The Grail Code 
Introducing Arthur the tyrant

So far we’ve seen an Arthur who looks familiar: the conquering hero, the Christian warrior, the savior of Britain.

But there’s another Arthur who’s not as familiar: Arthur the proud and bloodthirsty tyrant, sometimes even Arthur the buffoon.

We get a hint of this other Arthur from our old friend Nennius. In his list of “Marvels of Britain,” Nennius mentions a curious grave:

There is another marvel in the region called Ercing. There you will find a grave next to a spring which is named Licat Anir, and the name of the man who is buried in the tomb was Anir. He was the son of Arthur the warrior, and Arthur killed him in that same place and buried him. And people come to measure the tomb, sometimes at six feet, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. Whatever measurement you find when you measure it, you will not find it the same measurement again, and I have tried it myself.

The variable grave is striking enough, but probably not inexplicable. (Go into an old cemetery with nothing but a stick, find any grave, and try to measure it with the stick three times. I’m betting you’ll get three different measurements, though perhaps not varying over quite as broad a range as six to fifteen feet.)

What strikes us modern readers most, however, is the idea that Arthur murdered his own son. This isn’t Mordred the traitor, who fell in the battle of Camlann, when Arthur fell as well; no, this is a son whom Arthur killed and lived to bury. That doesn’t sound like our perfect Christian warrior.

Arthur has occasional guest spots in lives of British saints, and he often comes across as a tyrant. Sometimes he’s a clownish tyrant, whose foolish cruelty is outwitted by the saint’s godly cleverness.

At first sight, this other Arthur seems almost unaccountable. But a little thought will convince us that this is exactly what we should expect to find. The two apparently irreconcilable traditions are both necessary consequences of Arthur’s career, if Arthur really did what our skeleton outline of his life says he did.

The Britons were divided, and Arthur united them: all the traditions agree on that. If Britain was anything like the way Gildas painted it, then it’s most likely that the way Arthur united the Britons was by defeating the recalcitrant warlords in battle. In other words, Arthur was the winner in a civil war.

Here in the United States, schoolchildren learn to revere Abraham Lincoln as a hero: the Great Emancipator, the savior of the Union. It comes as quite a shock to us to read what writers on the other side of our Civil War had to say about him. The man who shot Lincoln shouted the Virginia state motto as he fled: “Sic semper tyrannis”—“Thus always to tyrants.” Even today, about a century and a half afterward, you can find good, patriotic Americans in the South who loathe the name of Lincoln.

If there was a civil war in Britain in Arthur’s time, then there was a losing side; and if there was a losing side, then there must have been a large number of disgruntled Britons who loathed the name of Arthur.

Over time, we can imagine, the reputation of Arthur must have developed just the way the reputation of Lincoln has developed. The broad tradition would paint Arthur as hero, but the stories of Arthur as tyrant would not have been forgotten. Somewhere between those two traditions would lie the truth.

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey