The Death of Arthur

 

 

 

 

Siân Echard, University of British Columbia
Siân Echard’s home page
Accounts of the death of King Arthur vary from text to text, but there is a general development from the matter-of-fact ending described in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannie, to the more mysterious possibilities suggested by Arthur’s epithet, rex quondam rexque futurus. This page offers you a few versions of Arthur’s death as it is recounted in medieval, Victorian, and contemporary texts. You can also visit our Arthur in History page to see some other accounts.
 

Hearing that the king was asking him to go so tenderly, Girflet replied:

“My Lord, I shall do what you command, as sadly as can be; but please tell me if you think I shall ever see you again.”

“No, said the king, “you can be sure of that.”

“Where do you expect to go, my dear Lord?”

“I cannot tell you,” said the king.

When Girflet saw that he would learn no more, he mounted and left the king, and as soon as he had left him, very heavy rain began to fall, and continued until he reached a hill a good half-league away from the king. When he had reached the hill, he waited under a tree for the rain to stop. He looked back to where he had left the king, and saw a ship entirely occupied by women coming across the sea. When the ship had come to the shore opposite where Arthur was, they came to the side, and their lady, who was holding King Arthur’s sister Morgan by the hand, called to Arthur to come aboard. As soon as Arthur saw his sister Morgan, he arose from the ground where he was sitting, and went aboard ship, taking his horse and his arms with him.

When Girflet had seen all this from the hill he turned back as fast as his horse would carry him until he reached the shore. When he arrived he saw King Arthur among the ladies, and recognized Morgan the Fay, because he had seen her many times. In a short time the ship had traveled from the shore more than eight times the distance one can shoot from a crossbow; and when Girflet saw that he had thus lost the king, he dismounted on to the shore and suffered the greatest grief in the world. He remained there all day and all night without eating or drinking anything; neither had he eaten or drunk the day before.

[Girflet comes to the Black Chapel]

On the very splendid and rich tomb there was written ‘HERE LIES KING ARTHUR WHO THROUGH HIS VALOUR CONQUERED TWELVE KINGDOMS.’

Seeing this, he swooned on the tomb, and after he had regained consciousness he kissed it very tenderly, in great grief. He remained there until the evening, until the arrival of the hermit who served the altar. When the hermit had come, Girflet asked him straight away:

“My Lord, is it true that King Arthur lies here?”

“Yes, my friend, he truly lies there; he was brought here by some ladies whom I did not know.”

Girflet immediately thought that they were the ladies who had taken him aboard ship. He said that as his lord had left this world, he would not stay in it any longer. So he begged the hermit to receive him as a companion.

So Girflet became a hermit and served in the Black Chapel, but it was not for long because after King Arthur’s death he lived only eighteen days.

(La Mort le Roi Artu, c. 1230-1235; translation from James Cable, The Death of King Arthur, 1971)

 

Sir Bedivere saw that boot was best,
And to the goode sword he went;
Into the se he it cast;
Then might he see what that it ment.
There came an hand withouten rest,
Out of the water, and fair it hent,
And braundished as it sholde brast,
And sithe, as glem, away it glent.

To the king again went he there
And said: “Leve sir, I saw an hand;
Out of the water it came all bare
And thrice braundished that riche brand.”
“Help me, soon that I were there.”
He led his lord unto that strand;
A riche ship, with mast and ore,
Full of ladies there they fand.

The ladies, that were fair and free,
Courtaisly the king gan they fonge;
And one that brightest was of blee
Weeped sore and handes wrang.
“Broder,” she said, “wo is me!
Fro leching hastou be too long;
I wot, that gretly greveth me,
For thy paines are full strong.”

The knight cast a rewful roun,
There he stood, sore and unsound,
And said: “Lord, whider are ye boun?
Allas! Whider will ye fro me found?”
The king spake with sorry soun:
“I will wend a little stound
Into the vale of Aveloun,
A while to hele me of my wound.”

When the ship from the land was brought,
Sir Bedivere saw of them no more.
Through the forest forth he sought
On hilles and holtes hore.
Of his life rought he right nought;
All night he went weeping sore;
Against the day he fand there wrought
A chapel between two holtes hore.

To the chapel he took the way,
There he might see a wonder sight;
Then saw he where an ermite lay,
Before a tomb that was new dight,
And covered it was with marble gray,
And with riche lettres rayled aright;
There-on an herse, soothly to say,
With a hundreth tapers light.

Unto the ermite went he there
And asked who was buried there.
The ermite answerd swithe yare:
“Thereof can I tell no more;
About midnight were ladies here,
In world ne wiste I what they were;
This body they brought upon a bere
And buried it with woundes sore.”

“Besauntes offred they here bright,
I hope an hundreth pound and more,
And bade me pray both day and night
For him that is buried in these moldes hore
Unto our Lady both day and night
That she his soul help sholde.”
The knight redde the lettres aright;
For sorrow he fell unto the folde.

“Ermite,” he said, “without leesing,
Here lieth my lord that I have lorn,
Bold Arthur, the beste king
That ever was in Britain born.
Give me some of thy clothing,
For Him that bore the crown of thorn,
And leve that I may with thee lenge,
While I may live, and pray him forn.”

(The Stanzaic Morte Arthure, late 14th century)

 

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
“Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”

And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst—if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)—
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.”

So said he, and the barge with oar and sail
Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan
That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,
Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood
With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Looked one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.

But when that moan had past for evermore,
The stillness of the dead world’s winter dawn
Amazed him, and he groaned, “The King is gone.”
And therewithal came on him the weird rhyme,
“From the great deep to the great deep he goes."

Whereat he slowly turned and slowly clomb
The last hard footstep of that iron crag;
Thence marked the black hull moving yet, and cried,
“He passes to be King among the dead,
And after healing of his grievous wound
He comes again; but—if he come no more—
O me, be yon dark Queens in yon black boat,
Who shrieked and wailed, the three whereat we gazed
On that high day, when, clothed with living light,
They stood before his throne in silence, friends
Of Arthur, who should help him at his need?”

Then from the dawn it seemed there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.

Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
Even to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur

(Idylls of the King, 1859-1885)

 
The old King felt refreshed, clear-headed, almost ready to begin again. There would be a day—there must be a day—when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none—a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.

But it was too late for another effort then. For that time it was his destiny to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. For that time it was Lancelot’s fate and Guenever’s to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.

The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.

EXPLICIT LIBER REGIS QUONDAM REGISQUE FUTURI

THE BEGINNING

(T.H. White, The Once and Future King, 1958)

 

So there was joy, after all. The Warrior turned again to look upon his Queen, the light and sorrow of his days, and for the first time in so very long they saw him smile. And she too smiled, for the first time in so very long, and said, asking only now, now that it was vouchsafed them, “Will you take me with you where you go? Is there a place for me among the summer stars?” Through her tears Kim saw Arthur Pendragon walk forward, then, and she saw him take the hand of Guinevere in his own, and she watched the two of them go aboard that craft, floating on the waters that had risen over Andarien. It was almost too much for her, too rich. She could scarcely breathe. She felt as if her soul were an arrow loosed to fly, silver in the moonlight, never falling back.

Then there was even more: the very last gift, the one that sealed and shaped the whole. Beneath the shining of Dana’s moon she saw Arthur and Guinevere turn back to look at Lancelot.

And she heard Paul say again, with so deep a power woven into his voice, “It is allowed if you will it so. All of the price has been paid.”

With a cry of joy wrung from his great heart, Arthur instantly stretched forth his hand. “Oh, Lance, come!” he cried. “Oh come!

For a moment Lancelot did not move. Then something long held back, so long denied, blazed in his eyes brighter than any star. He stepped forward. He took Arthur’s hand and then Guinevere’s, and they drew him aboard. And so the three of them stood there together, the grief of the long tale healed and made whole at last.

(Guy Gavriel Kay, The Darkest Road, 1987)

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