10C warrior burial sculpted in stone, Middleton, Yorkshire

Amateur historians often like to take traditional tales of semi- or pseudohistorical figures as sources for the details of their heroes’ biographies.

This is especially the case with King Arthur where legendary and folkloric tales are presented as evidence for this or that campaign or as proof that Arthur should be identified with a known historical personage.

In this essay I want to suggest that the exploits of legendary heroes in other contexts parallel some of those of Arthur’s, rendering them suspect as historical facts and thus no basis for concocting a presumed biography.

In his youth the hero does menial tasks, but displays great strength and courage despite his humble upbringing. He defends the honour of women, but his beloved is much abducted. He gains possession of a magnificent steed, and discovers an almost supernatural sword under a stone. After a lifetime of great feats with a band of followers he is mortally wounded by treachery, though his renown protects his people from harm.

Sounds familiar? Of course it does — you knew I was outlining the romance of ‘Antar (also known as ‘Antara), a folk hero from the Abs tribe of central Arabia, whose exploits also ranged across Iraq, Persia and Syria. He died at a great age in a raid around 600CE, but already by the 8th century stories of his life and deeds were being developed (Ranelagh 1979).

The point is surely this: here we have a folk-hero who flourished not long after King Arthur is alleged to have existed but who also shares some similarities with the British hero as described in Arthurian epic and saga. Is there a direct relationship between them? Before we tackle this question, it might be instructive to look at another near-contemporary hero, but from a little closer to home.

Antarah ibn Shaddad

As students interested in the possible historicity of Arthur have noted (eg Pollington 1987), there are some rather obvious parallels between Beowulf and Arthur:

both are heroes of the Dark Ages, flourishing in the late fifth and/or early sixth centuries;
the historical existence of both is doubted; and
both have a similar body of lore attached to their names.

Could this mean that Beowulf is a candidate for Arthur?

Two folk tale types embedded in the Anglo-Saxon saga of Beowulf can be related to Arthurian lore. The first type, The Bear’s Son [1] has a number of motifs attached to it (Garmonsway 1980). The relevant ones are:

1. The hero has the strength of a bear due either to his parentage (his father, for example, may be a human magically transformed into a bear) or his upbringing (raised in a bear’s cave or similar Spartan environment).
2. Going out to seem his fortune he acquires companions with specialist skills.
3. These Skilful Companions are unable, separately, to resist the attacks of a night assailant in an enchanted dwelling, but the Bear’s Son does.
4. The Bear’s Son follows a trail to a hole in the ground. Despite the treachery of the Companions, he defeats the assailant (or assailant’s mother) and rescues princess/es and/or gains treasure, later confronting the Companions who then get their come-uppance.

Now, both Arthur’s and Beowulf’s histories have traces of such a tale, intermingled with another folktale known as The Waterfall Trolls (known also from Scandinavian, particularly Icelandic, analogues).

The Bear’s Son motif
Beowulf literally means ‘bee-enemy’ ie the honey-loving bear, and related Scandinavian accounts call the hero Bjarki or Biarco, ‘little bear’; similarly the first element of Arthur’s name is claimed to derive from Celtic arth, a bear.
Beowulf has the strength of thirty men, while Nennius records that at the battle of Badon Arthur ‘alone’ defeated 960 men.
Beowulf crushes a Frankish champion, Dayraven, to death in his bear-like grip; Geoffrey of Monmouth records Arthur’s strength in the memorable fight with the cannibalistic giant of Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany (this contest is perhaps presaged in Arthur’s dream of a dragon — himself — defeating a bear).

Beowulf then sets out from Sweden, journeying to Zealand in Denmark. He acquires no specialist companions, however, and the motif of treachery, if present, is very muted. Arthur is often accompanied by Kay and Bedivere who, though we know them (as Cai and Bedwyr) from the native tale Culhwch ac Olwen to be Skilful Companions, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative are merely supporting figures.

The Monster
The hall of the Danish king is periodically assailed at night by Grendel, a troll-like monster; Beowulf alone takes on Grendel, ripping off his arm in the struggle, and the monster, mortally wounded, escapes. In Geoffrey of Monmouth the giant of Mont Saint-Michel, having abducted not a princess but the niece of the Duke of Brittany, is attacked by Arthur in a typical berserk fury; Arthur manages to slip out of the clutches of the giant’s bear hug and kills him with his sword, hacking off his head. [2]

The Troll Witch
Beowulf follows the trail of Grendel’s blood to a lake or mere. He plunges into the mere and in a cave behind a waterfall discovers Grendel’s mother who savagely attacks him. In the Arthurian version of this motif this final element, the battle with the Waterfall Troll, is found in Culhwch ac Olwen: the last in a series of tasks to be accomplished by Arthur and his men is to obtain the blood of Orddu the Black Witch from ‘the Valley of Grief in the Uplands of Hell’. Arthur’s companions are both humiliated by their encounter with the witch.
At the moment of this greatest need Beowulf calls on the Almighty and a shaft of light illuminates the cave, revealing a sword on the wall. (Normally, of course, daylight turns trolls to stone.) With this magic sword he kills the hag and beheads the lifeless body of Grendel which he finds in the cave. Arthur, in a fury, from the entrance to her cave cuts the witch in half with his knife, Carnwennan or Carnwenhau. [3]

For Beowulf there is no princess to rescue, and essentially that is the end of the episode. Arthur, however, is unable to prevent the death of Helen, the Duke of Brittany’s niece. She is subsequently buried on a nearby island which, as a result, becomes known as Tombelaine or Helen’s Tomb.

Now there is of course no need, after noting the parallels, to jump track and assume that Beowulf and Arthur are one and the same person. The comparisons above are a bit of a cheat: the Arthurian episodes are taken from different sources and not from one unified saga (despite what scholars like Markale might like to imply). So, while Beowulf mixes in some chronological reference which seem to place its hero around 500CE, it’s quite clear from study of its analogues, and of hero tales from other cultures, that the Beowulf character has been carefully grafted onto a historical context. The mythic elements are powerful, but not historic — Grendel’s attack on the Danish king’s hall is reminiscent of the motif of The Monstrous Hand as found in the Mabinogion story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, but no one would want to suggest that Beowulf is identical with Pwyll.

And so, despite some points of contact, neither ‘Antar nor Beowulf could be regarded as candidates for Arthur — geography alone nullifies any possible claim, despite their near contemporaneity.

What relationships then do they have with Arthur? If, as has been argued, Arthur was preceded by prototypes — proto-Arthurs as Geoff Roberts has put it — then contemporary parallels or analogues like ‘Antar or Beowulf could perhaps be distinguished as Arthur-types.

This may pre-suppose that a historical Arthur existed. Not necessarily. Alcock suggested (1971) that a pre-eminent figure with the appropriate authority was responsible for refurbishing South Cadbury hillfort in Somerset. This individual he labelled as an “Arthur-type figure”, thereby sidestepping the issue of who that individual might be. Later, Alcock was to declare himself “agnostic” as regards Arthur’s existence.

But if Arthur, as a pre-eminent authority figure, did not exist in the years around 500CE, where did the concept come from? Can we argue for an Arthurian archetype, just one of the facets of “the hero with a thousand faces”?

In other words, if Arthur didn’t exist, did we have to invent him? [4]

Leslie Alcock (1971) Arthur’s Britain (Penguin)
Patrick K Ford (1977) trans The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh tales (University of California Press)
G N Garmonsway et al (1980) Beowulf and its Analogues (Dent)
Jean Markale (1976) Le Roi Arthur et la societé celtique (Paris: Payot)
Steve Pollington (1987) Correspondence in Dragon Vol 2 No 9
E L Ranelagh (1979) The Past We Share: the near eastern ancestry of western folk literature (Quartet)

[1] Catalogued either as Aarne-Thompson type 301, “The Three Stolen Princesses” or AT type 650A, “Strong John” or “Starker Hans”; Beowulf’s saga omits the motif of the princesses
[2] In the Bjarki-Biarco versions, the monster is a bear which is defeated outside the hall. Geoffrey instead reminds the reader of the parallel with Arthur’s defeat of another giant, Ritho, who is also known from Welsh tradition.
[3] Though this episode is sometimes localised at Wookey Hole in Somerset, where the River Axe issues from a cliff in the Mendips, this can hardly be classed as in “the North” as stated in the Welsh text.
[4] Parts of this article, which was included in Pendragon XXVII/1 (Spring 1998), formerly appeared in Dragon Vol 2 Nos 10 & 11 (1987) edited by Charles Evans-Günther, and then in the Pendragon Jubilee Anthology (2010)


Author: Calmgrove

Book review blogger and piano accompanist

18 thoughts on “Arthur-types”

    1. I’ll be pleased if this proves to be of any use educationally, Stefy! I hope at some stage to cover Arthurian influences in Italy, including of course Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini’s tragic story (immortalised for us now by an opera and Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss) as well as tales of the King sleeping under Etna. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi, Chris. I really enjoyed this post! It really is interesting to learn more about the way these way hero characters take shape. I never connected Beowulf with Arthur before, but then again, prior to Witch Week, the Arthur legend didn’t pique my curiosity. I now find the Arthur– and Merlin– legend fascinating and want to learn more. I am definitely looking forward to reading and learning more from you by what you choose to share here! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this little foray into Arthuriana, BJ, and yes, there’ll be a whole lot more to come! Anything particular that you find intriguing that I can post about?


      1. Hmmm. How about the lady in the lake storyline? I’m sure that draws on specific motifs as well which would be interesting to learn more about.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the follow, Lynne! Yes, many stories of the saints, especially warrior saints like George, are assembled to reflect a heroic archetype — George of course resembles Perseus in that respect — but overlay a pious message. I’ll look out for essays I’ve written along these lines. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One can never have too much “Calmgrove”, so I’m happy to see you’ve branched out (again). Interesting comparison, which leads me to a suggestion for a future post: 1) We have the text of Beowulf only because, in 1731, an enterprising trustee threw the codex out a window as fire raged through Sir Robert Cotton’s library. (All hail that brave trustee!) I know you’ve discussed, on your other blog, some of the sources of the Arthur legend (Mallory, etc.), but what can you tell us about how/why those manuscripts survived? Any thing interesting?
    PS: Can you tell us in which church in (or near) Middleton your image is located?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Only” four blogs, Lizzie, three of which will be occasional!

      Last things first: the church is St Andrew’s in Middleton, which as far as I can see is the only church there. Some details here: (the photos of the cross are rather disappointing though).

      I haven’t given much thought to the survival of medieval texts with Arthurian material apart from the odd delving, but I’ll certainly think of including some of this. Glastonbury Abbey’s library was famous but broken up at Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and it’s possible to trace some of the surviving material in various collections. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘history’ was a so-called bestseller and comes in various versions, all documented in mind-numbing details by academics. The best approach to this is to dig up some pieces where I mention various examples that popped up in the news; I’ll certainly consider that!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much! Looking for narratives seems to be hardwired into our brains, along with the desire for a certain amount of certainty. It’s when they compete — as when a motif or tale-type convinces us that it represents a historic ‘fact’ — that problems can occur.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And it is fascinating to be aware of that fact. I wonder, what was the level of awareness in medieval proto-historians, definitely they had different definition of the discipline. One of my favourite cartoons depicts two medieval monks, one writes a manuscript, the other says “write that it was Charles V who won, it will be funnier that way” 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, those proto-historians, I think they knew what they were doing, Piotrek! Gregory of Tours is generally reliable, for example, because he’s close enough to the times he’s describing in his ‘History of the Franks’ and he can largely be corroborated from other sources. ‘Nennius’ (or whoever wrote ‘The History of the Britons’) purports to describe a historical Arthur but his ‘heap’ is a concoction of genuine snippets of history, problematical genealogies, saints’ lives and legendary material, all bound together to favour a particular political dynasty.

        Even worse is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ where he has huge fun creating a mythical history of a period a good half millennium before his lifetime, virtually none of which has any reliability whatsoever, least of all the Arthurian sections!

        But it’s a fallacy to think we can ever get a completely unbiased historical narrative, even for our own times with its more scientific approach. So what we really require is a range of accounts to help us assess their use of evidence in reaching judgements, but sadly for these early periods such a range is usually lacking.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve been enjoying your posts. I have managed to click a like button by going the long way around. Still can not do directly on a post. This is my new grail search. In the process I discovered another oddity about the WordPress setup. When I put in Calmgrove in the Reader search bar, I get a list of various posts from your blogs, except the one titled Calmgrove. The posts listed will only go as far back as Jan 2017. There are some blogs that won’t even show up when I searched for them.

    Back to Arthur-Types, I wonder how many times this general narrative plays out over time, historically & culturally, around the world . Trying to disentangle historical events from overlaid accounts from other events, plus the motifs and archetypal constructs becomes a real quest. Will be interesting to see where this journey takes you & your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your likes, Joseph, though I’m sorry and a bit concerned that you have had problems ‘liking’ my posts — it’s weird that search also sets up barriers, beyond my wit to explain. Hopefully it’ll suddenly and inexplicably sort itself out.

      In trying to make sense of incidents in our lives and events in the news we all in a sense become spin doctors, don’t we — we dislike black holes in narratives and cliffhangers that never resolve. So it is with Arthurian legends, and you’re absolutely correct to see this blog as an attempt to disentangle belief from what is unascertainable. Anyway, it’s the journey not the arrival that matters, right? ☺ The Quest above all!

      Liked by 1 person

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