The medieval Arthur of modern movies
Arthur, King of the Britons
Who was Arthur? This is a very complicated
question. There is no correct answer, no definitive individual that can be plucked from
history and the statement made- 'here is King Arthur!'. However, there is a growing
body of authors who lay claim to this very fact.
Within the last century, scholars and amateurs alike have stepped forward to
answer our quest. Each attempt to claim the elusive grail sheds light on our 'Once and Future
King' but each time that the light rises at the boundary of our mystical realm, Arthur laughs
and steps back into the shadows. Briefly for our elucidation, some of Arthur's claimants
have been --Riothamus, a Breton king of the mid fifth century that may have had lands in
Britain proper; Arwiragus, the historical Caractacus son of Cymbeline, who fought the Romans
in the first century; Owain Ddantgwyn, king of Powys and uncle of Maelgwn ap Gwynedd who ruled
in the later part of the fifth and early sixth century; Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman
officer who commanded troops in the north of Britain; and in recent
discussions, Cerdic or Cynric his son who were early kings of Wessex in Cornwall. Arthur has
been claimed by the Bretons, the British, the Cornish, the Welsh, and the Scots. His histories
grew in times of civil war to boost the legal claims of the Norman and Angevin kings and
centuries later the rise of the Tudors.
On the dark, storm-shrouded horizon, we also have the historians that claim
Arthur never existed, that he was the invention of the Welsh and Britons, a shining hero
for their dark times, a humanity laid over old tales of the gods and modernized as a backdrop
for the romances of the present.
The historical Arthur is shrouded in the mists of the Dark Ages; the strength
of his existence falling mainly on the brief mentions in the Annales Cambriae and the
Historia Brittonum written and compiled in the ninth and tenth centuries; although there
is a first glimpse in the sixth century poem, the Gododdin in which a warrior was extolled
- 'although he was no Arthur'. The best description of what we know and do not know about
Arthur might be found in the introduction to: The Encyclopaedia of Arthurian
Legend by Ronan Coghlan: "What is certain is that Arthur was NOT a medieval King. The modern
images of knights in plate armour and a grand castle called Camelot are not historical at
all. We know very little historically speaking but Arthur was probably a 5th century
warrior chieftain who protected his peoples from invaders for a time. The battle of Camlan
is probably connected to Arthur. More than this is pure conjecture, though there is an
awful lot of conjecture.
A more modern approach to the question "Who was Arthur?" might say
that history is irrelevant and that the mythology surrounding the legend is more important.
Even the mythology is complex though and Arthur changes in stories from a God-like Celtic King
to a deflated early medieval monarch."
As Professor Gwyn Williams stated, we have only two alternatives: either accept
the whole as a myth, legends created for the times; or do as he does and accept Arthur as a
historical figure, his story as painted in the histories broadly true.
The quest that we have embarked on will find a flesh and blood man, a warrior
for his age, a king for all time. At the end of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Malory
Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had
by the will of Our Lord into another place; and men say that he shall come again and he shall
win the holy cross. I will not say that it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this
world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this
Hic Iacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus
Here Lies King Arthur, The Once And Future King
Arthur as portrayed in
Malory's le Morte
Arthur, the Hero
Thanks to Prof. Bruce A. Beatie of Cleveland
State University for the following summation of Lord Raglan's The Hero.
In 1936, Lord Raglan, developing ideas first expressed by Sir
James G. Frazer and later by Otto Rank, published “A
Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama” titled The Hero. He
notes in chapter 16 that he had “examined the stories of
a number of traditional heroes of Greece, and found that when these
stories were split up into separate incidents, there were certain types
of incident which ran through all the stories.” The pattern he lays
out has 22 incidents. He then shows how the pattern is realized in the
stories of twelve Greek gods and heroes (only the Oedipus myth shows all
22 episodes), and of nine heroes from Judaic, Egyptian, oriental, or medieval
sources. His 20th analysis is the story of Arthur.
"Here is his summary of the hero pattern, followed by his
analysis of the story of Arthur:
"The Hero Pattern: (1) The hero’s
mother is a royal virgin; (2) His father is a king, and (3)
often a near relative of his mother, but (4) the circumstances of his conception
are unusual, and (5) he is also reputed to be the son of a god.
(6) At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal
grandfather, to kill him, but (7) he is spirited away, and
(8) reared by foster-parents in a far country. (9) We are told nothing of
his childhood, but (10) on reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future
kingdom. (11) After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or
wild beast, (12) he marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor,
and (13 ) becomes king. (14) For a time he reigns uneventfully,
and (15) prescribes laws, but (16) later he loses favor with the
gods and/or his subjects, and (17) he is driven from the throne and city,
after which (18) he meets with a mysterious death, (19) often at the top
of a hill. (20) His children, if any, do not succeed him. (21) His body
is not buried, but nevertheless (22) he has one or more holy sepulchres.
"Arthur: His mother, Igraine, is (1)
a princess, and his father is (2) the Duke of Cornwall. He
is, however, (5) reputed to be the son of Uther Pendragon, who
(4) visits Igraine in the Duke’s likeness. At birth he is apparently in danger, and is (7) spirited away and (8) reared in a distant part of the
country. We hear (9) nothing of his childhood, but on reaching manhood he
(10) travels to London, (11) wins a magical victory, and (13) is chosen king.
After other victories he (12) marries Guinevere, heiress of the Round
Table. After this he (14) reigns uneventfully, and (15) prescribes the
laws of chivalry, but later there is (16) a successful conspiracy against
him, while (17) he is abroad. He meets with (18) a mysterious death,
and his children do not (20) succeed him. His body is (21) not buried,
but nevertheless he has (22) a holy sepulchre at Glastonbury.
"Though Lord Raglan analyzes a post-Geoffrey version of
Arthur’s life, he shows it as exhibiting 19 of the 22
episodes of the general hero pattern. This is the pattern
that Joseph Campbell was later, in The Hero with a
Thousand Faces (1946), to identify as a Jungian archetype, the “monomyth”
of human psychic development; and whether we accept the notion of
archetypes or assume simply a “cultural literacy” on Geoffrey’s part, an
educated man’s familiarity with a large body of story material,
the pattern is certainly one of the major determinants of
Geoffrey’s life of Arthur."
But as we can see, there are
others that fit the hero pattern and even have a piece of the Arthurian mythos
thrown in. Aegeus (= Utherpendragon), a powerful king without heir, went to a
certain Pittheus (= Merlin), who conspired that Aegeus should consort with
Aethra (= Ygerna), from which union Theseus (= Arthur) was born. The boy was
raised separate from Aegeus and Aethra, so that the youth could inherit the
Athenian (= Briton) throne upon becoming of age. Aegeus devised a test whereby
the boy, when he reached manhood, could make his rightful claim: Theseus would
have to move a great stone under which his father had set a sword (= Excalibur)
and a pair of sandals. At the appointed time, Theseus was able to move the great
stone with ease and claim his prize. This tale is traceable through Plutarch to
Ovid, and from Ovid through the Attalid dynasty, which was a leading center of
Greek civilization. This center was the region south of the Black Sea; later
maps identify the area as Galatia, directly to the east of Greece. To the west
of the Black Sea was the Alano territory and to the north and west was Scythia.
In a line almost due west from Scythia was Pannonia. Trying to answer the
question, therefore, whether the origin of the sword/stone motif came from Greek
myth or Scythian becomes akin to the chicken-or-the-egg question. See also Finn
M'Cumall for a similar parallel hero pattern to Arthur.
Historical Prototypes With the Name Arthur
We know of at least
these historical prototypes
bearing the name Arthur or a variant. There is some possibility that the 3rd-5th individuals
mentioned are the same historical personage recorded in different documents.
1) L. Artorius Castus, praefectus
castrorum of the VI Legion stationed at York late 2nd century
2) Artur, filiorum Aedan or 'son of Aedan Mac
3) Arthur map Petr (Artur mac Petuir) of Dyfed, a king of Dessi (Irish)
4) Arthur son of Bicoir the
5) The mention of a "Artuir
maic Rethoir" in an Irish genealogy included in the tale of the
"Expulsion of the Dessi", an Irish tale believed to have been first
written down about 800CE. The accuracy of this genealogy has not been seriously
studied, and dates Arthur, based on his placement in the genealogy at about
570-630CE, and credits him with having been a Prince of Dyfed.
6) Arthwys ap Meurig ap Tewdrig of Glywyssing &
7) Leslie Alcock referred to a
King Arthwys of the North, probably the Pennines region. He appears to have been
the son of Mor ap Ceneu ap Coel. Though different sources give different
fathers, he was certainly a grandson of St. Ceneu. David
Ford mentions one of the other source entries, in that Masgwid Gloff
apparently had a son named Arthwys. Masgwid was the son of Gwrast Ledlwm ap
Ceneu ap Coel. It has been suggested that he (Masgwid) ruled in the Lennox area
of modern Scotland.
Another bit of evidence to
consider is Aneirin's Y Gododdin poem.
Even though Arthur appears only in the later "B" version and not in
the "A" version, which possibly makes the reference no older
than the ninth or tenth century, the Y Gododdin reference tells us that Arthur
was considered a fit model for a Votadini warrior fighting in northern Britain.
This stanza tells us nothing of Arthur's historicity, since a mythic model could
exist, but since there are documented royal northern Arthurs, we must ask
ourself, "Is this a reference to one of these documented Arthurs, or a
reference to an unknown (either historic or mythic)?" As R.J. O'Toole
states, "Occam's razor requires us to accept the simplest proposition, as
the most likely, i.e. that this is a reference to one of the historic Arthurs,
unless a compelling reason exists to postulate an unknown."
May the Real Arthur Please Stand Up
Over the years, many scholars and lay people
have proposed evidence of the prototype for Arthur, the real man behind the mask
of centuries. Here are just a few.
Arthur is a later in life rendition of Aurelius
Ambrosius or his warlord (brother) Uther