Monday, 31 December 2018

King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

“It has been quite common for historians to subscribe to the ‘no smoke without fire’ theory of Arthur, even though the smoke is very thin, and indistinguishable from highland mist.” 
- Edward James, Britain in the First Millennium.

King Arthur
The Making of the Legend

Nicholas J Higham

Yale University Press, 2018

From the front flap:

“Sometime around 500 CE, King Arthur saved Britain from the Saxons and reigned gloriously – according to legend. But is this in any sense true? Was there ever a ‘real’ King Arthur?

“There have been many competing answers to this question. While most scholars declare themselves agnostic, Nicholas J Higham sets out to solve the puzzle, drawing on his own research and a lifetime’s immersion in the subject to establish whether or not King Arthur was historical, and when, and more importantly why, the legend began.

“In this compelling account, Higham explores the claimed Arthurian connections with pre-classical Greece, Roman Dalmatia, the Eurasian Steppe and the Caucasus, as well as different identifications of Arthur within Britain. He then plots the legend’s emergence in Wales to his rise to fame more widely after 1100.

“Crucially, Higham shows how early ninth-century Welsh clerics in a land under threat from the English rewrote the past in ways designed to bolster local morale in the present, portraying Arthur as a Christian British warrior who won multiple victories over the pagan Saxons. This heroic figure was taken up in Wales and beyond, becoming pivotal to works written in both prose and poetry over six centuries and more.

“Certain to arouse heated debate amongst those committed to defending any particular Arthur. Higham’s book is essential to understanding the origins of this legendary figure.”

The Author
N. J. Higham is professor emeritus in history at the University of Manchester. His many works include Ecgfrith, King of the Northumbrians; Edward the Elder; King Arthur, Myth-making and History; and The Anglo-Saxon World. He lives in Cheshire.


Introduction: Arthur, History and the Storytellers

1. Lucius Artorius Castus: A Dalmatian King Arthur?
2. The ‘Sarmatian Connection’
3. King Arthur and the Narts
4. King Arthur and the Grteeks

5. A Dark Age King Arthurian
6. Arthur and the Historia Brittonum
7. A British Arthur: Starting the Tradition
8. ‘Fire’, ‘Smoke’ and ‘Highland Mist’

Appendix I – The Artorius Inscriptions
Appendix II – Arthur’s Battles as described in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae
Appendix III – The Mirabilia

This book follows on from Higham's previous Arthurian works King Arthur: Pocket Giants (History Press, 2015) and King Arthur: Myth-Making and History (Routledge, 2002)

A Roman Arthur?
This a book of two parts: the second part of the book, The ‘British’ Arthur, covers similar ground to that discussed by Higham in King Arthur: Myth-Making and History (Routledge, 2002), a work that led to Higham, along with Thomas Green (Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007), being referred to as  the ‘King Arthur assassins’.

But Part One, over a hundred pages, primarily sets out to demolish the resurgent theory of Lucius Artorius Castus (LAC), a Dalmatian officer in the 2nd century Roman Army, as the origin of the King Arthur legend. The 'Dalmation theory' has enjoyed something of a comeback in recent years with the publication of ‘From Scythia to Camelot’ by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, first published in 1994, revised in 2000. 

Malcor, with John Matthews, went on to act as historical advisers to Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 film ‘King Arthur’ starring Clive Owen as Arthur (or Artorius) and Keira Knightley as Guinevere, the screenplay inspired by, and loosely following, the notion put forward in ‘From Scythia to Camelot’. The content of the film is perhaps best described as a historical mish-mash played out in northern Britain.

The idea of a Dalmation origin for the King Arthur legend was first suggested in the late 19th century. Kemp Malone then developed this further in 1925 with analysis of the LAC tombstone in what is now modern day Croatia. Malone saw this as the Arthurian legend’s starting point.

Here, in the first part of his latest book, Higham presents the first serious challenge in popular print to the LAC theory, which essentially comes in three parts: the legends of King Arthur originate from the true life account of Lucius Artorius Castus; the Sarmatian connection; and the Narts sagas.

Historians agree that the name ‘Arthur’ could certainly have derived from the Latin name ‘Artorius’. Armed with this fact, Malcor argues that the Arthurian legend has its basis in a Roman officer bearing this name who was stationed in Britain in the 2nd century (historians disagree on the actual date). Malcor joins this officer together with 5,500 Sarmatians that where sent to Britain in 175 AD after being defeated by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and, hey presto, we have LAC leading a detachment of Sarmatian cavalry in battles along Hadrian’s Wall, which she argues is the provenance of Arthur’s twelve battles listed in the Historia Brittonum. LAC leaves Britain, appointed Dux, to lead a legion against an uprising in Gaul, which in turn is argued as the inspiration behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian Gallic campaign.

On studying the Narts Sagas, Littleton saw much in common with the Grail stories, the sword in the stone for example, and proposed that these myths transferred to the West with the migration of the Alans, neighbours of the Sarmatians from the Steppe, and are responsible for the explosion of Continental Arthurian Romance literature from the 12th century.

It’s an ingenious theory but is there any evidence?

Higham examines the military career of Castus and determines that there is no evidence that he fought any battles in Northern Britain or led a contingent of Sarmatian cavalry. Indeed, by the time he was posted to Britain he was enjoying the twilight of his military career in an administrative role, and in all likelihood never ventured on to the Wall in anger. Much of the argument revolves around the inscription on his tombstone in Croatia; Malcor argues it denotes Castus fought a campaign in Armorica (Gaul) but the earliest readings tend to favour Armenia (the stone is cracked through the key letter).

Higham concludes that the onus of proof lies with those putting forward such theories and is not for their opponents to disprove them. Malcor and Matthews are reported to be working on a further account of Castus and assert, on social media groups for example, that they have further evidence to prove their argument, but frustratingly refuse to divulge this. Personally, I find their vigorous defence of the Dalmatian theory alarming considering the lack of evidence.

Higham’s critical use of the sources and examination of the evidence throughout this book demand that it should be read by anyone and everyone setting out to write an account of Arthur.

The definitive text on the legendary King Arthur? Probably.

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment