Learn about Arthurian legends that inspired ‘Camelot’ on Broadway

Lerner and Loewe's classic musical is based on a 1958 book feautring centuries of stories about royals, knights, and sorcerers.

Sarah Rebell
Sarah Rebell

Most fairy tales end with happily ever after. But that’s where Camelot on Broadway starts.

Who wouldn’t want to live in the title kingdom, that most “congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering” with ideal weather, as Lerner and Loewe wrote? As King Arthur sings to Guenevere, slush is legally forbidden, summers can’t get too hot, and morning fog must disappear by 8 a.m. And yet, there’s far more to the appeal of the story of King Arthur than the climate.

The legendary Camelot and its leaders — Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table — have been popular storytelling subjects for centuries. Deeply rooted in ancient folklore, the idea of Camelot is synonymous with romance, chivalry, and the unattainable but noble pursuit of perfection.

Brush up on your Arthurian legends before you see the new Camelot Broadway revival, starring Andrew Burnap as King Arthur, Phillipa Soo as Queen Guenevere, and Jordan Donica as Sir Lancelot du Lac. Aaron Sorkin has given the script a fresh update for 2023 — most notably removing the supernatural elements — but the gist of these timeless tales remains intact.

History of Arthurian legend

The first written versions of Arthurian legends appear in early medieval poems and chronicles. The Welsh poem “Y Gododdin” first references Arthur as the embodiment of bravery, while mentions of Guenevere don’t appear in print until Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britianniae” several hundred years later.

The basis for the Camelot tale we know today is “Le Morte d’Arthur,” a 15th-century poem by Sir Thomas Malory. He combined French stories about King Arthur’s court with Middle English folklore, creating an all-encompassing, accessible version. Malory’s poem includes familiar characters from the musical, including Pellinore, Merlin, and Morgan Le Fey. Malory briefly appears at the end of the musical; he is the young boy King Arthur implores to keep Camelot’s memory alive.

“Le Morte d’Arthur” and a Victorian version of the legend, Alfred Tennyson’s “The Idylls of the King,” then inspired the musical’s direct source material: The Once and Future King, a 1958 novel by T. H. White. He compiled Arthurian stories into a streamlined narrative for a 20th-century audience.

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Arthurian characters in Camelot

The Camelot musical portrays Arthurian characters similarly to how they’re written in Arthurian legend. Here’s a quick rundown of the key players.

King Arthur: In the most popular version of the legend, Arthur is the illegitimate, estranged son of a king who does not know his true royal origins until he pulls a sword out of a stone as a teenager. He becomes a great warrior king who defeats his enemies and keeps the peace in his kingdom. As portrayed in the musical, he is married to Queen Guenevere, who has an affair with his knight Lancelot du Lac.

Queen Guenevere: The beautiful wife of King Arthur is sometimes portrayed as a Celtic Persephone. In one of the earlier versions of the legend, she was abducted by Mordred (Arthur’s descendant) in a story that parallels Hades’s abduction of Persephone. She is best known for her love affair with Lancelot. In the 15th-century retelling of the story, when the affair is revealed, King Arthur condemns her to burn at the stake, but Lancelot rescues her just in the nick of time; this also happens in the musical. But Aaron Sorkin has updated the ending with a twist.

Lancelot: The French knight is first mentioned in a 12th-century poem, but like Guenevere, he is possibly based on an earlier Celtic mythological figure. In Arthurian legend, he is an excellent but merciful fighter with compassion for those he defeats. Over time, Lancelot’s romance with Queen Guenevere becomes the ideal of pure, unattainable courtly love. In Camelot, however, he is initially boastful and overconfident. “Here I stand with valor untold — exceptionally brave, amazingly bold — to serve at the Table Round!” he sings.

Merlin: King Arthur’s tutor is presented in most versions of the legend as a time-traveling wizard. He uses his knowledge of the future to help Arthur prepare to become a great king. He is a non-magical advisor to Arthur in the 2023 Camelot revival, though in past versions, he is a wizard who gets cursed with memory loss.

Mordred: His exact relationship to King Arthur is disputed (he is either Arthur’s nephew, illegitimate son, or both), but he is usually the agent of Arthur’s downfall. In most stories, Mordred exposes Guenevere’s affair with Lancelot and tries to take advantage of the chaos to become king. The legends often represent Mordred as a violent womanizer who does not embody chivalry. He sings dismissively of “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and rejects them all.

Morgan Le Fey: Arthur’s half-sister (sometimes known as Morgause), is also generally considered to be Mordred’s mother. In most stories, she is depicted as a jealous, evil sorceress and possibly Merlin’s former apprentice. Sometimes considered a goddess or fairy queen, Morgan resembles strong, magical women from Greek mythology, like Circe and Medea. In the 2023 revival, she is a scientist.

King Pellinore: This family friend of Arthur’s biological father is obsessed with his (unsuccessful) pursuit of a fantastical beast. Pellinore is also known for killing a fellow monarch, King Lot, in a joust. In the musical, he is depicted more as a respected guest at court than a knight in his prime.

Sir Dinadan: A knight who prefers not to fight, he is sometimes portrayed as a comedic character who makes self-deprecating jokes.

Sir Sagramore: In some stories, he tends to lose fights to better knights; in others, he is a strong soldier whose quick temper sometimes gets the better of him. Perhaps that’s why he is also known as Sagramore the Impetuous.

Sir Lionel: Lancelot’s cousin who sides with Lancelot in the battle against Arthur. In the original version of the musical, Lancelot accidentally kills Sir Lionel in a joust and then magically brings him back to life. Apparently, he was one of King Edward III’s favorite knights: The English king would dress as Sir Lionel at Round Table tournaments, festivals inspired by Arthurian legends.

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Camelot’s Knights of the Round Table

In the musical, Guenevere and Arthur develop the Knights of Round Table on their own. But in many versions of the legend, Merlin helps. The point of the round table is the same, though: equality. No one is at the head of the table, so no one is more important than anyone else. These knights use their skills for good (“might for right,” as the original libretto states) and help Arthur keep the peace in the kingdom.

The knights in Camelot, including Sir Lionel, Sir Sagramore, and Sir Dinadan, belong to the Order of the Round Table. In the musical, Lancelot originally comes to court because he’s heard about the virtuous Order and wants to join.

The Round Table has become a symbol of medieval chivalry. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, real-life knights participated in tournaments called Round Tables where people dressed up as their favorite Arthurian knights, took part in jousts, and attended feasts.

Did King Arthur exist?

No one knows for sure. Some historians think King Arthur was inspired by Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman military commander from the second century, when Rome ruled Britain. However, early Welsh sources describe Arthur as a Briton who fought the Anglo-Saxons (and possibly some monsters, dragons, and magic boars) around the seventh century. Others suggest he could have been the Welsh king Athrwys or a fictional Welsh mythic figure.

Regardless of whether he is man or myth, King Arthur is celebrated as a brave, heroic warrior king who successfully defended his country against its enemies.

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Was there a real Camelot?

Probably not. The name Camelot may have come from Arthur’s court at Caerleon, the mythical island of Avalon (the king’s alleged resting place), the battle of Camlann (the king’s final battle), the city of Camulodunum (now known as Colchester in modern England), or from the Old French phras "con lui plot" (as he pleased).

Despites its origins, Camelot is intertwined with the romantic elements of the legend. The first known mention of the Arthurian court at Camelot is in the 12th-century French poem “Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette.” This poem also contains the first known reference to Lancelot and his affair with Guenevere.

Though these legends are simply legends, they’ve captivated audiences for a thousand years. Lancelot and Guenevere's love reflects 12th-century values of courtly romance and chivalry. The infighting amongst royal families, with a traitorous nephew seeking to take the throne from his uncle, feels apropos for the War of the Roses era. The catastrophic consequences of Guenevere’s affair were construed as a patriarchal warning to Victorian women not to stray from the path of “pure womanhood.” More recently, in the 1960s, Camelot symbolized the Kennedy administration, which many saw as “one brief shining moment” of harmony.

In 2023, amid societal division, spending a few hours at a court known for its chivalry and unity is a treat. The magic may be only symbolic in this updated version of the show, but you’ll still find yourself enchanted by the lush score and famous love story. There’s a reason the stories of Arthur and his kingdom have stood the test of time.

Originally published on

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