Did Arthur Really Live? A Critical Look


“The fact is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books.”

That was written by David Dumville in Histories and Pseudo-histories. It is certainly his opinion as much as he believes that it is in fact. Indeed, that last sentence is a summation of this article.

To wit, how do we know what is real? How do we know who is real? In the present day, we rarely see with our own eyes everything that we believe to be true. We rely on other sources – such as other people, who saw people, places, and things and then wrote about them. We take for granted that what we read in newspapers and magazines and on websites has been verified by at least one person. (It is hoped.) The standard nowadays is that information is verified multiple times to ensure accuracy.

But this goes for facts and figures. What about sightings of people and events? For those, we have to rely on eyewitnesses. And in order for us to know such things, we have to rely on the testimony (written or spoken) of those eyewitnesses. This is the inherent problem with identifying who or what Arthur was. Was he a king or just a cavalry commander? Was he a Roman or a Welshman or a Breton or something else entirely? Did he really have all those knights at his beck and call, and did he really send them all on that quest for the Grail (or Graal)?

We have only what we know, what other people have related to one another and what some of those people have written down. And, as with most things at that time in history, the historical cupboard is rather bare.

But is that reality enough to discount the existence of Arthur altogether? Are facts the only perception that we should go on when considering the existence of a person, place, or thing? If the name and concept is well-known to people today, as it was by people in that time, should that knowledge be discounted simply because it is not supported by “facts”? And is a fact only something that is written down, or can it be something that “everyone knows”? Electricity is a concept that everyone knows and can see work, but very few people really understand how it works; yet it is accepted as fact because evidence has been experienced as well as written. (This may seem like a ridiculous example, but think of it as being viewed by people hundreds of years from now.)

This is the inherent problem in applying modern standards to an age-old “matter”: the more the years go by, the more difficult it is to sort out who knows what about what or whom.

So what are we to make of Mr. Dumville’s assertion? It is probably a matter of individual preference. A great many people believe in the legendary Arthur, with the medieval castles and the quests and the Grail and such. In fact, for these people, facts don’t enter into it too much because the stories are much more palatable when they are dressed up in colorful language and images. It’s the hard-core historians, like Dumville, who need facts and figures. The trouble for him and for for others is that those facts and figures are in short supply. Those who believe that Arthur existed in some form or fashion are still waiting for the evidence to be found (much like the Britons are still waiting for the Return of the King). Research into the Matter of Britain is ongoing; perhaps someday, evidence will be found to corroborate the various assertions about the existence and vitality of Arthur; perhaps not. It is entirely possible that even if he did exist, perhaps in exactly the way that he is described in some historical texts, the hourglass of time has buried the facts that would support those assertions under too much sand.