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Why is King Arthur a giant of history?


King Arthur is today an iconic figure of the Western World, a giant of literature, art, theatre, film and history. Debate continues, though, as to whether or not the Arthur familiar to us today derives from a ‘real’ figure of the past. If so, can we recover anything about that individual? Is Arthur historical, therefore, or is he really a figure of fiction?

The medieval Arthur could derive from one or more figures of the ancient world, reaching us via Greek literature from the centuries before Christ, but the parallels are not impressive and it is difficult to see how such writings could have had much influence on early medieval Wales, where the ‘Arthur’ legend developed. The popular view that the ‘original’ Arthur was Lucius Artorius Castus, known from his tomb in Croatia, who served in the Roman army in Britain in the late second century. That he could have led Sarmatian cavalry in Rome’s cause in northern Britain has encouraged some to suggest that there was a borrowing of ‘Arthurian’ stories from the Sarmatian homelands north of the Danube, and links with the so-called Nart sagas, recorded in the Caucasus. But Artorius seems to have served only briefly in Britain, and is unlikely to have seen active service; there is nothing directly linking him with the Sarmatian troops we know to have been quartered there. And parallels between Arthurian stories and the Nart sagas are patchy, at best, and superficial.

If the ‘Greek’ and ‘Roman’ Arthurs are set aside as unproven, we are left with the emergence of Arthur as a figure of British (Welsh) literature, between AD 550-1000, and the brief appearances of figures with this name in various early sources. The reader is led through these several Arthurs, but it is far from clear whether the origin lies in one or more ‘real’ figures or a mythical culture-hero. Arthurian stories were circulating in Wales by the end of the first millennium, in both poetry and prose works, but Arthur really takes off in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when he appears in a series of southern Welsh and Breton saints’ lives but more particularly when Geoffrey of Monmouth adopted Arthur as a major figure in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. It was the enormous popularity of this highly-fictional work amongst the Norman, Breton and Frankish aristocracies that propelled Arthur and Arthurian story-telling to the centre of Continental culture, and into virtually every European language. Arthur became a focus of court culture and storytelling, loaded with ideas about elite behaviour, chivalry and the role of women.

Following Geoffrey, Arthur and his world were widely thought of as historical in Britain across the Middle Ages, but Renaissance scholars applied more stringent tests and Arthur was dumped out of history. His popularity held up, though, in other areas, particularly in literature and painting, with such devotees as Lord Tennyson and Mark Twain. That popularity has continued to the present, and the last hundred years have seen repeated revivals in attempts to paint an historical picture of Arthur as a Dark-Age British leader, and fresh arguments as to whether or not there ever was a King Arthur in the flesh.

By Nick Higham

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