Sign Posts: King Arthur

Article excerpt

Forty years ago both scholarly histories and historical novels had a common view of Arthur: as a historical warrior, whose leadership enabled his people, the native inhabitants of post-Roman Britain, to halt the advancing tide of Anglo-Saxon conquest for about half a century. Nobody was exactly sure when this was, because it had been in the obscure period between 410 and 550, which has left almost no contemporary documents. Nonetheless, there was general agreement that Arthur had flourished somewhere in that time and had been the greatest British personality in it, establishing a fame which laid the basis for the later, more romantic and fantastic, medieval Arthurian legend.

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This happy consensus had mostly been produced by the new discipline of archaeology, which had excavated some of the main sites associated with Arthur in that later and fully-developed legend, such as his birthplace at Tintagel and Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which local tradition held had been his court of Camelot. in each case, amid great publicity, spectacular remains had been found of occupation by wealthy people at just the right period. For many, this was enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the legend was rooted in historical truth and books such as Geoffrey Ashe's The Quest for Arthur's Britain (Pall Mall, 1968) and Leslie Alcock's Arthur's Britain (Allen Lane, 1971) carried this message to a wide readership. It was taken up by historians, who now felt encouraged to reconstruct a story for the years around 500 by combining the meagre early medieval sources with a wealth of much more dubious data from later periods; this approach was epitomised by John Morris's fat, exciting book, The Age of Arthur (Weidenfeld, 1973). The interest stirred up by scholars resulted in a flood of historical fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Most was produced by Englishmen, though Englishwomen such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart were among the most prominent authors. All treated Arthur as a historical character in a post-Roman setting, with realistic British landscapes and careful use of historical and archaeological data.

The reason for this virtual unanimity was that the Arthur it portrayed was so useful. With the loss of Britain's Empire and its status as a great power, there was a real possibility that the cement was being taken out of the United Kingdom. It needed a new common past to which to appeal and the 'age of Arthur' promised not only a glorious one but a hitching of mainstream British identity to the kinder, greener one of the Celts. In addition, Arthur could become the ideal countercultural monarch. Usually portrayed on the book covers of the time as a long-haired guy with trailing moustaches and designer jewellery, he could easily be transplanted to a motorbike or a rock festival. To those who mourned the loss of imperial Britain he could be viewed as the last defender of Roman civilisation; to those who identified with revolutionaries, he was a resistance-leader against English aggression. …