King Arthur from Scratch

by Judy Shoaf, Arthurnet moderator

Figuring out who King Arthur "was" is very confusing. Even people who have spent their lives studying him cannot agree whether he ever actually existed. I myself don't think he did, because if he did he was not much like the character I think of as King Arthur.  Anyway, because there are no facts AT ALL about him, just stories written long after he was supposed to have lived, it's hard to create a biography of him. Every storyteller has a different angle, different details. So there are really as many Arthurs as there are people writing about him (and that includes people who are trying to describe a "real" historical Arthur). Some people think he was a prehistoric legend of the Celtic British, some a Roman general defending Hadrian's Wall, some a brilliant organizer of resistance to Germanic invaders; and in imaginative works he has been placed in outer space or in 12th-century England.

In the following very brief summary, I have put in red names and terms that you need to understand or might want to look up on the internet or in the New Arthurian Encyclopedia so that you can learn more. See also the timeline of sorts on this site.

It is also good to start out with an understanding of two different political/linguistic concepts related to the island where Arthur ruled: Britain (inhabited by Britons and speaking a Celtic language, British, and probably also Latin, since they had been part of the Roman Empire), versus England (inhabited by people thinking of themselves as descendents of Anglo-Saxons and speaking a Germanic language, English).  After 1066 the Normans ruled England but the language that evolved was still called English and the country was still called England. The Welsh in particular came to think of themselves as the heirs of the Britons, since they spoke a language that had its roots in the British language. Medieval stories about Arthur locate him in the period around the year 500 when the Romans had abandoned Britain and the Anglo-Saxons were beginning to move in. Thus, it is common but not really correct to refer to Arthur as "king of England"; he was a king of Britain in a time when the English were the enemy.

1. Geoffrey's Arthur

The easiest way to introduce you to the basics is to start with Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Geoffrey was a writer from Monmouth in Wales, and his book, History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin around 1138, seems to be the source of about 80% of the entire King Arthur story. The Arthur chapters form a proper biography and include:

•    Merlin the "prophet" and wise man
•    Uther and Igraine (spelled many ways) Arthur's parents, and the story of his strange conception
•    Guinevere, Arthur's wife
•    King Lot, Arthur's brother-in-law
•    Mordred and Gawain, Arthur's bad and good nephews
•    Caliburn, recognizable as Excalibur, Arthur's sword
•    Avalon, a place where Caliburn was forged and where Arthur is (perhaps)  taken to be healed after his last battle.

Geoffrey fits Arthur into history as the leader of the British (that is, the Celtic people living in the island of Britain before, during, and after the Roman occupation of the island) resisting the Anglo-Saxons around the year 500. His Arthur is a king who was able to bring together (by war and/or persuasion) all the kings of different parts of Britain and get them to work together to fight a common enemy, and then live together in peace for many years. Arthur is also presented as an emperor, who rules over Scandinavia and other areas as well as the British Isles, and who is on the point of conquering Gaul and Rome when, due to Mordred's betrayal, he must return to Britain to defend the home front. Although Geoffrey does not mention the Round Table, he presents Arthur's court as one which attracts champions from many lands (the Round Table is first described in a French "translation"  of Geoffrey by the poet Wace).

Geoffrey later became interested in Morgan le Fay, Arthur's sorceress sister, and mentioned her in another book, a "Life of Merlin" which of course also had a whole new set of stories about Merlin. Geoffrey definitely was doing research on what we might now call folklore, and he probably had a number of books available that are lost now. However, from the books and records we *do* have it is clear that he was very good at combining folklore from several parts of the British Isles with written sources and bits of fact, and making it all into an excellent and probable-looking "history."

Up until about the 1600s Geoffrey's account of Arthur had the status of being possibly true, though there were skeptics all along. Stories about Arthur and his knights, even ones that claimed to be historical, tended to include very unhistorical-looking events, such as encounters with giants, fairies, disappearing castles, magic ships, etc. Almost always the court of Arthur was used to mirror in some way the problems of contemporary society, either as a lost ideal or as a kind of laboratory for thought experiments about political, social, and even emotional situations (such as the political status of an adulterous queen).

2. Arthur before Geoffrey

We know that  the name/character of Arthur, and quite a few others in the story, are at least a few centuries older than Geoffrey's book. All in all, though, we have very few stories about Arthur which were not influenced by Geoffrey's retelling.

An earlier historian of the British, "Nennius," mentions a general named Arthur who fought the battles that Geoffrey says King Arthur fought;  "Nennius" also tells tales about the marvelous dog and the son of "the soldier Arthur". There are also two entries in a Welsh chronology (Annales Cambriae) that refer to one of these battles and to Arthur's death (but without calling him a king).

King Arthur appears in some Celtic saints' lives, often as a worldly ruler (with sidekicks Kay and Bedivere) who needs the saint's help or is corrected for his mistakes by the saint. We also know that in early 12th-century Cornwall and Brittany there was a popular belief that King Arthur would come again to liberate his people from the English and/or Normans (this was reported by some priests from Laon in France who were travelling in Cornwall in 1113, and were surprised to find the same idea in these two diverse places).

Since Welsh derives from British, the language that would have been spoken by an historical Arthur, its traditions are of special interest. There is some Welsh poetry that mentions Arthur and his men, and a number of "Mabinogion" tales which present him as a wonderful ruler and warrior, but it is hard to tell how old the traditions are that they represent.

3. Arthur from Geoffrey to Malory

A French poet, Chretien de Troyes, was the first to tell the story of the love of Lancelot for Guinevere, within about 50 years after Geoffrey wrote. Marie de Champagne, a great lady who was his patroness, told him pretty much what to do--to make a particular kind of love story out of a much older story in which Guinevere is abducted and rescued. Chretien also, writing for a different patron, wrote the first Arthurian Grail story, although in his version the Grail is just a gold dish that the hero, Perceval, is supposed to find out about (though in one passage a hermit tells Perceval that the dish is holy). A German poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach, wrote a much longer and more elaborate romance, Parzival, about the Grail, which in his story is a magical stone.

In the early 13th century, French authors started working out how to fit the Arthur story into a different view of history from Geoffrey's, a religious view that plotted modern history from Christ to the Crusades. In their version, Lancelot's love of Guinevere became a great sin, and the Grail became a relic of Christ's crucifixion, closely tied to the Last Supper and beliefs that Christ was physically present in the bread and wine at Mass. The Grail visited Arthur's realm looking for the heir to a kingdom in the Middle East. At first Perceval was still that hero (in this version he was the direct descendent of Joseph of Arimathea, who was present at the Crucifixion), then it became Galahad, Lancelot's son. These versions eventually became the French prose "Lancelot-Graal" romance, which included a history of Joseph of Arimathea's family and covered all of Arthur's life and death and many adventures of his various knights. Even this long work kept being expanded and added to.

Finally (but not really, since nothing regarding Arthur is final!) a 15th-century English knight, Thomas Malory, wrote his somewhat condensed version of the whole story, which is considered by some to be the best retelling of all. His book is called Le Morte D'Arthur or Morte Darthur and was one of the first secular books printed in England (by William Caxton).

The medieval rulers of England, particularly the 12th-century Plantagenets and the Welsh Tudors, liked the Arthur stories and often emphasized Arthur in their ceremonies or the literature their court poets wrote. The notion that the island of Britain had once been a headquarters for political, military, and cultural dominance of Europe was of course encouraging to their own ambitions.

4. Arthur after the Middle Ages

In the Renaissance the idea that Arthur was a historical figure was discredited. When one looked at Geoffrey with a skeptical eye it was clear that he had made up much of his "history,"  and the story of Arthur included too many elements that offended the rationality of serious writers of history. However, Arthur was still appealing to English poets, and his story was incorporated into Edmund Spenser's fantastical allegory The Faerie Queen (1590s). Arthur continued to show up occasionally in English literature, for example in the opera King Arthur (1691) by Purcell, with a text by John Dryden, which took the idea of the British-Anglo Saxon conflict and made up a new narrative which reflected the ideas of its time about those cultures.

In the second half of the 19th century, a series of poems which were eventually gathered as the Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, brought Arthur back into the mainstream of English literature. These poems re-told Malory's narrative with romance and drama that made this one of the most influential books of the time. Artists including Edward Burne-Jones and the other Pre-Raphaelites, and the American Edwin Austin Abbey, chose Arthurian subjects; Julia Margaret Cameron, an early photographer, also made photographed scenes from Arthurian stories; poets looked for a dramatic incident from the stories which would allow a fine lyric or narrative expansion.

In the 20th century, the tradition of re-interpreting Malory was continued by T. H. White, whose Sword in the Stone, a fantasy about Arthur's childhood, became the first part of Once and Future King (1958), a powerful modern novel about Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. This was the basis of the musical Camelot. A very different interpretation of the story was Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which infused the Arthurian setting and character with modern neopagan ideas about the conflict between worship of The Goddess and masculine cultures.

Arthur has inspired so many novels, works of art, comics (think Prince Valiant but also the space drama Camelot 3000), and movies, TV series and miniseries, and even advertising and trademarks, that these different areas require special expertise to keep track of them. Most of this activity is in England and America, though there are also works of significance in French, German, and other languages.

5. Modern ideas about who Arthur was


Now, when scholars look back at the period when Arthur was supposed to have lived, there are almost no written records. The Romans had provided  military support and organization in Britain for 4 centuries or so, but they left Britain in the 5th century and there wasn't a lot of communication as the Empire was breaking down. The only book that has survived that tells the history of this period, "The Fall of Britain" by Gildas, does not mention Arthur. However, Gildas is rather vague about names and it is still possible that Arthur lived when Geoffrey of Monmouth says he did.

Anyway, during the 5th-7th century Britain went from being a Roman province of speakers of British (ancestor of Welsh) to being divided between several Welsh-speaking kingdoms in the West and several English-speaking kingdoms in the East.  It is hard even for archaeologists to agree whether it looks like the pagan Anglo-Saxons invaded Christian Britain, massacring the locals or driving them into the hills (Gildas's version), or whether the Anglo-Saxons just kind of wandered inland, in small groups, settling down in villages where there seemed to be room, and blending in, but insisting on speaking their own language and on allegiance to kings of their own blood.

Some scholars (particularly Nicholas Higham) have tried to show that Arthur was invented for particular political purposes by later Welsh authors, but we still don't know enough about the transition from British to English rule to be able to prove that there is no room for an Arthur in that time.

When modern (post-WWII) writers try to imagine Arthur, based on what we know about the period, they usually guess that he must have been a military leader, maybe with some Roman training, who united the British to resist the much better-equipped and more warlike Anglo-Saxons. This story, which might be called "Arthur as Celtic Warlord," is obviously influenced by England's role in WWII.

Other writers have tried to pin Arthur to a known historical person, including Riothamus (a general who lived at the right time and more or less the right places; the strongest supporter of his identity as Arthur is Geoffrey Ashe) and Lucius Artorius Castus (a Roman general who commanded Sarmatian forces defending Hadrian's Wall for a few years in the late 2nd century; this is part of a very elaborate theory, called the Sarmatian theory or the Alano-Sarmatian theory, most strongly presented by Scott Littleton and Dr. Linda Malcor).