Who Was He Anyway?
(Ed. Note: This is a two-part article and will conclude in next month's newsletter.)
As part of my preparation for this year's Christmas Revels, I recently re-read T.H. White's The Once and Future King, his magnificent treatment of Mallory's King Arthur stories. As I reflected upon the book, my delight was mixed with curiosity. Under all of the tall tales and extravagant fantasy associated with Arthurian legend, is there an underlying "true" story? Did a King Arthur ever really exist?
It is common to wonder about the historical existence of legendary figures. Some, such as Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar are historically verifiable. Even though their epic status has perhaps outgrown and distorted the historical reality, they nonetheless walked this earth at some point. Others, such as Odysseus, Beowulf, or Siegfried did not. They are clearly mythological constructs. They weren't real, historical individuals, but were created instead to represent cultural values and aspirations in an emblematic way. They are children of the collective imagination whose significant exploits have been embellished and refined over the centuries to reflect the image of the culture in which their stories are told.
It might seem, given the various contradictory and mutually exclusive twists and turns of Arthurian legend that Arthur himself falls into this category of invented myth. Not necessarily. There is another category of epic figure, one that is tied not so much to the existence and deeds of the eponymous hero as to an antecedent individual - someone who actually lived and whose actions form an armature for the extravagant stories that are layered on by succeeding generations. The Norwegian character of Peer Gynt is one such figure. King Arthur could well be another.
There are basically two ways to establish the historicity of an individual. One is to look for their name in the historical records of the time. Anyone who has taken on his or her family's genealogy is probably familiar with this approach. The other way is to seek archeological verification of places, objects or events associated with the individual.
This latter approach has been applied rather exhaustively to King Arthur. The existence of "authentic" Arthurian landmarks and locales is something of a cottage industry in England and Wales. From Tintagel in Cornwall (Arthur's claimed birthplace and concurrently a residence of Merlin), to South Cadbury where the "Camelot Committee" spent significant (and ultimately futile) efforts trying to identify a hill fort as the site of Arthur's court, the countryside is dotted with wells, crossroads, stones and landforms all valued as having a role in the great legend.
Probably the most redolent site of all is Glastonbury, variously claimed as the Isle of Avalon, the final resting place (among many) of the Holy Grail, the site of a tree sprung from Joseph of Arimathea's staff, and overshadowing all, the site where Arthur and Guinevere were interred, and then disinterred, and then re-interred in the 12th century. One Giraldus Cambrensis attested to all of this. He adds that a leaden cross which graced the tomb was later lost, although nowadays in several villages, a small admission will afford you a glimpse of the real thing.
While an abundance of historical stuff exists that can be claimed to prove the existence of Arthur, it is difficult to resolve the inconsistencies of date, location, verification and duplication that constantly arise. In Winchester, for example, hangs Arthur's round table. It bears painted motifs ordered by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and was constructed from wood dated to the 13th century. It is unlikely that Arthur and Guinevere received it as a wedding present at that time as the legend has it, because Edward I was sitting on the throne just then and he was already a noted Arthurian enthusiast.
Despite the existence of plenty of artifacts, no one can say with certainty that they are in possession of something that King Arthur actually handled, wore or sat on. And so we turn to the written historical record for clues about when and where the "real" King Arthur might have lived.
As it happens, there is a generally agreed-upon "first mention" of Arthur. He doesn't show up in the writings of the Blessed Bede (A History of the English Church and People ca. 731) or of Gildas Badonicus (De Excidio, ca. 6th cent.), but of a little-known Welshman, whose citation is ascribed, shakily, to the early 7th century. That would be Aneirin, a poet who, in writing about a siege near the Firth of Forth sometime around 600 AD, mentions that one Gwawrddur "glutted the black ravens on the rampart wall though he was no Arthur." And that's it - nothing about Camelot or round tables or Lancelot - just an assertion that somebody was "no Arthur". It hardly seems possible that a great king could have existed in this age, wielding the influence and performing the deeds ascribed to King Arthur and merit no more historical mention than that somebody was not him.
Unless he went by another name. Perhaps we're looking for an antecedent figure who, for whatever reasons, only later became known as Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and King of Albion.
(to be continued here in November or read it now on our website.)
- David Parr, Artistic Director