Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies G-M » King Arthur


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

King Arthur
About 520

      Arthur, king of the Siluri, or Dumnonii--British races driven back into the west of England by the Saxons--is represented as having united the British tribes in resisting the pagan invaders, and as having been the champion not only of his people but also of Christianity. He is said to have lived in the sixth century, and to have maintained a stubborn contest against the Saxon Cerdic, but the "Saxon Chronicle" is suspiciously silent as to his warfare and as to his existence. Indeed, the Welsh bards of the earliest period do not assert that he was a contemporary, and it is more than doubtful whether he is an historic personage. It is worthy of remark that the fame of Arthur is widely spread; he is claimed alike as a prince in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Cumberland, and the lowlands of Scotland; that is to say, his fame is conterminous with the Brithonic race, and does not extend to the Goidels or Gaels. As is now well known, Great Britain was twice invaded by races of Celtic blood and tongue; the first wave was that of the Goidels, and after a lapse of some considerable time a second Celtic wave, that of the Brithons, or Britons, from the east, overran Britain, and drove the Gaels to west and north. Finn and Ossian belong to the mythic heroic cycle of the Gaels, and Arthur and Merlin to that of the Britons. These several shadowy forms are probably deities shorn of their divinity and given historic attributes and position, much as, among the Norsemen, Odin, when he ceased to be regarded as the All-father, or God, came to be reckoned as an ancestor of the kings.

      In the lays of the Welsh bards, supposed to be as early as the sixth and seventh centuries (although no MS. is extant of older date than the twelfth century), Arthur and his brave companions are celebrated, but modestly and without marvels. It is possible that there may have existed in the sixth century a prince bearing the already well-known heroic name; and if so, about him the myths belonging to the remote ancestor or god have crystallized. The legendary additions begin to gather in the history of the Britons by Nennius, a writer supposed to have lived at the beginning of the seventh century; but Mr. Thomas Wright has shown ("Biographia Literaria," Saxon period) that his history is a forgery of a much later date, probably of the tenth century. Mr. Skene, however ("The Four Ancient Books of Wales"), makes fight to give Arthur an historic place, and we do not deny that there may have been a prince of that name. Next in order come the so-called Armoric collections of Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford (latter part of eleventh century), from which Geoffrey of Monmouth professes to translate, and in which the marvellous and supernatural elements largely prevail. Here for the first time the magician Merlin comes into association with Arthur. According to Geoffrey, Arthur's father, Uther, conceiving a passion for Igerna, wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, is changed by Merlin into the likeness of Gorlois, and Arthur is the result. After his father's death Arthur becomes paramount leader of the British, and makes victorious expeditions to Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and also to France, where he defeats a great Roman army. During his absence his nephew, Modred, revolts, and seduces Prince Arthur's wife, Gweniver (Gwenhwywar). Arthur returning, falls in a battle with his nephew, and is carried to the Isle of Avalon to be cured of his wounds. Geoffrey's work apparently gave birth to a multitude of fictions, which came to be considered as quasi-historical traditions. From these, exaggerated by each succeeding age, and recast by each narrator, sprung the famous metrical romances of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, first in French and afterward in English, from which modern notions of Arthur are derived. In these his habitual residence is at Caerlon, on the Usk, in Wales, where, with his beautiful wife, Guinevere, he lives in splendid state, surrounded by hundreds of knights and beautiful ladies, who serve as patterns of valor, breeding, and grace to all the world. Twelve knights, the bravest of the throng, form the centre of this retinue, and sit with the king at a round table, the "Knights of the Round Table." From the court of King Arthur knights go forth to all countries in search of adventure--to protect women, chastise oppressors, liberate the enchanted, enchain giants and malicious dwarfs, is their knightly mission.

The Ruins of King Arthur's Castle.

      The earliest legends of Arthur's exploits are to be found in the bardic lays attributed to the sixth and seventh centuries ("Myoyrian Archaeology of Wales," 1801). A Welsh collection of stories called the "Mabinogion," of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1849, gives further Arthurian legends. Some of the stories "have the character of chivalric romances," and are therefore probably of French origin; while others "bear the impress of a far higher antiquity, both as regards the manners they depict and the style of language in which they are composed." These latter rarely mention Arthur, but the former belong, as Mr. Skene puts it, to the "full-blown Arthurian romance." Chretien de Troies, the most famous of the old French trouveres in the latter part of the twelfth century, made the Arthur legend the subject for his "Romans" and "Contes," as well as for two epics on Tristan; the Holy Grail, Peredur, etc., belonging to the same cycle. Early in the same century the Arthurian metrical romance became known in Germany, and there assumed a more animated and artistic form in the "Parzival" of Wolfram of Eschenbach, "Tristan und Isolt" of Gottfried of Strasburg, "Erec and Iwein" of Hartmann, and "Wigalois" of Wirnt. The most renowned of the heroes of the Arthurian school are Peredur (Parzival or Perceval), Tristan or Tristram, Iwein, Erec, Gawein, Wigalois, Wigamur, Gauriel, and Lancelot. From France the Arthurian romance spread also to Spain, Provence, Italy, and the Netherlands, even into Iceland, and was again transplanted into England. One of the publications that issued from the press of Caxton (1485) was a collection of stories by Sir Thomas Malory, either compiled by him in English, from various of the later French prose romances, or translated directly from an already existing French compendium. Copland reprinted the work in 1557, and in 1634 the last of the black-letter editions appeared. A reprint of Caxton's "Kynge Arthur," with an introduction and notes by Robert Southey, was issued in 1817--"The Byrth, Lyfe, and Actes of Kyng Arthur." The most complete edition is that by Thomas Wright, from the text of 1634.

      The name of King Arthur was given during the Middle Ages to many places and monuments supposed to have been in some way associated with his exploits, such as "Arthur's Seat," near Edinburgh, "Arthur's Oven," on the Carron, near Falkirk, etc. What was called the sepulchre of his queen was shown at Meigle, in Strathmore, in the sixteenth century. Near Boscastle, in Cornwall, is Pentargain, a headland called after him "Arthur's Head." Other localities take his name in Brittany. In the Middle Ages, in Germany, Arthur's Courts were buildings in which the patricians assembled. One such still remains at Danzig. There was one anciently at Thorn, about which a ballad and legend exist. Milton was meditating an Arthurian epic in 1639; and in our own day the interest of the legends about King Arthur and his knights has been revived by Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" and some of Wagner's operas. We must not omit to note the magnificent life-sized ideal bronze figure of Arthur, cast for the monument of Maximilian I., now in the Franciscan church at Innsbruck, and regarded as the finest among the series of heroes there represented.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.