King Arthur, An Enduring Legend Essay, Research Paper
February 14, 1999
King Arthur, an Enduring Legend
The mystical references to Arthur and his adventures are dated in literature in some form for over 1400 years, verifying the enduring appeal of this romantic character. Since the beginnings of the English language there have been legends of great heroes. The first settlements of Britain produced stories rooted in ancient Celtic and Germanic imagination; of the many, Arthur is undoubtedly preeminent.
The earliest known description of Arthur?s noble endeavors was written by Gildas, (ca. 490-540) the author of De excidio et conquestu Britanniae makes reference, albeit vague, to an Arthurian figure; however, the name Arthur is not mentioned in the story (Strayer 564). The full flourish of writings associated with his miraculous feats and victories do not reach a crescendo for several hundred years after Gildas (Strayer 564). During the Middle Ages, however, Arthurian myth was prominent and en vogue and attempts to discover the truth behind the myth have been pursued for generations.
Arthur’s history, as Geoffrey Ashe reminds us in The Discovery of King Arthur, is “more than just a medley of yarns, more than just a saga in the romanticism of myth. It puts him within a definite period. It names definite places and takes him to definite countries” (3). It is this fact and the fragmentary, often contradictory references of an Arthur (the Latin “Artur,”"Arturius,” or “Artorius”) from ancient records, that lends enough validity to the story to set researchers on the
trail of the legendary king. However, progress has been stymied for a number of reasons and even now we can say little of substance about the man behind the myth.
A major difficulty facing researchers is that the role of the historian in the Dark Ages was rather flexible; a mixture of storyteller and propagandist whose regional traditions, personal prejudices, and loyalties were bound to greatly influence the nature of its material (Coglan 214). In Arthur, Richard Barber clarifies this fact and speaks of the early tendency to use history as “?an inspiration or as a warning to the men of the present, or as part of a vast divine scheme for man’s spiritual salvation” (Coglan 7). Another problem facing historians is that the earliest sources we have are never originals, but copies, and considering their age we must allow for the propagation of errors. One possible such error is found in the Annals of Wales, written in the tenth century. Its entry concerning the Battle of Badon claims that Arthur carried Christ’s cross on his shoulder for three days, but it?s likely that “shoulder” should instead be “shield,” due to confusion between the Welsh words “scuid” and “scuit” (Alcock 51-52). The search for the truth of legend continues.
Perhaps the best known of all Arthurian legends is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth. His History of the Kings of Britain, (ca. 1136) “Besides planting highly erroneous notions of British history,…supplied a basis and framework for Arthurian romance and exerted an influence extending through Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others” (Coglan 209). In it, Geoffrey recounts the history of Britain’s leaders back to their beginning in 1115 BC to King Cadwallader’s death in AD 689. Geoffrey’s account, though most agree not strictly factual, offers a clear look into the events surrounding Arthur’s death and is the starting point for much investigation (Coglan 214). Geoffrey’s work was immensely popular and was not criticized during his lifetime
(Goodrich 45). Modern historians, however, have many reasons to be skeptical of Geoffrey’s work. The most obvious problem is its anachronistic representation of a supposedly 5th century king in a very Norman England; as was typical of historians in his day, Geoffrey superimposed his contemporary culture upon his depiction of the past (Goodrich 47). Many inaccuracies exist in his description of the period.
If there is an Arthur, he will not be a magnificent Christian king sitting astride a heavy Byzantine charger, accoutered in Norman plate armor. He will not be basking in a mighty castle between European excursions with a band of international knights; rather, he will be no more than an unkempt and possibly pagan military leader with little if any armor. He will likely have a small entourage of hired regional soldiers and live in no better than a crude wooden fortress. Amazingly, Geoffrey’s glaring inaccuracies were convincing enough to find their way into the Oxford History of England, written in 1937 (332). Geoffrey also made huge geographical errors, such as placing King Arthur in Cornwall (Goodrich 42). He made errors in church history such as placing an Archbishop in Canterbury in Arthur’s lifetime and an Archbishop in Caerleon (Brooke 202). Inaccuracies aside, Geoffrey?s romantic, fictional depictions have endured.
Geoffrey is clearly a fiction writer, but there is little doubt that he drew from older works both historical and fictional. “Besides Roman historians he draws upon Gildas, Nennius, Bede, and probably the Annales Cambriae, as well as Welsh genealogical and hagiographic matter; yet an investigation into these older documents shed little light upon Arthur (Coglan 212). Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae, mentioned earlier and despite its plainly erroneous historical section, is considered a key source simply because it?s the only one contemporary to Arthur’s time. In it Gildas describes how a powerful ruler summoned Saxon help against his enemies only to find
that the Saxons had themselves become a threat. The Britons fought back under Ambrosius Aurelianus and had a series of victories which culminated at Badon, a battle usually attributed to Arthur (Strayer 565). Once again, however, Gildas makes no mention of Arthur by name (Strayer 564). This silence, however, is not considered damaging to later claims. “With…Arthur, [Gildas] might have been silent because of his prejudices or because of a gap in his information. When he is dealing with events beyond living memory that information is certainly sparse; he leaves out important people who can be proved to have lived” (Ashe 67).
The next important document is Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, 800 AD; however, much of his work contains errors and inconsistencies and so is not trusted very much for accuracy (Coglan 404). Nennius is the first to actually mention Arthur’s name and he gives a list of twelve battles attributed to Arthur. According to Nennius, Arthur was not a king, but a dux belloram–a leader of battles (Coglan 405). The earliest mention of Arthur’s death comes from an entry in the Annales Cambriae, 950 AD. It claims he was slain in The Battle of Camlann in 537 AD. ?? since everyone else who is mentioned in the Annals did exist, there is a certain presumption that a real Arthur must underlie [this] questionable [claim]” (Coglan 8). While much of the information in the Annales is taken from Nennius, there is also evidence of early Celtic and Irish sources and it becomes inconsistent at certain points. However, the dating is important in tracing a possible history for Arthur and the entries for Arthur are lent more validity because of the other figures mentioned there (Coglan 8). These are the primary sources for Arthurian studies, although there are other early documents which make some reference to a powerful warrior named Arthur.
Despite valiant efforts of Arthurian historians to glimpse through the fog of the Dark Ages, Arthur has remained shrouded in mystery. King Arthur, however legendary he may be, is
still popular as a romantic hero and therefore we may expect these speculative pseudo-historical works to continue. In conclusion, I think Hollister (quoting James Campbell) summed it up rather well: as James Campbell wisely said, “The natural vice of historians is to claim to know about the past.” But with respect to fifth and sixth century Britain, “what really happened will never be known” (29).
Strayer, Joseph Reese., et al. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 1. New York:
Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain. London: Penguin Press, 1971.
Ashe, Geoffrey. The Discovery of King Arthur. New York: Anchor Press, 1985.
Brooke, Christopher. “The Archbishops of St. David’s, Llandaff, and Caerleon-on-the-
Usk.” Studies in the Early British Church. ed. Chadwick, Nora K. Cambridge: Arcon
Coglan, Ronan. The Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends. Rockport: Element Inc., 1992. Goodrich, Norma Lorre. King Arthur. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
Hollister, C.Warren. The Making of England. Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1996.
Collingwood, R. G., and J. N. L. Myres. Oxford History of England, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1937.