Where better to draw inspiration than one of the most enigmatic and charismatic personalities in history?
The legendary character of King Arthur makes very little sense. If we have a look at the most plausible explanation for who Arthur was, then things fall more neatly into place. This does not rob his legend of its magic. In fact, more lustre is added by the truth than the fiction.
A medieval fairy tale
The first legends of Arthur were scrawled down in the 12th century by a Welsh priest, Geoffrey of Monmouth. His birthplace and time of writing are highly significant. The author penned his History of the Kings of Britain less than 100 years after the Battle of Hastings.
Geoffrey was a Welsh monk, living in the part of the British Isles to which the Celts (Britons) fled during the Anglo-Saxon incursions. These were migrations, inter-marriages and invasions of Germanic warrior societies from the European mainland, capitalising on the retreat of Rome’s legions from British shores.
His King Arthur is a Briton king who fights against the Anglo-Saxons. This version of the legend draws on the recent Norman invasion, while portraying the Anglo-Saxons as the villains. It is also a very Christian interpretation. Arthur is a king, anointed by God.
This is where the problems begin.
Stealing Arthur’s crown
If our bent-backed cleric Geoffrey had written Arthur without the crown, it would have been an invitation for every Saxon baron and chief in the British Isles to rise up against his Norman oppressors. Such a man would have styled himself the ‘new Arthur’ and sought to inspire the population to revolt.
Medieval kings ruled by divine right, not to be challenged by God-fearing men (as most were). Removing Arthur’s crown would turn a prototype Norman monarch into an early Robin Hood.
There were several English kings in the Dark Ages with names similar to Arthur, but none match the legends told. How could one king of one kingdom fight twelve epic battles across the British Isles?
Until the 10th century, there was no single England. Arthur would have been marching an army through other kings’ backyards, to fight their enemies. This would require exceptional generosity on the part of Arthur, other British kings and his enemies (who were gracious enough not to attack his kingdom while he traipsed across the realm).
The key to unlock this mystery is found in Arthur’s name. “Arthur” is an enigma probably meaning “bear-man”, a tough guy. But his surname “Pendragon” is simpler to translate and has nothing to do with scaly, fire-breathing authors. It means “chief war-leader”.
This suggests Arthur “War-chief” was more like a Dark Ages paramilitary figure. He would have travelled across the British Isles, fighting Pict and Saxon, with a band of kindred warriors.
Their arrival was an inspirational sign of hope which galvanised local Briton leaders and communities to resist external threats. Arthur and his companions’ experience in warfare allowed them to pit local militia-type forces against professional warriors.
Lie of the land
Why and how did Arthur do this? Suppose he was riding across the realm, going wherever the need was greatest. How did he feed his men and what motivated him? It might have been ideological inspiration, like Che Guevara, or some personal grievance feeding revenge. But there is another answer in how post-Roman life worked.
Like many of the British Isles’ other inhabitants, you live in a small rural community. Your life is hard but rewarding, and you feel a spiritual connection with the gods in the landscape around you. One pressing concern is strangers who arrive by ship or road, intent on stealing your wealth and enslaving your family.
Every such village has an open-door policy towards guests (and a spear-point policy for intruders). If a band of friendly warriors ride by, you offer them a place to sleep and a share of your food. In return, you ask them to tell you exciting tales of their travels and all-important news from the wider world.
If the famed hero and protector of Britons, Arthur, was among them you might offer a portion of your best crops and even feast him with precious meat. Arthur could also rely on foraging on the road and plunder from defeated enemies.
A highly mobile force of battle experts could make a name and a living for themselves in post-Roman Britain.
Light in the darkness
Why does Arthur stand out from other Dark Ages heroes? What makes him special, but difficult for historians to accept as a true historical person?
The answer lies in the name of the period he inhabited, the Dark Ages. This image, which also appears above, is the perfect illustration of how we traditionally view the post-Roman era:
Darkness, decay, blood and iron. This was a time of warfare, barbarism and cultural regression. Gone was the splendour, democracy and intelligence of Rome. We leave the age of marble and gold, enter a period of pagan warlords and miserable peasants sharing wooden hovels with pigs.
Was it as dark as that?
The same artefact, with the forgetfulness of time polished away. Our author Geoffrey could not allow for a hero who was not a king, a Christian and possessing noble character. This makes Arthur stand out in an age of darkness.
It is likely that Arthur was a savage, brutal man. How else could he defeat hardened Saxon swordsmen? Julius Caesar was even more ruthless, if his efforts won him mastership of Rome. William I and his Norman knights must have been bloodthirsty tyrants to crush an Anglo-Saxon kingdom which even the fierce Vikings could not break.
Arthur was a savage warrior, protecting a rich Briton culture of equal value to Rome’s marble and gold. This was a dark man for dark times, but much more.
When he walked through a forest he would have heard whisperings of ancient knowledge passing between the boughs swaying overhead. Sitting beside a rushing stream, his ears would catch the slither of a dragon’s scales as it crawled through the meadows. The long Roman roads, already being reclaimed by weeds, grass and saplings, would have shrieked with spirits of the dead hacked from sleep by legionaries’ picks.
This Arthur “War-chief” was forged to the landscape by a faith in the mystical power it held beyond his sight, more real than any King Arthur of Geoffrey’s creation. Sometimes, the reality does outshine the legend.