Who was King Arthur?

The legend of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin is among the most enduring stories in Western Civilization. It has lasted a millennium and half, and during that span, the story has grown and evolved, and even been deliberately distorted by monks during the early Christian era. 

It has been appropriated by writers such as Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’ Arthur (15th Century), Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (19th Century), T. H. White, The Once and Future King (20th century) and Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon (20th century).

It’s been the subject of many movies and television shows as well as a Broadway musical, Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.

Why is the story so enduring? Why does it touch us so deeply?

Arthur is prototypical hero. But more than being powerful, brave and fair, he created a utopia in Camelot. His ascendency was achieved despite being conceived in treachery and deceit, and being raised as a stepchild in less than regal circumstances. He lived in a world of magic, one in which futures were foretold and destinies fulfilled. 

That may be what first interests us about Arthur, but perhaps the reason the story stays with us is that Arthur is also a tragic hero, one who lost his wife to his own knight champion and was killed by his own son. In that sense he is a hero bound by an unhappy fate akin to Hector in the Iliad. The best hope of saving Troy, Hector left the safety of the city walls to face the invincible Achilles although he knew his death was certain. I always found Hector a more heroic figure than the mighty Achilles or the crafty Ulysses. 

Similar to Hector, Arthur may have been the best hope of his people, the final defense of Celtic Britain, defending not just a kingdom but also a culture against the onslaught of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. We all know how Arthur’s legend ultimately ends; so, in the retelling and the rehearing of it there is usually a sense of doom underlying the majesty of the story. That too adds to its fascination.

Still, as Arthur is ferried off to the magical Isle of Avalon, there is hope that he might return some day, and in similar fashion, as the hand of the Lady of the Lake grasps Excalibur to take it back beneath the water, there is the possibility the sword will reappear if a worthy new hero emerges.

Triumph, utopia, tragedy, and hope – not to forget magic and sex -- perhaps those are what has caused the story to survive since Dark Ages.

While the story and its variations are just that, stories, is Arthur just a mythological character or he is he based on a real hero who has been obscured by the passage of time?

I, like most people, first pictured Arthur as the hero Mallory created and who was portrayed in haunting visual style by John Boorman in his movie Excalibur. That Arthur lives in the Middle Ages, a time of chivalry, of knights in plate armor riding chargers and jousting, a time of stone castles with towers and drawbridges. But there is no historical record of a medieval Arthur, and the legend predates Mallory by hundreds of years. 

Scholars say it is more likely he would have lived at the end of fifth century and beginning of the sixth. Those were the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, a brutal time with no conception of chivalry. If Arthur lived then, he might have been a general, not a king. He would have worn chainmail rather than plate armor, and defended a wooden fort surrounded perhaps by an earthworks wall rather than living in a magnificent stone castle with high walls and parapets. 

Arthur is mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136), which gave the idea of a real Arthur some historical currency. But major aspects of his story were added well after the sixth century. The 12th century French writer Wace gave us the Knights of the Round Table, and we owe Camelot and Lancelot to another 12th century Frenchman, Chretien de Troyes. 

There are other variations in the early versions of the story as well.

In some Guinevere’s affair was with Mordred rather than Lancelot. She has been described as both a Pict princess and a Roman noblewoman. Merlin has been identified with the wizard Myrdden and an ordinary man named Merlin-Lailoken. Even Excalibur has different origins in different stories. Some writers say it was the sword pulled from the stone, others that it was given him by the Lady of the Lake through Merlin.

In his book, Finding Arthur: The True Origins of the Once and Future King, Adam Ardrey writes:

“The Celtic pre-Christian Arthur. . .was a challenge to the churchmen who controlled Western society from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. For this reason, Arthur’s origins were disguised. . . the Church-State partnership that dominated Western Europe for so long. . .expunged the historical Arthur from the record and created an alternative Arthur in its own image. . .”

Ardrey further writes,

“This struggle between the popularity of Arthur and the propaganda of the Church resulted in stories in which Arthur was the villain.”

That didn't succeed in discrediting Arthur. People continued to believe in the legend. So, next there was an attempt to diminish him by stories in which his battle skills were made inferior to Lancelot’s, he lost his wife Guinevere to infidelity and was killed by his treacherous son Mordred. 

When that, too, failed to end Arthur’s popularity, the monks finally made him a Christian, which is how he is now most often depicted.

Arthur is usually described as English, but fiction writers and historians have placed him in both southern and northern Britain as well as present-day Scotland and Wales, even in France.

Norma Lorre Goodrich in King Arthur postulates that there was a real King Arthur in the sixth century and that he is a “lost king,” lost in history.

She argues that the name Arthur is an unusual one and may have originated with the King Arthur because the name does not appear until after the sixth century, the period most frequently ascribed to Arthur. Presumably others were named Arthur and its variants in his honor. Goodrich bases her belief on “written evidence,” most coming from the High Middle Ages, “from persons known and unknown who lived six and seven hundred years after the death of King Arthur.”

Other scholars and writers say the legend of King Arthur could have been based on a number of historical figures with a variety of names, among them:

  • The 6th century warrior Gwawrddur who fought the Angles.
  • The 9th Century monk Nennius in his History of the Britons mentions Arthur, perhaps a king, but possibly a battle leader, who fought the Saxons.
  • Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman military leader of the second century. But the only real link, given the too early time period, is the similarity of the name Artorius to Arthur.
  • Arthun, the son a Roman Emperor, whose era in the late fourth century is again too early for the likely time of an historical Arthur.
  • A handful of men named Arthwys lived between the 5th and 7th centuries. Add to them at least three men named Arthur during the same period.

But the similarity of names may not be the most important connection to the mythic hero, especially if Arthur was just a nickname, a form of the Celtic word for bear. In that case Owain Ddantgwyn of North Wales, who was proposed by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman in their book King Arthur: The True Story, is a good candidate. One reason is the relationship between Owain and his nephew Maelgwyn (the Mordred of legend?) who murdered his uncle and took the throne. The authors also say that Arth was a battle name (bear) and one applied to Owain.

And there is Riothamus, who may have been British or possibly French. The connection here is a town in Burgundy called Avallon that is associated with him and he was active about the same time period (5th-6th century) in which Arthur is most often placed. But Riothamus does not seem to have won a series of important military victories, which, along with his name, casts doubt on his candidacy. 

Perhaps it’s better that we don’t who the historical Arthur was or if he was real.

The mystery surrounding him is what has allowed his story to grow and evolve. Much is known about the historical Charlemagne and Constantine, but few, if any, novels or feature films have been created about their lives.

Until I came to this conclusion I thought it was inappropriate to “tamper” with the Arthur legend, but fiction writers, monks and even ancient historians have used the legend for their own purposes for more than 1,000 years. So, I used the background of his life as the setting for the story I wanted to tell in “Caliburn: Merlin’s Tale” about the inevitable pull of destiny. That novel also touches upon the way reality becomes exaggerated and passes into legend. 

I’ve become so fascinated by the many faces of Arthur that my forthcoming novel, Hero, Legend, Myth, looks at three possible Arthurs in three different worlds, worlds in which magic is presumed, magic is non-existent and magic dominates.

Want more King Arthur? Check out Caliburn: Merlin's Tale by Virgil Renzulli.