Hail! King Arthur: Long Live Who?
It is hard to adequately explain how long scholars, writers, and historians alike, have extensively researched the topic of King Arthur. Who was he? Did he exist? Was there really a Camelot and Guinevere? When I first began this study myself, my opinion was pretty concrete: of course there was a King Arthur and the chivalrous stories must be true. To my surprise, my thoughts went in a completely different direction the deeper into the subject I got. I will attempt to explain my findings and what influenced my development of thought by focusing on three of the closest primary sources of Arthur’s time. According to the records and artifacts remaining today, there is absolutely no way to prove that the “legendary” King Arthur, as one man, ever existed.
Aside from Disney cartoons and recent movies such as, “King Arthur”, French writers are primarily responsible for the romance and fantasy added to the Legend of Arthur. Most people are familiar with the chivalrous story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere at his side, Lancelot at his other and the kingdom and court of Camelot. Chretien de Troyes was a 12th century writer and poet, who some say, is exclusively responsible for the creation of the character of Lancelot and the association of the Holy Grail into the fable. Troyes created the love story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot along with the beautiful portrayal of Camelot. No one has ever been able to prove Camelot existed, nor where it would have been if it did. This time period was during an age that people needed a more positive outlook and influence coming out of a dark time. Sarah Novack, a writer and life-long admirer of the Arthurian romance states, “Chretien’s romances and their many imitations, additions, and adaptations throughout Europe were enormously popular” (Novak 1). Aspiring, amusing, and pleasurable unfortunately does not placate the thirst for truth. The French heavily influenced a lot of the literary movements in the earlier centuries and people were more focused on performance than fact. Richard Trachsler, a professor with a doctorate at the University of Zurich who is an expert on Arthurian literature, confirms that, “ The concept of oral transmission of texts was used when texts proved reluctant, when two texts presented undeniable resemblances without any possibility of explanation for those resemblances other than oral transmission” (Trachsler 418). We can attribute a lot of the factual information we have, to 3 monks alive around the same time era, by the names of, Gildas, Nennius, and Geoffrey Monmouth.
Gildas was a 6th century monk, who gives us, what may be, some insight to an actual Arthur. His writings have been heavily debated over the ages due to historical facts and timelines not adding up to his accounts of certain events. His works ranged from sermons to Roman histories, to private and public condemnations, but regrettably he produced most of these works during a gloomy time for Britain. The country was plagued by war, famine, and disease so it wasn’t an ideal era for historical writers and recorders to flourish. The epic battle he describes that aligns most closely with known historical facts is the Battle of Mount Badon. This was a turning point battle for Britain that allowed the country to begin rising out of the turmoil. Gildas describes this event along with a great conqueror, but he never states this victor as Arthur by name. We know the Saxons were defeated several times over Britain, according to historians, but there is no proof as to who actually lead the victory, nor where exactly it took place. Even though Gildas seems to be an ideal account witness, his writings are too vague to establish an absolute opinion for or against the existence of King Arthur.
Another prime source to take into consideration is the work of Nennius. He was also a monk who lived around the 9th century, which some scholars...