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.
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