England’s most famous historical hero is arguably that mystical, mythical, most noble of Kings, Arthur Pendragon. He and his Knights of the Round Table were renowned for their chivalry, and their unerring search for the Holy Grail.
I grew up on these stories. Not only did I read the legends, but also all the modern research to try to get to the truth about this elusive character.
Arthur ruled circa fifth century AD. Yet there is no hard evidence to prove it. Some say he was never actually a king at all, but rather a clan chieftain, and leader of an army, or mercenary war band which fought off invading Saxons.
In the end, the legendary Arthur was mortally wounded at the battle of Camlan by his son, Mordred, and carried off in a barge to the Isle of Avalon. He was never seen again, although it was said that he never died, but will one day rise again to save his people in their hour of greatest need.
Hmmmm…seems I’ve heard that some place before!
Go back a couple of centuries, and cross the water to Ireland, and we encounter a famous Irish hero by the name of Fionn mac Cumhall (Finn mac Cool, in its anglicised form).
Fionn was around during the third century AD. He was a contemporary of High King, Cormac mac Art. Cormac elevated Fionn to Leader of the Fianna as reward for saving his court from attack by the fire-breathing Sidhe-Prince, Aillen mac Midhna.
The Fianna were a roving war-band of elite warriors, created to protect the High King and the people of Ireland. At their head, Fionn went on to great success, and had many adventures with his Fianna. (If you want to know more, google ‘The Fenian Cycle’.)
Eventually, however, Fionn’s arrogance and high fees caused him to fall foul of the new High King, Cairpre, and they went to war against each other. It was to be Fionn’s last battle. Details are sketchy. Some say he was killed, yet his body was never found.
Others say he is alive still, sleeping under the hills of Ireland, waiting to be called to save his people in their hour of greatest need.
But…wait a minute…wasn’t that Arthur’s fate, too?
Yes, I too see more than a few eerie similarities here. Clan chieftain, unsurpassed warrior, hero of mighty deeds, head of a war-band, suspicious death, once and future king…
Is it coincidence?
Possibly. But it is well-known that many of Arthur’s adventures were made up to serve later Kings who tried to prove their right to England’s throne through their lineage, borrowing this magnificent ‘King’ and inserting him into their ancestry.
Perhaps, then, it wouldn’t be too much of a controversy to take it one step further and suggest that the whole mythology of Arthur could have been borrowed from the Irish; that the English took the legendary deeds of Fionn mac Cumhall and used them to create their own once and future King.
By the way, ‘Arthur’ was probably not his name, but more likely an epithet, or title. It means ‘the bear’. Interestingly, ‘Art-ur’ is a very ancient Irish name, with exactly the same meaning.
For me, Fionn mac Cumhall is definitely coming out as victor in the battle of the legendary kings. What do you think?