The character of King Arthur is unique in literature. Most characters are known through their actions and words as described by the author of a story. Arthur, however, is a conglomerate of characters described by many different authors over a fifteen hundred year span. There is no single depiction of him, and one cannot trace his origin to a single author for the "definitive" description. As such, the character of Arthur is different depending on the era, culture, and the particular writer who is relating his version of the Arthurian legend.
Three Kinds of Arthur
There is much debate whether Arthur was an actual historical person. There is no absolute evidence, but it is possible that Arthur was a Briton or Romano-Briton king who led the Celts against the Anglo-Saxons in the early 8th century (Americana, Arthurian Romances, 1972). The kings of the medieval period were warlords that protected a particular area of land. They surrounded themselves with knights, or thanes, who swore allegiance in battle in exchange for gifts of gold, armor, and land. There are stories that depict Arthur in this role, similar to that of Beowulf and Hrothgar in the poem Beowulf. However, later stories show Arthur in a different light. There are three basic character descriptions of Arthur.
Arthur as epic hero
The earliest depiction of Arthur is that of a fierce, feared warrior, capable of tremendous prowess in hand-to-hand combat. As described by a Welsh priest named Nennius in his Latin Historia Brittonum Arthur was "chosen 12 times to lead the Celts, Arthur bore the image of the Virgin and won 12 battles, the last being at Mt. Badon, in which he killed 960 of the enemy single-handed" (Americana). I...
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...y human; he is either the idealized symbol of Camelot and the virtues of the Round Table, or he is a peripheral character—sometimes virtuous—but rarely with a penetrating intelligence capable of seeing long-term effects and making sound decisions. Whether a historical Arthur actually existed, what we are left with today is a mythological character, memorable and tantalizing in his virtues and foibles.
Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Macfarlane, Bruce; Notes on Arthurian Literature and the Grail; http://reality.sgi.com/employees/chris_manchester/bruce.html#chapter1; Online, 3/23/97.
Nagasive, Tyagi Mordred; The Case of Sir Mordred; calvin.stemnet.nf.ca/~djohnsto/arthur/camordrd.txt, Online, 3/23/97."
Regan, Charles L.; Arthurian Romances; Encyclopedia Americana, 1972
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