Posts Tagged ‘Professor Dorsey Armstrong’

A portrait of King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler. Probably not what he looked like at all.

So this is a bit outside my normal wheelhouse, but I decided to write a post about it because I’m all fired up about the subject (and really, isn’t that the reason we write anything anywhere?).

Recently, I’ve become very interested in King Arthur. Specifically, I wanted to know whether or not he was real, and how this whole story of him, Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, his sister/lover Morgan le Fay and his nephew/bastard son Mordred came to be. I mean, do we really believe a guy who didn’t know he was the bastard son of the previous king was taught by a magician, pulled a sword from a stone, had an idyllic kingdom stretching across Europe for a few years, only for it to be undone by his affair with his sister and his wife’s affair with one of his knights, to be gospel historical fact? I wanted to know the truth, and I wanted to know it as in-depth as possible.

This new obsession of mine started after one of the YouTube channels I follow, Overly Sarcastic Productions, produced a video about Arthur lore, and how that got built up over the past fifteen-hundred years (click here to watch the video, as well as here for their follow-up on some of Arthur’s lesser-known knights). These laid the groundwork for me to get interested in the subject, and to want to find out a bit more. From there, I downloaded a lecture¬† series from The Great Courses company (college level lecture series you can listen to while you work or drive. Definitely check them out, they’re very informative) on Arthur, narrated by Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University, and an expert on the subject of Arthuriana.

If you don’t have time to watch either video or to listen to Professor Armstrong’s lecture series (though you should at least spend a half hour on that first video), let me do my best to put it really simply: probably ninety-five percent of what you think you know about King Arthur is complete and utter fiction. There’s some evidence to suggest that during the late 5th and early 6th century, the invasion of the Saxons in England was stopped and in some places reversed, keeping the peace for a few generations, and that someone probably lead a war effort that caused that peace.

This figure was probably the basis of Arthur. The name Arthur, by the way, doesn’t appear until after this time period, but then becomes quite widespread among Bretons. This possibly means that the name “Arthur” wasn’t this figure’s real name, but maybe an acronym, abbreviation, or nickname based on a Celtic or Latin name. A number of figures listed in history annals from around or after that time have been pointed to as possibly the inspiration for Arthur, but documentation from that time is scarce, so no one really knows if any of these figures were Arthur or given that name as a title or nickname.

So, Arthur was possibly real. We’re not sure, because there’s only so much evidence. He could be as made up as Harry Potter, and was a folklore character adapted by the Bretons for their current predicament.

Pages from the Historia regum Britanniae, the first King Arthur bestseller ever written.

At the very least, the legend of Arthur cemented itself and grew over time. From a local warlord to king of all the Bretons, and then other elements started getting added on, such as Merlin, who was probably based on a mad bard who lived a couple of centuries after the Arthur figure. Eventually, a man by the name of Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote this huge book called Historia regum Brittaniae, a pseudo-history of Britain that dealt quite a bit with Arthur. It was spread across the European continent, where other writers from as far as Italy, Scandinavia, and Russia started adding their own spins on Arthur’s story and adding their own elements. These elements include Lancelot, who was the invention of a French writer, Excalibur and the Holy Grail, and Mordred being Arthur’s incestuous offspring. And as years passed, storytellers just kept adding elements and remixing the already-available tales until we have all the Arthur stories available today.

It’s like what might happen if, a thousand years from now, George Washington was known as Walsh; his historicity was debated; he was credited not only with defeating the British but conquering the entire continental United States; had Superman’s powers; and was taught by Mark Twain, who’s been combined with Nikola Tesla and has lightning powers.

Yeah, kind of crazy. Also a huge simplification, but it’s a blog post. What do you expect of me?

Like I said, anyone can add to the Arthur canon. Doesn’t mean it’ll be good.

Anyway, it’s just mind-blowing how great an influence one man who may or may not have existed and probably only ruled a small area of land if he did exist has had on Western society. Most likely, if you’ve lived anywhere English culture has reached, you’ve heard something about Arthur. You just probably never realized that there was so much debate around him or there’s no real canon about him, because so much about him is in flux from storyteller to storyteller.

It’s also very inspiring, in a way. You can write almost any sort of story about Arthur, and it can be considered part of the canon (whether or not it’s any good though, is left up to the storytellers and their audiences). The possibilities are kind of endless, as long as you keep an open mind. I’ve already had an idea for a short story involving the historical Arthur figure and the subsequent works written about him. I plan to write it at some point this year and then submit it to my publisher, Castrum Press, for one of their anthologies (they’re doing some anthologies, BTW. Check them out here if you’re interested. All are welcome to submit). Hopefully it gets accepted, and maybe some people will like it. We’ll see.

Whatever you know or believe about Arthur, it’s undeniable that he’s had an influence on the world. His legend is constantly growing, morphing, and mutating. And all from one man, a man we don’t even know if he was real or not. It’s definitely a mind-boggling, cool, and inspiring subject, and I’m so glad I decided to dive into it.

I hope, if anything, this post makes you curious enough to dive in too.

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