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The Matter of Britain.

I went to the annual general meeting of the Society for Storytelling in the spring of 1998. Among a number of interesting talks was one by Dr. Juliette Wood, President of the Folklore Society, entitled Arthur from British War Lord to New Age Celt. This article is in part a report on her talk, with additional material from other sources (and my own ideas).

Who was the real Arthur? Dr. Juliette Wood says that he was the Arthur (or Arthurs) of the stories — an agreeable thing to hear at a storytellers’ conference. As such, the ‘real’ Arthur is everywhere and nowhere. She argues that the search for a historical Arthur is fundamentally mistaken, as the texts at or near the time he is supposed to have lived say almost nothing about him. She said that the only mention in the Annales Cambriae reads “In this year [539] was fought the battle of Camlann, at which Arthur and Medraut fell” — it is not even said that they were on opposite sides. There is, in fact, one other mention of Arthur, but that contains some details which cannot be historical, which is perhaps why she did not include it. In any case, the Annales are a tenth-century compilation, though containing earlier material There is a reference in the Gododdin, the seventh-century North British lament for warriors killed in fighting the Saxons, to a hero “who was no Arthur”. And Gildas, writing around 540–550, does not even mention Arthur — the most likely reason being that Arthur did not exist.

The early levels of the stories are rooted in a Romanised British people. There are mentions of Arthur in early Welsh texts, but most of the source material is not British. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (around 1136) subverts the classical world by almost entirely ignoring it. He gives a legendary history of Britain and its kings from its foundation by Brutus, a descendant of Trojans escaping from the fall of Troy (just as Rome had a similar foundation). This provides much of the early material about Arthur. Geoffrey claimed to have obtained his material from an earlier book he had seen, but it is generally thought that this was a literary device — Geoffrey can be regarded as the first novelist. He was of Anglo-Norman and Breton origin, and was writing for a Norman audience, not a British one.

The romance writers, who flourished around late twelfth to mid-fourteenth centuries, first introduce the Grail legend. Though they take over aspects of a Welsh tradition, there is no reason to believe they are literary re-workings of old Celtic myths. (Nor is there any reason to suppose that an actual physical Grail exists, and can be discovered — the texts vary widely in their description of it.) There were many tales about the Matter of Rome (Alexander, surprisingly) and the Matter of France (Charlemagne). The Arthurian romances form the Matter of Britain. The first two are about historical characters, though in legendary form. Are the Arthurian tales to be regarded as an attempt to create a fictional person whose exploits rank with the others, or as a fictionalisation of a historical personage? Arthur begins to fall out of the Welsh tradition around Tudor times when Malory’s book appeared, giving an image of Arthur formed by medieval chivalry and not by Celtic myth. We are most familiar with an Arthur deriving from Malory. The Arthur who appears in the Mabinogion is a character from a very different tradition, as is the Arthur of the Triads of Britain, that collection of three and four lines referring to various beings, human or other, which may well be a set of mnemonics for story-tellers. She did not particularly mention either of these sources. The Arthurian tourist industry is quite old, dating from Camden in Tudor times, or earlier. Though there are various oral traditions it should not be assumed they are ancient. For some centuries little was written about Arthur. In Victorian times, Prince Albert, looking for an exemplar of ‘muscular Christianity’, encouraged the revival of interest in Arthur, and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King strengthened this interest. (As did Beardsley’s illustrations, in aesthetic circles, and William Morris’s poems.)

While the talk was fascinating, I felt that she did not pay enough attention to the scraps of historical evidence that we do have. For instance, South Cadbury was identified as Camelot by Leland in the sixteenth century. Did he invent this, or was it a long-standing tradition? Recent excavation has shown it was occupied by a major Romano-British chief in the fifth or sixth century. If there was not some genuine folk-memory, this seems an amazing coincidence.

Geoffrey Ashe has claimed to have identified Arthur as a British king known as Riothamus, who is known from European historical records (see his books The Discovery of King Arthur and Kings and Queens of Early Britain). The word ‘Riothamus’ could be a personal name (meaning something like ‘very kingly’) but it could also be a title (as the name Vortigern, found in the stories of the time before Arthur, was) meaning ‘high king’. It is interesting that Riothamus, one of the few British kings in historical records of the period, does not figure in any of the British stories, though other historical characters do appear, although in distorted form.

There are difficulties with Ashe’s claim. It forces him to place Arthur at an earlier period than most writers do, and as a result he has to regard Camlann as fought by “Arthur’s men”, a body of warriors formed in his time and named after him, rather than by Arthur himself. But none of his solutions to the problems are particularly far-fetched. Nonetheless, I am sure his view has received detailed criticism, and I would like to know more about this.

Ashe is particularly clear on what he refers to as the “Arthurian Fact”. Britain was the only Roman province which became independent before invasions from outside. They fought fiercely against the invaders, and did turn them back for a period. Some major British war-leader must have been involved in this, and we have no other named person who is suitable. Ashe says that “no-one who has denied Arthur’s existence has yet succeeded in giving an adequate and convincing story accounting for the Arthurian Legend without him.” It is also known that three different British kingdoms had princes named Arthur shortly after the relevant period, although there were no such princes earlier. While some have suggested that one (or more) of these gave rise to the story of Arthur, this seems unlikely. It seems much more probable that they were given this name after some prominent person named Arthur. While I agree with Dr. Wood that the Arthur of the stories is of as much, probably more, importance than any historical Arthur, my sense is that the historical Arthur did exist, even though it may be impossible to learn more about him than a few scraps.

When she had reached the Victorians time ran out, and Dr. Wood had not even begun to look at the twentieth century and the “New Age Celts” of her title. Currently, there is a great fashion for Celtic and pseudo-Celtic material (it always amuses me to see that the ‘Celtic music’ section in American record stores includes folk-music from parts of England with no Celtic connection). And the number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, related to Arthur and Merlin, published in the last few years runs into dozens. I would be fascinated to hear her views on the causes of this explosion of interest. This phenomenon is widespread. It might be regarded as English post-imperial nostalgia. But this does not fit in well with the intense American interest in Arthur. Perhaps it is related to a concern for ‘roots’. But even here there is no particular reason why these roots should be Celtic. Merlin, rather than Arthur, may be the key here. New Age and other spiritual seekers are looking for traditional paths which may be more fulfilling than the established religions. Some look to Native Americans for this — others, whether because that does not suit them or because they are aware of the political issues involved, look to a European spiritual and magical tradition. They may find the spiritual tradition in Celtic Christianity, and the magical aspect in Merlin. Marian Zimmer Bradley’s book The Mists of Avalon has had a great influence here, with its rehabilitation of Morgan le Fay (at the expense of Guinevere, unfortunately). I am told that when Geoffrey Ashe gave a workshop on the Matter of Britain a few years ago, the title, chosen to reflect what the participants had expressed particular interest in, was “Merlin, Morgan, and Magic”. Many peoples have legends of a hero who is not dead but sleeping, and will return in the time of need (indeed, even the Christian Millennial tradition can be regarded as a form of this). The Arthurian stories are a particularly detailed form of this. They enable us to look back at a lost Golden Age (when a maiden carrying a sack of gold could walk across Britain without coming to harm, as one of the pre-Arthurian tales has it) — an Age that could return .

That promise can appear to be fulfilled in the everyday world, though its gleam gets tarnished quickly. This happened in the USA, where (partly because of the coincidental appearance of the musical) Kennedy’s presidency was referred to as ‘Camelot’. It has happened here, where the great surge of feeling on 2nd May 1997 has been overtaken by problems of power and government. And yet the promise remains. It gives us hope and a vision. The vision by its nature can never be completely fulfilled. As William Morris said “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they mean under another name.” And the vision remains. And with it the memory of Arthur, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus, the Once and Future King.  

Wood and Water 63, Summer 1998
© Daniel Cohen

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