The Truth Behind the Arthurian Legend Essay

This essay has a total of 1857 words and 8 pages.

The Truth Behind the Arthurian Legend

“In scores of languages and shaped to all sorts of storytelling genres, from medieval epic
to modern musical, tales of Arthur and his knights have been enthralling people for more
than a thousand years” (Alexander 1). The question is, however, how much truth is there
behind the Arthurian Legend? King Arthur, Camelot, and the Round Table are three of the
central elements in the tales that are told of this great era, but the legend does not
reveal the whole truth. It is believed by many scholars who have long studied the
Arthurian legend that Camelot and the others were real in a sense at some point in time,
and over the last 500 years their actual deeds developed into the legendary tales that are
told in this day and age.

The legend begins with King Arthur being born to Uther Pendragon and Ygraine, the wife of
Gorlois. This conception occurred in the castle of Tintagel. After his birth, Arthur
grew up as a squire to Kaye, who was the son of Sir Ector, a knight loyal to Uther. Ector
had been given the responsibility of raising young Arthur, who never knew his true
heritage. According to the legend, Arthur needed to find Kaye’s sword so he could
participate in a tournament. Unable to do so, Arthur found a sword stuck into a stone,
and removed it. This was the legendary sword in the stone, and by removing it, Arthur was
able to fulfill his destiny, and become the king.

There is evidence to support the view that some of this tale has a degree of truth behind
it. In northern Cornwall there is a Tintagel Castle. This particular structure was
erected in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, well after Arthur’s time, but these
are not the only ruins in the area. Above the castle are extensive remains of structures
built in the fifth or sixth centuries. This time period coincides perfectly with Arthur’s
most likely place in time. “The current that these remains are indeed, the
headquarters of a powerful lord, and thus the legend is given more credence” (Stobie 21).

The discovery of what is occasionally called Tintagel pottery also gives more credibility
to the tales of Arthur. These fragments, found among the ruins above Tintagel Castle,
were brought to England from the Mediterranean area, and can be dated back to the late
fifth or sixth centuries. The pottery were of a high-quality containing valuable
substances like wine or oil (Lacy 452). “Thus, they provided, for the first time in
Britain, an archaeological means of proving occupation in a broadly ‘Arthurian’ span of
time” (Lacy 452).

To add more truth to this particular legend, there is also a Pendragon Castle. This
structure is located in Cumbria, Westmoreland in the northwest part of England, far away
from Cornwall. The ruins date back to the twelfth century, again long after Arthur’s
time. It is believed, based on its name, “that this is the site of an earlier
fortification belonging to Uther” (Lacy 355).

The life of the legendary Arthur can be divided into three parts. The first comprised his
military campaigns against the enemies of Britain: the Picts, Saxons, and Irish. “It is
the earlier chronicle of Nennius which provides us with a roll of honour commemorating
Arthur’s ‘real’ victories. Nennius lists twelve battles...They range from Scotland to the
south-west of England” (Stobie 30). The final, decisive victory came for the British at
Mons Badonicus, or Badon Hill (Alexander 3). The Battle of Badon Hill was the greatest of
them all. The legend states that Arthur himself was responsible for single handedly
killing 960 men, winning the battle (Stobie 34).

There has not been any conclusive evidence found verifying the location of Arthur’s twelve
great battles. Many historians have speculated, and come up with possible locations, but
there has yet to be definitive proof. As for Badon Hill, there are three locations where
the battle could have taken place. The first is Badbury Rings in Dorset. “The name is
right, but the place...?” (Stobie 34). The other two possibilities are Little Solsbury
Hill and Bathampton Down or Liddington Castle. These two places are located on either
side of the town of Bath. The latter option is the most probable. There is evidence of
refortification during Arthur’s time, and it is also has strategic advantages (Stobie
34-36). The full truth may never be known, however.

There is plenty of historical evidence to show that during the fifth and sixth centuries
there were invasions into England: Britannia had fallen into near-anarchy, with Picts
raiding from the north; Scotti...striking from the west; local brigands robbing,
extorting and generally terrorizing the populace...;and on top of all that, Germanic
Frisians, Angles and Saxons invading from the Continent. (Guttman 2)

This was the setting that allowed two great soldiers to step forward, Ambrosius and
Arthur. Arthur was not a king, and he did not control an empire. He was the military
leader of “the combined forces of the small kingdoms into which sub-Roman Britain had
dissolved” (Alcock 359). In the Historia Brittonum, compiled by Nennius, it states that
“Arthur fought along with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was battle-leader”
(Alcock 358). It is believed by Alcock and others that this Arthur was the basis for the
legends of the Once and Future King.

The next stage of Arthur’s life was a time of peace that lasted for twenty years. This
was the era during which Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table come into the story.
Camelot was “that place where Arthur and his knights feasted at the Table Round, where
Guinevere lit the hall with her radiant beauty, where chivalry flourished...” (Stobie 42).
“The castle was surrounded by plains, with a forest and a river nearby. There was at
least one church, and there was...a town or city around or near the castle” (Lacy 67).
This place was the center of the ideological spirit of the Arthurian Legend (Lacy 67).
Without Camelot, a near-perfect utopia, the stories of Arthur would not have been nearly
as compelling.

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