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.

Continue reading “A bold but misguided exercise”

Unreadable nonsense

Wilson with the Arthur II stone, and Blackett with the Arthur I stone

Adrian Gilbert, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett:
The Holy Kingdom
Bantam Press 1998

I scarcely know where to start with reviewing this work except to say that it is one of the most misguided books produced by a mainstream publisher that I have ever come across.

With sensationalist claims (the publishers go for the hyperbolic “explosive” and “astounding”) the authors, calling themselves historians, purport to overturn orthodoxy: they claim there were not one but two kings named Arthur — one the son of the imperial pretender Magnus Maximus and the other his sixth-century descendant from Glamorgan — whose careers were conflated to produce the single King Arthur of legend.

They not only identify the supposed burial sites of both Arthurs, they then go on to justify the title of their book with madcap theories about holy dynasties and the quest for the grail; sadly it’s all puerile balderdash.

Continue reading “Unreadable nonsense”

Stonehenge’s mythic history

Early print of Stonehenge: the bluestones are the smaller pillars surrounded by the trilithons

Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age

Greencroft Books 2008

Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.

Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.

One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”

Curious interpretations

arthurtomb

Anne Berthelot
King Arthur: Chivalry and Legend
Arthur et la Table ronde: La force d’une legende  translated by Ruth Sharman
Thames and Hudson 1997 (1996)

First published by Gallimard in 1996, this English version is part of Thames and Hudson’s New Horizons series and follows a similar format: a well-illustrated chronological survey of the chosen subject, followed by extracts from select documents, bibliography, credits and index. The author was Professor of Medieval French Literature — and now of French & Medieval Studies — at the University of Connecticut (does that make her a Connecticut Frank at the court of King Arthur, perhaps?) and so her discussion of developments in Arthurian literature, from Wace and Layamon up to 20th-century cinema, is authoritative and thought-provoking. For instance, she clearly charts how the Matter of Britain moved from chronicle format to poetry(eg Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace’s Brut) and then back to chronicle style, and how this reflected shifts in taste from pseudohistory to the flowering of chivalry and courtly love and then returning to the burgeoning nationalistic stance in England, as evidenced by Malory.

It is when she deals with the historical context of the legend, however, that we get some curious interpretations. Continue reading “Curious interpretations”

An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins

Howard Reid Arthur, The Dragon King:
the Barbaric Roots Of Britain’s Greatest Legend

Headline 2001

Howard Reid apparently has all the right academic credentials – an unpublished PhD thesis in anthropology based on research among hunter-gatherers in Brazil – and, as well as practical experience from living with Tuaregs in North Africa, he has made documentaries about ancient civilisations for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA. So you would expect him not only to declaim knowledgeably with his Indiana Jones hat on but also to discuss with scholarly rigour wearing his mortar board.

Not a bit of it. Continue reading “An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins”

Cymbeline, Act I

Ely House portrait
Shakespeare: the Ely Palace portrait, probably 19th-century — before 1864, when it first appeared

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act I in six scenes

The Medieval and Renaissance sense of the past was particularly liable to admit anachronisms, for example narrating how pre-Christian classical heroes would go to Mass before setting out on their adventures. In Cymbeline Shakespeare had no worries about anachronistic details: a story set just before the arrivals of the Romans in Britain includes for example men from France, Holland and Spain, when these countries were yet to come into existence, and its curious mix of Welsh, Italian and Latin-sounding names is quite disconcerting. But the author cares not a jot or a tittle about this, for this is principally a fantasy about power struggles in high politics, conducted by individuals with very human failings. Like many a Shakespearean comedy (don’t be fooled by the ‘tragedie’ label of its original title) it is essentially a fairytale full of all the folktale motifs and themes that we expect from traditional stories. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act I”

Things in our philosophies

durer
Dürer study of hands with codex

Ronald H Fritze Invented Knowledge:
False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

Reaktion Books 2011

Are there more things in
our philosophies than in
heaven, Horatio…?

I read a first-hand account by a reputable historian who was appalled by a comment he heard after watching the film of The Da Vinci Code: “It makes you think, doesn’t it?” He wanted to scream, that such banale make-believe based on allegations of ‘hidden’ history concocted by conspiracy theorists should be given any credence or even entertained. The many case-histories presented in Invented Knowledge may well induce similar paroxysms in rationalists, and could well warrant a health warning on the cover.

This is a study of examples of pseudohistory or ‘false’ history that have emerged or re-emerged in recent years, told particularly from a North American viewpoint (the author is Professor of History at Athens State University in Alabama, and currently Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences). In seven chapters (plus an introduction) it covers Continue reading “Things in our philosophies”

A fishy tale

Zodiac Window (c.1220): Pisces

Avril Plaisantin The Salmon of Wisdom
March Hare Publications 2014

A few years ago I was crossing a car park with an acquaintance of mine. It was late evening; we’d just been at a convivial meeting discussing matters Arthurian and were in good spirits; and we just happened to glance to the north when we were virtually struck speechless, rooted to the spot. What we saw in the night sky was an inexplicably regular array of lights, moving extremely slowly west to east. They were equidistant from each other – about three fingers apart when I held my hand up – forming a network, a reticulation of about twenty-four points of light, not winking like stars but shining steadily like bright planets. We watched for about five minutes, saying little but the obvious, comparing notes, and then set off on our journey. We never spoke of it again. Well, would you?

I was reminded of this again when thinking about The Salmon of Wisdom, a strange little publication with some Arthurian detail which I recently came across. Confusingly written – it jumps around from point to point, as these self-published booklet often do – it contained a number of ideas, many of which I’d previously come across, plus a number of assertions, which frankly I would find argument with.

The author starts with a discussion of the Four-and-Twenty Knights at the Court of King Arthur, Pedwar marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur as the original 15th-century Welsh has it, who each had “an innate peculiarity of achievement beyond other people”. She also cites older Welsh Triads which list Three Enchanter Knights and Three Skilful Bards, the latter of which include the poet Taliesin. She then embarks on a long discourse about the 16th-century Hanes Taliesin, translated into English by Lady Guest in the middle years of the 19th century. Here King Maelgwn asks Taliesin what he is and whence he came, and Taliesin tells him: “My original country is the region of the summer stars … I have been in the firmament with Mary Magdalene.” And so on and on, a boastful curriculum vitae similar to those which other bards, equally inspired, bigged themselves up. So far, so good.

Then the author sets sail on her main thesis, which is that Arthur and his contemporaries came, not from Wales or Northern Britain, but from “the region of the summer stars”. In other words Continue reading “A fishy tale”

From Atlantis to Troy

Athanasius Kircher's 1669 map of Atlantis (Wikipedia Commons)
Athanasius Kircher’s 1669 map of Atlantis (Wikipedia Commons) — north is to the bottom

Eberhard Zangger The Flood From Heaven:
Deciphering the Atlantis legend

Pan Books 1993 (1992)

Two nightmares haunt the field archaeologist. The first is the finds tray without a label. The second is the label minus its artefact. The former is the source, one suspects, of many an ‘unstratified’ reference in dig reports. The latter represents what one might call the empty treasure chest syndrome. Great therefore is the joy when, like the return of the prodigal son, the two are brought together again!

That is, unless the wrong suspect has been identified. For some time now a particular finds label has been kicking around the store. Many attempts have been made to match it up correctly, but since the original author of the report is long gone all such efforts have been speculative, many controversial and some, indeed, spectacularly misattributed. As with Utopia and Camelot this other famous site has been firmly located many times, and a book from a score of years ago claimed to have found a detour round the usual impasse and so solved the puzzle. This particular finds label reads “Atlantis”, the mythical landmass that perished beneath the waves, according to Plato, and which various historians and pseudohistorians have located in the Mediterranean, off Scandinavia, in Britain and the Americas, for example, as well as in the ocean named after it. Continue reading “From Atlantis to Troy”

Neither a true nor a final discovery

King_Arthur

Chris Barber and David Pykitt
Journey to Avalon: the Final Discovery of King Arthur
Blorenge Books 1993

Many years ago F T Wainwright wrote an illuminating essay* about the relationship between the disciplines of history, archaeology and place-name studies; and when I first read Barber and Pykitt’s Arthurian theory I found it informative to use some of Wainwright’s criteria by which to judge its success.

Journey to Avalon is a handsome book co-authored by David Pykitt (who provided the bulk of the text) and Chris Barber (who supplied the copious monochrome photographs and published the book under his own imprint Blorenge Books), filled with plentiful line illustrations — mostly uncredited — and attractive maps. There is an extensive bibliography, several appendices and generous acknowledgement of sources of information and general help (including from this reviewer). The main theme of the book is the identification of Arthur as not only a 7th-century Welshman, one Athrwys ap Meurig, but also the 6th-century Breton saint Armel. The result is nearly 200 pages of close-packed argument in which the authors present the conclusions of years of research.

However, when we come to examine the details of the their hypothesis (with its title deliberately contradicting Geoffrey Ashe’s 1985 The Discovery of King Arthur) we find that the scaffolding surrounding their construct is decidedly rickety. Continue reading “Neither a true nor a final discovery”

Chronicles, cranks and the credulous

1935 reconstruction by A E Henderson of Glastonbury Abbey before the Dissolution
A E Henderson’s 1935 reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries

James P Carley
The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey:
An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s

Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie

The Boydell Press 1985

Glastonbury has long been a Mecca for seekers after arcane knowledge, and certainly its reputation for being a world centre for occult teachings, legends and geomancy increased immeasurably after the middle of the 20th century with hippies, New Agers, latter-day druids and would-be witches making it not only a port of call but somewhere to settle. But belief in its mystic significance is not a modern phenomenon as this scholarly text — which I first reviewed in 1986 — makes crystal clear.

Professor Carley first edited the text of a 14th-century work, Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie, in 1978 for British Archaeological Reports, and that text reappears here with a very readable translation by David Townsend. Over a third of the book is taken up with introductions, notes, bibliography and index, which are not only valuable for the student but thought-provoking for the interested lay-person. I shall return to these later.

The bulk of the book is composed of Continue reading “Chronicles, cranks and the credulous”

The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner

ark_of_the_covenant

Graham Hancock The Sign and the Seal
Mandarin 1993 (1992)

I experienced a sense of déjà vu when I first picked up this paperback: black cover, red titles, a yellow band with the legend “the explosively controversial international bestseller” emblazoned across the front. Back home I realised why. The design was a rip-off of (or, if you prefer, a loving homage to) The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al from a decade before. Oh dear – more hype and more tripe, I sensed, for Holy Blood, Holy Grail was a real dog’s dinner of a few facts, a lot of fiction and huge dollops of sensationalist speculation.

In essence the book is, as it subtitle proclaims, “a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant”. This artefact, popularised by the first of the Indiana Jones films, was ordered by Moses to be built near Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Modelled on Egyptian royal furniture, it functioned both as a container for the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and as the seat of the invisible Israelite god Yahweh. Ensuring victory in battles for the Promised Land, it was placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem around the middle of the 10th century BC. And, after some subsequent references in the Old Testament, it simply disappears.

It is at this point that most crank theories begin. Continue reading “The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner”

Surprisingly out of date

Dark Ages made even darker
Dark Ages made even darker

Angus Konstam British Forts in the Age of Arthur
Illustrated by Peter Dennis
Osprey 2008

“When the Romans left Britain around AD 410, the unconquered native peoples of modern Scotland, Ireland and Wales were presented with the opportunity to pillage what remained of Roman Britain,” runs the blurb, repeating the time-honoured scenario of “Post-Roman Britons [doing] their best to defend themselves”. This they largely did, suggests this book, by refurbishing Iron Age hillforts in the west of Britannia, and British Forts in the Age of Arthur focuses on “key sites” such as Dinas Powys, Cadbury-Congresbury and Castell Deganwy, as well as the more famous Tintagel and South Cadbury.

The first thing to be said is that this is an attractively illustrated 64-page paperback, largely in colour, with maps, photos and original reconstructions by Peter Dennis of the sites of Tintagel, Wroxeter, Dinas Emrys, South Cadbury, Birdoswald and Bamburgh. The second thing to be noted, however, Continue reading “Surprisingly out of date”

Plastering over the cracks

Oliver Tobias Arthur of the Britons, broadcast by HTV in 1972
Oliver Tobias in Arthur of the Britons, HTV series first broadcast in the UK in 1972

John Morris The Age of Arthur:
a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1973

The sixties and early seventies were an exciting time for those interested in that transitional period between the removal of Roman troops from Britain and the lowland’s transformation into England, the ‘land of the Angles’ (and Saxons, of course). Long disparaged as the ‘Dark Ages’ or the ‘lost centuries’, this Cinderella period was then becoming more acceptable to scholars to study under alternative, less romantic labels: post-Roman, Early Medieval, Late Celtic, Early Christian, Late Antiquity or Anglo-Saxon, depending on your point of view or your specialisation.

The sixties also saw the rise of popular interest in archaeology, Continue reading “Plastering over the cracks”

The evolution of Merlin

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Geoffrey Ashe Merlin:
the Prophet and His History

The History Press 2008

Ashe produced his first book on the Arthurian legends – King Arthur’s Avalon – in 1957, and over half a century later he still returns to the Matter of Britain, most recently in this overview of Merlin (first published in 2006 as a hardback by Sutton, now subsumed into The History Press).

In his own words Ashe “traces the evolution of the legend, the growth of Merlin as a character, his possible historical aspect, and the principal treatments of him in literature,” and adds a supplementary list of modern transformations. There is a select group of illustrations which reflect different aspects of Merlin’s developing story, and a useful bibliography (would, however, that it had been divided up into fiction and non-fiction).

Ashe was famously described as a “middlebrow” author, Continue reading “The evolution of Merlin”