… who I’ve always been a little bit in love with.
I mean, what’s not to like? His birth was foretold by the most accomplished prophet of all time and brought about by magic. He spent the first fourteen years of his life believing he was an orphan, owing everything to the Knight and his wife who took him in. He only found out who he really was due to a selfless act, trying to ensure that his foster brother could compete in a tournament and his first act as King was to ensure said foster brother would always be at his side. He fought giants, enchantments and traitorous knights and always came to the rescue of any damsel he believed to be in distress. Plus, he isn’t dead, bourne away from this land to be healed of his mortal wounds by the nine Queens of Avalon, returning when Britain is in direst need. Yes, Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain, certainly turned my head from the first time I heard his legend.
Except that what I’ve just written isn’t all of the legend – I’ve just cherry picked the good bits. He was so enamoured of King Lot’s wife, Morgause, that he took her to his bed without thought for the consequences. The horror he experienced when he realised she was actually his half-sister being only secondary to his actions gaining him Lot’s eternal enmity, never mind that he got her pregnant. The child she bore, Mordred, his son and nephew was prophesied by Merlin to be his nemesis so he promptly pulled a Herod and had all the children born in the month his son was due slaughtered. Many of his legendary fights show his arrogance, being brought simply because he thought he was better than them and wanted to prove himself. The Kingdom fell because he allowed Mordred and Agravaine to manipulate him into striking against Lancelot and then got drawn into a battle with Mordred he could not win. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that he picked a best friend and wife who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Somehow, he doesn’t sound so wonderful any more, does he?
No, not even I can turn a blind eye to all of that, but then I suspect that the real Arthur, if he did exist, bears the same relationship to the stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Mallory (who I have paraphrased above) as my dog bears to a wolf; the only thing they have in common is their ancestry. The real Arthur is thought to have lived around 500 – 540 AD. Geoffrey of Monmouth lived from 1100 – 1155, and his source was a mysterious book that has never been found. It is believed by many scholars that the aim of his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ was to rewrite the Welsh legends of Arthur, giving them a Norman spin to curry favour with the King by providing a way to engage with/subjugate the Welsh. Thomas Mallory was even further removed from events, living from 1405 to 1471, almost a thousand years afterwards. ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ was his attempt to collect all the Arthurian stories of the time (French, English and German) into one volume and was completed in 1470. It was first published, unedited, by Caxton in 1485. Neither writer had enough substantiated sources for their claims that their works represented a true history of the realm rather than simply being a good story, but the volume of works based on Arthur have convinced me (and many proper historians) that there was a ‘real’ Arthur whose deeds spawned the legends.
So who was he? Well, the honest answer is I don’t know. Arthur has had many epithets, ‘Bear of Britain’ ‘Scourge of the Saxons’ and ‘Dux Bellorum’ to name but a few. However the last two, the final one of which pretty much means war leader, are probably closest to the truth. Britain was a harsh place in the last fifth and early sixth century. Rome had removed its protection from Britain almost one hundred years before in 410 AD and the Saxons, Picts, Angles and Jutes were doing more than taking covetous looks at our shores. A large proportion of the South coast and Kent were under the control of the invaders already and more boatloads of settlers were arriving with each tide. Along the west coast raiders came ashore at will, thieving, pillaging and raping before they disappeared back into their boats with the loot. They had found a land with bountiful crops, good grazing land and a population that was divided, mostly between those that tried to cling onto the Roman ways and those who reverted to the old tribal traditions, and lacked a strong leader. It looked like easy pickings and for a while it was. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, came Arthur. Trained in the arts of war, with a strong grip of strategy and tactics, he commanded mounted troops and somehow managed to garner support from the majority of the petty Kings of the British tribes. For almost thirty years he held sway, crushing the invaders and bringing peace and prosperity to Britain once more. Then, just as suddenly, he was gone and the ‘summer’ he had brought was over, the country once again overwhelmed by the invaders and a winter of discontent that lasted several hundred years.
But in that brief period Arthur shone like a sun. Whether he was noble, commoner, king or general he commanded the hearts and minds of the people who fought alongside him and benefited from his campaigns. His vision and determination gave the Britons back their pride. This Arthur, the faceless warrior, is who I want to get to know, to understand and to cloth. I don’t buy into the golden haired Prince Arthur who has graced our Saturday evening television for the past three winters, although BBC’s Merlin will always hold a special place in my heart and I cannot deny that Bradley James is the most physically attractive Arthur I have encountered. Nor do I see my Arthur in the sexed up version of the legends that has just come ashore from America. I haven’t been able to find him in the movie versions of the legends and neither has he made an appearance in any of the many retellings of his story I’ve read over the years.
I want to find my Arthur, the Arthur who is worthy of the love I have always held for him, and capture him on the page for all to see, so that they can love him too. Which is why I am going to be spending my holiday in Somerset, the ‘Summerlands’, said by many to be at the heart of the real Arthur’s world. I am going to find my legend and bring him to life. It is time for me to resurrect my ‘Once and Future King’.