Most likely, myth.

However, historians have also identified a real fifth-century Arthur – a prince and recognized warrior who died fighting the warring Scottish Picts.

Arthur the King

King Arthur was a legendary British leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries, who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the early 6th century.

What little historical background of Arthur that exists 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.

Some Welsh and Breton tales and poems relating the story of Arthur depict him 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.

The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, completed in 1138).

Geoffrey depicted Arthur as a king of Britain who defeated the Saxons and established an empire over Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul.

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 wizard Merlin, Arthur’s wife Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, Arthur’s conception at Tintagel, his final battle against Mordred at Camlann and his 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 the 21st century, the Arthurian legend lives on in literature, and in adaptations for theater, film, television, comics and other media.

Geoffrey’s version of events often served as the starting point for these later stories.

Historical Basis?

One school of thought – citing entries in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) – sees Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons sometime in the late 5th to early 6th century.

The Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century Latin historical compilation attributed to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, lists twelve battles that Arthur fought. These culminate in the Battle of Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, where he is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men.

This list of 12 battles belongs in an old tradition of battle-list poems in Welsh poetry. Some of the names appear in other early poems and annals, stretching over a wide period of time, and many places.

So the 12 battles of Arthur are not chronological history. One man could not possibly have fought in all of them.

The other text that seems to support the case for Arthur’s historical existence is the 10th-century Annales Cambriae – which also link Arthur with the Battle of Mount Badon.

The Annales date this battle to 516–518, and also mention the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were both killed, dated to 537–539. However, recent research shows that the Annales Cambriae was based on a chronicle begun in the late 8th century in Wales – which throws their accuracy into some doubt.

This lack of convincing early evidence is the reason many recent historians exclude Arthur from their accounts of Britain, under the Romans.
Arthur is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or named in any surviving manuscript written between 400 and 820.

Some scholars argue that Arthur was originally a fictional hero of folklore – or even a half-forgotten Celtic deity – who was credited with real deeds in the distant past.

It is not even certain that Arthur was considered a king, in the early texts. Neither the Historia nor the Annales calls him “rex”.
The Historia instead calls him “dux bellorum” (leader of battles) and “miles” (soldier).

Historical documents for the post-Roman period are few and far between, so a definitive answer to the question of Arthur’s historical existence is unlikely.

Although several historical figures have been proposed as the basis for Arthur, no convincing evidence for these identifications has yet emerged.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

The first narrative account of Arthur’s life is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). This work, completed c. 1138, is an imaginative and fanciful account of British kings from the legendary Trojan exile Brutus to the 7th-century Welsh king Cadwallader.

Geoffrey places Arthur in the same post-Roman period as do Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae. He incorporates Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, his magician advisor Merlin, and the story of Arthur’s conception, in which Uther, disguised as his enemy Gorlois by Merlin’s magic, sleeps with Gorlois’s wife Igerna at Tintagel, and conceives Arthur.

On Uther’s death, the fifteen-year-old Arthur succeeds him as King of Britain and fights a series of battles, culminating in the Battle of Bath.
He then defeats the Picts and Scots before creating an Arthurian empire through his conquests of Ireland, Iceland and the Orkney Islands.

After twelve years of peace, Arthur sets out to expand his empire once more, taking control of Norway, Denmark and Gaul. Gaul is still held by the Roman Empire when it is conquered, and Arthur’s victory leads to a further confrontation between his empire and Rome’s.

Arthur and his warriors, including Kaius (Kay), Beduerus (Bedivere) and Gualguanus (Gawain), defeat the Roman emperor Lucius Tiberius in Gaul but, as he prepares to march on Rome, Arthur hears that his nephew Modredus (Mordred) – whom he had left in charge of Britain – has married his wife Guenhuuara (Guinevere) and seized the throne.

Arthur returns to Britain and defeats and kills Modredus on the river Camblam in Cornwall, but is mortally wounded. He hands the crown to his kinsman Constantine and is taken to the isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds, never to be seen again.

At the time it was written Geoffrey´s book had a tremendous influence, and over 200 manuscripts still remain in existence.

Romance Traditions

During the 12th century, Arthur’s character began to be marginalized by the cast of knights, ladies, and supporting characters attending his court.

His character also altered significantly.

In both the earliest materials and Geoffrey he is a great and ferocious warrior, who laughs as he personally slaughters witches and giants and takes a leading role in all military campaigns.

In the continental romances he becomes the roi fainéant – the “do-nothing king”.
His role in these works is frequently that of a wise, dignified, even-tempered, somewhat bland, and occasionally feeble monarch.

The most significant works for the development of the Arthurian legend in this period are Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, which introduces Lancelot and his adulterous relationship with Arthur’s queen (Guinevere), and Perceval, the Story of the Grail, which introduces the Holy Grail and the Fisher King – and which again sees Arthur having a much reduced role.

Up to c. 1210, continental Arthurian romance was expressed primarily through poetry; after this date the tales began to be told in prose.

The most significant of the13th-century prose romances was the Vulgate Cycle (also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle), a series of five Middle French prose works written in the first half of that century.

The cycle continued the trend towards reducing the role played by Arthur in his own legend, partly through the introduction of the character of Galahad, and an expansion of the role of Merlin.

It also made Mordred the result of an incestuous relationship between Arthur and his sister, and established the role of Camelot as Arthur’s primary court.

The development of the medieval Arthurian cycle culminated in Le Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Malory’s retelling of the entire legend in a single work in English in the late 15th century.

Malory based his book – originally titled The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table -on the various previous romance versions, in particular the Vulgate Cycle.

Post-Medieval Literature

The end of the Middle Ages brought with it a waning of interest in King Arthur. Social changes associated with the end of the medieval period and the Renaissance also conspired to rob the character of Arthur and his associated legend of some of their power to enthrall audiences – with the result that 1634 saw the last printing of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur for nearly 200 years

In the early 19th century, medievalism, Romanticism, and the Gothic Revival reawakened interest in Arthur and the medieval romances. A new code of ethics for 19th-century gentlemen was shaped around the chivalric ideals that the “Arthur of romance” embodied.

This renewed interest first made itself felt in 1816, when Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was reprinted for the first time since 1634.

Initially the medieval Arthurian legends were of particular interest to poets. Pre-eminent among these was Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose first Arthurian poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, was published in 1832.

Tennyson’s Arthurian work reached its peak of popularity with Idylls of the King, which reworked the entire narrative of Arthur’s life for the Victorian era. First published in 1859, it sold 10,000 copies within the first week.

In the Idylls, Arthur became a symbol of ideal manhood whose attempt to establish a perfect kingdom on earth fails, finally, through human weakness

The Modern Legend

In the latter half of the 20th century, the influence of the romance tradition of Arthur continued, through novels such as T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982) in addition to comic strips such as Prince Valiant (from 1937 onward).

T. H. White’s novel was adapted into the Lerner-Loewe stage musical Camelot (1960) and the Disney animated film The Sword in the Stone (1963); Camelot – with its focus on the love of Lancelot and Guinevere and the cuckolding of Arthur – was itself made into a film of the same name in 1967.

The romance tradition of Arthur is evident in Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974), Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) and John Boorman’s fantasy film Excalibur (1981). It is also the main source of the material used in the Arthurian spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Attempts to portray Arthur as a genuine historical figure of c. 500 AD (stripping away the “romance”), have also emerged.

Clemence Dane’s series of radio plays, The Saviors (1942), used a historical Arthur to embody the spirit of heroic resistance against desperate odds, and Robert Sherriff’s play The Long Sunset (1955) saw Arthur rallying Romano-British resistance against the Germanic invaders.

The portrayal of Arthur as a real hero of the 5th century has also made its way into film versions of the Arthurian legend, most notably the TV series Arthur of the Britons[116] and the feature films King Arthur (2004) and The Last Legion (2007).

The 2008 BBC series Merlin is a reimagining of the legend, in which the future King Arthur and Merlin are young contemporaries.

Camelot (2011) is an exclusive short series of episodes which depict Arthur in ancient Briton and his struggle for the throne.

Arthur The Role Model

During the Middle Ages, Arthur was made a member of the Nine Worthies, a group of heroes encapsulating all the ideal qualities of chivalry. His life was proposed as a valuable subject for study by those aspiring to chivalric status.

Arthur has also been used as a model for modern-day behavior.

In the 1930s, the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table was formed in Britain to promote Christian ideals and Arthurian notions of medieval chivalry.

In the United States, hundreds of thousands of boys and girls joined Arthurian youth groups, such as the Knights of King Arthur, in which Arthur and his legends were promoted as wholesome exemplars.

As Norris J. Lacy has observed, “…there can be no doubt of the extent to which a legend born many centuries ago is profoundly embedded in modern culture at every level.”

Man, or Myth?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

in the end, it is perhaps Arthur’s myth that is more important than his history.