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King Arthur Fact or Fiction

Updated on January 5, 2015

King Arthur and the Knights of the round table. Fact or fiction?


Arthur, the legendary king, led the defence of Britain against the Saxon invaders in the early 6th century, according to folklore. Arthur's story is mainly composed of folk tales and romantic invention, and his very existence has been debated by ancient and modern historians alike.

The legend of Arthur was developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's work in 1136, 'The History of the Kings of Britain.' But, some tales and poems of Wales relating the story of Arthur are dated much earlier than this work. Arthur appears in these, either as a great warrior defending Britain from enemies, human or supernatural, or as a magical figure, associated with Welsh folklore. How much of Geoffrey's work was adapted from these earlier sources, or as some believe, invented by Geoffrey himself, is unknown. But, Monmouth is just twenty miles from Caerleon, and the historian must have known of the Roman remains there, which we know existed then. In his work History of the Kings of Britain, he describes how Arthur held court at Caerleon. This, he told us, was attended by many leaders from Britain and areas of Europe under his control. He called this place 'City Of The Legions.' Legend has it that Caerleon was, in fact, Camelot. The historical basis for the King Arthur legend has long been debated. Entries in the 'History of the Britons' and 'The Welsh Annals,' has Arthur as a genuine historical figure. They depict him as a leader who fought against the invading Anglo Saxons sometime in the 5th to early 6th century. The 'HistoriaBritonum,' a ninth century historical work, attributed to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, lists twelve battles that Arthur fought.

Another work that supports the case for Arthur's existence is the 10th-century Annales Cambriae which also links Arthur with the Battle of Mount Badon. The author dates this battle to 516–518, and also mentions the Battle of Camlan, in which Arthur was killed. This has often been used to raise confidence in Historia Britonium's account, and to confirm that Arthur really did fight at Mount Badon.

Many elements and incidents that are now a part of the Arthurian legend appear in Geoffrey of Monmouth's work. For example, Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon is described as a strong king and a defender of the people. According to legend, Uther, with the help of Merlin the wizard, tricks the wife of his enemy Gorlois, the Lady Igraine, and sleeps with her. Arthur, born of this union is an illegitimate child. This act of conception occurs the very night Uther's troops kill Gorlois.

Geoffrey depicted Arthur as a King of Britain who defeated the Saxons and established an empire over Britain, Iceland, Ireland, Norway and Gaul. A French writer in the 12th century Cretien de Troyes added 'Lancelot and the Holy Grail' to the story, and started the Arthurian romance that became a significant part of mediaeval literature. In these French poems, the spotlight changes from Arthur himself to other characters such as 'The Knights of the Round Table,' and 'Lancelot and Guinevere,' According to de Troyes, these chosen knights were men who were awarded the highest order of Chivalry at King Arthur's Court, and the table at which they sat was created to have no head or foot, representing equality in all who sat there.

Is this the start of the romantic part of Arthur's history? Did the Frenchman create these mythical characters from imagination, or was there a glimmer of truth in there somewhere?


Statue of King Arthur

Source

Excaliber

In Arthurian romance a number of explanations are given for Arthur's possession of his sword, Excalibur. In legend, Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone, an act which could not be performed except by the true king, meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. However, in other work Excalibur was given to Arthur by the 'Lady of the Lake' sometime after he began to reign. She calls the sword "Excalibur, that is Cut-steel."

The story of the Sword in the Stone has another version in Norse history, where Sigmund draws the sword Gram out of a trunk of a tree where it was embedded by the Norse god Odin.

In several early French works, again de Troy's 'Percival and the Grail,' and 'Lancelot,' Excalibur is used by Gawain, Arthur's nephew and one of his knights. But this is contradicted later, in versions where Excalibur belongs solely to the king.

Was the Frenchman using artistic licence to its limit?

Arthur's final enemy

Source

Modern Arthur

Towards the end of the Middle Ages there was a dying off of interest in King Arthur. There were attacks upon the truthfulness of the historical Arthurian romances – established since Geoffrey of Monmouth's time. So, for example, the 16th-century Italian scholar Polydor Vergil famously rejected the claim that Arthur was the ruler of a post-Roman empire, to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians. Social changes also conspired to rob the character of Arthur and his associated legends, of some of their power to enthral audiences

In the early 19th century, interest in mediaevalism and romanticism was re- awakened and stories of King Arthur were revived. A new code of ethics for 19th-century gentlemen was shaped around ideas of chivalry, the very ideals that the "Arthur of romance" embodied. This renewed interest first made itself felt in 1816, when revived Arthurian romance also proved influential in the United States. This interest continued through the 19th century and into the 20th, and influenced authors and film makers alike. Arthur is treated more seriously and historically in these newer versions.

Arthur has also been used as a model for modern-day behaviour. In the 1930s, the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table was formed in Britain to promote Christian ideals and Arthurian notions of medieval chivalry. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of boys and girls joined Arthurian youth groups, such as the Knights of King Arthur, in which Arthur and his legends were promoted for youth to look up to, and to hold in reverence. Arthurian names are often attached to objects, buildings and places. As Norris J. Lacy has observed, "The popular notion of Arthur appears to be limited, not surprisingly, to a few motifs and names, but there can be no doubt of the extent to which a legend born many centuries ago, is profoundly embedded in modern culture at every level."

Whatever Arthur was, his name will always be held as the epitome of chivalry, of honour and of integrity.


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    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 3 years ago

      The character in question in it is called Ursus (Latin for Bear), and there is some speculation that Arthur comes from the Welsh word for Bear. Gildas is known for changing the names of Welsh leaders into Latin versions. He is not a big fan of the Welsh though, so he does not portray Ursus is a good guy, but most of what he says needs to be taken with a grain of salt since he is at a viewpoints clearly intellectually dishonest.

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 3 years ago from South Wales

      No, I've never read Gildas. Thanks for the tip, I must look him up.

    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 3 years ago

      Hey, scarytaff, this was a fascinating hub. The first story I ever read to myself was a King Arthur story and since then the tales have captivated. I was just wondering have you ever read Gildas. He is a person from around the time an historical Arthur would have existed, and there is actually some mention in his writings of a king that could be Arthur, depending on the meaning of the name Arthur.

    • profile image

      arnica 4 years ago

      Are all these merely legends or do they hold some truth? It’s for each one of us to decide.

      My favorite and probably the most famous literary work centering on the Arthur legend, is the poem the lady of shallot..

      History provides with various variations of Arthur’s story and each one of them weaves the thread of mystery around him.

      apart from this being arthur's fan i had a Pendragon statue from Collectors Heritage which i had kept as a decorative piece of history in my living room....i love it hope u all will like it too visit the site..www.collecorsheritage.com

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 5 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for commenting nemanjaboskov, and callie. Great stories like Arthur's are the basis of history. It still leaves it to us to figure out the truth or not.

    • profile image

      callie 5 years ago

      is he real

    • nemanjaboskov profile image

      Nemanja Boškov 6 years ago from Serbia

      King Arthur is one of the most fascinating people in English history - be the stories true or false...

      I really liked the wealth of information this hub gave us, and you still left us wondering :)

      Well, I'd have to say that I like to believe in all the stories, as there are never enough people like Arthur!

      Ever since I read Ivanhoe as a kid, I've been fascinated by this bold and special man, who was depicted in this piece as a true King of people.

      Thanks for a great hub, scarytaff!

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 7 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for commenting, elder.

    • profile image

      elder 7 years ago

      Most myths are born from a seed of truth. Stories such as this demonstrates mankind's hunger for the greater good.

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 7 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for commenting, bladeguy. I hope you didn't have to pull your Excalibur out of a stone. I've read your hub, by the way and I can sympathise with you. Cheers.

    • bladeguy profile image

      bladeguy 7 years ago

      I recently acquired a basic Excalibur sword from a medieval festival not long ago, and have since been curious about the 'real' legends of King Arthur -- where fact ends and fiction begins. Had no idea that the Welsh and French had such an influence into what I'd believed was strictly an English masterpiece. I usually tend to believe that the earliest mentions are the most accurate, in this case, a Welshman's Latin texts. Thanks for the informative hub!

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 7 years ago from South Wales

      Yes, please Amanda.Your hub on the Pre-Raphaelites is amazing. Thanks for the link.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

      Hi Scarytaff, I've just written a hub focussing on the Pre-Raphaelite artists Arthurian paintings. Would it be ok to include a link to your hub?

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 7 years ago from South Wales

      Well said, Tom. I'm sure there was a lot of folklore wrapped around the truth.

    • Tom_Radford profile image

      Tom Radford 7 years ago from Singapore

      Great stuff. I believe in Arthur, I don't think you can just make up the greatest king of England and expect the medieval population to just accept it. It is my belief that he was already in the hearts and minds of the public at that time and whatever sources Geoffrey and others used, they've been lost. Not sure if he was a king or a chief or a general... but someone kept the saxons at bay for a long time, someone great.

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks, saddlerider. You love history too, huh. I like that. I'll follow you.

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks SilverGenes. I'm sure that the legends were based on fact, and that Arthur did exist. Storytelling changes as time passes and suddenly they become legends, which everyone loves to read about. Thanks for your interest.

    • profile image

      SilverGenes 8 years ago

      Personally, I like to think the tales are based in truth and I think there is a good probability. Most legends have at least some basis in real events, like the 7 cities of Troy. As for Arthur and the tales of battle, romance and wizardry, they're as intriguing today as they were centuries ago and that's a feat in itself. Thanks for the wonderful read.

    • saddlerider1 profile image

      saddlerider1 8 years ago

      Fascinating story King Arthur. I loved the story as a boy and have seen many movies made of the romantic, gallant and bravery of this legend. I dreamed as a boy that I lived in that period of chivalry and swordsmanship. Thank you for the share and by the way, my last name being Snowdon, I read that Mt Snowdonia played a historical part in the legend of the Knights of the round table, it has a mystery of it's own Mt Snowdonia? I look forward to reading more of your fantastic writings.

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks, papalopp. All history is fascinating in my view. Thanks for stopping by.

    • papalopp profile image

      papalopp 8 years ago from San Diego, CA

      I enjoy this stuff so much, couldn't get enough as a kid. I read T. H. White to my sons before bed when they were young. Still taken with these stories and how cultures over time would try to mold Arthur to their view or debunk him. As a yank, I would believe him to be something akin to our Johnny Appleseed. One whose actions and intent out grow the mortal man. Enjoyed the writing........papalopp

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks, wag, history fascinates me. There's lots more to do.

    • profile image

      Wag The Dog 8 years ago

      King Arthur, fact or fiction, is a great story. Another story I like, is related to Excaliber. Well, Excaliber the movie that is. A great movie that had a little known actor at the time, who would one day become Sir Patrick Stewart. A rags to riches story. Love that guy. Scarytaff, as always, great job on this one. I rated it up. Wag

    • scarytaff profile image
      Author

      Derek James 8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks, Cardinal. Funny you should mention Owain Glyndwr, I have him on my list.

    • profile image

      The Cardinal 8 years ago from South Wales

      Fascinating stuff

      I had no idea that caerleon was linked to arthurian legend and will certainly be researching it more.

      I for one think that somewhere back in the mists of time there was an arthur. In what context, who knows.

      You write some fascinating stuff along with credulous links and references.

      How about something about owain glyndwr or bodica.

      Excellent work, keep it coming

      k

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