How King Arthur Became One of the Most Pervasive Legends of All Time

How King Arthur Became One of the Most Pervasive Legends of All Time

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King Arthur is one of, if not the, most legendary icons of medieval Britain. His popularity has lasted centuries, mostly  thanks to the numerous incarnations  of his story that pop up time and time again. Indeed, his is one of the most enduring stories of all time. Though his tale is rooted in the fifth and sixth centuries, it has continued to captivate audiences to this very day. There is just something about the sword in the stone, the knights of the round table, Lancelot, and the wizard Merlin, that have kept us coming back to the various legends of King Arthur for such a long time.

In the last 15 years alone, there have been Hollywood movies, computer games, and other creative re-tellings. With Bangor University’s new Centre for Arthurian Studies just launched a fortnight ago, and  Guy Ritchie’s new movie , King Arthur: the Legend of the Sword, due to be released in late spring, there is no doubt both the scholarly search for Arthur and the impact of his legends on modern culture are continuing to flourish.

King Arthur Asks the Lady of the Lake for the Sword Excalibur

King Arthur Asks the Lady of the Lake for the Sword Excalibur ( public domain )

Arthur’s life story is one that has become almost a standard for knightly heroes to aspire to. He is seen as brave, noble, kind – everything that some might say is missing from our modern world.

The epic hero

Few might know that Arthur is a hero whose ancestry goes back to the Brittonic inhabitants  of early medieval Wales  before the arrival of the Saxons, and not just the kingly figure that appears in later romances. In fact, the Arthur of legend was  neither a king nor the owner of a round table , at least not in the way we use these terms today.

Records about Arthur’s life are few and far between. He emerges in the sixth century in the work  of the Welsh monk Gildas , where his victory at Mount Badon is celebrated, but he is not named. It is only in the ninth century Historia Brittonum, composed by another monk, Nennius, that Arthur is  named as a “dux bellorum” , a military commander, and his 12 battles are listed.

Much time passed between these early records and the 12th century’s full-blown accounts of Arthur’s reign – in the work  of Geoffrey of Monmouth  and the French  Chretien de Troyes , the writers who truly made Arthur the legendary king we now know – and he took on a variety of roles.

In the Welsh stories, Arthur remains a warrior, often a foil for other heroes’ path to greatness. But in the early French romances, he provided a yardstick for courtly behaviour, as epic battles do not form the backbone of these later stories written on the continent. Geoffrey of Monmouth brought back the leadership and determination of an Arthur who becomes not only a king (on whom 12th century Anglo-Norman kings could model themselves), but also a conqueror – again reflecting a desire for greatness beyond national boundaries. Thus, the image of the courtly king, a leader in both war and times of peace, was born.

King Arthur, as painted in 1903 by Charles Ernest Butler.

King Arthur, as painted in 1903 by Charles Ernest Butler.  Wikimedia

A modern legend

However, Arthur was always connected to the realities of those countries, and the times and peoples for whom he was reinvented. The Arthurian revival  of the late 19th century , for example, helped put him back on the international cultural map by removing the historical aura, and emphasising the values he stood for – a far cry from the medieval attempts to utilise him as a national figure from whom medieval kings could derive their right to rule. This paved the way to the fantasy worlds created, most famously,  by T.H. White  in The Once and Future King, published in 1958.

All of these interpretations were about more than just revealing the secrets of one of the most intriguing men of all time. In this confusing and sometimes frightening world, audiences seek reassurance in the models of the past. They want a standard of moral integrity and visionary leadership that is inspirational and transformational in equal measure. One that they cannot find in the world around them, but will discover in the stories of King Arthur.

Is our modern appetite for fantasy a reflection of our need to reinvent the past, and bring hope into our present? Moral integrity, loyalty to one’s friends and kin, abiding by the law and defending the weak, form the cornerstone of how Arthurian fellowship has been defined through the centuries. They offer the reassurance that doing the morally right thing is valuable, even if it may bring about temporary defeat. In the end, virtues and values prevail and it is these enduring features of the legends that have kept them alive in the hearts and minds of so many through the centuries.

Comments

Interested in Celt history

The Celts were to found all the way from the western shores of North Africa to Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland and Wales. They were linked by the coastal waters of the Atlantic. Brittany in today's France is simply a name for little Britain and the Normans and other areas of France now see King Arthur as part of their culture coming from Avalon in France originally with similar tales of Parsival and the Holy Grail.

In effect there was one Celtic/Gallic bloodline which started in the Languedoc after Mary Magdalene gave birth there to the first person of what became the Merovingians. The Scots are not Celts but rather Picts although they shared an involvment with the Knights Templar. see www.theroyalsecret.info to trace Celtic heritage in an informative and exciting mystery novel.

Cousin_Jack's picture

Lets not forget that at one time Cornwall and Wales weren’t seperate entities as they are now, the area between the two was occupied by the Celts. After seperation Cornwall was still known as West Wales. The Celts and Saxons must have had numerous battles in order for the Celts to have been driven into the corners of the UK, battles of which many are now forgotten. The UK back then was then was far, far different than it is now and that subject is just as divisive as that of King Arthur.

King Arthur and the Merovingian Pendragon Tudor bloodlne. see www.theroyalsecret.info

King Arthur was for real. Myths are based on reality. Arthur was a Celt from the Pendragon family who later became the Tudors who ruled England under Henry 8th and Elizabeth 1st. The Pendragons were descendants of the Celtic Merovingian bloodline from Merovech and Clovis of Gaul who believed they were the descendants of Mary Magdalene and her Hermetic and Arianism beliefs opposed to Catholicism.
For the real history of the Merovingians to Arthur, The Templars, the Tudors to the Founding Fathers and the US ruling Freemasons of today see www.theroyalsecret.info and the new book the Royal Secret.

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