King Arthur’s Tintagel

Engraving of Tintagel by Samuel Buck, 1734

Tintagel has been associated with King Arthur for a millennium, particularly after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote and published his History of the Kings of Britain in the early 12th century. Though now often claimed as the site of Arthur’s court or castle, Geoffrey cited Tintagel merely as the site of Arthur’s conception.


Uthr, Uthyr, Uther

Uther Pendragon, whose last name derives from a Welsh title pen dragon or pen draig (‘head dragon’ or ‘chief warrior’), is a rather strange and shadowy figure. His chief claims to fame are his sobriquet Pendragon and his being the father of King Arthur. In the 11th-century Welsh poem numbered 31 in the Black Book of CarmarthenPa Gur (‘Which man?’) — he appears as uthir pen dragon, a warrior whose servant is in Arthur’s retinue: uthr in modern Welsh means wonderful or terrible, perhaps even awesome in the sense of ‘producing awe’. [1]

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth (c 1095-1155) the name Pendragon came from a comet which supposedly gave Uther victory over the Saxons. [2] Geoffrey may have had in mind a comet of 508 with several tails, or may even himself have remembered a spectacularly brilliant comet of 1106, noted in a Welsh chronicle as “a star wonderful to behold, throwing out behind it a beam of light of the thickness of a pillar in size and of exceeding brightness, foreboding what would come to pass in the future”. [3]

The word dragon in Welsh seems to have been a customary title for a warrior, however, as Maelgwn of Gwynedd (d 547) was called by his contemporary Gildas ‘the dragon of the island’, insularis draco (possibly Gildas meant the isle of Anglesey). [4] A plausible suggestion has been that Uther is therefore a ‘ghost’ and that the person in Arthur’s retinue mentioned in Pa Gur is merely the servant of uthir pen dragon, the ‘fierce chief warrior’.

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Arthur-types

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.

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