Arthur is not mentioned by any contemporary and his historicity cannot be regarded as certain. Milton (History of England) reckoned him a fiction, but Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) felt there might be substance behind the legend. Modern opinion tends to echo Gibbon. The earliest mention of Arthur is in the Gododdin (sixth century) of Aneirin, but it is possible that the line alluding to Arthur may not have formed part of the original. Nennius (early ninth century) links Arthur’s name with a succession of battles but does not describe him as a king, saying that he came to the aid of various British rulers.
An outline of the hero’s life is given by Geoffrey of Monmouth (twelfth century) in his Historia Regum Brittaniae. Just how much of this life was Geoffrey’s invention and how much was taken from traditional material is uncertain. He tells us that King Arthur was the son of Uther and defeated the barbarians in a dozen battles. Subsequently, he conquered a wide empire and eventually went to war with the Romans. He returned hom on learning that his nephew Mordred had raised the standard of rebellion and taken Guenevere, the queen. After landing, his final battle took place.
The saga built up over the centuries and Celtic traditions of Arthur reached the Continent via Brittany. Malory (fifteenth century) produced a huge Arthuriad that many would regard as the standard ‘history’ of Arthur. In this, we are told of Arthur’s conception when Uther approached Igraine who was made, by Merlin’s sorcery, to resemble her husband. The child was given to Ector to be raised in secret.
After Uther’s death there was no king ruling all England. Merlin had placed a sword in a stone, saying that whoever drew it would be king. Arthur did so and Merlin had him crowned. This led to a rebellion by eleven rulers which Arthur put down. He married Guenevere whose father gave him the Round Table as a dowry; it became the place where his knights sat, to avoid quarrels over precedence. A magnificent reign followed, Arthur’s court becoming the focus for many heroes. In the war against the Romans, Arthur defeated the Emperor Lucius and became emperor himself. However, his most illustrious knight, Lancelot, became enamoured of Guenevere and an affair between them followed. The quest for the Holy Grail took place and Lancelot’s intrigue with the queen came to light.
Lancelot fled and Guenevere was sentenced to death. Lancelot rescued her and took her to his Continental realm; this led to Arthur crossing the Channel to make war on his former knight. While away from Britain he left his natural son Mordred in charge. (Mordred was also his nephew, the result of an unwittingly incestuous affair between Arthur and his sister Morgause. Arthur had been unaware of the incestuous nature of the intrigue because he was ignorant of his own parentage).
Mordred rebelled and Arthur returned to quell him. This led to Arthur’s last battle on Salisbury Plain, where he slew Mordred but was himself gravely wounded. (In Welsh accounts, the site of this battle is called Camlann.) Arthur was then carried off in a barge, saying he was heading for the vale of Avilion (Avalon). Some said he never died, but would one day return. However, his grave was supposedly discovered at Glastonbury in the reign of Henry II (1154-89).
One of the most mysterious aspects of Arthur’s reign involves his relationship with Morgan Le Fay. In Malory she is his sister but, when Geoffrey mentions her in the Vita Merlini, he seems to know nothing of the kinship, nor does he mention any enmity between them. This seems to be a later development. It has been suggested that Arthur was originally her lover and only latterly her brother, but such a suggestion is unsupported by evidence. Whether Morgan is in origin identical with Arthur’s sister (Anna in Geoffrey) cannot be decided with certainty.
In The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1982), Morgan is the sister with whom Arthur unknowingly commits incest – this is not implausible. Morgan’s enmity towards Arthur is generally taken to spring from the fact that Arthur’s father, Uther, killed her father, Gorlois.
The actual status or title of Arthur is also uncertain. He is usually styled a king, sometimes an emperor and, in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel Sword at Sunset (1963), he is represented as turning Britain into the last vestige of the Western Roman Empire. It is certainly not impossible that he did so. Nennius does not speak of him as a king but as dux bellorum (leader of wars), a title which suggests he held a Roman-invented designation such as Dux Brittaniarum (leader or ‘duke’ of the Britons). Apart from this title, the question of where Arthur functioned also arises. Various persons have favoured the view that he was a leader in the north, in the south-west, in Wales or throughout Britain, but the truth of the matter is that we cannot be certain.
Nennius’s list of battles does not really help, as some or even all of them may not have been originally associated with Arthur.