Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
18.03.19, Melrose, Warriors and Wilderness in Medieval Britain

18.03.19, Melrose, Warriors and Wilderness in Medieval Britain

King Arthur is among the best known medieval literary figures. Close at his heels are his nephew Gawain, Beowulf, and Robin Hood. Yet these characters often seem to have little in common except a medieval literary existence. Robin Melrose, following an extensive publication record on a historical and mythical King Arthur, brings these characters together as a way of tracing the origins of the Arthurian story, a beginning he finds in the mists and forests of ancient Britain. Warriors and Wilderness in Medieval Britain from Arthur and Beowulf to Sir Gawain and Robin Hood offers a tantalizing glimpse at a complex and integrated folkloric evolution that draws from archaeological, etymological, and literary sources to tie Arthur to the North of England and the "Romano-British hunter/warrior god" (2).

Clearly intended for a popular audience, rather than an exclusively scholarly one, Warriors and Wilderness focuses on excerpts of primary texts, as well as summaries of archaeological finds and etymological hypotheses. Melrose cites few secondary sources, and the majority of those are not the most recent scholarship on any of these subjects. However, the argument that he suggests is compelling and could certainly yield fruit with greater attention to the extensive corpus of scholarly research on the literature and history at stake.

Melrose's primary aim in Warriors and Wilderness is to investigate the Northern Romano-British hunter/warrior horned god as a precursor to Arthur, whose area of activity was located within the forests of Northumberland and southern Scotland, specifically Inglewood Forest in Cumbria. He tracks this development from the Welsh Arthurian sources like Y Gododdin and The Triads of the Island of Britain. For much of this material, Melrose relies on the edition by Rachel Bromwich, whom he cites at length. Melrose argues that the figure of Arthur partly emerged from the conflicts between the British of what he terms the "Old North" (northern England and southern Scotland) and the nascent Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Thus Melrose considers early English heroes like Saints Oswald and Guthlac and King Alfred the Great whose deeds are recorded, as well as literary heroes like Beowulf and speculative figures like "the warriors who accumulated the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard" (2) before moving on to the later tales of Arthur, Gawain, and Robin Hood.

Chapter 1 summarizes the resistance to Roman rule in northern Britain and southern Scotland, with a cursory description of what he calls the "frontier peoples" (10) and the cult of the horned god, evidence of which survives in various material artifacts from Cumbria, Yorkshire, and numerous Roman sites. Melrose ends the chapter not with any definitive conclusions, but with a transition into the next chapter by introducing the resistance to Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian rule by the native British (a term he seems to use interchangeably with Welsh). He sets up the term "Old North" (again, which he attributes to the Welsh), concluding that the heroes of this region influenced the later stories of Arthur, beginning with the twelfth-century Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.

The history of Anglo-Saxon settlement from sources like the sixth-century cleric Gildas is the primary feature of chapter 2, juxtaposed with Welsh sources on the Votadini. He connects the appearance of Arthur in a brief reference in Y Gododdin to poems by Taliesin, who mentions a certain Urien (protector of Rheged), to the site of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock), and finally to the Picts. The chapter concludes with the suggestion that the real northern warriors were replaced by Arthur, repeating the initial claim from the introduction but without much analysis of the archaeological evidence presented throughout the chapter.

The development of the Arthurian tradition, echoing material from Melrose's earlier work British Religion from the Megaliths to Arthur, begins in chapter 3 which summarizes more Welsh sources including Culhwch and Olwen, which actually is the central feature of chapter 4. This chapter is where Melrose begins to build his evidence for warriors in the wilderness--which is a very prominent motif in numerous Middle English romances, both Arthurian and not. The chapter largely repeats the text of Culhwch and Olwen, while offering suggestions about its debt to Irish tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill, which travelled from the Irish-speaking kingdom of Dal Riata in western Scotland "presumably by way of the British kingdom of Alt Clut/Dumbarton Rock" (56).

However, Melrose returns to the Anglo-Saxons in chapter 5 in his examination of Oswald, Guthlac, the burial at Sutton Hoo and Alfred, drawing connections between these figures and the forests as well as their contact with Vikings, the Welsh prophecy of Britain, and the invasion of England by King Cnut. He provides translations of the Old English poems The Wanderer and The Seafarer as examples of "heroes in exile" (79) before transitioning into the next chapter which deals with Beowulf's qualities as a wilderness hero. In chapter 6, Melrose summarizes Beowulf, gives a brief account of the provenance and date of the poem and its presence in Anglo-Saxon England, and then discusses the etymology of Beowulf as "Bee-Wolf" or bear. According to Melrose, this last piece is the lynchpin for connecting Beowulf to Arthur, whose name may derive from "Bear-Man" (101), and forms the basis for reading Arthur as a national hero once the Anglo-Saxon period ends.

The subsequent chapters delve into the post-Conquest Arthurian material, beginning with Geoffrey's History. Chapter 7 is essentially a compartmentalized synopsis of Geoffrey's history, punctuated by observations about potential connections to Welsh and Irish sources. Chapter 8 summarizes the Middle English Layamon's Brut and the alliterative Morte Arthure, providing long passages from each where they deviate from Geoffrey's version. Melrose turns to the forest motif in chapter nine, with his discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which he claims derives more from French sources than English ones, an assertion that is highly contested. He briefly examines French and Anglo-Saxon motifs in this poem, then, just as briefly, ponders the figure of the Green Knight and Gawain's status as a popular hero. Gawain features more prominently in chapter 10, in which Melrose ties him and Arthur to Inglewood Forest, Cumbria. To that end, chapter ten includes textual summaries and excerpts from The Adventures of Arthur at Tarn Wadling and other northern poems.

Chapter 10 also provides the foundation for connecting Arthur with Robin Hood, the focus of chapter 11. Here, Melrose traces the origins of Robin Hood in the outlaw tales of Hereward the Wake and the establishment of royal forests by the Angevin kings, culminating in the early Robin Hood ballads. Chapter 12 continues that discussion with excerpts from A Gest of Robyn Hode and other tales, constructing an image of Robin as a "wilderness hero." The book ends there, with only a concluding sentence that suggests the cycle of the wilderness hero began with the hunter/warrior god in Romano-British Cumbria and Northumberland and ends in the Inglewood Forest where Arthur and Gawain may have existed "improbably side-by-site [sic] with Adam Bell and his band of outlaws" (231).

Overall, there are elements of Warriors and Wilderness that provide interesting and plausible ways of thinking about these literary figures in relation to archaeology and anthropology. However, the lack of secondary research and developed analysis leaves many of these avenues unexplored. There is useful food for thought here, and the connection between these literary heroes is certainly something that should be examined in much more depth.