TRTZ no 58 22nd April The Arthurian Myth




The familiar story of King Arthur – but what is the historical basis for this romantic character?


Well tonight we will be looking at the Arthurian Myth – exploring some of the origins of the Arthur story before a medieval French romantic got hold of the story…




But first some news…


From the UK


May 15th:  Victoria Shaw, was rescued by her Yorkshire Terrier Louis, when she suffered a nasty fall in her bathroom and he managed to press the ‘Call for Assistance’ button.  “I had been in the shower and I was just coming out when my slipper got caught under the rug and I tripped,” Shaw explains, “I hit my back and my shoulder and felt my leg going underneath me and heard a crack – I thought I’d broken my knee, but I hadn’t. I can’t remember hitting my head but I came round with my leg twisted under me and I could hear a voice.”


She suffers from glaucoma and arthritis and thusly is registered with Wrexham Council’s Telecare service and has emergency panic-buttons in her home if she encounters a major problem.  She had been training Louis to press an emergency button on the floor ‘just in case’ and while up to that point it had only been a game to the little nine-year-old dog, it turned out to be a worthwhile exercise.


An ambulance was called to get Shaw back on her feet and she suffered a headache, dizziness, and trouble bending her leg, but apart from this she is quite well and on the road to recovery.


Three years ago, a six-foot-long nurse shark known as Florence made headlines by becoming the first of her kind to undergo surgery out of the water, a risky procedure necessary to remove a rusty fish hook that had become lodged in her gut.  She made a full recovery and is on exhibit at the Birmingham National Sea Life Center, but she has recently made headlines again after it was noted her dietry preferences went awry, for a shark, anyway.


Nurse sharks are known for occasionally grazing on algae as well as their usual carnivorous eating habits, but Florence has gone all the way and now only eats heads of lettuce, abandoning her natural diet completely.


Wildlife specialists have to sneak fish into her diet somehow, by hiding it in the vegetables she apparently craves, as while she would rather chow down on a celery stick, fish is nutritionally vital to a shark.




May 16th:  Orange County Fire Authority have reported a very unusual injury suffered by a woman from Orange county who’d just returned from an outing to Trestles Beach.


She had been home for about an hour when the pocket of her cargo shorts inexplicably caught fire.


While at the beach, she had picked up a couple of aesthetically appealing rocks – orange and green in colour – that are believed to have been contaminated with naturally occurring phosphorus and that could have ignited as they rubbed together in her pocket.


The rocks continued to smoulder after they were removed from the woman’s shorts and filled the house with smoke.


Paramedics treated her for severe second and third degree burns on her right leg and arm as well as her husband, who helped her remove the shorts as they were burning and also received second degree burns on his arm.


The rocks were still producing smoke when they were presented to doctors at the hospital, none of whom have ever seen a case quite like this.  The rocks have been taken to Orange County Public Heath for further testing to investigate exactly what happened and whether the phosphorus theory is possible.


Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, explained recently that the idea of the 887 heads at Rapa Nui being heads alone is actually an incorrect assumption.


Tilberg states that, “Those statues which are the most photographed are standing in the quarry. They’re buried up to mid-torso level. So it’s understandable that the general public didn’t have a clue that those statues had bodies.”


Years of exposure the elements has built up the ground around the statues, burying them until they appeared only as heads despite being more than 30 feet high in some cases.



The digs at Rapa Nui have also revealed that the statues may have been painted, and that later sculptures were different to earlier ones, reflecting changing culture and allowing for more individual expression.


Tilberg also reminds us that while 887 statues have been inventoried, the number is actually closer to 1000.


Arthurian Legend


King Arthur has been the centre of many a myth and legend, especially in Cornwall where several sites claim to be somehow part of some tale or another.  As for an actual historical figure, there are many possible names that fit the bill, and historians point out that it is almost impossible to exactly pinpoint any one man as being the Arthur of legend himself.


Arthur is viewed as the triumphant fifth-century character that led the Britons into battle against Saxon invaders who evolved into the King of a wonderful new age, accompanied by his virtuous Knights of the Round Table and a wizened practitioner of magic, Merlin.


Of course much of this is just a great story, indeed, the one source that was written in the correct period puts forward somebody else as the celebrated leader of the Britons (‘The Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ by the British monk and historian Gildas, c.500-70)


It seems to be that Geoffrey of Monmouth was to blame for pushing this one man to fame as the protagonist in stories of triumphs against the Saxons.


Geoffrey claimed that his work ‘the History of the Kings of Britain’ was written after he had the good fortune to study a lost Celtic manuscript, one that only he was able to examine and which has certainly not been heard of or rediscovered since.


Geoffrey also used sources such as the aforementioned Gildas, along with the Annales Cambriae and the writings of a ninth-century Welsh monk, Ninnius.


His book includes the entirety of Arthur’s life, from his birth at Tintagel to his death at Avalon and places him as living from the late fifth century to 542.


It also includes account s of how Arthur goes on to invade France, defeat Roman armies and almost defeat the last of the Roman Empire.


It was also around this time that the yet more romantic stories of Arthur began to circulate the Northern French courts.


Chrétien de Troyes, who worked for Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter, Marie de Champagne, spoke of the quest for the Holy Grail.


The story expressed a concept that resonated with the masses and has since been a shining example of a good ‘quest’ story, thus this particular tale became ingrained into the rest of the myths and legends whispered about King Arthur.


Even one of the first books to be printed in England was about Arthur, being Thomas Malory’s ‘the Death of Arthur’ in 1486.


Henry VII´s eldest son was baptised as Prince Arthur with this in mind though in the end he didn’t live to become king anyway.


Henry VIII, his younger brother, strived to become a figure such as King Arthur though, at one point ordering the Winchester Round Table of Edward III to be repainted with himself as the main feature.


The legends of King Arthur underwent a revival in the Victorian ages.  Many believe that this was because the legends represented both an excellent icon of morality and an opportunity for escapism to a more mystical, less corrupt realm.


About all we can say about the real Arthur, if he even existed, is that he was probably a good fighter who fought against the Saxons, but we can’t really say where as he is linked to Cornwall, southern Scotland, the Midlands, the north and the south of England and many parts of Wales.


According to the writings of aforementioned Nennius, Arthur was ‘one of the last native British leaders to make a successful stand against the Anglo-Saxons who invaded the country from their homeland in Denmark and northern Germany in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.’


Nennius also mentions Arthur’s inclusion in the battle of Badon and this is one of the few sources that can be correctly dated from a separate historical source, being Gildas again.


Gildas additionally spoke of the same battle within living memory of it and states that it occurred around AD 500.


Other points mentioned by Nennius also clash with our picture of Arthur.


For example, most of the stories talk about Arthur as the one true king, but Nennius speaks of a man who leads an alliance of many kings.


However, it is thought by many scholars that Nennius may have drawn on Welsh folklore in his writings.


He may have fought at the Battle of Camlann, the earliest reference to his participation being is the entry in the 10th-century ‘Annales Cambriae’ which date the battle to the year 537.


Historical detective and a modern-day adventurer Graham Philips has written extensively on the subject (As well as many other historical mysteries) of the historical Arthur.


Philips points out that if Arthur existed, we might presume that he’d have ruled from the country’s mightiest stronghold.


At the time in question (500AD) Britain had fragmented into a number of smaller kingdoms and the largest of these was apparently Powys (Now a county, Wales).


In the late fifth and early sixth centuries Powys was much larger than it is today, including much of the Midlands and of Central Wales.


Its capital was Viroconium, which still exists, if only as a ruin, just outside Wroxeter near Shrewsbury.


Harleian MS 3859, a tenth-century manuscript listing family trees of Dark Age chieftains, lists Owain Ddantgwyn (Owain White Tooth) son of Enniaun Girt, as a king of Powys in the late fifth century.


It’s important to note at this point that it’s entirely possible that ‘Arthur’ wasn’t his actual name but a title bestowed on him.


Many Dark Age Kings were given battle titles that were meant to summarise their fighting style or something similar.


Many of these battle-names where inherited, specifically from chieftain/father to the eldest son and the reason there is a dragon on the Welsh flag is in reference to the succession of Welsh kings who had the battle name of ‘the Dragon’ during the later Dark Ages.


Even today the Welsh word ‘Arth’ means the same: ‘Bear’ and many linguists believe that this could be where ‘Arthur’ came from.


Gildas at one point refers to Cuneglasse, Owain Ddantgwyn’s son, as the Bear.  Therefore, Philips theorises that it’s possible Owain Ddantgwyn was also known as the Bear even though he is not specified as such.


Owain’s descendants later became the earls of the Warwickshire and continue to have the bear on their heraldic crest.


Philips also points out that Arthur’s father was called Uther Pendragon in the legends and that in the Brythonic British language this roughly translates as ‘the terrible head dragon’.


Owain’s father was called ‘the Dragon’, though, again, many Welsh Kings had this name.


Philips also believes that it’s possible that even the ‘Sword in the Stone’ Legend has its origins in something that actually happened.


Scholars of the fifth century wrote about the practices undertaken by British warriors to resolve leadership disputes.


They spoke of single-combat, a duel situation, during which the victor would draw a ‘sword of office’ from a stone altar, and from this it can easily be seen how a ‘sword in the stone’ legend might arise.


A stone circle in Shropshire called ‘Mitchell’s Fold’ claims to be the place where Arthur’s ‘sword in the stone’ story actually took place, including ‘Arthur’s stone’, a stone with a deep, weathered hole in it.


Though this is folklore, it ties in well with Philips’ theories.


Another piece of obvious myth that might well have roots in actual practice is the legend whereby Excalibur is thrown into the lake and the Lady of the Lake catches it before descending back into the water.


While the part about the Lady of the Lake is an embellishment, it was a genuine custom to throw a warrior’s cherished possessions into a lake as an offering to the Gods as part of their funeral rites.


There is much evidence of this practice, with many items having been preserved for hundreds of years by the mud and uncovered by archaeologists later.


While these are possibilities, it’s also possible that an Arthur of some nature dwelt at Tintagel, Cornwall.


Arthur’s legacy is still well-known today and is regularly referenced in modern film, TV, literature, gaming and other industries.  They are currently filming the fifth series of the BBC’s ‘Merlin’, suggesting that the stories as just as popular as they ever were!





King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table...
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, surely is PD because of the age of the engraving - The Middle Ages (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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