King Arthur: a Lombard King!

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,889
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#12
I think we have to start by asking ourselves what Arthur is for. Aside from a few cranks on the lunatic fringe, it seems to me that most people (including those who think there is a real person at the root of everything) accept that much of what we have about Arthur is essentially literary accretion - stories which attached to his name over a period of time.

This brings us to a fork in the road. Are these later stories just that - stories - or do they contain a kernel of historical truth? The 'historical truth' camp, represented by a number of posters on this forum such as Calebxy or Concan, regard Arthur as a recoverable figure of history. All that is required is to be able to winnow the fact from the fiction and the real Arthur can be discovered. The 'just stories' camp (in which I sit), regard such an exercise as inherently flawed. Being able to spot links between lots of different stories doesn't make bits of them more likely to be true. All it means is that there is a pool of overlapping and interconnected material.

To a degree, the 'historical truth' camp tacitly accepts this - any material which cannot be winnowed out and presented as fact is considered to be story.

As such, although there might be a dispute about how much Arthurian material is pure fiction, we all agree that at least a fair chunk of it is.

This means that Arthur is one of a small group of individuals (which, in Britain, also includes the likes of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin) who, real or not, function as endlessly recyclable figures in our national story. Unlike other universally known characters such as Harry Potter, no-one 'owns' Arthur, meaning that all of us do. This means that Arthur is like a bowl made out of reflective glass which can be filled with whatever you want and then held up as a mirror.

In historical terms, I think this goes some way to explaining the evolution of Arthur. The ninth-century Welsh of Gwynedd needed Arthur to be the embodiment of the national hero who resisted the Saxons, who in the ninth century were giving the Welsh kingdoms a hard time of it. There is, incidentally, not a scrap of evidence to support the argument that anything about Arthur written in the ninth century accurately captured events of the fifth/sixth century.

For the medieval writers of courtly Romance, Arthur had a new role to fill. He was the embodiment of the chivalric ideal, albeit with a dash of hubris to make for more entertaining storytelling. Thus our Saxon-bashing Dark Age warlord becomes a clanking knight giving it plenty on the 'yea verily by Mary and the Rood'' front.

And so it goes on until our own time. We have Arthur in a 1980s feminist setting (Mists of Avalon), Arthur as a child's storybook hero (Once and Future King) and, of course, the freedom-lovin', personal sacrificin' tough guy of innumerable recent books and novels - basically Arnie in armour.

This, I suspect, is the answer to your question. For so long as people need figures like Arthur onto whom they can project their own preoccupations, ideals and (all too often) their personal issues, I think Arthur will continue to evolve and grow.
Yes, you know that years ago I thought as well that there was a physical person behind the figure of "King" Arthur [who was a "dux"]. To put together all I even explored the hypothesis that his court moved while withdrawing [and this would have generated a lot of local tales related to Arthur]. But discussing just on Historum I realized that the most probable explanation is that King Arthur is the result of a process of literary creation, a kind of work in progress.

What's quite amusing si that the most diffused version of this "king" comes from a work written by Sir Thomas Malory [he is the culprit ...] published in 1485CE: , Le Morte Darthur in its original spelling. Almost 1,000 years after the events. The battle at Mons Badonicus is dated around 500-520CE ...

I'm not sure that the general public knows this little detail. And about that work it's always a nice exercise to compare it with previous works mentioning Arthur. The differences, since Sir Malory hadn't first hand historical sources, are a clear evidence that he interpolated or simply invented.
 
Nov 2008
1,391
England
#13
This brings us to a fork in the road. Are these later stories just that - stories - or do they contain a kernel of historical truth? The 'historical truth' camp, represented by a number of posters on this forum such as Calebxy or Concan, regard Arthur as a recoverable figure of history. All that is required is to be able to winnow the fact from the fiction and the real Arthur can be discovered. The 'just stories' camp (in which I sit), regard such an exercise as inherently flawed. Being able to spot links between lots of different stories doesn't make bits of them more likely to be true. All it means is that there is a pool of overlapping and interconnected material.
The "Arthur Debate" has continued since the middle ages. Chroniclers such as Robert Mannyng of Brunne and John Hardyng accepted the historicity of Arthur uncritically whereas William Newburgh dismissed him as a creation of fiction. William of Malmesbury thought there was an element of truth in the story but complained that the facts had been contaminated by many fictional stories.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,889
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#14
The "Arthur Debate" has continued since the middle ages. Chroniclers such as Robert Mannyng of Brunne and John Hardyng accepted the historicity of Arthur uncritically whereas William Newburgh dismissed him as a creation of fiction. William of Malmesbury thought there was an element of truth in the story but complained that the facts had been contaminated by many fictional stories.
listen, we know that a very ancient mention of a Arthur exists. It's in the Y Gododdin. Let's leave a part the debate about the genuine nature of this mention [this would make the pair with the criticism to some works of historians, like Flavius, from the age of Jesus mentioning him], let's consider it real.

What does that mention tell us? A bit more than a nut. Just that this "Arthur" was a so great warrior that they used his name as a comparison.

Nice ... but the rest of the "Arthurian cycle" is a later addition. When I discussed the origin of the figure of Arthur with Franco Cardini [an Italian Medievalist] he made me reason about how manuscripts traveled in Middle Ages. They traveled in a very bad way. Interpolation [and pure inventions] weren't rare to "fill in the blanks" [since the manuscripts not rarely presented physically holes!].

So, to say that once there was an Arthur that ... is legitimate, but what does that "that" mean?

What did the historical Arthur do? [Accepting the mention in the Y Gododdin as genuine].

We don't know.
 
Sep 2015
336
ireland
#15
Calebxy had his book published recently. I`m not sure how much I`m allowed to say about it here. I haven`t had a chance to read it yet but he would have discussed the gist of it here in he past.
 

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,895
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
#16
Yes, you know that years ago I thought as well that there was a physical person behind the figure of "King" Arthur [who was a "dux"]. To put together all I even explored the hypothesis that his court moved while withdrawing [and this would have generated a lot of local tales related to Arthur]. But discussing just on Historum I realized that the most probable explanation is that King Arthur is the result of a process of literary creation, a kind of work in progress.

What's quite amusing si that the most diffused version of this "king" comes from a work written by Sir Thomas Malory [he is the culprit ...] published in 1485CE: , Le Morte Darthur in its original spelling. Almost 1,000 years after the events. The battle at Mons Badonicus is dated around 500-520CE ...

I'm not sure that the general public knows this little detail. And about that work it's always a nice exercise to compare it with previous works mentioning Arthur. The differences, since Sir Malory hadn't first hand historical sources, are a clear evidence that he interpolated or simply invented.
But Sir Thomas Malory didn't exactly invent his stories out of thin air. Instead he based them on earlier medieval works which were inspired by earlier medieval works and so on.

His main sources for his work included Arthurian French prose romances, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and two anonymous English works called the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur.[18]
Thomas Malory - Wikipedia

Le Morte d'Arthur (originally spelled Le Morte Darthur, Middle French for "The Death of Arthur"[1]) is a reworking by Sir Thomas Malory of existing tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Malory interpreted existing French and English stories about these figures and added original material (e.g., the Gareth story). Malory's actual title for the work was The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table (The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table), but after Malory's death the publisher changed the title to that commonly known today, which originally only referred to the final volume of the work.
Elizabeth Bryan speaks of Malory's contribution to Arthurian legend in her introduction to Le Morte d'Arthur: "Malory did not invent the stories in this collection; he translated and compiled them..." Malory in fact translated Arthurian stories that already existed in 13th-century French prose (the so-called Old French Vulgate romances) and compiled them together with at least one tale from Middle English sources (the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur) to create this text."[6] Malory's minor French and English sources include Erec et Enide, L'âtre périlleux, Perlesvaus, The Weddynge of Syr Gawen (or possibly this poem might be Malory's own work[7]), Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (or its English translation Ywain and Gawain), and John Hardyng's Chronicle.[8]
Le Morte d'Arthur - Wikipedia

Malory's work was basically a work of historical fiction, fiction set in a time and place that was considered to be historical. And like many writers of historical fiction Malory rearranged the chronology of the stories to suit his purposes, and changed details of the stories with great freedom. And most of Malory's sources were also works of historical fiction, and the writers had freely adapted, rearranged, and changed stories from their sources and invented and added new stories freely. And in turn the sources used by Malory's sources had done the same with their sources. Malory wrote at the end of 300 years of medieval story writing and creative additions to the corpus of Arthurian literature.

So the modern fictional King Arthur is someone whose story reached its more or less final form only about a mere five hundred years ago, a very short time considering how long ago he would have lived. Though of course many modern writers of Arthurian fiction feel free to change Malory's version of the story to suit their purposes.

But on the other hand, for those interested in the possibly historical King Arthur, sources that are much closer to his age are preferred, such as the Annales Cambriae and the Historia Brittonoum.
 
Likes: Aelfwine
Nov 2008
1,391
England
#17
So, to say that once there was an Arthur that ... is legitimate, but what does that "that" mean?

What did the historical Arthur do? [Accepting the mention in the Y Gododdin as genuine].
But this is still supposition and it does offer any certainty that Arthur existed. I believe that Hengest existed but I cannot prove it, so I have to describe him as legendary.
 
Nov 2008
1,391
England
#18
This means that Arthur is one of a small group of individuals (which, in Britain, also includes the likes of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin) who, real or not, function as endlessly recyclable figures in our national story. Unlike other universally known characters such as Harry Potter, no-one 'owns' Arthur, meaning that all of us do. This means that Arthur is like a bowl made out of reflective glass which can be filled with whatever you want and then held up as a mirror.
Very well put, Peter, but I do not believe Dick Turpin really belongs on the list. He is recoverable as a historical person, and we have documentation of his life. He has become romanticised mainly by the novel by the Victorian novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth.
 
Likes: Peter Graham

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,889
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#19
But this is still supposition and it does offer any certainty that Arthur existed. I believe that Hengest existed but I cannot prove it, so I have to describe him as legendary.
I understand your opinion, but personally I've got no problems to describe Moses as legendary. The point is about method. How do you interpret the historical method?

I tend to dismiss what is not historically "proved" [we can start a long discussion about that "proved"].

In other words ... was there an Arthur around 500 CE? Yes, there was an Arthur. The Y Gododdin tells us this.
Was he a King? According to the Y Gododdin he was an extraordinary figure of comparison for a warrior, but nothing tells us he was a king.

Was that Arthur "King Arthur"? This requires a bit of imagination. He has been defined "Dux" in a later source and in contemporary [less or more] sources [Gildas, to mention a source] at Mons Badonicus there was no Arthur. I keep all the doors open, but after years I'm really disappointed by the "Arthurian world".

I will be ready to change opinion when archaeologists will find the evidence that King Arthur existed.
 
Aug 2018
188
America
#20
King Arthur is a contested figure because he became Britain's most famous king, yet Anglo-Saxonism since at least the 17th century denied that Celts had civilisation and high culture. Therefore, he either has to be Roman or Germanic, even Sarmatian is preferable, because being Celtic is too much for Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Even when the Celtic elements of his identity are acknowledged, Anglo-Saxon history still tries to to make him Roman. See King Arthur with Keira Knightley.

And yes, before anyone tries to correct me, I know that there are some Anglo-Saxon Celticists even during the height of Anglo-Saxonism in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the dominant historiographical view about Arthur, outside Arthurian studies anyway, has tried to deny him all Celtic elements surrounding him, and this is what makes it into popular culture. The latest major King Arthur film, that with Charlie Hunnam, effectively made him Anglo-Saxon.
 
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