King Arthur is perhaps the most well known character in fantasy literature. For centuries, poets, screenwriters, artists, novelists, and musicians have been captivated by tales of the timeless monarch and his Knights of the Round Table.
The real Arthur would have lived around the 6th century A.D.
He predated the Age of Chivalry by 500+ years and would have had more in common with a Roman legionnaire than a European knight. While this does instantly discredit about 83% of Arthurian lore, we know there was a real warlord who fought back the Saxons after the Romans jumped ship. (Merlin was also real, but that’s for another time.)
Regardless, the exploits of Arthur and his men were so impressive, they were told and retold from antiquity into the modern era. We have an entire subgenre of literature based on him that has spawned books, movies, songs, visual art, television series, and one Monty Python film (legendary in its own right).
Yet even outside Arthurian retellings, Arthur’s influence is everywhere.
My own writing has been heavily influenced by Arthurian lore. Armandius Caersynn of the Argetallam Saga was loosely modeled off Arthur (magical sword, last of his bloodline, fools around with enchantresses). Daindreth of Daindreth’s Assassin has some similarities, but by far my most pronounced inspiration is seen in WIP Fireblight. Fireblight started out as a gender-bent retelling of the Guinevere and Lancelot debacle (with dragon shifters) and kind of mushroomed from there.
I’m certainly not the only one, either. Going back to J.R.R. Tolkien, you can find parallelisms. Aragorn has a magically imbued ancestral sword, grows up in exile, has an association with the fey/elves, and his return marks a time of peace an prosperity for his kingdom. Lloyd Alexander drew strongly from the Welsh branch of Arthurian lore in creating his Prydain Chronicles.
In more contemporary works, Sarah J. Maas‘s Aelin is an exiled heir with association to the fey, brought down to nothing in order to rise again, and her return marks redemption/salvation for the land as well as its people. Branwen of Destiny’s Path and Achan of the Blood of Kings series are other modern examples. The Arthurian archetype is alive and well.
Arthur is immortal.
Modern literary influences are mostly if not entirely based on Arthur’s mythological exploits. Nevertheless, the framework set by Arthurian writers has shaped fantasy fiction for centuries. Archetypes of Merlin, Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, Mordred, and even the Grail can also be seen cropping up throughout the genre.
We may never know exactly what the real Arthur did or precisely who he was. There was probably no Grail or Lady of the Lake involved. It’s possible he didn’t even go by Arthur.
None of that has stopped generations of fantasy writers from casting him in countless reincarnations. The Once and Future King has no need to return. He never left us.
What is your favorite/least favorite of the Arthurian archetypes? Can you see it in any of your favorite fantasy books?