King Arthur - Fact or Fiction?

The legend of King Arthur is as popular today as it has been for the past 1000 years. Rosemary Sutcliff, T.H. White, Susan Cooper and Kevin Crossley-Holland are just some of the authors whose work is based on the legend, and there are also many films and TV series about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, their quest for the Holy Grail, and their battles against real and magical foes.

It was King Arthur who decided that he and his knights would sit at a Round Table, where everyone was equal, to discuss the affairs of the kingdom. This was important to Arthur, for he knew how it felt to be a nobody. When he was born, his birth was kept secret and he was fostered out to be educated and to serve as a squire in the household of Sir Ector and his son, Sir Kay. No-one knew that Arthur was really the son of Uther Pendragon, High King of Britain, until he was sent one day to fetch a sword that Kay had left behind in the lodging house. The sword was locked away. Rather than see his foster-brother disqualified from the tournament for lack of a weapon, the young Arthur pulled out a sword that was embedded in a huge block of stone and gave it to Kay to use.

Although Kay was very tempted to pretend that he’d pulled out the sword himself, he finally admitted that Arthur had done the deed. Even so, many barons at the tournament refused to believe that a young boy had fulfilled the prophecy which stated, ‘Whosoever pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the trueborn King of all Britain’. Arthur had to return the sword to the stone and pull it out all over again.

The legend goes on then to tell how King Arthur attracted many bold, brave knights to his kingdom of Camelot, and how he married the beautiful Guinevere who was fated to betray him with Sir Lancelot, best and bravest knight in all the land.

A great part of the legend, and perhaps the most famous quest in Western literature, is the quest for the Holy Grail. The knights had many fabulous adventures during their quest, and many of them died along the way. Those who came home had learned much about the world and, more important, much about themselves.

The end of Camelot comes about when the ambitious Mordred, Arthur’s son, challenges his father for the kingdom. They meet at the Battle of Camlann and give each other the death blow. The last part of the legend tells how Arthur asks his faithful knight, Sir Bedivere, to throw his famous sword Excalibur into the lake. Twice, Sir Bedivere fails to do this, because he thinks the sword is too noble and beautiful to throw away. But Arthur insists that Sir Bedivere carry out his command. As the sword flies out over the water, a hand rises to catch it and drag it down into the depths of the lake. King Arthur dies and three queens appear in a boat to carry his body to Avalon where, so it is said, King Arthur will sleep until he comes again to save Britain in her hour of need.

There are many stories told about the knights of the Round Table, including the story of Gawain and the Green Knight; the love between Lancelot and Guinevere; how Lancelot’s son Galahad came to be born, and how Galahad found the Holy Grail in company with Sir Perceval and Sir Bors. There are also many stories of Merlin’s magic and how Morgan le Fay used her deadly powers to harm Arthur.

How many of these stories are true?

Some people believe that King Arthur really lived, but that he was an iron age warrior, a dux bellorum (leader of battles) who managed to unite his people and defeat the marauding Saxons after the Romans abandoned Britain early in the 5th century. There are references to King Arthur and his battles in ancient bardic verses, annals and saints’ lives, but it wasn’t until 1136 that a cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth collected these fragments and concocted a ‘history’ of King Arthur and his battles. The story spread across Europe. French writers, including Chretien de Troyes, added extra details like the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere and the quest for the grail.

Apart from written records, is there any other proof of Arthur’s existence? Many famous sites associated with King Arthur have been excavated, including ‘South Cadbury Castle’, which some believe was the site of Camelot. It was certainly an important hillfort at the time the ‘real’ King Arthur might have lived.

In 1191, monks claim to have found the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey, which is believed to be the site of the magical Isle of Avalon. Gerald of Wales claims to have seen the skeletons and traced the lettering on the cross, which translates as ‘Here in the Isle of Avalon lies buried the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife.’ (Some versions of the legend say that King Arthur had more than one wife.)

A pottery shard was recently found among the ruins of Tintagel Castle, with an inscription which translates as ‘Artognou, father of a descendent of Coll, has made this.’ Tintagel is said to have been the birthplace of Arthur, and Artognou is the archaic spelling of his name.

Whether King Arthur was real or not, these stories still challenge our imagination. They have a lot to tell us about human nature, of courage, chivalry and romance, and how ambition, deceit and treachery brought a great king to betrayal and death.

© Felicity Pulman.