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More than a Fairytale: What if the Round Table was square?

Illustration by Chen (Cornelia) Chen

Well it would be ridiculous right? The Round Table has to be round, that’s like literally the whole point. Basically every child in the United Kingdom (and maybe even beyond due to film and TV adaptations of the popular, probably overdone, King Arthur myth) knows the story, 

King Arthur’s reign was off to a fabby start. Having been crowned off the back of a dubious interaction involving a sword and a stone, he had practically no authority among his barons. After all they had been training their entire lives to hold positions as knights, they had grown up around the court, cut their teeth on the weird feasting cutlery rituals. Why should they answer to a kid who was raised a servant boy? 

So yes, Arthur, being a king in nothing but name, desperately needed a method of resolving the endless peacocking among his knights, a way of putting a stop to the volatile infighting – especially after a violent outburst had recently broken out over Christmas dinner. What did he come up with?

…a table! 

The idea was genius, right?!?! Because the table was round there would be no fighting over seat-related symbolism, no questioning who sat where and why. Arguments would be resolved instantly. Thank God for carpentry! 

Don’t kid me, the story is plain ridiculous. It might sound pretty poetically to think of a Round Table symbolising equality, but in the real world – what difference would it really make? It would have worked equally well if the table was a perfect square, or a perfect hexagon, dodecagon whatever. So long as the table wasn’t a really long rectangle with a ‘head’ the effect would be the same. Well, even then, it probably would have worked if the king was less of a wet wipe. If Arthur had more confidence, he would have just plonked himself at the head of the table, and Merlin, his wife, or even his dog at the other end. The knights would sit in on the longer sides, simples. 

Or, he could have also just devised a seating plan. Probably would have been easier than manufacturing an entire new table. 

So, what’s been established? Well, despite its prevalence in popular culture today, the Round Table myth doesn’t hold up all that well to scrutiny. In fact what purpose does it serve except suggesting Arthur had a weird thing for furniture?

Well, Arthur’s fascination (or fetish – it’s a safe space here) for furniture is not confined to his Round Table. In fact, the Round Table is a pretty new addition to the story, if 12th century counts as ‘new’. Before the mighty Circular Surface there was ‘Arthur’s Chair’, ‘Arthur’s Bed-Chamber’ (although how you represent that in carpentry or masonry I am not sure), ‘Arthur’s Oven’, ‘Arthur’s Door’, and my personal favourite: Saint Carannog’s Mystical Floating Altar. 

The Altar is my favourite because it – once again! – exposes the sheer ridiculousness of King Arthur. As the legend goes, King Arthur found this altar laying vacant in the beautiful, but probably rainy, Welsh countryside. It could also have been Cornwall, as the scholars and Arthur fans cannot agree on whether Arthur was Cornish or Welsh. There are some serious fights over which nation gets to claim this furniture-loving king as their own. It makes a heck of a lot of money in tourism annually, with (mythical) locations selling programmes proudly bearing the slogan, ‘The site of the real King Arthur’. 

But anyway, King Arthur was waltzing in the wonderful Welsh weather and he came across this altar. Do you know what he thought? Gee, that altar would make a pretty great dinner table (I told you, this man is crazy for tables). So he carries the altar-table back to Camelot and tries to serve dinner. 

Was this altar-table round, I hear you asking? To that question I say, probably not. Altars aren’t generally round as far as I know. Arthur had clearly ‘forgotten’ his need for tabular equality in this moment. 

The dinner is a disaster: every time the food is set down, the altar-table just starts floating in the air. Unable to eat, the knights get hangrier and hangrier, the fights get wilder and wilder, and Arthur looks like even more of an idiot. Desperate to save face, he tries to bargain with the Altar’s Patron Saint (yes I am aware this story is getting quite absurd by this stage, but people genuinely believed there was a patron saint of tables) and get the altar-table returned. The Saint accepts, on the condition that Arthur killed a monstrous dragon prowling in the area – a fair bargain me-thinks. Unfortunately all accounts of Saint Carannog’s Mystical Floating Altar stop there; so we will never know if Arthur actually succeeded in killing this dragon and regaining his ego. The moral of the story? Check your table anatomy. 

With the exception of this mythical and mystical floating altar, there is nothing that unique about all the other Arthur-related bits of furniture. In Pembrokeshire, pretty much every strange archway, rock formation, hole in a cliff, has been given the name ‘Arthur’s (something)’. Now, I know Arthur’s obsession with furniture was extreme, but it was not that extreme. I sense some real tourist money fleecing going on here. And I don’t even blame the Welsh tourism industry for this: tourists are silly enough to buy it. (Shamefully) Myself included…use this picture of six-year-old me by ‘Arthur’s Archway’ as evidence. 

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(I do really hope my parents knew the truth, and just didn’t tell me so as to not spoil the illusion. Because, it would be very strange for the late and great King Arthur to have claim to a random archway connecting two tiny allotments in a little fishing village in Pembs.)

When is a table not a table? 

Well technically the Round Table was never a ‘table’, because it was not real, because the King Arthur myth was a story. Yes, there may have been a real King Arthur. There possibly was a Briton chieftain who held off a Saxon invasion around the Welsh area c500A.D, but it is disputed as to whether he was actually called ‘Arthur’ since the name was first documented and ascribed to this military figure over 400 years after he (allegedly) lived. What is certain is that this ‘King Arthur’ did not have knights, jousting tournaments, round tables, swords in stones, ladies in lakes etc. To be honest, the real story is much more boring – hence why history has jazzed it up a bit. 

But really, when is a table not a table? 

When it’s a… random circle in the ground!

No, really. Some historians believe that this prehistoric circular earthwork set into the grown in the wilds of Cumbria could have been the inspiration between the 12th century creation of The Round Table. Although others are adamant it is was the Amphitheatre in Caerleon near Cardiff – one of these sites of the ‘real’ King Arthur. Then there are others who say the Round Table was 100% absolutely inspired by Chester Roman Amphitheatre, they even made a documentary about it – only to be embarrassingly proven wrong publicly by the English Heritage Commission (the archaeological consultants they hired) who questioned the extent of the evidence behind their claim. I mean, I don’t know what leg they thought they were standing on as the Chester Roman Amphitheatre isn’t even round…it’s literally a semi-circle.  

So basically, all these historians succeeded in coming up with was that the Round Table was based off of something that was, well, round. Wow, absolutely life-changing information there. I absolutely couldn’t have come up with that. 

The thing is, we know the Round Table – like so much of the King Arthur myth – is just plain ridiculous. It really could have worked equally well if it was square. The effect would be identical. Regardless of the selected shape, one knight will always be sat closer to the king than the other. Well, unless the king sits dead in the middle, but that would be silly.  

So why do we keep coming back to King Arthur? Why haven’t we realised, after 1000 years that he is a bit of an idiot and his story is a just little odd? 

But I guess you only notice these things when you really analyse it. Yes, I do English, and yes overanalysing everything about a text is literally my degree. But some texts just don’t hold up to that much scrutiny, (over)analysis eradicates any sense of magic and wonder. 

We keep come back to King Arthur, his knights, his swords in stones, his circular furniture because it is fundamentally a good story. It has fabby characters (plus the women are infinitely more badass than (most of) the men, which I love!), it has twists, temptations, trials, tribulations, it even has dragons. 

Let’s be real, who hasn’t wanted to go to Camelot at one point in their lives? It sounds like a pretty incredible place to escape to. 

But when all is said and done, the Round Table should absolutely have been square. 

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably chopping about on the Isis River.