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King Arthur: Fact and Fiction

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, July 19, 2022 - 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2207
This online program is presented on Zoom.
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Materials for this program
  1. Handout

Richard Burton as Arthur and Roddy McDowall as Mordred in the 1961 Broadway musical Camelot

The tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at Camelot are probably the most famous literary legacy of the Middle Ages—but how much, if anything, do we know about him? Scholars still cannot agree on the most basic fact: whether he ever existed. Arthur’s legend offers a window on both the turbulent times in which he (may have) lived and the fascinating ways in which different cultures have reimagined his story over the past 1500 years.

Historian Jennifer Paxton examines the evidence for and against the existence of a warrior leader named Arthur, who supposedly stemmed the tide of the Anglo-Saxon advance into Britain in the late 5th century in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of Roman rule. Drawing on both surviving texts and archaeology, she separates the hard facts from the speculation to paint a picture of a world that certainly needed a hero.

She also traces the growth of his legend as Arthur’s story made the surprising and ironic transition from an account of British (later Welsh) resistance against the English into English national myth and European literary sensation. Modern versions of the Arthurian story have been attuned to the zeitgeist, from the Broadway musical Camelot, which became a shorthand for the Kennedy era, to the feminist-inspired Mists of Avalon.

Paxton is a clinical associate professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

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