Largely regarded as a legendary king of the British Isles, King Arthur is continually debated among scholars who argue whether or not he could have been a real historical figure. According to legend, Arthur led early sixth-century Britons against invading Saxon forces. One of the earliest texts to describe Arthurian legend comes from the Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) which was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth around the year 1136. Scholars are uncertain how much Geoffrey borrowed from Welsh and other local legends or how much he may have invented.
In most scholarly circles Geoffrey’s Historia is regarded more as literature than factual history. His descriptions of Roman invasions of Britain have proved to be grossly inaccurate. Nevertheless, his descriptions of Arthur, who may have originally been Artorius (a Roman name), influenced later Arthurian tales. Other early texts that describe Arthur include Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae. Early versions of Arthurian legend include familiar elements like Queen Guinevere, Arthur’s sword Excalibur, the wizard Merlin, and Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon. According to tradition, Arthur was a Romano-British leader who led the Britons to many victories over the Saxons. His death at the hand of Mordred and resting place at Avalon also figure into the earliest tales.
Lancelot, the Holy Grail and the individual stories of the Knights of the Round Table appear to date to the twelfth century when they were written of by the French writer Chretien de Troyes. These stories, however, focus less upon Arthur and more upon secondary characters; de Troyes is credited with popularizing Arthurian romance which became an important literary genre during the Middle Ages. While interest in the Arthurian tales waxed and waned for centuries, it enjoyed resurgence during the nineteenth century. Even today many films, theatre productions, comics and other media have continued to retell these Arthurian tales.
The most popular story of Arthur’s life describes his birth at Tintagel after his father, Briton King Uther Pendragon, seduces Lady Igraine, the wife of his enemy. Arthur grows up and succeeds his father as King of the Britons. He then battles Picts and Scots to form an Empire. He also adds Iceland and Ireland to his territory. He marries Lady Guinevere who becomes his queen and eventually leaves England to conquer Norway and Denmark and confront Roman forces in Gaul. When he hears that his nephew, the treacherous Mordred has seized his wife and crown, he returns to Britain to battle Mordred in Cornwall. Mordred mortally wounds Arthur who is then carried off to the mythical Avalon. Later versions of Arthur’s life include the popular Lancelot and Guinevere adultery.
The stories became popular for their mythical and magical inclusions, but also for the values they depicted such as bravery and loyalty. Arthurian legend has had a profound effect on the course of literature and many writers have adapted tales of Arthur and his knights into updated retellings. The fifth-century British hero still reigns as a cultural hero of epic proportions.