Round Table, The
ROUND TABLE, THE, in the Arthurian Romance (q.v.), the table round which, in order to avoid quarrels as to precedence, King Arthur's knights are seated, and so applied collectively to the knights themselves as the title of a mythical order of chivalry. The origin of the Round Table is obscure. Geoffrey of Monmouth makes no mention of it, and the earliest record is that of Wace, much expanded by his translator, Layamon, who gives a picturesque detailed description of the fight for precedence which took place at Arthur's board on a certain Yuletide day, and the slaughter which ensued. For this slaughter Arthur took summary vengeance, slaying all the kinsfolk of the man who started the fight, and cutting off the noses of his women-folk. For the future avoidance of any such scenes a cunning workman of Cornwall offered to make a table which should seat 1600 knights and more, and at which all should be equal. Arthur accepted this offer, and the result was the Round Table, peace and harmony. Wace does not mention the number of knights.
These versions of the pseudo-chronicles practically ascribe the foundation to Arthur; the romances, however, differ. In these either Merlin made the table for Uther Pendragon, or it had belonged to Leodegrance, king of Cornwall and father of Guenevere, and was given to Arthur on his marriage with that princess. When the founding of the Round Table is ascribed to Merlin it is generally in close connexion with the Grail legend, forming the last of a series of three, founded in honour of the Trinity the first being the table of the Last Supper, the second that of the Grail, established by Joseph of Arimathea The number of knights whom the table will seat varies; it might seat twelve or fifty or a hundred and fifty; nowhere, save in Layamon, do we find a practically unlimited power of accommodation. It is also to be noted that whereas, in the pseudo-chronicles, it is the common table of Arthur's court, designed in the interests of peace and unity, in the romances it is a sign of superiority, only the best and most valiant knights being adjudged worthy of a seat at the Round Table. In fact, it has become the equivalent of an order of knighthood, the members of which form a brotherhood bound by oath to succour each other at need and to refrain from fighting among themselves. The membership is not restricted to the knights of Arthur's immediate court and household, knights who are, in all essentials outsiders, appearing but as passing guests at Arthur's board, such as, e.g., Perceval and Tristan, may be elected knights of the Round Table. In two romances, the prose Tristan and the Parzival, the place of the Round Table proper is taken, on a journey, by a silken cloth laid on the ground, round which the knights are seated. In the versions more closely connected with the Grail story the name of the chosen knight appears on his seat, and there is one vacant place, the Siege perilous, eventually to be filled by the Grail winner.
It is obvious that the tradition has passed through several stages, and has varied in the process. The original source is not easy to determine. Dr Lewis Mott has pointed out that " Round Tables " exist in many parts of Great Britain, the name being often associated with circular trenches, or rings of stones, which were demonstrably employed in connexion with the agricultural festivals held at Pentecost, Midsummer and Michaelmas. However this may be, and it seems probable that Dr Mott is right in his identification, the pseudo-chroniclers and romance writers certainly had in their minds a genuine table, although, probably, one of magical properties. Thus Layamon's table can seat an indefinite number, and yet it can be carried by Arthur when he rides abroad. On closely examining Layamon's version it seems probable that he had in his mind not merely a circular, but a turning table; he gives it as ground for the quarrel that all the knights wished to sit within; at the table the Cornish workman will make none shall be left without, but they shall sit " without and within, man against man." It is difficult to explain this phrasing in any other hypothesis than that Layamon pictured to himself Arthur's hall as open on one side, and that, on a great feast-day, owing to the number of guests, the table extended beyond the covering afforded by the roof. As the feast took place " on mid-winter's day " the annoyance of those who were without would be intelligible. To obviate this the cunning workman devised a circular table, turning on a pivot, with seats affixed, at which the guests sat the one half in turn within, the other without, the hall " man against man." This would make the Round Table analogous to the turning castles which we frequently meet with in romances; and while explaining the peculiarities of Layamon's text, would make it additionally probable that he was dealing with an earlier tradition of folklore character, a tradition which was probably also familiar to Wace, whose version, though much more condensed than Layamon's, is yet in substantial harmony with this latter. This, too, is certain; the fight for precedence at Arthur's board may be paralleled by accounts of precisely similar quarrels in early Irish literature, e.g. the famous tale of Fled Bricrend or Bricriu's Feast of the Ultonian cycle.
Recent grail researches have made it most probable that that mysterious talisman was originally the vessel of the ritual feast held in honour of a deity of vegetation, Adonis, or another; if the Round Table also, as Dr Mott suggests, derives from a similar source, we have a link between these two notable features of Arthurian tradition, and an additional piece of evidence in support of the view that behind the Arthur of romance there lie not only memories of an historic British chieftain, but distinct traces of a mythological and beneficent hero. Incidentally also it would seem that those versions which connect the table more closely with Arthur are the more correct.
See Wace, Le Roman de Brut, ed. Leroux de Lincy (1836-38), vol. ii. 74-76) ; Layamon, Brut, ed. Madden, vol. ii. p. 532 ; A. C. L. Brown, The Round Table before Wace (Boston, 1900) ; Lewis F. Mott, The Round Table (Boston, 1905). (J. L. W.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)