Group Dynamics and The Round Table

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The Round Table
A reproduction of Évrard d’Espinques‘ illumination of the Prose Lancelot, showing King Arthur presiding at the Round Table with his Knights (1470)
Plot element from Arthurian legend
First appearanceRoman de Brut1155
Created byWace
GenreChivalric romance
In-story information
TypeLegendary table
Element of stories featuringKing Arthur
FunctionThe meeting of Arthur’s court, known as the Knights of the Round Table

The Round Table (Welshy Ford GronCornishan Moos KrennBretonan Daol Grenn) is King Arthur‘s famed table in the Arthurian legend, around which he and his knights congregate. As its name suggests, it has no head, implying that everyone who sits there has equal status. The table was first described in 1155 by Wace, who relied on previous depictions of Arthur’s fabulous retinue. The symbolism of the Round Table developed over time; by the close of the 12th century it had come to represent the chivalric order associated with Arthur’s court, the Knights of the Round Table.

Origins

Though the Round Table is not mentioned in the earliest accounts, tales of Arthur having a marvelous court made up of many prominent warriors is ancient. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (composed c. 1136) says that, after establishing peace throughout Britain, Arthur “increased his personal entourage by inviting very distinguished men from far-distant kingdoms to join it.”[1] The code of chivalry so important in later medieval romance figures in as well, as Geoffrey says Arthur established “such a code of courtliness in his household that he inspired peoples living far away to imitate him.”[1]

Arthur’s court was well known to Welsh storytellers; in the romance Culhwch and Olwen, the protagonist Culhwch invokes the names of 225 individuals affiliated with Arthur.[2] The fame of Arthur’s entourage became so prominent in Welsh tradition that in the later additions to the Welsh Triads, the formula tying named individuals to “Arthur’s Court” in the triad titles began to supersede the older “Island of Britain” formula.[3] Though the code of chivalry crucial to later continental romances dealing with the Round Table is mostly absent from the Welsh material, some passages of Culhwch and Olwen seem to reference it. For instance, Arthur explains the ethos of his court, saying “[w]e are nobles as long as we are sought out: the greater the bounty we may give, the greater our nobility, fame and honour.”[4]

Though no Round Table appears in the early Welsh texts, Arthur is associated with various items of household furniture. The earliest of these is Saint Carannog‘s mystical floating altar in that saint’s 12th century Vita. In the story Arthur has found the altar and tries unsuccessfully to use it as a table; he returns it to Carannog in exchange for the saint ridding the land of a meddlesome dragon.[5] Elements of Arthur’s household figure into local topographical folklore throughout Britain as early as the early 12th century, with various landmarks being named “Arthur’s Seat“, “Arthur’s Oven”, and “Arthur’s Bed-chamber”.[6]

henge at Eamont Bridge near PenrithCumbria is known as “King Arthur’s Round Table“.[7] The still-visible Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon has been associated with the Round Table,[8] and it has been suggested as a possible source for the legend.[9] Following archaeological discoveries at the Roman ruins in Chester, some writers suggested that the Chester Roman Amphitheatre was the true prototype of the Round Table;[10] however, the English Heritage Commission, acting as consultants to a History Channel documentary in which the claim was made, stated that there was no archaeological basis to the story.[11]

Legend

See also: Knights of the Round Table

The Round Table first appeared in Wace‘s Roman de Brut, a Norman language adaptation of Geoffrey’s Historia finished in 1155. Wace says Arthur created the Round Table to prevent quarrels among his barons, none of whom would accept a lower place than the others.[12] Layamon added to the story when he adapted Wace’s work into the Middle English Brut in the early 13th century, saying that the quarrel between Arthur’s vassals led to violence at a Yuletide feast. In response, a Cornish carpenter built an enormous but easily transportable Round Table to prevent further dispute.[12] Wace claims he was not the source of the Round Table; both he and Layamon credited it instead to the Bretons. Some scholars have doubted this claim, while others believe it may be true.[12] There is some similarity between the chroniclers’ description of the Round Table and a custom recorded in Celtic stories, in which warriors sit in a circle around the king or lead warrior, in some cases feuding over the order of precedence as in Layamon.[12] There is a possibility that Wace, contrary to his own claims, derived Arthur’s round table not from any Breton source, but rather from medieval biographies of Charlemagne—notably Einhard‘s Vita Caroli and Notker the Stammerer‘s De Carolo Magno—in which the king is said to have possessed a round table decorated with a map of Rome.[13]King Arthur’s knights, gathered at the Round Table, see a vision of the Holy Grail. From a manuscript of Lancelot and the Holy Grail (c. 1406)

The Round Table takes on new dimensions in the romances of the late 12th and early 13th century, where it becomes a symbol of the famed order of chivalry which flourishes under Arthur. In Robert de Boron‘s Merlin, written around 1200, the magician Merlin creates the Round Table in imitation of the table of the Last Supper and of Joseph of Arimathea‘s Grail Table. Made of silver, the Grail Table was used by the followers of Arimathea after he created it as directed by a vision of Christ,[14] and was taken by him to Avalon (later identified with Glastonbury Tor, but this connection was not mentioned by Robert[15]). This version of the Round Table, here made for Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon rather than Arthur himself, has twelve seats and one empty place to mark the betrayal of Judas; this seat, must remain empty until the coming of the knight who will achieve the Grail. The Didot Perceval, a prose continuation of Robert’s work, takes up the story, and the knight Percival sits in the seat and initiates the Grail quest.[12]“Sir Galahad is brought to the court of King Arthur”, Walter Crane‘s illustration for King Arthur’s Knights, abridged from Le Morte d’Arthur by Henry Gilbert (1911)

The prose cycles of the 13th century, the Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate) Cycle and the Post-Vulgate Cycle, further adapt the chivalric attributes of the Round Table. Here it is the perfect knight Galahad, rather than Percival, who assumes the empty seat, now called the Siege Perilous. Galahad’s arrival marks the start of the Grail quest as well as the end of the Arthurian era.[12] In these works the Round Table is kept by King Leodegrance of Cameliard after Uther’s death; Arthur inherits it when he marries Leodegrance’s daughter Guinevere. Other versions treat the Round Table differently, for instance Arthurian works from Italy like La Tavola Ritonda (The Round Table) often distinguish between the knights of the “Old Table” of Uther’s time and those of Arthur’s “New Table”.[16] In the Post-Vulgate, the Table is eventually destroyed by King Mark during his invasion of Logres after the deaths of Arthur and almost all of the Knights, many of whom in fact had killed each other, especially in internal conflicts at the end of the cycle.

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