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?