King Arthur (1309 words) Essay

King Arthur
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 Clodfelter 2 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 Clodfelter 3
(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 Clodfelter 4
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.

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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 Clodfelter 5 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: Scribner’s, 1982. 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 Books, 1966. 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.


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