Tag Archives: Oliver Padel

King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Ten

To be or not to be?

No one argues that the 6th and 7th century Hiberno-Britannians with the name Arthur didn’t exist, and this is because they either have genealogies (Arthur ap Pedr) or are attested to in trusted historical documents (Artúr mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap Bicoir). Yet Arthur of Badon is attested to in two historical documents (and some dubious genealogies), but we are told these cannot be given as evidence, because they are not contemporary (Dumville) or the Arthur they contain isn’t historical (Higham et al). Adomnán‘s Vita Columba (Life of Columbac.690), which mentions Artúr mac Áedán, isn’t contemporary either, having been written sixty or so years after Artúr mac Áedán’s death. The difference is in the time between their lives and when they were written about, with Arthur of Badon being 300 years after the (possible) events and the others being much nearer in time; not to mention all the mythical stories and sites that are argued to belong to this same ‘Arthur of Badon’.

Yet those who have concluded Arthur of Badon didn’t exist do not relate the fantastical stories and the onomastic and topographical sites to these other historical Arthurs as proof that they also didn’t exist. Why not? Because they are not in the H.B.? Because they don’t claim to have killed 960/940 men? Because they didn’t have legends written about them (although some argue Artúr mac Áedán (Barber) or even Arthur ap Pedr (Dark) are the bases for all the above)? Because they don’t have onomastic and topographical sites named after them … as far as we know? Or is it because they didn’t have Triads written about them (even though some of the triads mention Arthur but not Badon, and many are later additions)?

Well, in Artúr mac Áedán’s case it’s because of a ‘reliable’ source and Arthur ap Pedr two sources, (Arthur ap Bicoir is still open for debate – see THIS blog), and it’s mainly down to lack of reliable genealogy and all the other ‘stuff’ attached to him in Arthur of Badon’s case.

What if we didn’t have Arthur ap Pedr’s genealogies (British and Irish) or other historical sources telling us of these other Arthurs? What if they too had been lost? Would they too then be deemed mythical or folkloric, because Arthur of the fantastical stories was? Would they be seen as mere insertions into stories of the same mythical Arthur? Or would it have the opposite affect and Arthur of the H.B. and A.C. would be looked on in a more favourable light? It’s hard to answer of course.

If the theories that Arthur of Badon didn’t exist were correct, then how does this affect these other Arthurs, historical and mythical? Well, it doesn’t, because if he didn’t exist they are all still there … obviously. What changes with regards to these others if Arthur of Badon did exist? If he were then inserted into history? In theory nothing. If the other historical Arthurs can exist without affecting the fantastical stories one jot, which is what is suggested, and they were named after the mythical/folkloric figure, then saying Arthur of Badon existed would have no affect either, if you take out of the equation that it was he who spawned the early folkloric material or that these others were named after the Badon man.

Of course, if those other historical Arthurs were named after Arthur of Badon and he didn’t exist, then neither would they … or not with those names. Or if the early Welsh stories came from him, they would cease to exist also, (unless the hero was originally another name). But if the early Welsh stories aren’t about a historical Arthur of Badon, as Padel, Higham and Green argue, just as they’re not about Arthur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán as far as we know, but only use or have the same name, then, if Arthur of Badon was named by the same process, why couldn’t he also exist?

Not a striking resemblance!

Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern. ...

Even Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Welsh fantastical Arthur, and he seems to only use some associated names, such as Gwenhwyfar, Cai and Bedwyr and others from other eras that the Welsh tales attached to Arthur willy-nilly, as well as Badon and Camlann (Camblan). If he used anything else that he says came from a “very ancient book” from Britannia, and Britannia was Wales (as opposed to the argument that it was Brittany), then it’s been lost. (As a side note, Britannia could indeed be Wales as there are a few medieval document that call it such – see Blake and Lloyd, 2003). Did this ‘ancient book’ show a more historical figure? We’ll never know, but it should be noted that Geoffrey specifically refers to this ‘ancient book’ when he gets to the conflict between Mordred and Arthur in Winchester and the Battle of Camblan. (History of the Kings of Britain, Book XI, Ch.1, Ch.2). This could have been his only use of it? We also have no indication of just how ancient it might have been. However, if this was the use of it, it means his ‘ancient’ source showed Arthur fighting in civil war, not against the Anglo-Saxons.

The Welsh tales only relate to Arthur being at Badon in one instance, created after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. Apart from this story (The Dream of Rhonabwy – Late-12th/Early-13th centuries) he has nothing to do with Saxons in the pre-Galfridian tradition. In fact, he bears no resemblance to any historical Arthur that we know of, including the soldier in the H.B.. It means, if he is mythological, or by the 9th century an historicized mythical figure, Nennius inserted him without making any reference or giving any similarities to the known Arthur figure of the stories and did it in a bardic, battle poetry way. A style he uses no where else. If this is the case, he was a) being extremely clever b) his sources had already made this figure into a ‘real’ person with accompanying poetry c) he had more realistic folkloric stories we no longer posses d) it’s about a real Arthur of Badon, e) it’s about some other Arthur replaced in time. f) it’s a mixture of some of the above.

Weight of evidence v popular evidence

There is the argument that the weight of the evidence is in favour of a mythical or folkloric Arthur. It is, and if the Y Gododdin, H.B. and A.C. are discounted as evidence, then the scales tip completely that way, and there isn’t really anything left for an Arthur of Badon.  But it depends on what weight ‘popular’ belief has against actual evidence (evidence that is interpreted differently by different people), if these three documents are not discounted. Is amount of evidence equal to its ‘weight’? This could be like saying that a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold, because there’s a lot more of it. Perhaps a better analogy might be a pound of gold foil wrapped feathers, and, as we know, all that glitters isn’t gold. Once you have concluded (or believe) that the H.B. Arthurian section to be either made-up or that Nennius (and his audience) believed the Arthur in question was historical when he wasn’t, and that the A.C. simply followed in the steps of the H.B.; or that Nennius took another Arthur and deliberately (or accidentally) placed him earlier than he was, then that is that for Arthur being at Badon … unless there was a third battle of Badon no one’s aware of. (Complicated, ain’t it!?)

On the point of the mention of Arthur in Y Gododdin, there isn’t agreement on its dating, which is why I’ve been reluctant to include it  here. John Koch’s (The Gododdin of Aneirin, 1997), gives a 6th/7th century date – which would make it the first mention of an Arthur – but not all scholars agree.  Some believe it could be a later interpolation (Charles-Edwards et al) possibly not being attached until the 8th or 9th centuries with Graham Isaac going for the 10th century. Thomas Green sees the killing of a vast amount of men as described in the H.B. battle list as proof of Arthur’s mythical status and why he was named in it. Taken out of context, it does seem like that. Within the H.B. it is one of the least fantastical things. Even if Koch is wrong and it is a later interpolation, this only works if you believe the H.B. to be about a mythical figure. It’s a circular argument. If the H.B. is about a real person, and the comparison in Y Gododdin refers to this, then it is, in the interpolator’s mind, still comparing Gwawrddur to a real figure. What it does mean is that what Koch sees as a near contemporary source mentioning him, isn’t. (For more on this see THIS blog).


I find that the 6th and 7th century Arthurs’ name giving to Gael descended people and not Britons is explained away too readily, by both camps. By elements of the ‘historical Arthur’ camp it is a name the British wouldn’t use out of awe or respect for Arthur of Badon, but the Gaels would use the name because they didn’t have the same reverence for it. This ‘historic’ argument doesn’t make much sense, to me at least, because Artúr mac Áedán supposedly came from the union of a Gael and Briton, which, most likely was for political reasons; would he name a son Arthur knowing it wouldn’t go down well with the wife or her family? Maybe, I suppose. But in Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr may have been more Briton than Gael, for all we know, living in a Gaelic dominated (or cultural) area (as could have Arthur ap Bicoir if he’s a historical figure) and still the name was given. (Besides, the Britons would name their sons after famous military leaders as demonstrated earlier). But no Briton or even later Welshman would use the name for their princes and the first to give his son it would be an English king with a Welsh family name, Henry (Tudor) VII in the 15th century. The Welsh said Henry was  the ‘Son of Prophesy’, so perhaps he thought naming his son Arthur would help that prophesy along? It didn’t, and Arthur died young.

For the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp these Arthurs were named after a mythical or folkloric figure, and the British wouldn’t do this for the same reasons of awe and respect (Batram).  This could make sense, to some degree, except the British would use mythical names if Bran is anything to go by, as well as Belin (Apollo Belinus), Mabon (Apollo Maponos), Conmail (Apollo Cunomaglus), Mael (Deus Maglus), and Nudd (Mars Nodens). (My thanks to Chris Gwinn who pointed these out). But, as I’ve already said, if they were named after some mythical or folkloric figure (maybe one that covered both cultures?), then why couldn’t an earlier Arthur (of Badon fame) be named for the same reason, with him also been of Gael descent and having nothing to do with his mythical/folkloric counterpart apart from his name? The argument doesn’t follow for the name giving.

There is another point here: if it is thought a mythical/folkloric Arthur by the Early-9th century had become historicized, then the Britons weren’t naming their sons Arthur because he was mythical or folkloric by this stage. Either way – be he historical or mythical/folkloric – he was, to them, a real man. They liked naming their sons after famous leaders, and, as shown above, they had no problem naming their sons after mythical figures. So what was the problem with Arthur or his name?

Etymologically speaking …

Most etymologists would argue that the Gaels would have to get the name Artúr via the Britons using the Insular Latin Arturius (from Classical Latin Artorius), as it wouldn’t be a name they would use directly because it was Latin. However, Arthur of Demetia’s father was called Pedr (Peter), from Latin PETRVS, so they would use Latin names, it’s just that Artorius/Arturius doesn’t appear to be a common name in Britain … but neither does Pedr. If it wasn’t via Latin, the problem, as it is with Brittonic, is creating this name from two Goidelic words that would produce Artúr. Whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’.  Old Irishúr’, can mean ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean `evil’. However, there are no attested names anywhere that use úr as the second element, so it would have to be unique. That’s not out of the question, but it makes it harder to argue.

You see many websites putting forward ‘Arth+gwr’ – Brittonic *arto+guiros (‘Bear Man’) as the meaning of the name, but that should produce Arthwr. You also see ‘Arth+rix’ – Brittonic *arto+rigos (‘Bear King’) but that should make *Arthir/*Erthir or *Arthric. At present, until Chris Gwinn shows us his new theory, the name is more likely to be derived from Arturius, with Arturus (from the star Arcturus) being another possibility. (More later).

In another blog I explored the possibility that the Britons didn’t use the name because it was seen as an Hiberno-British (not Irish) name, but even this isn’t satisfactory. Whatever the reasons for the Brittonic speaking Britons not using the name, it may have been for different reasons at different points in history. Could it initially have been because it was seen as a name used by Goidelic speakers, then it gained a superstition around it? I’ve recently wondered if it could be because it seemed like a hybrid name to the British that didn’t make total sense to them? To the Gaels it could have made some kind of sense even if they wouldn’t normally use úr as the second part of a name. To the Britons (and later Welsh) it might have sounded like ‘Bear-ur’. (That letter u is a long vowel in Brittonic and Old Welsh. In Middle and Modern Welsh the u becomes similar to a long vowel e, which is why Cymru (Wales) is pronounced something like Kumry). It would need further investigation by someone who knows a lot more than I (Chris Gwinn?) as to whether there were other compound names coming from either Insular Latin or older Brittonic that, as they mutated, didn’t make total sense, so were only used once. Names that mutated completely to make no sense may not have been a problem?

In the penultimate part of this blog I will look at one other piece of evidence I have not seen explored (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!) that could be used by both the historical and mythical/folkloric camps.

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



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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Five


In the quote I used at the end of the last part was “[...] he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location [...]”. This is what those of the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp use as another piece of evidence. It very well could be an indication, but the reason could also be because a historic Arthur was either from a part of Britain whose genealogies didn’t survive because of early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance (and that’s a large area) or he was of a military position and not a royal one (see THIS blog) so wasn’t part of a surviving royal court. It could also be that his bloodline ran dry. There’s no known surviving genealogy for Ambrosius Aurelianus (Welsh Emrys Guledig), or certainty about his area of ‘residence’, and we know he and his offspring existed. However, if Gildas had not mentioned him, and had more sites than Dinas Emrys been named after him, we would think otherwise.

The other possibility is the ‘original’ Arthur as was one of the other historical Arthurs of the 6th and 7th centuries: Arthur ap Pedr of Demetia (Dyfed), Artúr mac Áedán of Dál Riata/Dalraida (Western Isles), Artúr mac Coaning of Dalraida (same area, but could be the same person as Artúr mac Áedán) or Arthur ap Bicoir of Kintyre(?). If it was one of these, such as Arthur ap Pedr; we have to discount the H.B. and A.C. that tell us Arthur fought at Badon … unless the Badon referred to is not the one mentioned by Gildas. However, there is no known battle of Badon during his lifetime, only one before and one after, and the Annales Cambriae (A.C.) puts the first one at least 70 years earlier (more later). You also have to move the date of Battle of Camlann where Arthur died … or didn’t, as the case may be. The Demetian Arthur fighting and dying at the known Afon Gamlan in North Wales isn’t inconceivable … although, generally agreed, not at that date. One of Arthur’s ‘tribal thrones was said to be at Menevia (St. Davids) … right in his territory (Triad 1). Were some of his exploits, knowingly or not, attached to the Arthur of Badon?

None of these other Arthurs can be totally discounted as the bases for the legends, and if it were one of them it would mean, whilst you didn’t have an Arthur of Badon, you still had a historical Arthur, who may have done great things, for all we know. Artúr mac Áedán may have done something famous enough for his grandson to call himself Feradach hoa Artúr (‘Feradach grandson of Artúr’). (See THIS blog). However, as I have discussed in other blogs, it would be odd for the Britons to knowingly use this Gael (who was the enemy after all) as the bases of their national hero.

These other Arthur’s are very important to the arguments in these current blogs, and are often skirted over or ignored completely. For example, Oliver Padel in his excellent work Arthur of Welsh Literature, makes no mention of Arthur ap Pedr at all. Anyone new to the subject reading this (hard to get a copy of) book would very easily conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric. They would think there was only the one Arthur, not  four or five. Yet if there was no Arthur of Badon, then these become a very important part of the equation. (More on this later).

Why oh why?

But, how would a possible 5th/6th century famous military leader, or even if he was, in fact, one of the Arthurs mentioned above, end up with all these strange legends attached to him as explored in the previous blogs? Legends that bear no resemblance to a 5th/6th century – or any other century – commander or king, except in a few poems. Legends that have parallels in Ireland. Those of the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp say it’s because he never existed; that the soldier figure was purely a creation out of the folkloric or mythical one and these others Arthur’s may have been named after him. (Higham et al).

St. Germanus

What are the alternatives? Well, apart from these Arthurs being named after an original of Badon (see THIS blog), there is a theory that it could be the folkloric of mythical stories existed with the main character having another name (see below) and the name Arthur was applied to him (or them) later, just as could have happened with the onomastic and topographical sites to begin with; or that there was both a mythical/folkloric Arthur and a historic one of Badon, just as there were historic ones in the 6th and 7th centuries; or, because there was so little information on Arthur it meant any storyteller could go to town on him, making up what they wanted. The latter certainly happened with the other historical characters mentioned before Arthur in the H.B.. Even when there was more known about a historical figure, it didn’t stop them being drastically changed by storytellers; Ambrosius Aurelianus, St. Germanus, Urien Rheged and his son Owain being cases in point.

In the MS Peniarth 147 a story tells us that Urien of Rheged went to Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in North Wales, where he met the goddess Modron, daughter of the god Afallach, and Owain and his sister Morfudd were conceived, as it was supposedly prophesied.  We also find this in Triad 70. Thomas Green argues that this is because Urien too may have been mythical and not, as most assume, historical (Green, 2007). This historicity is based on a number of poems ascribed to a 6th century bard called Taliesin. There are many poems said to be by Taliesin, but Ifor Williams identifies only twelve as being of the period (The Poems of Taliesin, 1975). Green doesn’t relate this information and just suggests Urien could also have been mythical.  Well, it’s certainly an easy way out of having to admit Urien was historical (although Green does say he could have been) and, once again it can be pointed out (and it is by Gidlow) that if none of Taliesin’s work survived about Urien and only the mythical story above, he too would be deemed ‘unreal’. (By the way, I’ve communicated with him on a couple of occasions and he seems a very nice man … that’s Thomas Green, not Urien)

Dux bellorum

Joshua and the Israelite people, Karolingischer Buchmaler, c.840

The H.B. battle list is most definitely about a soldier, calling him the dux bellorum (‘leader (or military leader) of battles’) – see THIS blog for more on that – and victor of 12 battles. But was he a mythical or folkloric soldier? and where did this list come from; and why didn’t Nennius (said to be the compiler of the H.B., but some doubt it) use any of the other Welsh Arthurian stories or poems? Padel, Higham and Green say it is because the battle list was either made up for the H.B. or the battles were mythical or fictional ones, or those of others ascribed to Arthur. Many would disagree, (and Christopher Gidlow gives the best argument against them) and I would certainly say these are only possible explanations. Firstly we have to note that nowhere in existing Welsh Arthurian stories is he called a ‘battle leader’. Higham says this comes from Nennius associating him with the Biblical Joshua who was called a dux belli. (More later on that).

The nearest thing to the title ‘dux bellorum‘ (although it isn’t actually a title but a description) pre-Galfridian (before Geoffrey of Monmouth) is ‘pen tyrned’ (leader/chief/head of lords/princes/kings/sovereigns). This is from Culhwch ac Olwen, and it’s the one reference I point to when it is said the Welsh, pre-Galfridian, didn’t call him a king. This may not be king per se, but it sound even more than a king and could mean ‘high king’. The poem Elegy for Geraint ab Erbin (from a c. 14th C document but probably earlier) calls Arthur an ‘amherawdyr’, which literally translates as ‘emperor’ or ‘imperator’, and appears to be talking about Arthur’s ‘men’ and not Arthur himself. (The term ‘emperor’ is also a later one; ‘Caesar’ or ‘Augustus’ being the titles used). Here’s the verse:

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s

Heroes who cut with steel.

The Emperor, ruler of our labour.

The use of the term ‘amherawdyr’ shouldn’t be taken literally and doesn’t mean Arthur was seen as one, but just given this superlative by the bard. Once again, it seems to be in the tradition of his men doing the work for him and not Arthur himself, just like in Culhwch ac Olwen. Another interpretation I would forward is ‘Arthur’s Heroes’ was just name given for those who fought against the ‘Saxon’s like Arthur did.

The nearest we get to him being seen as a soldier/military leader is in the, generally overlooked, poem, ‘The Chair of the Sovereign/Prince‘  or ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ (‘Kadeir Teyrnon’). Ascribed to Taliesin, but almost certainly a later work, it maybe calling Arthur a Gwledig/Wledig/Guledig/Gwledic …  if it’s him the lines refer to:

the venerable Teyrnon,
the fattener, Heilyn,
[and] the third profound song of the sage,
[was sung] in order to bless Arthur.

Arthur the blessed,
in harmonious song -,
as defender in battle
the trampler of nine [at a time]

… later …

There shall arise a ruler [Gwledic],
for the fierce wealthy ones.

(Marged Haycock translation, very kindly supplied by Christopher Gwinn).

No one knows for certain what this title means, but it showed greatness and was also bestowed on Ambrosius (Emrys Guledig) and the usurping emperor Magnus Maximus (Macsun Guledig) and could have some military meaning. (see THIS blog for more on this).

Thomas Green has argued that this poem, once again, shows Arthur as a mythical figure because it relates him to the divine person of Teyrnon (from the Mabinogion) and of the god Alator: ‘echen aladwr’, (“of the family of Aladwr”). (“A Note of Aladur, Alator and Arthur”, STUDIA CELTICA, 41, 2007, 237-41. ). He also treats it as pre-Galfridian. However, as August Hunt points out in one of his blogs:

“Arthur was of the family of the Breton Aldroenus, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  In the Welsh genealogies, this Aldroenus becomes Aldwr.  Uther’s father Constantine/Custennin was the brother of this Aldwr.  ‘Aladwr’ is thus merely a slight misspelling or corruption of Aldwr.  Arthur is ‘of the family of Al(a)dwr’ and not of the god Alator [...] The poem is thus immediately shown to NOT be pre-Galfridian.  We must, therefore, be extremely cautious in how we approach this material. Especially as components from earlier Welsh tradition and from Geoffrey can be mixed in the same composition.

( )

He also points out that the word ‘teyrnon’ had later become to mean ‘prince’. However, I would add that it is possible that Geoffrey got this from an older tradition and even the poem itself, but August’s point should be taken.

The thing to note here, and I think it’s an important note, is these kinds of poems are exactly where we might expect the warrior leader to be found. No supernatural occurrences in these poems, it’s about war. But if ‘Kadeir Teyrnon’ is post-Galfridian it is then relating to the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or has had him attached to it. If it’s pre-Galridian it could be relating to Arthur of the H.B., although there’s no direct reference to it. The most interesting thing about this poem, for me, is that it is the only one to call him a Guledig.

In the next part we’ll look at how poetry may have been the source of the first information on Arthur and how a historic figure might have given rise to the fantastical stories.

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



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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Four


English: "Jack the Giant-Killer" by ...

A giant step for mankind?

So, Arthur was seen as having a giant son and a giant dog by the 9th/10th centuries, but just how many of these sites existed before the this time we may never know. (If there had have been more in the northern half of Wales one would think they too would have been included in the Mirabilia). These two, and other later mentioned sites, certainly fit the superhuman or ‘giant’ of folk legend and not Arthur the soldier, apart from, perhaps the hillfort Moel Arthur (‘bare hill of Arthur’), but this Bronze Age hillfort’s Arthurian naming date is unknown. It was recorded before the 17th century as Moel Arthur so it wasn’t made up by the Victorians. (A record of the antiquities of Wales and its marches (vol 1)’, Cambrian Archaeological Assoc., 1850 pp.181-2). However, it also gets no mention in the H.B., so it’s likely to be after the 12th century.

What I have not seen expressed by Padel et al, is, as I explored in Part One, that the amount of sites named after this ‘giant’/superhuman Arthur are unique even for giants. Giants are very often a local character giving their names to local features. There were certainly plenty of giants in Wales. A look at The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings by Sion Dafydd Rhys (c. 1600) can show you just how many. (Read it at the Mary Jones’ website: ).

The one important point to make about the giants of Wales, as can be seen by the above mentioned work, is that they are nearly always named ‘gawr’, meaning, funnily enough, ‘giant’. Here are some (in no particular order): Gogyrfan Gawr (Gwenhwyfar’s da), Idris Gawr, Itta Gawr, Rica/Rhitta Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cribwr Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed and the place was renamed as Cribarth), Oyle Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cedwyn Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ceimiad Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ophrom Gawr, Ysbryn Gawr, Iwni Gawr, Gwedros Gawr, Howel Gawr, Llyphan Gawr, Pyscoc Gawr, Hedoc Gawr, Diddanel Gawr … and there are many more. (What we don’t know about these is if they had always been mythical or if some of them they were based on ancient figures of history). Yet there is not one instance of Arthur Gawr, only an Arthur seen as a giant slayer. So, did they think of him as a giant at all, or mainly a larger-than-life superhuman?

Him being seen in the landscape as a folkloric giant-killer could have been in response to the later Arthurian stories, or visa versa; yet, even after Arthur the soldier and king took root, post Geoffrey of Monmouth, still onomastic sites were been named in honour of this superhuman Arthur. Padel notes that sites were still being given his name in the 18th century following the ‘giant’ or superhuman Arthur lines (Padel, 2000, p.106). This is very interesting, considering that the later stories had gone away from this more mythical portrayal; he was now an all too human king … even if he did still fight giants. It seems it had simply become a tradition’ or was a separate tradition. Is this what happened very early on? Were there, even in the 7th and 8th centuries, two (or more) very different Arthurs in circulation?

If in doubt, blame the English!

Peoples of Britain circa 600

We also must not forget that the 7th to 10th centuries were a time when the kingdoms that were developing into Wales and Scotland were threatened (and in some areas dominated) by the ‘English’, notably the kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  Were the common folk (as opposed to the warriors) of the British areas of the period no different to a modern audience in times of crisis? Did they too like a good ‘fantasy’ (not that they saw it as a fantasy in the way we do) to take their minds off things, not a story about an all-too-mortal-human-sized soldier? (The oldest Arthurian Welsh stories that have survived make no mention of the ‘Saxons’, another reason given for Arthur not being historical). Was it a time when you’d want a supernatural or giant slaying hero on your side? A slayer of the ‘giant’ English? Make him Messianic and you even got a giant slaying hero who can come back and slay the Anglo-Saxons again … maybe.

These Arthurian sites (and local stories) could be argued to be as much in response to the threats from Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, and later Anglo-Normans, as well as later Welsh nationalism, than just because they were a good yarn about a possible ancient mythical or folkloric figure who was everywhere in Britain right from the get-go. The uncertain times could have spawned the amount of them in the areas once inhabited by the Britons, across the Isles. Once Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History was out and grew into the Arthurian Romances, so too the number of sites grew. Just because he was seen as being in all these places later in history, doesn’t necessarily mean he was in all these places in the 6th and 7th centuries, whether he was mythical or not.

What’s in a name?

If Arthur was mythical or folkloric we still have to account for a British figure being given what seems to be a none British name, as most etymologist agree that Artorius is the best candidate with no British or Irish etymology working (so far) to make ‘Arthur’. (See THIS blog). In fact, not only a none-British name but not even a Romanized version of a British name, which is what was given to the known British deities. (Unless Higham is right about it being a decknamen). If, for example, he was named *Arto(s) (Bear), he should become something like Mars Artos to the Romano-British or the Roman soldiers who adopted him. The other possibility is from the star and Greek mythical figure, who was called Arcturus in Latin. However, we’d still be looking at the British taking a Latin named mythical figure for one of their own. But this is a subject all of its own and we’ll look in more depth at these later.

I’ll finish this part with a quote from Juliette Wood in the book A Companion to Arthurian Literature:

“The use of folklore in works such as chronicles reveals a great deal about cultural attitudes and about the interpretations writers wish to convey (Wood 1998). Insofar as it is possible to talk about an original Arthur, he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location (Padel 1994; Green 2007). One of the many contentious aspects of sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work or the Arthurian romances is the degree to which popular beliefs and oral tradition about a legendary hero contributed to the creation of a symbol of medieval kingship and courtly virtue. Geoffrey seems to have favored elements that allowed him to present Arthur as historical and realistic. He did, however, incorporate traditions about giants, such as the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, whom Arthur has to defeat. Encounters between heroes and giants are frequently localized at unusual landscape features, and heroes themselves are often depicted as gigantic, larger than life figures (Padel 1991; Grooms 1993: 79–110). The location of the narratives and the confrontations between giant and hero follow a traditional legendary pattern, but the relation between traditional and learned lore is never simple.”

In Part Five I want to look at Arthur the soldier and explore the various arguments as to whether he was a historical or mythical soldier.

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



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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Two


Arthur's Seat

If Arthur was, indeed, a 5th/6th century figure, subsequence stories, folktales, poems and especially topographic and onomastic sites named after him haven’t helped his historical case much. (Neither have Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Saints Lives, the Welsh Triads or the other Romantic Arthurian medieval writers). It is the earliest stories and poems (of the Welsh) and geographical sites (over 50 spread across Britain with the name association alone – ‘A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain’, Ashe, 1980,) that are used as part of the evidence against a historic Arthur … that and the lack of any contemporary or even near contemporary writer naming him.  But we should keep in mind that many of these sites are little understood … or even datable. It can very often be assumed that all these are extremely ancient when, in fact, we know many not to be. Scott Lloyd, in posts via Arthurnet, has explained how many of these sites may certainly post-date Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain) of the early 12th century and may be inspired by his work; he related how Arthur appears to have gone out of fashion in Wales during later Medieval times – apart fro being fleetingly referred to in a few poems – as well as the 17th/18th century (especially during the Civil War) and many an onomastic or topographical Arthurian site may date to even after this when Welsh nationalism and antiquarianism began to flourish. But it also cannot be denied that even by the 9th century, and possibly before, a mythical or folkloric Arthur existed. (For an excellent PDF gazetteer on these sites, by Thomas Green, go to, . This also gives a brief outline of Green’s arguments).

To quote Padel:

“What interests us, and is so impressive, is not the antiquity of any individual name, but the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas … The folklore may in some cases have been boosted by the literary developments … [but] it remained largely unaffected by the literary Arthurian cycle, and retained its character throughout the period.” (‘Nature of Arthur’, pp. 27 and 29-30. – from Green’s ‘A Gazetteer of Arthurian Onomastic and Topographic Folklore’.)

But it is also Arthur’s uniqueness in the amount of sites named after him and their dispersal that gives rise to questions, but he is not entirely alone. The only other ancient British figure to come close in the British Isles is the 6th century saint, Illtud (Illtyd), and even he pales into insignificance (Gidlow, 2010). But this may not be surprising given both Arthur’s later fame, especially in Wales and Cornwall and to a lesser degree Scotland, with everyone wanting to claim him, and the use of the name in the 6th to 8th centuries in what is now western Scotland and southwest Wales. It has become almost impossible to tell just which (or what kind of) Arthur these sites were named after.

From Man to Myth

There is a later historical figure who we might be able to compare him with (if Arthur was historical) and that is Oliver Cromwell. His named sites include: two Cromwell Hills (Bedfordshire and Essex), Cromwell’s Cutting (Devonshire), Oliver’s Battery (Hampshire), Cromwell’s Stone (Lancashire), Cromwell Tower (London), Cromwell Bridge (Lancashire), Oliver’s Mount (Yorkshire), Oliver’s Point (Shropshire). This from a man whom a great deal of the country hated and who fell out of favour after his death; yet still these sites remained. There’s even a Cromwell Street in Northampton that still believes in ‘Cromwell’s Curse’, almost 400 years after the event ( ). There are some who think the Cerne Abbas Giant is a parody of Cromwell, and not an ancient site. (Medieval writings making no reference to it –

So, imagine if there were only these sites and only a poem about Cromwell’s battles (7 major ones in all … a Biblical number). Then imagine what would be the case if he was seen in a more favourable light by all, or if his misdemeanours had been forgotten? Or if he had been a Dark Age figure? Would he too have been seen as a mythical giant who won battles in Britain and Ireland?

We also shouldn’t forget just how easy it used to be (and in some ways still is) to mythologize someone … and how quickly. Look what happened to William Wallace, Scottish hero and star of the film Braveheart. He was made into someone else by his very first writer, Blind Harry the Minstrel (although he wasn’t blind!) 172 years after Wallace’s death. He turned him, knowingly or not, from the son of a lord into the son of a farmer – from the son or Lord Alan Wallace to the son of a Malcolm Wallace, a much more Scottish name – missing out Bill’s spell as a thief. (Had an ancient document not recently have been found, we’d never have known this). Then, a couple of centuries later and he’s given a wife (no record of him having one) who is killed by the English, so he needs his revenge. Then they miss out his fellow commander at Falkirk (who died form his wounds) and turn Bill into the only hero, and a huge sword turns up to show he was a giant of a man … even though the sword was a 15th century one, made from three or four swords. Scotland needed a hero, and they chose Wallace to hang the legends off. Had he not been captured (by other Scot lords who saw him as a bit of an lowly upstart and not needed after he lost a battle) and killed the way he was by the English, he may never have become what he did. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great brave commander and charismatic man, but he wasn’t what he was made in to. (See, The Myth of William Wallace. A Study of the National Hero’s Impact on Scottish History, Literature and Modern Politics, Wallner, 2003).

The Welsh of the 9th century needed a hero too and chose the Briton, Arthur; who, like William Wallace, may not have been as great as he was turned in to … if he existed. It is interesting that he was chosen here, yet not for the 10th century poem Armes Prydein (more on that later). It could have been because they needed a far ranging hero (real or not) who was known not just as a Welsh warrior hero but a British one, that would appeal to those of the north and the south. A call to arms to unite, as they once (supposedly) had been in order to defeat the ‘Saxons’.

Back at the sites …

Even if these Arthurian onomastic and topographical sites are all based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, this in itself is unique. For example, you don’t get the same thing happening with Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) of Ireland, who some say is Arthur’s Irish mythical equivalent. Even the Giant’s Causeway in Ulster, which the giant Finn is said to be partially responsible for, doesn’t bear his name in Gaelic and is called Clochán na bhFórmorach: ‘stepping stones of the Fomorians’. His only named site (that I could find) is Cath Fionntragha (Battle of Fionn’s Strand), which is in Ventry, Co. Kerry. There are the mountains of Scurr a’ Fionn Choir on the Isle of Skye and Fionn Bheinn in the Highlands of Scotland but whether these relate to the mythical character or just mean ‘fair’ I couldn’t say. (More on Finn later). In fact, you don’t get any other mythical or historical figure having this effect on the landscape. (The nearest mythical figure to him would be the god Woden, and even he doesn’t appear to have as many! - my thanks to historian Jonathan Jarret for pointing Woden out in the comments below). The one other (adopted) British god figure whose name is found in a few places in Scotland (Lochmaben), Wales (Llanfabon, Rhiwabon) and his namesake in Cornwall (St Mabyn) is Mabon (‘Divine Son’), son of Modron (Divine Mother). She is the Gallo-Brittonic goddess Matrona and he Maponos; but at least he is known from two Roman inscriptions as Apollo Maponus from the Roman fort of CORSTOPITVM (Corbridge, Northumberland).

Yet even Mabon doesn’t get around as much as Arthur; but for all Arthur’s diverse locations, from Scotland to Cornwall and all points in between, no one has found an Arthur cult or inscription, of any kind. How can this be if he was the most famous mythical figure even when the Romans were in Britannia (as some argue)?  They could, of course, just not have been found yet, or he was folkloric and not mythical. If he was an ancient folk hero, as envisaged by Padel and Higham, then he’s not going to leave this kind of dedication. But his diverse geographical locations could be less (or not just) to do with a mythical/folkloric status and more to do with popularity.

If anyone does find a MARS ARTURVS (or the like) dedication it would answer a lot of questions. But would it necessarily follow that it would mean an Arthur of Badon didn’t exits? (More later).

In Part Three we’ll look in more detail at giants, giant killers and these Arthurian sites, and who might have been naming them? as well as a look at the ancient tale of a boar hunt.

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



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

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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