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No. 1197:
King Arthur

Today, let's look for King Arthur. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Great myths have roots. But should we look for those roots in the real acts of real heroes or in the flow of earlier myths? That's the question King Arthur dangles before historians. It's a question that can help us see how history itself works.

Arthur appears to've been a real person, born around 475 AD. When his story was first told in detail in 1135 by a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth, it caught on like wildfire. It picked up trappings of medieval chivalry which were unknown in Arthur's day. But other elements of the story show up in the scanty written record of the truly Dark Ages: Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgan, Merlin, Modred -- Camelot, the sword, the grail.

Historical detective work places Arthur in northern England. We're still divided on many issues (like the location of Camelot). Camelot, by the way, seems to've meant "Castle of the Hammerer."

Arthur (the Hammerer) was born not long after the Romans abandoned Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. Those two fortifications, 80 miles apart, had been meant to keep out the Picts, Vikings, and Saxons. A disorganized England had to regroup to survive after the Romans left, and the young prince Arthur emerged.

Arthur was a shrewd, cruel, warlord who fought off the northern invaders and destroyed a Viking fleet. When he was crowned King of England, he created a period of political stability. He died in 519 or 542, depending on whom you read.

His wife, Guinevere, beautiful and tough as nails, may've been the daughter of a Pict warlord. And she was trained in the arts of war herself. One plausible account said she had her enemies' heads cut off and embalmed so she could carry them around. She figured significantly in Arthur's rule. Her adultery with Arthur's field commander, Lancelot, was simply tacked on by medieval writers.

The real Arthur lived in a primitive world. He never rode with stirrups, wielded a lance, or lived in a stone castle. A hammer may well've been his weapon of choice. Yet it's easy to see how medieval Europe was caught up in Arthur's story. The real life of this brutal king had just enough mythical elements to attract other myths to it. Pulling a sword from a stone or an anvil, for example, goes back to the story of Theseus in ancient Athens.

I found my favorite Arthur in the movie Excalibur. That Arthur was torn, as the real Arthur must also've been torn, between the new Christianity and the old gods of the forest. Excalibur showed us a frankly mythical Arthur fighting the very real and very dirty wars of a dark age. Perhaps the moral of all this is that, for mere events to become history, they have to take on the patina of myth. Tennyson must've seen that when he wrote that Arthur was

Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walk'd,
Larger than human on the frozen hills.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Goodrich, N. L., King Arthur. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986.

Phillips, G., and Keatman, M., King Arthur: The True Story. London: Century, 1992.