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King Arthur

King Arthur and his circle are creations of medieval writers drawing on history, folklore, mythology, and imagination


King Arthur is a fabled Brython leader and a prominent figure in Britain's legendary history. A real individual may have been the inspiration of the legend, but later stories of Arthur are almost entirely fictional. In these he appears as the ideal of kingship both in war and peace; even in modern times he has been ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time. Over time, the stories of King Arthur have captured such widespread interest that he is no longer identified as the legendary hero of a single nation. Countless new legends, stories, revisions, books, and films have been produced in Europe and the United States that unabashedly enlarge on and expand the fictional accounts of King Arthur.

The scarce historical background to Arthur is found in the works of Nennius and Gildas and in the Annales Cambriae. The legendary Arthur developed initially through the pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Welsh collection of anonymous tales known as the Mabinogion. Chrétien de Troyes began the literary tradition of Arthurian romance, which subsequently became, as the Matter of Britain, one of the principal themes of medieval literature. Medieval Arthurian writing reached its conclusion in Thomas Mallory's comprehensive Morte D'Arthur, published in 1485. Modern interest in Arthur was revived by Alfred Tennyson in Idylls of the King, and in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Key modern reworkings of the Arthurian legends include Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, T.H. White's The Once and Future King and Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal.

The central themes of the Arthurian cycle vary depending on which texts are examined. However, they include the establishment of Arthur as king through the sword in the stone episode, the advice of the wizard Merlin, the establishment of the fellowship of knights known as the Round Table and the associated code of chivalry, the defence of Britain against the Saxons, numerous magical adventures associated with particular knights, notably Kay, Gawain, Lancelot, Percival and Galahad, the enmity of Arthur's half-sister Morgan le Fay, the quest for the Holy Grail, the adultery of Lancelot and Arthur's Queen Guinevere, the final battle with Mordred, and the legend of Arthur's future return. The magical sword Excalibur, the castle Camelot and the Lady of the Lake also play pivotal roles.


The historicity of the King Arthur legend has long been debated by scholars, but a consensus has been reached over the years that King Arthur was in fact real, not fictional. One school of thought, based on references in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, would see Arthur as a shadowy historical figure, a Romano-British leader fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxons sometime in the late 5th to early 6th century. The Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons"), a 9th century Latin historical compilation attributed to the Welsh cleric Nennius, gives a list of twelve battles fought by Arthur, culminating in the Battle of Mons Badonicus, where he is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men. The 10th century Annales Cambriae ("Welsh Annals"), dates this battle to 516, and also mentions the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut were both killed, dated to 537. Neither text refers to Arthur as a king, although this may not be significant as they often name kings without mentioning their title. The Historia Brittonum calls him dux bellorum or "dux (commander) of battles". The late historian John Morris went so far as to make the putative reign of Arthur at the turn of the 5th century the organising principle of his history of sub-Roman Britain and Ireland, The Age of Arthur. Even so, he found little to say of an historic Arthur, save as an example of the idea of kingship, one among such contemporaries as Vortigern, Cunedda, Hengest and Coel. Morris argues that Arthur's power base would have been in the Celtic areas of Wales, Cornwall and the West Country, or the Brythonic "Old North" which covered modern Northern England and Southern Scotland.

Another school of thought argues that Arthur had no historical existence. Nowell Myres was prompted by the publication of Morris's Age of Arthur to write "no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time". Gildas' 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae ("On the Ruin of Britain"), written within living memory of the Battle of Mons Badonicus, mentions that battle but does not mention Arthur. Some argue that he was originally a half-forgotten Celtic deity that devolved into a personage, citing parallels with the supposed change of the sea-god Lir into King Lear, the Kentish totemic horse-gods Hengest and Horsa, who were historicised by the time of Bede's account and given an important role in the 5th century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain, the founder-figure of Caer-fyrddin, Merlin (Welsh Myrddin), or the Norse demigod Sigurd or Siegfried, who was historicised in the Nibelungenlied by associating him with a famous historical 5th century battle between Huns and the Burgundians. Some cite a possible etymology of Arthur's name from Welsh arth, "bear", and propose the Gaulish bear god Artio as a precedent for the legend, although worship of Artio is not attested in Britain.

Historical documents for the period are scarce, so a definitive answer to this question is unlikely. Sites and places have been identified as "Arthurian" since the 12th century, but archaeology can reveal names only through inscriptions. The so-called "Arthur stone" discovered in 1998 in securely dated 6th century contexts among the ruins at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, a secular, high status settlement of Sub-Roman Britain, created a brief stir. There is no other archaeological evidence for Arthur.

A number of identifiable historical figures have been suggested as the historical basis for Arthur, ranging from Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who served in Britain in the 2nd century; Roman usurper emperors like Magnus Maximus; and sub-Roman British rulers like Riothamus, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Owain Ddantgwyn and Athrwys ap Meurig.

Arthur's name

The origin of the name Arthur is itself a matter of debate. Some suggest it is derived from the Latin family name Artorius, meaning "ploughman" (the variant "Arturius" is known from inscriptions). Others propose a derivation from Welsh arth (earlier art), meaning "bear", suggesting art-ur, "bear-man", is the original form. Arthur's name appears as Arturus in early Latin Arthurian texts, never as Artorius, although it is possible that Vulgar Latin forms of Artorius, pronounced in Celtic languages, could have yielded both Arthur and Arturus.

Toby D. Griffen of Southern Illinois University links the name Arthur to Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes, near Ursa Major or the Great Bear. The Classical Latin Arcturus would have become Arturus in Vulgar Latin, and its brightness and position in the sky led people to regard it as the "guardian of the bear" and the "leader" of the other stars in Boötes. Griffin suggests that "Arthur" was not a personal name, but a nom de guerre or an epithet borne by the man who led the Britons against the Saxons, which both Latin and Brythonic-speakers would associate with leadership and bear-like ferocity. A variant of the nom de guerre theory has the name combining the Welsh and Latin words for "bear", art and ursus. The name Arthur and its variants were used as personal names by at least four leaders who lived after the traditional dates of Arthur’s battles, suggesting to Griffen and others that it only began to be used as a personal name after "the" Arthur made it famous.

Literary traditions

The historical sources for Arthur have been discussed above. The creator of the familiar literary persona of Arthur was Geoffrey of Monmouth, with his pseudohistorical Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), written in the 1130s. All the textual sources for Arthur are divided into those that preceded Geoffrey and those that followed him, and could not avoid his influence.

Pre-Galfridian traditions

The earliest literary references to Arthur are found in Welsh poetry. He is mentioned briefly in the late 6th century Welsh poem cycle The Gododdin, attributed to the poet Aneirin. In one verse, the bravery of one of the warriors is described, "though he was not Arthur". The poems are known only from a manuscript of the 13th century, so it is impossible to determine whether this passage is original or a later interpolation. Several poems attributed to Taliesin, a poet said to have lived in the 6th century, refer to Arthur, including The Chair of the Sovereign, which refers to "Arthur the Blessed", The Treasures of Annwn, which recounts an expedition of Arthur to the Otherworld, and Journey to Deganwy, which contains the passage, "as at the battle of Badon, with Arthur, chief holder of feasts, his tall blades red from the battle all men remember".

Arthur appears in a number of well known vitae ("Lives") of 6th century saints, most of them written at the monastery of Llancarfan in the 12th century. In the Life of Saint Illtud, apparently written around 1140, Arthur is said to be a cousin of that churchman. According to the Life of Saint Gildas, written in the 11th century by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Arthur killed Gildas' brother Hueil, a pirate on the Isle of Man. In the Life of Saint Cadoc, written around 1100 by Lifris of Llancarfan, the saint gives protection to a man who killed three of Arthur's soldiers, and Arthur demands a herd of cattle as wergeld for his men. Cadoc delivers them as demanded, but when Arthur takes possession of the animals, they transform into bundles of ferns. Similar incidents are described in the late medieval biographies of Carannog, Padern, Goeznovius, and Efflam.

An early Welsh poem found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, Pa gur yv y porthaur? ("What man is the gatekeeper?"), takes the form of a dialogue between Arthur and the gatekeeper of a castle he wishes to enter, in which Arthur recounts the deeds of his men, notably Cai and Bedwyr. The 10th century Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, included in the modern Mabinogion collection, includes a list of more than 200 of Arthur's men, Cai and Bedwyr included, and tells of Arthur helping his kinsman Culhwch win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden the giant, by completing a series of apparently impossible tasks, including the hunt for the great boar Twrch Trwyth. The Historia Brittonum mentions Arthur hunting a boar named Troynt. This may be related to a post-Galfridian tradition of Arthur as leader of the Wild Hunt, first mentioned in the 13th century by Gervase of Tilbury.

The Welsh Triads contain a number of traditions of Arthur. Many are derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth and later European traditions (see below), but some are independent of these and may refer to pre-existing Welsh traditions. His court is placed at Celliwig in Cornwall, identified with Callington by the Cornish antiquarians, but Rachel Bromwich, latest editor and translator of the The Welsh Triads, identifies it with Kelly Rounds, a hill fort in the parish of Egloshayle.

Bewnans Ke, a play in Middle Cornish held by the National Library of Wales, is a recent Arthurian discovery.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

The first narrative account of Arthur's reign is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century Latin work Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), an imaginative and fanciful account of British kings from the legendary Trojan exile Brutus to the 7th century Welsh prince Cadwallader. Geoffrey places Arthur in the same post-Roman period as the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae. He introduces Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, and his magician advisor Merlin, and the story of Arthur's conception, in which Uther, disguised as his enemy Gorlois by Merlin's magic, fathers Arthur on Gorlois' wife Igerna at Tintagel. On Uther's death, the fifteen-year-old Arthur succeeds him as king and fights a series of battles, similar to those in the Historia Brittonum, culminating in the Battle of Bath, and then defeats the Picts and Scots, conquers Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Gaul, and ushers in a period of peace and prosperity which lasts until the Roman emperor Lucius Tiberius demands tribute. Arthur refuses, and war follows. Arthur and his warriors, including Caius, Bedver and Walganus, defeat Lucius in Gaul, but as he prepares to march on Rome, Arthur hears news that his nephew Modredus, whom he had left in charge of Britain, has married his wife Guanhumara and seized the throne. Arthur returns to Britain and defeats and kills Modredus on the river Camblam in Cornwall, but is mortally wounded. He hands the crown to his kinsman Constantine, and is taken to the isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds, never to be seen again.

Geoffrey's Historia became very popular and influential, and was translated into Norman French verse by Wace, who introduced the Round Table, and Middle English verse by Layamon. It fed back into Welsh tradition, with three different Welsh prose translations appearing, and material in the Welsh triads deriving from it.

Arthurian romance

The popularity of Geoffrey's Historia and its derivative works led to new Arthurian works being written in continental Europe, particularly in France, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Arthur and his retinue appear in some of the Lais of Marie de France, but it was the work of another French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, that had the greatest influence. Chrétien wrote five Arthurian romances between 1170 and 1190. Erec and Enide and Cligès are tales of courtly love with Arthur's court as their backdop, and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion features Yvain and Gawain in a supernatural adventure, but the most significant for the development of the legend are Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, which introduces Lancelot, one of the most familiar of Arthur's knights, and his adulterous relationship with Arthur's queen, Guinevere, and Perceval, the Story of the Grail, which introduces the Holy Grail and the Fisher King. Perceval, although unfinished, was particularly popular, and four separate continuations of the poem appeared over the next half a century.

In Chrétien's Perceval it is not clear exactly what the Grail is. A few decades later Robert de Boron's poem Joseph d'Arimathe explains that the Grail is the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ's blood during the crucifixion, later brought to Britain by Joseph's family. Robert's work had lasting effect on subsequent stories of the Grail. By contrast, in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, a Middle High German version of the story, the Grail is a magical stone.

A German poet, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, further developed Lancelot's story in his Lanzelet, which introduces the Lady of the Lake. The Anglo-Norman poet Thomas of Britain and the Norman poet Béroul introduced the story of Tristan and Iseult in the late 12th century, later developed in Middle High German by Gottfried von Strassburg.

The Welsh Mabinogion collection contains three Arthurian romances, similar to those of Chrétien, but with some significant differences. Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain is related to Chrétien's Yvain, Geraint and Enid to Erec and Enide, and Peredur son of Efrawg to Perceval, although the place of the Holy Grail is taken by a severed head on a platter.

The Vulgate Cycle

A series of five Middle French prose works, the Estoire del Saint Grail, the Estoire de Merlin, the Lancelot propre, the Queste del Saint Graal and the Mort Artu, written in the 13th century, combine to form the first coherent version of the entire Arthurian legend, known as the Lancelot-Grail cycle, also known as the Prose Lancelot or the Vulgate Cycle. These texts introduce the character of Galahad, expand the role of Merlin, and establish the role of Camelot, first mentioned in passing in Chrétien's Lancelot, as Arthur's primary court. The Suite du Merlin or Vulgate Merlin Continuation adds more material on Merlin and on Arthur's youth, and a later series of texts, known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle, reduces the importance of Lancelot's affair with Guinevere, which was prominent in the Vulgate.

Thomas Malory

The development of the Arthurian cycle culminated in Le Morte d'Arthur, Thomas Malory's retelling of the entire legend in a single work in English in the late 15th century. Malory based his book on the various previous versions, in particular the Vulgate Cycle, and introduced some material of his own. Le Morte D'Arthur was one of the earliest printed books in England, published by William Caxton in 1485.

Arthur's swords

In Robert de Boron's Merlin, Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone. In this account, this act could not be performed except by "the true king," meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. This sword is thought by many to be the famous Excalibur and the identity is made explicit in the later so-called Vulgate Merlin Continuation, part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. However, in what is sometimes called the Post-Vulgate Merlin, Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake sometime after he began to reign. According to many sources, Arthur broke the sword pulled from the stone while fighting King Pellinore, and thus Merlin took him to retrieve Excalibur from the lake (as cited in many novels including Howard Pyle's King Arthur and His Knights, King Arthur and the Legend of Camelot, and indeed most modern Arthurian literature). In this Post-Vulgate version, the sword's blade could slice through anything, including steel, and its sheath made the wearer invincible in that the wearer could not die so long as they bore the scabbard.

Some stories say that Arthur did indeed pull the sword from the stone (Excalibur), giving him the right to be king, but accidentally killed a fellow knight with it and cast it away. Merlin told him to undertake a quest to find another blade, and it was then that Arthur received his sword from the hand in the water, and named it Excalibur, after his original sword. The first appearance of the sword named Caliburn is in Geoffrey of Monmouth, who asserted that in battle against Arthur "nought might armour avail, but that Caliburn would carve their souls from out them with their blood."

The Alliterative Morte Arthure, a Middle English poem, gives mention of Clarent, a sword of peace meant for knighting and ceremonies as opposed to battle, which is stolen and then used to kill Arthur.

King Arthur today

The legend of King Arthur has remained popular into the 21st century. Though the popularity of Arthurian literature waned somewhat after the end of the Middle Ages, it experienced a revival during the 19th century, especially after the publication of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The subsequent period saw the creation of hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, poems, and films about King Arthur, both new works of fiction and analyses of the relevant historical and archaeological data.











This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008