I cannot remember the first time I discovered the stories of King Arthur. I have been reading — and loving — them forever, it seems. The legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have always been among my favorites to hear, watch, and read. Yet, as I've read more and delved deeper into this incredibly rich and terribly vast canon, the more I have wanted to learn about the history — the true story, if you will — of this king named Arthur.
He is one of the most celebrated literary figures of all time; Arthur and his knights have inspired hundreds of poems, stories, books, plays, and movies–from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur to Monty Python's Spamalot — spanning centuries. As omnipresent and popular as the literature is, I was surprised to discover that there is no hard proof that Arthur actually existed.
Many archaeologists, historians, scholars, and fans have made it their life's work to try to uncover the mystery of Arthur. There are a multitude of theories, but no hard evidence has ever been brought to bear either way.
As I thought about how to approach writing Song of the Sparrow, I knew I wanted the setting and characters to feel authentic, and so I looked back at many texts for guidance, which are listed in the Suggestions for Further Reading section.
If the man whom we know as Arthur did live, it was most likely close to the end of the fifth century or during the early sixth century, in what is referred to as the Dark Ages. Approximately three hundred years later, a Welsh monk and historian named Nennius, who, it is believed, had access to fifth–century texts that have since been lost, seems to have left the most promising clue. He writes about Arthur in his Historia Brittonum , or History of the Britons, casting him as a star military captain:
"Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [dux bellorum].... The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor." From the Historia Brittonum
While this sounds like proof enough of Arthur's existence, certain glaring exclusions of his name from other earlier texts that date closer to what would have been Arthur's lifetime indicate that perhaps this wasn't the case after all.
A sixth–century British monk named Gildas, who also recorded the history of the Britons, failed to mention Arthur's name even once in his text, Concerning the Ruin of Britain. Nor did another historian and clergyman known as the Bede, who wrote a comprehensive work titled The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in A.D. 731.
It wasn't until the twelfth century, more than four hundred years after Nennius introduced Arthur, that the mythic king reappeared in the history books. This time, it was a bishop named Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote at length about Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey placed Arthur directly in the line of British kings. He was the first to do so, and it was Geoffrey's writings that spawned the Arthurian legends readers know now.
And so, despite differing accounts and much ambiguity, there are a few things we can say about Arthur with some certainty. The roots of his story lay in the Roman Empire, which was founded circa 31 B.C., and stretched from Rome all the way into northern Africa, parts of Asia, and most of Europe, lasting for nearly fifteen hundred years.
In A.D. 44, the Romans invaded Britain and ruled there relatively peacefully and prosperously for nearly four hundred years. But, in the early fifth century, the Roman Empire began to suffer from rebellions and fighting in its various territories, and Britain itself had also become subject to waves of invasions. The Roman legions that were posted on that remote isle were too few to fend off the growing numbers of invaders, and the soldiers began to rebel. Finally, in A.D. 410, the Roman soldiers and governing officials withdrew from Britain to aid in the fighting in other parts of the Empire, leaving the tiny island completely drained of its former glory and military strength.
The Britons who remained behind lived in small groups, or clans, led by local chieftains. Left to fend for themselves, they fought among themselves, as well as against their many enemies. The Britons faced the Picts, tribesmen from what is now eastern and northeastern Scotland, who were called such because of the Latin word picti, meaning "painted," as the Picts were said to have tattooed their bodies. Hadrian's Wall, which ran seventy–three miles across the width of Britain, was constructed by the Romans to keep the Picts out of Britain proper. Other enemies of the Britons at this time were the Scots, invaders who came from what is now known as Ireland–the name originates from the Roman name for the Irish, meaning "raider" or "bandit"–as well as the Saxons, who came from what is now Germany and parts of the Netherlands, who also posed constant threats to Britain at this time.
About forty years after the Roman withdrawal, around A.D. 450, a British chieftain called Vortigern invited a band of Saxon mercenaries into Britain, to aid him in fighting off the Picts. Rather than help defend the land, however, these mercenaries simply paved the way for fleets of Saxon soldiers to enter and devastate the British isle. Ambrosius Aurelius, a British military commander, whom Gildas, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth refer to as a "King of the Britons," avenged the destruction of Britain by assassinating Vortigern and taking over the leadership of the British forces around A.D. 490. But, the Saxons, Picts, and Scots continued to pummel the island, eventually murdering Aurelius, as well.
But this is where certainty leaves off, and it falls to the writers and movie directors and composers to imagine what might have been. There are elements that recur in Arthurian legends that are familiar to many readers–Camelot, the Merlin, Gwynivere, Lancelot, just for starters–and one might wonder, as I did, whether they truly existed. No one knows if Arthur's castle at Camelot or the famed Round Table ever really stood or where, but the archaeologists have all kinds of theories, stretching from Colchester to Cadbury, both towns in England. Whatever the case, though, Camelot and the Round Table have remained throughout the centuries as symbols of peace, justice, and equality.
Interestingly, the Merlin has his roots in ancient Welsh lore. A mysterious character called Myrddin, who prophesizes, can be found in many early texts, as well as ancient Welsh poetry, which was passed down orally. Geoffrey of Monmouth also wrote of the Merlin extensively, as though he indeed were a historical figure. Yet, there is no evidence to suggest that he truly existed.
Nor do we know if Gwynivere lived. It is rumored that in 1191 a grave was found at the Cathedral of Glastonbury, which, according to legend, is in the same spot as the mythical Avalon would have been. The grave was said to contain the skeleton of a very tall man and a petite woman, covered by a cross of lead with an inscription that read "Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon." However, the cross has been lost to time, as was the grave. But we can speculate: Was that Gwynivere buried with her husband?
Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that a knight of the Round Table named Lancelot actually existed, either. In fact, the story of Lancelot's illicit love for Queen Gwynivere has its roots in the earlier tale of doomed love, Tristan and Isolde.
And finally, Elaine. She has been present in poems and stories for ages, in various incarnations and in slightly differing circumstances from text to text. In Le Morte D'Arthur, she is the daughter of an old knight who gives shelter to Lancelot. Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and begs him to love her back. But he cannot, and so she dies of a broken heart. In the nineteenth century, the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a long poem about her, titled, "The Lady of Shalott," in which she lives in a tower, under the narrow and lonely strictures of a mysterious curse. The lady cannot look out her window or leave her tower, and so she watches the goings–on outside indirectly through a mirror's reflection. One day, Lancelot passes by, and she glimpses him in the mirror. She falls in love with him immediately; then, unable to stop herself, turns to look at him directly through the window. Suddenly, the curse falls upon her, and the window and mirror shatter. The lady knows the end has come, and she runs outside, leaps into a boat, after painting her name on the bow, and dies, sailing downriver to Camelot.
Though Elaine of Ascolat, or the Lady of Shalott as she is more popularly known, is a pervasive figure in literature, there is nothing to suggest such a girl truly lived.
Yet, none of this actually matters. These stories, the myth of King Arthur and his companions, live on and persist throughout time because they deal with such incredibly important and universal, such fundamentally human themes as love, friendship, loyalty, justice, faith, peace, and hope. These stories resonate with the eternal chimes of truth, regardless of history or fact.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to make a contribution to this canon, to write about my favorite characters, and only recently aware of the latest scholarship, I was excited to try to endow the legend with a historical edge. But, I also wanted to try to change something: As I read more and more stories about Arthur and his companions, and as I began studying Arthurian lore in college, I started to notice that the girls and women in these stories were not always treated very kindly. At best, it seemed to me, they were damsels in distress who needed a man to rescue them, and at worse, they were chaperones of doom and destruction. This did not seem fair to me.
And so, I aimed to humanize the characters, to really scrutinize them with a twenty–first–century magnifying glass and imagine how they might actually have related to one another. As I imagined Elaine, who truly has suffered at the hands of male writers, I wanted to give her strength and power and relevance. And indeed, it is without a sword that she manages to save her friends and loved ones.
I have always loved the romance and chivalry that fill the Arthurian stories, but the ideals of freedom and equality and justice are truly what make this mythology so important — and continually resonant. The stories of Arthur and his knights have given centuries of readers hope — hope for peace — and I can only wish that readers of this book take away the same hope.