For more than eight centuries, poets and writers have been telling stories about King Arthur. From lost legends and scraps of history, from facts and folklore, they have fashioned one of the greatest epics in all literature, full of the world's splendours, heroic loves and spiritual quests. This magical and mysterious world is founded on the figure of an obscure Welsh princeling, about whom we know nothing for certain. Arthur may have been the last Roman general of Britain, the first of those Welsh guerrilla fighters who defied the English until well into the Middle Ages, or a northern prince from Scotland who was later adopted by the Welsh living in Wales. If there was a real Arthur, he lived in the sixth or seventh century AD; he may not have been of royal blood, but he was acclaimed as a hero or leader. That is all that we can say with any confidence about the historical grain of sand in the poetic oyster.

Arthur's magic is that he is a shape-shifter; but he does so subtly and slowly, changing his form to suit the needs of each new age. We know very little about the history of Britain between AD 400 and AD 600, between the ending of Roman Rule and the emergence of the Saxon kingdoms. We have no contemporary histories, only traditions and rumours and the occasional voice crying in the wilderness of a writer whose work happens to survive in this or that fragment of a manuscript. To look for a historical Arthur in such period is a hopeless task: the scraps of evidence are few and far between, and there is no context in which we can fit them. In fact, the only thing that is generally agreed about the historical Arthur is that if he did exist, it was in the period between AD 450 and AD 650. Who he was, what he did, where he lived are questions which can only be answered with guesses.


Excerpts from the introduction to Arthurian Legends:AnIllustrated Anthology.Richard Barber. pp. 2-6.