An insubstantial shadow

Howard Pyle: How Arthur Drew Forth ye Sword

The Figure of Arthur
by Richard Barber.
Longman, 1972.

Arthur of Albion, published in 1961 when the author was 20, was Richard Barber’s first book on Arthur. The present one is a reaction against the current vision,¹ among others, of a Cadbury-based Arthur:

“[T]he orthodox view of Arthur is in danger of becoming accepted as fact by default of a challenger. […] If it seems that all that has been achieved [in this book] is to offer a different but equally insubstantial shadow we can expect no more.”

This “historical Arthur” postulated by current opinion [1973] is an attractive theory but it has its difficulties, he says.

  1. Documentary evidence in itself is insufficient: the authority of the evidence has to be considered since the writing of history was formerly regarded as a literary activity and not as the objective recording of facts.
  2. Archaeology rarely supplements historical detail but instead “provides the forest which the historian cannot see for trees.”
  3. Psychological traps abound for the unwary; since history abhors a vacuum a shape-shifting figure must be created by each era to fulfil its aspirational requirements.
Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, Pembrokeshire, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth. © C A Lovegrove

Barber suggests two “candidates” who were the original inspiration for this Arthur-type figure.

  1. ‘Artuir’ of Dalriada (roughly Argyllshire – founded by Irish immigrants about 500 CE) who perished about 594 in a victory against a northern Pictish tribe, and who is referred to in the poem The Gododdin composed by Aneurin.
  2. Arthur of Dyfed (Pembrokeshire –  colonised by the Dessi, an Irish tribe from County Meath) who flourished between 580–620.

These two provide the earliest documented examples of the name “Arthur”. There are two other examples in the seventh century, both with Irish connections, and only one Welsh example in the 9th century.

In support of this two-candidate theory for example one may cite the native tale Culhwch and Olwen where there are in fact two boar hunts, that of Ysgithrwyn which contains characters associated with Arthur of Dalriada in other legends, and that of Twrch Trwyth which begins in Dyfed where the boar lands from Ireland. Ireland too probably provided the figure of Gwenhwyfar [Guinevere] who does not appear in the Welsh genealogies at all – the Irish equivalent is Finnabair.

Barber suggests that Arthur of Dalriada was, with the breakdown of communications between the North Britons and the Welsh Britons in the seventh century, confused with the Arthur of Dyfed. Then with increasing stability, and with Continental examples as precedents, a national history could be written by monkish scholars like Nennius editing obscure and introverted brdic traditions and trying to integrate them with their own classical learning, thereby creating the figure of Arthur as we know him.

So, this is clearly a debunking book though not “a final answer, only an alternative solution to the puzzle.” All those seriously interested in the historical problems of this period should read this book, even if only to decide for themselves whether or not it offers us more bunk instead.

¹ Barber’s book was first published fifty years ago, with my review of Barber’s book appearing a year later in Pendragon, the Journal of the Pendragon Society, Vol 7 No 1 (1973), here slightly revised. By this time I’d been marginally involved in the then famous excavations at Somerset’s South Cadbury hillfort (1966-70) – claimed as Arthur’s Camelot – and heard the many arguments for and against the ‘historicity’ of Arthur.

4 thoughts on “An insubstantial shadow

    1. That’s my general take on this, after more than a half century of much reading and research – almost every factually based conclusion is directly contradicted by another because any potential primary evidence is either unreliable, disputed, capable of alternative interpretations, chronologically uncertain, or simply proven to be ‘planted’.

      And then there are those who are wedded, even welded, to a crackpot ideology….

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Fascinating reading. Puzzles about the possible existence of legendary figures in history are always so intriguing. As much as how a possible historical figure became the subject of legend which has reached us now with much added and subtracted over the centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mallika, and what you say is just so, regarding many culture heroes and heroines. This book by Barber is just one of many he wrote on the Arthurian legends in history and literature, though one of the earliest, and broke out of the dangerous trap of thinking the mystery of a sub- or post-Roman Arthur had then been solved.

      I myself have long had a desire to write a nonfiction book on Arthur, specifically on modern claims to have identified the ‘real’ Arthur and the ‘truth’ concerning his historical existence, but focusing on the many reasons – mainly psychological and political – why students need to assert ‘their’ Arthur is the only valid one. Maybe I’ll eventually get down to distilling all that research I’ve done over many decades!


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