King Arthur: the man behind the myth

I’m best known as a novelist for my series of ten historical books about Robin Hood. But, this year, I am exploring the story of the other great British hero, King Arthur. I’m telling the story in a series of episodes, each about 20,000 words long (or 70 pages) and releasing them as short eBooks every few months*. For the Arthurian books, my storytelling style has been described “low fantasy”, which means it is mostly historical but is has a few fantasy elements, in this case I included a rather horrible dragon and a small amount of magic. But the series is grounded in the real history of the warring kingdoms of Post-Roman Britain.

I have published three Episodes so far, all available now on Amazon, and I am writing the fourth one at the moment, but I thought today I would take brief look at the historical background to one of Britain’s most famous heroes who, like Robin Hood, is a difficult man to pin down. Did King Arthur ever exist? Is there any evidence of his life? Or was he merely the product of the imaginations of medieval writers and historians?

If Arthur existed, he was probably a British warlord who fought the Anglo-Saxon invaders and successfully held them back for a time at the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century, a hundred years after the Roman legions left these shores. The historian Gildas, writing in the middle of the 6th century talks about the great Battle of Mount Badon, in which the Saxons were comprehensively defeated by the Britons, c. AD 500. (Possibly near Bath, but no one is quite sure.) Interestingly Gildas does not mention anyone called Arthur. He has someone called Ambrosius Aurelianus winning the battle. For a man who was chronicling the period in which Arthur was supposed to have existed, it is odd that he makes not mention, not even a passing reference, to the most famous British warlord of that time.

The first mention of Arthur comes in the writings of a Nennius, a 9th-century Welsh monk, who is believed to be the author of the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons). Arthur is presented this time as the warrior who leads the Britons to victory at the Mount Badon. But Nennuis was writing 350 years after the events, which some historians believe is telling. The archeologist Francis Pryor, in his fascinating book Britain AD, points out why this is strange. To put this in context, he writes, it is as if the first ever mention of Oliver Cromwell was by the modern historian Simon Schama. If that were the case, we would question the existence of Cromwell. We would ask why no one had ever mentioned him before.

Above: the mesmerising Gallos statue at Tintagel by the artist Rubin Eynon is one of my favourite images of the Once and Future King. He is solid but at the same time insubstantial. There and also not there.

Indeed, the 21st-century consensus is that Arthur is probably not a historical character but a man of legend and myth. Arthur’s story was probably invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth, another medieval Welsh cleric, who wrote Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of the Britons) in the mid-1100s and was further burnished the romantic poets of the 12th/13th-century renaissance – Chretien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and Wolfram von Eschenbach – who added Lancelot, Guinevere and the Holy Grail to the mix. In 2018, the historian Nicholas Higham refuted all claims for a historical Arthur, saying: “That Arthur has produced extraordinary quantities of ‘smoke’ is in large part because he is so well suited to . . . make-believe. But there is no historical ‘fire’ underlying the stories that congregated around him . . . “

This is one of the reasons why I decided to make my Arthur stories “low fantasy” – the other being that I like dragons, and I wanted Merlin to have some genuine unearthly powers – rather than writing a series of “historical” Arthurian novels, such as the eternally brilliant Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. I read these in my twenties and the influence on my work, and the work of many of my peers in the historical fiction game, has been profound and long-lasting. In a way, my Wormkind Chronicles are a homage to Bernard Cornwell’s superb Arthurian trilogy, and you might even suggest they are a variety of fan fiction.

I do also hope that I can add something to the Arthurian canon with my episodic “low fantasy” stories. And that you will enjoy reading them when they come out. Episodes One: Arthur’s Bane, Episode Two: Arthur’s Escape and Episode Three: Arthur’s Revenge are all now available from Amazon for 99p. And Episode Four: Arthur’s Folly will be out at the end of April.

And if you are not a fan of episodic storytelling, or even Arthur, you might like to try my full-length Viking novels, starting with The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1). King of the North (Fire Born 4) is the most recent, and the final book in the series Blood of the Bear (Fire Born 5) will be published by Canelo on October 11.

*When the first novel in the Wormkind Chronicles – The Broken Kingdom – is complete (probably, late summer 2024), I will bundle the first five episodes together and self-publish it as a full-length paperback.

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