Saturday, April 6, 2013

Medieval Fiction: Who Was King Arthur?

Leading up to my next installment in my series on Medieval Fiction, I thought I’d pose some questions about one of the late Fifth Century’s most legendary figures: Who was Arthur of Britain? And was he a real person or a purely mythical figure?
Arthur vs. Mordred - One of my favorite Arthurian images!
These are questions that scholars have debated, and writers have explored, for a very long time. What Arthur most certainly was not was a king in shining plate mail who lived in a massive structure that looked something like Bodiam Castle (below) as depicted in movies like Excalibur and the über silly First Knight (you know, the one with Richard Gere as Lancelot wearing some of the most ridiculous armor ever donned for the silver screen).
Camelot would not have looked like this!*
Massive stone castles with lots of towers, a huge curtain wall, and a moat weren’t built until the late Eleventh or Twelfth Centuries, and plate armor was not in style until the Thirteenth Century. But Arthur, if he existed, would have lived during the late Fifth or early Sixth Century. Here are just seven possible versions of Arthur from historical and literary sources (and trust me, there are many more than these!):
  • He was a Romano-British leader who fought the invading Saxons and killed 960 men at the Battle of Mount Badon (from the 9th century Historia Brittonum);
  • He was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a historical figure and one of the last Roman lords of Britain (the 2004 film King Arthur went in this direction, making Arthur a Roman cavalry officer named Artorius Castus);
  • He was the fifteen-year-old King of Britain and the son of Uther Pendragon (per Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae c. 1138; Geoffrey’s depiction became the basis for many Arthurian legends);
  • He was a boy named Wart who pulled a sword from a stone to become King Arthur (see T.S. White’s The Once and Future King);
  • He was Arthur Pendragon, the nephew of the Roman war leader Aurelius Ambrosius and the cousin of Merlin, who would become the king to unite all of Britain (see Mary Stewart’s The Merlin Trilogy);
  • He was a Celtic king ruling from Camelot during a time of tension between the old pagan and new Christian faiths (see Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon);
  • He was not a king, but a warlord – the bastard son of Uther, High King of Britain (see Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles).
Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur in the 15th Century
I’ll have more on this topic when I return to my series on Medieval Fiction, which will happen as soon as I free up some of my free time, which has been spent lately on some exciting promotional work for my novel Enoch’s Device – more on that soon!
In the meantime, let me know if you have a favorite theory as to who King Arthur really was? Or simply a favorite depiction of Arthur from Arthurian fiction?
P.S. – if you want to read more about the Arthurian era from someone who knows a lot more about it than I do, check out writer Leslie Hedrick’s blog here!
* Bodiam Castle - Photo attribution


elingregory said...

My favourite theory for the origin of the name "Arthur" is that it's a garbled reference to Lucius Artorius Castus, an historical figure. He was an accomplished military leader who was entrusted with leading 5,500 heavily armoured Sarmatian horsemen to Britannia during the reign of Aurelianus. Most of the Sarmatians wee stationed on Hadrian's Wall but others were attached elsewhere. The Sarmatians armoured their horses as well as themselves carried dragon standards and worshipped swords thrust into the ground. That appalling version of King Arthur with Clive Owen was very loosely based on this bit of historical fact.

Was linked to your blog by a friend who reckoned it was right up my alley :)

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the great comment! I think your theory is a good one. I never saw the Clive Owen movie, but it was the only literary/movie example I could think of that had Arthur as a Roman. Frankly, the idea of Keira Knightley playing Guinevere as a warrior/archer was a bit too much to take!

elingregory said...

You didn't miss a thing Joseph! Well, maybe a bit of a laugh. I saw it in Edinburgh with someone who had done Romano-Celtic history for her PhD and we giggled and giggled.

First Knight is worth a chuckle two. Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, cast as Camelot, never looked lovelier.

Amanda said...

I love Rosemary Sutcliff's take on the story in "The Lantern Bearers". She has Artos/Arthur being the nephew of Ambrosius Aurelianus. He's actually only a minor character; most of Sutcliff's focus is on Ambrosius. She did go on to write a sequel about Artos ("Sword at Sunset") but it's one of the few Sutcliff books I've ever been unable to finish. :-( But "The Lantern Bearers" is excellent.

Joseph Finley said...

Amanda - thanks for the comment! I'll have to check out "The Lantern Bearers." This is probably the third story of which I'm aware that connects Arthur to Ambrosius. Maybe there's something to it!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I tried to click your link.

"ahlu sunnah wal jamaah adalah mendukung khilafah| RAPAT DAN PAWAI AKBAR | HIZBUT TAHRIR INDONESIA"

I have another take on Arthur too.

He was a Roman. A Christian but also of Senatorial at least dignity. Under the law of Constantine, he was entitled to execute a faithless wife. He didn't want to. His gesture changed Byzantine law : in Justinian, he would get to lock up his wife in a monastery and have two years option of pardoning her.

But this newer legislation was after Mordred killed him over his supposed lack of honour.