King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part One (Introduction)

26 Feb

I actually can’t believe I’m tackling this subject, but here goes …


Whether the figure of Arthur was a historicized mythical or folkloric figure or a mythologized or folkloric man has been debated and written about numerous times, some might say ‘to death’. There’s not much point writing about the subject again unless something new can be brought to the discussion, and that’s what I hope to do at points in this twelve part blog. If I am, accidentally, reiterating what others have said I apologise in advance. I also apologise for not covering everything, but if I did, this would turn into a book! It’s already 20,000 words!

In these blogs the legends I will mainly be referring to are those of the Welsh, which predate those began by the Anglo-(Breton)-Norman Geoffrey of Monmouth (early 12th c) who first made Arthur famous outside Wales and Cornwall, by at least two hundred years. The King Arthur and his famous knights of the roundtable, the Holy Grail and his battles around Europe all came to light between the 12th to 15th centuries, and it will be these stories most will be aware of. The earlier, Welsh tales and poems are, in general, about a very different superhero, who fights – or battles through his men – witches, giants and the Otherworld, but there does appear to be ‘Arthur the Soldier’ in amongst them.

Personally, I have waxed and wained over the years between the one possibility and the other as I have read the various arguments. When I joined the group Arthurnet, I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. Before embarking on this ebook I was about 65% (if a percentage could ever be given!) in favour of the likelihood that the original Arthur was a 5th and 6th century figure of some description … but, who knows, that could swing the other way at some point. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of this. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of these blogs. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

What may help a little is that I’m agnostic. It doesn’t really matter to me whether Arthur really existed or not. I have no nationalistic tendency to want him to have been from what are now England, Scotland, Wales or even Ireland. None of these existed at the time. What I do want is a fair ‘hearing’, so to speak. I will try and do what Christopher Snyder does when he says

My own contributions on the scholarship of Arthurian origins have been attempts to establish a middle ground between academic skepticism and unbridled lay enthusiasm”. (A history of Arthurian scholarship,  Lacy, 2006, p.13).

Although I am in the “lay” camp, of course! There is another quote from Mr. Snyder to keep in mind:

 “ [...] academic historians, playing by the rules of our disciplines, can say little of value about Arthur.” (The Britons,   Snyder, 2003, p.94)

I can go further than a professional historian, but I will endeavour to keep the rules of their disciplines in mind.

Hit of Myth?

First a few ‘for and against’ quotes:

 “Drawing on the postmodern theory of Jean Baudrillard, it is possible to interpret Arthur as a simulacrum – that is, as a copy which has no original. The textual Arthurs that survive are reformatted copies of earlier ideas of Arthur, referring always to each other but never to an originary Arthur, since such a person cannot be identified or retrieved.” (A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.16)

“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. (Christopher Gidlow in his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010, p.193)

“This is not the stuff of which history can be made. The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books” (David Dumville, 1977, p.188).

“I disagree, however, with those skeptics who believe there is proof that Arthur is pure fabrication. Theories that trace his origins to mythology or folklore are as unconvincing as those that ‘prove’ his historicity.” (Christopher Snyder, ‘The Britons’, 2003, p.94)

Thomas Charles-Edwards conclusions about the Historia Brittonum were:

At this stage of the enquiry, one can only say there may well have been an historical Arthur [...] but “[...] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him” (1991. p.29).

[Arthur is] above all else [...] a defender of his country against every kind of danger, both internal and external: a slayer of giants and witches, a hunter of monstrous animals — giant boars, a savage cat monster, a winged serpent (or dragon) — and also, as it appears from Culhwch and Preiddeu Annwn, a releaser of prisoners. This concept is substantiated from all the early sources: the poems Pa Gur and Prieddeu Annwn, the Triads, the Saint’s Lives, and the Miribilia attached to the Historia Brittonum [...] in early literature he belongs, like Fionn, to the realm of mythology rather than to that of history.” (R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans (edd.), ‘Culhwch and Olwen. An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale’ (Cardiff, 1992), pp. xxviii-xxix)

That is the question?

First we have to define what the correct question is. To ask, “Did Arthur exist?” will illicit the response, “Which Arthur? King Arthur of Malory, of Wace, of Chrétien, of Layamon, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or ‘William’ the author of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius. Or Arthur of the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B.), or of the 10th century Annales Cambriae (A.C.); or do we mean Arthur of the early Welsh stories or the early Welsh poetry?” So, the question I will pose is: “Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”

That’s just your opinion!

Opinion as to whether the figure that became the legend of King Arthur was based on a historical person or not, or whether he was one of the other slightly later known historical Arthurs, has vacillated over the decades and centuries between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’. Today, some of those scholars firmly in the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp are David Dumville (1977), Oliver Padel (2000), Nick Higham (1994, 2002) and Thomas Green (2001-2007), following Padel. Those in the ‘historical’ camp (to varying degrees) who look to a possible 5th century Arthur would be Christopher Snyder (2003, 2006), Christopher Gidlow (2004, 2010) and Francis Pryor (2004) … with many a lay historian added to that list. The original as the 6th century prince Artúr mac Áedán of Dal Riata (Dalriada) is put forward by Richard Barber (1972) following suggestions by Norma Chadwick, but also the lay historian David F. Caroll (1996) with 6th century king of Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr, only forwarded by Dr. Ken Dark (2000). Both the Early-7th century Arthur ap Bicoir and Arthur ap Pedr have been explored by August Hunt, but he has since rejected them in favour of the Late-6th century Arthur Penuchel (2011). (Many of you may be unaware of these other Arthurs, and if you’d like to know more about them before reading further, see THIS blog; although they will be discussed here).

It could be argued that some lay historians (and professional historians!) haven’t helped a historical Arthur’s case much either by the way they’ve argued for him, and it is mainly the academic scholars who argue against his existence that put the best cases. (In this respect I hope not to make things worse!). The academic who, to me at least, has made the best case for the possible existence of a historical figure called Arthur (as opposed to someone else who became known as Arthur, such as Riothamus or Ambrosius Aurelianus) is Christopher Gidlow, but even he hasn’t explored the folkloric aspects in detail.

It should be noted from the start that both Nick Higham and Thomas Green had concluded that Arthur didn’t exist before beginning their books on the subject. Higham had concluded this in his book on Gildas’s 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae (DEB): ‘The English Conquest- Gildas and Britain of the fifth century’ (1994). This is because he sees the evidence showing that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ where the ones in charge after Badon, and not the Britons, so there was no place for an Arthur character. Green, in Concept of Arthur (2007), follows Padel’s folkloric Arthur theory and had been writing about this online for a number of years, long before the publication of his book. If you start from those assumptions, or rather conclusions, in a book then you are approaching the subject in the same way as those who start from the assumption that he did exist. The book is there to prove your point. That doesn’t mean what is explore in their books is worthless! Far from it, they are excellent in their ways. It also doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and I bow to their superior knowledge, it does mean this should be kept in mind.

If one looked at the early Welsh material alone, one might have to conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric and Padel does make a very important point in his book, ‘Arthur Of Welsh Literature’ (2000): many (not all) who accepted Arthur as a historical figure (or that he shouldn’t be dispelled as one) do so without considering this Welsh, Cornish and Scottish mythical or folkloric Arthur and the questions these stories and poems throw up with regards to his historicity. I hope not to be one of those and will face these full on in these next (shortish) ten blogs.

So, that’s the introduction. In Part Two we’ll look at Arthur in the landscape of Britain and the possible mythical or folkloric origins, as well as some possible later historical comparisons.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.


PS: Just in case there are folk out there thinking, “he’s writing ‘a historical’ instead of ‘an historical’, the former is correct. The only time to use ‘an’ is before a word with a silent ‘h’, like ‘honour’. In the past when I’ve used ‘an’, it’s out of habit.

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23 responses to “King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part One (Introduction)

  1. S. H. Rosenbaum

    February 27, 2012 at 2:29 am

    Mr. Wilson;

    Bravo for taking on this question! After stumbling upon what I gave to you, any doubts I had regarding the historical Arthur were dispelled. Artorius, Frothi, Riothamus, Arthur are one and the same. He lived roughly 450-510; according to the evidence provided. Please, I hope Mr. Vermaat has been notified of your new blog.

  2. badonicus

    February 27, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Thanks for the comments … and yes, Robert knows about these blogs.

    Many thanks,


  3. Makhno

    February 27, 2012 at 4:41 pm


    Or, to put it in slightly more detail: I have no doubt that the Arthur even of pre-Galfridian legend combines attributes of multiple figures both historical and mythical. Since, without more knowledge than we have of these originals, it’s impossible to know which of them contributed the name, or whether any one contributed MORE attributes than the others, it’s impossible to finger an individual Arthur, historical or mythical. (I have identified an historical original for the cycle of novels I’m planning, but only for narrative convenience – and even there, I have a second Arthur.)

  4. badonicus

    February 27, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Thanks for the comment Marcus. I can’t say too much now as there are still 10 more blogs to come on the subject! :)

  5. Tim

    February 28, 2012 at 9:06 am

    Good intro, Mak. It sets things up very neatly and whets our appetite for the rest. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    • badonicus

      February 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks Tim, that’s very kind of you. Part Two is here already.

  6. Ruth Nestvold

    February 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    This looks like it’s going to be a great summary. Looking forward to more! Now off to tweet it. :)

    • badonicus

      February 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      Thanks Ruth. Happy tweeting.

  7. Melissa

    March 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    very much has been done on the topic.. its very hard to pick a source for the magazine

    • badonicus

      March 13, 2012 at 7:47 pm

      What magazine is this Melissa?

  8. Howard Wiseman

    March 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    I think “an historical Arthur” is also acceptable because the first syllable of “historical” is unaccented, so I at least find it is easier to say than “a historical Arthur”. But “an history” is unnatural.

  9. evilnymphstuff

    March 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    OMG with such a detailed and informative series on the interesting myth of Arthur you could totally bind all in a book! I’ll try to catch up on all posts of yours :P awesome! keep it up!

    • badonicus

      March 15, 2012 at 7:47 pm

      Many thanks for your kind comments. You’re now the fourth person to mention this as a book. I may have to considered it … with a great deal of editorial help!

  10. vigosblogvigo

    December 27, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    So Ken Dark author of ‘Britain and the End of the Roman Empire’ extrapolating from Dumvilles – ‘series of brilliant studies’ – writes;

    ‘At best we are faced with a mere half century of unhelpful annal keeping in western Britain and Ireland. More likely only retrospective British annals survive for the period 400-600 and these are derived from Irish sources written by annalists who need have known little or nothing of British events.’ – Ken Dark, – Britain and the End of the Roman Empire- p.44

    Are we to assume that St.Patrick who was a Briton taken into captivity by the Irish and who wrote reprimanding the Scots and Picts for taking the Christianised Irish into slavery would therefore have imparted none of his knowledge of events in Britain at that time to the Irish?

    Given that Adomnan (c.627/8 – 704) writing on the life of St Columba (7 December 521 – 9 June 597 AD) refers specifically to Oswald of Nortumbria (c 604 – 5 August 642) are we to assume that using such logic Oswald knew of Columba but Columba didnt know of Patrick?

    The rendition of the history is on a par with the logic.

    • badonicus

      May 19, 2013 at 3:09 pm

      I’m not sure what you’re arguing here. Could you clarify it please?


      • vigosblog

        October 29, 2013 at 7:41 pm


        ‘written by annalists who need have known little or nothing of British events’


        This is a completely spurious assertion. Rome would have been quite aware of events in Britain. So would have the Irish. The exodus Gildas describes is a matter of record not conjecture.Britain was not a hermetically sealed state. There is ample evidence for this with both textual evidence but population movements which the archeological evidence supports.

        The post I made has not appeared, though it was posted. There were frequent links between Irelan-Rome-Britain.

        Charles-Edwards, pp. 184–187; Thomas, pp. 297–300; Yorke, pp. 112–114.

  11. vigosblog

    October 19, 2013 at 6:07 pm


    ‘Irish sources written by annalists who need have known little or nothing of British events’.


    This spurious claim cannot even be substantiated with any credibility. Is the contention that the Irish knew nothing of events in Britain? What nonsense.

    Palladius (fl. 408–431; died probably ca 457/461) was the first Bishop of the Christians of Ireland, preceding Saint Patrick;Palladius was the son of Exuperantius of Poitiers, of whom the contemporary pagan poet Rutilius Claudius Namatianus wrote: “Even now his father Exuperantius trains the Armoric sea-board to love the recovery of peace; he re-establishes the laws, brings freedom back and suffers not the inhabitants to be their servants’ slaves.”

    Amorica was Brittany. Why should Palladius have heard of ‘Irish events’ ?Yet we know he did since the aim of the church was to expand and evangelise and he went there and it is recorded. There is so much evidence from diverse sources that the church catalogued. Britain was even closer to Ireland for St Patrick was taken into captivity by the Irish, returned to Britain then returned to Ireland. These events and others do not point to the ‘quarantined state’ that Dark asserts – if it did so then Gildas would not refer to the Saxon arrival or that news travelled for other Saxons to arrive.

    Ken Darks book while highly interesting with reference to archeological sites and artefacts is riddled with inaccuracies and statement after statement which are totally incorrect even when referring to source texts. Dark promulgates Dumvilles utterly illogical research methods in which texts are dismissed for their ‘inconsistencies’ rather than taken where events stated within the text can be corroborated measured with rigour against other available evidence including other text sources to give a composite picture of an era. Instead unsubstantiated interpretive conjectures prevail. Consequently we are presented in his work with the notion and references to Dumville that key texts;

    Historia Brittonum
    Anglo Saxon Chronicles
    Annales Cambriae
    and others

    should be dismissed as ‘Inadmissible Evidence’. Bede of course gets a separate heading. What we are presented is a history minus the available historical texts.

    Yet so many of Ken Darks statements are not only uncorroborated and but all available evidence contradicts them. There is a difference between asserting that a text has inconsistencies which have to be borne in mind to then asserting that they are therefore wholly unreliable.
    The ideological obsession that (for instance) a text is not of historical value because it is political is utterly absurd – and is itself a revelation of a political approach to the available source material.

    This leads to statement under ‘Inadmissible Evidence’ p 43 that,


    ‘ Although there is nothing intrinsically impossible about all the events recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the fifth and sixth centuries there is no reason to believe they occured’

    Therefore, according to this statement from Dark, Palladius did not go to Scotland because the Anglo Saxon chronicle mentions it therefore it did not occur. 0/10 back of the class.

    • badonicus

      January 27, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      Vigosblog, you have me a little confused here – an easy thing to do – because what you seem to be saying, which is very interesting, appears to bear no relationship to what’s written above.


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