The Figure of Arthur

All the British races, from as far back as we can trace, insisted Arthur had led them to victory against the Saxons. They were all wrong, Dumville tells us. The constructions of historians since the start of Celtic scholarship up to the time of Morris’ Age of Arthur are also nonsense. We have to start again, and this time, before we even approach the evidence, we must have ready the right questions to ask of it. The question most lay people would like to see answered, ‘did King Arthur exist? was there a real man behind the myth?’, does not figure in his list.

Historians following in his wake have gone further. Oliver Padel specifies that the question “was there an historical Arthur?”, the “natural question”, he terms it, must not be asked. It distorts our interpretation of the evidence since it forces us to reply “yes, perhaps”. This is not the answer we want.1

But if, as Padel holds, the evidence itself would not naturally suggest this question to us, why do we ask it? Why is it the natural question? Because British tradition tells us Arthur did exist, and played a significant role in our history. It is not enough to say that this tradition is too late to count as evidence for Arthur’s period. We still have to account for its existence.

This is exactly what Richard Barber set out to do back in 1971, in The Figure of Arthur. His thesis has been taken up and elaborated by others,2 but the original is still the clearest exposition. Barber wrote, as he says, to refute the ‘champions of Camelot’, whose opinion was in danger of being accepted for want of a challenger. He argues that the Arthur accepted for most of the twentieth century, the Romano-British general fighting the barbarian invaders of Britannia, was a figment of the historical imagination. Faced with a vacuum in British history, a plausible lay character had to be invented to fill it, a character which reflected our own values and concerns. So we invented an Arthur who fought to preserve what we hold to be of value, a “last heroic bearer of the flame of Roman civilization against the black barbarian night”.3

And that process of inventing Arthur did not begin in the twentieth century. Arthur has always been recreated afresh in the image of his creators. This was true from the very start, when Nennius (Barber here accepts his authorship) wrote the Historia Brittonum. And this is the start, in Barber’s view: the earliest securely dated text to mention Arthur must be the first to have ever been written. So it was Nennius who invented Arthur, and he did so to serve the needs of his own time and place.

The ninth century was a time of Welsh revival. For centuries isolated by their refusal to come into the Roman fold, under constant military threat from their Saxon neighbours and divided against themselves in small, warring principalities, the Welsh had degenerated culturally, intellectually and militarily prior to Nennius' period. But in finally in 768 the Welsh Church had accepted the Roman dating of Easter, and progress was again possible. In the ninth century a new and energetic dynasty came to power in Gwynedd. Merfyn Vrych was descended from Maglocunus on his mother's side, but his father was from the north. On taking the throne he began the process of uniting Wales by conquest, a task continued by his son Rhodri Mawr, Rhodri the Great. It was Rhodri who in 855 won a notable victory over the Vikings, recorded in the Annals of Ulster - his fame was known beyond his own shores.

In the ninth century Welsh isolation was over. The enlarged kingdom of Gwynedd, now respectably Roman, was in close and stimulating contact with Ireland and with Frankish Gaul. It enjoyed a cultural revival and an enormous increase in prestige and confidence. Even the reconquest of parts of Saxon-held Britain now seemed possible, with the once-mighty kingdom of Mercia in terminal decline. But what the new dynasty lacked was a written history, a history which would justify its own rise to power and the territorial expansion now in prospect. And so, Barber surmises, the patriot Nennius invented the earliest British history, adapting Frankish and Roman legends to give the British a pedigree that stretched back to Noah, via Troy. Where Gildas saw the Britons as inept heirs of Rome, Nennius' inventions made them a separate nation. And it was Nennius who gave them their national hero, Arthur.

Nennius had his sources. They were mostly northern, as the new dynasty came from the north, and in them Nennius found a genuine Arthur, an obscure Irish prince, a son or grandson of King Aedan of Dal Riada. Arthur of Dal Riada gave Nennius his starting-point for the new British hero. Transposing this character back in time, and uniting him with Badon, the victory briefly mentioned in Gildas' account of the British resistance, Nennius gave the Britons what they lacked, a victorious war-leader and a glorious past, and thus the hope, and the justification, of a still more glorious future.

As Barber admits, his objective is to explain away the Arthur of British historical tradition, and this is probably as good a theory as can be imagined for that purpose. It is full of holes.

The first is Nennius’ surprising lack of invention. His section on Arthur consists of a mere list of battles, occupying no more than half a page in Morris' translation. The story of Vortigern in this text is about eighteen times as long, including the tyrant’s legendary struggles with St Germanus and with Ambrosius/Emrys, his relations with the Saxons, the fate of his sons and grandsons. Arthur, in contrast, appears out of nowhere, fights twelve battles, and disappears as abruptly. It is hard to see how a king of Gwynedd who commissioned his tame scholar to create a mighty British hero could have been satisfied with this brief fragment - the more so when Nennius makes no attempt to relate the new hero to Gwynedd’s new, ambitious dynasty.

For Nennius does not supply Arthur with a genealogy, though genealogy figures large in his history. He even opens the Arthur section with a genealogical statement about Arthur's opponents, yet never a word on Arthur's own origins. David Dumville seems to regard this as evidence against Arthur, dismissing him as "a man without position or ancestry in pre-Geoffrey Welsh sources". But being ahistorical has never prevented anyone from having ancestors or descendants. The god Woden was ancestor to many of the Saxon dynasties. Julius Caesar was descended from the goddess Venus. The kings of Kent claimed descent from Hengest and Horsa - both of whom are mythical, according to the current historical consensus, though they still have ancestors of their own, going back either to Woden, or to a son of God, Geta (Nennius, recording this genealogy, assures us this God was not the God of Gods, but one of the idols they worshipped). The kings of Powys claimed descent from Maximus, via his daughter Severa, who married Vortigern. Dark Age historians find the claim laughable. The genealogies of this dark period, they assure us, are not to be taken seriously, for they were invented to satisfy political need. And Nennius invented Arthur to serve the needs of the kings of Gwynedd. But he invented for him no noble ancestors and no succeeding line. If Arthur were to serve the ambitions of Gwynedd’s new dynasty, he could do that best as a mighty ancestor, and that could have been arranged with the flick of a pen. If Barber’s theory were correct, Nennius’ reticence is baffling.

More puzzling still is how this scant invention of Nennius’ could have sparked the mighty legend, believed in Geoffrey’s day by all the British peoples with a passion verging on religious devotion. If Arthur were only invented in the ninth century, when the Britons had already diverged into separate nations, then to adopt him as their national hero these separate nations would each have to get rid of whatever national history they treasured before his invention.

This problem seems not to have occurred to anti-Arthur historians because their own devotion to the strictly textual evidence blinds them to the fact that ‘history’, for most people throughout most of recorded time, was not written, it was oral. The fact that a people have not left us with a record does not mean they themselves had no idea of their own history. This is not history as academics define it. It is history as it was understood in the medieval and ancient world, a story about the past. An elementary knowledge of psychology shows that everyone has a personal history, a story about themselves that describes them to themselves, without which they would mentally disintegrate. The same is true of nations, indeed, this is how nations exist as nations. In the words of R H C Davis: "What no nation can be without is an image or myth with which it can identify itself."4 "No people can be a nation unless it can project itself into timelessness by linking its history to a particular land, and it has no chance of doing that unless it believes the link to be true."5 The story of Arthur linked the British people to the island of Britain, and defined them as a people, as the island’s rightful inhabitants. But in Barber’s theory it did not do so before the ninth century, by which time the British had divided into separate and frequently hostile kingdoms.

If the Arthur legend originated in ninth century Gwynedd, and spread from there to the rest of the British kingdoms, it did so at the expense of the histories these people already cherished. How the Bretons, the Cornish, and even Gwynedd's deadly enemies in Dyfed were persuaded to discard their traditional histories and adopt in their place a propaganda hero invented to serve the interests of that north Welsh kingdom, is difficult to imagine. That they could have done so on the basis of a couple of paragraphs in a Latin text is simply incredible.

The writer of the Historia Brittonum cannot be responsible for the Arthur legend. Barber’s theory cannot stand. We could theorise that some earlier creative talent was responsible for its creation and spread, but we would have to do so on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. And we would be doing so with only one purpose in mind, to get rid of Arthur, not to explain the data we are faced with.

The most likely explanation for an Arthur revered by all the British peoples is that someone of that name, or someone remembered under that name, really did exist and played the role assigned to him in British tradition. For there was a successful British resistance and, since military victories are not won by committees, someone must have led it.

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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1 O J Padel,The Nature of Arthur in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (Summer) 1994, pp 1-31 - see Thomas Green, The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur

2 particularly N J Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History

3 Richard Barber, The Figure of Arthur, p17-18

4 R H C Davis, The Normans and their Myth, p49

5 R H C Davis, The Normans and their Myth, p59