The character of King Arthur is unique in literature. Most characters are known through their actions and words as described by the author of a story. Arthur, however, is a conglomerate of characters described by many different authors over a fifteen hundred year span. There is no single depiction of him, and one cannot trace his origin to a single author for the "definitive" description. As such, the character of Arthur is different depending on the era, culture, and the particular writer who is relating his version of the Arthurian legend.
Three Kinds of Arthur
There is much debate whether Arthur was an actual historical person. There is no absolute evidence, but it is possible that Arthur was a Briton or Romano-Briton king who led the Celts against the Anglo-Saxons in the early 8th century (Americana, Arthurian Romances, 1972). The kings of the medieval period were warlords that protected a particular area of land. They surrounded themselves with knights, or thanes, who swore allegiance in battle in exchange for gifts of gold, armor, and land. There are stories that depict Arthur in this role, similar to that of Beowulf and Hrothgar in the poem Beowulf. However, later stories show Arthur in a different light. There are three basic character descriptions of Arthur.
Arthur as epic hero
The earliest depiction of Arthur is that of a fierce, feared warrior, capable of tremendous prowess in hand-to-hand combat. As described by a Welsh priest named Nennius in his Latin Historia Brittonum Arthur was "chosen 12 times to lead the Celts, Arthur bore the image of the Virgin and won 12 battles, the last being at Mt. Badon, in which he killed 960 of the enemy single-handed" (Americana). In a work entitled the Brut by an English priest named Layamon, Arthur is again depicted as "a warrior, grim and fierce, an object of dread to friend and enemy; in short, an epic hero" (Americana). Here we see Arthur as a kind of Beowulf: a fearless leader of men, capable of legendary feats of strength and battle. This Arthur is practically a god; in fact, there is reason to believe that the figures of the Arthurian romances were originally Welsh gods (Americana).
Arthur as symbol of the virtues of Camelot
A second image of Arthur is that of a "peripheral figure whose presence is felt mainly as a social force or arbiter of chivalric excellence (Americana)." Epitomized by the story Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Arthur is not the main character or source of action. He is the symbol of a wide abstraction: that of the courage, honor, honesty, and chivalry of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we still see Arthur as fearless warrior; he is the first to accept the Green Knight’s challenge and lay his life on the line to defend the honor of his court. But, in addition to his positive virtues, Arthur is also representative of the affluence and decadence of his court. There is...