When the movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword hits theaters Friday, it will add the latest twist to a legend that’s been evolving for nearly a millennium. This version of the legend (starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law) pits King Arthur against his uncle, who seizes the crown until the famous episode in which young Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and proves he is the rightful king.
It’s a fanciful tale and one that’s been told many times, but where does it come from?
Some people do believe that King Arthur could have been a real person, but despite the occasional news story about an archaeological discovery that may provide clues, experts on Arthurian legend tell TIME that there is no evidence — no primary source from the time — to confirm that King Arthur was ever a real person.
What is possible, however, is that Arthur is based on a real leader from the 5th or 6th century. One promising theory points to a person known as “Riothamus” — an honorific for “supreme king” — who crossed the English Channel to fight in France. That’s something that Arthur also does in early texts. “It may be the closest we will come to locating a specific model for Arthur,” according to Norris J. Lacy, a medievalist and former international president of the International Arthurian Society.
If an “Arthur-type” figure were alive around that time, then he was probably a military leader reacting to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, a very violent time and a setting ripe for the creation of a legend. “There was no centralized government, and British life was essentially tribal,” says Lacy. “Rulers would occupy an area, often a hill, that would be easy to defend. Local wars were frequent, with much hacking and ‘smiting.’ Life being as uncertain as it was, and with society torn by war, strife, and sometimes famine and disease, it is not surprising that people would latch onto stories of a benevolent king or warlord who is intent on peace and prosperity.”
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The first full “biographies” of Arthur don’t appear until the 12th century. Though they were sometimes styled as being based on a true story, they came out of a time when romance writing was all the rage, inspired by the rise of courtly love and chivalry.
The most famous accounts are Historyof the Kings of Britain, written in 1136 in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who claimed to have been translating an ancient British book on the kings of Britain that had been lost. The legend really took off in the 15th century with the release of Le Morte d’Arthur, with which Thomas Malory helped popularize, for the English-speaking world, courtly love and the iconic image of Arthur being the only one who can pull the sword out of the stone.
“There were powerful women in the courts of England and France who were patronizing poets and writers, and they may have wanted certain type of stories” about courtly love, says Chris Snyder, an expert on Arthurian legend and dean of the Shackouls Honors College at Mississippi State University.
On the other hand, no matter whether Arthur was a real person or not, the story’s mysterious origins add a level of intrigue that have helped keep the legend alive. “No one was keeping good records because they were trying to survive, and that’s one reason the legend became so popular,” says Dorsey Armstrong, professor of Medieval Literature at Purdue University and the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Arthuriana. “Something amazing happened, but we don’t have details, so you’re free to use your imagination.”
We’ve all heard stories about King Arthur of Camelot, who according to medieval legend led British forces (including his trusted Knights of the Round Table) in battle against Saxon invaders in the early sixth century. But was King Arthur actually a real person, or simply a hero of Celtic mythology? Though debate has gone on for centuries, historians have been unable to confirm that Arthur really existed. He doesn’t appear in the only surviving contemporary source about the Saxon invasion, in which the Celtic monk Gildas wrote of a real-life battle at Mons Badonicus (Badon Hills) around 500 A.D. Several hundred years later, Arthur appears for the first time in the writings of a Welsh historian named Nennius, who gave a list of 12 battles the warrior king supposedly fought. All drawn from Welsh poetry, the battles took place in so many different times and places that it would have been impossible for one man to have participated in all of them.
Later Welsh writers drew on Nennius’ work, and Arthur’s fame spread beyond Wales and the Celtic world, particularly after the Norman conquest of 1066 connected England to northern France. In the popular 12th-century book “History of the Kings of Britain,” Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the first life story of Arthur, describing his magic sword Caliburn (later known as Excalibur), his trusted knight Lancelot, Queen Guinevere and the wizard Merlin. An irresistible blend of myth and fact, the book was supposedly based on a lost Celtic manuscript that only Geoffrey was able to examine. A series of romances by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes gave Arthur’s quest a spiritual motive by introducing his search for the mysterious Holy Grail. Though Arthur may not have been a real person, his mythic power would only grow stronger as the centuries passed. English rulers from Henry VIII to Queen Victoria have appropriated the Arthur legend for political purposes, while countless writers, painters, photographers, filmmakers and other artists have produced their own versions for posterity.