Christina B.

asked • 12/16/20

Do you think it is important for people to believe in legends like King Arthur even if there is little evidence to support them? Why or why not?

collect evidence from this

The legend of King Arthur—in stark contrast to the actual man—is easy to track back to its origins. Much of the credit goes to an obscure Welsh cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth, who taught at Oxford during the first half of the twelfth century. In about 1138 Geoffrey produced The History of the Kings of Britain. 

The story, as Geoffrey tells it, moves toward its climax in the fifth century. Heathen Saxons, led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa, have invaded and destroyed much of the country. A young wizard, Merlin, arrives on the scene with prophecies of a king who will save Britain. 

Meanwhile, King Uther falls hopelessly in love with Ygerna. Unfortunately, she’s already married—to Gorlois, the duke of Cornwall. Merlin steps in to help out. He transforms Uther into an exact likeness of Gorlois, so the king can slip by the duke’s guards and sleep with Ygerna. Thus is Arthur conceived. 

Fast forward about fifteen years, when the young Arthur ascends to the throne. He routs the Saxons, confining them to a small section of Britain. Later he conquers the Picts, the Scots, the Irish, and among many others, the Icelanders. When Roman ambassadors demand he pay tribute to the emperor, Arthur crosses the English Channel and defeats their armies in France. 

While Arthur is abroad, his nephew, Mordred, crowns himself king and lives in adultery with Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. Arthur returns and slays the traitor but is himself seriously wounded. He’s last seen as he’s carried off to the “isle of Avalon.” 

So goes the tale, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Arthur’s victory is only temporary, since the Anglo-Saxons eventually do conquer Arthur’s Britons (thus making Britain into Angle-land, or England). But this only added to the story’s appeal to the Britons, who yearned for a return to a golden age when they ruled the land. For them, Arthur was not dead; he was waiting for the right moment to return from Avalon. 

That yearned-for golden age became even more golden in the imaginations of later medieval writers, who enhanced Geoffrey’s legend. The French author Robert Wace introduced the Round Table, so that Arthur’s knights could sit as equals. Another Frenchman, Chretien de Troyes, brought to the fore Lancelot, Arthur’s loyal knight (and Guinevere’s passionate lover). The German Wolfram von Eschenbach added Parzival. By the end of the Middle Ages, Arthur’s fifth-century foot soldiers had become knights on horses; his fortified hills had become grand castles; and his court had become Camelot, a chivalric utopia. 

It was an Englishman, Thomas Malory, whose fifteenth-century Morte d’Arthur combined all these elements, giving his countrymen a mythic tradition to match any nation’s. There was a certain irony to this, since the original story pitted Arthur’s Britons against the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the English, but such is the nature of classic myths. They can transcend almost any sort of border; witness the revival of the legend in the twentieth century in variations ranging from the feminist (most notably, in the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley) to the musical (starring Richard Burton, in the Broadway version). 

The yearning for a return to a golden age, it seems, is eternal. When journalist Theodore H. White, quoting from the musical, referred to the Kennedy years as “one brief, shining moment,” the president’s administration was quickly labeled “Camelot.” 

Yet lost amid his legend was Arthur himself. Even in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s own lifetime, it was clear that his History was anything but. In about 1197, William of Newburgh called Geoffrey’s work a “laughable web of fiction” and calculated that there weren’t as many kingdoms in the world as Geoffrey had Arthur conquering. 

Since then, historians following in William’s footsteps have attempted to sift from the legend the “historical” Arthur—if, indeed, he really existed. 

Above all, that meant turning to the (very few) sources that preceded Geoffrey of Monmouth and were thus both closer to Arthur’s time and less likely to have been corrupted by later mythologizing. These were mostly Welsh writings, since it was the Welsh who were descendants of the ancient Britons. 

These Britons came to power after the fall of the Roman Empire, early in the fifth century. They had wielded considerable power under the empire, so it seemed natural (to them) that they take over after the Roman legions left. That was unlike other areas of the former empire, where the invaders who drove out the Romans seized power. Independent Britain was therefore still in many ways Roman; the Britons, or at least their upper class, saw themselves as the heirs to the imperial culture and civilization. 

Unfortunately for them, they also inherited the Roman enemies. The Britons immediately found themselves under attack from groups they thought of as barbarians: the Irish from the west, the Picts from the north, and the Anglo-Saxons from across the North Sea. The invaders saw no reason to withdraw just because the Britons had replaced the Romans. 

The situation the Welsh bards described was desperate—every bit as much as that faced by the British in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account. But if we can believe a Welsh monk named Gildas, in about the year 500 the Britons won a great victory at a spot called Mount Badon. In The Ruin of Britain, written only about fifty years after that, Gildas described the battle and the two generations of relative peace and prosperity that followed. 

Was this interregnum of Gildas the brief, shining moment of Camelot? Perhaps. But, as skeptics have been quick to point out, nowhere does Gildas mention the name of Arthur. Frustratingly, Gildas never says who commanded the Britons. 

This was left to Nennius, another Welsh cleric. In the History of the Britons, which Nennius compiled sometime early in the ninth century, there’s no doubt about the identity of the hero: it is “the warrior Arthur.” According to Nennius, Arthur defeated the Saxons in twelve battles, at one point slaying 960 of the enemy in a single charge. 

But can Nennius be trusted? Such obviously impossible deeds as single-handedly killing 960 of the enemy clearly belong to the traditions of epic poetry, not history. His notoriously disorganized material didn’t help, either; the cleric himself described his approach as “making one heap” of all he found. Some historians found comfort in that, arguing that someone unable to organize anything probably also couldn’t invent anything, but others just found it frustrating. 

Welsh writers who followed Nennius also credited Arthur with the victory at Mount Badon. But, like Nennius, they were all writing at least three hundred years after the actual events. It was impossible to tell whether the oral tradition they recounted was the actual history of fifth-century Britain. 

1 Expert Answer


Kyle B. answered • 12/19/20

New to Wyzant

Kyle can teach music, writing, speaking & code!

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