According to A Short History Of England by Simon Jenkins:
Gildas (a 6th century cleric) told of living in a period of peace in the Severn valley. He attributed this a to British leader who defeated the Saxons at the turn of the sixth century at Mount Badon. The only commander he mentions by name was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romano-Briton. His nickname may have been ‘Bear’, the skin of his military tunic. Bear is *artos *in Celtic.
Admittedly, not very conclusive - but interesting.
Mordred (Medraut) shows up pretty early on in the Welsh chronicles, as does Merlin (Myrddin). IIRC the earliest reference to Mordred says he died with Arthur, but that it’s unclear whether they were killed together or killed each other and Mordred is not said to be a relative of Arthur’s.
There are several other Knights of the Round Table who may have been based on historic figures (I’ve heard there’s some evidence for a historic Sir Tristan and Sir Yvain) who became local folk heroes and were later said to be companions of the Round Table. The same probably happened with other totally fictional characters. The whole Round Table setup would make it easy to graft on almost any contemporary character or story.
I am an expert, and this is exactly right. Most of the other posts in this thread are pulling from correct information, but it’s really confusing.
Basically, Arthur is composed of three elements:
A Roman or Romano-British warrior in Britain who fought against the Angles and / or Saxons but whose name was not Arthur.
A British hero whose name was Arthur, about whom nothing else historical is known, even geography.
Narrative motifs and themes that get attached to the amalgamation of those two guys above, giving us the Arthur we know and love.
It’s pretty clear what happened: Source 1 (Gildas) gives the history, source 2 (Nennius) retells Gildas and swaps the names, and Source 3 (Geoffrey) fleshes it out and sells it. That’s simplifying it a bit, of course!
Some of Arthur’s knights are rather more historical, but the package you are familiar with is a tiny bit of history, not a few legends, and a ton of literature which developed over the course of the last 1500 years.
Things in this thread which have indeed been suggested by scholars but aren’t currently accepted:
*The “Bear” connection. Yes, there are a lot of heroes called “bear” or some variation, and yes, the Welsh word “Arthur” looks a lot like the Welsh word “arth” (“bear”), or the proto-form *artos > Artorius if you like, but it doesn’t work with the historical and linguistic evidence we do have.
*Riot[h]amus and other “real” Arthurs: Yes, every now and again someone digs a medieval guy up and claims him for the “real” Arthur. This should be taken with as much faith as those “who REALLY wrote Shakespeare” claims.
Early Merlin. Welsh Myrddin isn’t associated with Arthur at all until the Normans. Medrawd / Modred / Mordred is linked to Arthur, but as stated the family relationship is late. Early “knights” are Kay, Bedevere, and Gawain, probably Guinevere, and the historical ones are Yvain, Urien, and Perceval. The named historical figure (#1 above) gets relegated to the role we think of as Merlin’s.
I missed the reference to the Sarmatian theory. While Scott is a really nice guy and certainly a reputable scholar, suffice it to say that his theory has weaknesses which lead it to be discounted. All you have to do is note how closely their historical theory resembles a conspiracy theory. It also relies on close parallels that are late additions from Norman sources (in which case it would be better if those Sarmatian legions had been stationed in Gaul, and better still if they had a time machine).
Okay, the linguistic cognate of Guinevere in Irish is Finnabair, and her mother, a queen, is called “Medb of the friendly thighs.” Not in a negative way, just as a description.
It’s not really Guinevere’s fault, poor thing—if you’d potentially make a better king than Arthur, Guinevere is bound to come on to you. She wants to bestow her favours upon you. Legitimate kingship, what did you think I meant? Oh. Well, that too; they go together.
This all made sense to the Celts (Welsh / Cornish / Bretons) for cultural reasons but the only reason later writers could see for the behaviour was your basic queen-grade sluttiness. It’s all a misunderstanding.
So, the original was perhaps more an embodiment of the kingdom, and less a human wife and life-partner, so was naturally ready – in fact required – to grant her favor to the best king available.
Later writers didn’t quite get that, so, treating her as human life-partner, called her a nasty slut. (and since, she’s the queen, ‘traitorous’)
Then, even later writers preferred star-crossed romantic to nasty slut.
That’s not nearly as interesting as I was hoping, but certainly plausible. (I guess I’ll have to write it myself if I want a version of Arthur with Guinevere as an evil mastermind secretly manipulating/seducing everyone around her… )
So did Thomas Mallory construct his “Morte d’Arthur” on total phantasy?
The storys are pretty basic-kighthood, chivalry, romance, treachery, war and death.
Still, it would be nice to know the full evolution of the story.
In the 12th century, a few authors (notably Chrétien de Troyes) adapted the Arthurian material to the conventions of medeival romance. That tradition continued to expand and adapt the Arthurian story for the better part of 300 years before Mallory got a hold of it. By his day, it was largely what we might call fantasy or historical fantasy.
History of the Old Welsh North, understood partly through the lens of myth.
Add the historical Ambrosius (Gildas)
Tie #s 2 & 3 together, call Ambrosius “Arthur” (Nennius)
Retell the whole thing as Romano-British history, with only a few legends. Add more Celtic details: Merlin, Avalon. (Geoffrey)
Adapt to Norman French. Add Round Table. (Wace)
Convert to Romance. Add Lancelot, Camelot, Grail (Chrétien de Troyes).
Spin off to other countries (England, Germany); keep adding motifs (e.g. Sword in the Stone).
Expand, add knights.
Live through Wars of Roses, write series of Arthurian romances with that world view. (Mallory)
Sew series of romances into one long story, print, and publish (Caxton).
As Dr. Drake notes, Mallory is really quite late in the development of the Matter of Britain.
The real question is “did Geoffrey of Monmouth construct his *History of the Kings of Britain *on total phantasy, or did he base it on early legends or even (as he claimed) a book of history, now lost?” Most of the threads of the story that don’t end in later books end here, with Geoffrey.
I recall one of the Pythons, probably Gilliam, saying in an interview that that’s why they chose King Arthur and Camelot as the subject for their first film was because there was no one “right” history to stick to. It would be just another retelling of a legend, whereas if they’d made a film about Queen Victoria*, historians would be foaming at the mouth about all the inaccuracies.