Friday, 1 January 2010

Arthur: The Eternal Enigma (2)

Part Two

"and more and better besides...."

And to what came first: were the legends appended to a historical figure who flourished in Post-Roman Britain, or was it a mythical figure who became historisiced? The available evidence tends to suggest the later is the case.

In a major article clearly aimed at addressing this question, Oliver J. Padel, opens his account by stating: “Did Arthur exist? The only honest answer is, ‘We do not know, but he may well have existed.’” [8] Padel cites two studies from Celticists Thomas Jones (The Early Evolution of the Legends of Arthur [9] ) and Kenneth Jackson (The Arthur of History [10] ) writing around the same time but independantly came to the same conclusion. Jones and Jackson both examined all the evidence which is likely to be before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain with its glorification of Arthur as King and an international warlord, completed before 1139AD.

Padel's article has been described as an attack on the "historical Arthur". Padel cites the dualistic nature of the Arthurian material in the Historia Brittonum; the Arthur of the battle list and the folkloristic Arthur of the Mirabilia, as discussed above, as evidence of the historisation of a mythical figure:

“This contrast, found in our earliest Arthurian text [Historia Brittonum], needs to be emphasized. It has usually been explained on the basis that here we also see the historical Arthur already becoming a figure of local legend. This begs the question of what can be known of Arthur before the date of this, our earliest text; but for the time being what is important is the dual nature of the legend at its first appearance – the mixture of magical folklore and apparent history." [11]

Padel concludes “that Arthur occupied a role in folklore across the Brittonic lands before being historicized at least as early as the Historia Brittonum in 829-830, and perhaps before that, this figure was then developed by Geoffrey of Monmouth and provided the beginnings of the fully grown Arthurian cycle of the 12th Century.” [12]

In an article entitled “Concepts of Arthur,Rachel Bromwich briefly touches on the “magical meaning” of Arthur, in quoting Welsh Arthurian scholar Thomas Jones, she states:

“How exactly did it come about that a figure about whom we know nothing with certainty, and whose historical existence we cannot prove, should have grown into the centre of so many tales throughout the whole of Europe”.[13]

Bromwich continues, stating that by the seventh century, Arthur had become the great national hero of the entire British people “...a defender of his people against witches, monsters, giants, and external invaders”. [14]

Qualified opinions such as these as expressed by eminent scholars such as Padel, Bromwich and Dumville are obviously unpopular with supporters of the paperback Historical Arthur factory, but when the early medieval sources are examined, the absence of this enigmatic figure is very noticeable. In the long list of books attempting to identify this enigmatic figure, Arthurian scholar Thomas Green continues in the vein of Padel in producing the latest study on the Arthur of Celtic legend and reveals that in origin he was a mythical, folkloric figure, the defender of Britain, with Otherworld connections.

Green's Concepts of Arthur: The Nature of the Early Arthurian Legend (Tempus 2008) is a detailed study of the ultimate origins of Arthur and the nature and development of the early Arthurian legend, presenting a comprehensive overview of recent scholarship, including the author's own academic research into the sources of the early Arthurian tradition.

From the back cover:
“Ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in the twelfth century, there have been numerous attempts to prove that the Arthur of Celtic legend was in fact based on an actual historical figure. This trend continues to the present day, although as yet no definitive literary or archaeological proof has emerged for Arthur's existence.

In this new and vigorous re-examination of the Arthurian legend Thomas green considers the earliest surviving literary and folkloric sources for Arthur and contests the belief that he was an actual person. Far from being an historical figure, Arthur emerges as a mythical and folkloric figure, who over the course of history has been transformed into an historical king by a series of authors with their own political agenda. The evidence reveals that from an early period Arthur was clearly defined as a supernatural defender of Britain, who defended its borders from all threats. Moreover, he had an intimate connection with the Otherworld and a long history of folkloric tradition attached to his name. This thought-provoking and engaging study challenges the long-standing fascination with proving that King Arthur was real and is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Arthur.”

Green, a post-graduate researcher at the University of Oxford and a part-time teacher of history, has been producing Arthurian articles on his website [15] since 1998, the first major article being ‘The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur’. An up-to-date expansion, development and revision of the views presented in this article can be found in Chapter Six of 'Concepts of Arthur'. This important article has been cited in various recent Arthurian publications, such as N. J. Higham’s King Arthur, Myth-Making and History (2002), N. J. Lacy (ed.) The History of Arthurian Scholarship (2006) and G. Anderson's King Arthur in Antiquity (2004).

Continuing to explore the mythical element of the Arthurian legend, Green concentrates on the Arthur of early litertaure, denouncing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s (Galfridus Monemutensis) Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) which glorified Arthur and made him an international warlord, as being of no use in the search for a historical Arthur. Geoffrey's work rapidly became a major influence throughout western Europe and affected the Arthurian legend in all areas with the result that scholars must look to sources written before Geoffrey’s Historia, termed ‘pre-Galfridian’, for the ‘original’ Arthur. As Green says in the introductory pages:

“In what follows, the major early sources for a concept of Arthur as a figure of history will be examined in some detail, in order to establish whether they can provide the necessary proof for us to be able to believe that the Arthur they tell of did, in fact, exist. The focus here is solely on those sources that modern historians accept as potentially reliable and useful, that is those texts which pre-date the publication of the Historia Regum Britanniae”.

In the early, pre-Galfridian, Arthurian sources, in the tales of 'Culhwch and Olwen' and 'Preideu Annwfyn' for example, we find Arthur's companions are a retinue of deities: Bran; Mabon; Gwynn ap Nudd; Lugus/Lleu/Lug; Manawydan; Gwalchmei; involved in a raid on the otherworld fighting giants and witches. Although Arthur does not appear as a god himself.

Of the Nennius battle list, discussed above, Green suggests it was fought against supernatural figures. Green admits that most of the battle sites are largely unidentifiable, though the tenth, the ‘battle on the bank of a river which is called Tribruit’, is recorded elsewhere (Pa Gur) in very early sources as a traditional battle against werewolves, thus casting further doubt on the Historia’s value. The battle at Cat Coit Celidon Green suggests is the mythical 'battle of trees' recorded in the archaic poem from the Book of Taliesin, Kat Godeu. Green continues in that other elements of Nennius Section 56 look similarly suspect.

A collection of early Welsh heroic death-songs, known as Y Gododdin, is often cited as the first early reference to Arthur with the line that states although Gwawrddur ‘fed black ravens on the rampart of the fort, he was no Arthur’. The allusion in the poem to Arthur, who is clearly not present at the battle, is often claimed as a later addition to the manuscript by the opponents of the historical Arthur. However, there are several texts of Y Gododdin, known as the A and B texts, the earliest composition of which has been suggested recently by John Koch as the mid-7th Century, although this controversial view has not gone unchallenged by other scholars. [16] This Arthurian reference in Y Gododdin may well be from the 7th or equally the 10th Century, but this does not detract from the fact that Gwawrddur’s valour is being compared to the tradition of a Brittonic superhero known in Northern Britain as Arthur. As Green states, “...he is not envisaged as being present at the battle ...he is a military ‘superhero’, someone to whose heights of valour not even a man who killed 300 could compare. Arthur is therefore in a different league to the rest of the figures who appear in Y Gododdin”.

After the continual onslaught of books claiming “the true identity of Arthur revealed” this book comes across very refreshing. Green has produced a fine scholarly work that blows away the myths of later Arthurian Romance, presenting a folkloric or mythical figure of Arthur who became historicised at least by the 9th century, and possibly much earlier, and delivers the most common sense approach yet to the eternal enigma of Arthur.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

Copyright © 2010 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
8. Oliver J. Padel, "The Nature of Arthur", Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No 27, (1994).
9. Thomas Jones, The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, Nottingham Medieval Studies #8 (1964) – translated from an original article from the Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies (1956-58).
10. Kenneth H Jackson, The Arthur of History, in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R S Loomis (1959).
11. Padel, op.cit.
12. Ibid.
13. Rachel Bromwich, “Concepts of Arthur.” Studia Celtica, No 10/11, pp. 163-181. (1975/1976.).
14. Ibid.
15. Thomas Green's Arthurian Resources 
16. John Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (1997).

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