The Who, What, Where and Why of King Arthur is a convoluted tale but I will attempt to break it down to the basics.
“King Arthur” is billed as the King of ancient Albion* and Arthur, supposedly, fought the Anglo-Saxon invaders. There are legends of him as a man, leader and fantastical creature which have filtered down to us today. These follow two strands: the man, and the giant.
For those interested in Etymology, the true meaning of ‘Arthur’ is unknown but there have been some estimations:
The Celtic ‘artos’ means ‘bear’, ‘viros’ is ‘man’ and ‘rigos’, ‘king’. There is also an uncommon Roman surname ‘Artorius’ in the running. In addition, the old Welsh ‘gwr’ means ‘hero’, which could be combined with the Celtic ‘Artos’.
Whatever the origins, Arthur is now a reasonably common name. If even some of the predicted origins are correct, it also has an amazing meaning! ‘Bear hero’, ‘bear king’…or he could be a wayward descendent of the Romans (not quite so interesting).
In the Cotswolds, I grew up with tales that Arthur was buried within a hill in the countryside, ready to rise to England’s defence, should we face attack again. The question is, where would that attack be coming from? What species would be coming at Britain, swords out?
The meaning of Arthur which carries most weight with me, lies in the concept of Arthur as a hero, battling ferocious beasts.
Now, why would I say that?
*(the name for England and Scotland before the Romans changed it to Britannia and eventually it became Britain / The United Kingdom).
Arthur: The King?
Is King Arthur really a King? Or, is Arthur a fixture in British folklore? Historians have argued it and said there is no definitive proof he was a King, especially as he was not listed in any known Kings lists of the time and had no direct contemporary mention under his name. In fact, the monk Gildas in The Ruin and Conquest of Britain gave a different person’s name as Briton’s leader: Ambrosius Aurelianus.
This man shares many similarities with the commonly told tale of Arthur, fighting in and winning a big battle against the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th Century. However, it is a quantum leap from Arthur to Ambrosius, even if spelling conventions back then were a little ropey.
There is no mention of Arthur’s court, round table, Merlin or Guinevere in some of the oldest tales. Instead, we have something quite different.
Snippets allude to a soldier with no parallel. For example, in ‘Y Goddin’, Arthur is referred to indirectly, with warriors being described as good but ‘no Arthur’.
It is generally accepted that Geoffrey of Monmouth (in the 12th Century), concocted the tale of King Arthur because the Celts needed a hero (and he was probably bored) but, this is not an end to the folklore and the magic.
Arthur: The Giant?
On looking into historical references to Arthur, a representation is found that does not portray him as King. Instead, he is a folkloric, heroic leader. In these descriptions, he’s a figure far more on the edge of society than a regal representative.
He is described as 'the leader of a band of heroes who live outside society, whose main world is one of magical animals, giants, and other wonderful happenings, located in the wild parts of the landscape'.
(By very definition, I do not think a King – at least, a good one with actual followers – could live outside society).
Or, even more fantastically, as:
‘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)’
Who wouldn’t want to know this guy? He’d sure as anything be less likely to snub you than a King would.
To me, this is far more interesting than the dry tale of yet another King. Fantasy and legend has had its share of Kings, Queens, bastards of a prince once removed, and so on. History is far more interesting when it has a unique twist.
A suggestion of a world still populated with fantastical, magical animals and creatures, gives me the space to imagine a Britain of the Dark Ages where Science was not yet real and magic and superstition still had their foundations in society. One could even imagine, perhaps, that these things were real, an age ago.
Yes, I’m aware this is out of ‘strict’ order, but it’s more interesting this way, promise.
So, Arthur is on the scene with otherworldly creatures, battling in the defence of Briton. Why?
Well, folklore suggests Arthur and his relatives were themselves giants, or could at least alter their height. So, they’d fit right in! Who better to fight a supernatural hoard than a friendly giant? (Cue B.F.G. anyone? Ah – the memories.)
Even the equivalent of Guinevere in the older tales, Gwenhwyfar, has magical leanings. There was a popular folk tune in Wales:
Gwenhwyfar ferch Ogrfan Gawr
Drwg yn fechan, gwaeth yn fawr.
"Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Ogrfan Gawr,
Bad when little, worse when great."
(Now, this one reminds me of the hulk!)
Arthur’s resting place is a tricky subject. He was here, then there, then somewhere else again. Some claims were likely for monetary gain, others had false information and some, admittedly, have a certain Romance. The TLDR version is that no one can agree. So, until he pops up out the ground, he’ll keep us guessing!
I love history, especially when there is an aspect of the unknown and the paranormal, two of my very favourite subjects. I love to think we as a race don’t know everything and that there is a possibility the magical still exists, somewhere we’ve not found/seen it yet. I, for one, refuse to kill a fairy. It is, after all, impossible to disprove a negative and there is still so much to be discovered.
I did a lot of research on this topic a while back, when laying the foundations for my fantasy-crime novel While I Slept, which has since turned into ‘The Riftkeeper Series’, based around what would happen if Arthur (a fantasy soldier rather than a King) awoke in the modern day and all the supernatural creatures of his time re-entered our lives simultaneously. In short: few good things.
Sources, Sites and Further Reading
Early Mentions in History
The Man-giant and Gwenhwyfar
Etymology of the name
Images (from top to bottom):
Images 1 and 2 are listed under the CC 2.0 no deriv license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/) and are courtesy of Hartwig HKD
Images 3 and 4 are listed under the CC 2.0 generic license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/) and are courtesy of danijela dannie and francois schnell, respectively.