The Fictive and Historical King Arthur

Historians are not in agreement as to whether or not the ‘real’ Arthur—the living, breathing, fighting human being—ever existed. The original sources for the legend of King Arthur come from a few Welsh texts. These are:

1) Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.

2) Gildas, a 6th century British (that is, Welsh) cleric who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). He never mentions Arthur, although he states that his own birth was in the year of the siege of Mount Badon. The fact that he does not mention Arthur, and yet is our only historian of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.

3) Taliesin, a 6th century Welsh poet, who wrote several poems about Arthur.  Including the lines:  “ . . . before the door of the gate of hell the lamp was burning.  And when we went with Arthur, a splendid labour,  Except seven, none returned from Caer Vedwyd.”

4)  Nennius (a 9th century Welsh monk)– “History of the Britons” (Historia Brittonum, c. 829-30)
“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.”

5) Native Welsh Tales: These connected works of Welsh mythology were named the Mabinogion in the 19th century by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest.  These include the story of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur and his men track down the thirteen treasures of Britain, and The Dream of Rhonabwy, a tale of Arthur that takes place after the Battle of Camlann (thus indicating that he survived it) and includes directions to ‘Mount Badon’ or Caer Faddon, as the Welsh call it.  These stories are found in the Red Book of Hergest and/or the White Book of Rhydderch, both copied in the mid-14th century.

6) The Annales Cambriae. This book is a Welsh chronicle compiled no later than the 10th century AD. It consists of a series of dates, two of which mention Arthur: “Year 72, The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors. Year 93, The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”    The early dates of the above works indicate little or no relation to the later English/French embellishments of Arthur, which Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized.

Later texts that are built on the above works, in chronological order, are:

1) William, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo of Leon – “Legend of St. Goeznovius, preface” (c. 1019)

2) William of Malmesbury – “The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum)” (c. 1125)

3) Henry of Huntingdon – “History of the English” (Historia Anglorum, c. 1130)

4) The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, dating to the middle 12th century. This is the beginning of the King Arthur legend as we know it. Geoffrey was born in Wales, but worked for his patron, Robert of Gloucester, who was particularly interested in legitimizing the claim of his sister (Matilda) to the English crown. Thus, the confusion of landmarks which moved Arthur from Wales to England proper, and the romanticizing of the tale, including the notion that Britain was originally conquered by Brutus, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and thus Britain was ‘classical’ in origin.

5) Roman y Brut (The Romance of Brutus) is the translation of Geoffrey’s work into Anglo-Norman verse. It takes much of Geoffrey’s story and adds the round table, courtly love, and chivalry, thus transforming Arthur from a Welsh warrior to a medieval, Anglo-French knight.  From this point, the Welsh Arthur is all but lost, and the Anglo/Norman/French ‘King Arthur’ is paramount.

By 1191, the monks of Glastonbury were claiming knowledge of his grave, and soon after, the link between Arthur and the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought there. By 1225, monks in France had written The Vulgate Cycle, telling of the holy grail from the death of Jesus Christ to the death of Arthur, and included the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. This story became the standard version used throughout Europe.

Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either was or he wasn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’—or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.

As a side note, the Welsh sources, particularly the dream of Dream of Rhonabwy, make Modred Arthur’s nephew and foster-son, not his illegitimate son as many readers might know him.  This version of events is carried through to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the Arthurian story.  Arthur’s illicit/incestuous relationship with his sister, Morgause or Morgan, is a later (French) addition.

For the purposes of my book Cold My Heart, I choose to believe that Arthur was real, that he was backed into a corner by his duplicitous nephew, Modred, and—as in the Dream of Rhonabwy—he did not die at Camlann as the Norman/French/Anglo version says, but lived to see his country securely in the hands of a worthy heir.  At the same time, the world of Cold My Heart rests in the balance between the historical Wales of 537 AD, and the quasi-medieval Arthurian world that readers have grown to love throughout the ages.

Some points in particular where Cold My Heart is less than historically accurate:

1.  The Christian Church was not as full blown and organized as portrayed in Cold My Heart.  Although St. Dafydd was appointed Archbishop around this time, he did not have ecclesiastical control over Christianity throughout Wales and organized Christianity tended to center on small groups of monks/nuns or hermitages.  Many people remained pagan.

2.  Saxons had only just begun to fight on horseback.  They rode horses, of course, but cavalry weren’t necessarily part of their repertoire.  Nor the use of bows.

3.  A ‘knight’ is a medieval notion, but it is impossible to portray Geraint, Bedwyr, Gareth, and Gawain without using the word.  Forgive me.

The Unlikely Spy available now!

The fifth Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mystery, The Unlikely Spy, is available now in both ebook and paperback!

The Unlikely Spy

TUS ebookAugust 1146. Prince Hywel has called all the bards of Wales to him for a music festival to mark the third anniversary of his rule over Ceredigion. He has invited all the lords of Wales too, including his father, his uncle, and his neighbor to the south, King Cadell. But with the highborn also come the low: thieves, spies, and other hangers-on. And when a murderer strikes as the festival starts, Gareth and Gwen are charged with discovering his identity—before the death of a peasant shakes the throne of a king.

The Unlikely Spy, the fifth Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mystery was released on 17 June 2014. It is available at Amazon US and all Amazon stores, the Apple iBookstoreBarnes and Noble, Smashwords, and Kobo.


National Novel Writing Month!


I actually ‘finished’ this ‘book’, at exactly 50,000 words (by some fluke) on Friday, November 19th at 7:49 pm, at which point my husband suggeted we go out for ice cream . . . I couldn’t validate it until the end of the month.  Like all first drafts, or parts of first drafts, it’s terrible!  But I plan on spending the next year making it better 🙂

Guest Post: Anna Elliott, author of “Twilight of Avalon”

Why I love Arthurian Stories

In the Spring of 2007, I woke up from a very vivid dream of telling my mother that I was going to write a book about the daughter of Modred, son of Arthur and the great villain of the Arthurian cycle of tales.  I’d been writing historical fiction and sending books around to agents and editors, always coming close to being published but never actually getting a book sold.  I was four months pregnant with my first baby at the time, and had been starting to think that as much as I loved writing, maybe a professional career wasn’t going to happen for me–or at least not for some time.

            Something about this dream, though, just wouldn’t let me go.  I had been an English major in college with a focus on Medieval literature and history, and had fallen in love with the Arthurian world and the Arthur legends then.  I started to do some preliminary research, reading books that explored the possibility of a real, historical Arthur–who if he existed at all would, scholars agreed, have been a 5th century British warlord, possibly one who made a victorious stand against the Saxon tribes invading Britain at the time–a far cry from the king of Camelot who’s come down to us in the tales. 

            At the same time, though, I was reminded of why I’d fallen in love with the Arthur stories in the first place.  The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past–and yet it’s also a world that has the wonderful potential for magic and enchantment.  So as I was reading, I started to build my own version of that world in my head–one that was a blending of legend and late 5th century British history, truth and tale.

            In my dream, I’d known only that the main character of my book was going to be Modred’s daughter.  It was only when I was looking over name lists trying to decide on one for my heroine that the name “Isolde” leaped off the page at me and made me turn back to the story of Trystan and Isolde.  The Trystan and Isolde legend is a later addition to the Arthurian cycle, very much grounded in a courtly, chivalric, 13th century world.  And yet it, too, has its roots in earlier legends and traditions that still echo faintly in the story as it has come down to us today.  I started to wonder what those earliest traditions might have been, what the story might have looked like at its first inception during the chaos and violence of Dark Age Britain, the “real” Arthurian age.

            That was how the story started to frame itself in my mind as a trilogy: Twilight of Avalon, Dark Moon of Avalon, and Sunrise of Avalon.  Three books that would weave together the scraps we knew of 5th century British history with the earliest versions of both the Arthurian and the Trystan and Isolde tales.

            From the first, I’d known that my story was going to be a kind of sequel to the Arthur tales, a chance to explore what might have happened after the battle of Camlann, after Arthur was wounded and carried away to be healed on the mist shrouded Isle of Avalon.  And that idea, too, held tremendous appeal for me, in that it gave me a chance to see a different side of the Arthurian story. 

            I think one of the most captivating, the most moving aspects of the Arthur stories is their ability to show us the highest potentials for human nobility, human honor and courage.  And yet the story always ends in tragedy, with the battle of Camlann where Arthur falls, betrayed by all those he loved best. 

            His legend though, still lives, still gives us an ideal to strive for.  That was the feeling that stayed with me in reading the original Arthur stories–and the feeling I wanted the characters in my trilogy to have, as well.  The title of my book is Twilight of Avalon, because in many ways it’s set at a turning point, the end of the age defined by Arthur the king.  But I wanted my Trystan and Isolde to be able to hold onto the ideals of the Arthurian world, even if that world was forever gone.  Because even in the wake of tragedy, life goes on–and there’s always the possibility that someday those ideals will end in victory instead of defeat.  For me, that was one of the joys of writing Twilight of Avalon: to know that this time, in my small corner of the great Arthurian tapestry, the story didn’t have to end at Camlann.

Writing Historical Fantasy: A Magical Balance

Today, Anna Elliott, the author of the wonderful Twilight of Avalon (Touchstone:  May 2009) is here to talk about blending history and fantasy when writing historical fiction.  Welcome, Anna!


Ever since I wrote Twilight of Avalon, based on the Trystan and Isolde legend in the larger cycle of Arthurian tales, I’ve often been asked for thoughts on the enduring appeal of the King Arthur story. Why should that legend, perhaps more than any other in Western culture, have captured our imaginations for more than a millennium, have engendered countless retellings and reworkings of the old tale?

The answers are legion, of course. But for me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past. Many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur–who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.

And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It’s a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need.

That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college.  And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing Twilight of Avalon and the next two books in the trilogy.

The fifth century, when scholars agree a historic Arthur might have lived, was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome’s legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led–or at least may have led–a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man’s lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today.

I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And yet I wanted, too, to honor the original stories and their magical, legendary world–a world that after centuries of telling and re-telling, is as real in its own way as historical fact.

It was a bit of a balancing act, I discovered.

My Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories; a healer and enchantress of great renown). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld. All of which fitted in with what I’d read of both the legends and historical accounts of Celtic spirituality, pre-Christian Celtic belief, with its emphasis on the powers of herbs, on trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils.

And yet, too, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. There were those cases where I could take a more symbolic approach to the legends—as with the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love.

I decided that a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love. So in the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde do journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don’t need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love–only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.

But then there were other cases when honoring the legends seemed to me to demand a factor that simply did not exist in 6th century Britain. For example, the fortress at Tintagel, where Twilight of Avalon is largely set. The Tintagel of my novel is pretty much purely anachronistic. Recent archaeology suggests that there was some sort of important fortification there during the 5th century–one belonging to a powerful Dark Age chieftan, to judge from the remnants of expensive imported wine jugs that have been found. But that the site ever had the remotest connection to Arthur is unlikely in the extreme. And certainly that Dark Age chieftan’s fortress would not have resembled anything in the nature a castle as we think of such places today.  But one of the elements of the Arthurian stories I found I simply couldn’t do without was a brooding, majestic castle perched on the crumbling edge of Cornwall where the land meets the sea–and where Arthur, son of Uther the Pendragon, was conceived and born. An authentic Dark Age wattle and daub and thatch dwelling just didn’t feel the same to me, and so I allowed the anachronism to creep in.

Again, it’s a balance. I try to be honest about the historical liberties I take in my author’s notes at the backs of the books and on the FAQ’s on my webpage. And I try to do my utmost to limit those historical liberties to cases like the above when it’s a matter of being true to the legendary basis of my story. I hope it’s a blend that works, one that echoes, a bit, the mixture of history and fantasy that first made me fall in love with the legends and the Arthurian world.

Writing when it’s hard . . .

kb tiny“Here’s what it starts to be like for me somewhere in the midsection of a novel:

(1) I’ve written the beginning, but I’m pretty sure it’s a pile of crap.

(2) The end, when I even dare to contemplate it, feels as far away as Uranus.

(3) The prose I’m writing right now, here in the middle, sounds like a stiff little busybody who’s sat down too hard on a nettle.

(4) I’ve discovered that my plot, even if it’s an engaging plot, has sections that are not engaging to write, and I’m bogged down in those doldrums sections, when all I want is to move on to the exciting parts that are just ahead but I can’t, not until I’ve written the parts that will get me there. Boring!

(5) The house is strewn with post-it notes on which are written about a gazillion important reminders of things I must somehow remember to find a way to weave into the novel at some point, although, where, I can’t imagine. Some of the post-it notes are written hastily in a code I have since forgotten. (“He is temperamentally sweet, but dangerous, like Jake.” That would be very helpful, if I had the slightest idea to whom “he” refers, or if I knew anyone named Jake.)

(6) Worst of all, whenever I take a step back and try to examine objectively this unstructured mess that is half created and half still living in my head and heart and hope (and on a gazillion post-it notes)… I get this horrible, sinking feeling that my novel isn’t actually about anything.”

Other authors can be so helpful!  I would be surprised if any author didn’t feel this way, at least occasionally, and from what I understand, most feel this way often.  It gives me hope that it’s not just me out there in the wilderness 🙂