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King Arthur and George Washington:
A Thought Experiment on the Historical Arthur
by Alan Baragona, VMI


A note to teachers:

I invented this "thought experiment" for a two-day course about King Arthur taught to middle schoolers (including 6th graders), but it worked so well I modified it into its present form and use it every time for my undergraduate course. I have also have used it to introduce King Arthur to high schoolers and adult groups.

The purpose of this lecture/classroom exercise is to give students a greater sense of the time span between some of the literary milestones in the development of Arthurian Legend. It is frankly intended, first and foremost, to make them a little more skeptical about evidence for an historical Arthur. It also demonstrates how a legend can develop by accretion, adding elements from folklore, fiction, history, and completely disparate legends until the factual core story is so transformed that it becomes moot whether there was one. Folklorists and many literary historians would argue that there nevertheless must be one or more historical germs for the story to develop and flourish. Others argue that one cannot prove that any factual germ must be there. This "thought experiment" does not solve that problem. It begins by substituting Arthur with George Washington, definitely an historical seed, and then accruing historical, legendary and fictional stories from other traditions both earlier and later than Washington, like Moses and Lincoln (perhaps as stories of a 5th-century Riothamus gradually accrued legends associated with Alexander and Lucius Artorius Castus before him and with William the Conqueror and the Black Prince after him). But arguably one could just as easily begin with a core story of Paul Bunyan and develop a larger legend in similar fashion.

This exercise is really a story. I begin usually by picking one student, especially with younger classes, to be an historian 1270 years from the present time (in 2000, the Year becomes 3270; I change it every year accordingly). In the Year 3270, most historical records more than 1300 years old have been destroyed by some disaster or series of disasters. (When I first started doing this, it was war and plague. Lately, the collapse of civilization from the Y2K Bug has been a convenient fantasy and gets a laugh.) However, despite the obstacles, this historian of the future learns that she is a descendant of someone named Robert E. Lee from the 19th century and determines to find out more about him. After some research into the scanty surviving records, she discovers that Lee was associated with a place that used to be called "Lexington, Virginia" in a valley near the east coast of Old America. Traveling there, she searches through the shreds of old records until she finds a document clearly dated 1870. It is a newspaper obituary for her ancestor. However, a passing and unexplained statement intrigues her: "Robert E. Lee was a great leader, but he was no George Washington." The statement is intriguing because nobody in 3270 has ever heard of George Washington. She becomes so fascinated with this figure who is obviously a paragon but a complete mystery that she resolves to find everything she can about him in the scattered historical and literary records that survive from the Dark Ages before the 30th Century.

Over the course of a lifetime of research, our historian discovers the following documents. There is a fragmentary history written in about the year 2070 which contains the earliest mention of Washington she can find after the 1870 obituary. In it, she learns that Washington was active in the 1770s and 1780s, that he was a military leader, and that he was victorious in 12 great battles. Some of the names are the Battles of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Yorktown, and Bunker Hill. This last creates a problem for her, because some 18th-century records more or less contemporary with Bunker Hill survive confirming that such a battle occurred, but none of them mentions a George Washington at the battle.

After some time a full-fledged "biography" of George Washington finally surfaces. It is part of a larger history of Old America and is dated ca. 2406. In it, she learns that Washington was both a general and president of the country; that he never told a lie, cut down father's cherry tree, threw a coin across the Potomac; had a circle of swashbuckling generals with names like Longstreet, Beauregard, Jackson, and especially JEB Stuart; that he was betrayed by a trusted nephew into civil war and finally was assassinated by him. But the story also includes some patent fictions, like Washington parting the Delaware.

As the historian learns where to look, more and more stories sprout up that were written over the next 300 years, many focusing on Martha Washington's affair with JEB Stuart and on a long search by Washington's generals for a lost artifact with magical properties called the Constitution.

Finally, our heroine discovers an enormous book devoted entirely to Washington's adventures and his tragedy. It was published in 2745, though it seems to have been written about five years earlier. It is a compendium of traditions, including the legend that the traitor and assassin of Washington, John Wilkes Booth, was not only his nephew but his bastard son by his own sister, an actress named Shirley Booth.

Once we have finished this story, we go over the high points of the historical and literary records of King Arthur. When students see that the time span between The Gododdin and "Nennius" is the same as the span from 1870 to 2070, they begin to understand how sparse the written record is. Below is a chart of the correspondences in the story. In the college courses, naturally, we fill in many of the other important milestones, but the point remains.

George Washington
King Arthur
1770s-1780s  George Washington's career 470s-500s Alleged Historical Arthur's career
1870  Robert E. Lee's obituary:  "Lee was a great leader but he was no George Washington" 600  Gododdin: "Gwawrddur glutted black ravens on the wall of the fort, but he was not Arthur."
2070   Stories of  Washington's victories at 12 battles, including Battles of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Yorktown, and Bunker Hill--but the only surviving 18th-century historical records are of  Bunker Hill, and there is no mention of  GW in them 800 Nennius's 12 Battles, including the historical Battle of Badon Hill, Gildas's more or less contemporary account of which does not mention Arthur
2250 The Second Battle of Bull Run, "where Washington and Wilkesbooth fell." 980 Annales Cambrie: Battle of Camlann, "where Arthur and Medrawt fell."
2408 First full "biography": GW both a general and president; never told a lie, cut down father's cherry tree, threw a coin across the Potomac; had a circle of swashbuckling generals with names like Longstreet, Beauregard, Jackson, and especially JEB Stuart; GW was betrayed by a trusted nephew into civil war and finally was assassinated by him.  But also some patent fictions, like GW crossing the Delaware River by parting it. 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain
2445-2670 Lots of stories sprout up over the next 300 years, many focusing on Martha Washington's affair with JEB Stuart and on a long search by GW's generals for a lost document, the Constitution. 1175-1400 Chrétien de Troyes and the Romance tradition, including the first Grail stories.
2745 Compendium of traditions published, apparently written in 2740 or 2741, including the legend that the assassin John Wilkes Booth was GW's bastard son by his own sister, an actress named Shirley Booth. 1475 Caxton publishes Le Morte D'Arthur, written by Malory in 1470/1471
3284 the "Present" 2014 the Present


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Site Administrator: Alan Baragona sabaragona@gmail.com
Last revised: August 27, 2014
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