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Dublin: 8 °C Sunday 5 April, 2020

'Did he exist? Did he not exist?': The hunt for the real King Arthur

With King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword hitting cinemas this weekend, we take a closer look.

Charlie Hunnam, who stars as King Arthur in the new film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Charlie Hunnam, who stars as King Arthur in the new film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Image: DPA/PA Images

THE GUY RITCHIE-DIRECTED King Arthur film – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword -which hits our screens this weekend is entertaining, bombastic, and most definitely not all that factual.

But behind the myths and the legends was a man who some people think was inspired by an Irish king.

The King Arthur legend is a tale as old as time – as the usual story goes, he was a leader who helped Britain in its fight against the Saxons in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD.

He was also featured in a book called Historia Regum Britanniae – the history of kings in Britain – written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This book wasn’t entirely factual itself, and introduced us to people like Merlin, Guinevere and the famous sword Excalibur.

Then in the 12th century, Lancelot and the Holy Grail were added to the mix, along with the Knights of the Round Table, by French romance writers.

In Ritchie’s film, things take a more gritty edge. His Arthur – played by Charlie Hunnam – is a ruffian who doesn’t know his parentage, and who reluctantly tries to remove Excalibur from the stone.

“Guy has taken the classic hero’s journey and created an origin story with a very accessible Arthur for a new generation. Our Arthur has grown up fending for himself, rough and ready, carving out a little world where he’s a prince among thieves. But he’s no noble soul looking for a cause,” says Hunnam of his character.

The questions around the real Arthur were also used by the filmmakers when creating this new story. Its producer/co-writer Lionel Wigram said:

“The myth has endured and has been adapted to fit the requirements of each different time period in which it has been told. Given this rich tradition of interpretation, we felt that as long as we retained its essential thematic elements, we had license to come up with our own iteration of the story, to have some fun with the details in a way we hope will speak to today’s audiences.”

The Irish links

Then there is the amateur historian who says that the work he’s done on researching the true King Arthur shows that he was most likely a real person – and in the written stories, he may have been based on the Irish king Muircertach Mac Erca.

Mac Erca ruled in Ireland in the sixth century and was the great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages. He ruled at An Grianán, on the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal.

In 2011, Dane Pestano brought out a book about these connections, called King Arthur in Irish Pseudo-Historical Tradition, which explored the Arthurian legend and its connection to Mac Erca.

Catching up with Pestano as King Arthur the film is due to be released in cinemas, finds out that he has since, he believes, discovered who the real Arthur is – but he’s not saying who for now.

“The real Arthur has always been thought of as mythical – there is no real evidence he has existed,” explains Pestano. “What my study on Mac Erca has done has shown that a real sixth century king could acquire tales and legends like Arthur’s. It’s swung the pendulum back towards there being a real Arthur.”

King Arthur European Premiere - London Charlie Hunnam arriving for the King Arthur European Premiere held at the Cineworld Leicester Square, London. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The reaction to Pestano’s book was “pretty positive”, he says. ”The main thing was I had found something no one else had discovered before, so it was good to introduce it to the Arthurian circle. The major thing was to demonstrate that there could have been an Arthur, there could have been a real life king as Mac Erca was a real 6th century king.”

The fact that Mac Erca existed – as did some myths and legends surrounding him – means to Pestano to indicate that a similar man may have existed who the character of King Arthur was based on.

“So the fact the real king was able to acquire legend and tales just like Arthur, that’s the main thing – that’s the main reason it was received very well,” says the author. “A lot of Welsh people didn’t like [the book], as it implies Arthur might have been Irish.”

Truth and fiction

The origin of the legend of Arthur has been a bone of contention for historians and genealogists for a long time.

One theory, put forward by historian Michael Wood in a series for the BBC, is that the myth could have evolved from the story of warmongering Artúr mac Áedáin, who set out from the Dál Riata kingdom at the very northern part of Ireland to battle the Picts. He was killed in battle in 582.

But there are those, too, who believe a ‘King Arthur’ never existed, and that some signs that suggest he did exist – like the Glastonbury cross, may have been a forgery. Debate is rife in the historical community about his possible existence.

The idea for the book came to Pestano in a dream, he says, and inspired him to pick up manuscripts like the Historia Regum Britanniae and spend hours searching for Irish texts.

He got help from Irish historians in translating the work about Mac Erca that was as gaeilge.

Through looking at these stories, he began “realising the story was so similar”, even down to Mac Erca’s wife’s name roughly translating to the Welsh equivalent of Guinevere.

“All these links came in and this was incredible,” he says.

There was a very similar story there to that and it’s quite possible that Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the great story of Arthur in the 12th century, it’s possible he saw this copy of the Historia Regum Britanniae and put the two and two together.

However, Pestano says that he hasn’t yet found anything that has confirmed the Irish link – though it’s not from want of trying.

“The good news was I think he could have led to the legends of Arthur because Mac Erca’s material came out before the King Arthur [material] was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth.”

Pestano says he does believe that the original Arthur was a real person. “My view is that he was a real character and I do have an inkling now of who he was but I am going to keep it under wraps.”

“I do think he was a real character and now it is a matter of writing this up and hopefully publishing it.”

Why does he think people continue to be drawn to the Arthurian legends? “I think it’s how it developed over the years, from Arthur just being a mere soldier to being a knight and the whole romance that came in with the round table and the quest for the Holy Grail,” says Pestano.

The many myths and stories “created this legendary romantic Arthur full of chivalry and caring for his wife and all the rest of it. And the mystery of Arthur, of course, did he exist? Did he not exist? That interests a lot of people and they all want to know.”

But, notes Pestano, that there are still many more manuscripts out there that need to be translated – so for now, the hunt goes on.

- Contains additional reporting from Susan Daly.

Read: Someone has just worked out what the Irish ate for breakfast over 2,000 years ago>

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