Tuesday 28 December 2010

Arthurian Review of 2010

On 9th December it was widely reported through the press that the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury had been vandalised, hacked down during the night. The mindless vandalism of the Glastonbury Thorn must be the most baffling event of the year. Seen by many as an anti-Christian act the motives are beyond me in what is arguably the pagan capital of England where there is tolerance of all faiths.

There are other Holy Thorn trees in Glastonbury: the Chalice Well Gardens, another in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, and the churchyard of St John's Church in the high street. These and the one on Wearyall Hill are all claimed to be descendants of The Holy Thorn associated with the Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus. On arriving in Britain by boat after the crucifixion, Joseph landed on the Isle of Avalon and having climbed Wearyall Hill, thrust his wooden staff into the ground where it took root and grew into the Glastonbury Holy Thorn, nearly 2,000 years ago.

This tree (Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’) is not native to Britain but originates from the Middle East. Its biennial flowering with white blossoms and red berries at Easter and Christmas time is a source of wonder to many. Every year for the last one hundred years a flowering sprig has been cut from the Glastonbury Thorn at St John's Church and sent to the Monarch. This year, just hours after the sprig was cut for the Queen’s Christmas table the tree on Wearyall Hill was attacked. All of the branches were hacked off and left in a pile around the base of the tree with only the base of the trunk now remaining.

The original thorn tree was cut down during the English civil war and this tree had been replanted in 1951. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads felled the tree whilst waging a vicious war against the Crown. However, locals salvaged the roots of the original tree, hiding it in secret locations around Glastonbury, later replanting it on the hill. Other cuttings were also grown and placed around the town.

While this is one of the many holy thorns at Glastonbury it is believed to be one of the most important symbols of Christianity because it is on the site that Joseph of Arimathea, thrust his staff into the Glastonbury earth. Some claim he also brought the Holy Grail to Britain, but wherever, or whatever, the whereabouts of the Grail, the Holy Thorn is certainly linked to the origins of Christianity in England.

The site is visited by thousands every year and those visiting shortly after the vandalism were reduced to tears; regarded as sacred it has become a pilgrimage site for many and holds a special significance for Christians across the world. It is hoped that the thorn tree on Wearyall Hill should sprout again from the stump.

Sadly 2010 has also been a year of great loss of some the great Arthurian writers who have put forward original theories on the legendary king.

Laurence Gardner, born in Hackney, London on 17th May 1943, passed away on 12 August 2010. Gardner's first book Bloodline of the Holy Grail was published in 1996. The book was serialized in the Daily Mail and very quickly became a best seller. He used his books to propose several theories, including a belief that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had married and had children, whose descendants included King Arthur and the House Of Stuart.

Peter Clement Bartrum, renowned Welsh scholar, although an Englishman, died on 14 August 2008 at age 100. His books included A Welsh Classical Dictionary and Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, must-haves for every Arthurian and Early Medieval Welsh literature enthusiast.

C. Scott Littleton, co-author with Linda Malcor of From Scythia to Camelot, passed away in Pasadena, California, on 25 November 2010. This ground-breaking book proposed that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail traditions derived not from Celtic mythology, but rather from the folklore of the peoples of ancient Scythia, that is, the western portion of the great "sea of grass" that stretches from the Altai Mountains to the Hungarian Plain, lands that are now the South Russian and Ukrainian steppes.

Rachel Bromwich, passed away on 15th December. The depth of her knowledge was absolutely stunning; The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) bears testament to this, a truly monumental work.

I can't think of any notable Arthurian movies that have been released on the silverscreen this year, which after the last King Arthur film starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley (2004) is probably no bad thing. July saw the first television screening of King Arthur's Round Table Revealed on the History Channel. Historians, on the program led by Christopher Gidlow, believe that they may have pinpointed the exact location of the famous Round Table inside the former Roman amphitheatre at Chester, claiming that the 'table' was in fact the circular space inside Chester Amphitheatre and that this was indeed the site of Nennius' 9th Battle, The City of the Legion.

Gidlow claimed the “clincher” was the discovery of a Christian shrine within the amphitheatre, a wooden structure over the gladiatorial hitching stone; but archaeologists who had led the excavations at the site attempted to distance themselves from the sensationalism of the television program. These were not new discoveries and there is absolutely no evidence of a shrine within the amphitheatre. See: The Round Table Revealed?

New Arthurian books this year have seen the publication of Christopher Gidlow's second Arthurian book Revealing King Arthur was published in May by the History Press. Gidlow's earlier work The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend (The History Press, 2004) discussed how a Dark Age historical figure became the substance of legend in the later sources such as the Mabinogi, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Saints' Lives. Much of the theme of Revealing King Arthur is aimed at scholarship of the last thirty years which has declared that the enigmatic Arthur should be banished from our history books altogether. Here Gidlow attempts to redress the balance and argues for a historical Arthur.

In much of a similar vein is the second edition of King Arthur: Shadows in the Mist by August Hunt his second Arthurian book of the year. In reality little more than an updated edition of the 2006 Hayloft publication Shadows in the Mist: The Life and Death of King Arthur in which the author set out to try to reverse the current academic trend of what we might call 'Arthur denial', the apparently increasing tendency by scholars to question the historical existence of either Arthur or even an Arthur-type figure. In this 2010 edition, Hunt claims to re-consider the source material with a new and original approach, exploring the historical evidence, looking at place names and local folklore, to provide a challenging argument for the actual existence of King Arthur.

After reading Hunt's online articles on Faces of Arthur, through the Vortigern Studies website, I looked forward to his first publication of 2010 which claimed to be an introduction to Arthurian Druidism, whatever that is? Published on the 1st May and entitled The Secrets of Avalon the book claims to set out to illuminate the connections between the traditions of both Arthur and Druidsm, but left me in the dark.

Whereas The Secrets of Avalon wallows in Celtic mythology The Druids and King Arthur by Robin Melrose looks at the subject from a more historical and factual perspective. This book examines the role the Druids may have played in the story of King Arthur and the founding of Britain. In exploring the beliefs and origins of the Druids, the author sets out to explain how the Druids originated in eastern Europe around 850 B.C., bringing to early Britain a cult of an underworld deity, a belief in reincarnation, and a keen interest in astronomy. Concluding that Arthur was originally a cult figure of the Druids whose descendants may have founded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex but in reality provides very little detail on either the Druids or Arthur. For those sceptical of a viewpoint like Melrose who see everything coming out of the east the next item may be of interest.

Although not directly Arthurian but certainly of interest to Celtic scholars and anyone interested in Arthurian origins, perhaps the most important book of 2010 is Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature edited by John Koch and Barry Cunliffe. The book explores the new idea that the Celtic languages originated in the Atlantic Zone during the Bronze Age, approached from various perspectives of pro and con, archaeology, genetics, and philology. This Celtic Atlantic Bronze Age theory represents a major departure from the long-established, but increasingly problematical scenario in which the story of the Ancient Celtic languages and that of peoples called Keltoí Celts are closely bound up with the archaeology of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures of Iron Age west-central Europe. The Celtic from the West proposal was first presented in Barry Cunliffe's Facing the Ocean (2001) and has subsequently found resonance amongst geneticists. It provoked controversy on the part of some linguists, though is significantly in accord with John Koch's findings in Tartessian: Celtic in the South-West at the Dawn of History (2009).

Born out of a multidisciplinary conference held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth in December 2008, Celtic from the West presents a collection of articles intended to pursue the question further in order to determine whether this earlier and more westerly starting point might now be developed as a more robust foundation for Celtic studies. Fascinating stuff.

Best wishes for the New Year.

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Sunday 19 December 2010

Rachel Bromwich

It is with great sadness that we learn Rachel Bromwich passed away on December 15th at the age of 95. An emeritus reader at Cambridge's Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, focusing on Old and Middle Welsh literature where her impact cannot be underestimated; she influenced generations of Arthurian scholars, her works quickly became the standard reference texts in the discipline.

Bromwich began specialising on medieval Welsh literature in the 1930's when in 1934 she attended Newnham College, Cambridge, studying the Anglo-Saxon language before shifting departments to focus on Middle Welsh, moving to the University College of Wales, Bangor in 1938 and studied under the tutelage of Ifor Williams. Indeed, it was Williams that encouraged her most important contributions to the study of Welsh literature; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, (1961). The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) went into a second edition in 1978 and quickly became a standard resource for the study of nearly all Old Welsh literature with the appendix of Notes on Personal Names became the reference source for most historic and legendary figures of Old Welsh literature.

In 2006, a substantially revised Third edition demonstrated her continued mastery of the subject at age 90, and proved to be essential reading for Celticists and for those interested in early British history and Arthurian studies.

Early Welsh literature shows a predilection for classifying names, facts and precepts into triple groups, or triads. ‘The Triads of the Isle of Britain’ form a series of texts which commemorate the names of traditional heroes and heroines and which would have served as a catalogue of the names of these heroic figures. The triads are of course 'threes', groups of three names and in some cases three somewhat longer texts devised by the Welsh bards. The names are grouped under various imprecise but complimentary epithets, which are often paralleled in the esoteric language of the medieval bards, who would have used the triads as an index of past history and legend.

The Introduction discusses the significance of the Triads in the history of Welsh literature, and examines their traditional basis. The Third edition contains 97 triads in the original language and in English translation, 46 of which are already attested in manuscript Peniarth 16 from the third quarter of the thirteenth century, together with copious notes and commentary. In addition to the 246 page Notes on Personal Names, further Appendices include The Names of the Island of Britain, The Descent of the Men of the North, The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain and The Twenty-four Knights of Arthur’s Court.

This monumental work has long won its place as a classic of Celtic studies, being the standard edition for scholars of Welsh, but historians and non-specialist Celtic literary scholars will find here a wealth of material, presented in accessible form, giving an insight into the oral culture and poetry of medieval Wales and certainly providing essential reading for Arthurian studies.

In 1971, Bromwich produced an English translation of Sir Ifor Williams' Armes Prydein (The Prophecy of Britain from the Book of Taliesin), and in 1978 was co-editor with R. Brinley Jones of Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (Studies in Old Welsh Poetry), a volume prepared in tribute to Sir Idris Foster on his retirement as Professor of Celtic in the Jesus University of Oxford, containing significant articles such as 'The authenticity of the Gododdin: a historian's view' by Thomas Charles-Edwards and 'Early Stages in the Development of the Merlin Legend' by AOH. Jarman

In the significant Arthurian article 'Concepts of Arthur', (Studia Celtica, No 10/11, pp. 163-181, 1975/1976), Bromwich discusses the “magical meaning” of Arthur, quoting from The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, (Nottingham Medieval Studies #8, 1964) by Thomas Jones:

“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, and how was it … used, both orally and in writing, not only as a medium for social entertainment, but also as a means of giving literary expression to some of the deepest aspirations and highest ideals of humanity”.

Bromwich follows Jones in questioning how a figure that may or may not have existed could have inspired such depth of literary interest that spanned far beyond the original sphere of the legend both geographically and over the generations. 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”. No doubt her article became the inspiration behind articles such as 'The Nature of Arthur' by O J Padel, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), and Thomas Green's book 'Concepts of Arthur', (2007).

Bromwich's long-standing interest in Arthurian literature produced authoritative editions of the major medieval Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen in both Welsh (1988) and English (1992) along with D. Simon Evans.

Bromwich was also a co-editor, with A.O.H. Jarman and Brynley F. Roberts, of The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature (1991), an anthology of scholarly essays on the major Arthurian works from medieval Wales, launching a series by Wales University Press containing later works such as Arthur of the English (2001), Arthur of the Germans (2002), and Arthur of the French (2009).

Perhaps best viewed as a continuation and update of Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R S Loomis which first appeared in 1959, Arthur of the Welsh contains a collection of essays by such eminent scholars as Thomas Charles-Edwards, Patrick Sims-Williams, O J Padel, presenting an account of Arthurian literature produced in Wales, in both Welsh and Latin, during the Middle Ages. Essays include 'The Arthur of History', 'The Early welsh Arthurian Poems', 'Culhwch ac Olwen: The Triads, Saint's Lives' , Geoffrey of Monmouth' and the 'The Merlin Legend'. Other chapters include a discussion of the Breton connection and the first transmission of the legend to the non-Celtic world in England and France. Essential reading for anyone attempting to trace the origins of the Arthurian legend.

Eloquent and authoritative, Rachel Bromwich's works will continue to provide superior reference for anyone studying the Arthurian legend. We have reaped the benefits of her generosity in sharing her vast knowledge on the subject. She will be sadly missed by all students of Arthuriana and Welsh literature but right now our thoughts are with her family.

Rachel Bromwich
1915 - 2010


Saturday 4 December 2010

The Druids and King Arthur

A New View of Early Britain
Robin Melrose

Paperback, 220 pages
McFarland & Co Inc., October 2010
ISBN 0786458909
Retailing at around £30 this is expensive for a paperback of 220 pages.

This book examines the role the Druids may have played in the story of King Arthur and the founding of Britain. In exploring the beliefs and origins of the Druids, the author sets out to explain how the Druids originated in eastern Europe around 850 B.C., bringing to early Britain a cult of an underworld deity, a belief in reincarnation, and a keen interest in astronomy. Concluding that Arthur was originally a cult figure of the Druids whose descendants may have founded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The author's research draws upon a number of sources, including the medieval Welsh tales known collectively as the Mabinogion and ancient Welsh poetry such as the The Spoils of Annwn.

In exploring the archaeology of Stonehenge's Salisbury Plain, Melrose came across a work by Barry Cunliffe, which claimed that the All Cannings Cross pottery, which appeared in Wiltshire around 800 BC, may have come from eastern France, possibly the Jura region, and possibly from limited foreign infiltrations from further afield.

From here he learnt from Graham Anderson’s book ‘King Arthur in Antiquity’, that the name Arthur is based on Arcturus, the name for the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, and found in early Greek poetry around 700 BC. Anderson goes on to show that many elements of the Arthur story have parallels in Greek mythology relating to Arcas, the mythical founder of Arcadia.

Melrose traces the transmission of this story across Europe and finally to Britain, putting forward the proposal that the Arcturus story originated in the early Greek Mycenean civilisation and spread westward via the Thracians and Cimmerians to Switzerland, and then on to the Jura in eastern France, the source of Cunliffe's Wiltshire poetry.

Table of Contents:

1. The Dragon Star
2. The Severed Head and the Bone Cave: Religion in Roman Britain
3. Arthur’s Voyage: The Spoils of Annwn
4. Magic Mounds, Sea People and Shape-Shifters: The Wonderful World of the Mabinogion
5. Mounds, Mounds, Mounds: Rubbish Heaps, Hillforts and the Prehistory of Southern England
6. Visitors from the East
7. Brutus of Troy Town
8. Arthur, King of Wessex?

Robin Melrose is a retired senior lecturer in English and linguistics at the University of Portsmouth in England.

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