The English think of Arthur as their own. His name has been borne by their princes down the ages – all too often an ill-omened cradle-gift. It is written across the map from Edinburgh to Tintagel, Caerleon to Camboglanna, and in a dozen places where the Hope of the British lies sleeping until the hour of national need – but on no authentic gravestone anywhere. Fifteen centuries of celebration in myth, legend, chronicle, epic, romance, drama, opera and film have engraved it upon the national consciousness as if England and Arthur were one, a secular St George emblematic of nationhood.
Yet the myth and legend belong to another culture which struggled for centuries to protect its national identity from the encroaching hegemony of the English. And in the vernacular literature of that culture Arthur figures merely as a charismatic folk-hero, leading a rumbustious brotherhood in casual adventures ranging across the Celtic west – no hint of a national cause or a dynastic destiny. Only in the Latin chronicles of the Celts can be detected the shadowy outline of a military career, battles against Saxon foes widely scattered across the map, a death made mysterious by hints of internecine conflict – all vague and fragmentary. But enough to halfconvince respectable historians of the existence, once long ago, of a great national champion, without apparent consideration of ethnic identity.
From an early twelfth-century perspective the wish was perhaps father to the thought: a hybrid society of many races – Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian, Danish, Norman, Breton – in search of an identity needed a sense of dynastic continuity from an honourable antiquity, however improbable. With all the ornaments of history, but in the spirit of romance, Geoffrey of Monmouth supplied what was needed. Once he had placed Arthur at the apogee of his two-thousand-year arc of British history, and his book had swept Europe, the identity of man and island was fixed for all time.
There are signs that the age was ripe for the association: even before Geoffrey's Historia appeared, other historians had – reluctantly, dubiously – extrapolated from the missing grave the possibility of survival and return, already an article of faith with lesser men, as the doubting canons of Laon, mobbed at Bodmin in 1113, found to their cost. Local tradition and popular conviction extended and vivified what the Historia had made authentic and coherent. Each of the island races added its own gloss. Geoffrey's politic silence on Arthur's fate prompted Wace's discreet acknowledgement of the . . .