Arthurian Legend: Historical Fiction or Fantasy?

When I first started to seriously consider getting my work published, I posted to an online message board asking whether agents/publishers consider Arthurian legend historical fiction or fantasy. I received only one reply (rather snarky), “Oh that stuff gets passed off as historical fiction all the time.”

That was when I realized not everyone thinks Arthurian legend is a serious topic (or sub-genre, if you will) for historical fiction. Where it should be classified really depends on your definition of “historical.” If by that word you mean something firmly grounded in evidence and fact (especially written), then you won’t ever be able to accept Arthurian legend as historical. But if you accept a looser definition that includes anything that takes place in another time period and attempts to recreate the history, culture, politics, religion, etc. of that time, then you open yourself up to including Arthurian legend.

I’m happy to say that the Historical Novel Society (HNS) counts it as historical fiction. As stated in their Guide to King Arthur:

From the point of view of historical fiction, the Arthur mythos has always pin-pointed the fault-line between history and story. The historians pull in the direction of a realistic, Celtic post-Roman world. Their Arthur is without magic, without high-Catholic symbolism, and without chivalry. The fantasy authors pull the other way, setting the stories in a time outside time, often depicting a battle between Christian ‘magic’ and pagan ‘magic’, plundering the myths for narrative and atmosphere. Literary authors tend to stand one foot in both camps, enchanted by the magic realism and epic poetry at the heart of the stories, but wanting to give emotional consistency and humanity (usually historical humanity) to the protagonists.”

Personally, I believe that Arthurian legend can be either historical fiction or fantasy, depending on if the author chooses to ground his/her story in history. As I’ve said before, there is very little historical evidence for Dark Ages Britain and King Arthur. Really all we know for sure is that the tribes of Britain fought against each other after Rome left their shores in 410 AD. They united (presumably under a single leader) to face the Saxons in battle at a place traditionally known as Mount Badon, somewhere around the year 500 AD (some argue as much as 30 years earlier or later on the date). They roundly defeated the Saxons, who then left them alone for decades. Their leader is traditionally called Arthur, which may be a title or a name. Around him grew the stories we know as Arthurian legend (see parts 1, 2, and 3 of my series on the evolution of Arthurian legend to learn more).

Because we have so few reliable records, those of us interested in Arthur and Celtic Britain must rely heavily on myth and tradition. This opens up a lot of room for interpretation and invention. (Hence, the “fiction” part of “historical fiction.”) But it can also lead into the realms of fantasy when we make up things to fill in the historical gaps, especially if those things involve the supernatural. But does magic always mean fantasy? Again, the answer depends on your point of view. The Celts certainly had a belief in magic. And there are people in our world today who will swear psychic abilities, the manipulation of energy and Otherworldly beings are very real, while others say they are pure make-believe or wishful thinking.

In short, until the day someone can definitively prove one way or the other that Arthur did or did not exist and we find records of his culture, there will be the possibility for both historical accuracy and fantasy in fiction that deals with him and his world.

And my books? I never thought I’d say this, but according to the HNS definition, I think I fall in the literary category. My Arthur and Guinevere live in post-Roman Britain (approximately 491-530 AD) and I’ve tried very hard to make the culture/politics true to the time period, but I also couldn’t imagine an Arthurian world without magic. Because of the tensions of the time, I carry on the fantasy tradition of emphasizing the clash between pagan and Christian, but not only in theology, also in politics and power.

Do you think Arthurian legend can be considered historical fiction? Or would you define it as fantasy? Why? Does how it’s classified or shelved at a bookstore even matter to you as a reader?

17 thoughts on “Arthurian Legend: Historical Fiction or Fantasy?

  1. Hi there 🙂 What an interesting era this is. Some people would have considered themselves Roman though born on the island. They had Roman cultural affliations, and would have been hoping that the Roman Army would return. And then there’s the Anglo-Saxons … Germanics in the Roman Army in the 4th century, and possibly in the 5th century just becoming settlers (not invaders) in the land they had long lived in – gamekeeper tuned poachers, perhaps. And then there’s the locals, some probably hardly noticing that things have changed,as long as they can work the land in peace, and others who realise there’s an opportunity. Who is British? Surely you are British if you’re born on the island, even if you have adopted Germanic culture eg. brooches, weapons, etc? There’s no clear answer – much like today. Fantastic era, when it’s not being immensely frustrating! I look forward to seeing your book in print 🙂

    • Hi Alex,

      You are exactly right about the complexities of the era. I couldn’t have explained it better myself. Some of my characters identify with their Roman roots, others with their native Celtic/Pictish ones, and there are Saxons who still think they’re Germanic even though they have adopted Britain as their home. It is all very interesting, but it can be very confusing, too! Thanks for your well wishes. I hope to see the first book in print soon, too! And I hope you’ll come back and comment again soon.

  2. Interesting post and question. I think it is both historical fiction and fantasy depending on what the author wants to right. There have been two separate veins of retellings of the legend since the middle ages when it was broken up between romances (which didn’t strive for historical accuracy and tended to be French) and histories (which claimed to be history although not really interested in historical accuracy either, and claimed to be English) but there have always been crossovers as well. Geoffrey of Monmouth would be writing history but I think there’s some magic involving Merlin in it if I remember correctly. My own series I am currently writing I am defining as historical fantasy – that is it is set in a historical time period but has fantasy elements.

    I was also interested in the Historical Novel Society comments about a dominant new retelling each decade. For me, I think the one for the 2000-2010 period has to be the TV series Merlin. It has recreated interest in the legend in new ways and is very much fantasy but has done a wonderful job of reinterpreting familiar characters, and it’s not surprising in this age I don’t think that we might pick a media other than literature for that retelling.

    • Hi Tyler,

      I can always count on you for great insight into the history of the legends.

      If HNS hadn’t thrown in that literary category (which I’m still not sure if I fit that one), I’d say my books are historical fantasy, too. I’m planning to go into detail on magic in my books in a future post, but just the fact that it’s there makes any book lean toward the fantasy realm. I hope your fiction writing is going well.

      I was interested in the comments about dominant retellings as well. Here’s to the 2010-2020 decade being one or both of us!

  3. Very interesting article Nicole. Whatever the definition, I look forward to reading your novel and wish you all the success with it.

    Just to pick up on one point; there are no etymologists who would agree that Arthur was anything other than a name, and most favour a Latin one at that. It doesn’t make sense as a title (in fact no one can make sense of it in Brittonic or Goidelic) and not even as an epithet. All epithets of the time are to do with personal traits: ‘the Tall’,’ the Thin’, the Arrogant’, the Treacherous’ etc., etc.

    • Thanks for your kind wishes about my book!

      I’m no etymologist, nor is Arthur’s name a sword I really want to fall on (I personally think it’s a name), but several of my sources do refer to Arthur as possibly being a title. King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman (p. 127-129) and The Reign of Arthur by Christopher Gidlow (p. 123-124) are two I can put my hands on easily. Phillips and Martin state “As with Vortigern and Uther, the name Arthur may have been a by-name or title” (127) and then go on to argue it could have been a British derivative of Roman “Artorius” or the Brythonic “Arth,” meaning “bear.” They also claim that he could have added the Latin “Ursus,” which also means “bear,” taking “Arthursus” (the bear) as a tribal title (128).

      To me, the character and how he shapes the legend is more important than whether his name was a name or a title, but I do feel a responsibility to pass on what my research has shown.

      • It is indeed a sword. Etymologically speaking (and in so many other ways!) Philips and Keatman’s theory on the name doesn’t stand up and I don’t want to take this reply up by going into why. Gidlow is always a better bet when it comes to Arthur, but any etymologist or philologist today will tell you that the name seems to derive from Latin Artōrius, Insular Latin Artūrius, with a slight possibility of it coming from the star Arcturus. If you’re interested, I covered it in one of my blogs, which you can see here:

        Of course, you’re right, the name isn’t so important, but I, like you, feel a responsibility for passing on the latest scholarly and expert opinions.

        Keep up the great work!

        • Your blog post is very interesting! Thank you for sharing it. That is information anyone interested in the possible meaning of Arthur’s name (or other possible names) should read.

  4. I believe retellings of the Arthurian legend can fall in either straight historical category, a mixture (historical fantasy) or pure fantasy. Even if Arthur did not exist (and I believe he did, though I think, like Robin Hood, many men of similar name and heroic deeds, plus a few ancient gods/heros, have been rolled together to make the character we know) the time he is supposed to have lived in certainly did, so it is very plausible to write a realistic Dark Age novel. After all, historical fiction doesn’t necessarily mean that all the characters in them have to have actually lived; only that the time and events as known are accurately portrayed. For example- Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, Parke Godwin’s Firelord or Bernard Cornwell’s book.
    A book in the historical fantasy category would be a realistic setting but with fantasy elements like magic or supernatural beings/items. Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley fits this category the best
    Pure Arthurian fantasy would be in the rather dream-like high medieval setting which has many turreted castles, knights in plate armour, chivalry, overt sorcery. and supernatural beings such as dragons (not just magic.) The latest Merlin TV series would be in this category.
    I have written an Arthurian novel myself, due out later this year. I am calling it historical fantasy because it has that ‘feel’ to it. Technically its a historical as it has no magic and everything that appears supernatural has an explanation, but my Arthur book has a twist…it’s not set in the Dark Ages at all, but in the bronze age, the era of Stonehenge. Essentially it looks at the roots of the ‘mythological Arthur’, the reason for the anachronistic mentions of Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth, the background of names and characters which often go back into Irish mythology (which is now suspected to depict not an Iron Age world but a bronze age one.) Interestingly a character with a name like Arthur is found in the Irish ‘Book of Invasions,’ a mythical saga about the people of Ireland (which has some eerily accurate things in it, such as the earliest people being few in number, other invasions being from Spain which as it turns out shares a common Atlantic ancestry with Ireland, and stories about the coming of agriculture and ‘clearing the plains.’- (It seems unlikely to me that the monks who wrote the stories would randomly know that neolithic man began to clear the forests.) Arthur/Artuir in this tome was the son of the leader of the tribe, and one of those who brought agriculture to Ireland

    • Hi Janet,

      Thank you for your insightful post. I appreciate the time and thought that went into it. I love meeting people of like mind, so I’m glad you commented!

      What is your book called? What’s the release date? I can’t wait to read it. I don’t know of anyone who has set the stories in the Bronze Age before – very interesting hook. I’ll have to go look at your web site. It’s very exciting to me that Arthurian legend looks to be getting another round of interest in the publishing marketplace.

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  6. “Literary authors tend to stand one foot in both camps, enchanted by the magic realism and epic poetry at the heart of the [Arthurian] stories, but wanting to give emotional consistency and humanity (usually historical humanity) to the protagonists.”

    Hm. By that definition, I’m a literary author. Who knew??? 😀

    • I had the same thought. The head of the HNS actually commented on this article on Twitter saying that it takes more than adding a little magic to make one a literary novelist, but he never elaborated. It’s a shame, because I would have liked to have known what he meant. I’m always in search for the elusive definition of what makes something literary.

      • I think it’s because NOBODY knows for sure. 😀 People label novels as “literary” because they defy classification, so the authors of those works then become “literary authors.” Literary authors, in turn, become laughingly snobbish over the idea that they don’t write “that other rubbish” (i.e., “genre” fiction) — when, in fact, it’s “that other rubbish” (when well written) which resonates with readers on the deepest levels, because it’s how our psyches have been programmed for millennia. All I say — regardless of classification — is, “Write on!”

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