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Naming one of these heroic journeys the “Hero’s Journey” has so many consequences. It implicitly devalues the other and denies the heroism of the Leader. But if you believe that Aragorn’s story is a Leader’s Journey, as I do, you have to accept that both journeys are about heroes—just different kinds of heroes. And that opens up thinking about other aspects of these journeys. Valuing or considering just one closes off some of those avenues of thought—and that’s limiting to us all.

Having the tools to recognize the Leader’s Journey as distinct from the Warrior’s enabled me to notice things—like recognizing that Aragorn’s heroic journey was fundamentally different from Frodo’s and why. It adds another dimension to some of my favorite stories. And, even an old favorite, read or watch many times, can get a new shine by noticing the signs of which journey (if any) is being enacted.

It shouldn’t be surprising at this point that stories that involve a team (heists, buddy cop, super hero teams) are usually Leader’s Journeys for the team. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all of the characters are on a Leader’s Journey. It’s interesting (to me, at least) to notice which characters fit nicely into the team. And which find it more difficult, but manage in the end. And which just can’t function as part of a team. (I’m looking at you Tony Stark/Iron Man.)

More, understanding this has made me realize that a number of my stories are actually about Leaders, not Warriors. And that I screwed up. Not in the stories themselves, although I hope to be able to write this journey better now that I have a better grounding in it. More mindfully. But I erred by not telegraphing the correct journey to the readers—in the covers, in the blurbs, in the early chapters. Because if the reader understands what kind of story they’re going to get they are better able to choose and also more likely to be satisfied readers. So that’s definitely something I can learn to do better.

I certainly don’t want to mislead readers about the story they’ll get in one of my books. On the other hand, since I can’t expect readers to know about the Leader’s Journey, even if I call it the Heroine’s Journey (maybe especially then), I’ll have to find another way to set their expectations. Kind of like reader expectations of epic fantasy, but that’s another line of thought. Maybe I’ll blog about that next.

Here’s where I’m going to go off and argue that some very masculine hero-type male characters are actually on Leader’s Journeys (and why I don’t want to use Heroine’s Journey as a name for this kind of story).

Let’s start with Aragorn. Breathe, I’ll wait. Okay, now that you’ve gotten over your near heart attack, let’s look at the points of his journey—including material from the Appendices.

Aragorn’s father was killed in an orc attack when Aragorn was only two. His mother worried that someone was trying to wipe out the remaining heirs of Isildur, so she took baby Aragorn to Rivendell to be raised as Elrond’s foster son. Elrond shared her fears and gave the baby a different name, Estel (meaning Hope), to protect him. Aragorn didn’t even know who he really was until he came of age. (Disguise and loss of identity.)

Shortly after he found out who he really was—and what he could become—Aragorn met Arwen, who had been away visiting her grandparents, Celeborn and Galadriel, in Lothlorien. And he fell in love with her. Arwen wasn’t immediately as impressed with a very young Aragorn.

Aragorn set about taking up his duties as Chief of the Dunedain of the North and became friends with Gandalf. He was known around Bree as Strider. He also travelled in disguise, using the name Thorongil (Eagle of the Star) to both Rohan and Gondor and even farther afield. (Disguises.) He became a very great warrior and leader. On his return, Aragorn stopped in Lothlorien, where Arwen was again visiting. With help from Galadriel, he made a much better impression this time and the two plighted their troth.

Elrond, however, was not pleased because it meant that Arwen would make the choice to be mortal, rather than go into to West when the last of the elves left. He said he would only give his blessing to the marriage if Aragorn became King of Gondor. (The only family Aragorn has left is his foster family and his foster father is trying to stop Aragorn from forming a new family. His existing support network offers no solutions.)

Time passed and Aragorn joined the Fellowship. When Gandalf fell in Moria, Aragorn took over as leader of the group and he would have gone with Frodo to the end. But Frodo (Hero/Warrior, remember?) chose to go off alone. And Aragorn, as a Leader, accepted that choice. As Boromir was dying, swore to save what was left of the civilization of the Numenoreans. “I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.” Boromir was the first man of Gondor to recognize Aragorn as his king.

But first, Aragorn set out to rescue Merry and Pippin. (A Leader is loyal to his team and doesn’t abandon them.)Aragorn started recruiting more team members almost immediately. Once Gandalf had broken Saruman’s hold over him, Theoden rejected the idea of helping Gondor, “Where was Gondor when the Westfold fell?” But after Aragorn (and his friends) helped to win the Battle of Helm’s Deep, his attitude changed. When Aragorn announced that the beacons were lit and Gondor called for aid, Theoden replied, “And Rohan will answer.”  (The Leader recruits new team members, sometimes by helping them first.)Aragorn even recruited the dead to help him with the Corsairs.

At the battle of the Pelennor Fields, Aragorn flew the banner Arwen had made for him—the banner of a king of Gondor—from the lead Corsair ship, which raised talk of the return of the king in the city. Following the battle, Aragorn set up his tent outside the walls, refusing to enter the city—yet. But he did enter, cloaked and hooded (another disguise), when Gandalf asked for his help with some of the injured. Aragorn was able to help those, like Merry, Eowyn, and Faramir, who were suffering from “the Black Breath”, because, as the saying in Gondor went, “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer”. Talk of the return of the king accelerated.

The power dynamic shifted at this point. Gandalf deferred to Aragorn who was the true general and leader of the combined forces from that point on.  Aragorn proposed and led the assault on the Black Gate to divert attention from Frodo. (The Leader will try to save all of his (or her) team, even the hero. They are the source of the Leader’s strength, after all.) On his return, Faramir greeted him at the gate and recognized him as king.

Finally, Aragorn’s reward is to marry Arwen. (Happy ending, reunited with family, including the new found family of his team.)

See how much easier it is to think of Aragorn as a Leader? No one denies that he was a great warrior, but his path, his journey, was not the Hero’s Journey.

Archetypal character arcs are another way of looking at . . . well, if not precisely the same thing, something very similar. Just because one of the archetypal character arcs is call the Hero, doesn’t make it exactly the same as the Hero’s Journey. That doesn’t feel quite right to me, but that’s just my opinion. It may only be a matter of perspective. And, really, it doesn’t matter that much. If thinking in terms of character arcs instead of journeys feeds your muse and fuels your creativity, that’s what’s really important.

The interesting thing about the archetypal character arcs—at least, to me—is that they follow one another. In fact, in this analysis, the point of the arc is to level up, as it were, to the next arc. So, a coming-of-age arc would lead to a hero arc, and from there into something like the arc of a Heroine’s/Leaders Journey and then on to still other arcs. That certainly has possibilities for a long series centered, mostly, around a single character. Although, there are plenty of examples out there that prove it’s not the only way to write such a series.

That’s all a little bit beside the point of my current focus on the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey, though. If you want to dive deeper into these character arcs, I recommend starting with K. M. Weiland’s website. She’s doing a series on these arcs, starting here: Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 1: A New Series – Helping Writers Become Authors.

I don’t think I really need to go into depth about the Warrior’s Journey. We all know the shape of that story. And, anyway, there are a lot of resources for learning more about it. But, maybe we need to look closely at a good example of the Leader’s Journey. Unfortunately, neither Katniss nor Samwise are the best examples of a Leader. Katniss is not very good at creating a team by her own efforts, though she’s extremely loyal to her team once they’ve been recruited. She says it herself, that she’s not good at making friends. In the beginning, both Peeta and Haymitch do more of the recruiting than she does. And, at least initially, she seems just as happy to be off on her own. And then there’s Samwise, who never recruits a team at all. So, for an example of the Leader’s Journey, I’m going to follow Gail Carriger and go back to ancient Greek mythology and the story of Demeter and Persephone. I’ll mark the major points of the Journey in bold.

Demeter was the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest and she had a daughter named Persephone. One day, when Demeter was on Mount Olympus, seat of the Greek gods, tending to business, Persephone went for a walk in the meadows below, picking wild flowers. Suddenly, a chasm opened up beside her and Hades, god of the Underworld, grabbed Persephone and dragged her down to his realm.

Someone dear to Demeter, her daughter, is in danger.

Demeter didn’t know what had happened to Persephone, but she knew something wasn’t right. She appealed to her brother gods for help. (In Greek mythology, quite literally her brothers.) They were sympathetic, but none of them offered any real help or solutions. Demeter threw down her crown and stepped down from her throne, leaving Mount Olympus to search on her own.

Abdication of a position of power and even of a part of her identity, not always voluntarily.

Demeter searched everywhere, but couldn’t find any sign of her daughter until one of her sister goddesses, Hecate, caught up with her. Hecate suggested that they should talk to Helios, the Greek god of the Sun, since he might have seen something as he drove the chariot of the sun across the sky. Helios reluctantly admitted that he saw what happened and told Demeter that Hades took Persephone. But he also advised her to look on the bright side, after all, Hades would make a powerful son-in-law.

The Leader’s team excels at information gathering.

Depressed and feeling even more betrayed by those she expected to help her, Demeter continued to wander, disguising herself as an old woman. In this guise, she was found by the daughters of a local king. The girls took pity on the old woman and took her back to the palace, where she was given a place and made nanny to the infant prince.

The Leader is in the most danger when she (or he) is alone.

Disguises are a common feature of the Leader’s Journey.

Iambe visited with Demeter and told her dirty jokes until Demeter laughed. This lightened her mood and finally began to break her out of her depression.

Humor is much more common on the Leader’s Journey than on the Warrior’s Journey. It can be a source of cohesion within the team as well as breaking the tension.

Demeter now realized that what she needed was a new team—one that would help her recover Persephone. So, she decided to make the infant she was caring for into an immortal so that he could help her. In Greek mythology, this could only be accomplished by burning the mortal part away.

She laid the infant in the fire to begin the process. Just then, the baby’s mother came in and freaked out. (Well, wouldn’t you?). Hearing the uproar, the father came in—and also freaked out. Demeter then dropped her disguise, appearing before them as the goddess. By way of apology, the King built a big, new temple for Demeter and in return Demeter taught their older son the principles of agriculture.

Building or other signs of an increase in civilization are hallmarks of the Leader’s Journey.

Also, the Leader is just as willing to help her team mates as she expects them to be to help her. In fact, she may often recruit her team mates by helping them first.

Once Demeter took the throne in her new temple, the other gods—the ones who hadn’t helped Demeter in the beginning—came to beg her to return to Mount Olympus. Without her, there had been no harvest. There was a famine, and the gods were afraid that if everyone died there’d be no one left to worship them. To each, Demeter replied that she wouldn’t return to Mount Olympus until she saw her daughter.

Finally, Zeus sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to the Underworld to tell Hades that he had to let Persephone go. Hades was reluctant, but agreed to a visit. Hermes led Persephone up to the surface where she and Demeter were reunited.

However, Hades revealed that, while in the Underworld, Persephone had eaten four pomegranate seeds, which tied her to the Underworld. Demeter proposed a compromise. Persephone would spend four months of the year in the Underworld with Hades, and the remainder of the year with Demeter.

The Leader is willing to compromise and find a win/win solution. She (or he) doesn’t care about glory or revenge. She (or he) is all about results. And loyalty to her (or his) team.

Another aspect of the Leader’s Journey not exemplified by this story:

The Leader is also good at delegation, asking each member of the team to undertake the tasks that they are individually best suited for—and giving them the glory for achieving those tasks. When the mission or the team is in jeopardy, the Leader is likely to react as a general, deploying her (or his) team to best effect. This is partly why I chose to call this journey the Leader’s Journey.

One way to define the two journeys is to look at the differences between them.

Let’s call the Heroine’s Journey the Leader’s Journey. I’ll explain that as I get more into this particular kind of heroic journey. Those are both over simplifications, of course, but so are the gendered names and these are less culturally fraught. Yes, it’s difficult to picture Frodo, who is definitely on a Hero’s Journey, as a Warrior, but no harder than picturing Samwise as a Heroine—or a Leader, for that matter. Yet that is exactly the kind of hero Sam is. And, yes, Heroines are heroic, too. They just have different motivations and methods—and tend to have better endings.

So, what makes the two journeys different?

  1. What the character sets out to do.
  2. What they perceive as strength/power and, conversely, when they experience vulnerability. And how this perception of strength influences their approach to the problem.
  3. How their stories end.

I’ve already given examples of the heroic goals of three Warrior’s Journeys. By contrast, what starts the Leader on her (or his) journey is that someone important to them has been captured, kidnapped, or otherwise threatened and the Leader sets out to save them. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute to save her sister, Prim. Samwise goes along to “take care” of Frodo and, in the process, saves him more than once.

Heroes/Warriors tend to see strength as self-reliance and solitary action against great odds. Therefore, though the Warrior may start out with a group of companions and/or acquire companions along the way, he (or she) will always go off on their own before the climax. The group represents a threat because they impede that solitary action. For Frodo, the Fellowship also represented a more direct threat because Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring revealed that its influence was working inside the group. But Frodo’s greatest struggle was even more isolating by being internal and largely invisible, fighting against the influence the Ring was trying to exert on him. He’s alone in that battle even when he’s surrounded by the Fellowship and even Gandalf couldn’t have helped him with that. And Luke Skywalker is literally always going off by himself—in his fighter to destroy the Death Star, on his tauntaun to “check something out”, off to train with Yoda, and finally to confront his father and the Emperor. He never stays with his team for long.

The Heroine/Leader, on the other hand, is at her (or his) most vulnerable when alone. The Leader may be a very powerful individual, even a great warrior, but she (or he) perceives strength in a team of people who will pool their skills and abilities and work together to solve the problem.

In other words, in a crisis, the Hero/Warrior is most likely to say “Stand back. I’ll handle this.” The Heroine/Leader is more likely to say, “Let’s do this together.”

And finally, the endings. Hero/Warriors are usually too changed by their solitary journeys to fit back into their old lives. Despite Sam’s best efforts, Frodo leaves Middle Earth entirely, going into the West with the elves. Luke seems to have come out all right at the end of “Return of the Jedi”, but just look where he’s found in “The Force Awakens”—alone on a lost planet.  Heroine/Leaders are much more likely to get happy endings, surrounded by a new or recovered family—Katniss and Peeta together, Sam with Rosie and their (thirteen!) children.

It’s important to note that not all elements will be present in every instance of either journey. Also neither journey is necessarily quite this black and white, for several reasons. First, not all stories fit into either heroic journey. Then again, in a big, epic story with multiple “heroes”, like LORD OF THE RINGS, it’s entirely possible for some characters to be on Warrior’s Journeys, while others are acting as Leaders. Or, over the course of a long series, a character may be on one journey overall, yet act, for one “episode” (or more) as if he or she were on the other journey. Sometimes, characters can change journeys, especially over the course of a series. And sometimes, it at least feels like the writer is confused and trying to force a Leader to act like a Warrior, or vice versa.

That about covers my research into Arthurian Legend. It’s about time I stopped researching and got back to writing the actual story. Meantime, I’m going to blog about something else for a while. I’ve recently finished my third read-through of Gail Carriger’s THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY. I can’t recommend this book highly enough if you’re a writer or reader of heroic fiction.

There are—there have always been—two kinds of heroic journey. We just never hear about or read analysis of anything but the Hero’s Journey. (Gail Carriger gives an excellent analysis of why this is. I won’t repeat it here.) Yet the other journey is at least as prevalent in fiction and movies. This other journey is unfortunately known as the Heroine’s Journey, both by contrast to the better-known Hero’s Journey and because the earliest examples of this type of story are about goddesses.

These two journeys really ought to have non-gendered names, because characters—of whatever sex—can, and often do, undertake either journey. As a culture, we’ve come to a place where we can accept some female characters, like Wonder Woman, as being on a Hero’s Journey. It’s a lot harder to talk about a very masculine male hero undertaking a Heroine’s Journey. People, me included, just have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around that.

So, for the present purpose, I’m going to rename them. Let’s call the Hero’s Journey the Warrior’s Journey instead. Why? Let’s look at a few examples. Frodo goes to Mordor to destroy the One Ring so Sauron can’t use it to enslave all of Middle Earth. Luke Skywalker sets out to deliver the plans to the Death Star and ends up being the one who blows it up. Wonder Woman has to kill Ares in order to end the war. There’s something in common about all of those quite necessary actions. No matter how analysts of this journey try to define it as “retrieving a boon or healing balm”, the Hero’s Journey is most often framed as a zero-sum game requiring the destruction of something (or someone) to win.

Don’t get me wrong; I love a good Hero’s Journey. But that’s not the only kind of heroic journey out there and it shouldn’t be the only kind of story we tell—or recognize when we see it. As Abraham Maslow wrote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” It’s worth knowing both journeys if only to increase our tool sets as writers, readers—and in real life.

More about what makes the two kinds of heroic journey different in the next post.

One of the fascinating things about researching the legend of Arthur is that you can almost watch the story grow over time.

What turns history (or even pseudo-history) into legend is that it grows and changes in the telling and retelling. Some changes are introduced as later tellers reframe it into a world they recognize—changing Arthur into a king and his companions into knights, for example. Sometimes it grows by plain old-fashioned exaggeration. Sometimes other stories are added to it—older stories or brand new ones.

Not much more about how the legend of Arthur was growing survives until The History of the Britons in the early ninth century—more than 300 years after the Battle of Badon Hill. It’s the first historical source to actually name Arthur, describing him as a warrior and a war leader, but not a king, though it describes him fighting alongside the kings of the Britons. It lists twelve battles, most of which cannot be located from the description. Some of them are listed in other sources, but not attributed to Arthur. The History is also the first historical source to connect Arthur with the Battle of Badon Hill. Though the text also claims that Arthur killed 960 of the enemy all by himself in that battle, somewhat undermining its credibility.

It also repeats the story of Vortigern and Hengist, adding the story of Vortigern’s concessions in return for marriage to Hengist’s daughter, Rowena. And it gives the first version of the story of Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern’s attempt to build a tower on top of the hill was thwarted because the tower kept falling down. Vortigern was advised to sprinkle the blood of a boy without a father over the site to lift the curse. When Emrys is brought to him, the boy reveals that the cause is two dragons fighting underneath the hill.

The next source is the Annals of Cambria, probably written down around the middle of the tenth century, although the earliest surviving copy is from the twelfth century. It adds the detail that both Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were killed in the Battle of Camlann. It doesn’t say whether they were fighting together or against each other, though. There’s also a disputed entry for Merlin. It’s disputed because it uses a form of his name, Merlinus, that only appeared later. The old Welsh form would have been Myrddin or Merdin.

The Welsh texts are mostly frustrating. Most survive as later copies (13th or 14th century) and so may have been changed from the original. And some of them, like the Triads of the Island of Britain and The Stanzas of the Graves, seem to be mnemonics to help oral story tellers remember details, which means they give hints, but don’t actually tell the story. But there are a few things that can be gleaned. Camlann, Arthur’s last battle is mentioned. Arthur, Gawain (Gwalchmai in Welsh), Bedevere (Bedwyr), and Kay (Cei) are also mentioned. So is Yvain (Owain), son of King Uriens of Rheged.

Up to this point, the stories about Arthur were mainly told in Britain and Brittany. But then came Geoffrey of Monmouth and his version of the Arthur story as told in the History of the Kings of Britain in the first half of the twelfth century—after the Norman Conquest. Geoffrey was writing for a new Anglo-Norman/Norman-French audience. He claimed to have had access to an ancient book, now lost. Maybe not, but he might have used some original sources. He certainly added a good amount of imagination, too.

Geoffrey’s Merlin is probably based on at least two actual characters from Welsh tradition—neither of which had any previous connection to Arthur—blended together. He also changed the name from Myrddin to Merlin to better appeal to his French-speaking audience.

Without regard to any actual history, he also has Arthur conquer most of Europe and even Rome. Possibly he conflated Arthur with a fourth-century Roman general with ties to Britannia, Magnus Maximus, who actually did some of that in the 380’s. Maximus was a Roman general stationed in Britannia and he may have married a Welsh princess. But he was not a Briton, having been born in Galicia on the Iberian Peninsula. His legions declared him emperor and he took control of Britannia and Gaul for a while, with at least grudging acceptance of the actual Roman Emperor of the time. He lasted for about four years. When he tried to invade Italy to take Rome, too, Emperor Theodosius I defeated and executed him. Magnus Maximus was definitely not Arthur.

Geoffrey of Monmouth also gives a different account of Mordred than the one we’re more familiar with. According to Geoffrey, while Arthur was in Europe, word reached him that Guinevere and Mordred were having an affair. According to Geoffrey, this is the cause of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur kills Mordred and is mortally wounded himself. But Arthur is carried off to the Isle of Avalon to be healed.

Finally, Geoffrey completes the reframing of the story into a medieval world, rather than the actual context of the Dark Ages. Arthur is a king—in fact, he’s not just a high king, he’s an emperor. His companions are knights. And Geoffrey introduces the very medieval concept of courtly love, as well.

The older versions of the Arthur story were mainly about his battles. But Geoffrey’s version took off, making the legend known—and improved upon—across Europe. After The History of the Kings of Britain, the legend snowballs. Wace adds the Round Table and the idea that Arthur might return some day.

And then Chrétien de Troyes gets hold of it. This is where we get most of the romances. He adds Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world—who just happens to be French. And he starts the story of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere. He also adds Perceval and the Grail Quest.

More and more gets added and changed over time, but that’s where the core of what we know as the legend of Arthur comes from.

Well, my computer has been glitchy for a week, blue-screening out and restarting every time I tried to use the internet. But I think (knock on wood) that I may have gotten it back on its feet. At least, it was stable all day yesterday. Meanwhile, I’ve got a back-up ordered.

So, back to the Arthurian legend and what there may be of an historical basis for it.

Gildas was a sixth-century monk, trained at Llanilltud Fawr monastery in southeastern Wales, though he later emigrated to Brittany, which may be why his writing survived. (Though there were certainly monasteries that were centers of learning in Britain and there must have been people writing, very little survives from Britain of the Dark Ages and most of that is copies made hundreds of years later.) What Gildas wrote wasn’t a history or the beginning of the Arthurian legend. In fact, he never mentioned Arthur’s name. The nearest modern equivalent I can come up with for what Gildas wrote, is a very angry letter to the editor—only there weren’t newspapers or newspaper editors in the sixth century. The title, translated from the Latin is On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

Gildas begins with a brief history, including the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in Kent, at the invitation of Vortigern. Although Gildas never mentions Vortigern either, but merely refers to the superbus tyrannus. That’s usually interpreted as a play on Vortigern’s name, which means something like “High King” or “Generalissimo” or “Most Kingly”. He goes on to praise Ambrosius effusively for holding back the Saxons, calling him the “last of the Romans”. And then, in the next paragraph, he mentions the Battle of Badon Hill, without using any names. Because it is the next paragraph, sometimes this is interpreted to imply that Ambrosius was the leader of the Britons in that battle, but, again, Gildas doesn’t name anyone in that paragraph and never uses Arthur’s name at all.

One thing he does say, though, is that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill, which he places forty-four years before writing this text. This means that Gildas’s life would have overlapped Arthur’s—if there was an Arthur. And he would certainly have known and grown up around people who had lived through that time.

Back to On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. Gildas goes on to criticize the Britons for continuing to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the Saxons. He denounces the governments as corrupt. And he particularly condemns five contemporary rulers for everything from adultery to murder and sacrilege. Some of that criticism, particularly of Constantine of Dumnonia, has some interesting parallels with some obscure parts of Arthurian legend, but I’ll get back to that.

All of this would seem to indicate that there never was an Arthur. Surely Gildas would have mentioned him if there had been, right? Although, Gildas seems to have been a man of strong opinions and, if there was some reason he didn’t want to praise Arthur he might just not use Arthur’s name as he also refused to use Vortigern’s.

But there’s one little fragment to be found in Scotland—or at least in a poem about a battle that took place on the border between what are now Scotland and England, Y Goddodin. This poem was likely composed shortly after the battle, which probably occurred around the year 600, but the only surviving copies are much later—and probably amended over that time. However, there is one part that, at least according to some, seems to be original. The word forms, apparently, are older and they are integral to the rhyme. (I’m no linguist. I have to take their word for it.) And this part praises one particular warrior for being totally awesome in this battle and the last line of that stanza translates as “though he was no Arthur”.

This would mean a couple of things. First, that some kind of story about Arthur had made it all the way to Scotland by that time. Second, that the poet could reasonably expect his audience to know immediately who Arthur had been and what he was famous for—apparently being a badass warrior.

So, we can place Arthur—if he existed—in the Dark Ages. That it was the Dark Ages means a few things. It means Arthur certainly wasn’t High King of all Britain. There’s no way the fractious British tribal rulers would have accepted any such thing. There wouldn’t be a king even of most of England until Alfred the Great about three centuries later.

And his companions weren’t knights—certainly not in the medieval form. They might have worn chain mail, though leather armor or none at all, other than helmets, was more likely. But they certainly didn’t wear head-to-toe plate mail, because that hadn’t been invented yet. And they didn’t joust, either, because the stirrup, invented on the Eurasian steppes, had not reached Western Europe yet. I can only imagine that a Dark Ages warrior would have laughed himself silly at the concept of chivalry and courtly love.

So where did all that we think of as the legend of Arthur come from?

My previous posts cover my research, so far. Now I’m going to delve into some general thoughts about the legend itself–and how it got to be the legend we know.

A legend is defined as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” But, we know that at least some legends, like the Trojan War, have been shown to have at least some historical basis.

So, some legends may have a kernel of historical truth at their core. Sometimes, it’s a very small kernel. And, sometimes, that kernel is not what most people think of when they think of the legend. If the legend of King Arthur has such a core, I think it is the fight by the Romano-Celtic Britons against the encroaching “Saxons”. In particular, the Battle of Badon Hill, which, in Arthurian tradition, is the decisive battle in which the Saxons were defeated badly enough not to try to take more territory from the Britons for several decades. (“Saxons” seems to be the term used for all Germanic tribes in the legend—even if they were in fact Angles or Jutes, rather than actual Saxons.)

Yes, I know the fight against the Saxons is not what most people think of when they think of the story of Arthur. Many modern versions of the legend either completely ignore the Saxons or dispense with them quite early and get on with the shinier parts of the story—parts that mostly were added later. Because what turns history into legend is that the story grows in the telling.

If that is the origin or core of the Arthur story, then we can place it during the Dark Ages, either in the fifth century or very early in the sixth century. It can’t be earlier than that because the Romans controlled Britannia from the middle of the first century until the beginning of the fifth century. The Romans were really, really good at a number of things—roads, aqueducts, military tactics, and bureaucracy. They kept records and wrote histories, most of which have survived. If the Romans had still been in charge when the Battle of Badon Hill took place, there wouldn’t be any doubt about the site of the battle. At the very least, we’d know what civitas it took place in. And, if there ever was a real Arthur, he’d be mentioned. It also can’t be later, for a couple of reasons. The establishment of the early Saxon kingdoms (other than Kent) spans from the late fifth to the early sixth century. And, besides, we have a mention of the Battle of Badon Hill, placing that battle probably between 470 and 500. That mention is found in Gildas’s On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

More about that and what history can be pieced together in my next post.

Avalon

Ah, here is where I can really have some fun.

Avalon was the home of the Lady—or Ladies—of the Lake. Mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlann, Arthur is supposed to have been carried off by these ladies to the Island of Avalon for healing. This makes a lot more sense if the Battle of Camlann was nearby–not all the way north by Hadrian’s Wall.

A likely site for Avalon is Glastonbury Island (Ynys Wytryn in Welsh)—and here I’m including the whole of what would have been an island in the fifth century, surrounded by marsh and swamp. The island of higher land that would have been above the level of the marsh comprises Glastonbury Tor (the most visible landmark in the area), a smaller hill now called Chalice Hill just to the southwest, then a long plateau running southwest, now the site of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, and ending in another rise now called Wearyall Hill. In the fifth century, a causeway reached the Tor from the southeast, protected by a ditch and embankment now called Ponters Ball Dyke which runs at right angles to the causeway, its ends disappearing into what would have been marsh. A gateway? There is a story of another causeway between Glastonbury and South Cadbury Castle to the south.

Glastonbury certainly had associations with healing. Near the base of the Tor on the south side are two springs. The White Spring rises out of a shallow aquifer and carries dissolved calcite which gives it a white color. Only about 110 yards away is the Red Spring (now called the Chalice Well, due to association with the Grail), which rises from a much deeper aquifer and carries iron oxide, which gives it a nearly blood-red color. Both springs are—and were—reputed to have healing properties.

But one of the most striking features of the Tor are the terraces that ring the slopes in giant ovals. There are several explanations for the terraces, but the most appealing to me is that they form an ancient seven-fold labyrinth—a kind of mystical journey. An avenue of oak trees, since cut down, may once led to the entrance.

Excavations have found evidence of structures—and metal-working furnaces—near the top of the Tor. But though it might have been used for some purposes, this just isn’t a sane place for anyone to live. Much too far from a water source, for one thing. More promising are the excavations showing that Glastonbury Abbey may have been built on top of a Celtic village or community.

Oh, yeah. There’s a lot here to play with.