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King Arthur Legends - The Authors

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Sources for the Legend of Arthur and His Court Most of us have grown up with the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. We think we know this story that has been made into countless books, movies, and TV series. Yet, there is disagreement about many of the elements and characters of this iconic story of love, betrayal, war, peace, and magic.

Most of what we now think of as “the story” was written centuries after any historical Arthur would have existed. In fact, we really do not know if there was a single man named Arthur who did any of the deeds immortalized in “the story.”

What do we know about Arthur? When was it written? Who wrote it? How can we be assured of its accuracy or inaccuracy? If you are looking for a possible historical Arthur you must go back to the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. Starting around 800 AD with the writings of Nennius we start to see myth being intermingled with possible facts. After that, the major sources that form the basis of the story we know are all embellished and much changed from the early sources. In fact, there is not even consensus on when Arthur may have lived if he ever really existed.

Below is a list of sources with a few notes. The time period indicated will be the earliest, the one most often ascribed to it, and the latest time period ascribed to it. Worldcat.org a comprehensive library resource shows 57,856 entries for King Arthur. We have selected all the early sources (800 and before we could find), the classic ones like Monmouth, Tennyson et al, and a selected few contemporary sources with something specific we felt had a different view.

This page will cover the authors who have added to the Legends, when they lived, what they added, and a link if they have a WT profile:

  • Annals of Ulster compiled in 15th Century from oral and written traditions starting in 461 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annals_of_Ulster The Annals are said to have been copied verbatim from the sources so are a boon to historians and linguists alike.
http://celt.ucc.ie/published/T100001A/text037.html English translation of text:
"Year U467 Kalends of January, first feria, tenth of the moon. AD 467. U467.3
Death of Uter (no h in text) Pendragon, king of England, to whom succeeded his son, King Arthur, who instituted the Round Table." If this is from source in 467 it points to Arthur being a real person.
  • Gildas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gildas best known for De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, history of Britain, the only widely accepted source for history of the post-Roman period written by a near-contemporary. Does not mention Arthur by name. He takes the Britons to task, while praising Roman style heroes such as Ambrosius Aurelianus https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Aurelian , whom he identifies as a leader of the resistance to the Saxons. He mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) , which in later texts is attributed to Arthur. One of the earliest sources written between 490 and 550. He does make mention of a battle leader with the tltle of Bear which could be a reference to Arthur.
“He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
"Though he was no Arthur
Among the powerful ones in battle
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade”
Compares a celebrated hero to Arthur mentioning Arthur by name and stating the hero was not as valiant as Arthur. Some consider this to be the earliest mention of Arthur. The date of Y Gododdin has been debated by scholars since the early 19th century. Some believe some stanzas were added later. In the Historia Brittonum, attributed to Nennius, there is a reference to several poets in this area during the 6th century. Written befrore 638 up to 700s. Copies made in 11th Century with some possible additions.
  • Historia Brittonum by Nennius https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nennius and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historia_Brittonum Indicates Arthur fought alongside the British Kings but was the “dux bellorum”. Does not say Arthur is a King or indicate Arthur was not a king. It suggests Arthur had some kind of Roman position or title giving him some kind of power over the local rulers. He is writing about the year 800. He lists 12 battles Arthur was supposed to fight in. Many consider this to be the first source of the Arthurian Legend. Because this was written at a minimum 200 years later and possibly 400 or more years later, there is a lot of time for myth and legend to comingle. Many historians view Nennius with some skepticism. (see BBC source at end of list for more on accuracy of Nennius)
Organized by year; the earliest dated at 60 BC (the annals' date for Caesar's invasions of Britain), and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Written in 9th Century in Old English. Many copies made and dispersed throughout England each being updated independently. 1154 is latest update known. Written from perspective of the invaders. 9 Surviving manuscripts are known about. Arthur is not mentioned nor is the final battle.
  • Annales Cambriae (Latin for The Annals of Wales) 4 manuscript versions of Annales Cambriae exist. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annales_Cambriae. 2 entries for Arthur, one for Mordred and one for Merlin. Of these, Arthur and Mordred appears in A: London, British Library, MS. Harleian 3859, folios 190r-193r. A is written in a hand of about 1100x1130 AD. Merlin appears in B and C. B was written, probably at the Cistercian abbey of Neath, at the end of the 13th century. It is entitled Annales ab orbe condito adusque A. D. mcclxxxvi (1286). C is part of a book written at St David's, and is entitled Annales ab orbe condito adusque A. D. mcclxxviii (1278) this is also of the late 13th century. Chronicle covering Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and England compiled most likely in mid 10th century from diverse sources. Some view these as historical text while others as Celtic stories or legends. Different parts appear as written in different centuries.
  • Mabinogion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabinogion Britain’s earliest collection of prose stories compiled from earlier oral traditional stories. Arthur in these is far different than Arthur in Malmesbury or later works. This work indicates Arthur was alive after the Battle of Camlann https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Camlann. Sections written most likely between 1060 and 1200. Five stories concern the legend of Arthur and his knights. The setting for Culhwych and Olwen is Arthur’s Court and includes a list of his knights. The Dream of Rhonabwy, tells a story involving Arthur and his knights, fairy heroes and Celtic warriors. The Lady of the Fountain, Geraint the Son of Erbin and Peredur the Son of Evrawc, are mainly concerned with quests and adventures of Arthur’s knights. The latter includes one of the earliest references to the Grail legend.
  • William of Malmesbury (Latin: Willelmus Malmesbiriensis; c. 1095 – c. 1143). Ranked as foremost English historian of the 12th century and among the most talented English historians since Bede. He says Arthur was the hero of many Welsh legends but also that he is deserving of recognition as a veritable leader who led his countrymen to victory and created hope. He shows him as subordinate to Ambrosius. He amassed collection of medieval histories and drew on them when writing his own Gesta Regum Anglorum ("Deeds of the English Kings"), In this extract it is clear he understands that Arthur has become fable but he states " a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but in authentic history. He, indeed, for a long time upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war. Finally, at the siege of Mount Badon, relying on an image of the Virgin which he had affixed to his armour, he engaged nine hundred of the enemy "single-handed, and dispersed them with incredible slaughter."
  • The Black Book of Carmarthen (Welsh: Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin) is thought to be the earliest surviving manuscript written solely in Welsh. Compiled before 1250 from poems stemming from 9th and 10th century. Contents pre-date Geoffrey of Monmouth version of the Arthurian legend. Contains legend of Arthur and Myrddin, also known as Merlin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Book_of_Carmarthen
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth and his The History of the Kings of Britain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_of_Monmouth Monmouth claimed to base his writings on a Welsh book he obtained from Walter the Archbishop. He is at least a real person who died in 1151 but no one can find a copy of this supposed book. Most academics today pretty much dismiss Monmouth's work as springing from his imagination. They will agree that he may have drawn on sources no longer in existence but his rendition remember includes things like Merlin's Prophecies. One of the earliest developed narratives of King Arthur, this work was viewed as historical into the 16th Century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historia_Regum_Britanniae This work says Arthur led the forces at Badon. Geoffrey makes Aurelianus (whom he calls Aurelius Ambrosius) a king of Britain the older brother of Uther Pendragon,uncle of King Arthur, thus relating Aurelianus and Arthur. He states Aurelianus was the son of a Breton ruler named Constantinus, brother of Aldroenus. Probably written before 1136.
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria's reign. Wrote notable blank verse including Idylls of the King (arguably the most famous Victorian adaptation of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). Not considered historical text. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred,_Lord_Tennyson
  • T H White Terence Hanbury "Tim" White (29 May 1906 – 17 January 1964) English author best known for The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, published 1938-1958. Disney made his rendition into a children's film. Not considered historical text.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._H._White
  • Mary Stewart Mary, Lady Stewart, née Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (17 September 1916 – 9 May 2014), British novelist who developed romantic mystery genre, children's books and poetry, but best known for her Merlin series, which straddles the boundary between the historical novel and fantasy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Stewart_(novelist)
  • https://bearmanpendragon.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/the-riddle-of-arthur/ Lists contemporaries or one or two generations later princes being named Arthur. “Then a few generations after this Arthur would have lived there was an otherwise inexplicable trend. Kings of Britain began calling their eldest sons Arthur. There was Artur son of Aedan in Argyll, there was Arthur son of Pedr and Arthur son of Bicuir in Dyfed, there was Athrwys son of Meurig in Gwent and there was even Arthmael in Brittany. The likihood of course is that the Battle of Badon, dated to around 516AD was won by a man named Arthur. This man would have been born in around 470 or 480, began is active service in around 500, flourished in around 520 and probably commanded his last battle in around 540, aged 60 or so.”
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Arthurian Legends by Ronan Coghlan. Barnes and Noble NY 1995. List upon list of sources, characters, the who’s who, what’s what, and where’s where of the legend. Draws upon all ancient and many modern sources.
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/anglo_saxons/arthur_01.shtml Arthur depicted as a heroic British general and a Christian warrior in late fifth century, when Anglo-Saxon tribes were attacking Britain. Nennius gives a list of 12 battles fought by Arthur. One man could not possibly have fought in all of them due to wide spacing of dates. The 12 battles signal first signs of a legend.
  • Below are sources not specific to the Arthurian Legend but contain information about what life was like during the 5th and 6th Centuries as that is the most often assumed time frame for Arthur to be alive if he was real.

Life in 5th and 6th Century Britain


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I am reading "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley and published in 1983. Although Bradley has since come under great scrutiny for her alleged abuse of her daughter, the book remains as a forward-thinking novel, focusing on the female perspective of the Arthurian legend.
posted by Natalie (Durbin) Trott

Categories: King Arthur Legend