Arthur: Beyond The Legend

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Excalibur, Camelot, Sir Lancelot and Guinevere: Were these tales just the inventions of legends, or did they have their roots in history? Many historians believe that the legendary figure of King Arthur may have been based upon a real British king from the Dark Ages. Who he actually was is an enigma, but some scholars have found remarkable parallels between Arthur and an early British ruler named Cuneglasus.

Cuneglasus ruled part of Britain during the sixth century. He has a historical reputation of making war with other British people, and his name was incorrectly translated to mean "red butcher." This indicates that Cuneglasus may have been regarded as a murderer. This doesn't exactly fit our perception of the heroic Arthur, but the writings of the monk Gildas reveal many parallels that may cause us to re-examine our ideas of Arthur.

Arthur himself is said, in a Welsh triad, to be worse that the three "red ravagers" of the isles.

Even in legend, Arthur was a great leader of war. In the historical reality, the perceptions of Cuneglasus may have be colored by the viewpoint of those with whom he made war, while the heroic and praising Arthurian legends grew up among the descendants of his own people. But what else do we have to indicate that Cuneglasus may have been a historical basis for Arthur? First of all, Gildas records a similarity in the names. In his list of British kings, he lists Cuneglasus as "Urse-Cuneglasus." Urse means "bear" and it is commonly recognized that Arthur means "bear" in Celtic.

However, these similarities are not substantial evidence at all. It is when we examine their lives that we see parallels that provide convincing arguments. First of all, they are both reported to have been conceived in shame. In addition, they both became king at a very young age. Arthur was called the "Boy-King." Cuneglasus, also was supposed to have taken the thrown at a very early age, perhaps as early as fifteen. The most startling parallel is a very similar incident of the king committing the crime of lusting after the sister of his wife. In Arthurian legend, Guinevere's sister attempts to abduct her. Arthur places her in a convent, but she later brings Arthur under her spell, tricking him into believing that she is the rightful queen. Gildas reports that Cuneglasus lusted after his wife's sister, who had "promised to God perpetually chaste womanhood" but was also described as "villainous." These two statements seem to contradict each other, but taken in light of Arthurian legend, it makes sense, and may be the historical foundation of a legendary incident.

Who was Arthur? Perhaps he was Cuneglasus, but despite a few parallels, we may never know for sure. Arthur may have been a conglomerate of the qualities of several historical rulers, or he may have his basis purely in legend. However, examining the life of Cuneglasus leads to a deeper understanding of the perspectives of Arthurian legend. Arthur may have been a great heroic leader, but he might have also been the lustful, murderous king Cuneglasus.