History is a good place for the start of legends. Figures that have a basis in fact take on a romantic quality; their deeds end up greater than they were, their battles epic, their merits, and their flaws all exaggerated to proportions greater then “normal” humans. These legends create heroes from these historical figures and create stories that often last much longer than the actual deeds that these legendary figures supposedly performed. It then becomes much more difficult to separate the legend from any real historical fact, and it becomes a scholarly debate over the reality of those kinds of stories. Every region in the world has these legendary figures, and many of them were not formed thousands of years ago, but fit into time even when there was well-established documentation and history. One of the most famous of these historical/legendary figures comes from England, in the form of King Arthur.
King Arthur’s history and story supposedly begins in the 5th and 6th centuries. What little folklore and tales outside the popular fiction and legends that exist seem to indicate he was a leader of the island, and defended it against an invasion of the Saxons. Outside of those initial stories, very little historically is known about that time and the person that inspired later tales involving wizards, knights, supernatural creatures, and a sword destined to be the sign of the king of Britain. The Arthurian Legend has replaced the historical account, and now you cannot discuss the history of King Arthur without involving the legend, two authors pieced most of which together during the 12th Century.
The first and primary creator behind the King Arthur legend was an author named Geoffrey of Monmouth. In 1138 he produced a Latin work called the Historia Regum Britanniae; translated roughly as Historical Kings of Britain. It is this work that first detailed King Arthur’s life and included such other legendary figures as Merlin, Uther Pendragon, Guinevere, Sir Bedivere, Sir Gawain, and Sir Kay. There is some debate over how much of Geoffrey’s work is utter fiction, and how much of it is based off historical Welsh stories and legends.
According to Geoffrey’s work King Arthur ruled over all of Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul after he defeated the Saxons. These Welsh and Breton stories briefly mention Arthur as a figure, though the ones that do detail him describe him as a protector of the isle from threats, both within and without. These same stories claim he fought more often against supernatural threats then merely human ones. These stories seem to create many of the mythos surrounding the supernatural aspects of the Arthurian legend. Modern historians consider Geoffrey’s work pure fiction as even during known battles of the period, where there is some record for the participation of the historical figure, there is no indication he led the battles, or existed in any kind of royal position. This did not prevent the immense popularity of Geoffrey’s work though, and there are over 200 translations and reprinting of his original Historia Regum Britanniae.
Though Geoffrey’s work became the basis for most Arthurian legend, many more stories came out of the region at the time using Geoffrey’s work at the core. The attitude between the types of stories is quite divergent though, as in many of the French stories, King Arthur becomes an ineffective ruler and cuckold to his obviously French wife. He becomes almost a pale imitation of the King Arthur in Geoffrey’s work, who portrayed him as a boisterous leader who joined his knights in both war and in feasting. The writer Chrétien de Troyes, from France himself added the Lancelot character and the search for the Holy Grail at the center of the knight’s quests. His writing spawned a whole series of stories using Arthur’s Kingdom as a backdrop, but where King Arthur was merely a secondary character in the drama and romance for the other characters.
The historical existence of King Arthur, in many ways is not a valid question when you look at the Arthurian Legend. There is a person who lived during that era, he participated in battles with the Saxons, and contributed enough that he eventually deserved mention in Welsh and Breton folklore and stories. The more interesting, and more valid exploration, is the effect that Arthurian Legend has over modern culture and society. This romance tale, this story of heroism, leadership, and vanity that eventually destroys a kingdom has become a template, a modern era storyteller’s model and a cultural influence that cannot really be measured.