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King Arthur: Man or Myth?

The intersections of history and romance as we see them in our century redefine the boundaries between truth and lies, fiction and truth. Or rather those boundaries are defined differently in medieval terms easily misconstrued by modern readers who simply assume that our current habits of thought are shared by the Middle Ages. Romances may scramble oppositions, but do not eliminate distinctions: the categories of fiction, truth, history, and narrative, remain essential to their effective functioning in non-disjunctive oppositions.

These serve to represent the complexity, the ambiguities, and the contradictions that necessarily arise when human beings try to translate into practice the ideals and conflicting value systems they represent in terms of King Arthur, a historical figure elaborated and transformed by the power of fiction in order to experiment with the present through the “model” of a fictive, yet historical past. The historicity of Arthur has been deeply contested across the twentieth century (Higham 3). The roots of that debate lie, inevitably, in the previous epoch.

The past century, or so, has witnessed a considerable, and on occasion quite vehement, debate concerning whether or not King Arthur actually existed. On the one side, belief in Arthur as a real figure in real time and space has become deeply entrenched. On the other, several scholars have urged caution or even sought to argue the negative that no historical Arthur ever existed (Higham 4). There is obviously a great gulf between these two positions, but not even the ‘real’ Arthur positivists are in any sort of agreement. On the face of it, the longevity, robustness and popularity of this debate may seem surprising.

On the basis of textual evidence, Arthur was widely considered implausible as an historical figure in the late Victorian era, when he was most often interpreted in mythological terms as a Brittonic culturehero or demigod. Even those late nineteenth-century historians who considered Arthur potentially historical conceived of him as a figure of little relevance to the dominant historical enterprises of the day. Earlier texts from the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries have been read and reread, compared and picked over for evidence of a ‘real’ Arthur.

The result has been the re-emergence of debate concerning a fifth/sixth-century historical reality for a figure first encountered in a ninth century text, the Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’). There are plentiful voices, of course, warning against the acceptance of ninth- and tenth-century writings on their own as adequate evidence for the fifth and sixth centuries. Professor J. D. Bruce (1923) wrote the key study of the early evolution of Arthurian literature prior to that edited by Loomis (1959) (Kirby 45).

On the first page he expressed incredulity concerning the case for a ‘real’ Arthur in Dark Age history, but then, on the very next page, inclined himself to view Arthur as historical. Such suspensions of disbelief have continued to resurface throughout the century and even beyond: King Arthur remains an extraordinarily persistent presence, not just as a literary construct that transcends time but also as an historical figure who requires discussion – or at least refutation – in attempts to write the history of the fifth and sixth centuries.

We are confronted by an accumulation of opinion that the Arthurian legends, in the earliest manifestations which can be identified, contain inherent historical meaning capable of both recovering and displaying a ‘real’ figure of the past, in an appropriate and verifiable historical context. The principal agreed methodology is careful exploration of the origins of the extant texts, their textual histories and the histories of whatever putative underlying texts it is imagined (or even occasionally demonstrated) that their authors might have used, but barely any two authors agree on any particular reconstruction of Arthur.

The least disputed message coming out of this debate is the recognition that outcomes have always been contested, and that the evidence for Arthur is so ephemeral that it needs only differences of approach or different historical agendas for the resulting narratives to be contradictory (Castleden 10). There is nothing particularly remarkable about this, since historical writings are often mutually combative regarding re-envisioning the past.

However, in the case of Arthur every single aspect of his characterization even down to his very existence is at issue, which could not be said of disagreements regarding Napoleon, for example, or Alexander the Great. To debate Arthur is closer to discussing the historicity of Christ than arguing about most figures of the past. There is an unfathomable depth to the disagreements, therefore, and no bedrock of universally accepted dates, places or events on which all concur. Put simply, an overview of the historical literature reveals a plethora of historical Arthurs.

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