Arthurian folklore has a reputation as the ultimate knight-in-shining-armor fairytale settings, but that’s not exactly deserved. Yes, the world of King Arthur has its share of chivalrous tourneys held on sun-drenched lawns, and of noble warriors doing great deeds in service of beautiful maidens. But there’s a seedy underbelly to Arthur’s world that’s more G.R.R. Martin than J.R.R. Tolkein, packed with illicit sex, bizarre magic and brutal violence.

For the record, Arthurian lore has more variants than an early 90’s comic book cover, and you won’t find the good stuff (read: the awful, terrible stuff) in every version. Most of the gory details can be found in the fairly definitive version, Le Morte D’Arthur, published while its author Sir Thomas Malory served a prison sentence. Huzzah!

Madness Begins at Conception

king arthur elaine
John W. Waterhouse, “The Lady of Shalott,” 1888.
In Arthurian Britain, no one ever just impregnated their own wife like a normal person. Arthur himself was conceived when King Uther Pendragon used Merlin’s magic to transform himself into his own vassal Gorlois in order to fuck that guy’s wife, Igraine. She was understandably horrified when she learned that her husband was killed in battle with Uther’s men hours before he impregnated her, but not to worry! Uther revealed the truth to her and she was thrilled, because the person who wrote this story never actually met a woman.

Before Arthur, Igraine had three daughters by Gorlois: Elaine, Morgan, and Morgause. Depending on the version you’re reading, Morgause (or Morgan) used magic (or maybe didn’t) to seduce Arthur despite knowing it was incest (or maybe not). The magnitude of this sin varies, but the result is always the same: the birth of Morded, Arthur’s nephew-son and eventual usurper.

The final entry in our trilogy of magic rapes bedroom farces involves Sir Lancelot, the shiniest knight-in-shining-armor of them all. The maiden Elaine used a magic ring to take on the form of Queen Guinevere, for whom Lancelot had an epic, two-decade hard-on. The morning after, Elaine came clean and Lancelot lost his shit, tearing off his clothes and going off to live in the woods as a wild man. Living in an age before Maury, Elaine raised the boy herself; he became Galahad, the only knight to fully achieve the literal Holy Grail, the figurative holy grail of medieval treasures.

Green with Compersion

king arthur green knight
John Howe, “Gawain and the Green Knight.” 2003.
Everyone keeps Christmas in their own way, and the Knights of the Round Table had their own tradition: when the time came for Christmas dinner, they’d sit around with their food getting cold until something batshit crazy happened. This bonkers event would generally serve as the impetus for the quests of the following year. On this occasion, a green dude rode in on a green horse and dared someone to cut his head off.

The actual rules were this: any man brave enough to take the challenge got one (1) swing to separate the Green Knight’s head from his neck, but if he survived the blow he would return it in one year’s time. Most of the knights, being from Arthurian Britain, picked up on the fact that this was probably an elaborate ruse to kill them and declined to participate. The king’s cousin, Sir Gawain, finally answered the call, and clove cleanly through the Green Knight’s neck with one stroke. The mysterious visitor picked up his bleeding head and rode off, telling Gawain to come find him in a year. Gawain was like, “shit.”

Sir Gawain dutifully went off in search of the Green Knight, and wound up spending most of December in the castle of Bertilak, a petty king who ruled in the woodlands. Each morning, the queen would slither into Gawain’s room and try to fuck him, and every night Bertilak would show up and knowingly ask if Gawain had “received any gifts” that day. Gawain never let things go any further than a kiss, however.

When Gawain finally found the Green Knight, he dutifully exposed his neck. He flinched a few times, but finally steeled himself and took the blow, which wound up only nicking him slightly. The Green Knight explained that the entire year-long quest had been a test of his honor, and he had proven himself the worthiest of all knights. Also, the Green Knight said, he had been Bertilak the whole time, and he was really impressed that Gawain never fucked his wife, even though he tried pretty hard to make it happen. Gawain was like, “bruh.”

The Giant Dick of Mont St. Michel

king arthur giant
G.H. Thomas, “King Arthur and the Giant of St. Michael’s Mount.” Frontispiece from “The Story of King Arthur and His Knights Of the Round Table”, 1862.
After becoming king, one of Arthur’s first major challenges was going to war with Lucius, Emperor of Rome. Look, Thomas Malory wasn’t much of a historian, okay? Just go with it. The Western Roman Empire existed in the 4th century AD and Arthur had to trek across Europe to kick their asses. As he reached Brittany, however, the king was met with a side-quest: a lecherous giant.

From a stronghold atop Mont St. Michel, the giant kept the local peasants in line via sexual violence. He’d venture forth, plucking up women to serve as his “wives.” Until they died. Because, you know, he was a giant. In Arthur’s world, this sort of thing doesn’t result in Hagrids, just dozens of mangled bodies.

Ever concerned for the welfare of his subjects, Arthur climbed the mountain and challenged the giant. After a short battle, the king managed to open a cut above the monster’s eyes and blind him with his own blood. Then, drawing his enchanted blade, Excalibur, the noble hero hacked the giant’s cock off. The full Theon Greyjoy. Arthur then tackled the monster, stabbing him repeatedly as they rolled down the mount, entrails streaming behind them as they went.

Having rid his lands of at least one 20′ rapist, Arthur went on to crown himself Emperor in Rome, a momentous occasion in European history which has gone unrecorded by ivory tower historians, the fucks.

The Beastly Quest of the Questing Beast

king arthur questing beast
Jonathan Hunt, Detail from“Q for Questing Beast” from “Bestiary: An Illuminated Alphabet”. 1998.
It’s got the head of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion and the hooves of a stag. If that’s not weird enough, the beast’s body emits the frenzied barks of thirty baying hounds. Sure!

When Arthur encountered this Heironymous Bosch nightmare early in his kingship, it was being pursued by Pellinore, a rural petty king technically sworn to Arthur. Arthur tried to big-league Pellinore and cut in on his quest and ultimately got his ass handed to him. Turns out that following the Questing Beast is actually a bloodline curse, and Pellinore’s descendants are fated to chase the fucking thing, futilely, until the end of time.

Long story short, Pellinore’s entire line wound up dying as part of a complex family feud, but the curse refused to die. It passed itself to Sir Palomides, who was not only not related to Pellinore’s clan of British forest kings, but was in fact a fucking Muslim from Babylon knighted by the Roman Emperor. Time is a flat circle!

After years chasing the monster, Palomides converted to Christianity and teamed up with the Grail Knights Galahad and Percival to drown the thing in a lake. Interestingly enough, Percival was the youngest son of King Pellinore, who the curse just, like, skipped, allowing him to go on adventures in the Holy Land while some brown dude he never met followed a discount chimera across the world. Curses are bullshit.

Queen Morgause Gives Head

king arthur decapitation
Juan Vicents Cots, “La Primera Hazaña del Cid.” 1864.
Remember Gawain, the guy who nearly cuckolded an immortal nature spirit? Well, his mom, the wicked queen Morgause, wouldn’t have thought twice. She was a famously wanton lady, and despite being married to Lot, one of Arthur’s vassal kings, she was notorious for bedding knights a fraction of her age. Plus, as you may recall from earlier in this very article, she banged her own brother, possibly on purpose.

Her most notable lover was Sir Lamorak, the son of King Pellinore. This was a problem, as Pellinore wound up killing Lot during a civil war, which kicked off a series of revenge killings that would continue until Camelot’s fall. Gawain’s younger brother Gaheris caught his mother in bed with the son of the man who killed his father, and, feeling a very specific kind of anguish, beheaded her. He let Lamorak go, thinking it dishonorable to attack an unarmed knight.

Sure, leave him there with your mom’s headless corpse straddling him, though, the chivalric code doesn’t say anything about that.

Jesus Christ, Sir Balin

King Arthur dolorous stroke
Lancelot Speed, “The Dolorous Stroke”. 1919.
The quest for the Holy Grail was the prelude to Camelot’s collapse, but the seeds were sown in the earliest days of King Arthur’s reign, before the Round Table was even installed. Sir Balin was Arthur’s greatest knight in those days, and in trying to stop an invisible serial killer he managed to blight an entire country.

Sir Garlot was a real piece of shit whose gimmick was strapping on an invisibility cloak and galloping around chopping people’s heads off, presumably just to see their friends’ reactions. Balin tracked him down to a dinner party, got himself invited, and then, real smooth-like, stabbed him to death during dessert. Understandably, King Pellam, Garlot’s brother, called for Balin’s head. An extensive Goober and the Ghost Chasers Scooby-Doo chase scene ensued before Balin found himself cornered.

Luckily, Balin saw a nearby antique lance on display and used it to defend himself. He stabbed Pellam in the groin, a “Dolorous Stroke” that crippled the king, caused the castle to collapse, and also transformed the entire countryside into an inhospitable wasteland for twenty years. Turns out that the lance was the same one that pierced the side of Christ during the crucifixion, and using it brings down Old Testament plagues on entire regions. Label your shit, Pellam.

Matt O'Connell

Matt O'Connell

Matt is a writer, pop culture historian and aspiring two-fisted adventurer. He has a degree in ancient Mediterranean history with a focus on Roman ritual violence, which is why he writes about monster movies and pro wrestling on the internet. He has two cats and a blog called Explosiontown~!, which you can follow. Uh, the blog. Leave the cats alone.
Matt O'Connell