Daily Archives: January 18, 2011

King of the Who? Why Arthur is as Confusing as he is Awesome

I suppose I could just tell you that the historical origins of Arthur do not matter, but really they do.  What matters, perhaps, a little less is whether or not he was a real historical figure.

Most people have a pretty clear image of King Arthur in their minds.  I say, “Hey, how about that King Arthur?” and you say one of the following:

  • “Oh yeah, The Sword in the Stone was my favorite movie growing up!”
  • “I loved Clive Owen in that one! But whose idea was it to paint Keira Knightley blue?”
  • “Which was it: an African or European swallow?”

Okay, good answer.  Well said.  So,  let’s say I were to follow up your witty response with the question:

If you answered A or B, you are probably a historically minded person and therefore might have some issues with the whole Arthur was real, but not… historical… part of my discussion.  If you answered C, there is hope for you yet and you you will probably understand what I have to say.  If you answered D, it’s okay.  I’m here.  I’ll get you through this.

If you answered E, just… just… I will pray for you.

In my last post, I mentioned the idea of literary events that happen (the italics are necessary, okay?  Necessary!) not in a historical sense, but in a literary sense.  When you get caught up in a really good movie or a really good book, you might, for a moment, believe that the events are actually really occuring.  That is why some people look away during a scary or embarrassing moment.  It becomes too real. It happened for the viewer or reader.

King Arthur happened in a grander sort of way.  He is a legendary figure who is so potent and real that his story keeps returning to the big screen and the pages of the latest fiction novel. However, I suppose in the interest of calming the frazzled nerves of the historically minded (you know who you are – you picked A or B in the questionnaire above), I should identify where the legend began.  Because, as so many legends are, Arthur’s story was birthed in historical events.

Historical Arthur

The main problem you will likely run into when hunting for the “first” Arthur is the issue of oral verses written traditions.  Arthur’s earliest appearances are in Welsh texts, specifically the story of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion.  However, while we know the Mabinogion first appeared in the 1300’s, we don’t know when it was actually conceived.  The Welsh sang their stories long before they ever wrote them.

What we do know, and what’s really important here, is that Arthur was an established hero of legend by the time the Mabinogion’s tales were told.  He is mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen in such a way that audience must have already been able to identify him.  Godlike and heroic, Arthur and his band ride out and defeat monsters and giants.

Later in the 14th century, a writer of Welsh origins named Geoffrey of Monmouth penned the Historia Regum Brittania, a “history” of Britain’s kings. Within that “historical” account is Arthur.  Here, we also see Guinevere, Merlin, and Modred appear in their early guises.  However, despite Geoffrey’s claim that he drew on an undisclosed historical document, the events of the Historia are clearly embellished.

So, my poor historically minded friends, we have a mystery.   If Arthur lived, he likely did live during the chaotic time in which the Romans finally left Britain and the Saxons began their invasions.  Vortigern’s name might ring a bell. Some historians claim that Arthur is a composite of several heroic kings of early Britain.  Others say that he is a British born, Roman trained soldier who became a great leader.  Still others say that the name is just a name and that there was no one at all to lay claim to it.

I suppose I could just tell you that the historical origins of Arthur do not matter, but really they do.  What matters, perhaps, a little less is whether or not he was a real historical figure.  He became real several centuries later and he has become more real with every successive century.

The part that history plays is fostering and nourishing Arthur’s legend.  The Saxon invasions provided a place for his story to be born and his star to rise.  The Norman invasion in AD 1066  began a new age of “Englishness” and the desire for an English hero.  It was after this that Arthur was able to become a British king, rather than just a Celtic one.

The Middle Ages inspired romance.  During this period, Arthur became less of a shadow and began to dominate the literary sphere.  Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes wrote Arthur as he would be for the next several centuries.

So, that is Arthur’s history.  While he might not have lived and breathed, his legend certainly did and still does.  I hope this pleases the historians.