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Keltfacts: the Celtic King Arthur

We would love to get you acquainted with the Celtic culture in our new series Keltfacts. In this blog we are looking into the Celtic legends of King Arthur. One of the most famous kings in history and mythology.

Arthur Pendragon, better known as King Arthur, is well known for his adventures alongside Merlin, the sword in the stone and his knights of the round table. But what is Arthurs’ relation to the Celts? What was his role in Celtic history and their legends, and how did he manage to make it into so many stories and legends, when no one actually knows if his existence… was real?

Who is King Arthur?

There are many speculations about who Arthur is. Some say he’s complete fantasy, a legend, created to inspire kings and warriors. Others say he’s based on Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman-British leader who lived around the late 400’s.

Arthur plays a big part in the medieval history of Britain and appeared in several Welsh and Breton poems. He's either portrayed as a warrior who protects Britain from all kinds of enemies, or as a figure of folklore.

Geoffrey of Monmouth is one of the most famous writers on British history. His work compiled the ‘legends of kings’ and up until the sixteenth century it was believed to be the true history. On top of that he set the base notes for the Arthurian legends. Geoffrey portrays Arthur as a King who defeated the Saxons and which enabled him to build an empire. Many elements that you may associate with King Arthur, like his sword, Merlin, and the battle at Camlann were introduced by Geoffrey.

The French writer Chrétien de Troyes later introduced the Holy Grail (‘t is but a scratch!) and Lancelot to Arthur’s legend.

How do we know King Arthur?

As a young child, Arthur was taken away from court when his father, King Uther Pendragon, died. Unknown of his heritage, he was raised by a local nobleman, under supervision by Merlin, the wizard in the Arthurian legends. One day by accident he stumbles upon the sword Excalibur, stuck in a stone. Merlin had foretold that only a true king would be able to pull the sword out. The man who did, would be the true heir of Uther Pendragon, and named King of Britain. Many men had tried to pull out the sword and take reign over Britain after the death of Uther but to no avail. Arthur, being Uther’s son, manages to draw the sword from the stone, making him the King of England.

It is told that King Arthur fought a battle against the Saxons and united Britain. With the help of Merlin, he becomes a king loved by his people. Eventually he marries Guinevere, daughter of a Scottish king. Even though Merlin warns him against this as Guinevere later will fall in love with one of his knights, sir Lancelot.

When Arthur discovers the affair, Lancelot flees to France with Arthur in pursuit. While he’s gone, Arthurs cousin Mordred takes the throne. Upon return, Arthur battles Mordred, killing him with a spear. His cousin, however, manages to strike one last fatal blow to Arthur.

Where do Arthur and the Celts meet?

Even though the stories and legends of Arthur have a Christian feel to them in symbolism and behaviour, these stories mix with several Celtic symbolisms.

The story of Arthur and the Holy Grail, for example, is a story with many Celtic references. The cause for this is that ancient culture and mythology was rooted deeply in the people in Celtic regions, and Christianity was initially a superficial belief for the people. By weaving their tales with Arthurian legends, the connection to their pagan roots remained and by hiding their stories in Arthurian texts, approved by the church, their tales could still be told.

One of the oldest Arthurian legends is the Welsh prose: ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, written around the eleventh century. Welsh tales like this one might have been an inspiration for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history on Arthur.

The name ‘Excalibur’ for Arthur’s sword isn’t used until the twelfth century. Up until then, the sword was called ‘Caliburnus’, an invention by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It has Latin elements to form the word for ‘steel’. However, before Geoffrey renamed the weapon, the story of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ already makes mention of a named sword for Arthur: ‘Caledfwlch’, a compound of the Welsh words caled (hard) and bwlch (breach). Bwlch later evolved into fwlch. Therefore, the name Excalibur is probably derived from the Welsh name for the sword.

Another Celtic link is with the Wizard Merlin. Myrddin Wyllt is a character is medieval Welsh legends. In these legends, he is a madman who lives in the Caledonian forest. Mourning the death of the lord he served as a bard. He later recovers and works in a new court.

Geoffrey has based Merlin on Myrddin, as the prophet and advisor of Uther and later Arthur himself.

As with all versions of Arthur’s stories, there is not a set written document that confirms or denies his actions. His life and existence remains a mystery to many. Albeit real or not, he inspired many adventurous stories for all ages.

Do you think King Arthur is a myth or a man? What is your favourite King Arthur story?

By Dewi van Zeggelaar

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