The myth of King Arthur, as a legendary figure, is, by and large, a mystery to historians and folklorists alike. There are several figures in early British history who correspond to later folktales and myths about him, but little to no indication as to which is actually the 'real' King Arthur, or even if there was a real King Arthur. Despite this, he remains a popular figure, both in literature and history.
At his core, King Arthur is a legendary British leader who, according to diverse histories and romances, led the defense of England against Saxon invaders in the 6th Century. While the details are mostly composed of anecdotes from various medieval romances and folktales, there is evidence of a single figure uniting the feuding leaders of England to meet the Saxon threat at various points throughout the 6th Century. The question is, which is the real deal?
King Arthur Biography?
Historically speaking, there are several candidates for the title. Some scholars believe that Arthur was most likely a Romano-British landholder named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who united his neighbors against the invading Saxons sometime in the 5th or 6th Century. Other scholars believe that Arthur may have been the leader of the descendants of the Sarmatian force sent by the Romans to bolster their legions in Britain several centuries previous to Arthur's appearance in texts. The Sarmatians were an Eastern European tribe of nomads famous for their skill with swords and lances, their heavy armor (much heavier than anything worn by any Western European culture at the time) and their propensity for mounted combat. The descendants of the Sarmatians settled near what became Lancashire, in England. There is also evidence that King Arthur may actually have been King Riothamus, who was supposedly the 'King of the Britons' in the Year 470, and who appeared frequently in Roman and Byzantine records from that time.
King Arthur Story
Still others argue that Arthur is, in fact, a completely fictitious creation, or even a left-over Celtic deity given a makeover. The strongest element of proof for the 'fictional character' theory comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of The History of the Kings of Britain, who, in 1138, wrote of a fanciful Arthur, close to the popular conception of him, as a King guided by Merlin and the Grail to unite England. Other works followed by a variety of authors, adding new elements to the legend (Lancelot, for instance, was not added until centuries later) and discarding old. Celtic symbolism and tradition was discarded in favor of Christian, and there is evidence that Monmouth's original work dealing with Arthur was lifted wholesale from Welsh or Cornish legends. Later historical works made an attempt to completely excise any mention of Arthur whatsoever, and this, in turn, has led to a widespread belief among some academics that King Arthur was wholly invented.
The story of King Arthur's quest for the holy grail, that most pure of Celtic symbols, continues to enthrall readers and probably will for eons to come.
However, whether King Arthur was real or fictional, he remains a strong influence on Celtic popular culture, as both an allegory for Christ/Christianity/England itself as well as an important part of the mythic past. Whatever his origins, he will be around for a long while yet.
Tim Lazaro is a Celtic Symbols enthusiast. He owns and maintains All About Celtic Symbols, a resource for Celtic symbols lovers and historians.
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