Search For Arthur Essay, Research Paper
Search for ArthurFrom the beginnings of the English Language there have been legends of great heroes. From the first settlements of Britain come stories rooted in ancient Celtic and Germanic imagination. Out of these stories, Arthur is undoubtedly the most preeminent. Interest in the legends of King Arthur and all things Arthurian, ie. Camelot, Avalon, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, the knights of the Round Table, etc., has prevailed into modern times, and is still the subject of numerous novels and movies. Attempts to find out the truth about the man, if such a man existed, have been going on for years. Arthur’s history, as Geoffrey Ashe reminds us in The discovery of King Arthur, is “more than just a medley of yarns, more than just a saga in the dream time’ of myth. It puts him within a definite period. It names definite places, and takes him to definite countries” (3). It is this fact, and the fragmentary, often contradictory references of an Arthur ( Latin “Artur,”"Arturius,” or “Artorius”) from ancient records, that lends enough credence to the story to set researchers on the trail of the legendary king. Yet progress has been stymied for a number of reasons, and even now we can say little of substance about the man behind the myth. A major difficulty facing researchers is that the role of the historian in the Dark Ages was rather flexible; seemingly a mixture of storyteller and propagandist, whose regional traditions, personal prejudices and loyalties were bound to greatly influence the nature of their material. In Arthur, Richard Barber elucidates on this fact, and speaks of the early tendency to use history as “an inspiration or as a warning to the men of the present, or as part of a vast divine scheme for man’s spiritual salvation” (7). He goes on to mention the early preoccupation with the whats of the past, rather than the whens, hows and whys that the modern historian is concerned with. “…all the sources are prepared to tell us is what,” concludes Richards, “and even that…is remarkably uncertain” (7). Another problem facing historians is that the earliest sources we have are never originals, but copies, or even copies of copies of copies, leaving plenty of time for errors to propagate. Even with the spell-checking capability of today’s computers it is possible for small mistakes to creep into written material. Usually this does not change the meaning, but in a highly inflected language such as Latin the changing of one letter can have drastic effects. A possible such error is found in the Annals of Wales, written in the tenth century. Its entry about the Battle of Badon claims that Arthur carried Christ’s cross on his shoulder for three days, but it is likely that the word “shoulder” should instead be “shield,” due to confusion between the Welsh words “scuid” and “scuit” (Alcock, 51-52). Now that we have seen some of the general problems in the quest for Arthur, let us delve into the particulars that face us when we examine specific sources. Perhaps the most well known of all Arthurian legends is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth. His History of the Kings of Britain, ca. 1136, “Besides planting highly erroneous notions of British history,…supplied a basis and framework for Arthurian romance and exerted an influence extending through Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others” (Encyclopedia 209). In it, Geoffrey recounts the history or Britain’s leaders back to the very beginnings in 1115 B.C. to King Cadwallader’s death in A.D. 689. Geoffrey’s account, though most agree that it is not strictly factual, offers a clear look into the events surrounding Arthur’s death, and is the starting point for much investigation. Geoffrey’s work was immensely popular, and was not criticized during his lifetime (Goodrich, 45). Modern historians, however, have many reasons to be skeptical of Geoffrey’s History. The most obvious problem is anachronisitic repesentation of a supposedly 5th Century king in a very Norman England. As was typical of historians in his day, Geoffrey superimposed his contemporary culture upon his depiction of the past. We can immediately dispose of these anachronisms and limit our search to the names, places and dates in his work. If there is an Arthur, he will not be a magnificent Christian king sitting astride a heavy Byzantine charger, accoutered in Norman plate armor. He will not be basking in a mighty castle between European excursions with a band of international knights. Rather, he will be no more than an unkempt and possibly pagan military leader with little if any armor. He will likely have a small entourage of hired regional soldiers, and live in no better than a crude wooden fortress. Amazingly, Geoffrey’s glaring inaccuracies were convincing enough to find their way into the Oxford History of England, written in 1937 (332). Geoffrey also made huge geographical errors, such as placing King Arthur in Cornwall (Goodrich, 42), and errors in church history such as placing an Archbishop in Canterbury in Arthur’s lifetime and an archbishop in Caerleon (Brooke, 202). And then there is the missing “ancient book” from “Brittania,” given to him by “Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford,” from which Geoffrey claims to have translated his History. The above mentioned anachronisms predictably cause scholars to dismiss this claim as spurious. Nevertheless, Geoffrey is “very positive about this book…Mentioning three contemporary historians–Caradoc of Llancarfan, William of Malmesbury, and Henry of Huntingdon–he advises them to leave the kings of the Britons alone, because he has the book and they do not” (Encyclopedia, 212-213). Although most historians believe this book to be entirely fictitious, Ashe suggests that such a book may possibly be found in Brittany (”Ancient Book,” 302), since there was a British settlement there, and since Arthur (according to Geoffrey) fought in Gaul. In fact, Geoffrey tells us that the book was written in the “British language”–brittanicus sermo. This language is:
frequently assumed to be Welsh, and some haveconstrued an epilogue to the History as implying that the book was in Wales when Walter found it. In the twelfth century, however, brittanicus could mean Breton as well as Welsh. (Ashe, 302). In addition, this same epilogue says that “the Archdeacon brought the book ex Brittania, which is more likely to mean from Brittany’ than from Wales’” (Ashe “Discovery” 64). The use of “Brittania suggests Brittany rather than Wales” (Encyclopedia, 213). His having Breton ties is an important piece of information regarding his sources. Apparently, “His most obvious aim is to glorify the Britons of old, ancestors of the Welsh and Bretons” (Encyclopedia 210). I his work, Geoffrey makes out Brittany to be a kingdom of its own, and has a Breton prince, the forefather of Arthur, some from Brittany to help the British defend against Pictish and Scottish invasions (Encyclopedia 211). Geoffrey is clearly a fiction writer, but there is little doubt that he drew from older works, both historical and fiction. “Besides Roman historians, he draws upon Gildas, Nennius, Bede, and probably the Annales Cambriae, as well as Welsh genealogical and hagiographic matter (Encyclopedia 212). Yet an investigation into these older documents sheds little light upon Arthur. Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae,c. 500-540, depite its plainly erroneous historical section, is considered a key source simply because it is the only one contemporary to Arthur’s time. In it Gildas describes how a powerful ruler summoned Saxon help against his enemies, only to find that the Saxons had themselves become a threat. The Britons fought back under Ambrosius Aurelianus, and had a series of victories which culminated at Badon, a battle usually attributed to Arthur. Yet Gildas makes no mention of Arthur, at least not by name. This silence, however, is not considered damaging to later claims. “With…Arthur, [Gildas] might have been silent because of his prejudices, or because of a gap in his information. When he is dealing with events beyond living memory that information is certainly sparse; he leaves out important people who can be proved to have lived” (Ashe “Discovery” 67). The next important document is Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, written around 800 A.D. However, much of his work contains errors and inconsistencies, and so is not trusted very much for accuracy (Encyclopedia, 404). Nennius is the first to actually mention Arthur’s name, and he gives a list of twelve battles attributed to Arthur. According to Nennius, Arthur was not a king but a dux belloram–a leader of battles (Encyclopedia, 405). The earliest mention of Arthur’s death comes from an entry in the Annales Cambriae, Welsh Annals, written around 950 A.D. It claims he was slain in “The Battle of Camlann” in 537 A.D. The late date in the Welsh Annalshangs in a void unrelated to history….However,since everyone else who is mentioned in the Annalsdid exist, there is a certain presumption that areal Arthur must underlie [this] questionable [claim]“(Encyclopedia, 8). While much of the information in the Annales is taken from Nennius, there is also evidence of early Celtic and Irish sources, and becomes inconsistent at certain points. However, the dating is important in tracing a possible history for Arthur, and the entries for Arthur are lent more credence because of the other figures mentioned in the Annales (8). These are the primary sources for Arthurian studies, although there are other early documents which make some reference to a powerful warrior named Arthur, such as in the poetic Gododdin, written ca. 600, and in an elegy for king Cynddlan, who died ca. 660 A.D. Both of these documents mention the name in only one line, and we are given no clue as to the owner of the name except that he was apparently a type of super-warrior with whom the intended reader was supposed to be familiar. Despite valiant efforts of Arthurian historians to glimpse through the fog of the Dark Ages, Arthur has remained shrouded in mystery. King Arthur, however legendary he may be, is still popular as a romantic hero, and therefor we may expect the speculative pseudo-historical works to continue unabated. In conclusion, I think Hollister (quoting James Campbell) summed it up rather well: as James Campbell wisely said, “The natural vice of historians is to claim to know about the past.” But with respect to fifth- and sixth- century Britain, “what really happened will never be known” (29).
Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain, London, Penguin Press, 1971. Ashe, Geoffrey. The Discovery of King Arthur, Anchor Press, NY, 1985.Ashe, Geoffrey. “A Certain Very Ancient Book,” Speculum (April 1981). Brooke, Christopher. “The Archbishops of St. David’s, Llandaff, and Caerleon-on-the-Usk.” Studies in the Early British Church, edited by Nora K. Chadwick, 1966. Coglan, Ronan. The Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends, Rockport, Element, Inc., 1992. Goodrich, Norma Lorre. King Arthur, Franklin Watts, NY, 1986. Hollister, C.Warren. The Making of England, D.C.Heath, Lexington, 1996. R.G. Collingwood and J. N. L. Myres. Oxford History of England, Oxford, 1937.