In Single Combat – The Bear-King v The Fenian King

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?

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19 Comments on “In Single Combat – The Bear-King v The Fenian King

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  6. I’m excited to find someone else who made the connection between Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Arthur. I also first came across Arthur in The Mists of Avalon, and they don’t make as much of a deal about his death or nondeath there, so it took some time for me to put two and two together. If we’re having a contest I’ve got four votes for Fionn here, one from Ailbhe, one from caoilte, one from Oisin, and one from myself. 🙂 I’m fascinated by all the other connections you’ve drawn here, too. BTW I heard a lecture by a scholar who’s spent most of his life researching Arthur. He concluded that Arthur was either a nickname or represented many people. Interesting I have also heard people conjecture that Fionn might have stood in for many people also. Not sure I believe that one, but it’s yet another similarity.


    • I read Tbe Mists of Avalon a long time ago and totally fell in love with its view of the Arthur story from the women’s pov and also for the detail in wbich it brought the era to light for me. I also loved Rosemary Sutcliffe for that too…have you read tbe Crystal Cave and Tristan and Iseult? My short story the Witch and the Warrior was written after reading all these…you might be able to tell lol! I always loved the Arthur stories but since moving to Ireland have become totally immersed in Irish mythology.


  7. Pingback: I just love a strong, handsome hero…especially if he’s Irish! | aliisaacstoryteller

  8. I would agree with you, Alison. In terms of the hero, whether Arthur, Fionn or Jesus, I believe there is no smoke without fire. To me these people are real, (in that I CHOOSE to believe they are real), but perhaps just not in the format we receive their stories today, as they have become adapted, corrupted and distorted along their journeys through the centuries.


  9. My introduction to the Arthurian legend was via Merlin as told in Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave trilogy. Just to add to the controversy, I seem to recall a great deal of Welsh legend and history woven into the mix!


    • Oh yes, I remember them well! Did you read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon? The story as told through they eyes of the women of the era. Much of the Arthurian story is placed in Welsh legend, but if you think that’s controversial, how about this? In King Arthur – The True Story, the writers claim that Arthur was leader of the Votadini clan up in Scotland, who came to Wales as mercenaries. The Votadini originate from the Scotti, who crossed the sea from Ireland into Scotland and settled there. Perhaps they brought their Fionn mac Cumhall stories with them.


      • Isn’t it interesting to see these parallels and reflections weaving amongst lore of different lands? I wonder if, as I think you’re suggesting, they all stem from one original ‘true’ version? Or do they reflect the universality of people’s innate sense of personal helplessness which produces a need for a hero; a fear of the finality of death which leads to the idea that death need not be final or can be overcome; our acknowledgement of the mess we make of things which makes us hope for the possibility of future rescue and a sense that some things just can’t be explained in human, physical terms and must therefore be ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ or a sign of ‘divine intervention’? These raw ingredients seem to be the stuff of your Fionn mac Cumhall stories as well as the Arthurian legends and, come to think of it, is the boiled down plot of the Bible.


  10. Don’t get me started on Game of Thrones! How can you love and hate a story at the same time? Are you watching it on tv at the moment? I was so annoyed after reading the first seven books because I felt the story had not progressed at all; I felt ripped off that he expected me to read another seven, with no promise of a resolution to the story in sight, lol!


    • Hi Ed, I always loved the stories of King Arthur. It was only when I began researching Fionn ma Cumhall for my second book that I noticed the similarities. Rosemary Sutcliffe was my fave author for her interpretation of the Arthurian story. She also wrote a book called ‘The High deeds of Finn macCool’, which I haven’t read yet, but I guess she also made a connection long before I did! Glad you liked it!


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