Introduction: King Arthur's longevity
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The real Arthur, if there ever was such a person, was definitely not a king. That is just about the only indisputable fact about the historical Arthur scholars can agree on. Some early sources speak of him as a warlord. There is not much else, no truth to rely on. But there are a lot of people who like to believe in him as historical figure, and there are others who will tell you he is just a legend.

Although I am not a believer in the historical Arthur, I will be the first to admit that the illusion of historical truth has been an important characteristic of the Arthurian legends through the ages. In other words: if there had not been so many believers, the legends would not be as impressive as they are now.
Nowadays it is still quite interesting for writers to play with the historical illusion; the name king Arthur has an authentic ring to it, but there are almost no annoying historical facts to suffocate the imagination.

The fact that we know so little about Arthur and the dark ages he came from is one of the reasons why, after fifteen centuries of changes to and repetitions of the story, he is still alive and well in our popular and even more serious culture.


King Arthur and king Ban plan a tournament as queen Guinevere and courtiers watch
King Arthur and king Ban plan a tournament as queen Guinevere and courtiers watch
ca 1300
Bibliothèque Nationale, fr. 95, f. 291


There is not just one true version of the legend either, because we know very little of the origins of the myth. The story was part of the oral Celtic tradition, must have been told and retold before it was written down and most of these early versions have perished in time.
The Round Table was not mentioned until the 12th century, by Wace, who also gave Arthur's sword the name Excalibur. And a couple of decades later Crétien de Troyes introduced Lancelot as Queen Guinevere's lover and Perceval as the grail hero. In later chronicles Perceval is surpassed by the perfect knight Galahad.

That is another reason for Arthur's longevity: his court is always open to new heroes and the ideal background for new story-lines. Like Lancelot, Perceval and Galahad, Merlin and Tristan were also drawn to his court at different times in the Middle Ages. An example of a modern hero that joins the Camelot court is Prince Valiant, the main character of Hal Foster's cartoons, published in several American Sunday papers from 1937 to 1971.


Prince Valiant
Prince Valiant dreaming of his beloved Aleta
In: Hal Foster's Prince Valiant


Last update: 15-08-2000

© Iman Keuchenius 1998