21 August 2021

King Arthur: the True Story

King Arthur: The True Story

King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

King Arthur is a well-known figure in European romantic literature, but the historical character he is based on is vague and elusive. The authors of this book believe they have identified him as Owain Ddanngwyn, ruler of Powys in west-central Britain from about AD 488-520. "Arthur", they say, was not his actual name, but an epithet or nom de guerre meaning "The Bear", being a combination of the Brythonic "arth" and the Latin "ursus", both of which mean "bear".

I am in no position to evaluate the accuracy of their claims, because I am not sufficiently versed in the history of that period, which many historians have referred to as "the Dark Ages" because so little written history has survived from then, and so historians of the period are left feeling their way in the dark. It is like trying, in 2021, to find the biography of a ruler in southern Africa around 1390. There are no contemporary written sources, so that for us is the southern African "Dark Ages". 

I came to read this book in a strange way. I went to the library to renew some books I hadn't finished reading, and saw this one lying on a table. Someone had taken it off the shelf, decided not to take it out, and left it lying there for a librarian to reshelve. I wasn't looking for it, nor would I probably have found it if I had been, but it just appeared in front of me, as if it were saying "Read Me".

What I can say of the book by way of evaluation is that it starts off with a good summary of the Arthurian literature, and how the legends of Arthur were popularised (and in many instances created) in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth and subsequent writers. So I found the first few chapters very good as an account of how the Arthurian legend developed, and its early sources.

The further one goes into the book, however the more tenuous and speculative the story becomes, and the less convincing becomes the sub-title, "The True Story". The authors don't pretend otherwise. Their prose in the later chapters is extremely conditional, "if x happened, then y could have followed", "It is conceivable that...".

Much of the knowledge of the period comes from archaeology, which can tell us something of what life was like in a particular period, and what kind of people lived where, but it tells us very little of the actual events that led to those conditions. Pottery fragments can tell us whether the people who lived in a place were Angles or Saxons or British, but does not tell us their names, and whether they were ruled or led by someone called Arthur.

I also have to ask myself why I should be interested in Arthur or Arthurian literature. Most of the literature was written 600 years later, and tells us more about that period than about the time when Arthur lived, if he ever did live. One of the things that interests me about it is the intersection of history, myth, legend and theology, some aspects of which I have dealt with in an earlier blog post -- see South African Camelot.

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