Throwing cold water on a legend

Arthur-and-Guinevere

N J Higham King Arthur: myth-making and history Routledge 2002

King Arthur. How this short phrase stimulates a knee-jerk reaction: from amateur historians who want to convince the public that their vision of the fabled monarch is true, and from hard-bitten historians who deny not only his existence but irascibly inveigh in print against what they regard as the lunatic fringe. Now this is not one of those academic books that castigates and berates that fringe while simultaneously feeding from the hand it bites, but it nevertheless very definitely takes a minimalist view of the existence of Arthur, king or otherwise. Nick Higham is well-placed to authoritatively examine the historical contexts in which the Arthurian legend grew, and does so in very great detail; a short review can only highlight one or two of the original contributions this study makes to the literature.

Higham believes the ‘historic’ figure of Arthur springs Athena-like from the creative imagination of the anonymous 9th-century author of the Historia Brittonum, the ‘History of the Britons’. He makes a good case for ‘Nennius’, or whoever the author of the History was, coming from in or around Gwent in south-east Wales (the author’s knowledge of local geography and lore suggests this); but the cleric is also writing a sophisticated metahistory for the Gwynedd dynasty of Merfyn Frych (825-844) in the opposite corner of Wales. Higham surmises that this composition, inter alia, portrayed Arthur as a Joshua figure to St Patrick’s Moses; and a quasi-biblical view of British history — with one or other ethnic peoples as God’s elect — permeates this clerical author’s vision as much as it did that of a Gildas or a Bede. To consider the chronicles, metahistories and poetry of the time as objective history in the modern sense, as many amateur historians or especially pseudohistorians do, is to fundamentally misjudge their purposes. For this principal reason Higham believes the details of Arthur as a military leader winning twelve ambiguously-identified battles are essentially made up according to what was expected of a figure in the Joshua mould.

The crunch comes with the obvious question: did the figure of Arthur then emerge ex nihilo into the legendary history of Britain? Higham suggests that “the most plausible conclusion is … that the historicized Arthur of the central Middle Ages had his roots in a Roman Artorius who had been taken up and developed within British folk stories already widespread by the beginning of the ninth century … The likeliest origin was a military leader of repute in Roman Britain who had become legendary” (page 97).

I think, after such a strong demolition of Nennius’ account, with Arthur’s exploits explained as being pure invention, that this is rather a weak fall-back position for the historian to take. However, whether you agree or not with this conclusion this is certainly a challenging yet fascinating study which must effectively throw cold water on all those “real Arthur” and “True Story” claims.

2003 review revised and expanded June 2014

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4 thoughts on “Throwing cold water on a legend

  1. Well, what’s your view – did he exist? (I have always considered him myth, result of tales passed down from generation to generation in long-distant years).

    1. You’d think that after fifty years of study I’d know the answer! There’s no archaeological evidence (no bones like Richard III, no authentic memorial) or convincing documentary evidence (nothing firmly contemporary, most three centuries and more later).

      I am most convinced by a mythological or at least folkloric explanation, similar to yours, Sue. Thomas Green’s Concepts of Arthur comes closest to my way of thinking, though he also falls back on an historical Arthur-type figure on which the myths and legends coalesce.

  2. I’m very fond of Arthur’s place in that pre-umbra of history and myth. I’m always drawn towards proofs of his existence or refutations. I love being in places touched by the mythology; they all gain from the association whether it is true or not. I’ve always loved a place in the Manifold Valley called Thor’s Cave. When I was told it was a suggested site for the Green Knight’s chapel, I loved it even more. Another fine piece.

    1. Places touched by the mythology: an excellent phrase, Simon. It’s like that similar phrase ‘walking in the footsteps of…’ in that people need that personal connection with the past and its personages. Whether it’s ‘Elizabeth I slept here in this room/on this bed’ or ‘this is the mountain top where Moses spoke to Yahweh/the Greek gods feasted’, it’s also about being part of the tradition and the culture of a community, however big or small.

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