In Search of the Round Table
by Laurie Welch
Several months ago I came across an article about a group of researchers in England who were researching the Round Table of King Arthur. They claimed the Table might not have been a table at all, but instead an amphitheater abandoned by the Romans in the city of Chester. Still round and with circular seating, but not a table.
What I found was the Round Table, like all of the stories of King Arthur and Camelot, has its origins in myth, magic, religion, literature and speculative history. It is described in many ways and has associations with such diverse people and events as Merlin, the Last Supper and the court of Charlemagne!
Round Table Basics
The Round Table is first mentioned by the 12th century chronicler Wace, in Roman de Brut, which asserts the round shape prevents quarrels among the knights so no one can proclaim himself more important than another. When compared to a square table, there is a ‘head’ and seating descending further in order of importance.
In Sir Thomas Malory’s 14th century, Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin conjures the Round Table to reflect the shape of the world and the diversity of its inhabitants. Many writers use a word like ‘democratic’ to describe the equality among the knights and how the round shape of the Table supports this Arthurian knightly value.
The Siege Perilous or Perilous Seat is the empty seat set aside for the most pure of knights or the one who discovers the Holy Grail.
The shape of the Table corresponds to traditional Christian imagery that Jesus and the Apostles sat a circular table at the Last Supper.
The seating capacity of the Round Table varies from 52 to 1600, depending on the source.
Scattered throughout Britain are numerous sites called King Arthur’s Round Table. They appear as henges (Neolithic stone circles) and amphitheaters.
The town of Caerleon in Wales was once the site of a Roman fortress, but it is so well-known in Arthurian tales if Camelot existed some say this would be its capital. It is tantalizing to imagine King Arthur and the knights planning and feasting away in the grassy oval area known as King Arthur’s Round Table!
So here we see the earliest examples of the Round Table as outdoor round stone structures, or round areas natural to the landscape. Maybe the researchers are right?
Irish tales describe Celtic warriors meeting in circles to prevent fights of primacy. Wace may have known of these stories, but he certainly would have been aware of the biographies of Charlemagne that mention his round table decorated with a map of Rome. Whatever the source, Wace makes it clear that Arthur was conscious of a need for parity among his nobles and knights to prevent conflict.
In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin creates the Round Table and gives it to Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father. At his death it is passed to Guenever’s father King Leodegrance, who gives it to Arthur at their marriage with a complimentary 150 knights. “I shall give him the Table Round, which Uther Pendragon gave me, and when it is complete, there is an hundred knights and fifty.” The fact that both of their fathers were in possession of the fabled table is an interesting twist. Is this a symbol of the legitimacy of the union of the two houses?
The poet Layamon in his early 13th century work, Brut, an adapted version of Wace’s work written in Middle English, describes a great quarrel among the knights at a Yuletide feast which led to the construction of an enormous round table to keep the peace among equals. It is intriguing to note in light of the large amount of knights mentioned in the sources, the Cornish carpenter who made this table made it transportable!
Literary accounts of the Round Table differ on its size according to which author is describing it. I am assuming, though perhaps wrongly, that the number 1600 is a way to say there are “a lot of knights.” But if the researchers are correct about the Round Table being an amphitheater, then this number has some basis in truth.
The Siege Perilous
In each literary iteration of the Round Table, there is a special seat designated for an unnamed knight. The French poet, Robert de Boron, in a late 12th century work called, Didot-Perceval says Merlin reserves the seat for the knight who finds the Holy Grail and because the seat can tell who is in it, anyone else will be swallowed up by the earth. Other sources say Jesus designates the seat for Joseph of Arimathea when he is given charge of the Christian community at his death.
Legends have Merlin setting aside this seat for the one true and pure knight. In other stories, the seat is designated specifically first for Perceval, then later for Sir Galahad. All stories make it clear, however, that to sit in this seat without proper sanction, is fatal.
The Last Supper and the Holy Grail
In Robert de Boron’s other Arthurian tale, Merlin, written in the 1190s, Merlin creates the Round Table in imitation of the Last Supper and of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Grail table. At this table, there is seating for only 12 with an additional empty one to mark Judas’s seat.
The 13th century Old French, La Queste del Saint Graal, shows Merlin’s creation of the Round Table meaning more than that of a table. The Round Table refers to the knights themselves, the flesh and blood men in all their variety devoted to Arthur:
“The table is called the Round Table because it symbolizes rightfully the whole world. For you can also see that the knights come to that Table from every land where chivalry is practiced, be it Christian or pagan practice. And when God has granted them the right to be a companion of the Round Table, they consider themselves more honored than if they had conquered the whole world.”
The notion of Christians and non-Christians in brotherhood at this time is remarkable.
Finally, in the Didot-Perceval, a supernatural connection exists between the Round Table, the table where Jesus holds the Last Supper, and the table on which Joseph of Arimathea places the Holy Grail. Together they symbolize the Trinity.
Round Tables in History and Popular Culture
In the Middle Ages ‘Round Tables’ were events of entertainment produced throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur’s court, with those attending taking on the personae of the knights and ladies that made up the original Round Table nobility. The events mimicked the court of Camelot and featured dancing, jousting and feasting.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the classic and heroic values associated with the court at Camelot were seen as ideals for a boys’ organization. Called the Knights of King Arthur, the roundness of Arthur’s table reflected the ethics of equality and democracy made concrete.
In the present day, we keep alive the Round Table and its principles of democracy and dialogue when we have ‘round table discussions,’ with the understanding that each participant has the right to speak and will get equal time to present their point. We use this phrase and its concepts even if the actual table is not round, as in ‘round table talks.’
My post is by no means exhaustive. There are centuries’ worth of legends and stories of King Arthur, his knights and their exploits; over a millennium if you count the archaeological sites. And an almost equal amount of interpretation. It is certain there will always be new discoveries by researchers, archaeologists, historians and others who will whet our appetite on the location of Camelot, the many quests of Arthur and his knights and certainly in the mysteries of the Round Table.
As we go through Witch Week, please let me know in the comments below what other mentions and configurations of the Round Table you have found in your readings.
Ashe, Geoffrey. King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
Biddle, Martin. King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation. UK: The Boydell Press, 2000.
de Briel, Henri, and Manuel Herrmann. King Arthur’s Knights and the Myths of the Round Table: A New Approach to the French Lancelot in Prose. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1972.
The literary works can be found online:
Robert Wace, Roman de Brut
Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
Robert de Boron, Dido-Perceval and Merlin
Author unknown, La Queste del Saint Graal
First published at The Emerald City Book Review