|King Arthur: Man Or Myth?||Colin Vernon investigates a legend|
A hotchpotch of fact and fantasy?
Living, as we do, in an age when it is fashionable to belittle the achievements of white heroes, it is all too easy to accept Arthurian legend as myth and to query the very existence of an ancient British national leader. The problem begins with the chroniclers, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth (c1100-1154) who excelled at lacing fact with fiction, and also Sir Thomas Malory whose Le Morte d'Arthur (1470) is largely a rehash of earlier French and English romances. And, although the latter is rightly regarded as a literary masterpiece, it is mostly fable.
In the 19th century Tennyson's epic poems continued that tradition, and in more modern times film-makers have understandably latched on to the superior pulling power of magic and mystery over dull, tedious, authentic fact. In effect therefore we are dealing with two Arthurs whose stories inevitably overlap. We will first look at the charming flights of fancy which have entertained folk of all ages across the civilised world, and then go on to evaluate the evidence pointing to the existence of a real warrior king or chieftain.
The sword in the stone
A lad of fifteen, who has been fostered out and has no knowledge of his royal ancestry, pulls a magic sword from a block of granite, a feat no other aspirant to the throne can manage. Handily, the words "I am hight Escalibore, unto a king fair tresore" are engraved on the hilt, and Arthur is at once proclaimed king. But magic swords do not always last for ever and, according to one tale, in a subsequent fracas Arthur's is split in two.
Luckily, Merlin the magician, who is with him at the time, suggests strolling down to the lake, in the middle of which the King spots an arm in white samite holding "a fair sword" in the hand, which is very quickly presented to him by the legendary 'Lady of the Lake.' Years later, after a battle with the treacherous Mordred, Arthur is mortally wounded and instructs his companion Sir Bedivere to take his sword, throw it into a nearby lake, and report what he sees. Doubtless influenced by the presence of several precious stones set in the haft and the pommel, Bedivere twice hides the weapon, each time reporting nothing unusual to be seen as it hits the water. Accused of treachery, he finally does what he is told to do, and sees the sword being grasped by a hand, which shakes it three times, and pulls it beneath the surface of the lake.
A cast of hundreds
While Arthur is always the pivotal figure, the chroniclers' tales are largely concerned with the adventures and exploits of the Knights of the Round Table. (Readers today should understand that this simple furniture design ensured the semblance, if not the substance, of equality between those seated around it, thus obviating the need for a specially appointed Commission to lay down the rules!). In essence, the tales of Sir Kai, Sir Launcelot, Sir Gawain, etc., etc., are supposed to depict chivalry which is, in very rough order, sorting out wicked knights, rescuing damsels in distress, being nice to everyone, and promoting the Gospel in one's spare time. However, as with the editors of our present day tabloids, the romancers knew that murder, mayhem, mystery, treachery, lust and adultery were the essential ingredients of any good story. A breezily written anonymous metrical romance, possibly 14th century, recounts Queen Guinevere giving her lover a piece of her mind on discovering that he has been playing the fool elsewhere:
Allas, launcelot du lake
What can we make of it all?
Over the years not everybody has been impressed. Roger Ascham, appointed tutor to Princess Elizabeth in 1548, was a case in point: "In our forefathers' tyme, when Papistrie, as a standing poole, covered and over-flowed all Englande, fewe bookes were read in our tongue, savying certaine books of chivalrie, as they said for passtime and pleasure; which, as some say, were made in monasteries by idle monks or wanton chanons. As, for example, Le Morte, d'Arthur, the whole pleasure of which booke standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open manslaughter and bold bawdrye: in which book they are counted the noblest knights that do kill most men without any quarrel, and commit fowlest adultries by subtlest shiftes: as Sir Launcelote with the wife of King Arthur his master."
The Norman historian William of Malmsbury was equally scathing regarding the myths, observing: "...this is that Arthur of whom modern Welsh fancy raves. Yet he plainly deserves to be remembered in genuine history rather than in the oblivion of silly fairy tales; for he long preserved his dying country." On the other hand, as mythologist Thomas Bulfinch wrote in 1858, "It is an additional recommendation of our subject that it tends to cherish in our minds the idea of the source from which we sprung." But maybe, before we come down too severely on any ancient folklore, it is worth remembering that when a sufficient number of people are induced into believing that certain fantastic and miraculous reported events actually happened, then we have the makings of a cult, perhaps even a religion. Surely no Anglican minister, Catholic priest, mullah or rabbi would disagree with that!
What really happened?
In his History of England G.M. Trevelyan notes that for 200 years, beginning late in the 4th century, an important page in our national annals is "a blank, a stretch of great darkness." History is, of course, forever being rewritten, and nothing may be described as incontrovertible fact so long as further evidence lies buried, just waiting to be discovered.
Up to the present day, the buried evidence unearthed suggests that during the later part of the 5th century the pagan invaders (Saxons, etc.) had advanced westwards from Kent to perhaps Portsmouth and northwards towards Somerset. Also occupied were large swathes of Eastern and Central England as far north as Humberside. Remarkably, London and Lincoln had not fallen, and other settlements such as Oxford and Dunstable were effectively isolated in what was still British territory.
During these years the British chieftains, notably Arthur, gradually contained and even reversed the pagans' progress, their efforts culminating in the Battle of Badon (near Bath) c490, where the overstretched Saxon army suffered a heavy defeat. The English, as they are referred to in some histories, were now confined behind recognised frontiers so that, for perhaps twenty years or so, and for the first time since the Romans departed, an uneasy peace obtained. Arthur died at the battle of Camlan (in Cornwall?) around 515, probably at the hands of his treacherous nephew who was also killed. (see legendary version above).
And what may come
What I believe to be incontestable is that the vast number of monuments/landmarks connected with this King must be taken as indications of his valour and achievements. A modern writer has identified 33 Arthurian sites, beginning in the Scilly Isles and ending in Edinburgh; and, if Brittany in Northern France is included, local tradition once spoke of several hundreds more. It is entirely inconceivable that, in any great measure, these relate solely to the myths surrounding Camelot, however enthralling such tales may be. And those of us who would claim to be Angle, Saxon, Jute or Viking have nevertheless adopted the Celtic(?) Arthur, for better or for worse, as our very own flesh-and-blood hero.
And yet it is to legend that I will return for inspiration, and for the comforting knowledge that the King lies sleeping in Avalon awaiting our call for his return. In Malory's Le Morte d Arthur we read: "Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of Our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say that it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS (Here lies Arthur, the once and future King)."
Now that we have an unbelievably large number of wicked knights on the rampage, should not our clergy organise a day, maybe a week, of national prayer begging Arthur to come back as soon as possible. After all, it would seem that he, as distinct from our contemporary royals, would be committed to defending our faith!