King Arthur: The Making of the Legend by Nicholas J. Higham
Yale University Press, 2018
Is it advisable to let in the daylight on our mythical heroes? Might it not be better to just leave these characters where they are, in the fantastical penumbra of our cultural inheritance? One may wonder about these questions, but our age is obsessed with the search for historical certainty, and many books about King Arthur, in particular, have sought to establish his reality. Professor Higham’s book is the latest in a long line of such investigations.
He admits at the beginning that this quest is strewn with historiographical snags or, as he puts it, “King Arthur is something of a nightmare from the historian’s perspective,” there being “total disagreement as to when and where he belongs.” Since this is the case, he goes on to ask whether it is actually possible to establish “what he did, and where and when he did it,” in parallel with such ontological conundrums as “was there a ‘real’ Arthur…was he a fiction right from the start?” It is undoubtedly the case that Professor Higham is extremely well-versed in his subject and that he has a wide-ranging and in-depth familiarity with the literature relevant to his project. The problem is that this book could have done with a severe infusion of editorial guile in order to coax the reader through the often recondite hinterland of Arthurian scholarship on show. Instead, we are given a no-nonsense schematic division between Part One’s ‘Foreign Arthurs’ and Part Two’s ‘British Arthurs.’ The result is that you know, with a discouraging teleological inevitability, that the ‘Foreign Arthurs’ are going to be the summarily-dismissed support acts for the home-grown favourites collectively known as the ‘British Arthurs.’
Anyway: on to Part One, dealing with the four most notable ‘Foreign’ Arthur theories. First up, was he a prominent Roman soldier of Dalmatian nationality called Lucius Artorius Castus who served out some of his military career in Britain but, from inscriptions found on the Adriatic coast, was eventually buried in his native land? This was a theory proposed in the later nineteenth century and enthusiastically revived in the twentieth, gaining most of its momentum from the Arthur/Artorius naming similarity. Higham goes into considerable detail to show that the inscriptions telling of Artorius’s exploits and honours have been interpreted in variously inept ways by a host of scholars, so that, notwithstanding the evocative resemblance of their names and martial reputations, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that the Roman soldier and the legendary monarch were one and the same. From there we move on to the so-called “Sarmatian Connection,” which is the theory that the Arthurian stories originated on the Eastern Steppe. Again, this places their provenance in the Roman period, when a troop of Sarmatian cavalry were posted to Britain and may have passed on some of their folk tales, laden with distinctly Arthurian themes. That being the case, so the theory goes, these tales were subsequently rehashed and retold as European mediaeval legends. Higham, however, doubts whether the Sarmatians were ever a sizeable or distinctive enough element in Roman Britain to make an impact on contemporary culture and, indeed, whether their Old Iranian language could have served as a vehicle to pass on the stories, given the likelihood that they had to abandon it early on in the course of their military residency. Whilst Higham is willing to admit that the “Sarmatian connection … takes us on an interesting journey,” for him this sequence of suppositions becomes more improbable with increasing scrutiny of the evidence.
By the time we get to the chapter on “King Arthur and the Narts,” a predictably disheartening pattern has been established, so that the reader by now already expects that the Narts will turn out to have nothing to do with King Arthur. Rather than the originals of the knights who say ‘Ni!’ in Monty Python’s Arthurian tour-de-force, the Narts were a mythological people featuring in oral tales that emerged around the Caucusus Mountains. Their exploits, so one theory goes, influenced stories about King Arthur around about the thirteenth century. The Narts seem to have inhabited a fictional world which was a kind of amalgam of Homeric saga and Tolkien-esque legendarium, complete with prominently magical elements. Where Nart and Arthurian lore seem to have their nearest parallels is in the adventures of Batraz. In particular, the circumstances surrounding this Nart hero’s death display similarities with those of Arthur’s passing. However, given the many augmentations to the mythology of the Narts over several centuries beyond the mediaeval period, Higham posits that the death of Batraz was a late addition to the narrative as a whole, and is therefore not a precursory version of the comparable Arthurian episode.
Moving swiftly on, what about “King Arthur and the Greeks”? Early signs that there might be something in this connection appear to look good. Whilst grouping the Dalmatian, Sarmatian and Nart lines of enquiry together as, on the whole, fundamentally improbable, Higham seems to find the Greeks—initially at least—to be something of a different proposition. The Greek connection turns out to be of relatively recent vintage, having first been proposed in 2004. As with the Dalmatian scenario, a main component of the theory derives from naming similarities, this time between ‘Arthur’ and ‘Arktouros,’ the name that the Greeks gave to the brightest star in the northern hemisphere. The influence of Greek civilisation on the Romans is well documented, so could it be the case that, by the time the latter settled in Britain, the Hellenic name for a particularly luminous star had been absorbed into the invaders’ language and become a personal name? Added to this, Greek stories and legends seem to have more than one point of reference to connect them with the Arthurian corpus, not least their allusions to a Round Table. In the end, though, and somewhat regrettably, the “Arthur and the Greeks” theory also will not hold water. Higham is willing to concede that the appellation ‘Arktouros’ may well have passed into Latin and become the source of the Old Welsh ‘Arthur.’ However, it is the transmission of certain Greek legends bearing some resemblance to later Arthurian lore that represents the main stumbling block. Higham questions the extent to which Greek culture and some of its more obscure mythology was absorbed into a remote north-western province of the Roman Empire such as Britain. That being the case, he argues that ultimately there needs to be far more convincing evidence that it all started with a Greek Arthur.
Having bade farewell to all these ‘Foreign Arthurs,’ in the second part of the book we settle in with the ‘British Arthurs.’ Best, though, not to get too comfortable in our imaginings of a home-grown Arthur’s world: the search for the elusive king begins in an environment every bit as forbidding and unfamiliar as any of the more far-flung regions examined up until this point, namely that liminal realm of Celtic mythology in which natural and supernatural worlds constantly leach into each other. Was Arthur —as he emerged in mediaeval literature— originally a cult figure, an archetypal warrior god in Celtic lore? This supposition would help to explain the ever-present magical dimensions to his life and exploits. Higham isn’t convinced of this “Arthur-deity” proposition, mainly due to issues with the idea that the name ‘Arthur’ is of Celtic origin. Then what about if Arthur is hauled out of the realms of Faerie and turned into a fifth-century British king who led an army against the Gauls? This would be Arthur-otherwise-known-as-Riothamus (deriving from the Brittonic for ‘king’), according to cultural historian Geoffrey Ashe. Another Geoffrey, this time of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century, corroborates this view of Arthur as a British leader involved in a Continental campaign. True to form, Higham assiduously sifts through the evidence, but once again, as with most of these theories which start from the premise that the clue is in the name, he rejects the connection.
Over the Welsh border, a series of elegies to the men of the Brittonic kingdom of Gododdin (entitled Y Gododdin) which survives in a thirteenth-century manuscript makes a passing reference to ‘Arthur’ in one stanza. What is perhaps most significant about this brief cameo is that here there is no name like that of our hero to conjure with; this is someone actually called Arthur, albeit that the figure behind that name remains, at this stage, an amorphous shadow. Higham then itemises other historically-chronicled Arthurs who begin to emerge in the late sixth and seventh centuries on both sides of the Irish sea and might also be candidates, and suddenly things begin to look up – but then he reminds us that, no matter how many of these same names pop up, they do not offer any conclusive evidence for the existence of a real King Arthur during these Dark Ages. Nevertheless, we continue on to the chapter dealing with the Historia Brittonum or History of the Britons, a work written in the late Middle Ages which “establishes Arthur as a great British hero.” However, this Arthur still operates within an historically unsubstantiated mythos. At this point it is well to remember that tracing the origins of the cultural Arthurian figure per se is not Higham’s remit. Rather, what he wants is to determine whether a “real Arthur” ever existed. The Historia is not a history book in the modern sense, and largely offers portraits of archetypal characters rather than of real individuals. As such, it yields “little of real value” for understanding the time period that it covers (the fifth and early sixth centuries): within its pages, Arthur is depicted as akin to an Old Testament prophet come to lead his people to some sort of earthly Elysium.
However, as the figure of King Arthur gradually becomes more and more substantial in the written records, perhaps there is a traceable process by which a real person gradually solidifies out of the mists of legend. In the Annales Cambriae, a twelfth-century collection of Welsh texts, there is a mention of “the battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors,” as well as a later reference to this leader’s death. Unfortunately, Higham’s judgement on this is that the Annales author based his references on what is found in the Historia and that neither entry “is capable of bearing much historical or chronological weight.” Similarly, another early mediaeval collection, the Mirabilia Britanniae (The Wonders of Britain), with its reference to “Arthur the warrior,” turns out to have no intrinsic historical substance. The same applies to several other Welsh and Latin works that Higham cites, in which Arthur is either celebrated or puts in a brief appearance, all of which only serve to record his evolution as a literary hero and fail to yield a glimmer of historical veracity.
Higham rounds off his study by providing an investigation of why it is that King Arthur and references to an Arthurian Age have stood the test of time when other, similarly elusive legendary figures have fallen by the wayside. He characterises current Arthurian studies as divided between those who approach the subject from a largely theoretical and scholarly perspective, preferring not to get drawn into speculation about whether such a figure ever existed, and those who make a case for ‘their’ Arthur as the real deal, although buried beneath the weight of myth that has accrued over the centuries. It should be clear by now that Higham has very little time for these truth-seekers, who are all largely working, as he puts it, in “the same pseudo-historical tradition” and “cherry-pick whatever facts suit their own theories and find ways to explain away those which do not.” The facts are, as the author has it, that Arthur and his deeds first swirled into view during the ninth century in such historically unreliable works as the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, and later gained further prominence via Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. From then on the figure of Arthur became well-known on the mediaeval European stage, whilst Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur consolidated his position in Britain. Edward I was particularly keen to identify himself with Arthur —witness the famous Winchester round table— and the early Tudor monarchs also sought, to a lesser extent, to place themselves within the Arthurian tradition of kingship. Thereafter, following several centuries during which his star faded somewhat, Arthur’s legendary fortunes revived with a vengeance in the Victorian era, notably in the artistic output of Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. From such revivalist enthusiasm developed a quest in the early twentieth century to find the ‘real’ Arthur, the legacy of which Higham has set himself the task of interrogating.
In the end Higham is emphatic that King Arthur was never historically ‘real.’ Instead, “his ever-changing story provides insights into the world views and purposes of those who have written him, portrayed him, imagined and reimagined him, loved him and denied him, in the process adding ever more layers to his long, long tale.” Arthur and his deeds belong to a realm of “make believe and wishful thinking,” which Higham views as his natural habitat. --Mark Jones