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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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Review: The Mystery of King Arthur by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Mystery of King ArthurThe Mystery of King Arthur by Elizabeth Jenkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a Christmas present this year from my brother Michael who remembers well my long obsession with King Arthur as a child and adolescent. By the title, you might think that this a ‘historical King Arthur’ book, but it’s not. This book is an overview of the Matter of Britain — or, as Jenkins calls it, the Matter of Arthur. It is an overview of the entire body of legend and literature surrounding Merlin, Arthur, the Round Table, the Grail, Tristan, etc, et al.

The volume begins with a brief description of pre-Arthurian Britain, expressing beliefs in great psychic powers of the people who built Stonehenge. This chapter is to be read with great caution, and not because of Jenkins’ dancing a little too closely romanticised Celticism for my increasingly cynical tastes but because of a few slips concerning Roman history (e.g. Constantine the Great was the first emperor of that name, not the third!) and the departure of the Romans from Britain.

Nevertheless, the book moves along swiftly into a second chapter, ‘Fact and Legend’, where we meet what Jenkins considers the only two historically verifiable facts about King Arthur, taken from a Paschal Chronicle of the 1100s (but believed to date from the 800s — I am still not sure why we should believe something from the 800s for the history of the 500s) — he defeated the Saxons and Mt Badon, and he and Mordred both died in battle at Camlann.

However, throughout the rest of the book, various other tidbits of the Matter of Britain are assumed to be based on some sort of fact because of their verisimilitude. I have become a cautious historian at the ripe old age of 32, and would probably have included far more, ‘maybe’s, ‘perhaps’es, ‘might be’s, and ‘could have been somebody else but got attached to Arthur maybe at some point’ and similar statements to that.

Anyway, the book is very good, nonetheless. Jenkins gives a chronological run-through of the legends and literature of King Arthur, from some of the weird and wonderful tales from Welsh lore (remember that time King Arthur had to capture a hairbrush from between the ears of a magical boar? Neither did I!) to the now-standard versions from the French Vulgate Cycle immortalised by Malory and Tennyson. Most of the expected authors/works are there — Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon, Chr├ętien de Troyes, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gottfried von Strassburg, and so forth.* The literature is dealt with very well, sometimes giving synopses of the most important and/or famous stories, pieces of literature, including helpful quotations, and sometimes simply stating their place in the overall journey from post-Roman Britain to the Pre-Raphaelites.

An interesting facet of this book that I did have expected was Jenkins’ setting the political and social stage for each era of the legends’ growth and transformation. These chapters and asides were generally helpful, although sometimes hard to connect with the literature. They were also overly focussed on England, when you consider how much Arthurian literature is French (and from elsewhere on the Continent) — my Latin prof from undergrad (an expert on Old French) says, ‘All the best Arthurian literature is French.’

One odd facet was Jenkins’ psychologising of things. She writes on occasion that some images look like a dreamscape, and that aspects of the legendary bits of Arthur undoubtedly have their origins in the human psyche. She also refers to the psychic powers of the Celts.

One final criticism that is not of this book in particular but of a lot of similar volumes is that no mediaeval writer seems capable of imagination in Jenkins’ estimation. Almost every development of the story, even in the absence of evidence, is assumed to derive from oral tradition, or to be borrowed from elsewhere, or from real history, or Celtic legend, or whatever. I, on the other hand, am a firm believer in the fecundity of the mediaeval imagination.

One final commendation: The book is profusely illustrated with manuscript images, photographs of sites associated with Arthur, a few Early Modern items, and the glories of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aubrey Beardsley.

In sum: This is a good book with some errors and oddities, but I would heartily recommend it as an introduction to Arthurian literature and themes, as almost every major work is treated in this volume and usually receives a fair amount of justice.

*Notably missing: Beroul and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

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