Monday, June 1, 2020

The Search for the Elusive Arthur

By Tim Walker

It was never my intention to write a version of the King Arthur story. It is a well-trodden path, and what could I possibly add that would be well received?

But I had read Thompson and Giles’s translation of the parts of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 work, The History of the Kings of Britain, that related to events in the fifth century, and found it a fantastical and captivating read. Geoffrey’s work gives us the first full telling of the stories of Uther Pendragon and his son, Arthur. More than that, he gives a timeline of post-Roman kings of Britain, plugging the gap in our empty history between the end of Roman rule and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – a period of about 200 years. But how reliable is his ‘history’?

The boy Arthur and the sword in the stone

Geoffrey claimed to have been working from a ‘text written in a native tongue’, but no evidence has been found by historians of such a document. Because they can’t verify it, they doubt it ever existed, and have tarnished Geoffrey’s work with the claim that it is a work of fiction – made up to please his Norman sponsor and to appeal to his readership.

More recently, other historians, including Miles Russell (Arthur and the Kings of Britain, 2018), have tried to understand Geoffrey’s approach, and have demonstrated that he did compile and work from a wide range of source material – it’s just that he exercised a certain amount of creativity in plugging gaps in his narrative, and appears to have deliberately moved historical characters and their deeds around in a Middle Ages cut-and-paste job. Russell believes he didn’t invent Uther and Arthur - they are real figures plucked from Welsh chronicles and mentions from literary monks such as Nennius, who credits twelve winning battles to Arthur. Uther Pen-Dragon (‘the head dragon’) is thought to be a king of Gwynedd in North Wales – perhaps a son or relative of the mighty Cunedda who was sent there in the mid-fifth century by King Vortigern to rid Wales of Irish settlers.

Ever since eminent academic, John Morris, in his epic work, The Age of Arthur (1972), announced his belief that Arthur was a real historical figure, the search for evidence has been taken on by others. Morris states: “The personality of Arthur is unknown… But he was as real as Alfred the Great or William the Conqueror; and his impact upon future ages mattered as much, or more so. Enough evidence survives from the hundred years after his death to show that reality was remembered for three generations, before legend engulfed his memory.”

The eminent archaeologist, Leslie Alcock, in Arthur’s Britain (revised,1989) states in the preface: “This book is about the Arthur of history, and about the Britain in which he lived. It will demonstrate that there is acceptable historical evidence that Arthur was a genuine historical figure, not a mere figment of myth or romance.” These two works have given credibility to the search for evidence of Arthur’s existence, and it can only be hoped that more tangible evidence is forthcoming over time.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that a noble prince, Constantine came from Armorica (Brittany in northwest France) and was accepted by a council of tribal kings to be their overlord. He ruled for ten years before being assassinated on the orders of disgruntled noble, Vortigern. Vortigern ruled for perhaps as long as twenty years, covering the middle years of the fifth century, and he is mentioned by a number of sources, including Gildas, who wrote an account of those times around the year 540. He is also named in the Welsh Annales – a record of dates and events.

Depiction of Arthur's 'final battle'

Despite some historians believing that ‘Vortigern’ is a title, meaning ‘high king’, it is widely believed that it relates to one individual. Who was Vortigern and what was his real name? Graham Phillips in The Lost Tomb of King Arthur (2016) has trawled through museums and libraries looking for records of tribal kings in western Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, and has come up with his own theory. He argues that ‘Vortigern’ may have been the chief or king of Powys in mid-Wales, and that his regional rival was Aurelius, who came from a family of former Roman elite nobles who were rulers of the Dobunni tribe based at modern day Gloucester.

Aurelius defeats Vortigern in battle to become high king of the Britons, possibly at the Battle of Gulloph in Hampshire around the year 460, taking the title ‘Ambrosius’ (the divine one). There are enough mentions of both Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus, and mentions of their battles, to cement them as historical figures who straddle mid to late fifth century Britain; therefore, Geoffrey of Monmouth is on safe grounds including them in his ‘history’. Graham Phillips talks about the descendants of Cunedda ruling over the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys, and therefore Uther, Vortigern and Ambrosius could all be related through marriage as members of the ruling elite of that region. Could an alliance have enabled Aurelius and Uther to defeat Vortigern?

Geoffrey tells us that Ambrosius’s brother was Uther Pendragon, and that he succeeded Ambrosius following his poisoning by a Saxon spy. Could the Briton noble, Uther, have been related to the Roman-named Aurelius through a family marriage alliance, and therefore become his ‘brother’? Uther’s story is one of a powerful warrior king who fights the advancing Saxons, and falls for the charms of the beautiful wife of one of his nobles, the lady Ygerne. Uther is so besotted with her that he instructs his adviser/healer/sorcerer Merlin to find a way for him to have her. Merlin arranges it, but asks that if their union results in the birth of a boy, that he must have the child. And so, the deed is done, and Uther marries Ygerne after her husband is killed in the ensuing civil war. Merlin takes the child – Arthur – and places him with a foster family to raise in secret. When Arthur comes of age, he accidentally pulls the sword from the stone (following Uther’s death), and is then exposed by Merlin as the one true son of Uther and rightful heir.

Much of this narrative, including Graham Phillip’s connections with West England and Mid-Wales, and the possible locations of Nennius’s twelve battles of Arthur, have been incorporated into my storytelling, as I have attempted to breathe life into these fascinating and only dimly-glimpsed characters in my book series.

~~~~~~~~~~

Tim Walker is an independent author living near Windsor in the UK. He worked in the newspaper publishing industry for ten years before relocating to Zambia where, following a period of voluntary work with VSO, he set up his own marketing and publishing business.

His new book, published in June 2020, is Arthur, Rex Brittonum, a re-imagining of the story of King Arthur (book five in the series). It follows on from 2019’s Arthur Dux Bellorum, the story of young Arthur (book four in the series), that received recognition from two sources in 2019 - One Stop Fiction Book of the Month in April, and an honourable mention in the Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year (Historical Fiction) Awards. The series starts with Abandoned; followed by Ambrosius: Last of the Romans (2017); and book three, Uther's Destiny (2018). 

Find out more about the author at - http://www.timwalkerwrites.co.uk 

2 comments:

  1. It is a time of a poor supply of written records. Arthur may have been one person or an amalgam of several. Ultimately, it may not matter which. It gives people room to explore a timeless space and nobody can say they are incorrect.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "It was never my intention to write a version of the King Arthur story. "

    Funny how that happens. Some stories insist on being written.

    ReplyDelete

Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.