welcomes Gawain into his castle and strikes an unusual deal with the knight. Bertilak says that he will go out hunting every day and everything he catches, he will give to Gawain in exchange for anything that Gawain receives while inside the castle. Gawain agrees.
Over the next several days when Bertilak is out hunting, his wife tries to seduce Gawain. Gawain rebuffs her, but she still kisses him each time. So when Bertilak returns to the castle, Gawain kisses him and Bertilak gives him some dead animals.
On Gawain’s last day in the castle, Lady Bertilak gives him three kisses and a green cloth girdle that she says has magical powers. It will supposedly protect the wearer from death. Later in the day, Bertilak returns to the castle to do the exchange and Gawain kisses him three times, but doesn’t hand over the girdle.
Gawain then sets off to find the Green Knight to hold up his end of the deal. He finds the Green Knight, and Gawain exposes his neck. The Green Knight pretends to hit him three times, and on the third pretend swing, he strikes Gawain hard enough to draw blood, but it’s only a scratch. Gawain says that he’s held up his end of the bargain and is heading home. Then the Green Knight then reveals his identity: it’s Bertilak.
Bertilak explains that by showing up to his probable death, Gawain showed himself to be a worthy knight. However, he had to draw blood because Gawain wasn’t honest about the girdle. Bertilak also explains that the old woman at the castle is Arthur’s half-sister and nemesis Morgan Le Fay, who also happens to be Gawain’s aunt. Her magic was what allowed Bertilak to change his appearance and allowed him to be decapitated.
After the encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain wore the girdle around his arm as a reminder of his failure. When he went back to Camelot, the rest of the knights tied a piece of cloth around their arms in solidarity.
3. Merlin Falls in Love
When Merlin is an old man, he falls in love with Nimue, who is one of the Ladies in the Lake. Nimue is not romantically attracted to Merlin, but she does use Merlin for his knowledge and learns as much as she can.
She then learns that Merlin is worse than she originally thought because his father is the Devil, so she definitely doesn’t want to be with him.
When Merlin takes her to an enchanted cave that is blocked by a large stone, Nimue gets Merlin to move the stone and then has him go into the cave. Once Merlin does, she seals the cave with Merlin inside, and walks away. Yeah, we know that there’s a famous trope that, if a main character dies without the audience getting confirmation, they’ll pop back up later in the story to save the day. Instead, Merlin dies and Nimue goes and helps Arthur on his quest.
Man, that’s cold blooded.
2. Arthur and Morgause
In Arthurian legends, everyone has sex with everyone else, and one of the more shocking and disturbing hook ups is Arthur and Morgause.
Morgause is the wife of King Lot, who was a rival of Arthur. Lot sent her to Camelot to spy on him, and she ends up sleeping with Arthur. She also becomes pregnant. That’s when it is revealed that Morgause is actually Arthur’s half-sister. She is one of the three daughters of Igraine and Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, also making her the sister of Morgan Le Fay. She’s also Gawain’s mother, but as we already mentioned, he’s Arthur’s actual nephew, not the baby produced by this accidental incest.
Morgause gave birth to a boy named Mordred. Weeks after he’s born, Merlin foresees that Mordred will eventually kill Arthur. Arthur decides to make a preemptive strike and to kill the baby before he has a chance to grow up. The problem is that Arthur doesn’t specifically know which infant is Mordred, but he does know his birthday, May 1. Arthur then rounds up all the infants born on that day and sets them adrift on a boat. The boat eventually crashes against some rocks and all the babies die, except for one: Mordred.
Gee, what becomes of him? Well, funny you should ask…
1. Arthur’s Death
Mordred is found and raised in a nearby town. As an adult, he becomes a Knight of the Round Table and that is when he really starts to mess with Arthur’s life. Working with one of Gawain’s (other) brothers, Mordred exposes the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, which ultimately leads to a war between Arthur and Lancelot.
When Arthur is off waging battle, Mordred tells everyone in Camelot that Arthur is dead. He then tries to assume the throne and get into bed with Guinevere, who is technically his stepmother. In some versions of the story, he is successful in marrying Guinevere. Because apparently people back then had a serious incest fetish.
Of course, Arthur wasn’t dead, and he ends up fighting his treacherous son. Arthur impales Mordred with a spear, and Mordred pushes the spear deeper into his body so he can strike a mortal wound to Arthur. Arthur survives the battle, but dies a short time later.