Saturday, 29 December 2012

King Arthur: Myth-Making and History

N.J.Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History , Routledge, London, 2002

Books on King Arthur can seem dangerous to their authors: the topic somehow leads them on. John Morris, a respected radical historian, among the founders of the major journal Past and Present produced his strangely imaginary The Age of Arthur (1973), pressing too hard on possible evidence, constructing a dream of a Romano-British military Arthurian past. In that, he amplified the highly suppositious tracks of the even greater historian  R. G. Collingwood, whose sage remarks in the 1936 Oxford History of Roman Britain suddenly turned to two pages of fantasy about a possible Arthur leading a hardly possible cavalry  in the service of a briefly successful Celtic Britain’s defence against the Anglo-Saxons.  

Of course Arthur is himself pretty odd. Why do the English (and I speak as a Welshman) so honour someone who, if he existed, fought against those who spoke, in old and pretty scruffy form, the English language ? The answer is simple: until the first world war the English rightly revered King Alfred, soldier, scholar, administrator, only English king to deserve the title Great. But the first war and, worse, the second, made the Germanicity of the English origins all a bit embarrassing, and imaginative warmth swung firmly towards Arthur – who was not really conceived now as Welsh but more respectably as British and really as basically a Roman, so a decent chap having had the same education as all these fine classical scholars turned historians.

Even the allegedly material science of archaeology was Arthurianised and there was a huge following for Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain (1971) which felt it had found the king’s own home in Cadbury Camp – without any actual evidence beyond general suitabilities. It seemed fitting that the multi-selling Pelican had on the cover a beautiful romantic sunset, a code for both Celtic Britain and very possibly its twentieth century successor.

But not everyone has been hornswoggled by the Arthur myth. There were always some realistic scholars who felt Arthur was not much of a possibility as a real defender of the British faith,  and anyway  the literature about him was the really interesting thing – Joseph Ritson was one such in his 1825 Life, E. K. Chambers another in Arthur of Britain (1927), and there was a quite cool account of him in the original Dictionary of National Biography. But we had to wait for Nick Higham to put together a calm, scholarly and rather rigorous book about all the data of the real Arthur legend, or myth, and how it has developed over time. Higham is a substantial scholar of early Britain, paying attention to both the Germanic and the Celtic traditions: most commentators pick one or the other starting from Bede (a dedicated Saxonist).

This fine book is a sound guide to the considerable intricacies of what was said by the early sources. Gildas, serious Christian, inventive Latinist, and heavy-handed moralist was the first – he speaks of the battle of Baddon as taking place about forty years before he writes in about 540. He speaks warmly of Aurelius Ambrosius, the clearly part-Roman last of the legion-aware British generals, and sees him pushing back the Saxons in the mid-late fifth century. But – one of the great absences of culture – he never says who led the British at Baddon. Actually he only usually mentions leaders to say what evil sinners they were, except for A A. Higham takes us through this unique text with care and caution. Basically we don’t know what happened by who, and there is no actual Arthur mileage in it.

Bede respected Gildas, partly because he said the British were such useless sinners (he didn’t fancy the Saxons either, but Bede dressed them up rather well, once they were Christian). But Bede had no interest in the possibly Arthurian past, disliking the British (i.e. Welsh) anyway and never having gone far from his geordie monastic home. But his near-contemporary who wrote the Historia Brittonum from a distinctly British viewpoint did insert Arthur firmly into Gildas’s time-frame. We used to call this person Nennius, but the best scholars think that name belonged to a later reworker of a text in existence by 800 or before.

Higham writes very knowledgeably and fairly about this text that people used to think was a bit of a mess, but now seems like a remarkable effort to write the other side of Bede’s story, knowledgeable about Irish and northern British material as well as Welsh and Latin sources. The text speaks of the saintly Germanus, by no means Germanic, and the bold St Patrick, then turns to the warriors and lists Arthur’s great battles against the Saxons, all over Britain (people used to say that mobility proved he was on horseback, knowing nothing about Celtic warfare: if you didn’t find your enemy’s base and destroy it, you hadn’t won). It is clear that the Historia author knows some of the early Welsh materials, folkloric and semi-mythic, and  some stories about a great warrior Arthur. Higham avoids fancies carefully, and won’t go along with usual entrancing ideas like Aurelius had a son called Artorius or (I like this one) they were actually the same person. This is proper history.

And he gives the same treatment to the finest of all these early British  writers, Geoffrey of Monmouth, creator of the rich, influential, and fantastically successful Historia Regum Britanniae, `The History of the Kings of Britain`, coming from the mid 1130s, just after the death of Henry I. Geoffrey worked at Oxford, as a scholar and probably teacher, and understood the Norman hierarchy. With unaccountable brilliance he wrote a history of the British Celts that somehow aggrandised the Norman French as well. Following the Historia Brittonum, but with more bravura, his British arrived soon after Aeneas got to Rome, and were led by a Trojan called Brutus. So we are very grand and ancient. He told of centuries of fighting and squabbling, pastimes shared enthusiastically by Celts and Normans, and he also told how the great British leaders, Belinus and his brother Brennius, and indeed after them Arthur, had conquered France and Rome, just the sort of thing a Norman might mull over achieving  on a wet night in Winchester.

But Geoffrey embraced heroic myth as well as national politics: his Arthur has the mysterious double fatherhood of most superheroes; he is wise and generous when a young king; he defeats a vicious giant; he is conspired against from inside his family; he fights a great last battle and may perhaps not have died – maybe he is still in Avalon waiting to return, as Merlin has prophesied that the British will once more take over Britain. Geoffrey seems to have known how to sail close to the wind of Norman disapproval on behalf of his own Celtic roots..

Higham lays out the antiquity and also the modernity of this all very well and essentially shows how Geoffrey imagined Arthur like a glorious king of the suddenly emergent middle ages – a feudal lord, a leader of mounted warfare,  creating buildings of great splendour and so power, who kept the influence of the church firmly parallel to his project (we are told his uncle St David was his archbishop) – and above all a king whose will is exerted by his warrior-knights, those characters who were about to explode across the pages of story in high medieval romance.

This powerful account takes us most of the way through Higham’s book, but he does find space to offer a decent if brisk account of the later course of Arthurian legend, though he tends to keep its political valencies somewhat under wraps (Collingwood and the war don’t get an outing). For me Higham tends to be descriptive rather than searchingly analytic, but he covers a great deal of ground and refers to and describes accurately and, even better, calmly a very impressive range of material. No-one who wants to think seriously about the weird power of the Arthur myth – rather than about stupid conjectures about where he was born and so on – will be able to operate without a good grounding in the  excellent account by Higham, a very honourable exercise in bringing into contact the two elements of his sub-title, `myth-making’  and `history’.

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