The Legend of King Arthur

King Arthur

King Arthur, or Arthur Pendragon, is an important figure in Breton mythology. He is the central character in the Brittany affair.

It is not certain that it really existed, what is certain is that we find several kings called Arzur, Arthus, Artus, Arthur whose syncretism probably led to the myth of King Arthur Pendragon.

King Arthur

Photo by William Krause on Unsplash

Moreover, medieval texts in Welsh never give him the title of king, but call him amerauder (“emperor”).

The name itself would come from the Celtic root Arz, which means “bear”, symbol of strength, stability and protection, characters well present in his legend: he was a man with a reputation of being strong, firm and, as a king, guarantor of the security of his subjects.

In the Celtic civilization, the bear is above all the emblematic animal of the royalty. Its name is closely related to that of the bear goddess Artio.

The term “Pendragon” comes from his father Uther Pendragon and means “dragon’s head”.

King Arthur in history

Some believe he lived in the 6th century and came from Wales, or western England, but the exact location of his court, known as Camelot, remains a mystery. He would have fought against the Saxons.

Sometimes he is compared to a chieftain called Ambrosius Aurelianus, “King of the Brettons”.

Unfortunately, little is known about this leader, and scholars do not know if the “Brettones” referred to the inhabitants of the British Isles, or to those of Brittany.

It is very likely, however, that the term referred to the peoples of the islands, since the word “Brittany” at that time did not refer to any land on the continent.

English-speaking historians refer to Brittany-Romans (British Romans), which denotes all the Romanized Celtic populations of Brittany, with the exception of the Scots and Caledonian Picts.

As for Arthur himself, an interesting thesis would turn him into a great Romanized landowner who, as was usual at that time, formed his own troop of buccelaires (mercenaries in the pay of a rich man and paid in food, hence his name (buccelus = cookie), and who lent a hand to the kings of Brittany against the Saxons.

In fact, the chronicle of Nennius (9th century) refers to him as a dux bellorum (warlord) fighting “with the Breton kings”.

Arthur in the 4th century

In addition, from the fourth century onwards, the elite corps consisted mainly of horsemen. The legend of an elite corps of horsemen serving Arthur is not far off…

Kemp Molone thought he had found the real Arthur in the character of Lucius Artorius Castus.

The kinship in the name is indeed quite disturbing. This Roman prefect, installed in York, ordered (the epigraphy attests it) the VI Legion of Victrix, in charge of fighting against the Caledonians (people of the present Scotland) beyond Adriano’s Wall.

He won against them (and not against the Saxons) a series of victories between 183 and 185 A.D. He was then sent to Armorica to quell a rebellion.

On the occasion of this expedition, he carried the title of doge, not unlike the title of doge bellorum that appears in Nennius’ chronicle.

According to Geoffrey Ashe, the legendary Arthur was inspired by the royal character of Riothamus, “King of the Bretons” who landed in Gaul in 468 to help the Romans against the Visigoth king Euric and the Saxons.

Most recently, C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor has taken up these last two hypotheses and states that the Arthur of Camelot is the synthesis of the Roman Lucius Artorius Castus and the British Riothamus. For these two researchers, the name of Arthur is the “Celticization” of Artorius.

Arthurian Demigod

Others think that Arthur would be an incarnate Celtic demigod, like the god of the Sea of Lir (supposedly incarnated by King Lear), or even a fictional character like Beowulf.

This theory would be reinforced by the fact that other British of this period, like Ambrosius Aurelianus, fought against the Saxons in the battle of Mount Badonicus.

According to legend, the Arthurian Empire would have included, in addition to present-day England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Gaul.

Some chronicles even tell of Arthur’s victory over the Roman legions in Burgundy, during an expedition that would have taken him to Rome …

Finally, it should be noted that this name could have been common in Celtic times and could have designated several chiefs, whose lives would have served to constitute the mythological character.

The patronymic Arthur could then correspond to the status of a war leader that could be used by several characters at the same time.

It is interesting to note that this name became very popular among the Celtic aristocracy in the years following the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur is said to have died, between 537 and 542.

In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had discovered the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere.

These tombs were visited by many people, and were moved to a new burial site in 1278. This was destroyed during the 16th century Protestant Reformation.

Antiquarian John Leland reports that he found the cross in the rubble and translated its inscription:

“Hic jacet sepultus includesvs rex arturius in insula avalonia, Here lies the famous King Arthur on his island of Avalon. »

The first legends of King Arthur

King Arthur appears for the first time in Welsh literature. In the first Welsh poem found, the Gododin, Aneirin (c. 575-600) writes about one of his characters who “fed black ravens on the ramparts, though he wasn’t Arthur”, in Welsh: “Gochorai brain du fur caer/ Cyn ni bai ef Arthur. “»). But this poem can be interpreted in many ways.

Another old reference to King Arthur is in the Brittonum History attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius, who is said to have written this Welsh History around 830. King Arthur is described as a “warlord” rather than a king.

King Arthur also appears in the Welsh history Culhwch and Olwen, usually associated with the Mabinogion.

The final parts of the Ynys Prydein Trio mention Arthur and locate his court in Celliwig in Cornwall.

Celliwig would be the current Callington or Kelly Rounds, a fortified hill near Egloshayle.

King Arthur is also sometimes described as the leader of the Wild Hunt (a mythical hunting group), not only in the British Isles, but also in Britain, France, Germany and Greece.

The Romance of King Arthur

In 1133, Geoffroy de Monmouth wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae. This book was the equivalent of a medieval bestseller, and drew the attention of other writers, such as Robert Wace and Layamon, to these stories.

These writers took the opportunity to improve on King Arthur’s stories.

Although many scholars agree that Geoffroy aroused medieval interest in King Arthur, there is another hypothesis.

The stories about Arthur could come from the oral traditions of Brittany, spread in the royal courts, and from the nobility of Europe through professional jugglers.

The medieval French writer Chrétien de Troyes told stories of this mythology in the mid-12th century, as did Mary of France in her lais, narrative poems.

The stories of these and many other writers would be independent of Geoffroy de Monmouth.

These stories, gathered under the name of material from Brittany, became popular from the 12th century. In these stories, Arthur brought together the Knights of the Round Table (in particular Lancelot, Gauvain and Galaad).

Merlin

This assembly was usually located in Camelot in the last stories. The wizard Merlin, known as “the Enchanter”, would attend from time to time.

These knights participated in mythical missions, such as the Holy Grail. Other stories from the Celtic world were associated with the legend of Arthur, such as the legend of Tristan and Isolde.

In the last legends, the romance between Arthur’s champion Lancelot and Queen Guinevere became the main cause of the fall of the Arthurian world.

Roberto de Boro wrote in his Merlin that Arthur obtained his throne by drawing a sword from a rock and an anvil.

This act could only be performed by the True King, which means the king chosen by the Gods, or the heir of Uther Pendragon.

This sword is in some versions the famous Excalibur. In other stories, Excalibur comes out of a lake carried by hand, and is given to Arthur shortly after the beginning of his reign by Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, a lady witch. The sword could cut through anything, and its sheath made its bearer invincible.

The end of King Arthur

Arthur’s last battle, the battle of Camlann, against the forces of Mordred was lost. The stories show that Mordred was a Knight of the Round Table and the incestuous son of Arthur and his sister Morgana or his half-sister Morgause.

King Arthur was mortally wounded in this battle, and taken to Avalon. There, his hands were treated or his body was buried in a chapel.

Other texts say he did not die, but retired to Avalon, an enchanted underworld created by Merlin; the King Arthur is asleep and will come back one day.

Many places are said to be the Avalon of which the legend speaks: Glastonbury (in Somerset, England), the Isle of Avalon (an islet in the commune of Pleumeur-Bodou in Côtes d’Armor)…

But it should be noted that Celtic peoples carry their legends and transpose them when they migrate.

This explains why there are several forests in Brocéliande, several in Cornwall…

The legend of King Arthur has spread throughout Europe. Pictures of Arthur were found in many places.

In particular, in the cathedral of Modena in Italy, an engraving dated between 1099 and 1120 depicts Arthur and his knights attacking a castle.

A mosaic from 1165 in the cathedral of Otranto, near Bari, Italy, contains the curious representation of Arturus Rex carrying a scepter and riding a goat. The 15th century merchants named an Arthurian Hall at Gdańsk in Poland.

Many places evoke King Arthur in Brittany, including the Broceliande forest or the Artus cave in the Huelgoat forest.

The symbolism of King Arthur

The only and indisputable king never existed in the Celtic civilization. One remembers the tribal divisions (heads of vassal clans of kings of the provinces who were in turn vassals of a supreme king) that allowed Julius Caesar to take control of Gaul.

In return, the popular imagination has taken possession of a king, more or less witnessed, adorned with the noblest goods of his trade: a strong man, good warrior but wise, unifying and well advised.

Even after his death, he continues to carry the hopes of a people: his dream is only temporary, and he will return to unite the “two Bretagnes” and save the Bretons.

What are the dangers? One thinks of the invasions of the angels and the Saxons, and then of the Norman domination in Great Britain.

Myth and politics

In 1066, William the Bastard became William the Conqueror and imposed himself as master of England.

But how can a Norman be accepted as king, when he is from a minority people? By trusting in the Arthurian legend and in Arthur, his figure, unifier of Great Britain and the Breton people.

Because on the continent are the descendants of Bretons who left the island a few centuries earlier.

To build his army, Guillaume used the services of several noble descendants of these Breton immigrants.

By helping to spread the myth of Arthur’s survival, his dream on the island of Avalon and his imminent return, William made popular his fight against the angels and the Saxons and planned to reunite the Welsh.

This was the beginning of the “Breton hope”.

In the same way, Henry II Plantagenet used the Arthurian myth to establish his power, maintain his authority and unify the island of Brittany.

Crowned in 1154 after many difficulties (grandson of Henry I, designated as his successor but removed from the throne by the nephew of the late king), he confiscated the legend for his own benefit.

To blur the non-English origins of the Plantagenet dynasty, Henry II preferred to rely on the Breton civilization, presenting himself as the worthy successor of Arthur, who had in fact died in the final battle.

The monarch must assert his authority: vassal of the king of France for the Duchy of Normandy, he needs the support of the Bretons against the Saxon pretensions that have difficulty in accepting the Norman domination over England.

Ireland

To reinforce this analogy, he even tried unsuccessfully to conquer Ireland and Scotland to bring together under his banner the entire supposed kingdom of Arthur.

Arthur also served extensively during World War II with the British to vitalize people’s efforts in the face of the risk of invasion by Nazi Germany.

In the imagination of continental Brittany, he represents the unity of the Breton people, since he was the King of the two Bretons.

The authors of the Middle Ages updated it according to the courteous canons of their time, turning it into a model of nobility and Christian virtue.

Family and descendants

Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon, king of the Bretons, and Ygraine (or Ygerne), widow of Marc De Tintagelle, Duke of Cornwall.

He is the brother of Anna, wife of the Budic King of Armorique. He marries Guinevere, Queen of Ireland and daughter of Leodagan, King of Carmelide or Patrick called The Lying King of Ireland from 522 to 536.

Queen Guinevere who is widowed will have a son whose father is unknown. This son will also have a son, Patrick I The Loser, King of Ireland from 556 to 601.

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