contributor.author: Anne Berthelot

title.none: Finke and Shichtman, King Arthur and the Myth of History (Anne Berthelot)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.010 06.01.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Berthelot, University of Connecticut, anne.berthelot@uconn.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Finke, Laurie A. and Martin B. Shichtman. King Arthur and the Myth of History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. Pp. xiii, 262. $60.00 0-8130-2733-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.10

Finke, Laurie A. and Martin B. Shichtman. King Arthur and the Myth of History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. Pp. xiii, 262. $60.00 0-8130-2733-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Anne Berthelot
University of Connecticut
anne.berthelot@uconn.edu

Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman's latest book seems to inscribe itself in the recent series of texts dealing with the unanswerable question of King Arthur's historicity, or the origins of the legend. Indeed, its title echoes N.J. Higham's King Arthur: Myth-Making and History (London: Routledge, 2002), as well as, to a lesser extent, Rodney Castleden's King Arthur: the Truth behind the Legend (London: Routledge, 1999). However, from the very beginning, the authors distance themselves from this quest for origin; what interests them, they say, is "why, in the twelfth century, a set of narratives about King Arthur suddenly emerges full-blown, virtually from nowhere ... as an important subject of historical writing ... and why Arthur has since continued to be an enduring cultural and semi-historical figure." In other words, they claim not to be concerned with the facts at the roots of the texts, but with the use these hypothetical facts are put to by various historians with various agendas. In order to reach that goal, they concentrate on a few significant works, from the twelfth-century William of Malmesbury's Chronicle ("History as Symbolic Capital") to Trevor Ravenscroft's and Jean-Michel Angebert's twentieth-century analyses of the Nazi use of Arthurian motives and ideology ("Paranoid History"). In fact, this last chapter is widely separated from the rest of the book, not only by its chronological settings, but by the very nature of its object. While it is theoretically laudable to establish continuity between the Medieval and the Modern, there is nevertheless a huge gap between Caxton and Malory on one hand (Chapter 6, "Patronage, Printing, and Symbolic Economics of Nationalism"), and Ravenscroft or Angebert on the other (one might even argue that Ravenscroft and Angebert themselves have different perspectives and goals, too).

To explore the dubious association between the Arthurian legend and the National-Socialist ideals has become somewhat of a fashionable activity in a post-modern critical world, and Finke and Shichtman are not really adding to this dossier. The authors on whom they focus are original in that they are looking backwards to the Nazi period, and offering "revelations" about the main Nazi dignitaries' philosophical choices or sources. However, they are not in the same positions as the other "historians" considered in the volume: they are writing after the event, interpreting and not shaping it, while all those featured in the previous chapters are "making" contemporary history by using the Arthurian materials in variously devious ways. Indeed, it seems that this last chapter is more of a "conge" taken from the Arthurian world, since the afterworld focuses more on the thorny issue of post-structuralist, post-modern handling of the Holocaust, and the function and scope of historical studies in general.

The five "medieval" chapters are more of a coherent ensemble, although they do suffer from the "monographical" illness afflicting many publications these days: each of them is a world per se, addressing a specific text and its author (or two at the most), but there is no real link between them, except maybe for chapters three and four, "The Romance of Empire: Vernacular History and the Structuration of Power" and "Discontinuous Time: History in the Eyes of Its Losers." Starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, these deal mainly with the two Bruts, twelfth-century Wace's Anglo-Norman one and thirteenth-century Layamon's English one. In part because Layamon himself is very much concerned with his predecessor, these two studies are really one unit, and constitute probably the best part of the volume. Based on Zizek's distinction between "Winners'" and "Wosers' history," they provide precise and subtle readings of the texts, addressing especially salient points, like the constitution of the 'Merlin' character in enlightening detail. The burning question of "Nationalism" in Britain and/or England is also given interesting, nuanced answers in the three-chapters "suite" englobing William of Malmesbury as well as Geoffrey, Wace, and Layamon. Chapter 5, "Mapping Ambition: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Logic of Seriality in the Chronicle of John Harding," is less convincing, although it has interesting pages on the use of the Grail quest motive by Harding--a new topic in the Arthurian histories of the Middle Ages, which surfaces again in Chapter 6, where it is a key element of the changes Caxton introduces in Malory's text.

All in all, the book is well researched, often thought-provocative, cleverly argued, but slightly frustrating: it does not really answer the question it purports to address in the first chapter, "The Narrative Logic of Medieval History." Despite the strong theoretical overlay of this chapter (mainly Post-Colonialism and New Historicism), the "why" is soon forgotten in favor of the "how." Finke and Shichtman analyze efficiently, and sometimes brilliantly, the ways in which each of their historians use the Arthurian materials to build their own vision of history or to cater to their patrons' needs. They do not solve the original enigma: why do these materials come to light in the first place? One must admit, however, that this question is probably as little susceptible of getting an answer as the one about Arthur's degree of historicity.

A strongly theory-oriented Bibliography and a rather laconic Index complete the volume.