So... U is for Uther Pendragon!
|King Uther. Public Domain|
If you have read/seen any Arthurian fiction/film, you will know who he is: Arthur’s Dad. The one who got into disguise, with the help of Merlin, and went off to sleep with a woman who wasn’t his, to conceive Arthur, one night while her husband was fighting and, importantly, dying elsewhere.
In my favourite Arthurian film, Excalibur, he was shown as a man who was so desperate to get his hands(and other bits of him) on the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall that he didn’t even bother to take off his - plate! - armour before leaping on to her! Presumably he took off the important parts of what he was wearing, but we didn’t see it. In fact, even the actor, Gabriel Byrne, commented on that...
|Uther and Merlin plan their action. Public Domain|
We all know that part of the story. We’ll get back to it later.
Uther gets a detailed mention in Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Uther, later known as Pendragon(Chief Dragon, head warrior), was the brother of Ambrosius, the rightful heir to the throne. But when they were children, the throne was usurped, by one Vortigern(more of him in my next post), their father killed and the boys whisked away to safety across the Channel.
Eventually they return and Vortigern gets his comeuppance. But there is still a lot of fighting to do, against the Saxons, and they do it. Ambrosius gets killed and Uther is king. He helps Merlin get those stones to Britain, to act as part of Ambrosius’s tomb.
Around this time is when the story of Uther betraying his loyal ally, the Duke of Cornwall, happens. Yes, we know! They are having a party to celebrate a victory. Uther sees Ygerna/Ygraine/Igraine and falls madly in lust with her. Gorlois hustles his wife, and maybe their kids(at least one, Morgana, the future enemy of Arthur, was there in Excalibur, and saw right through the glamour put on Uther by Merlin)off to their castle, Tintagel, while he goes off to another castle to defend it against Uther’s troops. He gets killed just before Arthur is conceived. That’s important to the story. It means Arthur can be made legitimate.
And then Merlin takes the child away till he is ready. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, I vaguely recall from my university years, he is off being raised by the fairies in Avalon.
Uther is busy fighting Saxons. Towards the end, he is badly wounded, but insists on continuing to fight, even if it means being carried into battle on a litter. The Saxons call him the half-dead King.
There is a rather nice scene in Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills. Young Arthur has been brought to court, very excited about his first battle. He doesn’t know, yet, that the king is his father(Actually, that bit does lead to disaster, when Morgause seduces him that night). But in the battle, Uther, proud of his warrior son, smiles and throws him his sword...
In the BBC Merlin, of which I admit I have only seen a few episodes, Uther Pendragon is still alive and ruling when the youthful Merlin comes to court and Arthur is the crown prince. The role was played by Anthony Head, whom you might remember as the school librarian and Buffy’s Watcher in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Mary Stewart’s Uther is a passionate man. Merlin - his nephew in this series - doesn’t actually have to use magic to fool Igraine, just a bit of make-up to get them into the castle. Uther and Igraine have already met and fallen in love. When Uther finds out that Gorlois is dead, he is furious with Merlin. One more day, he complains, and he could have had her legitimately. But Merlin replies that one more day would have meant a different child. He was not doing this for his uncle’s benefit, but for the hero who will come of what they did this night.
In Sutcliff’s Sword At Sunset it is Ambrosius, not his brother, who survives and brings up his nephew, Artos. Artos/Arthur is Utha’s (her spelling) bastard.
If you haven’t seen Excalibur, do. The scene where Merlin uses magic to change Uther’s appearance is amazing. He is on his horse, galloping towards the castle, and as he goes his armour dissolves into Gorlois’ armour.
He dies at the hands of his enemies, chasing Merlin when the wizard is carrying the baby from the castle. It is Uther who puts the sword into the stone, while trying to break it - nobody shall have Excalibur but him!
The Pendragon name comes from Uther’s viewing a comet that looks like a dragon. He takes the dragon for his device.
There is much more, including a theory that “Arthur son of Uther” is a mistranslation of “Arthur the Terrible King” (Terrible as in scary to his enemies, not as in incompetent). I’ll leave you to look that up, though.
Here is a scene with Uther from the BBC Merlin.
Next time, we will, hear about Vortigern, the guy who usurped the throne and used Saxon mercenaries.