King Arthur: History and Legend

Christopher M. Bellitto / Kean University

Presented by:


Was there really a King Arthur? What about Lancelot and Guinevere, or the Fisher King and the Knights of the Round Table? Medieval people thought there really was an Arthur—or at least hoped he had existed. His legend begins in Wales as the Roman Empire withdrew from the British island and was told as history by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. He mixed legends and history to make Arthur at least sound real–just like other great epic-questing literature. Written in Latin, his stories didn’t explode until they were translated into French and then spread throughout Europe by troubadours of many languages who were eager to spread tales of chivalry and war—the chansons de geste—to bolster the Crusades.

Join us for this lecture as we explore myth, history, literature, and popular culture to find the truth behind the legend. Along the way, we’ll discover what the holy grail really was and where it might be today, while tracing some of the spin-off tales. We’ll also wonder why the tales were picked up through later centuries: in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Wagner’s Parsifal, Broadway’s Camelot, and Monty Python’s madcap movie. What we’ll find is a potent mixture of history and myth, religion and national pride.

Recommended Reading:

Penguin editions

· Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

· The Quest of the Holy Grail

· Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes and William Comfort

· The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend

The Discovery of King Arthur, by Geoffrey Ashe Stroud

The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, by Alan Lupack

On Arthurian Women, by Bonnie Wheeler and Fiona Tolhurst

The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you think Arthur was an historical person, or maybe based on one (or two or three)?

2. Why do you think medieval people, especially the English, grabbed onto Arthur?

3. What do you think is the lasting legacy of the Arthur legends for today? Why do people still care?

Christopher M. Bellitto

Kean University

Dr. Christopher M. Bellitto is Professor of History at Kean University in New Jersey, where he teaches courses in ancient and medieval history. A specialist in church history and reform, he is the author of ten books, including his latest: Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible. His current project is a history of humility as the lost virtue, supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Grant. Dr. Bellitto also serves as series Editor in Chief of Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition and Academic Editor at Large for Paulist Press. He is a former Fulbright Specialist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and was Visiting Scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary 2021-2022.

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