What makes the legends of King Arthur so popular? Why has the tale of an ancient Briton chieftain become a classic of literature? Because, besides having all the elements of a good tale: history, blood-and-guts battle scenes, romance, and chivalry, there is something for everyone. The Arthurian Legend as we know it today has been passed down through many historians and storytellers, and each has left their mark. The tale has been shaped by Welsh bards, Norman minstrels, British and French monks, and poets and historians through the ages. Each culture that has helped make the story of King Arthur the classic of literature it is today has a myth that resembles a facet of the Legend. The history of many cultures affects the story.
Perhaps the most influential contributor to the Arthurian Legend has been the Catholic Church. The first historical records of a real Arthur were kept by Welsh Monks. This record book was called the “Easter Annals,” or “Analles Cambriae.” These records were made during the years 447-957 A.D., and were used by the monks to calculate the date of Easter, comparing dates to their current events. The Easter Annals tell of the “Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were the victors.”(3) The only other mention of Arthur in these records was in AD 537: “The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut perished.” (3) The Christians of Britain in this time period were missionaries and monks attempting to gain followers for their faith. If the common people believed one of their heroes was of the Christian faith, it would make the missionaries’ job so much easier, because most people through the ages would follow the example of heroes they worshiped.
There were many miracles that occurred in the Legends of King Arthur. When Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, he performed a miracle. These miracles may have been added by the influence of Christianity. One of the requirements of becoming a Christian saint is that a person must perform miracles. However, Christianity probably was inspired by the popularity of men who committed supernatural actions. The King Arthur stories of today are saturated with pious Christianity. Arthur and his knights swear their oaths by the Virgin Mary, they are granted visions by Jesus Christ, and regularly encounter saints in the courses of their quests. The most famous Arthurian quest is the Quest for the Holy Grail, the cup supposed to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper, and to have held His blood and sweat. The Holy Grail was believed to have been brought to Britain in 63 A.D., by Joseph of Arimathea.
Joseph landed at a point in what is now England, where he founded Glastonbury Cathedral. The monks of Glastonbury later claimed to have the bones of Arthur and Guenivere, but most believers in the stories say that could not be true, as the wounded Arthur was taken to the Isle of Avalon. The Isle of Avalon was believed to be the island of Eternal Youth. It was here that Arthur was taken, to join the bodies of all his knights. There they would sleep until Britain needed them again. Most cultures have a mythical land like this; a place where one could live forever. The Irish believed in Tir na n’og, also called the Isle of Youth. Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer, discovered Florida while searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. The Briton hero, Bran, was said to have been sent, after he was killed, to a land where men lived forever.
Arthur was sent to Avalon until such future time as he would be needed by his country. A German tale of one of their famed monarchs, Frederick Barabossa (which means redbeard,) resembles the Arthurian story. The story claims that King Frederick sleeps in a tower guarded by ravens. He wakes up every hundred years. The year will come when he wakes up and there are no ravens flying above the tower. This will mean Germany needs him, and that he may wake again. These myths also resemble the concept of Oriental ancestor worship. Some oriental cultures believe that people’s ancestors are watching them from heaven. The spirits come and aid their descendents with the magical powers they have gained after dying.
The legendary Arthur gathered all the greatest knights in the land and gave them places at the great Round Table in his capital, Camelot. Because the table was round, all of the places at the table were equal and no knight could be counted higher in the king’s favor than any other. The circle has been seen throughout ancient times as a symbol of eternity and equality. The circle has no beginning and no end, thus represents one whole company with no distinction for favor. King Arthur endeavored to maintain the ideals of the Round Table forever.
King Arthur had a company of legendary men, the crème de la crème of Europe’s chivalric knights. Many historical kings attempted to surround themselves with a great assortment of highly professional. Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia, gathered many famed shipbuilders and naval men. Queen Elizabeth, and many kings of England and the British Empire, are examples of this practice. Most notable of these rulers was Alexander the Great. This renowned conqueror from remote Macedonia assembled a great force of foreign fighters and trained them into the elite company known as the Companions. Like Arthur’s knights, the Companions wielded long lances. With these lances they speared their enemies in the first charge. The Companions left these lances sticking in their dead foes, then they rode back to collect the weapons when the battle was over.
Many of the Arthurian quests had to do with magically endowed items. Magic weapons and relics were commonplace. The Holy Grail, Excalibur, and countless other swords, suits of armor, and magic rings were included. Innumerable myths of other cultures included magical objects. An article that can do wonderful things is compelling to any storyteller: myths and legends the world over include magical objects.
All of these components from many different cultures have come together to make King Arthur the classic hero he is today. Of all the legends of the world, this is perhaps one of the best known and loved.
Sorry, the bibliography was not included.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alairic Seruthsson is a young student interested in literature, history, and Fantasy. You can see some of his fiction at www.sffworld.com’s online fiction page; and his own fantasy-based homepage at www.geocities.com/area51/shire/7091
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Alairic Seruthsson, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.