Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Ten tips: Arthur King of the Britons

This article was originally a trailer published in support of my book Arthur King of the Britons (Summersdale Publishing, 2004). As there’s a lot of Arthurian material on this blog, I thought it was worth making available once again.

  1. Hold on to your hats – there are really two King Arthurs: the chivalrous medieval king of legend, and the half-remembered historical war leader of the Dark Ages Britons. Although, as no one has conclusively proved that the historical Arthur actually existed, maybe there really is just the one Arthur after all: the king of legend. 
  2. The twelfth century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth was responsible for elevating Arthur from cult status to medieval ‘bestseller’. Claiming to be quoting an ‘ancient book’, Geoffrey described Arthur’s noble deeds from the sixth century – Arthur unified the warring Britons against their enemies, was paid homage from kings across Europe, defeated a Roman emperor, and even beheaded a giant or two along the way. Today, many experts believe Geoffrey’s work to have been completely fictitious, but to medieval audiences, Arthur was a real life ruler: Edward I justified his reasons for invading Scotland in 1301 to the Pope by quoting from Geoffrey’s work.
  3. Before Geoffrey made him famous, Arthur had already had a starring role in earlier Welsh folktales. Oral tradition was always important in Celtic culture, and Welsh (and Cornish and Breton) folklore allowed many tales about Arthur to flourish. In these early tales and poems, Arthur was a warlord, minor king, and occasional emperor; in some stories he was greedy, in some he was benevolent, but in virtually all, he was a great warrior.
  4. After Geoffrey made Arthur famous, many other writers added their own twists to the tale. From Thomas Malory’s famous fifteenth century The Death of Arthur, through Tennyson’s epic poetry, countless children’s stories, and scores of modern authors in several languages, the essence of Arthurian legend has flourished.
  5. If a real life Arthur lived, he lived around AD500. This was an important time in British history – the Romans had left, and an influx of overseas tribes arrived in their wake. The Britons fought back against the invaders, taking on Picts from the north, Irish from the west, and Saxons and many others from the continent. Arthur was renowned as a strong British leader, possibly living a Roman lifestyle, who fought and defeated his many foes.
  6. How do we know this? Because a few of the sparse historical notes made over a thousand years ago mention him. A list of twelve battles, fought and won by Arthur, and a passing reference to his sixth century victory in the battle of Badon and his later death at the battle of Camlann, were written down later in the Dark Ages. Whether these sources are accurate, or whether they were describing an imaginary man, is still argued to this day.
  7. So who was this mysterious historical Arthur? Many writers have tried to tell us more about the ‘real’ Arthur, concocting wide-ranging theories about his life from the few references that have survived. Many researchers have decided that he was a Welsh or Cornish king, fighting to defend the Roman heritage of Britain; others have seen him as a British war leader based around Hadrian’s Wall and the modern Anglo-Scottish border. Other popular modern theories suggest that he lived and fought in Brittany, or that he was the descendant of Sarmatian (eastern European) allies of imperial Rome who were stationed in Britain a couple of centuries earlier.
  8. None of the theories about a real life Arthur have been conclusively proven as fact. Another year, another new theory, or so it seems. Each theory has its own dedicated advocates, but Arthur’s true identity – and existence – still remain unsolved. Some seem more likely than others: Bronze Age gods, anti-Welsh conspiracy theories, and a postal address for Arthur of Adam Crescent, Stenhousemuir, have become part of the modern quest for Arthur, but seem unlikely to ever be proved correct.
  9. Many movie actors have turned their hand to playing Arthur. And believe me, the results have been mixed! From Sean Connery’s ageing king in First Knight, and Nigel Terry’s king as boy and man in Excalibur (Terry’s major acting credit – although he did briefly appear in 2004’s Troy), right through to unlikely candidates such as Graham Chapman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Michael York in A Knight In Camelot, there have been many interpretations of how Arthur should be played on screen. Richard Harris even took an unlikely star turn as a singing king in the musical Camelot.
  10. Don’t believe everything you see in historical movies! The latest Arthur offering, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, makes massive inroads into placing Arthur in his correct historical setting. But even so, remember you’re watching Hollywood History. (Think Braveheart, think Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, think Gladiator, think every brilliant Errol Flynn film, the list goes on).

Article © 2004 Daniel Mersey
Originally published at: