“Here lies Arthur, king who was, and king who will be.”
So reads the inscription on King Arthur’s gravestone in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Writing in the 15th century, Malory couldn’t have known how prophetic this inscription would turn out to be. King Arthur has risen again and again in our collective imagination, along with his retinue of knights, Guinevere, the Round Table, Camelot, and of course, Excalibur. But where do these stories come from, and is there any truth to them?
King Arthur as we know him is a creation of the later Middle Ages, but his legend actually has its roots in Celtic poetry from an earlier time: the Saxon invasions of Britain. After the Romans left Britain in 410 CE, Saxon invaders from what’s now Germany and Denmark quickly capitalized on the vulnerability of the abandoned territory. The inhabitants of Britain fought fiercely against the invaders through several centuries of turmoil. There are hardly any written records from this time, so it’s difficult to reconstruct an accurate history. However, surviving poetry from the era gives us some clues. One of the poems, The Gododdin, contains the very first reference to Arthur, though Arthur himself doesn’t actually appear in it. It says a different warrior, named Gwawrddur, was skilled at slaying his enemies, but was no Arthur. That’s not much to go on, but whoever this Arthur was, he must’ve been the gold standard of warriors. Whether he ruled anyone, or even lived at all is, unfortunately, less clear.
Despite this uncertainty, references to Arthur caught the attention of an aspiring historian hundreds of years later. In 1130, Geoffrey of Monmouth was a lowly cleric with grand ambitions. Using Celtic and Latin sources, he spent years creating a lengthy chronicle titled, "The History of the Kings of Britain." The centerpiece of this tome was King Arthur.
History is a generous term for Geoffrey’s account. Writing six hundred years after the Saxon invasions, he cobbled together fragments of myth and poetry to compensate for the almost complete lack of official records. A few of his sources contained mentions of Arthur, and some others were realistic accounts of battles and places. But many featured mythic heroes fighting long odds with the help of magical swords and sorcery. Geoffrey blended them all: A magical sword called Caledfwlch and a Roman fortress called Caerleon appeared in his source material, so Geoffrey’s Arthur ruled from Caerleon and wielded Caliburnus, the Latin translation of Caledfwlch. Geoffrey even added a wise counselor named Merlin, based on the Celtic bard Myrrdin, to Arthur’s story. If Arthur did live, he would likely have been a military leader, but a castle-bound king better fit Geoffrey’s regal history.
Geoffrey’s chronicle got the attention he’d hoped for, and was soon translated from Latin into French by the poet Wace around 1155 CE. Wace added another centerpiece of Arthurian lore to Geoffrey’s sword, castle, and wizard: the Round Table. He wrote that Arthur had the table constructed so that all guests in his court would be equally placed, and none could boast that he had the highest position at the table. After reading Wace’s translation, another French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, wrote a series of romances that catapulted Arthur’s story to fame. He introduced tales of individual knights like Lancelot and Gawain, and mixed elements of romance in with the adventures. He conceived Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere’s love triangle. In addition to interpersonal intrigue, he also introduced the Holy Grail. Chrétien probably based his Grail’s powers on magical objects in Celtic mythology. He lived in the middle of the Crusades, and others imposed the preoccupations of the time on the Grail, casting it as a powerful relic from the crucifixion.
Numerous adaptations in French and other languages followed from Chrétien’s work. In the course of these retellings, Caerleon became Camelot, and Caliburnus was rechristened Excalibur. In the 15th century, Sir Thomas Malory synthesized these stories in Le Morte D’arthur, the basis of many modern accounts of King Arthur.
In the thousand years since Arthur first appeared in a Celtic poem, his story has transformed over and over to reflect the concerns of his chroniclers and their audiences. And we’re still rewriting and adapting the legend today. Whether or not the man ever lived, loved, reigned, or adventured, it’s undeniable that the character has achieved immortality.