Sunday, November 13, 2005

A "Real" King Arthur: A Short Essay

As we’ve seen in the recent Jerry Bruckheimer production King Arthur, the myths of Camelot are constantly being reinterpreted. This newest version, however, takes it a step farther by pretending to be the "true story" or King Arthur, a film which "sheds light on his real identity" (according to the opening titles). Then, of course, it immediately deviates from history.
Arthur’s true identity, if there is one, is lost to us now. His deeds and battles were, as all legends have been, added to and re-shaped in later centuries, until we are left with a composite of several people and later inventions. What follows are some of my own thoughts about what we know concerning a "historical" Arthur.

Post-Roman Britain
Britain was made the westernmost tip of the Roman Empire in the early part of the first century BCE. But after too long, the Empire began a long, inexorable decline before finally disappearing. In 390, the Empire was divided into halves – Eastern and Western – with each half ruled over by a co-emperor. The Western half got the worst of it, as waves of northern tribes began to spill into the countryside to eventually kick the Romans out.

Britain was suffering as well. In 122, Hadrian’s Wall had been built in an attempt to keep out the Picts, who raided from the north. Around the time of the Empire’s division, the Saxons were starting to raid from across the sea, and they took advantage of the weakness of Rome to carve out small settlements along the eastern coasts. By 406, the Roman legions in Britain were called to the continent to fight the Visigoths; they would never return.

Arthur, if he existed at all, could only have existed in this time period, given the scant evidence we have. We know that Emperor Honorius did not wish to abandon Britain, and appointed a Roman governor under the title of Comes Britanniarum, or "Count of Britain." His name was Constantine (not to be confused with the 4th century Roman emperor). But the legend names him Ambrosius Aurelianus, "the last of the Romans" according to Saint Gildas. We know little of him historically, except that he restored trade with the Empire and re-established the Roman law among the Britons. But he was recalled in 418, as the pressures facing the Empire made every last man necessary for the defense of Rome herself; Britain was declared independent and left to the mercy of the Saxons.

The Britons reverted to their past ways with fair speed. They attempted to reorganize into the ancient Celtic tribal systems gathered under a High King, called the Vortigern (or "overlord"). The Vortigern, however, had much trouble maintaining order in the face of invading Picts, Scots, and Saxons. In 448 the Vortigern called to the Romans for help, but no answer came (they were being sacked by the Vandals at the time). Instead, he turned to the Jutes in Scandinavia, and hired the warriors Hengist and Horsa (sometimes described as a father and son, sometimes as a pair of brothers) to save the Britons. As often happens in history, Hengist and Horsa, upon landing in Kent, won their victory and decided to conquer the Britains afterward. After all, they were too weak to fight back (this was how Rome gained many territories along the way). The Jutes were the first Angles to come to the future Angle-land, or England.

In his De Excidio Britorum (The Ruin of Britain), Saint Gildas describes the successor of Ambrosius as one Artorius, who took the rather grandiose title of Dux Bellorum ("Duke of Battles") and led the Britains in 12 mighty battles against the Anglo-Saxons. The final battle was fought at Mons Badonicus (or Badon Hill), in which Artorius won a final victory that gained years of peace. This battle probably did take place, and is usually allowed to be sometime between 490 and 500. By this time, the Angles of Hengist and Horsa had firmly established themselves on the island and were enslaving the Britons and Cymbry (or Welsh). But Artorius won peace for a time.

Arthur and His Knights
Artorius had several things in his favor. First, he is supposed to have been a Romanized Briton, and well-trained as a horseman. His men were knights, but not in the medieval sense. Rather, they were Roman knights, or heavy cavalry. Arthur’s sword was called Caliburn, a Welsh name. He carried a spear and rode down the Anglo-Saxon infantry with his disciplined cavalrymen.

Though Gildas identified his kingdom as being somewhere in southwest England (the southeast was firmly held by Anglo-Saxons, and the kingdoms of Essex, Kent, Sussex, and East Anglia were beginning to form), it is more conceivable that his realm was somewhere north of the Firth of Forth, between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, near Edinburgh and firmly on modern Scottish ground. This area is near the traditional royal seat of Holyrood, under a mountain that is still called "Arthur’s Seat."*

There were four tribes that lived in this area, called collectively the Gododdin. One of these tribes, the Votadini, is thought to be Arthur’s people. They were Romanized, and had fought for Roman against the Picts. They were fluent in Latin, and partially Christian. They were thought brave and fierce, but had been completely wiped out by the Saxons by the eighth century. The epic Gododdin, by one of the three great Welsh bards, Aneirin, tells the story of the final stand of the Votadini in Homeric passion.

Geoffrey’s History
In 1135, Geoffrey of Monmouth published a book that dominated much of Western literature: Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). An entire section was devoted to Arthur. Geoffrey, however, was working from earlier sources such as Gildas, and Nennius’s Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), which was the first historical source extant to name King Arthur and give a list of his deeds and accomplishments (published circa 810).

Geoffrey purported to accurately chronicle British history from 1115 BC to 689 BCE. However, like Herodotus and Suetonius before him, Geoffrey printed a lot of gossip and legend as though it were historical fact. He ascribes to Arthur not only the conquest of all Britain (including Scotland and Wales), but Ireland, Orkney, Jutland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark. He is then supposed to have driven the Romans out of Gaul and sacked Rome itself.

As a historical side note, from 457 to 474, Leo of Thrace was Emperor of Rome. He was, in fact, driven from Gaul by Gaiseric the Vandal, and in 476, Rome abandoned the Western Empire. This may have been Arthur’s time, so the time nearly fits. Still, Geoffrey has managed to describe the entirety of the empire ruled over by his current king, Henry I. And besides that, he has given much of the victories and accomplishments of Charlemagne (the conquest of Gaul and the establishment of feudalism) to Arthur. It is, in its way, a propagandistic attempt to establish the primacy of England over the kings of France and the pope in Rome.**

Geoffrey gives the date of Arthur’s death as 542, a mere 4 years before Gildas is supposed to have written his Ruin of Britain. His detailed story is the first to identify Arthur’s queen; he names her Guanhumura, the daughter of some Roman noble. She is better known to us as Guinevere, and is more usually identified as the daughter of the Frankish Leodegranz, a fictional nobleman living in Scotland at the time of Arthur. Gildas does not mention any of these deeds in his book, which leads one to the natural conclusion that Geoffrey is telling a story.

Final Details of Historic Britain
Britain was commonly known on the continent as England by the end of the sixth century, a hundred years after Arthur’s supposed liberation of the Britons from Saxon domination. The first English king we know of for certain was Ethelbert, the King of Wessex, whose line would dominate English history for 500 years after his crowning in 560. His line would beget Alfred the Great, the first king of all England, and his descendants would rule until the Norman Conquest of 1066 (and, technically, William the Conqueror was a cousin of Edward the Confessor, and through the matrilineal descent the same bloodline of that Ethelbert still rules England to this day).

By 650, the last Briton kingdoms had disappeared. Earlier, in 476, the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the Frankish kingdoms began to appear in Gaul. Arthur, if he lived at all, must have lived between the years Rome abandoned Britain (418) and the crowning of Ethelbert (560).

The Celtic Myths
There is not much evidence that Arthur ever existed at all, save as a religious construct. Arthur’s name in Welsh is Arth Vawr, or "Heavenly Bear." Arthur, the bear, took the place of his father, Uther Pendragon, whose own symbol was the Gold Dragon. In the heavens, the pole star of the north used to be Alpha Draconis, the Head of the Dragon. As the Earth subtly shifted, however, the pole star changed to Polaris in Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The Druids studied the heavens and the movements of stars, and it can be suggested that the mythological Arthur reflects this observation, taking over leadership from his father Pendragon.

Arthur may have origins as a pagan solar god among the Celts. He may have supplanted the earlier solar myths of Gawain. Gawain’s mother, Morgause, was part of the Celtic version of the Great Goddess (virgin-mother-crone). Morgause, the mother, gave birth to the four quarters of the year: Gawain, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine. At the end of the year, Gawain, as the new sun, beheaded the old one, personified by the Green Knight, and the new year began. At the end of the year, that same Gawain had become the Green Knight, and was in turn killed, in the familiar pagan cycle (Cu Chulainn was the Irish version of this same myth, which persisted in many ancient cultures).

Arthur’s life was overseen by the Great Goddess; Elaine, the virgin, was his mother (as she was later Lancelot’s). Morgause, his sister and lover, gave him his son-killer Mordred. And Morgan, as Fate (or Fata Morgana), determined his death and final resting place. Before the pagans were Christianized, this was the Trinity, or Triple Goddess.

So we can see that Arthur also has a base in Celtic mythology; possibly these myths (which, under other names, were common to most ancient religions) were laid down by Celts and Britons onto the deeds of an historical Arthur as a way to preserve their heritage in story.

Merlin is, in the familiar stories, the wizard-advisor of Arthur. He emerges as a composite of two men. The first is a legendary Welsh figure, Myrddin Emrys (or Merlin Ambrosius, whom Gildas identified as Ambrosius himself). He was a child-prophet with supernatural powers who had counseled first the Vortigern, then Ambrosius, and Artorius himself.

The second figure is an historical person, Myrddin ap Morfyn, or Merlin Celidonius (also known as Merlin the Wild, or Myrddin Wyllt). He is a singer-warrior, and considered (along with Taliesin and Aneirin) one of the three great Welsh bards. He lived, it is generally thought, from 470 to 540, and several poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen are credited to him. This Merlin fought at the Battle of Arfderydd in 574, went mad, and became a hermit, living in the woods among the wild creatures.

Both were considered Druidic prophets of some import (the first Merlin is, according to legend, an immortal who erected Stonehenge with his magic), neither was mentioned in connection with Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth. He based his writing career on Merlin, publishing Prophetiac Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin) in 1130. It proved so popular among readers that he could not resist laying them into his Historia Regum Britanniae. After that work was published, Geoffrey returned to Merlin exclusively, publishing Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) in 1148.***

Merlin is generally thought now to have been an Old Welsh shaman. Traditionally, his magic was taught to him by women and he now rests in the Mother’s Cave (or Womb) awaiting his Second Coming. Christian writers made his powers evil and claimed he was the Antichrist, fathered on a virgin by the devil (his good human side won out, apparently). Merlin, as he was known by Druids, was a prophet with some abilities; the notion of wizards and magicians as we know them now is largely a medieval construct.

The French Additions
The knights of Arthur’s Round Table existed as Roman cavalry for a long time. But in the mid-eleventh century, King Edward the Confessor brought French ideas of chivalry and knighthood to England. Though Edward was the last Saxon king of England, he was raised in Normandy, and brought with him the notion of the French court. This was cemented by William the Conqueror’s reign, and the knights of Arthur would forever after be remembered as we now remember the medieval knights of jousts and pilgrimages.

The French had considerable influence on the legend of Arthur. The greatest of Arthur’s knights, Lancelot, was from France. He was created in 1172, when Chretien de Troyes wrote Le Chevalier a la Cherrette (The Knight of the Cart), which is better known historically as Lancelot. The knight was made the personification of courtly love and heroic demeanor, the very best romantic notion of knighthood. An idealization of the French hero.

In fact, Lancelot may have been a romanticization of the love triangle going on in the country at the time. King Louis VII (The Young) of France had divorced Eleanor of Aquitaine, who gave him no sons, and she, in turn, had married England’s King Henry II, by whom she had four.
The French also renamed Arthur’s sword Caliburn, calling it the more familiar Excalibur. De Troyes also added the Grail to the story in 1185 with his romance Percival, and Robert Wace added the Round Table in Le Roman de Brut. The Greeks and Romans knew a round table of their own – the moon wheel, which showed the sacred calendar table (or mensa) of the goddess Vesta. He counted 28 original knights; 28 is the pagan number of the moon.

So we can see the effect of myth, legend, and politics on the way Arthur has been interpreted over the centuries. In 1596, Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene surrounded Arthur in a setting of twee fairy tale and courtly romance. This work was so popular, it became near impossible to separate the feeling of Renaissance silliness from the historical realities of Old England. The fairy tale was too beloved.

This happened again in the early nineteenth century. In 1825, Joseph Ritson published The Life of King Arthur, the first attempt at a rational historical study of Arthur. But a few years later, Alfred Lord Tennyson published his Idylls of the King, more fairy tale, romantic nonsense, that rooted in the public imagination almost immediately. Because of this, and the lack of written historical records from post-Roman Britain, we will never know the "reality" of King Arthur. Today, as we see in films, the legend is still being misinterpreted and misrepresented. Perhaps Arthur belongs as myth; there seems to be more power for the British people in the legend than in any possible reality. Winston Churchill once remarked, "If King Arthur didn’t exist, he should have." And perhaps that will be the final historical word.

* Still others cite Colchester, but this is only because of a coincidence of name. Modern Colchester was once called Camulodunum, and served as the seat of the imperial Roman governor. People have looked at the similarities of the name "Camelot" and "Camulod" and thought a connection might exist there, but there is no evidence to suggest it. In fact, the name "Camelot" was not seen in the Arthurian myths until Chretien de Troyes wrote his Lancelot in 1172. In Arthur’s time, if so it was, Camulodunum was firmly held by the Saxon kingdom of Kent.

**Geoffrey puts the founding of Britain at 1115 BC, and ascribes it to Brutus, a great-grandson of Aeneas, who left Troy to found Rome. This popular myth of the time was meant to put the Britons/English on an equal footing with proud Roman history, as Rome itself perpetuated the myth of Aeneas to connect their past to the Trojans and create a false line of descent from Aphrodite to her son Aeneas all the way to Romulus and Remus and finally Julius Caesar.

***Our image of Merlin seems to mostly be based on Odin as he is portrayed in The Volsunga Saga. This great German epic also includes the episode of Sigmund pulling the Sword from the Tree, which later became Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the Stone.

Isaac Asimov, The Shaping of England (Houghton Mifflin, 1969)
David Day, The Search for King Arthur (Facts On File, 1995)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae (1135)
Saint Gildas, De Excidio Britorum (546)
Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Harpercollins, 1983)