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Worlds of Arthur: Reflections on the fictional world of post-Roman Britain

By Gareth Griffith

Let me start by saying that I have no skin in the King Arthur game. In my novel of 6th century Britain – Glass Island – there is mention of Arthur, ambiguously as a character in storytelling, whether mythological or historical is not clear. What Arthur was or might have been to the people of post-Roman Briton – legendary deity or military hero – is left open.

The complicated question of Arthur is intensely contested. But not only Arthur. The centuries after the withdrawal of Rome, from around 410 AD to the early 7th century, are obscure. Pretty well everything can be argued over, from the actual date the legions departed to the manner and timing of the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. A philosopher might say that every account of the period is underdetermined by empirical and other evidence. As such, and this is a subject I return to later, I would suggest that post-Roman Britain is one of those periods in which there is a particular intimacy to the relationship between history and historical fiction.

As for Arthur, there are shelves of books arguing one case or another – that he was a war leader in the North; or that it was in the South-West; or even that he was the Riothamus of history who led an army of the Britons to war on the continent in the late 5th century and so forth. There is an Arthur for all occasions. Prior to Arthur’s celebrity entry into world literature in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Briton, we see tantalising glimpses of someone of that name in various historical texts – the saga poetry of The Gododdin, at least parts of which are attributed to around the year 600; in the early 9th century History of the Britons, said to have been compiled by Nennius, in which the 12 battles of Arthur are recounted; as well as in The Welsh Annals of the 10th century, where note is made of the battles of Badon and Camlann of 516 and 537 respectively. My personal favourite – Arthur also makes an appearance in the tale “Culhwch and Olwen”, later incorporated in The Mabinogion. According to Jeffrey Gantz, in this as in other tales, Arthur does not play a central role: “he is a king rather than a hero, and the heroism that made him king is largely in the past.” Gantz wrote:

Unfortunately, then, The Mabinogion does not reveal very much about the development of Arthur in Celtic literature, except that by the time of ‘Culhwch’ – seemingly an early tale – he was an established figure.

What do such glimpses amount to? The fascination of Arthur is that we don’t know, not really. That’s what we are told in Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages by Guy Halsall, Professor of History at the University of York. The first three parts of that book are concerned with the claims and counterclaims made in respect to an historical King Arthur, where the available evidence is evaluated, along with the ways it has been used and misused. In summary, based on a review of such sources as Gildas’ On The Ruin and Conquest of Britain (in which there is no reference to Arthur), as well as those set out in the previous paragraph, Halsall concludes that it is impossible to know whether Arthur existed or not – “Arthur, if he existed – and he might have done – is irretrievably lost.”  That seems about right to me. Arthur is as small in history as he is large in the imagination.

As such, Arthur might be said to rightly belong to fiction, to the realm of speculation where evidence fails and the imagination takes over. Isn’t that what the historians would say?

Maybe. But isn’t that also the case for the history of post-Roman Britain generally? Isn’t everything up in the air, a work in progress – the product of inferences drawn from debatable archaeological evidence; conjectures reached on the basis of sketchy analogies and speculative thinking; along with arguments that lean heavily on inventive re-interpretations of the very few written texts from this “dark” period of history.

Halsall’s book is a case in point. The fourth part of Worlds of Arthur takes off into different territory, in which the connections to Arthur are tenuous at best. Its principal contentions are set out at page 158, as follows:

  • The traditional binary account of invading Saxons against defending Britons must be rethought;
  • Gildas’ account of the “coming of the Saxons” should be placed in the 4th rather than the 5th century;
  • The idea of Anglo-Saxon migration moving in one direction, from East to West, should be abandoned in favour of a more complex North Sea “cultural zone” in which information and cultural influences moved in all directions; and
  • That we should consider the politics of post-Roman Britain in a broader European context, as operating within quite large units.

Halsall covers a lot of ground therefore, much of it controversial and thought-provoking, almost all of it underdetermined by reference to either the excavated evidence or the available written sources. Halsall does not shy away from this. One aspect of his argument is that he re-interprets Gildas’ account of the hiring of Saxon mercenaries, shifting this from the usual 5th century to the earlier 4th century and associating it with Magnus Maximus, specifically his hiring of Saxon mercenaries to defend Britain while he went off to the continent with the idea of becoming emperor. After setting out his argument, Halsall concedes that “None of the evidence I have adduced is very conclusive. That must be admitted.” On the previous page, a paragraph starts with the words, “I hypothesize…,” which sums up the conjectural nature of this limb to Halsall’s argument.

Another feature of Halsall’s thesis is that instead of relying on the accounts of the binary struggles between Britons and Anglo-Saxons in the usual sources – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Welsh Annals and the like – we would do better to “follow another tack and argue from analogy with the far better documented contemporary European mainland.” This points to a reliance on analogical methods of reasoning, based in particular on the making of comparisons between contemporary events and developments on the continent of Europe, on one side, and in Britain, on the other. In brief, Britain should be looked upon more as the rule than the exception when analysing developments in the post-Roman world.

According to Halsall:

It is commonly believed that this period saw the Roman Empire fighting off hordes of invading barbarians. In other words, the situation across the Channel was much the same as that traditionally envisaged for “Arthur’s Britain”: Romans versus Barbarians; Britons versus Saxons.

Against this, Halsall maintains that on mainland Europe, even during barbarian attack, “the first priority of imperial commanders was, and remained, dealing with Roman rivals.” For example, Constantine III was “more concerned with securing control of the Empire.” There followed an account of how the Romans routinely co-opted barbarians to fight on their behalf, which leads Halsall to the vital conclusion that “the norm for fifth-century politics was not warfare between defending Romans or ‘Romano-Provincials’…and invading barbarians but struggles between factions, usually of Romans allied with barbarians.” By analogy, it is this conclusion that Halsall seeks to apply to post-imperial Britain. Conversely, dismissed are theories of the Saxon invasion that require us to interpret the British experience as unique – “Its foundations lie in history created to suit later political agendas.” But with reference to the analogical fit between Britain and the continent, if Constantine III was concerned mainly “with securing control of the Empire,” how does his example transfer to British conditions where, presumably, there was no Empire to secure?

Whether the use made of the analogical method of reasoning is successful or not is hard to judge. The criteria for evaluating such arguments is that the strength of an analogy depends upon the number of similarities between the two domains; the more differences between them, the weaker the analogy. Does Halsall articulate the similarities and differences between Britain and continental Europe with sufficient rigour to establish a sound enough foundation for his speculative conclusions?

At its most nuanced, Halsall presents an interpretation in which Britain is neither completely the same or entirely different to and unique from the rest of Europe, writing:

Variety and difference characterize this period, across the former Empire and beyond, as well as structural analogies at different levels. What happened in Britain shows similarities, in some areas, with what occurred in certain regions and resemblances to different zones in others, as well as its own regional specifics. 

Are we to assume that Halsall intends us to distinguish similarities from resemblances and, if so, on what basis? And what of the distinction that is made between “some areas” and “different zones”? Is the intention to refer to different types of geo-political units within Britain and, if so, how are these distinguished analytically?

15th century map of the British Isles based on Ptolemy’s 2nd century map. Made by Francesco di Antonio del Chierico in Florence.

These are questions for another day. Halsall certainly comes up with many novel ideas and interpretations, some, none or all of which may be correct. For the present, the point to make is that analogies with continental Europe are relied on precisely because the alternative sources of evidence – the excavated evidence and the written sources – are inconclusive, leaving empty landscapes to be filled by a combination of informed and imaginative conjecture.

This brings me to the relationship between history and historical fiction in the specific context of post-Roman Britain. Unlike the Tudor period, for example, there’s a lot we don’t know – basic facts about the social, political and economic realities of the Britain of the 5th and 6th centuries. As noted, more or less everything is open to debate, from Arthur to the scope and nature of the coming of the Anglo-Saxons.

Of course, it does not follow from this that whatever distinctions can be said to exist between history and historical fiction are dissolved, either in terms of methods of inquiry or the purpose of truth. For example, in this as in other historical eras, it is open to the writer of fiction to elaborate upon character and motive to a degree that is not available to the historian. Nonetheless, it is also the case that, if the imagination is always in play in the writing of history, its role is likely to be greater in those periods about which we know the least.

So much was recognised by the ancient historians, as commented upon by Professor John Marincola in his introduction to On Writing History from Herodotus to Herodian. The relevant distinction here was between the writing of contemporary history, where facts might be better known, as against writing the history of the events of the distant past about which the ancient historian “had very little information.” In such circumstances, it would be necessary for the ancient historian to “use his imagination to a great extent.” According to Marincola, “in that case the result might be more what we would think of as historical fiction than history, more based on imagination and probability than on accurate knowledge and a desire to know the truth.” But in the present context that is carrying the argument too far. It is not that historians of post-Roman Britain do not “desire to know the truth.” Far from it. It is only that, owing to the paucity of accurate knowledge, imagination and probability have a significant role to play. Halsall’s book is nothing like a work of fiction, except that it bristles with conjecture, speculation and inference, the empirical and other basis for which is inconclusive.

It is enough to conclude with the observation that, just as Arthur is as small in history as he is large in the imagination, so post-Roman Britain of the 5th and 6th centuries is as obscure in one as it is vivid in the other.

Gareth Griffith is the author of Glass Island. Click here to read an excerpt or visit his website.

Top Image: Miniature of Girflet watching as Arthur’s sword is retrieved by a hand emerging from the lake. From British Library MS Additional 10294 f. 94 

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