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
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
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 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
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