Arthur Was No God

When I have the time (or the willingness to waste it) I stick my nose in books and articles on King Arthur and his world–historical and fictional. I am firmly of the opinion that Arthur was a real, living man (and one from the North), and that can be a tricky thing to assert. There are lots of arguments that go into that debate, but one in particular caught my eye the other day when I should have been reading something not Wikipedia.

Some folks believe that Arthur was a mythical figure, an old god that got reverse-euhemerized into a British king. I’ve even had a somewhat lively discussion with a PhD’d historian who had organized a significant portion of his scholarly career around that idea. As support, proponents of this view cite such early British sources as “The Spoils of Annwn” in which King Arthur goes into a semi-mythical Otherworld and interacts with figures once considered deities. Such sources do exist, and I trust their origins more than the abundance of later French tripe. But I think this argument is flawed.

As an example, take a look at one of the most famous ancient British poets, and Arthur’s near-contemporary, Taliesin. Taliesin is known to have actually existed, served as bard in the courts of men we can locate, and wrote poems about battles we can date. A collection of poems under his name survive to this day, some of which still effect pop culture. Taliesin lived.

But if we believe the legends told about him, he received his poetic (and prophetic) abilities from stealing a bit of a witch’s brew and then transforming himself into various animals to escape. He failed at this plan by becoming a single grain which the witch ate after becoming a hen. She then became pregnant with him, and resolved to kill him when he was born. However, he was such a beautiful baby that she could not, but threw him into some large body of water instead. He was then found by a king who was fishing for salmon, and raised in his court. What stark realism.

Furthermore, some stories make Taliesin Arthur’s bard, despite every historian agreeing he lived well after anyone claims a historical Arthur would have died. The legends that grew up around this man are incredible and otherworldly, in the mold of what little we know of old Celtic paganism. But despite his mythologization, we know he was a historical figure. Why then could Arthur not have undergone the same process? If his countryman could be transformed into a larger-than-life resident of a magical realm, why could not the king himself?

This in itself is no argument for Arthur’s historicity, but it does mean we can’t rule it out. Great men have always bred legends, and some societies are more prone to exaggeration than others. Arthur may never have raided the Otherworld, but there is no reason he could not have raided the Angles.

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