I actually can’t believe I’m tackling this subject, but here goes …
Whether the figure of Arthur was a historicized mythical or folkloric figure or a mythologized or folkloric man has been debated and written about numerous times, some might say ‘to death’. There’s not much point writing about the subject again unless something new can be brought to the discussion, and that’s what I hope to do at points in this twelve part blog. If I am, accidentally, reiterating what others have said I apologise in advance. I also apologise for not covering everything, but if I did, this would turn into a book! It’s already 20,000 words!
In these blogs the legends I will mainly be referring to are those of the Welsh, which predate those began by the Anglo-(Breton)-Norman Geoffrey of Monmouth (early 12th c) who first made Arthur famous outside Wales and Cornwall, by at least two hundred years. The King Arthur and his famous knights of the roundtable, the Holy Grail and his battles around Europe all came to light between the 12th to 15th centuries, and it will be these stories most will be aware of. The earlier, Welsh tales and poems are, in general, about a very different superhero, who fights – or battles through his men – witches, giants and the Otherworld, but there does appear to be ‘Arthur the Soldier’ in amongst them.
Personally, I have waxed and wained over the years between the one possibility and the other as I have read the various arguments. When I joined the group Arthurnet, I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. Before embarking on this ebook I was about 65% (if a percentage could ever be given!) in favour of the likelihood that the original Arthur was a 5th and 6th century figure of some description … but, who knows, that could swing the other way at some point. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of this. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.
. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of these blogs. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.
What may help a little is that I’m agnostic. It doesn’t really matter to me whether Arthur really existed or not. I have no nationalistic tendency to want him to have been from what are now England, Scotland, Wales or even Ireland. None of these existed at the time. What I do want is a fair ‘hearing’, so to speak. I will try and do what Christopher Snyder does when he says
“My own contributions on the scholarship of Arthurian origins have been attempts to establish a middle ground between academic skepticism and unbridled lay enthusiasm”. (A history of Arthurian scholarship, Lacy, 2006, p.13).
Although I am in the “lay” camp, of course! There is another quote from Mr. Snyder to keep in mind:
“ [...] academic historians, playing by the rules of our disciplines, can say little of value about Arthur.” (The Britons, Snyder, 2003, p.94)
I can go further than a professional historian, but I will endeavour to keep the rules of their disciplines in mind.
Hit of Myth?
First a few ‘for and against’ quotes:
“Drawing on the postmodern theory of Jean Baudrillard, it is possible to interpret Arthur as a simulacrum – that is, as a copy which has no original. The textual Arthurs that survive are reformatted copies of earlier ideas of Arthur, referring always to each other but never to an originary Arthur, since such a person cannot be identified or retrieved.” (A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.16)
“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. (Christopher Gidlow in his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010, p.193)
“This is not the stuff of which history can be made. The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books” (David Dumville, 1977, p.188).
“I disagree, however, with those skeptics who believe there is proof that Arthur is pure fabrication. Theories that trace his origins to mythology or folklore are as unconvincing as those that ‘prove’ his historicity.” (Christopher Snyder, ‘The Britons’, 2003, p.94)
“At this stage of the enquiry, one can only say there may well have been an historical Arthur [...] but “[...] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him” (1991. p.29).
“[Arthur is] above all else [...] a defender of his country against every kind of danger, both internal and external: a slayer of giants and witches, a hunter of monstrous animals — giant boars, a savage cat monster, a winged serpent (or dragon) — and also, as it appears from Culhwch and Preiddeu Annwn, a releaser of prisoners. This concept is substantiated from all the early sources: the poems Pa Gur and Prieddeu Annwn, the Triads, the Saint’s Lives, and the Miribilia attached to the Historia Brittonum [...] in early literature he belongs, like Fionn, to the realm of mythology rather than to that of history.” (R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans (edd.), ‘Culhwch and Olwen. An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale’ (Cardiff, 1992), pp. xxviii-xxix)
That is the question?
First we have to define what the correct question is. To ask, “Did Arthur exist?” will illicit the response, “Which Arthur? King Arthur of Malory, of Wace, of Chrétien, of Layamon, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or ‘William’ the author of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius. Or Arthur of the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B.), or of the 10th century Annales Cambriae (A.C.); or do we mean Arthur of the early Welsh stories or the early Welsh poetry?” So, the question I will pose is: “Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”
That’s just your opinion!
Opinion as to whether the figure that became the legend of King Arthur was based on a historical person or not, or whether he was one of the other slightly later known historical Arthurs, has vacillated over the decades and centuries between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’. Today, some of those scholars firmly in the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp are David Dumville (1977), Oliver Padel (2000), Nick Higham (1994, 2002) and Thomas Green (2001-2007), following Padel. Those in the ‘historical’ camp (to varying degrees) who look to a possible 5th century Arthur would be Christopher Snyder (2003, 2006), Christopher Gidlow (2004, 2010) and Francis Pryor (2004) … with many a lay historian added to that list. The original as the 6th century prince Artúr mac Áedán of Dal Riata (Dalriada) is put forward by Richard Barber (1972) following suggestions by Norma Chadwick, but also the lay historian David F. Caroll (1996) with 6th century king of Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr, only forwarded by Dr. Ken Dark (2000). Both the Early-7th century Arthur ap Bicoir and Arthur ap Pedr have been explored by August Hunt, but he has since rejected them in favour of the Late-6th century Arthur Penuchel (2011). (Many of you may be unaware of these other Arthurs, and if you’d like to know more about them before reading further, see THIS blog; although they will be discussed here).
It could be argued that some lay historians (and professional historians!) haven’t helped a historical Arthur’s case much either by the way they’ve argued for him, and it is mainly the academic scholars who argue against his existence that put the best cases. (In this respect I hope not to make things worse!). The academic who, to me at least, has made the best case for the possible existence of a historical figure called Arthur (as opposed to someone else who became known as Arthur, such as Riothamus or Ambrosius Aurelianus) is Christopher Gidlow, but even he hasn’t explored the folkloric aspects in detail.
It should be noted from the start that both Nick Higham and Thomas Green had concluded that Arthur didn’t exist before beginning their books on the subject. Higham had concluded this in his book on Gildas’s 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae (DEB): ‘The English Conquest- Gildas and Britain of the fifth century’ (1994). This is because he sees the evidence showing that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ where the ones in charge after Badon, and not the Britons, so there was no place for an Arthur character. Green, in Concept of Arthur (2007), follows Padel’s folkloric Arthur theory and had been writing about this online for a number of years, long before the publication of his book. If you start from those assumptions, or rather conclusions, in a book then you are approaching the subject in the same way as those who start from the assumption that he did exist. The book is there to prove your point. That doesn’t mean what is explore in their books is worthless! Far from it, they are excellent in their ways. It also doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and I bow to their superior knowledge, it does mean this should be kept in mind.
If one looked at the early Welsh material alone, one might have to conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric and Padel does make a very important point in his book, ‘Arthur Of Welsh Literature’ (2000): many (not all) who accepted Arthur as a historical figure (or that he shouldn’t be dispelled as one) do so without considering this Welsh, Cornish and Scottish mythical or folkloric Arthur and the questions these stories and poems throw up with regards to his historicity. I hope not to be one of those and will face these full on in these next (shortish) ten blogs.
So, that’s the introduction. In Part Two we’ll look at Arthur in the landscape of Britain and the possible mythical or folkloric origins, as well as some possible later historical comparisons.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.
PS: Just in case there are folk out there thinking, “he’s writing ‘a historical’ instead of ‘an historical’, the former is correct. The only time to use ‘an’ is before a word with a silent ‘h’, like ‘honour’. In the past when I’ve used ‘an’, it’s out of habit.