Among the histories of which they (the Celts) sang or talked, there was a famous one, concerning the bravery & virtues of KING ARTHUR, supposed to have been a British Prince in those old times. But, whether such a person really lived, & whether there were several persons whose histories came to be confused together under that one name, or whether all about him was invention, no one knows.
This is from Charles Dickens’s Child’s History of England which he wrote in the 1850s. John & Caitlin Matthews quote it at the end of their book, King Arthur, saying that Dickens’s verdict was very close to the truth. Arthur is one of those archetypal figures who have been talked, sang & written about since stories began.
I recently read the Mabinogion, a group of ancient Welsh stories of heroes & quests. As I read, I was surprised to find that several of the stories were very familiar to me. I was taken back to my childhood & Enid Blyton’s Tales of Great Adventure which was a retelling of the stories about Robin Hood & Arthur. I loved this book so much that I still have it long after all my other Blytons were passed on to other children or given to charity booksales. You can see the battered green hardback on the top of my pile of Arthurian books & one of my favourite pictures from it, Gareth & Lynette. I was especially fond of this story as my name is Lynette, although I’m pretty sure I wasn’t named after the Tennyson poem. I read this book many times & I loved the stories of knights, ladies & their quests. Blyton based her retellings on Tennyson’s Idylls of the King who based his poems on Malory who based his stories on the medieval stories of the period. One of the fascinations of Arthur is how every new retelling builds on what went before.
As I grew older & read more history, I became fascinated with the question of whether there ever was an Arthur. Reading about the archaeological investigations at Tintagel & Cadbury hill fort as well as the research into the sites of the great battles of Badon & Camlann has kept me fascinated. John & Caitlin Matthews have written a terrific introduction to the whole story of Arthur from the earliest Roman times to the latest movie version with Clive Owen & Keira Knightley.
The earliest candidate for Arthur was a Roman soldier called Lucius Artorius Castus who was stationed on Hadrian’s Wall in the 2nd century. He was involved in several battles against the Caledonians in what is now Scotland & the north of England. His exploits could have been remembered in the stories of a 5th century Dark Age warrior, Ambrosius Aurelianus, who led the defence of Britain against the invading Saxons after the Romans left. Histories by writers such as Nennius & Gildas kept the legend alive, often using sources now lost to us so that the speculation & frustration with the reliability of these stories becomes a constant theme of King Arthur. Arthur was especially revered in the Celtic lands of Scotland, Wales & Brittany. The tales of the Mabinogion came from this time & then there was the great medieval flowering of chivalric adventures mostly written in France by authors such as Marie de France & Chretien de Troyes where Arthur becomes a Christian king & is pushed to the sidelines by the adventures of his questing knights, Lancelot & Galahad. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur consolidated this trend & his version has become the template for the later retellings by Tennyson, T H White & Enid Blyton among many others.
Descent from Arthur was also used by various English monarchs as a way of legitimating their regimes. Henry II was delighted to jump on the Arthurian bandwagon when the remains of Arthur & Guinevere were supposedly discovered at Glastonbury Abbey. Edward I had an enormous Round Table made at Winchester in emulation of Arthur’s court. Henry VII proclaimed his Tudor dynasty as the Welsh inheritors of Arthur’s crown, even naming his eldest son Arthur. The Victorians loved Arthur as part of their fascination with the medieval world. Victoria & Albert dressed as Arthur & Guinevere for a fancy dress ball. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood explored many Arthurian subjects in their paintings &, of course, Tennyson wrote The Idylls of the King which were later illustrated with woodcuts from photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.
The subject of Arthur is endless & whether you’re interested in the historical basis for the story or the many literary versions of it, King Arthur by John & Caitlin Matthews is a great place to start. My copy of King Arthur is a lovely Folio Society edition & I’m not sure if the book is available in other editions. I couldn’t find this title on the Book Depository but the authors have written widely on Arthur & their other books seem to be more generally available.