19.11.25 Higham, King Arthur

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Karen Sullivan

The Medieval Review 19.11.25

Higham, Nicholas J. King Arthur: The Making of the Legend. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. pp. 392. ISBN: 978-0-300-21092-7 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Karen Sullivan
Bard College
sullivan@bard.edu

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the study of King Arthur has been the tendency of so many scholars, not to say popular authors, to entertain the possibility that this figure may have existed. Audiences of modern fiction are accustomed to suspending their disbelief in the characters they encounter while reading. They may be lulled into thinking that Oliver Twist or Lily Bart are real people by the precision of the novelists' details about the criminal underground in nineteenth-century London or the marriage market in early twentieth-century New York, but, when they put the book down, they know full well that these are fictional characters. Despite the sharp dichotomy between "history" (historia or estoire) and "fable" (fabula or fable) in the Middle Ages, medieval authors constantly blurred these categories, attributing to historical rulers like Alexander, Charlemagne, and Richard the Lionheart fabulous adventures and ascribing to fabulous heroes like Aeneas, Sigurd, or Fionn mac Cumhaill historical status. Yet with King Arthur alone there has been a vigorous debate, extending from the Middle Ages to the modern era, over whether this figure "really" existed. This is a debate that, in King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham aims to put to an end, with a clear and resounding "no."

Throughout much of the book, Higham considers, evaluates, and ultimately rejects, with exemplarily patience and thoroughness, the most recent arguments for a historical Arthur. In Part I, on "'Foreign' Arthurs," he addresses theories that this figure either came from another country or was inspired by stories of figures from other countries. Could Arthur have been a "L. Artorius Castrus," a soldier and administrator buried in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia) and the only person of this name known to have fought in Roman Britain? No, because he would have been known as "Castrus," not as "Artorius," and, given the lack of evidence of his activities in Britain, is unlikely to have left any lasting impression there. Could he have been one of the Iranian-speaking Sarmatian officers posted to Britain during the Roman period, whose penchant for fighting in heavy armor and on horseback might seem to anticipate the medieval knight? No, because these officers' armor and manner of horseback-riding was unlike that of later knights, and, from the archaeological evidence, they had no cultural impact upon the island. Could Arthur's legend have been inspired by Batraz, a hero of the Nart sagas from the Caucasus, whose death resembles that of the British hero? No, because the version of the sagas where that similarity can be seen is of late composition. Might the name of the star "Arcturus" (in Greek, Arktouros) indicate a Greek origin for Arthur? No, because there was little knowledge of either Greek or astronomy in early medieval Britain. In Part II, on "'British' Arthur," Higham turns to the more familiar theories that this figure was indigenous to his island. Arthur could not have originally been a Celtic god or demi-god, he maintains, because such deities, unsurprisingly, tend to have Celtic names, which "Arthur" is not. He had no connection to the numerous sites in the British landscape identified with him, such as "Arthur's Seat" in Edinburgh, because the vast majority of these place names appear after the Middle Ages are over. Throughout, Higham's arguments are clear and persuasive, displaying a fine grasp of the linguistic, epigraphic, and archeological evidence that has been used to make these claims for Arthur's historical existence, as well as of the late Roman and early medieval Britain world in which this figure would have lived.

As an alternative to these arguments for a historical Arthur, Higham offers careful and compelling readings of the early Latin texts referring to this figure. For those not already tempted by the more esoteric theories about Arthur's origins, this is where the value of the book may lie. Since the twelfth century, it has been recognized that, if any text were to provide historical evidence of Arthur, it would be Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae (c. 500-570), but there is no Arthur in this account, nor, as Higham puts it, is there any "obviously 'Arthur-shaped' space" (174) where he should be. In contrast to Gildas, the Historia Brittonum (829-30), attributed in some recensions to a certain "Nennius," does name Arthur, but the annalist has an agenda in doing so. While Gildas chastises his fellow Britons for failing to follow God's commands, Nennius describes his countrymen positively, as "the original (and rightful) inhabitants of Britain" (196), subjected to a series of foreign invasions which they resisted and, in time, overcame. He wanted this people to be led by a hero who stood up to the Saxons, though there had never been such a figure. He wanted his hero to be a Christian, devoted to the Virgin Mary, though the Virgin's cult only appeared in the Mediterranean in the mid-seventh century and only spread to England and Wales in the eighth century. And he decided to call this hero "Arthur" because he was already familiar with this name, perhaps from the Welsh poem Y Gododdin, where a warrior is praised "though he was no Arthur," or perhaps from the Irish Acallam na Senórach, where an Artúr appears (possibly based on Artúr, son of Aedán, the King of Dál Riata), though these Celtic figures have no connection to the character he is developing. Comparing Nennius's depiction of Arthur with his depictions of Germanus, Vortimer, and Patrick, Higham sees in them all "a mishmash of biblical parallels, folk tale and crude fabrication" (189), cobbled together to serve his own purposes. As Higham sees it, Gildas and Nennius were intending to produce, not "histories" (historiae), for later, secular readers, interested in the historical events of the sixth century, but "sermons" (sermones), for small, local communities of fellow monks, concerned about the moral lessons furnished by what was happening in their own time. Insofar as later scholars and writers have seen in these early Latin annals evidence of Arthur's existence, he affirms, this is because they have misunderstood their authors' ambition and, as a result, have misinterpreted their words.

If Higham's book stands to change the mainstream of Arthurian scholarship, it will be, in large part, because of its emphasis upon Nennius's Historia Brittonum as the origin of our notion of King Arthur. He interprets other early Latin and Welsh texts that mention Arthur, including the Annales Cambriae, Preiddeu Annwn, and Culhwch and Olwen, as deriving from this original source. Other historians have tended to trace the development of Arthur's legend to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (1130s), given the explosion of Arthurian texts that immediately followed this work, but Higham sees Geoffrey as relying upon Nennius and, hence, as following his lead. He rightly criticizes his antagonists' speculations about an "oral tradition" concerning Arthur, which supposedly survived in hiding from the sixth to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it was finally given voice by French romancers. Still, we do have the mysterious representation of Arthurian characters on the Modena Cathedral in the late eleventh century, which antedates written records of their stories, and we do have numerous references to a contemporaneous oral tradition about Arthur by chroniclers and poets from the twelfth century (William of Malmesbury, Gerald of Wales, William of Newburgh, Herman of Laon, Bernart de Ventadorn, etc.). On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that there was a vernacular, popular tradition about Arthur (especially about the "Breton hope" that he will one day return), as there was about Merlin, which either preexisted the Latin, clerical tradition of Nennius's Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey's Historia or appeared independently of it. Higham has his reason for emphasizing Nennius at the expense of these other possible creators of Arthurian legend: "Only if the Historia Brittonumcan be trusted as an historical source could the 'British' Arthur be even quasi-historical" (275). Whatever tales Welshmen, Cornishmen, or Bretons were telling about Arthur in the late eleventh or twelfth centuries, they had no bearing upon whether this man had actually existed five or six hundred years earlier. Because Nennius's work alone could provide evidence of Arthur's existence, and because it does not do so, Higham contends, it can be demonstrated that this figure did not exist.

Higham holds back on the full force of his thesis until his final chapter, but there he makes clear its polemical stakes. Whereas earlier in the book, he had approached the early texts about Arthur largely from the perspective of the medieval clerics who had written then, now he approaches them from the perspective of the modern historians who fail to appreciate that these works are not modern histories. Though he has misgivings about judging texts "in such black-and-white terms" (277-78), he insists upon the absolute opposition of "fiction" and "fact," "good stuff" and "historical evidence" (276), and that which is "entertaining enough in its way" and that which "add[s] to our understanding of the past" (266). For that reason, he expresses frustration with Nennius, whom now he describes as purposefully deceitful, producing "more propaganda than history" (214) and deserving to be condemned in a court of law for "perjury" (277). He expresses frustration, not not just with those academic and popular historians who use Nennius to affirm that Arthur existed, but with adherents of the "no smoke without fire" school of history who propose merely that he may have existed. To those who would say with R. G. Collingwood that "through the mist of legend that has surrounded the name of Arthur, it is...possible to descry something which at least may have happened" (257), he replies that there is no mist, just light and darkness, fact and fiction, truth and falsity, and that what they are speaking about never occurred. "Let us face facts" (207), he demands. Even a labelling of Arthur as "legendary" (273) seems to him a failure on this score, give how a legend seems to have a legitimate starting point. Higham expresses frustration, finally, with those historians who stand aloof from this quarrel, unwillingly to devote the time to rebutting theories they do not respect. To those who would say that they prefer to concentrate upon properly academic matters, not popular histories, he responds that they are "leav[ing] the history-reading public with insufficient guidance" (4). The job of a historian is to discern and convey the truth, and those who refuse to acknowledge that Arthur never existed and to persuade others of this fact are shirking their professional responsibility.

The problem is, as Higham recognizes, that people like Arthur, and they always have. "[H]e has emotional appeal," he admits (260). He is a heroic, but in the end, tragic figure, like a king out of Shakespeare. And because people like him, they want to believe that he was real. In the Victorian period, he states, "Many still thought of him as 'real' in some sense, or at least wanted to, despite most historians' urging caution" (4). Even today, he writes, there are those who "still wish to view King Arthur as historical" (261). (Emphases are mine.) It is not that, on the level of the intellect, people fail to understand that Arthur never existed. (If that were the case, they could easily be corrected.) It is that, on the level of the will, they want to believe that he lived. As the ancients always recognized, one can make an argument on the basis of logos, but one can also make it on the basis of ethos or pathos. However much a historian may prove, logically, that Arthur never existed, audiences may still feel that there remains a truth in this figure, whether in the exemplarity of his character or in the inevitability of his downfall, which cannot be dismissed as "good stuff." Faced with the resistance of both popular audiences and academic historians to his argument, Higham becomes violent. He endeavors to "get rid of Arthur" (208), and he urges, "We should cast Arthur out of our histories" (276). He speaks of "nailing down the lid of this particular coffin" (263). He wants to kill Arthur, and to keep him dead. "'Fake news' is nothing new; we should always be on our guard" (275), he warns, and the epistemic crisis journalists and academics have confronted in the twenty-first century, when the fulminations of cultural elites against populist fabulists have only served to increase their appeal, finds an echo here.

Given that historians have been attempting to debunk popular theories about Arthur since William of Newburgh in the twelfth century, the question remains how to do so effectively. Higham makes his case against the historical Arthur as well as anyone could do. Whether it will persuade his intended audience remains to be seen.

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