What great deeds did King Arthur achieve in his life, and what was his greatest legacy?  

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King Arthur is a legendary ruler from Saxon England, meaning he ruled before the Norman invasion of 1066 and after the Romans withdrew from the territory. To be legendary means to be part fictionalized or mythical and part real and historical.

The stories of King Arthur are believed to be based on a real person, but they are largely fictionalized and serve the function of nation building: Arthur, in many ways, represents the highest ideals of British society.

These fall into two categories: first, Arthur as superior warrior who could protect the country from invaders of all sorts. In this sense, he functions as a Beowulf figure, protecting civilization from the forces of darkness, be they dragons or foreign armies.

Second, however, Arthur is connected with nation building and establishing justice. At least in story, he pulls together disparate groups into a unified whole willing to follow him rather than fight amongst themselves. This is symbolized by the image we most fully and immediately associate with Arthur: his Round Table, a mythic object that was being reproduced in England as early as the 1400s. It became a symbol of his greatest legacy, monarchy joined to notions of unity and equality as represented by everyone having a seat at the table designed to level hierarchy. It is hard to reconcile one man rule with everyone having a voice, but this is an ideal the British have long struggled to achieve.

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Many stories have been composed about King Arthur and his knights, although these stories have limited, if any, basis in fact. Arthur has been a staple figure in popular culture since the medieval period. Although the stories are not entirely consistent, since the stories come from many different traditions (originally Celtic, English, and French), there are some standard elements to them:

  • Arthurian stories are set in the fifth and sixth century in the post-Roman period of Britain. 
  • Arthur was a Christian and fostered the spread of Christianity.
  • Arthur's father was Uther Pendragon.
  • Merlin was a magician who served as an adviser to Uther and Arthur.
  • Arthur had a magical sword called Excalibur.
  • Arthur inherited his kingship of Britain at the age of fifteen.
  • Arthur was a great military leader, he first defeated various small bands of invaders and subsequently defeated more impressive foes and created an empire.
  • Arthur brought peace and prosperity to Britain. 
  • Arthur was portrayed as a great warrior in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth but less so in later French tales.
  • Arthur founded the Round Table.
  • Arthur was betrayed by Mordred, whom he later killed. Arthur was wounded in the battle and taken to the magical isle of Avalon and was never seen again.
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King Arthur is a semi-historical figure who, if he did exist, has been built up through folklore and literature into a foundational narrative of British identity. In some legends, he is a military leader, credited with defending the British Isles from Saxon invaders from Europe. In others, he is a king, his royalty bestowed upon him when he pulled a sword out of a stone. During the late fifth century, he fought in many battles and was rumored to be invincible. A number of poems describe his prowess as a warrior, though much of the Arthur mythology draws on earlier Gaelic, Anglo, and even Latin myth.

Perhaps Arthur's greatest achievement and legacy is that he was able to defend Britain from so many invading forces! Not only the Saxons, but also magical creatures from the Welsh underworld and the sea. Who knows- without Arthur, maybe today Britain would be populated by wyverns and hellhounds?

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