King Arthur, whose full name was Arthur Pendragon, was a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of folklore and literary invention, and modern historians generally agree that he is unhistorical. The sparse historical background of Arthur is gleaned from various sources, including the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum, and the writings of Gildas. Arthur's name also occurs in early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin.
Arthur is a central figure in the legends making up the Matter of Britain. The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful and imaginative 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). In some Welsh and Breton tales and poems that date from before this work, Arthur appears either as a great warrior defending Britain from human and supernatural enemies or as a magical figure of folklore, sometimes associated with the Welsh otherworld Annwn. How much of Geoffrey's Historia (completed in 1138) was adapted from such earlier sources, rather than invented by Geoffrey himself, is unknown.
Although the themes, events and characters of the Arthurian legend varied widely from text to text, and there is no one canonical version, Geoffrey's version of events often served as the starting point for later stories. Geoffrey depicted Arthur as a king of Britain who defeated the Saxons and established a vast empire. Many elements and incidents that are now an integral part of the Arthurian story appear in Geoffrey's Historia, including Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, the magician Merlin, Arthur's wife Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, Arthur's conception at Tintagel, his final battle against Mordred at Camlann, and final rest in Avalon. The 12th-century French writer Chrétien de Troyes, who added Lancelot and the Holy Grail to the story, began the genre of Arthurian romance that became a significant strand of medieval literature. In these French stories, the narrative focus often shifts from King Arthur himself to other characters, such as various Knights of the Round Table.
Arthurian literature thrived during the Middle Ages but waned in the centuries that followed until it experienced a major resurgence in the 19th century. In the 21st century, the legend lives on, not only in literature but also in adaptations for theatre, film, television, comics and other media.
Development of the Legends
The legends surrounding the possible historical figure of Artorius were believed to have been concocted by Geoffrey of Monmouth and embellished by later writers, such as the introduction of Guinevere as his wife, the wizard Merlin and the anachronistic addition of knights.
The story was increasingly romanticized by medieval/Renaissance authors; eventually Arthur and his knights became associated with Camelot, which became the capital of Arthur's kingdom. Arthur and his knights sat at a Round Table and became models of chivalry, fighting off legendary monsters, enchantresses and dark knights. However, the legends are also based on Celtic practices, such as the throwing of Excalibur into the lake. The Lady of the Lake as a character may represent Celtic water spirits such as Sulis.
In Popular Culture
The tale of Arthur has been adapted into historical fiction novels, plays, paintings, movies and television shows.
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