King Arthur is an important figure in the mythology of Britain. He is the central character in Arthurian legends (known as the Matter of Britain), although there is disagreement about whether Arthur, or a model for him, ever actually existed and in the earliest mentions and Welsh texts he is never given the title "king". High medieval Welsh texts often call him amerauder "emperor".
|Table of contents|
2 Earliest Traditions of Arthur
3 The Arthurian Romance
4 Arthur in Modern Literature, Film, and Television
5 External links
The Arthur of History
One school of thought believes Arthur to have lived some time in the late 5th century to early 6th century, to have been of Romano-British origin, and to have fought against the Saxons. His power base was probably in either Wales or the west of England, but controversy over the centre of his power and the extent and kind of power he wielded continues to rage.
Some members of this school, most notably Geoffrey Ashe and Fleuriot, have argued for identifying Arthur with one Riothamus, "King of the Brettones", who was active during the reign of the Roman Emperor Anthemius. Unfortunately, Riothamus is a shadowy figure of whom we know little, and scholars are not certain whether the "Brettones" he led were Britons or Bretons.
Another school of thought believes that Arthur is at best a half-forgotten Celtic deity devolved into a personage (citing sometimes a supposed change of the sea-god Lir into King Lear) or a fictive person like Beowulf. Subscribers to this school of thought argue that another Roman Briton of this period, for example Ambrosius Aurelianus, led the forces battling the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus.
Earliest Traditions of Arthur
Arthur first appears in Welsh literature. In the earliest surviving Welsh poem, the Gododdin, the poet Aneirin (c. 575 - 600) writes of one of his subjects that 'he fed black ravens on the ramparts, although he was not Arthur' -- but this poem as it currently exists is full of interpolations, and it not possible to decide if this passage is an interpolation from a later period.
Another early reference to Arthur is in the Historia Brittonum, attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius, who is said to have written this compilation of early Welsh history around the year AD 830. In this work Arthur is referred to as a 'leader of battles' rather than as a king.
Arthur also appears in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, a narrative that is usually associated with the Mabinogion.
Later parts of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, or Welsh Triads, mention Arthur and locate his court in Celliwig, which is located in Cornwall. Celliwig was identified by older Cornish antiquaries with Callington, but Rachel Bromwich, the latest editor of the Welsh Triads, matched it to Kelly Rounds, a hill fort in the Cornish parish of Egloshayle.
The Arthurian Romance
In AD 1133, Geoffrey of Monmouth produced a manuscript called the Historia Regum Britanniae. This work was the medieval equivalent of a 'best seller' and helped draw the attention of other writers, such as Robert Wace and Layamon to these stories, who then expanded on these tales of Arthur.
In 1191, monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had found the burial site of Arthur and Guinevere. Their grave was shown to many people, and the reputed remains were moved to a new tomb in 1278. The tomb was destroyed during the Reformation, and the bones lost. The antiquary John Leland reports that he saw the cross found with the remains, and transcribed its inscription as
- Hic iacet sepvltvs inclytvs rex artvrivs in insvla avalonia -- "Here is buried the famous king Arthur in the Island of Avalon"
In these versions, which gained popularity beginning in the 12th century, Arthur gathered the Knights of the Round Table (Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, and others). At his court, most often held at Camelot in the later prose romances, could sometimes be found the wizard Merlin. Arthur's knights engaged in fabulous quests as for example the Holy Grail. Other stories from the Celtic world came to be associated with Arthur, such as the tale of Tristan and Isolde. In the late prose romances the love affair between Arthur's champion, Lancelot, and the Queen, Guinevere, becomes the central reason for the the fall of the Arthurian world.
In Robert de Boron's Merlin, later followed by Thomas Malory, Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone and anvil. 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 was presumably the famous Excalibur and the identity is made explicit in the later so-called Vulgate Merlin Continuation. However in what is sometimes called the Post-Vulgate Merlin Excalibur was taken from a hand rising from a lake and given to Arthur sometime after he began to reign by a sorcerous damsel (confused by post-medieval writers with The Lady of the Lake). In this Post-Vulgate version the sword's blade could slice through anything and its sheath made the wearer invincible.
Arthur was a casualty in his last battle, the Battle of Camlann, which he fought against the forces of Mordred. The Prose Lancelot and the later prose cyclic romances state that Mordred was also a Knight of the Round Table and the child of an incestuous union between Arthur and his sister. In almost all accounts Arthur was said to be mortally wounded, but after the battle he was taken away to Avalon (sometimes identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, England), where his wounds were healed or his body was buried in a chapel. Some texts refer to return of Arthur in the future.
The Arthurian mythos spread far across the continent. An image of Arthur and his Knights attacking a castle was carved into an archivolt over the north doorway of Modena Cathedral in Italy sometime between 1099 and 1120. A mosaic pavement in the cathedral of Otranto, near Bari also in Italy was made in 1165 with the puzzling depiction of Arturus Rex bearing a sceptre and riding a goat. 15th century merchants set up an Arthurian hall in his honour in Danzig, Poland.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Idylls of the King
- Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
- Marion Zimmer Bradley: The Mists of Avalon
- T.H. White: The Once and Future King cycle, the first volume of which is The Sword in the Stone, well-known for the Disney adaptation.
- Bryher set her historical novel Ruan in Britain immediately after Arthur's death.
- The several books by Norma Lorre Goodrich are very popular, but are only loosely based in Arthurian legend and medieval history.
- The Merlin books of Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave sets up the background for the Arthurian legend. The Hollow Hills encompasses most of Arthur's lifespan, including his childhood with Merlin as his tutor.
- Helen Hollick
- Persia Woolley
- Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Seeing-Stone and At the Crossing-Places.
- Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles, a trilogy with a completely different take on Arthur. "There is a sword and there is a stone, but one is not in the other", is Cornwell's own summary.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an irreverent, comical interpretation of the legend of King Arthur and his famous quest.
- Camelot is the film adaptation of the popular stage musical, based on The Once and Future King.
- Lancelot du Lac
- First Knight
- Disney's The Sword in the Stone is a very loose adaptation of the first book of The Once and Future King.
The 1970's British television series, Arthur of the Britons, starring Oliver Tobias, sought to create a more "realistic" portrait of the period and to explain the origins of some of the myths about the Celtic leader.
In 1937, a newspaper comic strip by Hal Foster, Prince Valiant was first published, with the byline "In the Days of King Arthur". Since the death of Foster in 1982, John Cullen Murphy has continued producing this comic strip.
The Arthurian myth makes an appearance in many stories, including Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence.