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The Origins of the Arthurian Legend
By Geoffrey Ashe
Arthuriana, Vol. 5:3 (1995)
Introduction: To the question ‘Did Arthur exist?’ a straight yes-or-no answer cannot be given. More is involved here than historical doubt. With, say, Robin Hood, the straight answer is likewise excluded, but solely by insufficiency of data. A new find might some day make it possible. With Arthur the difficulty cuts deeper. For any ordinary inquirer, the answer ‘yes’ implies the reality of the Arthur of romance, the idealized medieval monarch, at the centre of a sort of montage that includes Guinevere and Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Since Arthur in that sense is a literary creation and didn’t exist, the answer ‘yes’ is wrong. But the answer ‘no’ is also wrong. It implies that Arthur is fictitious as Don Quixote is fictitious, that he has no factual basis at all. The romancers themselves would never have accepted that, and it cannot be maintained as a definite statement.
Actually, of course, the literary Arthur is a shape-shifter who has taken different forms over the centuries. But all versions presumably derive from a source or prototype earlier than any. There have been numerous attempts to work back to this point, and, more specifically, to pin down a ‘historical Arthur’ as the starting-point, so that the question of existence can be affirmatively answered … on the understanding that this is the Arthur who is meant.
I believe the ‘historical Arthur’ quest has, in practice, been misguided. They have tried to strip away legend and isolate hard evidence. Doing so means dismissing the medieval literature (Geoffrey of Monmouth and everything later), sifting older matter of Welsh provenance, and picking out whatever may be deemed factual or, at least, arguably so. Applied with due objectivity, such a process reduces the data to two Latin documents. They refer to Arthur at no great length as a successful war-leader of Celtic Britons in the fifth or sixth century, embroiled chiefly with encroaching Saxons, ancestors of the English. One of these documents is the Historia Brittonum, History of the Britons, compiled early in the ninth century, and ascribed dubiously to a monk of Bangor named Nennius. In a single chapter it lists twelve Arthurian battles. The other document is a chronicle, the Annales Cambriae, Annals of Wales, which is somewhat later and has two Arthurian entries, also about battles. There is a penumbra of Welsh poems and traditions, and support for the Latin texts can be claimed from that quarter, especially from an allusion to Arthur’s martial prowess which may be as early as 600. They alone, however, are the documents properly so called.