Scotlands Culture\|Scotlands Stories

Story of King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake

King Uther Pendragon burned with passion and lust for the Lady Igraine, the wife of the Duke of Tintagel. He led an army to Cornwall and besieged the castle in his attempt to force the lady to share his bed. As the Duke of Tintagel’s lifeless body grew cold on the field of battle, Merlin the sorcerer used his magic powers to transform King Uther’s shape into that of the duke and he went straight away to Igraine and lay with her in the form of her husband. By this deception Arthur was conceived, but he was given to Merlin to be fostered so his mother never saw him grow up. She married King Uther and her three daughters by the Duke of Tintagel were married to kings, including King Lot of Orkney who married Margawse.

The legend says that Arthur was discovered to be the true heir to the throne of England when he pulled out a sword that was embedded through an anvil and into a large stone. This lay in London with a sign that proclaimed:

WHOSO PULLETH OUT THIS SWORD OF THIS STONE AND ANVIL IS RIGHTWISE KING BORN OF ALL ENGLAND

Arthur had not realised this when he pulled it out, but it was soon known that this young man was the rightful king of the land.

Arthur was accompanied by Merlin, but he lamented that he had no sword of his own, and who had ever heard of a king without a sword? Merlin took him to a lake where he saw a woman’s arm clad in white silk that was interwoven with gold and silver thread rise from the water clutching a sword. Arthur also saw a beautiful woman walking over the surface of the lake towards them. He asked Merlin who it was and he replied that it was Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, and that he must ask her for the sword, for it was her property. She greeted Arthur well, and he asked her if he may have the sword that was held aloft above the surface of the lake and she agreed, saying that it was called Excalibur and that it would serve him well. They were directed to a barge that lay by the water’s edge and they rowed to where the sword was held aloft. Arthur gripped the sword, which was protected by a beautiful scabbard made of gold and inlaid with precious gems, and the hand that had held it slipped back under the surface of the water. Merlin asked Arthur which he preferred, the sword or the scabbard?

Arthur said that he valued the sword best, but Merlin told him that he had chosen unwisely, for the scabbard had the power to protect him from harm on the battlefield and he should look after it with care. This scabbard would later be stolen by Arthur’s half-sister, the sorceress Morgan le Fay, who threw it into a lake when she was pursued by Arthur and his knights. She turned herself and her knights into stone to avoid being found, but the loss of the scabbard sealed Arthur’s fate.

Arthur extended his rule over all of Britain, defeating Scotland, Wales and Ireland in his campaigns. He married the Lady Guinevere, built a fine castle that he called Camelot and created the order of the Knights of the Round Table. But Arthur would bring about his own doom by fathering a child on his half-sister, Margawse, the wife of King Lot of Orkney. At that time Arthur didn’t know who his parents were and so was unaware that Margawse was his half-sister. Merlin told him of his awful mistake, but by that time it was too late. The son that was born from this union was called Mordred, and he would bring about Arthur’s death when he tried to seize the throne from him. At the last battle Arthur drove his spear into Mordred, but Mordred, feeling his death draw near, forced himself along the shaft of the spear until he could strike Arthur a great blow on the side of his head. Mordred lay dead with Arthur lying mortally wounded by his side. His trusted knight, Sir Bedevere, tried to comfort the dying king, but Arthur said to him,

'Take my sword Excalibur to the lake that lies over there and to throw it into the water and to come back and tell me what you saw.'

Sir Bedevere carried Excalibur to the water’s edge, but when he looked at the fine sword, with its golden pummel inlaid with gems, he thought that it was a waste to lose such a valuable weapon, so he hid it under a tree and returned to where King Arthur lay.

'Well?' said Arthur, 'What did you see?'

'I saw nothing, my king; just the ripples on the water when it entered.'

The king grew angry, saying, 'You are trying to deceive me! Go now and throw Excalibur into the lake. My life depends on it.'

Sir Bedevere went back to the lake and picked up Excalibur, but when he looked at it he still could not bring himself to throw the sword into the lake, so it returned it to its hiding place and went back to the king.

'Well?' said Arthur, 'What did you see?'

'Nothing, my king, just the ripples on the water.'

King Arthur’s face flushed red, 'You traitor! You have betrayed your king twice and placed more value on a sword than on my life. I will kill you with my own hands if you do not throw Excalibur into the lake. Hurry, for I don’t have much time and I am feeling the cold grip me.'

Sir Bedevere went back to the water’s edge and this time he took Excalibur in his hands and threw it with all his might into the lake. A woman’s arm, clad in white silk that was interwoven with gold and silver thread, rose up out of the lake and caught Excalibur by the hilt and then shook it three times before slipping silently beneath the surface of the water. Bedevere went back to King Arthur and told him what he had seen. King Arthur ordered him to help him down to the lake, so Bedevere carried him to the water’s edge where he saw a barge approach that had many beautiful women onboard it. They wept when they saw Arthur, and carefully Bedevere laid him in the bottom of the boat where the women tended him. One was Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, and as silently as they had arrived the boat slipped away from the shore, leaving Bedevere staring in wonder. Arthur was taken to the enchanted island of Avalon where he could be healed of his wounds. Some say that he is still there, waiting until such time as Britain is threatened by foreign invaders. Some say that he is asleep and will only be awoken when his country is in need of his protection.


© Tom Muir.

May be freely used within schools and early years centres in Scotland.

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