— I am Arthur, King of the Britons.
— Who are the Britons?
— Well, we all are. We are all Britons, and I am your king.
— I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
There’s long been speculation as to whether King Arthur had any historical existence. (There’s also philosophical debate as to what would count as his having historical existence – i.e., how different the person – if any – at the root of the King Arthur legend would have to be from his legendary portrayal before it would no longer be appropriate to say that he was Arthur; but that’s another topic.)
Skeptics point to the absence of any unequivocal contemporary reference to Arthur from the period (5th-6th centuries) in which he is supposed to have been active. Those more favourably inclined argue that a historical Arthur responsible (as legend makes him) for the series of military campaigns that appear to have halted the Saxon incursion into Britain for over half a century would be the best explanation for the otherwise mysteriously high volume of Arthurian literature among later Britons nostalgic for the days when the Saxons could still be fended off; the absence of contemporary references is often handled by attempting to identify Arthur with some historical figure we do have references for. (Unfortunately, this second point tends to clash with the first, as many of the known candidates to be the historical Arthur are either too early or too late to connect with the halting of the Saxons.) To my mind, a great many unwarrantedly confident assertions have been made on both sides of this debate.
Now a recent book by Graham Anderson, King Arthur in Antiquity, mounts a challenge to defenders of an historical Arthur by arguing that the origins of the Arthurian legends lie not in early mediæval Britain but in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. (Amazon is asking $115 for it! I used interlibrary loan instead – mainly for what Anderson says about Gyges, on whom I’m doing some research. Yes, Anderson connects Gyges to the Arthurian legends too.) Anderson’s not the first scholar to broach such an idea, but he investigates a far greater range of parallels than others have done – parallels he suggests others have missed because few scholars are experts in both classical antiquity and the Arthurian material. In particular, Anderson identifies two figures of ancient legend who not only share features with Arthur but actually have similar names – the mythological Greek culture-hero Arcturus of Arcadia, and the probably-historical King Ardus of the Anatolian kingdom of Lydia. (You’ve got to love any book with a chapter titled “Six Arthurs in Search of a Character.”)
Is the book convincing? I think Anderson shows beyond a reasonable doubt that a great many features of Arthurian legend have their origins in antiquity, and scholars are going to be kicking themselves for missing these connections. But his case for identifying Arthur himself with the Arcturus/Ardus pair, thereby rejecting any possibility of a mediæval British origin, strikes me as somewhat weaker. While his list of parallels between Arthur and Arcturus/Ardus is initially impressive, on closer examination they seem quite a bit thinner than the parallels he uncovers between other parts of the Arthurian material (such as Tristan and Isolde, or the Grail legend) and their classical analogues. In some cases the parallels even seem to involve double counting: the fact that both Arthur and Arcturus are associated with the constellation of the Great Bear, for example, is treated as a separate, independent parallel alongside the fact that Arthur and Arcturus have similar names; but given that both names are etymologically connected with words for “bear” (Celtic arthos, Greek arktos, Latin arctus), it’s not obvious that the sidereal connection demands further explanation.
“Can it really be due to coincidence,” Anderson asks incredulously, “that an Arkas renamed Arktouros will found a place called ‘Table’ [i.e., Trapezous]?” (p. 126) Well, I don’t know. The city of Mesa (which likewise means “table”) in Arizona was founded by Mormon pioneer Daniel Webster Jones, who also conducted an arduous expedition to Devil’s Gate, Wyoming, to rescue some stranded travellers, just as Arthur according to Welsh legend conducted an arduous expedition to the realm of the Lord of the Underworld to obtain a version of the Grail. Furthermore, while crossing the Utah desert, Jones accidentally shot himself in the thigh and groin, thus linking him with the Arthurian keeper of the Grail, the Fisher-King, likewise wounded in thigh and groin, and like Jones inhabiting a Waste Land. Jones fought in border disputes with Mexicans, and Arthur with Picts and Saxons; Jones learned Mormonism from an older man named Morley who had once lived in a Campellite commune, while Arthur learned mystical secrets from an older man named Merlin who sometimes lived at Camelot; Jones’s commission to found Mesa came from Salt Lake City, while Arthur’s position at the Round Table was based on a sword drawn from a Lake; “Jones” is a Welsh name, and so is “Arthur”; Jones married a woman whose name (“Harriet”) means “powerful ruler,” while Arthur’s wife Guinevere was a queen, and so herself a powerful ruler; Jones’s Mormon fellowship met at the house of a family named Campbell (and thus, one might say, at the Campbell lot), while Arthur’s fellowship of knights met at Camelot; and Jones’ granddaughter Fay Wray played a woman kidnapped by a giant ape with the alliterative name of King Kong, while Arthur’s son Gwydre (whose name shares a number of letters with “Wray”) was slain by a giant boar with the alliterative name of Twrch Trwyth. Finally, Arthur’s court had the Siege Perilous, a chair that posed a deadly danger to anyone rash enough to sit in it, while Jones in his memoirs relates that he once sat on a cactus. If only Jones had lived a few millennia earlier, Anderson would surely have to count him as being as serious a candidate for ur-Arthur as his own preferred Ardus and Arcturus. In other words: it pays to be cautious, because bogus parallels are often very easy to come by. (All that information about Jones, for example, I discovered online today just by looking up who’d founded Mesa AZ; I didn’t know there’d be quite so many parallels, but I figured that there’d be a few – since I’ve learned from experience that if you try to find apparently systematic parallels between two bodies of information chosen at random, you will succeed.)
And even if the parallels are not coincidental, it’s always possible that the similarity in names caused a real Arthur to attract an existing body of Arcturus/Ardus material to him, rather than the latter generating a fictional Arthur; so Anderson’s hypothesis doesn’t really displace the other one. Thus the standoff doesn’t seem significantly altered: Anderson’s hypothesis offers no answer to the old puzzle of why there’s a sudden explosion of interest in Arthur in early mediæval Britain; how does a millennia-old body of Greek and Anatolian folktales about a relatively minor composite figure abruptly rocket itself into the position of the national epic of the Britons? On the other hand, those who favour an historical Arthur still face the old challenge of explaining the absence of contemporary references. The status quo ante reigns.
Actually, Anderson is not uniformly hostile to the possibility of a mediæval British Arthur; at one point (p. 127) he grants that “any struggling Dark Age warlord who did not think seriously of taking the name and identity of Arthur was missing out on an opportunity to annex a wealth of heroic tradition already established round the name, both through its Arcadian and Lydian bearers.” Most of the time, though, he writes as though the moral of his research is to stop looking for Arthur-candidates in 5th-6th century Britain. My point is that no such moral follows.
Indeed, I think the fact that Arcturus and Ardus were powerful kings, though Anderson takes this as one more parallel, actually weakens the case for regarding them as the source of the Arthur legend – for the earliest British references to Arthur don’t describe him as a king at all. Instead he is described as an especially effective general. The Welsh poem Y Gododdin, describing the prowess of a warrior named Gwawrddur, tells us:
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
though he was no Arthur
while Nennius (or whoever wrote the Historia Brittonum) writes:
Arthur along with the kings [or chieftains] of Britain fought against [the Saxons] in those days, but Arthur himself was the dux bellorum [“battle leader”].
This last passage suggests that Arthur was either no king at all, or at best one king among many; his importance clearly lay with his military prowess, not with his kingship if any.
It was by no means unusual for Celtic tribes to unite under a single military leader in order to fend off invaders, without thereby granting that leader any supremacy over their own chieftains in affairs off the battlefield; think of the anti-Roman uprisings led by Vercingetorix in Gaul, or Boudicca and Caratacus in Britain. Of course these “battle leaders” might well have been interested in trying to parlay their military position into some broader form of authority (Vercingetorix, for one, seems to have had such ambitions), but the former didn’t automatically imply the latter. The fact that the British Arthur was conceived first as a general and only later as a king casts doubt, for me, on the hypothesis that he was based on the mighty kings Arcturus and Ardus.
I think there are a couple of further indications that the British Arthur was not originally conceived as being much of a king. First, there’s Arthur’s identification as the leader of the knights of the Round Table. The traditional explanation as to why the table is round is that at a standard rectangular table, those nearest the head of the table have social precedence over those farther down; according to the traditional accounts (e.g., Wace and Layamon), Arthur adopted a round table so as to give everyone equal status, thus putting an end to jealousy, dissension, and jockeying for position at the table.
What I’ve oddly never seen anyone point out (though somebody surely must have) is that this reason for choosing a round table makes no sense whatsoever on the traditional assumption that the people seated at the table are a supreme monarch and his vassals – for in that case, wherever the king is seated will automatically be the head of the table whatever its shape, and seats closer to the king will have social precedence over those farther from him. One could avoid this if the king were seated at the center of the table; and indeed Celtic chieftains did sometimes sit in the center of a circle of their warriors, precisely to avoid this sort of competitiveness. But I know of no Arthurian source that depicts Arthur as sitting at the center (unless this counts). So if Arthur really held sovereign authority over the other people at the table, its round shape would be pointless. But on the other hand, the round table makes perfect sense if Arthur is on the same social level as the others – primus inter pares, perhaps, but still one chieftain among others, not a High King with his knights. The explanation given for the table’s shape thus strongly implies that the story originates in a period when Arthur was regarded merely as the others’ dux bellorum, not as their royal sovereign. And that means that the status of Arcturus and Ardus as powerful overlords actually lowers the likelihood of their being the origin of the Arthur story rather than raising it.
We can speculate a bit further. Gildas (in De Excidio Britanniæ, one of our very oldest sources) tells us that in response to the Pictish invasions, the Britons assembled a council, led by Vortigern, to decide how to respond. (This was the council that made the mistake of hiring Saxon mercenaries to deal with the Picts, rather like the old woman who swallowed the spider to catch the fly.) Gildas also complains that kings were chosen for their cruelty, and were swiftly replaced as soon as someone more cruel came along; the most important point here, for our purposes, is that kings were chosen – the “monarchy,” then, was perhaps elective, not hereditary. Putting these two pieces of information together, we might well see Vortigern’s “council” as a version of the Round Table, an assembly of chieftains united to deal with an invasion, and Vortigern himself as merely one among their number chosen as dux bellorum. It’s often been suggested that “Vortigern” is a title rather than a name; it means something like “foremost leader” (I think the more usual translation, “High King,” may be a bit overblown), as do other purported names from the Arthurian era, such as “Riothamos” and “Pendragon” – perhaps all synonyms for dux bellorum.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniæ (admittedly a later and less reliable source than Gildas) tells us of one Bishop Guithelin (elsewhere called Vitalinus) who was “appointed by the princes” to lead the fighting men of Britain against a variety of northern invaders; clearly we have here another dux bellorum. But it has sometimes been suggested that we may actually have here the same dux bellorum as Vortigern; at any rate, both are described as doing very similar things, including bringing in foreign mercenaries, and Guithelin conveniently vanishes from the story just as Vortigern comes on the scene. Perhaps Geoffrey mistook the title “Vortigern” for a name, and so erroneously concluded that Guithelin/Vitalinus and Vortigern were two different people. (The Historia Brittonum does mention a “Guitolinus” in Vortigern’s ancestry.) If Guithelin and Vortigern were indeed the same person, that not only supports the idea that “Vortigern” is a title, but also allows us to identify Vortigern’s “council” with Guithelin’s “princes” – reinforcing the idea of an assembly of chieftains rather than one of vassals.
Against the idea of “Vortigern” as a title, it’s been argued that a) it would wrongly imply that he was supreme overlord over the other chieftains, a position no one actually held in this era; b) we don’t find the title otherwise attested, and c) there are lots of Celtic names ending in -tigern (ruler, leader, chief, king) that didn’t belong to rulers or political leaders. I think (a) is a bad argument; it assumes that “Vortigern” (and perhaps likewise its cousins “Riothamos” and “Pendragon”) has to be translated as “High King” or even “Emperor,” rather than something more like “foremost leader” or “president.” But (b) and (c) are better arguments; and I’m certainly not committed to regarding “Vortigern” as a title. Still, (b) and (c) don’t seem decisive. Those who deny that “Vortigern” is a title rather than a name are nevertheless usually willing to regard “Riothamos” as a title, though it too is attested only for one person (unlike “Pendragon,” which has been attached to three figures), and so would seem to be equally vulnerable to (b). Titles might have been fairly flexible (analogously, it took a while for the title of “Emperor” to get stably attached to the Roman office that Augustus inaugurated). In any case, if Vortigern was indeed widely blamed for abetting the Saxon incursion, his particular title might have come to be regarded as tainted, and so rejected in favour of a synonym. As for (c), there are at least two reasons for thinking that “Vortigern” might be a title even if other -tigern words aren’t: first, Vortigern actually held the relevant office while these other -tigern people didn’t, and second, if Vortigern and Guithelin really are the same person, then Vortigern had a name that wasn’t “Vortigern,” which makes it less likely that “Vortigern” was his name too.
My second reason for doubting that Arthur was anything more than dux bellorum in the earliest versions of the legends derives from the odd story of his parentage, wherein a) Uther Pendragon, with the help of Merlin’s enchantments, disguises himself as Gorlois in order to have sex with Gorlois’s wife Ygraine, thus siring Arthur; b) Gorlois conveniently dies the same night, so that Uther is able to marry Ygraine after all; and c) Arthur is nevertheless raised not by Uther and Ygraine but by Ector, and grows up ignorant of his relationship to Uther. To me all this feels like a desperate attempt on the part of the storytellers to reconcile incompatible stories of Arthur’s parentage so as to give him the right heritage. This would all make perfect sense if we assume that the storytellers have mistaken the title of “Pendragon” (an epithet applied to Uther, to Arthur, and in some accounts to Ambrosius Aurelianus as well) for a hereditary kingship rather than something more like an elective dux bellorum. Suppose that in the earliest versions (now lost) of the story, Arthur has no blood relationship to Uther, but succeeds him in the post of Pendragon only because both were chosen for it by the council of the Round Table. (Some versions of the legend do have Arthur inheriting the Round Table itself from Uther.) In that case, later storytellers would be faced with the task of reconciling evidence that Arthur was the son of Uther (that evidence being Arthur’s succeeding Uther as “Pendragon,” here misunderstood as a hereditary title) with evidence that he was someone else’s son entirely; the tale of Uther’s deception of Ygraine and the tale of Arthur’s fosterage with Ector may well have originally been different strategies for achieving such reconciliation. If I’m right, that would mean that Arthur’s status as a hereditary monarch was a relatively late addition to the legend, still further weakening the Arcturus/Ardus connection. Moreover, since the sword in the stone was supposed to be a test of Pendragon parentage like the similar story about Theseus, this too would have to be a later accretion to the Arthur story – telling against Anderson’s argument that the parallel between the two sword stories means the Theseus legend is among the origins of the Arthur legend itself and not just of the sword part.
Note that I’m not arguing that the Arthur legend originates in some actual 5th-6th century dux bellorum; after all, nothing I’ve said weakens the main argument for skepticism, namely the absence (apart from the enigmatic “Artognou” inscription at Tintagel) of any known historical figure with whom Arthur can plausibly be identified. Some have suggested Riothamos for that role, but Riothamos actually seems to me to match either Ambrosius or Uther – possible doublets of each other in any case – better than Arthur; both the time period and the Continental connections fit more easily. The ideal timeslot for an historical Arthur, in order to match the traditional account, would be in the period just a bit later than the era of the historically attested Vortigern, Aurelius, and Riothamos; and it would be easy enough to insert him there without contradicting the historical evidence, because our evidence for that period is quite a bit thinner than for the preceding one. But this seems a bit like an “Arthur of the Gaps” approach, which is no more respectable than its theological cousin.
So I remain agnostic on the question of Arthur’s historicity. What I am arguing is that since the classical material to which Anderson has drawn our attention seems to have its influence mainly on later phases of the legend and not so much on its origin, Anderson’s findings do not license any additional skepticism about a historical Arthur over and above whatever amount was justified already.
See also this.