Thomas Malory’s civilisation-shaping chivalry

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LIAM GUILAR revisits the too little-read Le Morte Darthur

According to the blurb for one Audible version of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur:

Comparing Batman, Superman, and Captain America to Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and Sir Galahad isn’t a huge leap of the imagination. Perhaps, for the 15th century reader, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were the equivalent of our modern day Justice League or Avengers.[i]

This is an excellent example of ‘dumbing down a book’.

At the end of Malory’s book, Arthur tells his one surviving knight, ‘In me there is no trust to trust in.’ The Arthurian experiment fails because the best of those involved in it may have perfected their craft, but as humans they still have to negotiate the problems inherent in being alive in their world. They are not superheroes, they do not have super powers[ii], and Malory was writing as an adult, for adults. Modern readers may have lost the ability to hold contradictions open to create a space for reflection; Malory’s text assumes this is exactly what the reader wants to do.  

When I was in primary school, memorising carols for the inevitable Christmas concert, I was convinced that ‘The first Noel the angels did say/was to certain poor shepherds’ meant that the doubtful shepherds were being ‘certained’. The purpose of so much modern writing, whether fictional or not, in film or print, seems to be ‘to certain’ the audience. Comparing Sir Lancelot to Batman might certain a prospective reader, suggesting they will encounter nothing unusual or unfamiliar, nothing requiring thought or effort, but it’s a gross misreading of the book.  

The book most people refer to as ‘Malory’ or ‘The Mort(e)’ was written by Sir Thomas Malory, and published by William Caxton in 1485. It is the last great work of medieval English literature and the first great work of modern English prose. It’s also the high point of the European medieval Arthurian tradition[iii]. It is a book that refuses to certain anyone.  

Malory took the sprawling mass of Arthurian tales which had been circulating in Europe for over five hundred years and translating them mostly from French sources, shaped them into a single narrative.

He wasn’t the first English writer to tell the whole story of King Arthur between one set of covers. But running from Arthur’s conception, to his death at the Battle of Camlan, Malory’s book contains everything you probably think you know about Arthur and his Knights – the magical conception at Tintagel, the round table, the sword in the stone, Merlin, the Lady in the Lake, Morgan le Fey, the love stories of  Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Gwenyvere; Tennyson’s Lady of Shallotte, Mordred, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the suggestion that Arthur doesn’t die and will return to save Britain.[iv]

We don’t know a great deal about Sir Thomas Malory, despite the strenuous efforts of scholars to track him through the surviving records. Given medieval assumptions about authorship, what we do know can’t add much to an understanding of his work. He’s not much more than his book and a trace in some legal documents. But when he lived his life is possibly more important than how he lived it.

He belongs to the last generation that could take the Romance version of Arthur and Camelot as historical fact. Caxton claims he printed the book only after he had been convinced that Arthur was real.[v]

The knight errant, the central figure of these stories, the young man who dons his armour, gets on his horse and rides out to fight for truth, justice and the Arthurian way, had been a popular figure in medieval storytelling since at least the 12th century. It’s an attractive idea and in many ways explains the popularity of the stories: leave the mess of your daily life behind and go seek adventures.

But it is an adolescent’s fantasy. All the knight’s problems can be reduced to a single enemy who can be defeated physically. He gets the gold, the glory, and often the bride, in a finite world utterly different from the mess and tedium of real life. It’s a world where problems are simple, figured as dragons and giants and evil lords dressed in black armour. In the hands of the best storytellers, it was more than that, but it was a world that never existed.

Malory enjoyed the fantasy. His book is full of knights who are free to roam the countryside looking for adventures. But his version of the fantasy is shaped by the times in which he was writing. He had participated in the Wars of the Roses. Men had swapped sides, sometimes in the middle of a battle. Primitive artillery was making an appearance on the battle field. Malory did not live to hear of Richard III’s failed charge at Bosworth. The last massed charge by mounted knights in a major battle on British soil happened in the year his book was published. The knight, who had dominated the battlefields of Europe for four hundred years, was finished as a military force.

Authors who live through ugly times don’t always avoid the temptation to escape into fantasy, but he did. He knew the reality of rich men with their castles and their private armies of armed retainers – a reality made all too visible in the civil and social disruption they caused, and at battles like Towton (1461), where anything up to thirty thousand men died hacking at each other in a snow storm[vi].

So what makes Malory worth reading, and what makes him more grown up than the majority of writers, was his understanding that while the landscape might have giants and dragons and witches and warlocks, the real challenges people face are always personal and rarely straightforward.

Photo: Shutterstock

His book begins and ends with a betrayal. ‘The Sword in the Stone’, Disney’s cute version of T. H. White’s retelling, obscures the darkness that permeates the early books. Born as the result of a trick, Arthur is a strange, impetuous figure, who unwittingly commits incest with his half-sister then orders all the boys born on one day murdered. Merlin warns him that the woman he intends to marry will be unfaithful with his greatest knight, and Arthur blithely ignores him.

To offset the darkness, Malory presents the great Arthurian experiment. The newly formed Round Table Fellowship swear an oath,

never to do outerage nothir mourthir; and always to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy… and always to do ladyes, damsels and jantilwomen and wydowes soccour, strenghte hem in hir ryghtes and never to enforse them upon payne of dethe. Also that no man take no batyles in a wrongfull quarrel for no love ne for no worldly goods.

It’s a radiant ideal: the people who would benefit most from anarchy; armoured knights, lords with castles, are promising to fight against it. The people who could most easily exploit the weak are promising to protect them. And the best of them do all those things most of the time.

But balanced against this idealism, is the picture of a court stained with jealousy, resentments and memories of old wrongs.

Perhaps the most adult of Malory’s perceptions is that the world is not divided into heroes and villains, into ‘good’ people and their polar opposites. There are caricatures littering the edges of some of the tales, giants and renegade knights and wielders of magic, who are little more than plot devices, but they are the gaudy inheritance of the genre. The challenges facing Malory’s characters are moral and personal as they attempt to negotiate different and often contradictory codes of behaviour. People do things, often with good intentions, but with unintended, unforeseeable, disastrous consequences.  

This is presented most succinctly in ‘The Knight of the Two Swords’, the second section of the first book[vii]. It’s a mini tragedy which feels Greek in its inexorable movement towards catastrophe. It turns the adolescent fantasy of the knight errant into a nightmare.

In a story that turns on the problems of recognition, everything Balyn, the Knight of the Two Swords, does, he does with the best of intentions. But he leaves a trail of misery and destruction in his wake as he heads towards a fatal duel. He kills, and is killed by, his twin brother and they recognise each other only after they have dealt the killing blows. It’s the darkest of the stories and it sets the tone for what follows.

If the Round Table is the best humans can manage, the quest for the Holy Grail shows that measured against the highest of ideals, it’s not good enough. But the lesson of the Grail, characteristically for Malory, works two ways. That so many knights fail is a critique of the value of the Grail ideology as much as it as a critique of the Knights. Galahad is the least likeable of Malory’s heroes. He is born to succeed in the Quest, and it never feels as though he won’t. When he achieves the Grail, he is transported on a beam of light to Heaven. To be human, to live in the world, is to try and find a way home through the forest, and the attempt to overcome greed and lust and ego is what characterises the best of humans. Perfection offers no way of living in the world.

The greatest of the Round Table Knights, Lancelot, is also the greatest contradiction. When he dies Ector speaks his threnody over his body:

And thou were the curtest [most courteous] knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest frende to thy lovar that ever bestrade hors, and thou were the trewest lover of a synful man, that ever loved woman, and thou were the kyndest man that ever strake with swerde. And thou were the godlyest persone that ever cam emonge prees of knyghtes. And thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes, and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in the reeste.

But Lancelot is an adulterer. In the moral framework of the time this means he’s going straight to an eternity of terrifying punishment in hell. In medieval terms, adultery with the queen is treason and the punishment for that was terrifying enough before he even got to hell.

And he fails. He fails in the quest for the Holy Grail because he can’t stop thinking about Gwenyvere. He unintentionally kills his friend, Gareth, who worships him ‘this side idiolatry’. And this greatest of knights arrives with an army that would have saved Arthur, but only after the final battle is over and lost. By simplified modern standards of heroism, Lancelot is a loser.

The idea of the ‘flawed hero’ is common enough. But it’s a simplistic way of reading, or writing: ‘Identify the tragic flaw in Hamlet’s character’. Ten points and a pat on the back if you answer ‘indecision’. No points if you try to argue that a character who only has one ‘flaw’ is less than human or that to argue there is a ‘flaw’ suggests there is a perfect personality which is not only attainable but identifiable. It’s symptomatic of a binary, all-or –nothing argument.

Sir Thomas Malory, knight, prisoner, is excluded by name from two general pardons issued by the Yorkist King. Even P. J. C. Field’s exhaustive study of the documents doesn’t bring to light who he had annoyed, and why. But he had annoyed someone with the power to keep him in prison and manipulate the judicial process, so he never came to trial. When scholars first discovered that a Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel had been accused of various misdemeanours, including breaking into Coombe Abbey, cattle stealing, roughing up the locals, and raping the same woman on two separate occasions, there was a reaction against this identification. Surely this couldn’t be the man who wrote the Pentecostal oath.

But it could be and if Field is right, it probably is. Malory probably died in prison. We should qualify ‘prison’: not the kind of dungeon you can visit in a medieval castle. Wherever he was he had access to an impressive library, and time to write and stay focussed on his story. The temptation to escape into his fantasy must have been very powerful. And he obviously enjoyed whiling away the hours imagining two armoured knights bashing away at each other, a delight it is hard to share as a modern reader. But the ending of his book suggests that Sir Thomas Malory, Knight prisoner, had a very clear headed view of human nature.

The ending of the Morte is one of the great adult endings in English Literature. Malory’s best fictional creation is the relationship between Lancelot and Gwenyvere. They have grown older together, and they bicker like a fond old married couple. It’s difficult not to speculate: if Lancelot is Malory, then who was the Queen? And why did Malory resist the very human desire to allow his main characters to live happily ever after?

When Lancelot arrives from France too late to save Arthur, England is anarchic. It’s not clear who, if anyone is in control. He sets out on one last quest to find Gwenyvere. Traitor he may have been, adulterer he certainly was, but as Ector says, he was true to his lady.

He finds the Queen hiding in a convent. They have risked so much to be together. He tells her that now they can go to his lands in France and live without fear or guilt.

And she says no. She intends to spend the rest of her life praying for forgiveness. She knows that they have been instrumental in the destruction of their world. A lesser man might see this as a betrayal. But he accepts her decision and says he will follow her example and spend the rest of his life in prayer. Before he leaves, he asks her for one last kiss. And she says no.

This is the bare outline of the scene. It does no justice to the dialogue. He found this ending in his sources, and there are many ways he could have written it, but he stays true to the characters he had developed and the dialogue is his. If there was any doubt, at this point, Gwenyvere’s final refusal, you realise Malory didn’t flinch.

The Morte has been my desert island choice since the 1970s. It’s a book that rewards many readings. But it does belong to a lost world. It can hold contradictions in balance, admire what is admirable and leave judgements to the reader. It will not certain anyone.

Reading the Morte – a suggestion

If you’re interested in reading Malory, I would suggest using a version that hasn’t been modernised. Malory’s prose isn’t that unfamiliar, it takes a little getting used to but it’s worth remembering he probably spelt words as he pronounced them.

Hit befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of al Englond and so regned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the Duke of Tyntagil.  

At times his vocabulary does show the influence of the French he was translating, so there are words that are no longer in use, but the trick is to commit to reading a number of pages, and allow the rhythm of the prose to carry you over the occasional phrase that’s unfamiliar.

His world is still medieval, with its casual acceptance of both brutality, cruelty and indifference: “Then he raced of his helme and smote off his head. Then they went into souper.” (p.517)

If you’re the type of reader who only reads what makes you feel comfortable, or you insist on your heroes being squeaky clean, don’t bother with this book.

If you just want to sample Malory, I’d suggest reading the final book. I think he learnt to write as he went on, and by the end he had mastered his craft.

Eugene Vinaver staked his critical reputation on his belief that Malory didn’t write one coherent book but eight ‘tales’. Whether he’s right or not can be left to the purists, but it does give you the freedom to pick what interests you in no definite order.

If you want to begin at the start and keep going you will need a relaxed attitude to Malory’s eagerness to describe, at length, every combat between individual knights, groups of knights, or armies, and his knights’ habit of levelling their spears and charging into each other at every possible opportunity.

First time through, you might skip the tale of the Emperor Lucius, which is where Malory dumped the Middle English alliterative Mort[viii], and perhaps the two long books of Sir Tristam, where Malory seems to have been dragged off course by his sources.


[i] This is from the publisher’s summary for the Audible audio book version of Le Morte D’Arthur read by Chris MacDonnell and published by Spoken realms. 

[ii] Gawain’s strength waxes with the sun’s rise towards midday, and wanes as it moves through the afternoon, but that’s it.

[iii] Until the 1940s, editions based on Caxton’s version of the text were the only ones available. In 1934 a manuscript was discovered in Winchester (these things do happen) which is one step closer to what Malory wrote than Caxton’s printed text. Detailed analysis shows it had been in Caxton’s workshop. The Winchester Manuscript was edited by Eugene Vinaver as The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. This became the scholarly standard.  Vinaver was convinced Malory wrote eight tales rather than a single book. The best single volume edition currently available is P.J.C. Field’s. (Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. 2017, D.S. Brewer Cambridge.) Claiming to be ‘the definitive original text’, this also contains a summary of Field’s extensive research into Malory’s life. Page references are to this edition. There is a two-volume edition, also edited by Field, in hard back. Translations and modernisations are unnecessary evils and are best avoided.

[iv] Not everything, the poem Gawain and the Green Knight, recently brutalised in the cinema, is missing and was probably not in his sources. Nor does Malory seem to have known the early Welsh story Culuwch and Olwen, in which Arthur’s retainers do have ‘super powers’.

[v] He notes in his preface that he had originally decided against doing so because ‘dyvers men holde oppynion that there was no suche Arhtur and that alle suche bookes as been maad of hym ben but fayned and fables’ however, having listened to the counter argument, he affirms: ‘Thenne, al these thynges considered there can no man reasonably gaynsaye but there was a king of thys lande named Arthur’.

[vi] How many fought, and how many died, at Towton is ‘a matter for scholarly debate’. The traditional figure of thirty thousand dead might be an exaggeration, but it is still the deadliest battle fought in England and a lot of the scepticism about the figure seems driven by an unwillingness to believe more died at Towton than on the first day of The Somme in 1916.

[vii] ‘Balyn le Sauvage’ in Field (pps. 47-75).

[viii]It would be a pity to shipwreck as a reader on the language of this section, since the language of the alliterative poem was probably old fashioned when Malory was transcribing it.

England’s musical Shakespeare

Henry Purcell
STUART MILLSON gives a glimpse into the life of Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell (1659-95) is forever associated with the birth of opera (or masques) in England – works such as King Arthur and The Fairy Queen – the creation of semi-operatic scenic cantatas, like his music for The Tempest, and with expansive works for church and state, especially his odes for William and Mary and their ‘Glorious Revolution’ – and, later, funeral music of intense mourning for Queen Mary. Not all artists or musicians are celebrated in their lifetime, but Purcell was recognised as a great composer, ascending to the heights of achievement for his time – a reputation which enhanced the career of his younger brother, Daniel – also a composer. But it is in our own world that Purcell has truly come into his own: an unending stream of recordings, often in period-instrument form, from some of the greatest interpreters of baroque music, such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and William Christie. For Denis Arnold, the renowned General Editor of The New Oxford Companion to Music, Purcell warranted not just a few paragraphs and a portrait, but three pages of musical description and discussion – another impressive measure of the man.

Jan van Kessel, ‘Personification of Music’

Purcell was the second of four brothers and followed an early career as a young chorister in the Chapel Royal of Charles II, enjoying the early Restoration flowering of art and music. By 1673, his angelic voice was no more, but his musical talents had made such an impression that he was appointed as the custodian of the King’s collection of instruments. He also became a composer-in-residence at Westminster Abbey, going on to succeed the great John Blow as organist.

Composers such as William Lawes wrote very much for the delight or diversion of the Stuart court; just half-a-century later, ‘serious’ music had emerged as a force to be reckoned with, especially in the theatre – as a form of art increasingly enjoyed by the wider society, with provocative political allegory never far from the surface. A perfect example is King Arthur (1691), with its libretto by John Dryden, which goes far beyond the boundaries of any conventional theatrical format – the story of the mythical warrior-king of the Britons, but with overtones of the contemporary struggle between the cause of James II (the rightful heir – but a Catholic) and the triumph of the Protestant succession, in the form of William of Orange. With its famous, ethereal patriotic air, ‘Fairest Isle’ – a slow, contemplative song sometimes extracted from the score and performed as a piece in its own right – Purcell emerges as a ‘composer-laureate’, long before the era of the national-composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their oratorios of ‘Blood and State’ (Parry) or ‘Banners of St. George’ (Elgar).

Purcell’s English mysticism is something we tend to associate with musicians of an epoch much closer to our own, such as Vaughan Williams with his Flos Campi or Five Mystical Songs, and Holst’s unchanging, unforgiving Wessex landscape of Egdon Heath. Purcell brings us into a markedly supernatural country, of charms and prophecies, and the extraordinary presence of a ghostly character, the ‘Cold Genius’ – a singing spirit of frost, ice and wasteland, brought to stuttering life by a shivering bass singer, accompanied in a curious pre-echo of 20th-century music by the icy, scratchy, toneless, guttural bowing of string instruments. Purcell was ahead of his time in other ways too –with the rumble of wind and thunder machines in The Tempest, and waves of scurrying strings suggesting a rushing tide about to break across the land – a scene straight from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 Suffolk opera, Peter Grimes (credited as the first great English opera since Purcell).

As a concertgoer or buyer of recordings, it is worth remembering your first experience of a particular work – and often more fun to replay that memory (or vinyl disc) and compare it to the many other versions which have proliferated in the intervening years. I first encountered Purcell’s Chaconne on a record-buying expedition in 1981, the work appearing on a Decca LP collection entitled ‘English Music for Strings’ – a 1968 recording made at Snape Maltings, with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

The Chaconne, or ‘Chacony’ as it is sometimes written, is an old dance-form, made up of variations (in Purcell’s piece, 18 in number) which flow effortlessly into one another, and founded upon what musicians know as a ground-bass theme (the deeper, more sonorous theme or tune that seems to underpin or “anchor” the whole work). Britten, a great admirer of Purcell, and of older English music generally, was immediately attracted to the gently-noble, faintly melancholic melody of the Chaconne, which had been preserved in a collection of Purcell manuscripts, stored in the British Museum.

Even with Britten’s modern string instrumentation and the rich reverberation it creates, we are transported in the first moments of the work to an England of 300 years ago – of lute- and viol-playing ‘people of quality’ at courts and country houses, of misty deer parks and an adjoining countryside of ancient steadings – and yet, despite the clear antiquity of the style, there is a universal essence to this music (very much like Bach) which somehow defies time. Readers may also enjoy the more authentic version of the Chaconne, performed by Canada’s Aradia Baroque Ensemble, which appears on the Naxos label, an interpretation that brings us the delicate, glassy, crystal feel of authentic baroque-era strings. The CD catalogues and Youtube brim with Purcell recordings.

This remarkable man, in charge of England’s musical formalities, was also fond of the occasional joke: listen, for example, to his Ode for the Birthday of Queen MaryCome Ye Sons of Art – to the section entitled, ‘Sound the trumpet’ and the line, “… the listening shores…” Something to do with all England listening for the word of its monarch, perhaps? Or a joke at the expense of trumpet-players, with the surname Shore – who had nothing to do in that particular section!

Pier Francesco Cittadini, ‘Vanitas – Stillleben’

Timelessness seems the very essence of Purcell, that shaper of national myth in music, a ghost who still comes back to life as the cold genius of our isle. It was the cold which brought about the composer’s untimely death in 1695: returning home late at night during a bitterly-cold November, so the story goes, it seems that he found himself locked out of his Marsham Street home by his wife of 14 years. And curiously, from then on, his country began to forget about him. The musicians and choristers of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey honoured his passing in a great service of remembrance ; yet the decades and centuries that followed saw the virtual disappearance of his name. Perhaps it was only Britten’s rediscovery in the 1940s and ‘60s that brought Purcell back to life – a crusade assisted and added to by composer-conductor, Malcolm Arnold, conducting full-blown arrangements of the 17th-century composer’s works at a Proms concert in the late 1960s.

What we can say with certainty is that the jibe made during the mid-19th century (principally by Germans), that England was “the land without music” was only partially true. We had simply forgotten about our own geniuses.

The once and un-killable king

King Arthur: The Making of a Legend

Nicholas J. Higham, Yale University Press, 2018, 380 pages

LIAM GUILAR marvels to see a sledgehammer being wielded against castles-in-the-air

People in Britain have been telling stories about an ‘Arthur’ since at least the 9th century, possibly earlier. In the Middle Ages, those stories include some of the finest literature ever produced in Europe, culminating in Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century masterpiece.

Scholarly arguments over the existence of an historical King Arthur, a single figure as point of origin for these stories, are more recent. In the mid-20th century, the idea that there was an historical figure gained ground, but the high-water mark of scholarly attempts to argue the case had passed by the 1980s. Leslie Alcock (Arthur’s Britain) and John Morris (The Age of Arthur) were both respected academics, but both their books, especially the latter’s, received the kind of academic reception about which scholars must have nightmares.[i].

Despite repeated attempts by experts in the field of ‘post-Roman’ or ‘Dark Age’ or ‘Early Medieval’ British history to discredit the various candidates, and despite the lack of evidence to support any of them, the arguments rumble on. Nicholas Higham’s new book is an attempt to demolish the idea that there is an identifiable historical figure who is the real King Arthur. It seems doomed to fail. He is not the first scholar to announce that the historical Arthur did not exist. It’s unlikely he’ll be the last.

In 1977, David Dumville, one of the leading authorities on the sources for early medieval history in Britain, concluded an article that discussed the Welsh evidence for an historical King Arthur:

The fact of the matter is there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books

In 2013 an equally exasperated Guy Halsall, an expert on early medieval history, wrote a book offering “a corrective to the shelves of pseudo-Historical ‘Arthurian’ nonsense available in practically every bookshop in Britain”, concluding,

No sane scholar will now argue that there is definitely a “King Arthur” figure in 5th– or 6th-century history about whom anything solid can be said

In 2018 Nicholas Higham, who specialises in what used to be called ‘The Dark Ages’, produced this encyclopedic refutation of the varied and various arguments for an ‘Historical King Arthur’. He lines up the contenders – the Sarmatian Arthur, the Greek Arthur, the list of nominees with names sounding like Arthur or those whose names sound nothing at all like Arthur – the ‘if this, then this, and then that means we’ve found Arthur’ arguments, and one by one he knocks them over.

Higham’s conclusion is that

[…] we can now agree to discount King Arthur as a ‘real’ figure of the past, leaving him and his deeds to the ‘smoke’ and ‘highland mist’ of make-believe and wishful thinking; it is there that he properly belongs

I distrust that first person plural which Higham is fond of using. Reading the book is like being bludgeoned, very thoroughly and very carefully. It should settle the argument. But it won’t. Even the blurb on the cover hedges its bets. Max Adams, identified as the author of In the Land of the Giants, is quoted: “Riveting…brings the historical Arthur to what may be his last decisive battle”. “May be” because, given the nature of the evidence, there is never going to be a final, irrefutable argument.

Candidates for the historical King Arthur have their partisans. But if the experts have become more wary, the field is still held by enthusiasts who fly on a combination of ill-informed speculation and wishful thinking. They simply cherry pick ‘information’ and don’t bother with the usual rules of evidence, source analysis, linguistics or logic. If anyone is arrogant enough to believe that lacking the skills and knowledge required to move through the tangle of evidence puts them in a position to argue with people who have spent their professional careers studying that evidence, then nothing is going to dent their self-confidence.

The question of Arthur’s existence hinges on a very limited number of sources, and the combination of skill, knowledge and training required to assess the reliability of those sources is very rare. There is a world of difference between ‘looking stuff up’ on the internet, or in the library, or in the museum, and doing research. The failure to understand that difference, which is becoming increasingly widespread, lies at the heart of the ‘Arthur Was Real and Eureka I’ve Found Him’ phenomenon.

A scene from John Boorman’s Excalibur

The scarcity and unreliability of the surviving written sources can be hard to grasp. Imagine if 1,000 years from now, you are tasked with writing the history of the Trump Presidency. Your only piece of evidence is a copy of a copy of something from a newspaper. The copy was made in 2320. There’s a name attached to it, but you know nothing else about the journalist. You don’t know which newspaper the text is from, nor do you know if it is from an editorial, factual report, opinion piece or work of fiction. You have no way of checking anything in it against other sources.

And if you think that reconstructing four years from such a fragment sounds difficult if not impossible, then spare a thought for the historian of the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, who can put the only surviving piece of contemporary insular ‘narrative history’ on a couple of PowerPoint slides. That oldest surviving narrative, written by Gildas within living memory of the battle of, or at, Badon, does not mention anyone called Arthur[ii].

All the other surviving sources were written much later and they all need to be handled with care. The problem with the sources can be demonstrated with one example,

What may be Arthur’s earliest appearance in an insular text comes in a collection of eulogistic stanzas of early Welsh poetry collectively known as y Gododdin

While often referred to as ‘a poem’, Y Gododdin, as Higham rightly states, is a collection of verses commemorating a Northern British raid on the Saxons at Catreath. The raid was a complete disaster and the verses celebrate the men who died. The problem is that Y Gododdin only survives in a 13th century manuscript. The work is generally credited to Aneirin, who is said to have lived in the 6th century. It’s worth pausing to remember that the distance in time between ourselves and Shakespeare is less than this. How much of the material, if any, in the manuscript dates back to the 6th century is a matter of scholarly controversy. Obviously, the date of the ‘Arthur reference’ makes a huge difference to the value of that reference.

Higham is willing to accept an early date, and he quotes the relevant stanza in English. The last four lines read:

He used to bring black crows down in front of the wall 
Of the fortified town – though he was not Arthur – 
among men mighty in deeds 
in front of the barrier of alder wood-Gorddur

Gorddur is the warrior’s name, and he is being praised for his ferocious deeds in battle, although ‘he was not Arthur’. That’s all there is.

The enthusiast says it’s obvious that here we have a reference to a famous Arthur, and this proves stories of King Arthur must have been circulating (off-stage) when this verse was written.

The sceptic asks for evidence that independent stories circulated about a real character called Arthur at the time this verse was composed. The enthusiast points to the poem. Aneirin must have been able to rely on his audience to know the stories, in order for the allusion to work. The allusion proves the existence of the stories and the stories guarantee the validity of the allusion. Dizzying?

Nor does it tell us anything about Arthur except it was a famous name. It doesn’t help us to identify an Arthur, or tell us when or where or if he lived.

A literate person with the necessary patience can follow Higham’s summary of the complicated problems of dating Y Gododdin in general, and of that line in particular. But there are very few people who can read the manuscript, or its facsimile, and the number of people on the planet who have the expertise to negotiate the dating arguments and evaluate the evidence for themselves probably wouldn’t fill a coach for a day trip to Catreath.

And therein lies the real problem. Early British, post-Roman history, is a highly specialized field, but Higham, as did Guy Halsall before him, bemoans the fact that in many ways the specialists have withdrawn from the debate:

Today most specialists distance themselves from the whole issue of Arthur’s reality, citing insufficient evidence to be able to judge his place in history and declaring themselves agnostic on the matter. But their silence leaves the history-reading public with insufficient guidance to the competing claims and without the specialist knowledge to judge between them effectively, for these are highly complex issues

Higham is critical of ‘agnostic’ scholars who refuse to be drawn into a conclusion on the subject. Ironically, Max Harris, whose comment is quoted on the cover of Higham’s book (see above), wrote, in his introduction to In the Land of the Giants:

And then there is Arthur. Historical references to this legendary Romano-British warlord are very few: a list of 12 battles; a great victory recorded at a place called Badon (perhaps Bath in Somerset) a death notice, a possible mention in a battle poem [iii]

This short reference to King Arthur continues with a classic piece of professional ‘agnosticism’: ‘Arthur may be, as many historians have argued, an irrelevance, a distraction’ (p.14). Adams also includes the ‘dates’ from the Annales Cambriae for the battles of both Badon and Camlann in the timeline of the Dark Ages he appends to the book (Adams, Appendix two, p. 429). That ‘may be’ that leaves the door open – just as the inclusion of the Annales Cambriae dates for Badon and Camlann in a timeline with verifiable dates gives them a spurious authenticity [iv].

For all the evidence Higham can marshal, (his bibliography runs for 23 pages of small print) there’s never a knockout punch. If Y Gododdin demonstrates the problems inherent in the evidence, Higham’s detailed discussion of the Historia Brittonum demonstrates why it’s not possible to close the argument.

The 56th ‘chapter’ of a document known as the Historia Brittonum (hereafter HB) is the crucial piece of evidence for enthusiast and scholar alike. HB chapter 56 contains a list of Arthur’s 12 battles. It’s the oldest surviving piece of extended writing about an Arthur. It names him as a victorious war leader against the Saxons.

‘Chapter’ might be misleading. It runs to 23 lines of continuous Latin prose in John Morris’ edition. Though written in Latin, compiled in the early 9th century and ascribed to ‘Nennius’, for most of us, our access to this strange text is through John Morris’ 1980 translation, which is not without its own problems[v].

Higham, like many before him, quotes the ‘chapter’ (p. 185). But I think that misrepresents the HB. The focus on chapter 56 allows people to treat this strange compilation as far more factual than it is. My own interest is in the earlier story of Vortigern (HB 31-49) who takes up much more of the HB than does Arthur. The Venerable Bede, writing at the beginning of the 7th century, following a hint in Gildas, had made Vortigern instrumental in the fall of Roman Britain. In the HB he has become an incestuous, bigamous, drunken fool in a bad folk tale about a beautiful princess. It is not history as understood in the 21st century. Ambrosius Aurelianus, who also appears as an historical character in both Bede and Gildas, has become a vatic child who was born without a father[vi], and St Germanus of Auxerre, who is perhaps the one person in this motley crew who can be established as undeniably historical, has become a spell-working magus who prays Vortigern to a fiery death in his tower[vii]. Reading the whole text does not inspire confidence in its factual accuracy[viii].

Higham, to his credit, takes on the whole of the HB and he’s very good on what it reveals about how different 9th-century attitudes to writing about the past are to our ideas of writing history. His chapter on the HB is worth the price of admission, even if you have no interest in ‘Arthurs’, although he has written about this, at length, before.

However, it’s not possible to dismiss the ‘Battle List’. It’s not enough to point out that no one has identified the battle sites with enough conviction to convince everyone else. (Guy Halsall reported one attempt to do so based on the names of modern pubs (Halsall, 2013, p. 154)); or that if the enemies are Saxons they seem to have been much further north much earlier than any other source suggests; or that the number 12 in a work riddled with biblical echoes seems more than a bit suspect and Arthur’s 12 battles mirror Patrick’s miracles as R.W. Hanning pointed out in 1966 (p. 120): or that some of the battles seem to have been fought by a leader who chose his battlefields because their place names rhymed: or that single handedly killing 960 enemies in a single charge sounds a tad unrealistic. Even with ten hours of daylight, how many deaths is that per minute, every minute, without a break for ten hours[ix]?

There’s more. At least three centuries have passed between the events described and the time of writing. Despite decades of attempts to find one, there is no evidence for an earlier source for the list. A lost poem is the best candidate, but then it would have to be a very strange poem and a list of rhyming battles might still be unconvincing. Anyone who claims that HB 56 is based on accurate oral transmission has to explain how, given that at least 14 generations have passed between writer and event, any oral story could be passed down without alteration. As a rule of thumb, students of oral history accept accuracy is possible in a story passed down for three generations: from your grandparents to you. Not, as Higham points out, a story passed down about your “great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (give or take a generation either way)”.

Despite all this, the weight of evidence can only say: ‘it is highly unlikely that this is a reliable source’. Higham’s analysis of the way Nennius uses other names in the HB whom we know to be historical, leads him to the perfectly demonstrable conclusion that: 

This was a scholarly community prepared to manipulate the distant past, shift individuals around and invent characters to make British history fit for purpose. They amended names to better suit their needs, misquoted from and rode roughshod over earlier testimony, fictionalized historical figures and made up others de novo. The harvesting of names from their original setting to be reused in a different context was commonplace

But he can’t prove this is what happened to Arthur. He can only suggest it is likely. He also claims that to understand the HB,

Our treatment of it must depend on understanding why it was written, where the author obtained his information, how he used what he had gleaned and the ways in which he expected his work to be understood

In his discussion of these features, he’s as guilty of speculation as anyone. Granted his speculation is much more well-informed, he’s still straying out of the world of facts. He is attempting to construct not only the context of a text that does not fit any modern genre, but its contemporary purpose and reception when there is no external evidence for these. Without knowing anything about the Real Author of this text, he’s going to draw conclusions about his intentions.

When Higham lists what can be inferred about the author from the text he’s constructing an Implied Author. It’s the reader’s idea of the author. We have no way of knowing who ‘Nennius’ was, let alone why he wrote what he did, if in fact he did write it. The ‘context’ of a written text is always a construct[x]. In the absence of corroborating evidence independent of the text, such a construct is never going to be the final word on the subject.   

I’d back Higham’s informed speculation against most people’s, but there’s no escaping the fact it’s still speculation. He slides from qualified statements, ‘the prologue if accepted as original……in that case he is likely…’ (my italics) to declarative ones:

These were Latin texts written by churchmen tasked with repositioning the Britons within a tradition of European history that centered on Rome

It’s that ‘tasked’ that rings the alarm bells. His reading of the evidence supports his hypothesis, but there’s no way he can prove it.

Sir Bedivere casts Excalibur back into the lake

Higham does need to be applauded for his willingness to accept that medieval authors made stuff up. There’s a peculiar strand in medieval studies, both amongst professionals and enthusiastic amateurs, that works on the assumption that everything that interests us has a prior source. Put like that, it sounds ridiculous. But the unstated assumption is that fiction is a post-medieval invention. So, when Higham surveys the evidence and writes

Wace’s introduction of the Round Table to Arthurian literature was a practical solution to an imagined problem, which there is every likelihood he came up with himself

it’s one of the best moments in the book.

The Tudor invention of Arthur – the “Round Table” in Winchester Cathedral

Given that none of the evidence for an historical Arthur seems convincing, why the persistent arguments? I think people want to believe, and don’t understand or care that the existence of an historical figure, like Alfred the Great or Lady Godiva, is not a question of belief but of provable fact. The arguments over Arthur repeatedly illustrate one peculiarity of early British medieval history. Given the lack of sources for the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, it’s almost impossible to prove someone didn’t exist. Therefore, says the ‘agnostic’, we have to accept the possibility he did.

Higham is strongly, justifiably against this. He quotes Bertrand Russell:

’Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than the business of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake.’ He illustrated the point by supposing the existence of a teapot in orbit around the sun that is too small to be visible through even the most powerful telescope. That this assertion cannot be disproved does not mean that it should be allowed to influence our thinking about the solar system. That way only chaos lies, for such speculations are infinite

Beyond a desire to believe, what reason is there to even entertain the idea of an historical Arthur? The answer to that probably lies in a bad metaphor which should have been dismissed the first time it was used. A long time ago someone advanced the argument that since ‘there is no smoke without fire’ there must be a factual, historical basis for the medieval stories about King Arthur. Higham returns to this metaphor in his final chapter and tries to replace it with another, but it’s time someone got rid of the habit of arguing based on inappropriate metaphors.

There may well be no smoke without a fire, but stories aren’t smoke. They are stories. The metaphor implies that all stories have some kind of factual basis. That’s demonstrably not true. If we throw out the inappropriate metaphor, there’s nothing left but wishful thinking.

Anachronistically-armoured knights feast with Arthur, who is in the Round Table

For all the detail, the knockout blow never arrives. Each chapter has its conclusion which sums up the case against the particular contender/argument, and then everything is summed up again in a concluding chapter. This makes the book laboured and repetitive. While the marshalling of scholarly argument is impressive, as the book progresses and Higham goes after some of the ‘fringe’ dwellers, it starts to sound brittle.

I admit to bemused admiration for Graham Phillips. He has made a career out of finding things Arthurian. He found the Grail. He found Camelot. He identified the ‘Real King Arthur’ as Owain Ddantgwyn using a chain of reasoning that was so circular it makes a spin cycle look linear. He has not let scholarly opposition or derision stop him. Give the man his dues: he’s held his line. Recently he claims to have found Arthur’s grave[xi]. The idea that Arthur’s 5th century grave can be found by reading Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century text has so little to recommend it that it shouldn’t require pages of detailed refutation. It is a fine example of Russell’s orbiting teapot.

And despite what Higham has written about not being obliged to disprove the existence of orbiting teapots, he’s put himself in the position where he has to do so. If the purpose of the book is to educate the history-reading public, then he has to engage with Phillips’ argument. Reading his three-page explanation of the flaws in a portion of Phillips’ argument (pp. 264-267) is like watching someone trying to swat an annoying but mobile ant with a very large, very heavy hammer. It’s hard not to think that all this erudition could be put to a better use.

Despite all the knowledge, despite the careful explanations, despite the clear statement of intent, it is hard to assess how successful this book is. Who is its target audience? Higham claims,

The purpose of this book, is therefore, to set out the main arguments which are on offer, test each one against the sources on which it relies, and determine which, if any deserve support

But it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the conclusions were written before the tests had been done.

Anyone interested in Arthurian studies, historical or literary, will benefit from reading the book. It’s an encyclopedic survey of the subject, written by an expert. It gathers together disparate information, and the Sarmatian, Nart and Greek chapters are a welcome summary of those diverse cases. But I wonder if Higham really thinks that someone inspired by the Clive Owens’ 2004 film King Arthur which was advertised as “The untold true story that inspired the legend”, is going to read his detailed, painstaking deconstruction of the argument that Lucius Artorius Castus was the original Arthur (pp 14-39)?

I suspect the people who need to read it probably won’t. And if they do, it probably won’t change their minds[xii]. The growing cult of the self-appointed expert means there is an increasing number of people who think access to the internet puts them in a position to discover what the experts have missed, and to challenge the experts’ arguments. We’ve seen this in the 2020 pandemic; it’s not confined to Arthurian studies.

For experts in the field, they’ve heard most of it before. They’ve read some of it in Higham’s earlier work, especially King Arthur: Myth making and History (Routledge, 2002). I suspect there will be those with recognized expertise in some of the more unusual fields that he has picked his way through who might object to the finer points in some of his arguments, but most of us won’t be in a position to follow the ensuing discussion, let alone play referee.

Those who don’t have the patience to read the book will stay happily deluded. Anyone who honestly thinks Arthur was an Ancient Greek Constellation before he had a career as a medieval king is not going to let the problems of transmission get in the way. Worse, as a contributing factor, there’s someone out there willing to publish your theory, or turn it into a documentary, because people like to watch the little amateur sticking it to the experts, even when the audience has no idea what’s at stake. It’s hard not to love a story that declares the Holy Grail has been discovered in an attic in Coventry, or Excalibur has been found[xiii]. Throw in the idea that there’s an academic conspiracy to hide the truth and there’s a small industry aimed at exploiting those who want to believe. Detailed arguments about manuscript dating, linguistic borrowings, or the problems of editing and dating early Welsh poetry simply do not make great television even if they are being presented by Michael Wood.

While the arguments over the historical Arthur are fascinating for all kinds of reasons, for many who are interested in the stories that accumulated around the name, it has always seemed an interesting irrelevance. Even if it were possible to identify a single person as the point of origin for all these disparate stories, and even if the proof were so convincing Higham publicly retracted everything he’s written here, ‘Arthur’ would be a brutal thug whose claim to fame was his ability to organize the slaughter of other violent thugs. He would have nothing in common with Malory’s Arthur except, perhaps, a shared name.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to those who read early versions of this essay, and in particular to Peter Hart whose painstaking proofreading saved me from serious embarrassment. All the remaining errors are mine

Works Cited

Adams, M (2015) In the Land of the Giants. Head of Zeus Ltd

Alcock, L (1971) Arthur’s Britain. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books

Dumville, D (1977)  ‘Sub-Roman Britain-History and legend’. History 62:173-92

Halsall, G (2013) Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford University Press

Hanning, R W (1966) The Vision of History in Early Britain. Columbia University Press

Morris, J (1973) The Age of Arthur. Weidenfield and Nicholson

Morris, J (ed.)  (1980) Nennius – British History and The Welsh Annals. Philimore & Co

Author’s Notes

  1. Despite the comprehensive mauling it received from the experts, Morris’ The Age of Arthur is still on sale, and if the comments on Goodreads are any indication, still encouraging the unwary to believe

2. Gildas The Ruin of Britain. (De Excidio et conquestu Britanniae)

3. Ironically, Higham’s book denies the ‘Historical’ status of everything Adams refers to here

4. The entry before the one for Badon reads: ‘Bishop Edur rests in Christ [i.e dies] he was 350 years old.’ It tends not to be quoted by those who want to believe in the reference to Badon. Higham’s discussion of the Annales is on pp. 222-225. They are included in Morris’ edition of Nennius

5. See Higham p. 178-9 for a discussion of the problems of ‘establishing the text’ in general and with Morris’ edition in particular

6. It’s typical of the HB that in chapter 41 the boy has no known father and in chapter 42 he does

7. The HB faithfully records that there are three stories circulating about Vortigern’s death, one of which involves the ground opening up to swallow him.

8. My own interest is in the way these stories developed, rather than any desire to sort fact from fiction. You can read about the development of Vortigern’s story across time, as well as those of Hengist’s daughter and St Germanus at: http://www.liamguilar.com/the-legendary-history

9. I once pointed this out and was told that Arthur would have been using Excalibur and ‘we all know’ Excalibur was an alien artefact

10. I thought this phrase was Peter Barry’s, from Literature in Context (Manchester University Press, 2012) but I can’t find it

11. http://www.grahamphillips.net/arthur_tomb/arthur_tomb1.htm

12. The repeated use of  ‘probably’ here is nothing more than a conventional stylistic avoidance of declarative statements in an attempt to appear undogmatic. If I were a betting man, I’d bet they won’t.

13. Amateur Sleuth traces ‘Holy Grail’. The Courier Mail, August 14, 1995 p.12