Writers and historians have long been divided on the truth of the many different tellings of the stories of Arthur, the great Welsh king of Britain. Although many now think that there is some truth underlying the widely varying accounts, the hard facts surrounding Arthur's reign are almost completely obscured in a mist of myths and legends. Like all legends, these tales evolved over many centuries. Their telling and retelling over those years, while it may have left them somewhat lacking in truth, has emphasized and expanded their most compelling parts, making the Arthurian saga as glorious and prolific a body of stories as any, in fact or fiction.
Arthurís name is derived from either the Celtic artos viros or the Scandinavian Arndorr. In its Celtic version the name means "bear man." In this case it is of nickname origin and would have been bestowed upon someone who possessed strength like that of a bear, or who was associated with bears in another way, such as skill at hunting them. By its Scandinavian origin, the name is patronymic and derived from the word arn, meaning "eagle," and the name Porr, a reference to an ancient Scandinavian god of thunder.
Arthur was the illegitimate son of King Uther Pendragon and a woman named Igraine. To protect the secret of his son's birth, The King entrusted the baby to the sorcerer Merlin, who in turn left the young prince to be raised by a knight named Ector. Arthur was unaware of his noble lineage and grew up believing Ector was his father.
When Arthur was yet a young man, Pendragon died, leaving no legitimate heir. The most popular accounts tell that at this time Merlin placed a sword in a stone and proclaimed that whoever pulled it out was the rightful heir to the throne. Arthur is said to have drawn the sword out and been crowned King of all England.
While Arthur is almost always referred to as a king, it is unclear whether he was actually a king in the traditional sense or really more like a duke who ruled the province of Britain on behalf of the Romans. Some stories describe Arthurís relationship with the Romans as cooperative, while others indicate that he made war on them and won Britain by force from the Emperor Lucius. Still other versions of the stories indicate that he was a chieftan who only became a king in the lore that developed in the years after his death.
Arthur took the Lady Guinevere as his queen, and, by at least one account, received his famous round table as a dowry from her father. It is told that the king and queen begat numerous legitimate sons and daughters, and that Arthur had more children by mistresses such as Morgan Le Fay, Morgause (his half-sister by whom he fathered Sir Mordred, and others.
Most accounts indicate that the legendary king lived in the 6th century, but the exact dates of his life and reign are impossible to determine. Arthur was dealt his final blow at Camlann, now known as the Salisbury plain, after slaying Sir Mordred, who had rebelled against him while he was fighting Sir Lancelot in France. Some accounts name locations in Glastonbury, Cornwall, and Scotland as Arthur's gravesite. Others, however, claim that the great king was not buried, but as he lay critically wounded was carried by a magical boat into the Celtic paradise of Avalon. Some who believe the latter version still await his return.
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