The Legend of King Arthur

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

What do you think -was King Arthur a real person, or is he purely the stuff of legend? Either way, he makes for a good story.


In England, the most popular tales of chivalry are the Welsh legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. No one knows for sure if there was a real person who served as the inspiration for Arthur ...or if so, which historical figure it was. The earliest known mention of Arthur is a reference to a mighty warrior  in "Gododdin," a Welsh poem written about 600 AD. Another 200 years would pass before Arthur would receive another mention, this time in The History of the Britons, which credits him with winning 12 battles against Saxon invaders.

It's likely that tales of Arthur were also spread by word of mouth, because when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote down the tales of Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain in 1135, he recorded Arthur's birth in the late fifth century, childhood, military conquests, marriage to Guinevere, relationship with his mentor Merlin, and his death in 542 when he was mortally wounded in battle by his treacherous nephew Mordred. Geoffrey is also the first person to identify Arthur as a king, not just a warrior.


So where did Geoffrey of Monmouth  get his information? He claimed to have gotten it from a "certain very ancient book written in the British language," but did not identify it by name. Historians now believe there was no such book. They theorize that Geoffrey simply recorded the popular tales of his day, and when needed, made up his own details to fill in any gaps, drawing from legends surrounding leaders like Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. That didn't stop readers from taking The History of the Kings of Britain seriously -it served as the standard text on British history for more than 600 years.

Geoffrey of Monmouth wasn't the first to invent tales about King Arthur, and he certainly wasn't the last. In 1155 another writer, Wace of Jersey, introduced the concept of the Round Table; five years later the French poet Chrétian de Troyes wrote five Arthurian romances that are credited with introducing the Holy Grail and Sir Lancelot's affair with Queen Guinevere. A 13th-century French poet, Robert de Boron, contributed the famous story of the orphaned Arthur winning his crown by removing a magic sword from a stone.



One thing historians agree on is that even if "King Arthur" really did live in England in the early sixth century, he and his knights did not live in castles, wear suits of armor, or fight in tournaments -because none of those things existed in the sixth century. So why is Arthur so closely associated with them? Because Geoffrey of Monmouth and other contributors to the Arthurian legend had no sense of how different life had been 600 years earlier. They, not Arthur, lived in an age of castles and knights in shining armor, and they filled their stories with the trappings of their own era. In the process they created a world for King Arthur that he, if he did really exist, would never have recognized.


What about the generations of knights that grew up listening to the chivalrous tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table -how well did they live up to the noble example set by their hero? Did they give to the sick and the poor? Did they protect orphans and the elderly? Did they respect woman and treat captured knights with the same respect they'd show upon guests?

Not quite -medieval knights preached chivalry, but practicing it was another story, as Will Durant writes in The Story of Civilization:
Theoretically the knight was required to be a hero, a gentleman, and a saint. All this, however, was chivalric theory. The hero who fought one day bravely in tournament might on another be a faithless murderer. He might [preach] of protecting the weak,and strike unarmed peasants down with a sword; he treated with scorn the manual worker and with frequent coarseness and and occasional brutality the wife whom he had sworn to cherish and protect. He could hear Mass in the morning, rob a church in the afternoon, and drink himself into obscenity at night.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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"In England, the most popular tales of chivalry are the Welsh legends". England and Wales are different nations. You presumably mean in Britain/the UK.
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