King Arthur is the figure at the heart of the Arthurian legends. He is said
to be the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall. Arthur is a near
mythic figure in Celtic stories such as Culhwch and Olwen.
In early Latin chronicles he is presented as a military leader, the dux
bellorum. In later romance he is presented as a king and emperor.
One of the questions that has occupied those interested in King Arthur is
whether or not he is a historical figure. The debate
raged since the Renaissance when Arthur's historicity
was vigorously defended, partly because the Tudor monarchs traced their
lineage to Arthur and used that connection as a justification for their
reign. Modern scholarship has generally assumed that there was some actual
person at the heart of the legends, though not of course a king with a band
of knights in shining armor--though O.J. Padel in "The Nature of
Arthur" argues that "historical attributes of just the kind
that we find attached to Arthur can be associated with a figure who was
not historical to start with."
|The Enthroned Arthur,
from Lancelot du Lac (French, early fourteenth
If there is a historical basis to the character, it is clear that he would
have gained fame as a warrior battling the Germanic invaders of the late
fifth and early sixth centuries. Since there is no conclusive evidence for
or against Arthur's historicity, the debate will continue. But what can
not be denied is the influence of the figure of Arthur on literature, art,
music, and society from the Middle Ages to the present. Though there have
been numerous historical novels that try to put Arthur into a sixth-century
setting, it is the legendary figure of the late Middle Ages who has most
captured the imagination.
It is such a figure, the designer of an order of the best knights in the
world, that figures in the major versions of the legend from Malory to Tennyson
to T. H. White. Central to the myth is the downfall of Arthur's kingdom.
It is undermined in the chronicle tradition by the treachery of Mordred.
In the romance tradition that treachery is made possible because of the
love of Lancelot and Guinevere.
© The Camelot Project, The University of Rochester