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Was King Arthur Real?

On a fiction stranger than truth.

There are professional hazards associated with being a scholar of Arthurian literature. When I tell people that I study fifteenth-century literature, their eyes frost over and they say, “That sounds interesting.” They mean, of course, that any further information on the topic may render them instantly and irretrievably comatose. But if I say instead, “I study King Arthur,” a golden light at once fills the eyes, and the questions come quick and fast. They are usually the same questions, and the first is often, “Was King Arthur real?”

The old axiom that truth is stranger than fiction is generally accurate, especially when one considers the rather exhausted state of modern fiction. But truth wasn’t always stranger than fiction, and that is where King Arthur comes into it: he is the fiction that is stranger than truth, and truer than truth as well. When I say this in response to, “Was King Arthur real?” it will sometimes be enough. I might even wheel out a bit of post-structuralist prestidigitation—“It depends on what you mean by was.”—although this rhetorical parlor trick seems unsporting and Clintonesque: everything depends on what the meaning of “is” is. But when I am really hard put to it by an indefatigable questioner, then, like the counsel of Tolkien’s elves, I answer both no and yes. What do I mean? Well, it has to do with Archbishop Turpin.

Archbishop Turpin is a character in the eleventh-century chanson de geste (song of great deeds) called Le Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland). The story is an account of the Battle of Roncesvalles relating the story of Charlemagne’s men, under the leadership of Roland, against the Saracens. In the Chanson, Turpin rallies the doomed Franks, killing many Saracens before he is himself cut down. His death, recorded over one hundred and eighty lines, includes the affecting moment when Roland returns to the fallen cleric:

On the green grass, beyond his companions,
He sees the noble warrior lying.
It is the Archbishop, whom God sent in his name.
The Archbishop says his confession, he gazes upward,
He has joined and raised both hands toward heaven,
And he prays God to grant him Paradise.
Charles’s warrior Turpin is dead.
By fighting great battles and preaching many fine sermons,
He was always a relentless fighter against the pagans.
May God grant him his holy blessing!

The death of Turpin (to say nothing of his mighty battlefield presence) in the Chanson de Roland is highly memorable. And, Turpin (or rather, Tilpin, as his name was) is historically attested: he was the Archbishop of Reims who attended the Synod of Rome in 769. So, was Turpin real? Yes and no. The Archbishop Tilpin of Reims was a real person; but the deeds ascribed to him in the eleventh-century Chanson are fictional. And, for that matter, Charlemagne’s troops fought the Battle of Roncesvalles against the Basques, not the Saracens. The fiction makes for a gripping story; the truth is rather more prosaic: “By attending many synods and founding many libraries, / He was always a relentless scholar,” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

There is even less historical confirmation for the existence of Arthur, and his legendary deeds are even more fantastical than those attributed to Archbishop Turpin. Was he real? Perhaps, but certainly no more real than Turpin and probably substantially less so, if by “real” we mean only that his actions as recorded in a work of fiction correlate narrowly with the record of historical events. But Turpin is presented as the embodiment of concepts and ideals: of the Church Militant, of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, of a trusting in God to sort out the grand scheme of justice as long as we pursue it in the limited way afforded to us by fortune. To accept him as “real” is to accept these things as substantially true; and, in that sense, Turpin is as true as gold and as real as Narnia.

Sometimes, having heard this answer, the response is a degree of disappointment: “Yes, Virginia, there is a King Arthur, and one day he will return and teach us the true meaning of Whitsun.” But what serves for Turpin serves for Arthur, too: a king not of a certain time but for all time, which is why Malory gives his tomb the epitaph “Rex quondam, Rexque futurus.” Arthur at his finest embodies and represents certain timeless ideals of justice and order: to believe in him is to believe in those ideas and that they will return, Arthur-like, themselves. Disappointment at this prospect is to miss the point—to mistake the accident for the substance. It is the enduring deeds of Arthur and Turpin in the story that we value; not the silence of the historical record. To ask “Was he real?” is to hope, desperately, that reality conforms to the true ideals that radiate from the legend. The strange truth of our best fictions is that we have known that they are real all along.