For the completist. Or the gullible.

King Arthur: The True Story
by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman.
Arrow Books 1993

In this book we are invited first to look at the traditional evidence for the existence of King Arthur. And what a ragbag it is, as any researcher knows. At the centre is a yawning black hole, sucking in the unwary. A sensible approach therefore to the historical problem of who Arthur might have been is to fix, by logical deduction, the time and place in which he might have flourished. The time suggested is the late 5th/early 6th century. This seems uncontroversial, so no Brythonic god, first-century Roman, Sutton Hoo warrior or Atlantean avatar here, it would seem.

The first half of the book sifts through Romantic preconceptions through to the ghost chronology dimly perceived from the difficult documentary evidence we possess. Thus far, there is little to quibble about.

But now the authors make a leap into the dark, and the ‘possible’, the ‘probable’, the ‘could be’ and the ‘surely’ all rear their several heads.

Engraving of King Arthur based on a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

It is ‘possible’ that Arthur came from the ruling family of Gwynedd; it is ‘probable’ that he was the ‘Bear’ who ruled Powys before the 6th-century Cuneglasus; Viriconium, the Roman predecessor of Wroxeter, ‘could be’ Arthur’s capital, Camelot if you like; and so ‘surely’ the likely candidate for Arthur is the father of Cuneglasus, Owain Ddantgwyn (‘Whitetooth’).

But, but, but, but! Owain Ddantgwyn (or Owein Danwyn in an alternative reading) is only known from one 10th-century document. This is a very slender thread on which to hang an identification. Nor would many scholars agree with the assertion that, despite its present archaeological status, Viriconium in the early 5th century became ‘the most important city in Britain’. And, attractive as the theory may be, there is no way of proving that Arthur is the ‘Bear’ mentioned by the 6th-century monk Gildas. And it is merely rampant speculation to suggest that Arthur, if he really existed, was related to a ruling family; he may equally not have been.

One problem with this book is that there are no differentiated weightings given to the various possibilities raised by the authors. For them, all considerations are valid provided they support the thesis. For example, they suggest that the name Arthur derives from a combination of Brythonic arth and Latin ursus, both meaning bear, thereby somehow symbolising a conscious espousal of both nationistic and imperialist causes. On linguistic ground this is, frankly, unlikely; it is merely clutching at straws.

They also resurrect Beram Saklatvala’s long discredited theory that Arthur’s drawing of the sword from the stone was based on a confusion between the Latin ex saxo (from a stone) and ex saxone (out of a Saxon). They even seem to propose that the ‘name affix Cun-‘ is peculiar to the descendants of Cunedda in North Wales (news perhaps to dwellers further afield in Lowland Roman Britain such as Cunobelinus, Cunospectus, Cunoarda, Cunobarrus and Cunomaglos).

Simple solecisms like this do not bode well. And yet possible circumstantial evidence for their hypothesis seems to have been disregarded. Would not Geoffrey Ashe’s identification of a certain Riothamus as Arthur (back in 1985) taken together with the tales of the giant Retho on Snowdon have been good ammunition for their arguments on North Walian locations? And what about Owen, the supposed son of Maximus, who had a missile fight with a giant near Dinas Emrys, also in Gwynedd?

There are also the theories that the growth of Arthurian tales in Cornwall are the result of relocated Cornovians from the Welsh Marches taking their folklore with them to the southwest of the island. Phillips and Keatman seem to be unaware of these admittedly equally speculative theories, showing a very limited familiarity with Arthurian Studies in their widest sense.

It’s worth pointing out here that both authors are also known as ‘psychic archaeologists’, that is, investigators who use non-scientific methods to validate their conclusions, and this speculative modus operandi effectively underpins their approach in this book. Personally, I instinctively mistrust any book which includes the word “true”, “truth” or “the real” in the title (these, typically, include Rodney Castleden’s King Arthur: the Truth behind the Legend, Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd’s The Keys to Avalon: The True Location of Arthur’s Kingdom Revealed and Adrian Gilbert’s The Holy Kingdom: the Quest for the Real King Arthur).

The authors seem to have tried their best with some very intractable material, but they are not comfortably at home with the various disciplines (archaeology, linguistics, history, literature and placenames, for a start) needed to sort the wheat from the chaff. In particular, their attempt not only to identify an Arthur-type figure but a whole host of contemporaries is both over-ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful. And the final section of their “Research Update” is a blatant attempt at commercialisation. This is really a book only for the completist. Or the gullible.

Revised repost of a review which first appeared online 13th September 2012 and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society. Though at best tangential to Wales I revisited this title and spruced up the review for Reading Wales Month 2022

Ellis Peters’ City of Gold and Shadows is set in the ruins of a Roman city rather like Viriconium: my review is here

24 thoughts on “For the completist. Or the gullible.

  1. I often think that these types of books have fantastic material for a novel, and I mean no disrespect when I say I wish they’d written it. Novels have long sought to tie together disparate threads into a ‘maybe’ story that would be hugely enjoyed, especially by the North Walians. As non-fiction, it invites less-than-positive reviews. Shame 😦


    1. Try reading the virtually indigestible ‘The Holy Kigdom: quest for the real Arthur’. Frankly, I rather starve than contemplate consuming any novel spin-off. Unless it was a comic fantasy. And then maybe not even then.


  2. Pingback: For the completist. Or the gullible. – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. Pingback: Reading Wales 2022 – Book Jotter

    1. You’re welcome, Paula, I couldn’t *not* wave a flag — though it’s doubtless a false flag — for Powys! I’m finishing a novel by Rhidian Brook and a study by Sioned Davies as part of my contribution to this year’s Dewithon!


  4. elmediat

    I now have a Monty Python image of Arthur pulling a sword out some poor Saxon. The guy has been running around trying to get someone who can pull out the sword. Merlin is the carnival barker selling tickets – PULL THE SWORD AND WIN A KINGDOM. EVERYONE HAS A CHANCE!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I had never heard of ‘psychic archaeologists’ before or come across the ex saxo/ex saxone theory. Your mention of the sword in the stone reminded me that I’d meant to explore legends like these–Merlin’s sword, Shiva’s bow, etc.–to find other versions/stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Folktale motifs are, on the one hand, astoundingly numerous yet on the other very pervasive throughout different cultures and across the ages — such a fascinating and absorbing topic.

      Psychic archaeologists? Don’t go there — in my limited experience they’re either charlatans or have convinced themselves they have the key to all mythologies. And they’re often on a par with those who believe that the gods are aliens who have visited the earth, the Was God an Astronaut? brigade. I apologise if I do them a disservice, however…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wasn’t really intending to pick up their work, just get an idea of what exactly they claim to do; I honestly had no idea there was any such thing!

        It is indeed so fascinating to see similar threads from different cultures– the great flood among them–at some level they will trace back to out common roots.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Psychic archaeology uses paranormal techniques — such as dowsing, or mediumship — to determine the history of a site or an object in the absence of direct excavation, geophysical surveying or meta-analysis. There’s a lot of intuition involved, but mostly nothing can validate — or invalidate — such ‘investigations’ except by orthodox means.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That is almost reminding me of Mapp and Lucia’s attempts at archaeology! Interesting; I guess their realm is the same as any who claim to be psychic, except directed at finding sites and objects as opposed to spirits!

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Christopher Ayers

    Would you please tell a bit more or point me to some sources regarding the ideas of Beram Saklatvala being “long discredited”? I know someone who is enamored of those ideas, and I would love to be able to offer some counterpoints. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have me at a disadvantage there, Christopher — I read this in the late 1960s and no longer have access to a copy. But I do remember feeling that, even then, it was of its time, reliant on resources that were being superseded by new research in archaeology (both practical and theoretical); it also back projected later medieval motifs (like the grail legends, Lancelot and so on) onto a post-Roman Britain half a millennium earlier, and indulged in far too much speculation for my taste — of which the supposed ex saxo for ex saxone scribal abbreviation is a glaring example.

      Alas, I had a look through several titles on my shelves but failed to find references to Saklatvala, either to his published work or to it being discredited. All I can say is that I remember discussion at that time as being slightly dismissive of his work (including by the late Geoffrey Ashe); I know he wrote a handful of titles on Christianity during the Age of Migration but I have no information about his academic qualifications.

      (His father Shapurji Saklatvala was an interesting figure, however: a Parsi Indian, he was in the 1920s one of the first and only Communist MPs elected to Parliament and is still remembered as a champion of the working class.)


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