How many versions of the legend of King Arthur have you seen, read, or heard in your lifetime?
If you’re like me, it’s a lot.
You might have started out with The Sword in the Stone. Or you might have first read Le Morte D'Arthur. Some people probably saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail and worked their way backwards to the source material. There are so many stories about King Arthur, going back centuries.
But where did they come from? What is the origin of the great King of the Britons?
No. Not that one. Though it is more likely that the era in question looked more like a Roman outpost than it did Merlin.
(Oh, Merlin. Do you remember the miniseries from the '90s?)
But it might look sort of like the Merlin that graced us a little more recently.
We know very little about the real Arthur. There is consensus that a British ruler named Arthur did exist, but no one is sure when, or what the true story is. Where were the legends born? We don’t know. There are stories told of him in the Celtic, French, Latin, and German traditions but we aren’t really sure what is based in fact and what in exaggeration. Was the England of the fifth century filled with magic and mystics? Probably not. But something had to start the story of Excalibur.
Was there a Camelot? We don’t know. But archaeologists and historians alike have been working to establish an Arthurian timeline for ages. The abovementioned movie, featuring Romans, Celts, and Hadrian’s Wall, might be ridiculous, but was an effort to reclaim the story from fantastical legend and establish something that looks a little more like 5th Century Britain might have instead of drawings from an early Sir Thomas Malory manuscript.
After England became a French-ruled nation (you know, the whole 1066 thing), it’s not really a surprise that their shared culture brought forth the need to revive a great British hero in the French Tradition—and what better way to do that than to create a Rolandesque Romance. It’s also here that we get the most common (and familiar) story of Arthur and the Grail Legend. Sure, before, there was a magic sword and a blessed rulership before issues with the Missus, but now, there was a quest. Something spectacular to play with, to expand and contract in French verse for story after story.
Arthurian Romances (Check out Erec and Enide. It's a favorite.)
This is, of course, where the drama gets good.
I could write a book on the whole idea of the evils of woman and the flaws of man and the downfall of the Great Civilization with the demise of Arthur, but I won’t. But the important thing to note about the insertion of adultery and betrayal into the story of Arthur is that it is used in the modern narrative to prove how important it is to have a virtuous woman, and how choosing your friends is key to your success.
Arthurian legend really took hold for the consumption of the masses in English during the nineteenth century. With the advent of the great epic poems by the likes of Tennyson and Scott, more versions of the story of Arthur and an ever-growing list of side characters came about. Combine Arthur and Gawain, or Roland? Sure! Why not. No one will ever notice. Tell the story of Boadicea as if she were Guinevere? They were practically the same anyway.
Sing nostalgic of the days of a lost England and a lost King while a woman practically rules the world? Shrug emoji.
(We know what you were doing there, Alfred.)
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the expansion of not only film opportunities, but a broadening of genres in the written word, we’ve gotten even more stories taking different approaches to the Arthur legend. Writers of historical fiction and fantasy, in particular, have taken looks at the story to see how they could interpret it.
King Arthur, World Encyclopedia of Mythology
Arthurian Legends, World History in Context
Arthurian Literature, Dictionary of the Middle Ages
There are so many different ways to tell the story that nobody knows. And while I would love to see a true archaeological find that would help us put together that time in history, it’s almost better as legend.