Arthur and the Kings of Britain: The Historical Truth behind the Myths
Miles Russell
Amberley Publishing
320pp, 38 colour illustrations and one black-and-white map
Paperback, £9.99


King Arthur: The Making of the Legend
Nicholas J Higham
Yale University Press
379pp, 32 colour illustrations and seven black-and-white maps
Hardback, £25

Is King Arthur the most written-about historical character who never lived? Was he a mysterious shape-shifting figure of British mythology and French medieval romance, or the elusive leader of a British war-band in the anarchic period after the withdrawal of the Roman authorities? Most academics today put their money on the former idea.

Once upon a time, in my distant youth, King Arthur was in fashion. Leslie Alcock's excavations at South Cadbury (Somerset), in the late 1960s, featured in the Sunday supplements and resulted in his book 'By South Cadbury is that Camelot..? Excavations at Cadbury Castle 1966–70, published in 1972. Geoffrey Ashe's The Quest for Arthur's Britain, 1968, was in the bestseller lists, and only John Morris, with The Age of Arthur, 1973 – which attempted to reconstruct the history of Britain and Ireland during the so-called 'Dark Ages' (AD 350–650) – was the controversialist.

A much bigger audience saw the Lerner and Loewe musical of Camelot on Broadway, which struck a chord with the Kennedy generation; and then the film version, starring Richard Harris as Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere. Although 'Long, leaden and lugubrious' was the judgement of The Washington Post's film critic, Harris made some kind of impression when 'singing' 'I wonder what the King is doing tonight?'

Popular culture has continued to pursue Arthur: from John Boorman's grim film Excalibur, 1981, to Jerry Zucker's First Knight, 1995, a shallow effort starring Sean Connery as a grizzled Arthur, and Richard Gere as a pretty-boy Lancelot, both in pursuit of the relatively youthful (35 years younger than Connery) Julia Ormond as Guinevere. So, films have done Arthur few favours – and the nail in the coffin of 'The Once and Future King' should have been Guy Richie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, 2017 – a complete mishmash that has a youthful Arthur fighting Vikings!

Meanwhile, in archaeological circles King Arthur became somewhat persona non grata. I knew Leslie Alcock quite well and, in later life, Arthur's name and the world 'Camelot' scarcely passed his lips: perhaps he regretted the romantic speculation, the criticism of medievalists, and felt that it was better to stick to the strict archaeological data. (Although his book Arthur's Britain was reissued in 1989 by Penguin. Who can resist the blandishments of publishers?)

But what goes around comes around. Jacqueline Nowakowski's recent excavations at Tintagel, the spectacular coastal eyrie on the Cornish coast, have revived interest in the 'Arthurian' period. It is now clear that the place was a major entrepôt in the 5th and 6th centuries, with a substantial population, importing Mediterranean goods.

Tintagel's significance may explain why, according to legend, Arthur was conceived there. In addition, the late Geoff Wainwright and Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University, excavating at Stonehenge, have argued that Geoffrey of Monmouth – a major source of Arthurian stories – may not be such a fantasist as historians usually assume, and that a healing cult was significant at Stonehenge.

So now two books on Arthur come along at once, both by respected academics. Miles Russell is a member of the Bournemouth team who investigated Stonehenge, and his book is essentially a reassessment of the reputation of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his great 12th-century work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). Geoffrey's book is probably the most successful history ever written in Oxford. For centuries it was treated as gospel, until sceptical European Renaissance scholars, such as Polydor Vergil, came along and punctured the English fantasy. Since then the general attitude to Geoffrey's work can be summed up by the words of another Geoffrey (Ashe), the well-known Arthurian scholar: 'an entertaining and memorable companion, so long as one never believes anything he says'.

Now Russell attempts to overturn this conventional wisdom by proposing that Geoffrey of Monmouth's work is based on a complex collection of lost written sources, oral accounts and epic ballads, some of which go back to the late Iron Age and even give us the local view of Caesar's expeditions into Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC. Russell's work is too densely argued to unpick here in any detail – much of it is fascinating, but at times fanciful.

Nicholas Higham, the author of our other Arthur book, notes that Russell's work is 'implausible and unproveable' – which is a fair criticism. Russell also fails to take into account another massive book on the same theme: Nikolai Tolstoy's The Mysteries of Stonehenge: Myth and Ritual at the Sacred Centre, 2016, by his own publisher Amberley. This is odd, when both Russell and Tolstoy have similar ambitions: to reinstate Geoffrey as something more than an entertaining fantasist, who has something relevant to say about Stonehenge.

Nicholas Higham's King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, is a well-produced book by a serious scholar, which revisits his earlier work of 2002. But, like Miles Russell, he has a bee in his bonnet. Half of his book is devoted to demolishing several eccentric ideas: that the legendary Arthur originated as a 2nd-century Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus; that a Roman army cohort of Sarmatians brought the legends of the Steppes and the Caucasus to Britain; or, alternatively, that the Arthurian legend originated in Greece.

I must admit that my first reaction was: why bother to spend so much time and effort attacking sand-castles? But, then, perhaps these ideas have taken a firmer hold in the USA than on this side of the pond. The 'Sarmatian hypothesis' was first put forward by Americans C Scott Littleton and Ann C Thomas in 1978 and the 'Lucius Artorius Castus theory' by Linda Malcor in 1999. Their hypotheses would have probably remained in the footnotes of Arthuriana if they had not been taken up by Hollywood, looking to breathe new life into the old story.

The 2004 film King Arthur claimed to be 'The True Story behind the Legend' – based on new archaeological information. As the author of the original screenplay also wrote Gladiator it would be natural to take that claim with a pinch of salt. The film was largely set in a 'muddy and bloody Ireland' and involved building a one kilometre-long reconstruction of Hadrian's Wall. The Wall was the star of the film – though the Saxons lay to the north: Hollywood has a distorted sense of British geography – remember Robin Hood (Kevin Costner) travelling northward and passing through Hadrian's Wall on his way to Nottingham?

Artorius Castus (Arthur) is played by Clive Owen as a plank, his stoical stiff upper-lip extending to his whole body,
and with Kiera Knightley (aged about 18) as warrior-woman Guinevere, looking as if she has inadvertently strayed out of Knightsbridge (better parts and an OBE awaited her). All in all, the film is a mess – but it did promote the Sarmatian theory.

Does this matter? Nicholas Higham seems to think so – and his demolition job is delivered fluently and effectively. Personally, I found his later sections on the British Arthur more interesting, particularly Arthur as the quarry of academics, and the response of Celtic scholars such as David Dumville to 'naïve' archaeologists, like Leslie Alcock, who, he argued, do not properly understand medieval literary sources.

These are two rather quirky books for the shelves of Arthurian enthusiasts. For anyone looking for a balanced view of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries and the origins of the Arthur legend I recommend Guy Halsall's Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Oxford University Press, 2014).

But perhaps, now, we could have a moratorium on popular works about 'The Once and Future King'. He deserves to be left in peace to lie quietly in Avalon, while we take stock for another decade – but, never fear, I am sure he will arise again shortly.

David Miles

 

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