A reliable overview of a phenomenon

julia-margaret-cameron_arthurRichard Barber
King Arthur: Hero and Legend
Boydell Press 2004

Richard Barber’s classic Arthurian study was deservedly dusted off and re-issued to coincide with the film of the same name (the very curious King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley), though there was absolutely no other connection between the two other than the title. Its first appearance in 1961 (as Arthur of Albion), despite being presented to a middle-brow audience, by its style betrayed its origins in academic research; it still occasionally appears on second-hand bookshop shelves. Next, King Arthur in Legend and History appeared in the 70s during a boom in larger format non-fiction paperbacks; unfortunately the glued binding was poor quality and all the colour plates in my copy fell out.

The present revised and extended reincarnation is substantially the same as that which appeared in both hardback and paperback in the 80s and 90s, and this time the plates stay put and the format is more friendly. Barber’s text is authoritative but accessible, and while you might not agree with or welcome all his ex cathedra pronouncements – Glastonbury fans may well lose their phlegm – there’s no denying that he knows of what he speaks. He also is clearly a besotted enthusiast of middle-brow Arthuriana, not surprising when his publishing interests are taken into account (he was a co-founder of academic publishers Boydell & Brewer).

Essentially Barber takes the historian’s view, looking at the sparse material from the early 9th century onwards, and combines it with a literary survey, especially authoritative when it comes to the medieval romances. There is a little on the archaeology, though he includes interesting discussion on the background to the ‘discovery’ of Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury in the late 12th century.

The only lacuna in this otherwise admirable survey is any detailed discussion of everyday, man-in-the-street responses to the Arthurian mythos. If you are searching for analysis of the appearance of Arthurian archetypes in popular culture and consciousness, you will need to look elsewhere; but if you want a reliable overview, over time, of this phenomenal figure as he is developed and re-furbished, then you can’t do much better than this.

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