The debate over King Arthur's place in post-Roman history resembles, it has been suggested to me, one of those Ice Age tar pits into which mammoths strayed only to be sucked to their doom. Mention of "the once and future king" tends to lead to the question of whether Arthur existed, an historical quagmire from which few escape. Since the early 1970s, most historians have given it a wide berth, but this has not stopped herds of populist or amateur historians rushing into the mire, each trumpeting a claim to have proved that "the real King Arthur" lived in Warwickshire. Or Scotland. Or Cornwall. Or, faced with critical dismissal by professional medievalists, these authors tend to go down protesting some sort of pan-academic plot to conceal "the truth".
The problem is that Arthur's historical existence can never be proved or disproved. The earliest references to Arthur are untrustworthy but, although we can know nothing about any historical prototype, this does not mean there was none. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As any theologian will confirm, non-existence is as difficult to prove as existence, and the debate over Arthur is all too capable of taking on almost religious dimensions.
N. J. Higham, no local "enthusiast" but reader in history at Manchester University and author of several volumes on post-Roman Britain, is the latest to come forward, undeterred, to try to negotiate this historiographical bog. He examines Arthur's role in historical and political debate, medieval and modern. After a useful chapter outlining the development of modern views of Arthur's existence, he discusses 5th and 6th-century Britain, not as a context in which an Arthur may have existed but, more interestingly, how a 9th-century perspective could have necessitated an Arthur legend. He then analyses the key texts: Gildas' late-5th or early-6th-century On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain ; the early 9th-century History of the Britons ; and the late 10th-century Welsh Annals . Finally, Higham traces the development of the legend from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the present day.
Higham's contention is that Arthur was based on the little-known but historical Lucius Artorius Castus, a 2nd-century military commander in Britain, who became confused in popular tradition with a "Bear-Man" folk hero ( arth , meaning bear in Welsh) to which "Arthur" place-names in the western and northern British uplands refer. Because the 5th and 6th-century Britons were, thanks to Gildas, remembered as sinful and militarily weak, the History of the Britons used this hybrid figure to create a British Joshua, associated with a Moses-like St Patrick. The Welsh Annals later adapted the figure into a Christian champion of pan-Celtic unity. Despite Higham's protestations, this is largely an extended attempt to prove that Arthur had no single historical prototype. By claiming that close study of these texts demonstrates no pre-existing sources existed for their Arthur-figure, Higham wanders into the tar pit.
His argument is interesting, but problems occur at every stage. It is hard to claim that "real" historical personages, fixed in time and space, are difficult to use as the basis for legends or in political polemic: comparisons with Clovis and Charlemagne spring immediately to mind. Higham too often explains away awkward episodes within the sources as "otherwise unattested"; but this is a period wherein most events are attested in only one source. Disproving a historical Arthur's remembrance in pre-9th-century tradition requires as much indefensible "cherry-picking" from jejune sources, as does the defence of "no smoke without fire". Many of the textual links, made to reduce the Arthurian tradition to a single source, are convoluted. Using the names of landscape features is dubious because, as Higham notes, most are unrecorded before the full development of the Arthurian legend, wherein Arthur was associated with the highland areas of Britain and often used by the inhabitants of those regions as a focus for anti-English political identity. How Castus could have been fused with a highland god or folk-hero (the evidence for whose cult is no clearer than that for Arthur) is unexplained.
Higham's reading of Arthur as a Joshua figure is fascinating but again questionable. Arthur's description as dux bellorum (leader in battles) is resonant of the Bible's reference to the children of Israel asking God who should be dux belli after Joshua's death. Any early medieval reader who identified the reference would, however, know that the Lord's answer was that Judah should be dux belli : the typological link is with the tribe of Israel, not with Joshua. Furthermore, Joshua was conqueror of the Promised Land, not, as Arthur is in the History , a defender against ravening invaders. For that role, a Saul, Samson or David, fighting the Philistines, would be far more appropriate. And how a pagan folkloric figure can become Joshua-like (or even, as Higham argues, Christ-like) is more problematic still. The History of the Britons' precise political context is vague, and it is a text far too slippery to be wrestled into the neat polemical structure that Higham creates.
Overall, this thought-provoking volume is worth reading, especially for the historiographical surveys. Trying to unravel the political contexts of the earliest "Arthurian" texts is worthwhile, as is an attempt to reconstruct the possible outline of historical developments between 400 and 600; both are more valuable than debating the existence of Arthur. But the basic flaws in his argument mean that even diehard Arthurian sceptics will not be fully convinced, while those who wish to search for "the real King Arthur" will doubtless continue undeterred.
Guy Halsall is lecturer in early medieval history, University of York.
King Arthur: Myth-Making and History
Author - N. J. Higham
ISBN - 0 415 21305 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £30.00
Pages - 303