Book review: “King Arthur” by Nick Higham

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Book review: “King Arthur” by Nick Higham

First things first: Everything we think we know about King Arthur was made up out of whole cloth.

There are no historical sources for a flesh-and-blood Lancelot or Merlin or Guinevere or Round Table or Camelot or Arthur.

There’s no other conclusion for me after reading Nick Higham’s clear, clean, well-reasoned 2015 biography King Arthur, part of a series of short lives of great people called Pocket GIANTS from the History Press.

 

“No confidence”

Higham spells this out in the book’s opening chapter “The Greatness of Arthur”:

King Arthur’s giant presence in our culture is assured. There is, however, something distinctive and different about him. For, while we are in a position to offer a life story, with dates, for almost all the other figures featured in the Pocket GIANTS series, and to discuss their impact on their world, we can have no confidence in any particular outline of Arthur’s life, his family connections or his deeds.

We do not know precisely where he lived or when. Indeed, there is doubt as to if a real ‘King Arthur’ lived at all.

There may have been numerous different Arthurs whose stories have been woven together. Or perhaps the whole ‘King Arthur’ phenomenon is no more than storytelling, allowing the generation and regeneration of tales by a succession of commentators, each developing, reinforcing but changing a common legend.

There is a danger that we are writing about a character who is essentially fictional.

What might be known in the future

This is blunt language — “no confidence in any particular outline of Arthur’s life” and “doubt as to if a real ‘King Arthur’ lived at all” and “a character who is essentially fictional.” It is astonishing, of course, for a biographer to say that his subject might never have existed.

Nonetheless, Higham, a well-respected historian and a scholar on the British Middle Ages and on King Arthur, is being cautious, as odd as that might sound.

As a historian, he knows that what might not be known today could be known at some future date.

Consider the appearance of the Dead Sea Scrolls 2,000 years after they were hidden in caves near Jericho. They didn’t turn history on its head, but they did provide a glimpse into the world of Judaism as it was undergoing major change and of Christianity as it was just getting started.

Perhaps — unlikely though it may be — something like that might appear in the future that would shed light on an actual human being who was, in some real way, the King Arthur we think we know today.

So Higham is measured in his words, even as he spends his 120-page book detailing how all but impossible it is to find anybody like that in the historical record.

 

Walked the earth?

I don’t feel that need, and, after reading Higham’s book, it seems clear to me that, even if there was a single person who was the root of the King Arthur story, we don’t know anything about that warrior or king or whatever he was.

There are scraps here and there that modern-day enthusiasts have sought to use to construct this original Arthur. But, boy, as Higham presents the evidence, there doesn’t seem to be much there there.

Did a man named Arthur — probably just a warrior, not a king — actually walk the earth?

Some theorists argue that this original Arthur was from ancient Greece or the Near East or was maybe Roman.

The name Arthur shows up in early texts in the British Isles, but it’s little more than the name of a hero somewhere in the distant past. This Arthur — in the sources now at hand — is a legend. And there’s nothing about him that has to do with the Round Table and Camelot and all that.

 

“Nine hundred and sixty men”

Then, in 829-830, all that started to change.

Arthur is treated as a real person, indeed, an important historical person, in a book called the History of the Britons. Higham writes:

Up to this point, he has been a figure of folklore, a marginal presence, shrouded in mystery, whose name was used in various Irish and/or British families. After the History of the Britons writers feel justified in dating him, crowning him, making him an all-conquering war leader — and imagining ever more elaborate contexts for his heroic exploits.

The author of History of the Britons writes of twelve victories that the warrior Arthur won, including one in which “there fell in one day nine hundred and sixty men from one charge [of] Arthur and no one slew them except him alone, and in all battles he was the victor.”

OK, that medieval writer is asserting that Arthur was a real person, but, killing nine hundred and sixty men in one charge — really?

While insisting on the fact of Arthur, the author includes information that, on the face of it, is legendary. Sounds like Paul Bunyan to me.

 

“Its architect”

Higham notes, at this point, that there is a huge problem here — “a ninth-century text, written some three centuries after the events it describes.”

Well, maybe, as some argue, the writer was using a source that’s been lost to us.

However, Higham points out that it is just as plausible that the writer was making it all up, in an attempt to mimic biblical lists as a means of giving the history a greater stamp of Christianity which was growing in importance in Britain then. Indeed, that’s Higham’s conclusion:

The simplest explanation of the battle list is that the author of the History of the Britons was himself its architect and that he wrote it without any coherent source, collecting together from a variety of pre-existing works, both oral and written, the twelve battles he needed to achieve his biblical symmetry, then fitting the list within his broader narrative by the use of biblical referencing.

If so, this passage tells us nothing about Arthur.

 

Nothing

I’m playing a bit fast and loose with Higham’s account of these early stories of Arthur. He is much more exacting in his examination of what’s been put forward as evidence for a historic Arthur — admirably so.

By this point, though, I was convinced.

It seems clear to me that the writer of the History of the Britons didn’t have a source for putting the legendary figure of Arthur into those twelve historical battles. In other words, it seems clear to me that Arthur was a figure of folklore, pure and simple.

But, even if the writer had some source, the information provided is not much information at all.

In other words, there is nothing — nothing — here that tells us anything about the Arthurian world we think we know.

Nothing about Merlin and Lancelot and all the other stuff. Nothing.

That all came from later writers — Geoffrey of Monmouth and his History of the Kings of Britain (1125-1139), Thomas Malory and his La Morte De’Arthur (1471) and Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (1590).

 

Mirror

So, why Arthur?

If Arthur is fictional, why has there been this long effort to see him as a figure of history?

If Arthur was real but someone whose life is virtually unknown to us, why layer so many stories onto him?

Higham touches on this a bit. The legend of Arthur, being so vague and wispy, was totally malleable. Writers used it over the centuries as a means to look at the major issues of their own times.

This has happened with historic figures, such as Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln, but, in those cases, there are actual facts that limit how far afield a writer can go.

Not so with Arthur. At least, not at the beginning of the storytelling.

Nowadays, any Arthur story is expected to have a lot of the elements that have been grafted onto the legend over more than ten centuries. Otherwise, it won’t be taken seriously.

This legendary Arthur was always, to some extent, a hero, but the stories over the centuries about what he did and what happened to him mirrored the key questions of the day.

He was a lookingglass into the soul of a moment in the history of the people. And so he remains.

And will remain.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

10.9.17

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