Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Arthur: Conqueror of Europe

A Certain Very Ancient Book Part II

King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire (Mcfarland & Co., 2014) claims to present new evidence from Geoffrey of Monmouth's primary sources used in writing his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). The sources used by Geoffrey in constructing the first Arthurian biography has been a matter of debate for centuries; he claimed he used "a certain very ancient book in the British tongue" presented to him by Walter Arch-deacon of Oxford, that he translated into Latin. Geoffrey certainly used Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum (Nennius); anything not verifiable through those documents is generally considered to have been Geoffrey’s own invention. In Sire’s book then we can expect to find the revelation of some new documentary evidence for Arthur’s existence.

In the Preface, the author sets the four main objectives of his book:

1. To prove that King Arthur was a real historical figure by uncovering documentary evidence,
2. To show that Geoffrey of Monmouth, and other Arthurian authors, used valid historical sources,
3. To disclose those valid sources that confirm the veracity of the "legend" and the real names of most of its characters,
4. To explain how the current confusion and skepticism about the authenticity of the story has risen.

These are four bold expectations that have not been satisfied by many an author to date. Here we hope for something new.

Sire argues that two facts belie the skeptics arguments; Geoffrey rightly identified Tintagel as an important Arthurian-age site after the passage of five centuries had erased all trace of it; the Arthurian sculpture on the Modena cathedral proves Geoffrey did not invent his story and actually took it from Walter's ancient book.

He claims that his book identifies Geoffrey's, and other author's, sources and explains why they knew Arthur so well. A close analysis of historical events, ignored by other researchers, Sire claims he will demonstrate that Geoffrey's account is reliable. He reasons that the true Arthurian story was correctly interpreted by Geoffrey Ashe who identified Arthur as Riothamus, the 5th century British king who led his troops into Gaul then vanished among the Burgundians.

Riothamus in Gaul
Sire maintains that the real Arthur emerges unequivocally by combining these accounts with those of John Morris (The Age of Arthur, 1973) who argued that Arthur was an emperor; King Arthur, he claims, was a real person and by providing documentary evidence aims to finally settle the issue. Today historians view The Age of Arthur as a tangled, confused history of Dark Age Britain that is misleading to say the least.

In addition to Morris, the author relies heavily on Edward Gibbon’s now outdated account of The Fall of the Roman Empire (first published in the 18th century) and is clearly influenced by the controversial From Scythia to Camelot by Littleton and Malcor (1994, revised 2000).

Sire states that to uncover Arthur we must look beyond the classic sites of Arthurian lore, the “insular fringe” as he calls it, and look to the original Celtic world in the east; Provence, Italy, and Armenia. The book claims to span two thousand years but at its core is the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

The Western Empire officially fell in 476 AD when an army of confederate tribes, who Gibbons says consisted of "Heruli, Scyrri, Alani, Turcilingi, and Rugians" entered Ravenna and deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustulus. This army, collectively known as “Scirians” was led by Odovacer. The Scirii ("the pure bloods"?) were a Germanic tribe from somewhere north of the Black Sea and lower Danube.

Sire tells us that when the Romans encountered a group of northern Irishmen at the end of the 4th century they called them “Scotti” because they recognised them as the same people. These Scots, he claims, where originally from the Balkans, quoting Gildas who states that the Scots came from “circione”, that is they were NOT Irish BUT Scirians. This passage in Gildas is normally interpreted as saying the Scots came from the north west and the Picts from the north.

Although his exact ethnic origins are not known, he may have been of Germanic or Gothic descent, Sire tells us that Odavacer, the man who became the King of Italy, was from Angers in western France, the same place identified as the location of the Lancelot stories. He goes on to state that in the genealogies of Lancelot, as provided by the authors of Arthurian Romance, his grandmother was from Leinster, "which in the bard's language is rendered as Lance". You know where this is leading.

"L'ot", Sire claims, is really "Odo" or "Otto" and "Lake" comes from water; thus he reconstructs the real name of Lancelot as "Odo-vacer" (wasser - water) of Leinster. He then claims that Odovacer was responsible for the institution of the Round Table, quoting Gibbon, he "declined an honour which was still accepted by the emperors of the East; but the curule chair was successfully filled by eleven [11 + Odovacer = 12 knights] of the most illustrious senators...."

Sire asserts that the name Odovacer was translated by the Arthurian authors into Occitian as "Lot of the Lake", as a tendency for secrecy which explains why their story has been hidden for so long.

Sire tells us that Odoavcer was Arthur's ally, who as Riothamus, accompanied him in the conquest of Rome. After their confrontation with the Goths on the Loire, Riothamus and Odovacer headed east and, with the assistance of the Burgundians, became leaders of the Alemanni. They carved out a new territory called “Raetia” comprising Switzerland, part of Austria and Bavaria. From here Riothamus and Odovacer (Arthur and Lancelot) “defeated the Romans”, as Monmouth writes, and took Rome.

Sire tells us that Raetia provides a vital clue in identifying who Riothamus was. Arthur, he says, having been born at Tintagel was a Dumnonian and king of Scot Dal Riata. His name was Domang-Art, that is Lord Arthur of the Dumnonians, known as Riatham and King Arthur on the continent. The Life of St Columba refers to him as “Reti” (Raetia).

He goes on to tell us the key to understanding the Arthurian legend is that another group of Tuatha settled in Scottish Dal Ri-ata, the name he says means “Kingdom of the Atta” from which he produces “Ri-Atha-mus” the name of the king of the Britons.

Sire’s answer to the skeptics view that no reliable document has ever been found with Arthur’s name on it is that the king appears in the Dalriadan and Strathclyde genealogies as Domang-Art or Gall, in addition to being named as Riothamus various times in France. He adds that he was probably also the bishop of Chur named Ursicin, before claiming he has uncovered definite proof of Arthur’s existence of his name on the only extant document from Odovacer’s reign in which a grant of land in Sicily is made to a man called Pierius which mentions a “Count and Vice-Lord Ardori” referenced in an early 19th century work - not a primary source as one might expect for such a bold claim.

He goes on to argue that other names in Odovacer’s deed can be linked to Arthur which proves that they must have really been Arthur’s men. Following Odovacer’s downfall the island of Caldey was given to Pierius by Arthur as a place of exile.

Sire’s special pleading is that Geoffrey’s “story is correct, only in a very confusing way” and “you can see the truth among the jumbled facts if you really try”.

I wish I could say the same for Sire’s essay; he presents no evidence to support the connections he sees between Riothamus and Odovacer (Arthur and Lancelot) across the European continent - because there are none. This is a very complex and confusing web that Sire weaves indeed; you find you are reading and then re-reading passages to take it all in. But at the end, it is just too incredulous to take seriously.

In Sire’s account, as in so many reconstructed Arthurian histories, geographies are re-mapped, kingdoms relocated and various names (Riothamus; Domang-Art; Ursicin) are substituted for the real Arthur and this why we don’t recognise him in the genealogies.

Yet in all these alternative histories the authors have not managed to positively identify the man named ARTHUR.

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