Many stories are entwined around King Arthur: the Knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail or the legendary sword Excalibur. But has Arthur really existed?
Who does not know them, the story of Arthur, the great king of Britain, his sword Excalibur, which he drew from a stone and made him invincible, from Camelot, his magnificent castle, or the mighty wizard Merlin; and, finally, the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table - Gwalchmai, Lancelot, Parzival, Galahad, Tristan, and others - who seek out the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper and, according to legend, eternal youth donates.
Since the Middle Ages, countless legends, novels, plays and, finally, feature films have dealt with the legend of Arthur. But is this really only fictitious, or is not there a true historical core behind all the myths? Jürgen Wolf, professor of German philology at the Technical University of Berlin, who has now published the first overview of this topic in German, takes this opportunity. For years, the philologist was in his research again and again confronted with medieval writings on Arthur. "At some point you ask yourself the question: Was it really there?" Says Wolf. In order to come closer to an answer, he had to analyze thousands of sources from the Middle Ages to modern times, added to a vast amount of research literature.
Wolf is far from being the first one interested in Arthur's story. Already King Richard the Lionheart left in 1191 in the vicinity of the monastery Glastonbury in the southwest of England to search for the grave of his legendary predecessor. At the end of this early archaeological dig, one indeed found "his" bones and a lead cross, assuring, "Here lies the famous King Arthur". To be sure, this was a contemporary forgery, because Lionheart was little concerned with the truth, but with legitimizing his own, still young rule by his ancestor.
Anyway, in the twelfth century, everything that had to do with Arthur was met with enormous interest. The geographer Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to systematically research and write down the king's history. Previously, there were only various fragments of the Arthurian legend, which were passed on in the tradition of the early Middle Ages, usually only orally. A problem for Jürgen Wolf. The earliest evidence of events that are associated with Arthur, the researchers discovered in the 6th and 7th centuries in the chroniclers Gildas and Beda, but do not mention the name Arthur. He appears only around 820 at the monk Nennius, but Arthur is not king, but a British army commander in the battles against the attacking Saxons in the 5th century.
Arthur only became king in the course of several hundred years from the general. Over time, more and more details have flowed into the Arthurian story, including the Round Table or the search for the Holy Grail. In fact, Winchester Castle has a round table that for centuries was considered the furniture Arthur and his knights gathered together. However, modern studies have shown that the wood does not come from the time of Arthur, but was struck only in 1250.
In the second half of the 12th century, the legend of Arthur spreads as a literary material from England abruptly across Europe. In the process, historical lore became more and more epic-literary representations. The French poet Chrétien de Troyes was one of the first to make Arthur popular on the continent - on behalf of the English Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Later, the Arthurian novels by Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strasbourg and Wolfram von Eschenbach, which had long been translated into Middle High German, became true bestsellers of the Middle Ages.
Even then, the truth of the Arthurian story was sometimes violently doubted, but that was not the point anymore. Arthur and his round table had become rather an ideal type of medieval rule and knight culture. Artus festivals and Artus tournaments were held at the royal courts throughout Europe. Orders of knighthood, such as the English Order of the Garter, were in the tradition of the Round Table. Politically, the English kings used the Arthurian cult again and again to legitimize their own rule. A climax found this trend under the Tudor King Henry VIII (1491-1547), but also his daughter Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was a great Arthurian admirer. To this day, Arthur is considered a national hero in England.
In the romance of the 19th century, the Arthurian legend with its knightly ideals gained new impetus in art and literature, not least in Richard Wagner's operas "Tristan and Isolde" and "Parsifal", where Wagner radically rewrote his medieval role models, as they in his opinion the story had been completely wrong. The myth of King Arthur has not lost any of its fascination for centuries to the present day. In modern times, however, more and more imaginative elements have flown into the stories, as in Mark Twain's novel "A Yankee from Connecticut to King Arthur's Court" from 1889. And of course, Hollywood has taken the so heroic topos in countless films. Of course, these beautiful pictures have nothing in common with an early medieval, perhaps historical, Arthur.
But what is left of the historical person Arthur? If it really existed then he was most likely a general who lived in the 5th century. Some historians recognize it in the Roman officer Lucius Artorius Castus, who was demonstrably stationed in Britain in the first century. A theory that Jürgen Wolf rejects because of the time interval, however. Historians and archaeologists have located some places in England where Artus' Camelot may have been located, including Cadbury Castle in the county of Somerset. Despite many hints, modern archeology has never been able to find concrete evidence for a historical Arthurian, says Professor Wolf in his review. The knowledge about Arthur had hardly changed significantly since the Middle Ages. "As in the 12th century, there is only a vague idea of a historic King Arthur," said Wolf's final verdict. The true Arthur ultimately remains hidden behind an impenetrable jumble of facts and fiction, knowledge and half-knowledge, presumption and fantasy.