By Dr Gareth Griffith
Here we are in 2019 still discussing the possibility of an historical King Arthur. How and why that is the case is a fascinating story told expertly by the historian Nicholas J. Higham in King Arthur: The Making of a Legend, published last year by Yale University Press.
The sad and unromantic takeaway message of the book is that there was no historical Arthur. Higham writes in conclusion: “…the question whether or not Arthur can reasonably be allowed a role in history can only elicit a negative response.” (Higham, 275) The case is made against all-comers: fantasists and myth-makers, old and new; speculative theorists; agnostic academics and many more. In a previous post (“Worlds of Arthur: Reflections on the Fictional World of post-Roman Britain”), I wrote that “Arthur is as small in history as he is large in the imagination.” Against this, Higham would write that Arthur is invisible to history, or if not absolutely invisible then a tiny Tom Thumb who somehow grew to become a giant of the mind.
The most that Higham will concede is that, prior to the Historia Brittonum in 829-830, there is only a “single, fleeting allusion in Y Gododdin.” This is a saga poem, parts of which have been attributed to around 600, written in Old Welsh in what is now Scotland. But then, as Higham goes on to say of this allusion:
“…this may be a reference to the near-contemporary prince Artúr of the Dál Riatan royal family who was killed in battle against southern Pictish opponents in central Scotland (close to Gododdin) shortly before 600.” (Higham, 246)
A curious thing among many curiosities associated with Arthur is that his career as a figure of history has enjoyed such a long and vital life, thriving today on bookshop shelves the world over. Primarily, this account of Arthur was as a war-leader of the Britons fighting against the invading Saxons sometime in the 5th and 6th centuries. For the making of that story, two key medieval texts stand out. Historia Brittonum has been mentioned already, a work from the 9th century, written in North Wales by a scribe who is known to us as Nennius. The second text is of course Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain from 1136, which led to the emergence of Arthur as a hero of the Middle Ages, beyond the Celtic fringe of western Europe, soon to be taken up by continental authors as a model of chivalry.
Still the most accessible version of that work in English is the Penguin Classics edition, first published in 1966. The current edition includes an introduction written in 1976 by the translator, Lewis Thorpe. He acknowledges that Geoffrey’s work would be better thought of, not as history, but as a “prose-epic” (Thorpe, 28). However, Thorpe is not prepared to let the historical Arthur go as readily as that. He still finds traces of “the historical Arthur of whom we learn a few scanty details in Nennius and elsewhere.” (Thorpe, 17) Thorpe’s view, which can yet claim to have contemporary influence, is that “much, if not most,” of Geoffrey’s material is “unacceptable as history; and yet history keeps peeping through the fiction.” (Thorpe, 19) Higham on the other hand would argue that, at least as far as Arthur is concerned, all of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s material is unacceptable as history and that no “scanty details” exist, either in Nennius or elsewhere. For Higham, the Arthur story is “fiction piled on fiction.” (Higham, 275) As for Geoffrey of Monmouth, his work is better considered as “a hoax.” (Higham, 251)
One might point out that there is nothing new in this. Thorpe acknowledges that Geoffrey’s work was “severely criticized by more orthodox historians writing well within the author’s own century.” (Thorpe, 28)
Higham acknowledges as much. But as he also points out, The History of the Kings of Britain was “widely accepted as true (or ‘true-ish’, at least) at the time.” (Higham, 250-251) It was the scholars of the Renaissance Italy, armed with new historical methods, who pushed the case against an historical Arthur, turning the tide as it were in the direction of fiction and polemic. (Higham, 249)
Politically, however, just as in the 12th century, during the period of the Reformation and the Civil War, the Arthurian myth proved as potent as ever. Lifted from literary sources in the Celtic fringe, at critical moments Arthur was taken and used as a foundation stone for the emerging English and then British state. That use and abuse was recounted in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, from the Wars of the Roses, to the Tudors and the Stuarts. According to Thomas, the Arthur story was behind the decision of James I and later Stuarts to style themselves “Kings of Great Britain.” Keith Thomas wrote:
“Against the wishes of the House of Commons, who wanted to preserve the separate names of Scotland and England, the king assumed the new title, declaring ‘that the island was Britany, and therefore being king of the whole island he would be King of Britany, as Brutus and Arthur were, who had the style, and were kings of the whole island.’” (Thomas, 495-6)
Connecting such prophetic utterances to the political exigencies of the day, Thomas comments that the Reformation and the Civil War were in England periods when “prophecies were most prominent,” – his argument being that such periods tend to occur at times of “rebellion, discontent and violent change…” (Thomas, 505) He further argues that “All societies seek to establish links with their own past, to display the ‘founding charter’ which explains and justifies their own existence.” (Thomas, 505) For a time at least, therefore, Arthur was transformed into a central player in the mythology of English and British statehood.
Higham takes the political aspect of the Arthur story forward to the 20th century, when, in the shadow of the two World Wars, British authors found in Arthur a warrior-king who triumphed against the invading Germanic tribes. Aided and abetted by that political imperative, Arthur regained ground as an historical figure, in the works of RG Collinwood and others. (Higham, 257-8)
Indeed, for this interested lay-reader, it is the political and polemical dimension to Arthur that is the most compelling aspect of Higham’s new book. In particular, it is his analysis of the political and politico-religious context behind the writing of Nennius’s Historia Brittonum that stands out in this respect. For Higham, this is the starting point for the whole Arthurian story, one that can only be understood in the context of its time and place. One aspect to this is the religious/political framework connected to the Welsh reconciliation with Rome in 768. The work must also be read in the context of the era in which Merfyn Frych (Merfyn the Freckled) came to the throne of Gwynedd in North Wales in 825. The details are set out by Higham, notably the relationship between Gwynedd and its powerful Anglo-Saxon neighbours, Mercia and the West Saxons. Here it is enough to note the argument that Nennius should be viewed “as part of the immediate, north Welsh reaction to the sudden advent of West Saxon overlordship.” (Higham, 178) It is further contended that:
“One of the Historia Brittonum’s main purpose was to serve as political propaganda on behalf of Merfyn, reinforcing his claim on Gwynedd by asserting this ancient right to be recognised as leader of the whole British nation.” (Higham, 215)
In Nennius we find an heroic past, encapsulated in the 12 battles fought by Arthur, alongside tales of ongoing struggle between a red worm (the British) against a white worm (the Anglo-Saxons), where the dour present is contrasted with a glorious future in which the red triumphs over the white.
The Kingdom of Gwynedd was rich ground for the making of prophecy, with a new King originating from the Isle of Man coming to the throne, seeking to establish his “founding charter” and with it the basis of his legitimacy. This was at a time of violent change, when the Welsh, the people who still called themselves Britons, whose political primacy over the island was lost for all practical purposes, sought to establish a defining heroic narrative of British resistance to foreign invasion. To this end, Nennius and the scholarly community to which he belonged in Abergele in North Wales manipulated the distant past to serve the political needs of the present. (Higham, 206-7) That is Higham’s argument.
One is reminded of Nietzsche’s essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874), where three species of history are discussed – the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical. We need not buy into the full Nietzschean scheme of things to extract the observation that the “political Arthur”, as identified by Thomas and Higham, seems to belong to the first, monumental species of history. That is, to a version of history that serves “deeds and power.” (Nietzsche, 67) Its purpose is not truth but inspiration, the creation of an heroic illusion that underpins action. Certainly, the story of Arthur, as told by Nennius on behalf of Merfyn Frych, satisfies Nietzsche’s dictum that “All living things require an atmosphere around them, a mysterious misty vapour.” (Nietzsche, 97)
In any event, we have in Higham’s book an account of the Historia Brittonum which places it within the political context of its day. Of course, Higham covers much more ground than this. The evidence for every version of Arthur – from unlikely “Dalmation”, Sarmation and Greek Arthurs, to the British Arthurs of Celtic mythology or “dark age” history – is analysed and weighed, only for them all to be found wanting historical truth. But it is the Historia Brittonum where it all starts and it is to its lack of verifiable source material closer to the events it purports to describe that Higham looks. Notably, there is no mention of Arthur in the only relevant British source dating from the 6th century – Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae.
A feature of Higham’s analysis is the influence of the Old Testament on both Nennius and Gildas, with both viewing British history through this lens. (Higham, 183) In the case of Gildas, his polemical purpose was served by a highly negative account of the British and their sins. Whereas, Nennius’s polemical purposes were met by a more positive account, one that was achieved with assistance from Arthur it must be said, all of it fictional Higham maintains.
To end with two comments. One is in respect to Higham’s warning about the misunderstanding that might arise by reading the Historia Brittonum “as if it were written by someone much like ourselves who just happened to live a long time ago….” (Higham, 263) The argument is well made, certainly as regards the reference points to which Nennius would have looked to frame his concoction of fact and fiction, Biblical and imaginary. In light of Higham’s scathing summary of historical method in 9th century Wales, the argument would also apply if we were inclined to view Nennius’s work as comparable to that of a modern historian. (Higham, 194) It’s nothing of the kind of course. Nennius is best viewed as an artful polemicist. As such, his “spin doctor” motivations are all too familiar to us, just as they would have been to Machiavelli in the 16th century. That his message was tailored to his audience and his time is only to be expected. As Higham remarks at one point, “’Fake news’” is nothing new. (Higham, 275) Perhaps the argument depends on who we count as “someone much like ourselves.”
Secondly, and more obviously, there is no chance that Higham’s unpicking of all the sources for an historical Arthur will in any way dissuade modern-day authors, novelists and others, from finding Arthur, the idea or the purported reality, in all manner of places. I include myself among those who find the story too beguiling to leave completely alone. The uses and abuses of King Arthur are destined to continue.
Nicholas J Higham, King Arthur: The Making of a Legend, Yale University Press, 2018
F Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Cambridge University Press, 1983
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, Penguin Books, 1971
Lewis Thorpe, Introduction to The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Penguin Books, 1966