We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of a fantasy film called King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, which may have taken the popular mythical character of King Arthur to the strangest place we’ve ever seen him. It was a sensationally over-the-top effort that effectively turned Arthur into a Marvel-esque superhero and played more like some Disney animated fairy tale brought to life than a reimagining of one of history’s favorite legends. In the aftermath of this movie, it feels like an appropriate time to reset the Arthur narrative. And in response to this most fantastical modern take, perhaps it’s time to get to the bottom of what, if any history is behind the character.
The Early Writings
Even some of the most knowledgeable fans of Arthurian lore have trouble pinpointing what the “original” King Arthur tale was, or where the story first came from. This was all addressed in a fascinating study called Concepts Of Arthur, which was published in 2007. This account delves into various Welsh and Breton sources that count as the earliest mentions of Arthur that we know of. In some instances he was (as he is often described) a post-Roman warlord of sorts, protecting the people of ancient Britain from Saxons. In others, however, he is more of a hero cut from the cloth of Beowulf, battling fantastic monsters and the like.
The interesting thing about interpretations of these early writings is that they do not really attempt to find a real historical Arthur. Rather, they try to discern what history might have been invented to substantiate the legends, and then try to see which if any figures that history might have been inspired by. It’s a slim distinction, but an important one. It’s also a largely inconclusive study.
Whatever the case with those earliest writings and where they came from, they inspired the more romantic medieval tales to come. These stories – the ones you might be able to name, and which have inspired most interpretations of Arthur since – were mostly compiled in the 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory. This is a dense collection, as well as a delight to read; to that end, Goodreads describes it as offering “the random beauties of 15th century prose.”
The Grail Legends
The grail legends are perhaps the most popular in Arthurian lore, and have their place in early writings. Its origin in these stories can be traced to the tale Perceval, The Story Of The Grail by Chrétien de Troyes. Since then, however, the Holy Grail has been responsible not only for some of the most colorful tales surrounding Arthur and his knights, but also some of the goofier takes on the history – which make the figure of Arthur feel that much less substantial.
The most notable example would be the spoof film Monty Python & The Holy Grail, an iconic British comedy that simultaneously embraces and mocks the legends. There are more modern examples as well however, such as an animated slot arcade game called “Excalibur.” Revolving around a hunt for the Holy Grail, it paints Arthur and his knights more as scavengers than anything else, though the theme is fitting as players are seeking actual financial reward. Ultimately however it’s things like these examples that can make Arthurian tales seem silly and less substantial than the literature might suggest. In some ways they distract from any pursuit of a real history, or at least a real historical foundation.
The Roman Angle
The Roman angle is perhaps the most interesting one for those who are curious about finding a “real” Arthur in history. Oddly enough, it was actually explored in King Arthur, a 2004 film that served as our last major piece of Arthurian fiction before the aforementioned fantasy film from 2017. In this film British actor Clive Owen plays a more grizzled and less glamorous Arthur – Roman commander in charge of an outpost on the British Isles, and directed to oversee a band of warriors forced into a mercenary agreement. There is no sparkling Camelot, Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is a wild, feminist warrior of the woods, and Merlin is a tribal leader and medicine man of sorts, rather than a wizard.
It’s undoubtedly the most down-to-Earth cinematic vision of Arthur we’ve seen, and one that introduces some interesting ideas at the foundation of Round Table-style ethics. For instance, as one review pointed out after its release, Arthur himself is shown to be a Pelagian – a once-discredited early Christian sect that emphasized free will. This certainly seems to be a neat, fitting connection given that the entire point of the Round Table is equality and freedom of choice. This is not to say the film tells a true story. However, it does a nice job of representing the idea most commonly accepted as the closest thing to a real history.
The Real Arthur
So is there an accepted “real” Arthur from all of these writings and accounts? In a word, no. There is no figure universally agreed upon by scholars as representing the foundation for Arthurian legend. There are certainly accounts of Roman generals accomplishing feats on the British Islands that match up with some of the earliest writings, however. And even more convincing was an account that came out just in 2015, in which a Dr. Andrew Breeze claimed to have matched up battle locations from early writings with several locations in southern Scotland, effectively drawing a map of the “real” Arthur’s deeds. He did not identify a figure, but conducted a deep enough study to conclude that his Arthur was “a Romanized Briton,” and a general successful and brave enough to inspire legend.
Narrowing down a single figure with a name and a definite history may not be possible. What we can say however is that as much as these legends have changed and evolved over the years, they are likely at least loosely based on a real figure form ancient Britain.