Did Arthur ever exist? Who was he? When did he live? What are the ‘true’ bits of the legends?
Today a work colleague asked me a question along these lines. I’m known as a bit of an enthusiast about all things Arthurian, so I get asked questions like this more than you’d think. I welcome them – it’s good to see people taking an interest in such an intrinsic yet elusive part of our national heritage.
The answer to her question is very simple: we just don’t know.
There’s a world of mystery surrounding the Arthurian legends, what is ‘true’ and where all the various parts come from. Does King Arthur have historical basis in the mysterious Ambrosius Aurelianus, described by Gildas as a 5th century dux bellorum (battle leader) who triumphed against the invading Anglo-Saxons? Or could he stem from the figure described in tantalisingly brief terms in the Annales Cambriae as the Arthur who beat the Saxons and then fell with Medraut at the Battle of Camlann in the 6th century? Is Gawain a long lost relative of the Celtic sun-god, Lugh? Is the Grail a descendant of Cerridwen’s cauldron? The questions go on, and the answers are few.
Personally, I believe that this is part of the enduring allure of these legends. In our modern age of 24/7 high-speed information at the tips of our fingers, it’s nice to have some things that are still a mystery. These are tales that can be freely interpreted, reworked, and rewritten for each successive generation with full and unfettered artistic license, because no one knows the ‘real’ story. We might never fully unravel all the threads that have come together over the past millennium and a half to forge these tales of chivalry, magic and treachery. And actually, that’s quite refreshing and wonderful.
The Arthurian Legend: A new monthly feature
But in the spirit of elucidation, and to illuminate the Arthurian legends for those of you who ask me about them (or who don’t ask but are secretly interested!) I’ve decided to run a monthly feature here on Medieval Bex. Each month I’ll consider a different source or text that has contributed to the shaping of the Arthurian legend as it exists today. I’ll give a brief overview of each piece and will highlight connections between them where possible in order to indicate the evolution of the Arthurian story over the centuries. I’ll try to offer some idea of how each text or source builds upon previous sources as well as its contemporary socio-political historical contexts.
The posts will go in roughly chronological order (it’s difficult to know exactly when some of the older sources were written) right through from the earliest sources to the most recent novels, films and tv series’. I’ll consider renderings of the legends outside of the British Isles too – our French neighbours have almost as rich an Arthurian tradition as we do, and in the later Middle Ages our traditions intertwine, so it’s important to be aware of both to get an idea of the full picture. There are also variations from Italian and German art and literature that have been influential, even in operatic form (consider Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde)… The Arthurian legends are nothing if not durable and amorphous!
The first entry will be on Y Gododdin, an Old/Middle Welsh poem which may contain one of the oldest surviving literary/historical references to Arthur.
Coming soon – watch this space!