Magazine | May 20, 2013, Issue

No Aquatic Tarts?

Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, by Guy Halsall (Oxford, 384 pp., $34.95)

‘Why is it,” I once asked a friend at Oxford, “that I have to write 2,000 words per essay and you only have to write 800? After all, we do the same subject.” She bristled slightly at the suggestion. “No, we don’t, Charles. You study modern history and I study medieval history and nobody knows anything about medieval history — bugger all, in fact. There’s not much to write.”

We really do know “bugger all” about the early medieval period, and what we think we know changes all the time. Written primary sources are thin on the ground and most of the archaeological evidence is still buried under it. Nonetheless, although it is placed slap-bang in the middle of a historical wilderness, one story is burned into our collective memory: King Arthur’s. Dark Ages be damned, we have a legend and we’re sticking with it.

Guy Halsall, a professor at the University of York, has set out to address this paradox. In Worlds of Arthur, he examines not just the Arthurian myth but the entire period during which Roman Britain “fell” and an Anglo-Saxon “invasion” allegedly took its place. His work sits at the confluence of mystery and history, raising the awkward, compelling question of how much value we put on objective truth. “The study of King Arthur has been insular for too long,” Halsall complains, and it has been hijacked by profit-seeking “amateur enthusiasts” who, in thrall to Winston Churchill’s vain hope that “it is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides,” pretend to hordes of willfully gullible readers that they have unlocked the “secret” at last.

“Medieval writers and their audiences expected different things from ‘history,’” Halsall allows early on, because “medieval people did not have a category of ‘factual history’ separate from what today might be thought of as ‘historical fiction,’ ‘alternative history,’ or even ‘fantasy.’” Moral truths, he adds, were often more important to writers of the epoch than accuracy, because their works were contrived primarily to assuage contemporary concerns. Nevertheless, this does not excuse modern historians from the author’s contempt. As much as anything, his book is a polemic in favor of academic discipline. Halsall confesses to being a “romantic, Arthurian agnostic”: He wishes “that Arthur had existed” but is aware that there is “no evidence” that he did. “Poetry creates the myth,” held Jean-Paul Sartre, but “the prose writer draws its portrait.” Worlds of Arthur is very definitely written in prose.

At this point, the fable’s keener devotees might ask, “All right, killjoy, but which Arthur are you talking about?” A fair question. To be sure, the Arthur of Merlin, Guinevere, and so much Camelot flim-flam is widely conceded to be fanciful folly. (To paraphrase Monty Python, “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords” is no basis for serious history.) But what of the supposedly historical Arthur, with whom every schoolchild is familiar? What of the man who played the heroic role in fighting for civilization against the onslaught of barbarism?

Halsall has little more time for this iteration than he does for the fairy tale. Knocking it down as he goes, a touch irritably at times, he takes us patiently through the evidence. He notes that the Historia Brittonum, the first datable source to mention Arthur, was written 300 years after he supposedly existed, creating a vacuum into which existing legends were readily sucked. In the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Halsall concedes, there “could be snippets of sixth-century fact” — but “it is impossible now to disentangle them from the narrative and structure of its authors’ propaganda and from the huge dose of myth, legend, and pun with which they injected it.” Likewise, there is no reason to take the Welsh Annals “very seriously,” nor Welsh heroic poetry, which may have been full of attractive stories for a people that felt threatened but which has little to recommend it in the way of veracity. By the time Halsall is done, he has constructed a convincing case that the written sources make “depressing reading” for those who are set on believing in any Arthur who would be worth believing in. Books that claim that the written record aids their cause, the author insists, should “be rejected immediately and out of hand. Such attempts represent fiction, no more and no less.”

#page# What about archaeology, a typical refuge of the more creative Arthurian optimists? Is there anything in the record to indicate that a man named Arthur was a champion of Roman civilization against Saxon barbarism? Halsall doesn’t even accept the terminology of the question. In what is by far and away the book’s best section, “New Worlds,” we are treated to a scintillating reevaluation of the period. Halsall’s contention is that the Roman period was not as Roman as is popularly imagined, nor was the barbaric period as barbaric. Roman hegemony had all but collapsed by 435, Halsall contends, meaning that a fifth-century Arthur was unlikely to be fighting to preserve it. Moreover, the threat from outside was not as discrete as it is made out to be: The “barbarians” had adequate exposure to Roman influence and generally desired to settle within the Roman Empire, not to destroy it. And the Saxons? They, and the oft-ignored Angles and Jutes, didn’t so much “invade” as they formed Roman-blessed war bands that garrisoned areas of importance while the military went off to fight civil wars of larger imperial import. The truth is, to borrow a favored academic word, “complex.” And complexity is no friend of lore.

At one point, the author lets his frustration with his adversaries translate into open belligerence, writing: “The locations of all of these battles are unknown and unknowable. This is of supreme importance if reading modern pseudo-histories so I’ll say it again: The locations of all these battles are unknown and unknowable.”

Such combativeness is unsurprising, coming as it does from a man who made the British press when he lambasted his truant students for missing the “chance to hear (probably) the most significant historian of early medieval Europe under the age of 60 anywhere in the world give 16 lectures on his current research.” But at points, I confess, I had some sympathy with those students. Halsall is clearly a brilliant man, but when he is not fulminating against people he doesn’t like, he can be terribly dry. I suppose he can’t help it here; this book is dry because a book like this must be dry. Shakespeare, too, corrupted our national knowledge of history with the considerable poetic license that he took, and any book that endeavored to set the record straight would inevitably suffer from an inability to be even half as entertaining as that it sought to correct. Like Shakespeare’s versions of events, the Arthur myths survive because they make great stories, and great stories endure.

Pathologies endure, too. The modern resurgence of the Arthurian legend came at the height of the Victorian era, at an odd crossroads during which the success of the Industrial Revolution was felt to be costing England its Ruritanian idyll and at which the success of the Empire was causing more self-conscious elites to worry aloud about going the way of the Romans. When the British Parliament burned to the ground in 1834, the queen’s robing room in the House of Lords was decorated with Arthurian themes, instilling the new with the virtues of the old. Likewise, in the New World, Americans at the height of their post-war boom rechristened the youthful Kennedy administration as “Camelot.” The details may have changed, but neither the urge to return to the romance of nature nor Western anguish at the prospect of decline has disappeared. We remain in search of ideals toward which we might strive. Fiction remains preferable to fact.

At the end of the classic 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaperman learns a dark, potentially ruinous secret about an American hero, written evidence of which he proceeds to crumple up and throw in a fire. “You’re not going to use the story?” asks the hero. “No, sir,” the newspaperman replies. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In Worlds of Arthur, Guy Halsall is almost certainly correct: The legend becomes fact if you look at it properly. Nonetheless, this is still the West and Halsall has managed to write perhaps the only book on Arthur this year that will not be profitable. Such are the trials of academics and truth tellers. The rest of the Arthurian aficionados, meanwhile, will shake themselves off from the scolding, thank the professor for his opinion, and continue to do what they have always done: Print the legend and be damned.

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