King Arthur is the figure at the heart of the Arthurian legends. He is said to be the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall. Arthur is a near mythic figure in Celtic stories such as Culhwchand Olwen. In early Latin chronicles he is presented as a military leader, the dux bellorum. In later romance he is presented as a king and emperor.
One of the questions that has occupied those interested in King Arthur is whether or not he is a historical figure. The debate has
|The Enthroned Arthur, from Lancelot du Lac (French, early fourteenth century)|
If there is a historical basis to the character, it is clear that he would have gained fame as a warrior battling the Germanic invaders of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Since there is no conclusive evidence for or against Arthur's historicity, the debate will continue. But what can not be denied is the influence of the figure of Arthur on literature, art, music, and society from the Middle Ages to the present. Though there have been numerous historical novels that try to put Arthur into a sixth-century setting, it is the legendary figure of the late Middle Ages who has most captured the imagination.
It is such a figure, the designer of an order of the best knights in the world, that figures in the major versions of the legend from Malory to Tennyson to T. H. White. Central to the myth is the downfall of Arthur's kingdom. It is undermined in the chronicle tradition by the treachery of Mordred. In the romance tradition that treachery is made possible because of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere.
© The Camelot Project, The University of Rochester