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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Two

ARTHUR IN STORY AND THE LANDSCAPE

Arthur's Seat

If Arthur was, indeed, a 5th/6th century figure, subsequence stories, folktales, poems and especially topographic and onomastic sites named after him haven’t helped his historical case much. (Neither have Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Saints Lives, the Welsh Triads or the other Romantic Arthurian medieval writers). It is the earliest stories and poems (of the Welsh) and geographical sites (over 50 spread across Britain with the name association alone – ‘A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain’, Ashe, 1980,) that are used as part of the evidence against a historic Arthur … that and the lack of any contemporary or even near contemporary writer naming him.  But we should keep in mind that many of these sites are little understood … or even datable. It can very often be assumed that all these are extremely ancient when, in fact, we know many not to be. Scott Lloyd, in posts via Arthurnet, has explained how many of these sites may certainly post-date Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain) of the early 12th century and may be inspired by his work; he related how Arthur appears to have gone out of fashion in Wales during later Medieval times – apart fro being fleetingly referred to in a few poems – as well as the 17th/18th century (especially during the Civil War) and many an onomastic or topographical Arthurian site may date to even after this when Welsh nationalism and antiquarianism began to flourish. But it also cannot be denied that even by the 9th century, and possibly before, a mythical or folkloric Arthur existed. (For an excellent PDF gazetteer on these sites, by Thomas Green, go to, http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/concepts/arthur_folk.pdf . This also gives a brief outline of Green’s arguments).

To quote Padel:

“What interests us, and is so impressive, is not the antiquity of any individual name, but the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas … The folklore may in some cases have been boosted by the literary developments … [but] it remained largely unaffected by the literary Arthurian cycle, and retained its character throughout the period.” (‘Nature of Arthur’, pp. 27 and 29-30. – from Green’s ‘A Gazetteer of Arthurian Onomastic and Topographic Folklore’.)

But it is also Arthur’s uniqueness in the amount of sites named after him and their dispersal that gives rise to questions, but he is not entirely alone. The only other ancient British figure to come close in the British Isles is the 6th century saint, Illtud (Illtyd), and even he pales into insignificance (Gidlow, 2010). But this may not be surprising given both Arthur’s later fame, especially in Wales and Cornwall and to a lesser degree Scotland, with everyone wanting to claim him, and the use of the name in the 6th to 8th centuries in what is now western Scotland and southwest Wales. It has become almost impossible to tell just which (or what kind of) Arthur these sites were named after.

From Man to Myth

There is a later historical figure who we might be able to compare him with (if Arthur was historical) and that is Oliver Cromwell. His named sites include: two Cromwell Hills (Bedfordshire and Essex), Cromwell’s Cutting (Devonshire), Oliver’s Battery (Hampshire), Cromwell’s Stone (Lancashire), Cromwell Tower (London), Cromwell Bridge (Lancashire), Oliver’s Mount (Yorkshire), Oliver’s Point (Shropshire). This from a man whom a great deal of the country hated and who fell out of favour after his death; yet still these sites remained. There’s even a Cromwell Street in Northampton that still believes in ‘Cromwell’s Curse’, almost 400 years after the event ( http://cromwellscurse.tripod.com/ ). There are some who think the Cerne Abbas Giant is a parody of Cromwell, and not an ancient site. (Medieval writings making no reference to it – http://www.sacred-destinations.com/england/cerne-abbas-giant.htm).

So, imagine if there were only these sites and only a poem about Cromwell’s battles (7 major ones in all … a Biblical number). Then imagine what would be the case if he was seen in a more favourable light by all, or if his misdemeanours had been forgotten? Or if he had been a Dark Age figure? Would he too have been seen as a mythical giant who won battles in Britain and Ireland?

We also shouldn’t forget just how easy it used to be (and in some ways still is) to mythologize someone … and how quickly. Look what happened to William Wallace, Scottish hero and star of the film Braveheart. He was made into someone else by his very first writer, Blind Harry the Minstrel (although he wasn’t blind!) 172 years after Wallace’s death. He turned him, knowingly or not, from the son of a lord into the son of a farmer – from the son or Lord Alan Wallace to the son of a Malcolm Wallace, a much more Scottish name – missing out Bill’s spell as a thief. (Had an ancient document not recently have been found, we’d never have known this). Then, a couple of centuries later and he’s given a wife (no record of him having one) who is killed by the English, so he needs his revenge. Then they miss out his fellow commander at Falkirk (who died form his wounds) and turn Bill into the only hero, and a huge sword turns up to show he was a giant of a man … even though the sword was a 15th century one, made from three or four swords. Scotland needed a hero, and they chose Wallace to hang the legends off. Had he not been captured (by other Scot lords who saw him as a bit of an lowly upstart and not needed after he lost a battle) and killed the way he was by the English, he may never have become what he did. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great brave commander and charismatic man, but he wasn’t what he was made in to. (See, The Myth of William Wallace. A Study of the National Hero’s Impact on Scottish History, Literature and Modern Politics, Wallner, 2003).

The Welsh of the 9th century needed a hero too and chose the Briton, Arthur; who, like William Wallace, may not have been as great as he was turned in to … if he existed. It is interesting that he was chosen here, yet not for the 10th century poem Armes Prydein (more on that later). It could have been because they needed a far ranging hero (real or not) who was known not just as a Welsh warrior hero but a British one, that would appeal to those of the north and the south. A call to arms to unite, as they once (supposedly) had been in order to defeat the ‘Saxons’.

Back at the sites …

Even if these Arthurian onomastic and topographical sites are all based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, this in itself is unique. For example, you don’t get the same thing happening with Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) of Ireland, who some say is Arthur’s Irish mythical equivalent. Even the Giant’s Causeway in Ulster, which the giant Finn is said to be partially responsible for, doesn’t bear his name in Gaelic and is called Clochán na bhFórmorach: ‘stepping stones of the Fomorians’. His only named site (that I could find) is Cath Fionntragha (Battle of Fionn’s Strand), which is in Ventry, Co. Kerry. There are the mountains of Scurr a’ Fionn Choir on the Isle of Skye and Fionn Bheinn in the Highlands of Scotland but whether these relate to the mythical character or just mean ‘fair’ I couldn’t say. (More on Finn later). In fact, you don’t get any other mythical or historical figure having this effect on the landscape. (The nearest mythical figure to him would be the god Woden, and even he doesn’t appear to have as many! – my thanks to historian Jonathan Jarret for pointing Woden out in the comments below). The one other (adopted) British god figure whose name is found in a few places in Scotland (Lochmaben), Wales (Llanfabon, Rhiwabon) and his namesake in Cornwall (St Mabyn) is Mabon (‘Divine Son’), son of Modron (Divine Mother). She is the Gallo-Brittonic goddess Matrona and he Maponos; but at least he is known from two Roman inscriptions as Apollo Maponus from the Roman fort of CORSTOPITVM (Corbridge, Northumberland).

Yet even Mabon doesn’t get around as much as Arthur; but for all Arthur’s diverse locations, from Scotland to Cornwall and all points in between, no one has found an Arthur cult or inscription, of any kind. How can this be if he was the most famous mythical figure even when the Romans were in Britannia (as some argue)?  They could, of course, just not have been found yet, or he was folkloric and not mythical. If he was an ancient folk hero, as envisaged by Padel and Higham, then he’s not going to leave this kind of dedication. But his diverse geographical locations could be less (or not just) to do with a mythical/folkloric status and more to do with popularity.

If anyone does find a MARS ARTURVS (or the like) dedication it would answer a lot of questions. But would it necessarily follow that it would mean an Arthur of Badon didn’t exits? (More later).

In Part Three we’ll look in more detail at giants, giant killers and these Arthurian sites, and who might have been naming them? as well as a look at the ancient tale of a boar hunt.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.

Mak

 

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