If King Arthur is to be held up as a symbol of righteousness and good, then it is probably quite fitting that his Round Table and the sense of fairness and equality for which it stood, continues in our society today in the form of a charitable organisation. Yet are these values really what the great table of popular folklore was really all about? Was the table really anything to do with Arthur in the first place? Or have the stories simply become confused over the centuries?
King Arthur's Round Table was first mentioned in the mid-twelfth century in Wace's "Roman de Brut". This was a re-write of an earlier work by Geoffrey of Monmouth and his "History of the Kings of Britain ", which had no mention of the now fabled table. It is from here that the issue of equality first arises, in order to put an end to squabbles over seniority amongst those seated around its large circumference.
This gives rise to two crucial further issues - who were seated around this table and how many were they? Popular culture tells us of the gallant Knights of The Round Table, forever galloping off to complete tasks of derring-do and consistently rescuing various damsels in distress. The well-known Winchester Round Table has places for twenty-five and is roughly eighteen feet in diameter - surely large enough. Yet there are further theories that the table was an important symbol of state and that it was hollow so as to enable its construction from several segments. As a result, it could have seated almost as many as Arthur desired.
This leads on to another point of contention - whether or not it was actually Arthur who originated the table. Some accounts would have it that Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, was responsible for the actual construction of the table and that his son merely continued Uther's traditions. The names on the table are said to have been written by Merlin in magic gold ink, which changed with each new occupant.
It is also eminently possible to link the Round Table back to Christ and the Apostles who are said to have eaten the Last Supper at a round table. However, the origins of the Round Table are much more likely to come from Celtic Clans. They often held meetings in circles, for precisely the reason of seniority outlined above.
As one would expect from such a flexible history, the candidates for the home of the Round Table are scattered throughout the Celtic Nations. Scotland has a couple in the King's Knot in Stirling and the better known Arthur's Seat, which broods over Edinburgh. There are countless in Wales, with the best at Caerleon and Llanddona, whilst England has a few to boast of as well.
© Stuart Macdonald 2001
The Round Table