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King Arthur

This page is about the legendary British ruler. For the 1981 film Arthur, see here. For the concept album Arthur, see here[?]. For the Arthur operating system, see here.


King Arthur is an important figure in the mythology of Britain. He is the central character in Arthurian legends (known as the Matter of Britain[?]), although there is disagreement about whether Arthur, or a model for him, ever actually existed and in the earliest mentions and Welsh texts he is never given the title "king". High medieval Welsh texts normally call him amerauder "emperor".

King Arthur

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The Arthur of History One school of thought believes Arthur to have lived some time in the late 5th century to early 6th century, to have been of Romano-British origin, and to have fought against the Saxons. His power base was probably in either Wales or the west of England, but controversy over the centre of his power and the extent and kind of power he wielded continues to rage.

Some members of this school, most noteably Geoffrey Ashe and Fleuriot has argued for identifying Arthur with one Riothamus, "King of the Brettones", who was active during the reign of the Roman Emperor Anthemius. Unfortunately, Riothalmus is a shadowy figure of whom we know little; scholars are not certain whether the Brettones" he led were Britons or Bretons.

Another school of thought believes that Arthur is at best a half-forgotten Celtic deity devolved into a personage (citing sometimes a supposed change of the sea-god Lir into King Lear) or a fictive person like Beowulf. Subscribers to this school of thought argue that another Roman Briton of this period led the forces battling the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus, for example Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Earliest Traditions of Arthur Arthur first appears in Welsh literature. In the earliest surviving Welsh poem, the Gododdin, the poet Aneirin (c. 575 - 600) writes of one of his subjects that 'he fed black ravens on the ramparts, although he was not Arthur' -- but this poem as it currently exists is full of interpolations, and it not possible to decide if this passage is an interpolation from a later period.

Another early reference to Arthur is in the Historia Brittonum, attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius, who is said to have written this compilation of early Welsh history around the year AD 830. In this work Arthur is referred to as a 'leader of battles' rather than as a king.

Arthur also appears in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, a narrative that is usually associated with the Mabinogion.

Later parts of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, or Welsh Triads[?], mention Arthur and locate his court in Celliwig[?], which is located in Cornwall. Celliwig was identified by older Cornish antiquaries with Callington[?], but Rachel Bromwich, the latest editor of the Welsh Triads, matched it to Kelly Rounds, a hill fort in the Cornish parish of Egloshayle[?].

King Arthur is sometimes depicted as the leader of the Wild Hunt in not only the British Isles, but in Brittany, France and Germany.

The Arthurian Romance In AD 1133, Geoffrey of Monmouth produced a manuscript called the Historia Regum Britanniae[?]. This work was the medieval equivalent of a 'best seller' and helped draw the attention of other writers, such as Robert Wace and Layamon to these stories, who then expanded on these tales of Arthur.

In 1191, monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had found the burial site of Arthur and Guinevere. Their grave was shown to many people, and the reputed remains were moved to a new tomb in 1278. The tomb was destroyed during the Reformation, and the bones lost. The antiquary John Leland reports that he saw the cross found with the remains, and transcribed its inscription as

Hic iacet sepvltvs inclytvs rex artvrivs in insvla avalonia -- "Here is buried the famous king Arthur in the Island of Avalon"

While many scholars believe that Geoffrey is the source for medieval interest in Arthur, at least one scholar, Roger S. Loomis, has argued that many of the tales surrounding Arthur actually come from Breton oral traditions, which were spread through the royal and noble courts of Europe by professional storytellers known as jongleurs. The French medieval writer, Chrétien de Troyes, recounted tales from the mythos during the mid-12th century, as did Marie de France in her narrative poems called lais. In any case, the later stories told by these two writers and by many, many others, appear to be independent of what Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote.

In these versions, which gained popularity beginning in the 12th century, Arthur gathered the Knights of the Round Table (Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, and others). At his court, most often held at Camelot, could also be found the wizard Merlin. These knights engaged in fabulous quests as for example the Holy Grail. Other stories from the Celtic world came to be associated with Arthur, such as the tale of Tristan and Isolde. The romance between Arthur's champion, Lancelot, and the Queen, Guinevere, becomes the central reason for the the fall of the Arthurian world.

In Robert de Boron[?]'s Merlin, later followed by Thomas Malory, Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone and anvil. In this account, this act could not be performed except by "the true king," meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. This sword was presumably the famous Excalibur and the identity is made explicit in the later so-called Vulgate Merlin Continuation[?]. However in what is sometimes called the Post-Vulgate Merlin[?] Excalibur was taken from a hand rising from a lake, given to Arthur sometime after he began to reign by a sorcerous damsel confused by post-medieval writers with The Lady of the Lake. In this Post-Vulgate version the sword's blade could slice through anything and its sheath made the wearer invincible.

Arthur was a casualty in his last battle, the Battle of Camlann[?], which he fought against the forces of Mordred. The Prose Lancelot and the later prose cyclic state that Mordred was also a Knight of the Round Table and the child of an incestuous union between Arthur and his sister. In almost all accounts Arthur was said to be mortally wounded, but after the battle he was taken away to Avalon (sometimes identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, England), where his wounds were healed or his body was buried in a chapel. Some texts refer to return of Arthur in the future.

The Arthurian mythos spread far across the continent. An image of Arthur and his Knights attacking a castle was carved into an archivolt[?] over the north doorway of Modena Cathedral in Italy sometime between 1099 and 1120. A mosaic pavement in the cathedral of Otranto, near Bari also in Italy was made in 1165 with the puzzling depiction of Arturus Rex bearing a sceptre and riding a goat. 15th century merchants set up an Arthurian hall in his honour in Danzig, Poland.

Retellings of the Arthurian cycle include the works of Gottfried von Strassburg[?], Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur[?].

Arthur in Modern Literature, Film, and Television There are many number of books written about King Arthur and the court of Camelot.

A number of popular films have been made as well. Some of the more notable include:

The late 1960s Australian animated cartoon series Arthur! and the Square Knights of the Round Table was a typically wacky take on Arthurian legend.

The 1970's British television series, Arthur of the Britons, starring Oliver Tobias, sought to create a more "realistic" portrait of the period and to explain the origins of some of the myths about the Celtic leader.

In 1937, a newspaper comic strip by Hal Foster, Prince Valiant was first published, with the byline "In the Days of King Arthur". It is still written and published today.

The Arthurian myth makes an appearance in many stories, including Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence.

See also: Sites and places associated with Arthurian legend

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