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King Arthur In Literature And History Essay

, Research Paper

King Arthur is the greatest of British literary heroes, although little is known about the real person. Little real historical information is left, only texts, chronicles, verses, myths, fragments of epic poems, inscriptions, symbols, graven images and graffiti. Although these writings can be interesting literature, they lack factual evidence and are obscure in details. It is not even possible to say that a real Arthur even existed, for the records of his existence go back to the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries AD, when the Welsh and English kingdoms which were to replace Roman government were only beginning (Hero and Legend, 1).

Chroniclers tell us that the fifth century in Britain was a morbid time of slaughter and death. The Britons then were the Celtic people, the modern ancestors of the Welsh. They were on the island for a thousand years, and had formed a major part of the Roman Empire and their educated classes of clergy and aristocracy spoke Latin as well as an early form of Welsh called Brythonic. Although a racially Celtic, the Britons saw themselves as politically and culturally part of the Roman Empire, which was quickly collapsing (Day, 10).

The Battle of Adrianople, which happened decades earlier in 375, was the beginning of the invasion of the barbaric horsemen from the East. At Adrianople, the Visigoth cavalry destroyed the Roman Emperor Valen’s infantry. After Adrianople, horseman would domionated warfare in Europe for a thousand years. The age of the more-mounted warriors, beginning the age of “chivalry.” It was also the end of the Empire. The Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Franks, Slavs, Burgundians and Vandals demolished the Roman legions. By 407, Rome was forced to move her legions from Britain to fight the invaders on the continent of Europe, where the Empire was being sacked by Alaric the Goth. Britain became independent, but was soon troubled with inter-tribal conflicts. Christian Roman Britain was being destroyed and was falling into an age of darkness (10, 11).

To save themselves from being attacked by the Picts and Irish, the Britons made an alliance with the Angles of the Jutish chieftains Hengist and Horsa. The Angle mercenaries were given the southeast lands of Essex and part of Kent in exchange for driving the barbarian hordes back into the mountains north of the old Roman walls. The Angles revolted against the Britons. Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians arrived to reinforce the original mercenary army. Briton was attacked by the Angles and Saxons on the east and southern coast, capturing all of Kent, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Bernicia. The Gaelic pirates known as the “Scotti” meanwhile attacked the west coast and started the first Scots Kingdom. These disasters were considered the fault of the Brittish king Vortigern. He was probably the most powerful clan chieftain of the Britons, but in the end Vortigern was attacked by both the Saxons and the Britons, who felt he had betrayed them, and was killed.

The Roman-Celtic Britain civilizations were destroyed, burned to the ground by the attacking barbarians. The Britons were pushed back on every border. In the year 446 a cry was sent to Roman Consul Aetius, the Military Commander of the Roman Forces of Gaul. “The Empire was collapsing and Aetius had no time to consider the plight of the Britons” (12). The Consul was trying to ally with the Goths and Franks, in an attempt to make a force strong enough to face Attila the Hun.

The Britons were doomed. The Britons of the fifth century needed a champion, and miraculously two champions helped unite the Britons and turn the tables. The first champion was Ambrosius Aurelianus: the second was called Artorius.

It was not Ambrosius Aurelianus who was the famous warlord of history. His successor, a Romanized Briton named Artorous, was a military leader of genius (15). Artorous took the name Dux Bellorum, led the Britons to victory in twelve battles against the Saxon, Pict, Scot and Irish hordes. The most famous battle was the Battle of Mons Badonicus (Badon Hill), where Arthur and his calvary defeated nine hundred Saxon warriors in a single charge. Victory was won, and for decades after the Saxons did not dare challenge the Britons. It is Arthur the Dux Bellorum who provided the character known as King Arthur (15).

Arthurian history is vague to say the least, and written records are not always entirely factual. One well-known tale anonymously written in the eighth and ninth century was the first to name the hero of the ‘siege of mons Badonicus’ as Arthur. Another history, the brief Annals of Wales tells two things of Arthur: he fought at Badon, and he was killed at Camlann in the same battle. Another anonymous author wrote The History of the Britons, which not only talks about Arthur’s career, but also has a catalogue of battles.

The History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth is one of the greatest medieval works of fiction. Despite this, is has been taken as a fiction generations of later writers. Stories of Arthur were mainly told by word of mouth, until Geoffrey wrote down the stories as one of the first written manuscript of Arthurian legend.

Geoffrey claims his books were based on a ‘very ancient book in the British tongue’ (Barber, 10). Geoffrey’s book is an uneven mix of fiction and history, but there is enough factual evidence in it to make it be confirmed as untrue. The History of the Kings of Britain is a literary masterpiece, and gathers information from material borrowed from all kinds of sources.

By medieval standards, Geoffrey’s work was a bestseller. It was also widely accepted as being true. Two romance histories were based on it; Gaimar’s work is lost, but Wave’s Roman de Brut, written in 1155, has survived (10). A Norman clerk, Wace copied Geoffrey’s work closely, but added new events, including the Round Table.

Arthurian literature drastically changed during the Middle Ages, when emphasis shifts quickly to Lancelot and Guenevere, to Perceval, Galahad, or Gawain, to Tristan and Isolde. In Celtic material over French romances, Arthur plays the dominant role, going to wars, hunts and quests, earning glory and territory for himself. Works like Culhqch and Olwen, Arthur is associated with the magic and supernatural, while the Welsh Arthur is based more on Celtic mythological tradition.

Besides chronicles, the Celtic texts, and the Middle English works, emphasis is not put on Arthur much as a great warrior. Large-scale wars are forgotten, and Arthur becomes a wise, generous character, not a warlord of the past. Arthur was an ideal Christian hero, and in texts like Culhwch and Olwen he is shown as God’s elect. The story of the Sword of the Stone, originally from the Viking myth about the Sword of the Volsungs, has now become the act of God that shows Arthur as divine ruler.

The most famous writings of Arthur would be Le Morte Darthur. Written by Thomas Malory, a knight and a prisoner who loved hunting, tournaments, and chivalry, and had read widely in Arthurian romance. Le Morte Darthur was finished between 1469 and 1470. It is a combination of nearly every Arthurian manuscript, and is a work of literary genius.

The historical Arthur, although we may never find who he really is, is a major part of history and literature. For Arthur to be forgotten in literature would be impossible, as it is one of the greatest but most baffling stories in history.

“Arthurian Legend.” Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. CD-ROM

Barber, Richard. King Arthur: in Legend and History. Ipswich, Suffolk: The Boydell Press Ltd. 1973

Barber, Richard. King Arthur: Hero and Legend. Woodbridge, Suffolk. The Boydell Press Ltd. 1986

Berthold, Paul. “Arthur-Man or Myth.” In Britain November 1997

Day, David. The Search for King Arthur. New York: Facts on File, 1995

Goodrich, Norma Lorne. King Arthur. New York: Franklin Watts. 1986

Lacy, Noris J. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Peter Bedrick Books. 1986.

Morris, John. The Age of Arthur. New York: Charles Scribners Song, 1973