A bold but misguided exercise

King Arthur: engraving based on a 1874 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Routledge 1999

Rodney Castleden is well known as an investigator into prehistoric enigmas such as the Minoan civilisation, Neolithic Britons and giant hill figures, and has here turned his attention to Arthur. As expected, this is a widely researched book burrowing into scholarly literature, archaeological reports, fringe theories and texts both ancient and modern. There are photos of relevant sites and a generous helping of detailed maps, plans and figures mostly by the author himself (though, disappointingly, three illustrations by the present reviewer are uncredited and unacknowledged) and the whole is attractively laid out. There are a few typos, some of which didn’t seem to have been corrected for the paperback edition, but these don’t detract too much.

After setting the scene Castleden plunges into an examination of the nature of the available early documentation and what is known of the archaeology of post-Roman Britain; he then outlines the historical context before turning his gaze on the man himself, his possible power bases and his disappearance.

It won’t be giving too much away to say that he plumps for a West Country setting for Arthur, but that he places his demise and burial far away from Glastonbury and not at any of the expected sites.

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron

Though mostly based on plausibility, this is a frankly speculative work. In a wide-ranging and difficult area such as Arthurian period research it is impossible to be sure about most so-called facts, the only certainty being that most of the evidence remains at best ambiguous or at worst doubtful. Castleden builds possible scenarios upon attractive hypotheses, and this is fair enough, but the whole fails to persuade. Consciously planned as a successor to the late John Morris’ The Age of Arthur, this book falls victim to the same assumptions about the reliability of medieval texts, despite a fair amount of critical appraisal.

The author is unfailingly polite to recent-ish theories that Arthur was Owain Ddantwyn, Athrwys or Arthmael, or that he was located exclusively in Wales or Scotland, and equally politely rejects them. I think however that there is not enough discussion of the Arthurian placename and folklore evidence from outside his favoured location of the Dumnonian peninsula, nor of the forms and distribution of the name Arthur in place and time, nor of any influence that mythic archetypes may have had on the development of the Arthurian legend. Nor am I convinced by the attempts to account for the anachronistic name Camelot, anvil-shaped stones and the like as support for his historical reconstruction. And I think the problems of chronology thrown up by the probably irreconcilable dates of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (from the 9th century onwards) and the 10th-century Welsh Annals are too easily skated over.

There are a few other blemishes which suggest a hack-journalist approach to his material; for example, Bede never mentions Camlann (as Castleden claims on page 107), and a previously unknown 10th-century document, ‘Some of King Arthur’s Wonderful Men’ (page 317), is actually a modern title included in A Celtic Miscellany, chosen by K H Jackson for a Penguin title and given to a translation of an excerpt from the Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen.

While Castleden has made a bold attempt to locate and give substance to the best known of the insular Dark Age figures, this is nevertheless a misguided exercise in updating John Morris’ 1973 work The Age of Arthur for a new generation. King Arthur: the truth behind the legend (the title itself smacks of hubris) is based on poor research, unwarranted assumptions and a misplaced confidence in outdated theories. His supposed grave of Arthur, while interesting in itself as an example of a high status Early Medieval burial site, rests on no evidence other than nearness of date, as neither documentary nor archaeological justification exists let alone a vague local tradition (the usual standby in such claims). The best things about it are the attractive quality of the illustrations and the summaries in the opening chapters.


Repost, slightly revised, of a review first published in the Journal of the Pendragon Society in 1999 and then here on 11th September, 2012

32 thoughts on “A bold but misguided exercise

    1. I did point it out to the author who told me he’d inform the publishers for when there was a paperback reprint. But it never happened: no acknowledgements appeared. I think it’s out of print now anyway.

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  1. Ah, the more apt title would have been “the myths behind the legend,” or “author’s favorite theories about the legend” 😁 That’s really nasty, this copyright infringement! We should all write to the publisher to point it out – maybe that would help get you some justice, Chris!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the moral support, Ola! The two or three illos he reused were my ink redrawings from photos of artefacts and which I’d done in a distinctive stippled style and published in the journal I edited. I don’t think he’s gained much from his thievery, to be honest, and if I was going to act it should’ve been twenty odd years ago. At least I have the moral high ground!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “The Truth Behind the Legend“, re: King Arthur, has the same ring as Patricia Cornwell‘s “Jack the Ripper: Case Closed.“ Pure hyperbole.

    And, as the others noted, shame about the copyright infringement.

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    1. I have shelves full of titles not just about the period in general but also claiming to identify who Arthur and contemporaries were, where they originated, and what they’ve supposedly achieved. My long acquaintance of publications in this field has shown me that titles including words like ‘true/truth’ and ‘real’ not only tend to contradict each other but also cherry-pick data, turn assertions into facts to bolster their specious arguments, frequently misuse existing data and treat antiquarian speculation as proof. And so, yes, the titles are as hyperbolic as their contents.

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      1. Exactly. Legends are legends just because in the process of their creation, the original facts (to the extent such existed in the first place) got left further and further behind in the same measure as the legend grew. It may be a legitimate enterprise to try and dig out those original facts from under the halo of the legend, but one should always be aware of the halo‘s immensely misdirecting and obscuring power. Anybody claiming not to have been dazzled and to have found a straight line to the buried treasure has almost certainly just been working with blinders on.

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            1. I should give credit where credit’s due: his first and master’s degree are in geographical disciplines and this has led to many titles on the relationship between local history and the geography of associated sites, in which I have no expertise but for which he has won specialist awards.

              However, the very breadth of subjects he written on and the sheer quantity of titles he has authored suggest to me that in many of them he’s a jack-of-all-trades but master of just a few. For example he’s written on Trojans, Myceneans and Minoans; saints, geniuses and serial killers; Vikings, Neolithic sites and Celts; world history, dictators and Arthur. LibraryThing lists 52 books by him, and Goodreads 72: I would argue that somebody who writes as prolifically as this across so many subjects is going to make significant slips in areas he isn’t a specialist in, and that’s certainly the case in this Arthur book in which his research is patchy and sometimes incorrectly referenced.

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          1. “I would argue that somebody who writes as prolifically as this across so many subjects is going to make significant slips in areas he isn’t a specialist in” — yes, that’s definitely a worry. (In whatever area and topic, as a matter of fact.)

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            1. 😀
              Aren‘t we all, us bloggers…

              Though I am seriously impressed with the collection of reference material on your Arthur page. And, FWIW, with every blog that, in fact, *is* dedicated to a specialized topic — there‘s often a lot of passion and detailed knowledge / research going into those.

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    1. Hah! Your gratefully-received compliment could just as easily be construed as critical, implying I excel at being insulting… But I’ll take your comment in the spirit I think it’s given and agree that I’m able to do take-downs where they’re deserved without resorting to badmouthing!

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  3. To try a sideways look at ‘yer man’ I went for Tim Clarkson’s book ‘Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins’. And backed that up with the chapter on Alt Clud/ Dumbarton Rock, in Norman Davies’ history tome, ‘Vanished Kingdoms’.

    The focus, however is on Merlin/Lalaiken, rather than Arthur. By the time the French writers had finished with them all who knew what was what. Stirring stuff, though.

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    1. One of the more comprehensive studies I’ve read of Lailokin and his ilk was Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin, which gives a lot of space to Scottish and Welsh influences on the growth of the myth, to the Irish legend of Suibne / Sweeney, and to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s contribution to the medieval Merlin motif. I suspect the Clarkson and Davies books may owe something to Tolstoy’s work and may even reference him.

      But of course there would have been at least a century between the floruit of either figure if they really existed and lived during the conventional periods ascribed to them: 5th/6th century and 6th/7th century respectively, if I remember correctly.

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      1. Professor Norman Davies is a professional historian, centred mostly on European history. He does not mention the Tolstoy book as a reference, and he is usually very fulsome on that score.

        The Clarkson book is very meticulous in tracing the Lalaiken legends book through St Kentigern’s hagiography to Brythonic placings (even investigating the supposed grave site).

        Clarkson cites the Tolstoy if I remember correctly.

        This figure, run mad, living wild, and prophesying, can be seen in many tales, not least Thomas the Rhymer. Suibne/Sweeney as Seamus Heaney wrote, alludes/meets ‘Allan’ in Britain/Scotland. ‘An older tale,’ I think he wrote.

        But still no Arthur.

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        1. Norman Davies I’ve come across before (his Vanished Kingdoms for example) but I don’t own any titles by him; Clarkson is new to me, so thanks for referencing him.

          I have to admit though that it’s been a good decade and more since I’ve immersed myself fully in Arthurian and related matters: I’ve had a lot of literary fiction to catch up on, having missed so much while I edited an amateur Arthurian journal for many years and being distracted by its hinterland of popular culture. (I would, by the way, include the Castleden book in that hinterland.)

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  4. Oopsie – not only a not very good book, but also someone who nicks illustrations and doesn’t credit them – therefore a failure as far as I’m concerned! I’m no expert, but I did read a *lot* of Arthurian stuff in my early twenties and pretty much became convinced that most is myth, we’ll never know the truth and that the legend is great. There was probably a chieftain once (whether from Wales, Scotland or the West Country – who knows?) who is the small seed at the centre of the big flowery myth, but without a TARDIS I don’t expect we’ll prove anything!

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    1. At some stage I’ll write a précis of my current thinking around the whole ‘was Arthur myth, legend or history’ thing, based on fifty-five years of involvement in Arthurian studies concerning history, myth, literature, legend, and popular culture: each area overlaps in a complex Venn diagram, producing kaleidoscopic patterns according to one’s point of view.

      On the whole I ascribe to your vision, Karen, but I suspect the boundary between belief, knowledge and certainty for each of us will vary, though we mightn’t feel the need to argue with the other too much!

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      1. I’d be very interested in reading that. Many seem to be very invested in the idea of Arthur, almost a *need* for Arthur. I get that, and I do get caught up in it all, but then I stand back and have to accept that the evidence is fairly slim and certainly bears no relation to the myth. But it *is* all fascinating!

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        1. I’m sure you’ve seen my Arthurian page (https://wp.me/P2oNj1-49) with its links to reviews I’ve posted up to now, and they should give a good impression of where I stand. I do get the need for Arthur, but that need is one that requires exploring in psychological depth, an approach usually skated lightly over or very superficially examined for validity by many writers. It’s that aspect that I’ve been feeling my way towards in the last few years.

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  5. What a cheek! I am enraged on your behalf! And I do hate when people claim they know the “truth” about a character so shrouded in myth and legend. I shall show my disapproval by refusing point blank to read the book! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good for you, you’re obviously a reader of distinction and discrimination! In my view a half-decent reviewer should read and honestly review badly-written books so that other readers (with better things on their mind) don’t have to. 🙂

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