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Did King Arthur Exist

Did King Arthur Exist

If the name of King Arthur is mentioned, I suppose what comes to mind is not
so much one person as a whole array of characters and themes, a montage so to
speak. Of course we do think first of the King, the magnificent monarch of a
glorified or idealized medieval realm. But we think also of his Queen, of the
fair and wayward Guinevere, we think of his enchanter, Merlin, who presided over
his birth, who set him on the throne, who established him there in the early and
traveled days of his reign.

There were the knights of the Round Table, vowed to
the highest ideals of chivalry, and the greatest of them, Sir Lancelot, who, of
course, has a tragic love affair with the Queen. There is another great love
story, that of Tristan and Isolde, the theme of Wagner’s Opera. We think of the
place where these people assembled, Camelot, Arthur’s magnificent, personal
castle and capital and then, there are stranger things; the story of the quest
for the Holy Grail, giving a spiritual dimension to the whole story and there is
magic. Not only the magic of Merlin but the magic also of his strange, ambiguous
student, the women, the enchantress, Morgan LaFay.

And at the end is the tragedy
of Arthur’s downfall, his passing away at the isle of Avalon and another mystery
that we do not know what really happened to him that he was said to be immortal,
that one day he would return and restore the golden age in his country. I
suppose, the version we know best is the one that was composed in the 15th
century. This is the great English version of the story, compiled out of earlier
versions by the creative genius of a rather mysterious and cryptic figure, the
knight, Sir Thomas Malory. But the story doesn’t end there. The whole thing
revives in the time of Queen Victoria, with Tennyson’s “Idylls of the

” As a result of this great work on the Arthurian Cycle by England’s
Poet Laureate, the story became known to everybody. Other poems, novels and
plays in our own time, and almost a rebirth of it yet again in T. H. White’s
novels, “The Sword and the Stone” and “The Once and Future
King” and other plays and musicals and films based on these works. There
are Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Stewart, Marian Bradley, Pat Godwin and others, who
have gone off on another line and tried to imagine the Britain of King Arthur as
it might really have been.

What I have personally been most concerned with is
the background of all this, and the question, “where did it come from
originally?” It’s a very obvious thing to ask the straight question,
“did King Arthur exist?” And in fact you cannot give a straight answer
to that question; yes and no are both wrong. There were other great historical
figures who became the heros of medieval legends, such as Alexander the Great
and Charlemagne. We know that they existed and if somebody asks whether they
did, we can say “yes” directly because we have reliable, historical
records of them.

But with Arthur, it is rather more difficult because the
emphasis really is all on the legend, the romance. If we say “yes,”
that would imply that this magnificent medieval monarch existed and reigned, at
some time or other, in his glorified medieval court as described as by Malory,
Tennyson and the romances. Of course, he didn’t. There is no such person as King
Arthur, in that sense; it’s quite an impossible idea.

So we cannot say “yes,” directly, but to say “no” is also misleading because
that implies that he is completely fictitious, that he was all made up in the
middle ages when these stories were first told, and that there is no sort of
background or original person behind the stories, at all. That, too, is
misleading. This is a puzzle, a very difficult question. The main reason is that
writers of fiction in the middle ages, when they were dealing with something
handed down to them from a distant past, didn’t approach it as a modern
historical novelist does. Historical novelists, nowadays, will aim at

They will try to get things right and will do research to discover
how people dressed in the time they are writing of, what houses they lived in,
what food they took, what interests they had, what kind of business or work they
engaged in. . .they will try to get the period right. Medieval authors did not
do this. When they were dealing with a story that had been handed down from some
distant time, they updated everything. If you look at medieval paintings of
scenes from the Bible, for example, they don’t look as they really would have
looked; you’ll see little castles in the background and things of that kind.

The authors who wrote about King Arthur were aiming at a particular kind of
audience, very largely an upper class, aristocratic audience or the wealthier
middle classes who could read, but certainly not the people generally. They
considered what their audiences liked and what they were interested in, so they
wrote stories about the current interests of the aristocracy; stories of
chivalry, of tournaments, of courtly love and heraldry.

They dressed the knights up in elaborate medieval armor, they had them worship in medieval cathedrals,
and so forth. So the whole story of King Arthur becomes something that is put
into the middle ages even if it doesn’t really belong there. Now these authors
and their audiences knew that the story of King Arthur was something that had
been handed down from a much earlier time. We can be sure of that because we can
trace it, to some extent, being handed down.

Certainly, the people of the middle ages, on the one hand, realized that it was an old story, that it was set a long
way back, but on the whole, they didn’t really care very much about getting it
right. I would feel that a medieval author or medieval reader of stories of
Arthur took rather the same attitude to his Britain, to his supposed kingdom, as
we nowadays take to the Wild West. On the one hand, we know that for perhaps 30
or 40 years during the latter part of the 19th century, the American West was
wild. There were sheriffs and outlaws and gunfights. Some of the characters were
real people; Billy the Kid existed, Calamity Jane existed, and so forth.

But, unless we have a special interest in the history of those times, we probably
don’t care very much about absolute accuracy. We know that the Wild West is a
realm of the imagination. It was created, first, by novelists such as Owen
Wister and Zane Grey. It was then taken up by Hollywood, and it was taken up,
later, by the makers of television series. We now recognize the Wild West of the
movies as a realm of the imagination where certain kinds of adventure happen.
Some of the people who appear in these adventures may be based on real people,
Billy the Kid, for instance.

But at the same time, we don’t really care very much unless we have a special historical interest, and I would say that most readers and writers in the middle ages took rather this view of King Arthur and
his Britain. On the one hand, Arthur’s Britain was understood by medieval
readers as a country of the imagination where certain kinds of adventures
happened. On the other hand, they knew that there was some reality behind it
(just as there is a reality behind the Wild West), but, they did not know just
when the stories actually took place, only that it was somewhere back in time.

Now if we look at the writers and film makers in our own time who have taken up
this story, we find that some have more or less gone along with the medieval
image and some have recreated it in their own way. T. H. White, for example,
derided the whole idea of any sort of history behind the Arthurian legends. He
didn’t care about the reality. It was just a great medieval story and he retold
it in his own way. White, somewhere, speaks of people who had speculated about a
real, historical Arthur and says contemptuously that “Arthur was not a
distressed, ancient Briton hopping about in a suit of woad in the 5th

But, of course, others have faced this distressed ancient Briton
without any loss of creativity. They have tried to imagine Arthur’s Britain in
the 5th or 6th century, more or less as it might have been, and to put the
characters in their real settings. Rosemary Sutcliff did this, for example, in
“Sword at Sunset” and Mary Stewart did it in her novels of Merlin. You
can do it in all sorts of ways and sometimes this does provide some rather
surprising insights. One of the most astute questions that anybody ever put to
me about this was put by a student who said he had seen three films about the
Arthurian theme. He said he had seen the musical “Camelot” and he had
a seen a French film about the Legend of Sir Lancelot and he had seen
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Now, he asked me, which I thought
was most like the real thing? I said without hesitation, “Monty Python and
the Holy Grail,” and indeed it is, this atmosphere of sloshing about in
mud, struggling through forests, not being quite sure what is around the next
corner. Britain, in the dark ages of Arthur, was probably a good deal more like
that than the resplendent kingdom that we see in a film like “Camelot”
or “First Knight.” Well, of course, you may say I’ve been rather
begging the question here. What was the real setting? And the modern novelists
I’ve spoken of, have been moved to their work partly by the fact that there is a
very slowly growing awareness of what it was and when it was, through historical
study and through the work of archaeologists.

And if we look at that period we
can ask, and I think this is a better way of putting the question, not did King
Arthur exist, but how did this legend originate, what fact(s) is it rooted in?
Then, of course, we must ask what period? Well the medieval writers with all
their fancy did know, more or less, that they were being a bit vague. They don’t
give us many real dates but they place King Arthur somewhere in the period from
about 450 A.D. to 550 A.D. That, of course, is longer than any one man could
have reigned, but they see him as living somewhere about that time, and they
were right. This, in fact, is where the story we know began its career, but the
foundations for the medieval romances had been laid a little before, in the old
legends about Arthur.

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