Neither a true nor a final discovery


Chris Barber and David Pykitt
Journey to Avalon: the Final Discovery of King Arthur
Blorenge Books 1993

Many years ago F T Wainwright wrote an illuminating essay* about the relationship between the disciplines of history, archaeology and place-name studies; and when I first read Barber and Pykitt’s Arthurian theory I found it informative to use some of Wainwright’s criteria by which to judge its success.

Journey to Avalon is a handsome book co-authored by David Pykitt (who provided the bulk of the text) and Chris Barber (who supplied the copious monochrome photographs and published the book under his own imprint Blorenge Books), filled with plentiful line illustrations — mostly uncredited — and attractive maps. There is an extensive bibliography, several appendices and generous acknowledgement of sources of information and general help (including from this reviewer). The main theme of the book is the identification of Arthur as not only a 7th-century Welshman, one Athrwys ap Meurig, but also the 6th-century Breton saint Armel. The result is nearly 200 pages of close-packed argument in which the authors present the conclusions of years of research.

However, when we come to examine the details of the their hypothesis (with its title deliberately contradicting Geoffrey Ashe’s 1985 The Discovery of King Arthur) we find that the scaffolding surrounding their construct is decidedly rickety. In the absence of any absolute proof of Arthur’s existence, the hierarchy of evidence — so crucial to a scholarly presentation — is ill-presented and often non-existent so that the whole edifice threatens to crash to the ground.

I leave it to others to deconstruct their genealogical tables (which in any case would take a book almost as long), though essentially the source material is rarely contemporary, liable to political manipulation, infrequently survives in complete form and remains full of contradictions — so cannot be accepted at face value. No, what is easier, if rather more brutal, is to pick out at random some of the more obvious misconceptions which careful homework would have avoided. Pykitt’s statement, for example, that “the Emperor Claudius received the submission of Arviragus at Cadbury Castle” (page 63) is historically unattested and sheer unfounded speculation (though you’d never guess it from the wording).

Another fancy occurs on the same page: Cair Celemion, one of a 9th-century list of twenty-eight ‘cities’ which the authors call Camelion “by changing letters around”. They say that Celemion/Camelion is “surely” derived from Caer Melin (presumably by simply missing out letters this time), present-day Llanmelin, an Iron Age hillfort a mile from the old Roman town of Caerwent. Further, they argue that this is “certainly” more convincing than any other candidate for Camelot, even though they then acknowledge that Camelot is “an invention of French medieval poets”. What is the purpose of this meaningless semantic juggling? If Camelot is imaginary it matters little that it could possibly be related to Llanmelin; and it’s then irrelevant to any of their arguments that Llanmelin/Caer Melin might be remotely similar to a city on that 9th-century list. In any case, as Wainwright noted, “place-name evidence is essentially linguistic evidence and direct evidence only of language and speech habits”; it cannot prove, for example, that a post-Roman Arthur inhabited a hillfort in Gwent which has only produced archaeological evidence for Iron Age occupation.

Another instance of tangled logic occurs in a discussion (page 123) of Arthur’s eleventh battle, as recorded in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum. The authors note a gloss in one manuscript on this battle called Mount Agned which reads in Somersetshire, quem nos Cath bregion (“in Somerset, a site which to us is Cat Bregion”). So far, so good. Clearly some later scribe, copying the name of the battle from an earlier manuscript, has interpreted it as being a site known to his contemporaries under another name. Now, Catbrain Hill, their favoured identification, is northwest of Bristol, now almost swamped by the retail park at Cribbs Causeway; unfortunately for the authors’ purposes it was originally located in Gloucestershire, not Somerset.

Further, the original gloss was an attempt to locate the battle at one of the three hillforts in Somerset with the name Cadbury, and thus represented an antiquarian speculation and not a piece of ancient lore. To quote Wainwright again, “historical evidence is written evidence and direct evidence only of the state of mind of the person who composed it or dictated its composition.” Finally, it is arguable that the second element of Catbrain Hill is cognate with a Brittonic or British Celtic word meaning “high place”, but there is no known archaeological evidence or even folklore to suggest that there was a major Dark Age conflict at or on this insignificant Bristol hill.

The authors seem unaware of the irony involved in their description of “many an Arthurian sleuth” spending long hours “scanning old maps in search of anything remotely resembling this name” (that is, Agned or Cathbregion) when they then go on to confess to discovering the name Catbrain “on examining Ordnance Survey maps covering the old county of Somersetshire [sic]”. Or a similar irony when, after Catbrain evolves in their text from being “a feasible location” to “probably the site of the battle of Cath Bregion”, they proceed to castigate King Arthur: the True Story for overuse of the words “possible, probable, perhaps, may, might and could”.

Now, some of the inadequacies of this work may be blamed fairly and squarely on poor proof-reading. The index in particular is disgracefully punctuated, and the most blatant visual gaffe is the virtual transposition of Léon and Finistère on the map of Brittany (page 144). Such lack of finish is irritating, but the mistakes of fact exampled above are, I’m sorry to say, compounded by the method adopted by the authors of marshalling their evidence.

Barber and Pykitt follow an older generation of historical writers who place narrative high in their order of priorities. There is nothing inherently wrong in this method, and the fly-on-the-wall approach can sometimes be tolerated for its dramatic effects if the essential facts are not in dispute. Sadly Journey to Avalon is not a scholarly work. Its annotation is patchy and hardly begins to justify the assumptions of the main text. The distinction between undisputed facts, logical extrapolations and creative reconstruction is frequently blurred, and usually unstated. The text, with its frequent internal repetitions, reads like a mass of notes sewn together patchwork-fashion. Interesting episodes, such as Henry VII’s veneration of St Armel (which deserves study in its own right) are used unsuccessfully in an over-ambitious attempt to buttress their claims. On the other hand, they seem unaware of academic developments such as archaeologist Leslie Alcock’s re-evaluation of his views on the possibility of Arthur as an historical figure.

To assemble the relevant evidence in each case and then to interpret it within its own proper sphere, that is as direct evidence, are operations that pose problems enough for any scholar. But they do not reach formidable proportions so long as the limits of direct inference are not exceeded… Greater problems of interpretation arise as soon as specialists advance outside the narrow confines of their own disciplines. Wainwright 92-3

These are not arguments against any effort at synthesis; rather they are a warning that great care needs to be used in steering a course in such difficult waters. I only slightly regret using one publication as a stick to beat another, but Journey to Avalon is, sadly, a prime example of the pitfalls of labouring in isolation. To change tack with metaphors, the journey to Avalon will always prove to be a difficult sail, whether or not the traveller actually reaches their chosen destination; and a first-rate crew is as important as the ballast. As it is, the authors’ choices for Arthur’s true identity — Athrwys ap Meurig and Armel or Arthmael of Brittany — follow in the wake as just so much flotsam and jetsam.**

* F T Wainwright Archaeology and Place-names and History: an essay on problems of co-ordination 1962

** Barber and Pykitt have since published The Legacy of King Arthur which claims to have traced the “line of descent from Arthur to Iestyn ap Gwrgan, the last independent Prince of Glamorgan” and that it “continues unbroken through the male line to the present day.” Journey to Avalon is no longer in print.


4 thoughts on “Neither a true nor a final discovery

  1. For somebody who possibly only exists in legend, Arthur has certainly stirred up a lot of writing. But then, he is not alone in that. Robin Hood and many Bibilical characters are among those who share the distinction.

    1. Oh dear, and I seem to be adding a lot to that heap of writing!

      I am fascinated however by the way that certain largely or wholly fictional figures attract believers in their historical existence and the lengths the believers will go to prove — to their own satisfaction at least — that their heroes were real people. Robin Hood certainly attracts his fair share of supporters, and there are armies of individuals who know Moses and his ilk as well as they know their own uncles.

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