Did King Arthur Exist

If the name of King Arthur is mentioned, I suppose what comes to mind is not
so much one person as a whole array of characters and themes, a montage so to
speak. Of course we do think first of the King, the magnificent monarch of a
glorified or idealized medieval realm. But we think also of his Queen, of the
fair and wayward Guinevere, we think of his enchanter, Merlin, who presided over
his birth, who set him on the throne, who established him there in the early and
traveled days of his reign. There were the knights of the Round Table, vowed to
the highest ideals of chivalry, and the greatest of them, Sir Lancelot, who, of
course, has a tragic love affair with the Queen. There is another great love
story, that of Tristan and Isolde, the theme of Wagner\'s Opera. We think of the
place where these people assembled, Camelot, Arthur\'s magnificent, personal
castle and capital and then, there are stranger things; the story of the quest
for the Holy Grail, giving a spiritual dimension to the whole story and there is
magic. Not only the magic of Merlin but the magic also of his strange, ambiguous
student, the women, the enchantress, Morgan LaFay. And at the end is the tragedy
of Arthur\'s downfall, his passing away at the isle of Avalon and another mystery
that we do not know what really happened to him that he was said to be immortal,
that one day he would return and restore the golden age in his country. I
suppose, the version we know best is the one that was composed in the 15th
century. This is the great English version of the story, compiled out of earlier
versions by the creative genius of a rather mysterious and cryptic figure, the
knight, Sir Thomas Malory. But the story doesn\'t end there. The whole thing
revives in the time of Queen Victoria, with Tennyson\'s "Idylls of the
King." As a result of this great work on the Arthurian Cycle by England\'s
Poet Laureate, the story became known to everybody. Other poems, novels and
plays in our own time, and almost a rebirth of it yet again in T. H. White\'s
novels, "The Sword and the Stone" and "The Once and Future
King" and other plays and musicals and films based on these works. There
are Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Stewart, Marian Bradley, Pat Godwin and others, who
have gone off on another line and tried to imagine the Britain of King Arthur as
it might really have been. What I have personally been most concerned with is
the background of all this, and the question, "where did it come from
originally?" It\'s a very obvious thing to ask the straight question,
"did King Arthur exist?" And in fact you cannot give a straight answer
to that question; yes and no are both wrong. There were other great historical
figures who became the heros of medieval legends, such as Alexander the Great
and Charlemagne. We know that they existed and if somebody asks whether they
did, we can say "yes" directly because we have reliable, historical
records of them. But with Arthur, it is rather more difficult because the
emphasis really is all on the legend, the romance. If we say "yes,"
that would imply that this magnificent medieval monarch existed and reigned, at
some time or other, in his glorified medieval court as described as by Malory,
Tennyson and the romances. Of course, he didn\'t. There is no such person as King
Arthur, in that sense; it\'s quite an impossible idea. So we cannot say
"yes," directly, but to say "no" is also misleading because
that implies that he is completely fictitious, that he was all made up in the
middle ages when these stories were first told, and that there is no sort of
background or original person behind the stories, at all. That, too, is
misleading. This is a puzzle, a very difficult question. The main reason is that
writers of fiction in the middle ages, when they were dealing with something
handed down to them from a distant past, didn\'t approach it as a modern
historical novelist does. Historical novelists, nowadays, will aim at
authenticity. They will try to get things right and will do research to discover
how people dressed in the time they are writing of, what houses they lived in,
what food they took, what interests they had, what kind of business or work they
engaged in. . .they will try to get the period right. Medieval authors did