Review: Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

Worlds of ArthurWorlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read one ‘historical King Arthur book’, make it this one. Halsall gives us the lay of the land, providing sophisticated analysis of what little documentary evidence exists for ‘Arthur’ as well as thorough discussions of the archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain. I admit that, since archaeology is not my strong suit, I do not always follow the arguments in that regard (in fact, sometimes I skim them by accident, which doesn’t help), but when I could keep the details about the different types of artefacts in my mind, the archaeological portions seemed sound and plausible, even if not the only available solution.

That last sentence is why I doubt very few people of this book’s target audience — non-academic readers who like King Arthur — will find this book satisfying. The history of post-Roman Britain is extremely poorly documented, and what few documents we do have (Gildas, Bede, welsh Annals, ‘Nennius’, the Life of Germanus of Auxerre) can provide different reconstructions of events. Archaeology, of course, is very much a matter of the most plausible vision of the given material. Those who want to sit down and read a book that tells the story of a Romano-British warlord fighting Anglo-Saxons will be sorely disappointed.

Instead, what Halsall gives us is actually more exciting and interesting. This whole book is, in fact, a good entry into the history and archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain through the sources themselves. Most of what is discussed is, properly speaking, historiography — how we know (or don’t know) what history says. First, Halsall gives us the traditional account of Arthur and post-Roman Britain as based upon our textual sources. I was pleased and interested to know that the ‘Paschal chronicle’ that Elizabeth Jenkins mentions in The Mystery of King Arthur is actually the Welsh Annals and not a paschal chronicle of any sort; Jenkins was working from older historiographical assumptions about the origins of chronicles that Burgess and Kulikowski have recently proven entirely false in Mosaics of Time Vol. 1. The Welsh Annals, with their mention of Mt Badon and Camlann are, thus, not a sixth-century paschal chronicle but eleventh-century, and any material they gain from earlier sources is likely to be ninth-century texts such as ‘Nennius’.

After discussing the traditional narrative from textual sources, Halsall sets it out for us from archaeology. Then he goes into greater depth, applying the scrutiny of the professional historian to this evidence and asking how far we can trust it and whether it actually tells the story we think it tells. By the end of Part III, he has set out for the reader the current scholarly assessment of the evidence c. 2012. Along the way, he deals with many of the myths and falsehoods purveyed by ‘pseudo-histories’ and why we cannot trust them.

Part IV is Halsall’s own reconstruction of post-Roman Britain, itself an interesting read. It is definitely plausible and well-argued, but my own acquaintance with many of the sources comes mostly from his own work, so I am not yet in a strong enough position to critique any of its weaknesses. What he does that I think is vital to post-Roman Britain, and something I hope other historians of the island and period begin to do as well, is make comparisons with the continent in the same period, thus adding nuance to the arguments and showing where the traditional narrative need not be the only approach.

One important aspect of his approach to material culture is something he discussed earlier in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, which is the fact that a material cultural horizon need not mean that everyone within it is biologically related. People can change ethnicity, especially in the Roman and post-Roman worlds. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ artefacts need not always be evidence of newcomers from the continent. Another important reassessment he used in his earlier work and here applies to the British situation is the interpretation of furnished burials as evidence for local struggles for power, since such burials would be a way to reinforce the power of the deceased’s family.

All in all, this is an excellent book. It could be used by the interested reader to learn the methods and tools of the professional historian, shedding light on how history is itself constructed and not simply the story we tell in the history books. It is also a refreshing corrective to many of the crazy King Arthur theories that are so confident about theories in which we can place no confidence.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

  1. Pingback: Discover Fifth-century Politics II: The West from 423 to 500ish | The Wordhoard

  2. Pingback: Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-Century West | The Wordhoard

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