Oct 4, 2020

The Myth of Arthur: Facts or stories?

Chances are everyone who reads this article knows something about King Arthur and the characters surrounding him. It is very hard to miss him and his knights as they have become very rooted in pop culture over the centuries of their existence. But what if I told you what you know may not actually be true?

Well, you shouldn’t be surprised, after all, history has never featured much magic or sorcery, but what if I phrased the question differently? Would you be surprised to know that there is no actual canon for these myths? The only historical basis of these stories is that during the Roman invasion of the British Isles, some remaining Celtic poems mention Arthur. Is any other knowledge you might have mythical? Are they just stories piled on century after century?

Maybe...but here is the story of how the modern-day tale of King Arthur was written:

Beginnings in the Poems

It is unknown if Arthur was even a real person. There is a distinct possibility that he was based on a real historical figure, but his achievements were exaggerated as time went on.

Another idea is that he is a completely made-up figure but we do have some sources that mention the name Arthur. Some believe that he was a Roman-affiliated military leader who was successful in starving off a Saxon invasion during the 5th and 6th centuries.

However, sources mentioning his name are rare. He is usually only mentioned in surviving Celtic poetry. A Welsh collection of poems called “The Gododdin” mentions someone called Arthur but that is basically it. There is no mention of rank, just the mention of an excellent warrior.

Becoming a Legend

In the 800s, Nennilius of Wales wrote a text called the “History of the Britons” which became the new canon for the Arthurian text. This text turned him into a largely celebrated hero. It was probably exaggerated, due to the fact that it was written a long time after when Arthur was assumed to be alive.

Later on, in the 12th century, another writer became interested in his stories. This was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who introduced a lot of the narrative elements we recognize today. He wrote in the mystical figure of Merlin and connected his life with Arthur’s who was now given a king slash warrior birth story. His story introduces the characters of Guinevere, his wife, and Mordred as a traitor. He narrates the war that marks the end of his legend and mentions his sword and the location of the island of Avalon.

This is where we get the first basic timeline. According to this version, Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, went to war with a man called Gorlois over his wife, Igerna. Merlin was a mythical character who helped Uther sleep with Igerna by shape-shifting him to look like Gorlois, which allowed him to sneak into the enemy-camp without being seen. Then, Arthur was conceived.

Uther won the war against Gorlois and married Igerna. Years passed and when his father was murdered Arthur assumed the throne. He fought against the Romans while conquering a large part of northern Europe. While he was away, his nephew Mordred married his wife and seized the throne. This betrayal acted as the catalyst for the famous battle of Camlann where uncle and nephew fought for the throne. Mordred was defeated and killed but Arthur was fatally wounded and eventually taken to Avalon to recover.

Now, this may seem like a complicated story, but there are only some things to remember- Thanks to this story we got the tales we recognize today as King Arthur’s stories. For example, the existence of Merlin, a magical figure, Mordred, the traitor, Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, and the island of Avalon.

In this story, we also recognize his sword Caliburn, which wasn’t special, rather just a solid piece of one-pronged steel. These are the basics, but you may have some questions: Where are the knights? Where is Lancelot? What about the round table? What about Morgan? If his sword is Caliburn, how did we get to Excalibur?

Well, those parts of the story were written by another writer, from another country!

Hopping over to France

A few decades later, a Frenchman called Chretien De Troyes, gets involved in the mythos. From him, we got the notable addition of Lancelot, the subsequent Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur love triangle, as well as the idea of the round table, where all knights sit at the same level. This story might be one of the most recognizable parts for modern viewers or readers.

Most later adaptations reuse both of them without fail. This love triangle is one of the reasons for the ultimate downfall of Camelot but originally it wasn’t written in the same tone at all. Around this time the concept of courtly love was very popular. This was a fusion of ideas but to boil it down it signified that love was a power that made a person nobler and that love itself was a good enough reason to pursue the romance but at the same time there was no endgame to this courtly love meaning that the lovers would get no happy ending.

Basically, the two would just continue to pine after one another in a never-ending cycle but because the two loved each other it was portrayed as a good thing. People during that time believed marriage to be an affair, not related to love in any way.

In this story, Guinevere is married to Arthur, but she’s in love with Lancelot. This characterization came in conflict with later attempts to bring more Christian values into the text. The courtly love ideas where Lancelot wasn’t in the wrong for his affair were a product of the time they were added in. Because of conquests and outside influences story ideas not originally native to France became popular tropes to use. But later as Christianity became more popular in the region, the people started to find the story less appealing. The new people in the church were told that being faithful to their wives and husband was the proper thing to do and didn't take to adultery in the text.

In the countless French adaptations that followed, slowly the name of the sword changed to Excalibur, a magical sword for the worthy. What was interesting, is that while Christian factors were being added, elements from Celtic mythology were being mixed in too.

The Vulgate Cycle

Before the cycle was even written there were attempts to bring Jesus into the text. For example, Merlin was redesigned and his powers were actually giving a backstory. The new Merlin was a child of a demon and a human who was baptized therefore saved him from becoming an antichrist. The next developments were the change in the dynamic of the previously mentioned love triangle.

In the later additions to the text, Lancelot and Guinevere’s love was seen less as a beautiful forbidden love, and more like adultery. The story was expanded, and Lancelot was portrayed as weak and dishonorable, because of his affair.

The character of Morgan La Fay also got an upgrade in her role in the story. She became more involved and got her part as Arthur’s sister who also mothered Mordred the traitor. Whose son, Mordred, really is though varies according to how dramatic the story was supposed to be.

Decline and Rise

The popularity of this story varied during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but a lot of pop culture was influenced by it.

After World War I, the story lost some popularity due to the effect of the war. People became disillusioned with the noble ideas that the round table stood for but in the thirties, those ideas became popular once again. Through theater, more people learned of the legend, and the story regained its fame.

In conclusion, there is something special about how there is no canon to King Arthur. It is a story manipulated by people over time to form the very tales that we hear today.

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