What is it drives this desire to find “the real …”? Is it the same obsession that drives those who insist that despite all the evidence to the contrary the man from Stratford didn’t/couldn’t write Shakespeare’s plays?
Not the kind of mysticism that seeks the “truth” in beliefs validated by centuries of debate, histories of persecution and which have now been accepted to the point of institutionalization: but the kind of mysticism that someone else defines as weirdo and gets you persecuted and institutionalized?
If only we could find the right code, the right way of looking aslant, we could reveal the hidden truth. There must be a hidden truth. There must be something beneath, behind, under, hidden; more than. Life without it would be just life. Without it we would have to deal with the surface. As Delumeau says about the invention of paradise: without a possible ideal afterlife you would have to deal with life here and now on your particular spot of earth, because there would be no second chance and no “better’ to look forward to. Without a real Arthur, or a real Robin Hood, you’d be left with….?
Dealing with the evidence for King Arthur is a specialist’s field that requires years of training and an impressive command of several mini disciplines. How much easier to simply assert based on whatever you find useful for the assertion. Who does need experts anyway.
So, the search for the Real King Arthur. What little evidence there is, and God knows it’s been gone over enough times, won’t substantiate his existence. If he did exist, then he existed in the “darkest period” of British history; dark simply for lack of information.
An inhabitant of that strange world evoked by the gatekeeper’s welcome in "Culuwch and Olwen":
Meat for thy dogs and corn for thy horse, and hot peppered chops for thyself, and wine brimming over and delectable songs before thee. Food for fifty men shall come to thee in the hospice; there men from afar take their meat and the scions of other countries who do not proffer a craft in Arthur's court. It will be no worse for thee there than for Arthur in the court: a woman to sleep with thee and delectable songs before thee. (Trans Jones and Jones)
To get an idea of the psossible scale, you need to forget the castles and cathedrals of the later Middle Ages. You need to visit something like Castle Dore in Cornwall. Perched above the estuary of the Fowey River, today it is little more than a broken set of earthen embankments hardly higher than a tall man's head, where cows graze near a bus stop. This small hillfort is traditionally ascribed to King Mark. The “Tristan stone” is not far away. He's the bad husband in the legend of Tristan and Isuelt, another story that was later swallowed by the Arthurian cycle. The small scale of the place humanises it. You can look down to the green wooded slopes of the Fowey, and see the little clumps of trees, and the story of Isuelt's flight to be with Tristan in the forest becomes at once human and manageable. Two errant adolescents sneaking away to have sex in the woods is far more convincing than the stories of magic and casts of thousands that gradually added themselves to the story of Arthur.
But even if he did exist and you could meet him, he’d be a dark age warlord, a football hooligan with a license to create mayhem; a dirty, unwashed thug whose only distinction was to be good at slaughtering dirty unwashed thugs…closer to the warriors of Y Gododdin (who all die by the way) than Malory’s perfect knight:
Wearing a brooch, armed, fighting in the van of battle
A man mighty in battle before his death day
A leader of the charge before the armies
5 times fifty fell before his blades
Of men of Deira and Bernicia there fell
20 hundred, their annihilation in an hour
He'd sooner his flesh for the wolves than go to the wedding
Sooner be profit for the raven than go to the alter
Sooner his blood flow to the ground than he get due burial
In return for mead in the hall amongst hosts
Hyueid Hir will be praised as long as there are minstrels.
(This is taken from translations I did twenty years ago. It seems too smooth, so I suspect I checked it against Kenneth Jackson's.)
As a successful thug winning battles that were probably nothing more than gang wars without machine guns, (the laws of Inne, a seventh century King of Wessex, define the old English word for army, "Here" as any gathering of more than thirty-five armed men) he could have existed.
But the only argument that stands is Arthur Ash’s; It’s hard to believe there can be this much smoke without a fire.
What centuries of Europeans saw in that smoke and through it is beautiful and fascinating and I believe worthy of attention. What produced the smoke has disappeared and seems of little value except to those making money out of an industry that preys upon its audience.