One of the many legends about King Arthur involves his sword, Excalibur, and how young Arthur was able to claim it as his own weapon.


So many legends surround King Arthur that sorting them out becomes nigh-unto-impossible.

Scholars believe he may have been a real person and, if so, he likely lived in the 6th century. But whether he was a king, or a warlord, is as unclear as the "where and when" of his battles.

If he really is historical, he would have lived in "The Dark Ages" when contemporary written records did not always include names and dates. We are thus left with much conjecture, and scholarly guess-work, instead of dependable facts and figures.

Archeology is helping to fill-in the gaps, but more is unknown than known about him. And more romantic literature has been written about Arthur, his loves, and his escapades, than nearly any other personage from the ancient world.

What do ancient sources actually say about Arthur? Do they name him, by name, or identify his parents? Was Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar, in Welsh, meaning “white shadow”) really his wife? Was Lancelot his trusted companion or the product of a writer’s imagination? Was there really a group of Knights of the Round Table

Let’s take a look at the earliest sources and compare them to the works of later writers.

The first mention of Arthur (as far as anyone knows today) goes back to approximately 600 A.D. The Welsh bard Aneirin, in his poem Y Gododdin from the Book of Aneirin,  describes the courage of a warrior who died in battle (with the Angles) by comparing (near the end of his poem) the fallen Briton to Arthur:

He fed black ravens on the rampart
Of a fortress, though he was no Arthur

Gildas, although mentioning others by name, does not mention Arthur at all. Scholars think there may have been political reasons for such an omission.

Nennius, the likely 8th century writer of Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons") lists twelve Arthurian battle victories. He is a major source of King Arthur stories and calls Arthur a “leader of battles” (dux bellorum, or warlord) instead of a king.

Scholars who believe Arthur lived also believe he may have been mortally wounded (by Mordred who also died) in the battle of Camlann. The Annales Cambriae, which were based on earlier chronicles and compiled around 955, state that Camlann took place around 537 A.D. If Arthur died (as a result of a head injury) in that battle, it would have been very close to the time Gildas began to write “The Ruin of Britain.”

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh Norman, is the major source for all later Arthurian legends and traditions. Writing in the 1100s, nearly 600 years after the historical Arthur may have lived, Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain") creates an Arthur significantly out of proportion to any evidence of the historical person.

In the Middle Ages, Arthur was immortalized as a true legend in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d'Arthur (1485).

Although we cannot be sure of Arthur’s life, and whether he was a king or a warlord, scholars are reasonably certain stories about Guinevere and Lancelot are the products of those later literary legends.

Even so, archeological digs reveal amazing details about life in the “Dark Ages.” But that - including a trip to some of the sites most closely associated with Arthur - is another story for another day.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 01, 2004

Updated Last Revision: May 04, 2019

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"ARTHUR AND HIS WORLD" AwesomeStories.com. Jul 01, 2004. Feb 24, 2020.
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