One thing I want to mention up front: I haven't seen the Merlin TV show or any of the movie adaptations other than Monty Python's. It may be quixotic (ha, ha), but I wanted to approach the characters from as close as I could get to their literary origins without learning any dead languages. Obviously there's going to be a modern lens applied, but I wanted it to be my own lens.
Because I am incapable of doing anything the simple way (see: including Arthurian mythos at all), I'm not going with any single source, but synthesizing a few versions of the story into one that suits my needs. I do this in the serene certainty that I am following not so much in others' footsteps as on an actual highway. I'm starting from Malory as readily available and readable, but adding and subtracting freely.
Even if I was going with just his version, I would have to do a fair amount of sorting and adapting, as he wasn't paying attention to consistency. Was Mordred Gawaine's cousin or his brother? Was the knight who followed the Questing Beast Pellinore or Palmides? Was Anguish the king of Ireland or Scotland? Really, "Anguish?" How many damn times did Tintagel change owners, since everything important happens there? Don't even get me started on Lancelot's family tree, which grew more cousins and nephews with every chapter.
Regardless. My story takes place in (mostly) the real world. Arthur did not exist as depicted in our world. Therefore, I have to come up with a version of the story that is identifiably itself, but which satisfies some basic rules for realism in my book-universe.
I had reasons for thinking this was a good idea, I swear.
From the outset I discarded the invasion of Rome. That story doesn't make sense as anything but exaggerated propaganda no matter how you slice it. I am on the fence about the Grail quest. It extends the timeline and the scope of the action enormously, and it requires going literal where I prefer to leave things metaphorical. Not to mention that if you were going on a quest in which purity by any definition was important, you could hardly do worse than this lot of characters, no matter which version you read.
Also, Galahad's existence bugs me. There is no way to un-squick fathers pimping out their daughters via magical deception -- the goal of which is to make a guy think he's having sex with a woman who's already married to someone else to begin with -- in order to satisfy a prophecy. While there are many interesting elements there that suggest alchemy to my imagination, it's hard to imagine God approving.
Slicing out both of those sub-plots simplifies things a lot. The next task is putting some boundaries on the story. When he first becomes king, Arthur is described as "beardless." I'm taking this liberally to mean that he was under twenty, not necessarily too young to shave. By the end of things, he is still a formidable warrior. I have a hard time buying this after age 50, and that's stretching. I don't care how bad-ass you are, that lifestyle takes a toll. This puts an outside limit of 30 years on his reign.
This makes for further simplification, in that some of the tales continue into a third generation. Mordred, for instance, is supposed to have an adult son at the end of at least one version. Well, when could that have happened? Out he goes. This leaves me with a skeleton that resembles a single story, rather than the conglomeration of assorted individual tales that were smushed together willy-nilly in the sources. My simplified timeline breaks down into the following chunks:
- Arthur's accession and the early wars to legitimize his rule. This period is capped off by his marriage to Gwenivir, which spelling I have settled on because it is the shortest.
- A stabilization period in which many of the famous individual adventures happened. Room can be made here for Arthur himself to still be doing some solo adventuring, along with the big names from the first generation of knights.
- Continental wars, drastically down-scaled from the invasion of Rome. This period includes some notable deaths from the first generation of knights, and Lancelot's early life. I'm using the French version of his story, in which he got kidnapped in infancy by the Lady of the Lake. I'm also putting him in the second generation of knights, because otherwise we have to believe that he carried on an affair with the queen for several decades, during which (per Malory) everyone in the kingdom except for Arthur knew about it.
- A second period of stability is a false one, as evil is starting to get its act together and the queen is straying. A lot of the Tristram stuff would end up here.
- The affair is discovered, war between Arthur and Lancelot, Mordred makes his move, everything goes to tragedy.