The mystical tale of King Arthur is one of the great themes of British literature. But is there any truth behind the myth and why has it become so influential throughout the centuries?
The King Arthur that we know today is a collection of different legends, written by different authors, at different times. They are all united by the common theme that King Arthur was a fifth century British general who fought against Anglo-Saxon tribes and ensured that Britain remained a paradise of the West. The first mention of King Arthur is in the History of the Britons, penned in 830, and attributed to an author called Nennius. He writes:
Then in those days Arthur fought against them with the kings of the Britons, but he was commander in those battles.
A more elaborate tale of King Arthur came about in the 11th century, when Geoffrey of Monmouth published his book The History of the Kings of Britain. Arthur’s entire life is outlined for the first time in this work, right from his birth at Tintagel, to his death, and the legendary figures of Guinevere and Merlin are introduced. This book had a tremendous impact at the time. To this day, approximately 200 manuscripts remain in existence.
Then, with the marriage of Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the stories of Arthur began to bloom in the courts of France and the legend took on romantic and spiritual tones. It was within this context that the mysterious Holy Grail first appears in the work of French court writer Chretien de Troyes. In his poem, Perceval, or the Story of the Grail (1181-90), it says:
A girl came in, fair and comely and beautifully adorned, and between her hands she held a grail. And when she carried the grail in, the hall was suffused by a light so brilliant that the candles lost their brightness as do the moon or the stars when the sun rises.
The tales of King Arthur became so embedded in the minds of the British people that by the time Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, he commissioned the Winchester Round Table of Edward III to be repainted, with himself depicted at the top as a latter-day Arthur, a Christian emperor and head of the British Empire.
Another example of Arthur’s influence came in 1834 when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt after a disastrous fire. Arthurian themes from Thomas Malory’s book the Death of Arthur (1486) were selected for the decoration of the queen’s robing room in the House of Lords.
Today the myth has lost none of its appeal and is still the subject of many books and films. However, despite the entrenchment of Arthur within Celtic folklore, evidence of his actual existence is slim. In the histories of the time, there is no mention of an Arthur. The one contemporary source, The Ruin and Conquest of Britain, written by the British monk and historian Gildas, gives somebody else’s name altogether as the leader of the Britons. Nor does Arthur appear in any of the Kings list at the time. But Gildas does mention an unnamed leader and King of the Britons– could this be Arthur?
The consensus amongst most historians is that Arthur probably did exist, either as an individual or a composite of several individuals. Since many of the Dark Age heroes were real men upon whom mythical talent and position were often thrust by storytellers, there is a strong possibility that Arthur was a Dark Age warrior of the Celts from which the rest of the mythological superstructure was formed.
Why, in light of no concrete evidence, has Arthur featured so heavily in British mythology? One explanation offered is that the figure of Arthur has come to represent British history in its entirety, the stories acting as a way of explaining how Britain has come to be, especially in reference to the relationship between the Saxons and the Celts. Certainly, the story has proven particularly popular during times of social unrest due to its unfaltering moral stability. If the past hundreds of years are anything to go by, the story of King Arthur shows no signs of loosing any of its magnetism.