The Use of History and Archaeology in Contemporary Arthurian Fiction

Article excerpt

From the 1970s on, the majority of writers of narrative fiction who have turned to the Arthurian legends for their novels have chosen an historical approach. These novelists used history and archaeology to reconstruct the world of King Arthur. (CAS)

In 1485 William Caxton justified his printing of Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur in large part on the basis of Arthur's historicity:

...divers men hold opinion that there was no such Arthur, and that all such books as been made of him be but feigned and fables, because that some chronicles make of him no mention....[But] him that should say or think that there was never such a king called Arthur might well be aretted great folly and blindness.1

For you can visit Arthur's sepulcher in Glastonbury Abbey, continued Caxton, see the Round Table at Winchester, and even grasp Lancelot's sword! It is debatable whether Malory himself would have cared to have Caxton describe his work as 'histories': few of the 'greats' who succeeded him-Spenser, Tennyson, William Morris, T.H. White-spent any effort anchoring their Arthurian stories in the historical soil of post-Roman Britain. Why, then, should so many of the novelists since White choose the genre of historical fiction for their Arthurian tales?

For one person to read every modern Arthurian novel, or at least those in English which made their way to trade paperback, was just doable up to about 1980; it is likely impossible now.2 Furthermore, it seems to this writer that nearly all of the contemporary Arthurian authors, from the late 1970s on, prefer the historical approach to Arthur. I think it not only pertinent to ask 'Why?' this is, but also 'How?'; that is, why and in what ways have contemporary writers of fiction used history and archaeology to reconstruct the world of King Arthur?

Novels are not the only genre in which this 'historical turn' can be glimpsed. Elizabeth Sklar points to the historical emphasis in Arthurian gaming and comics, whose creators and authors are 'eschewing glamorized medievalism for more somber settings and representation that suggest the Dark Ages [sic] time frame currently considered the "authentic" period of Arthurian legend.'3 Much the same can be said for modern Arthurian cinema.4 Gone are the Technicolor pageantry of MGM's Knights of the Round Table (1953) and the romantic sentimentality of Warner Brothers' Camelot (1967), replaced by the mud and blood reality of Excalibur (1981), King Arthur (2004), and Tristan and Isolde (2006).5 Similarly, History Channel-style documentary filmmakers play up the violence and gritty realism of the early Middle Ages with an increasing use of 'historical re-enactors' (often extras who come with their own homemade arms and armor). Lastly, it goes almost without saying that the Internet is teeming with historical Arthur theorists and enthusiasts.6 One need only browse the weekly digests of Arthurnet to see how dominant are the historical discussion threads, often outnumbering the literary nearly 10 to 1.7

Trade publishers clearly recognize this overwhelming interest in the historical Arthur. Take, for example, the following promotional material from the front matter of Jack Whyte's 1996 novel The Skystone (Tor Books), the first book of his Camulod Chronicles: 'Whyte breathes life into the Arthurian myths,' writes Tony Hillerman, 'by weaving the reality of history into them.' One could question whether Arthurian myths need life breathed into them and if history is really up to the task. 'We see the world as it was 1600 years ago,' proclaims The Ottawa Citizen, while The Edmonton Journal describes the novel as an 'historical treatise.' Does Whyte himself ascribe to such a position? In an 'Introductory Note' (extra material also includes a map of Roman Britain, a list of placenames, and an essay on the Roman army), Whyte makes the claim that 'the major historical characters' of his novel 'lived and behaved as described herein' and that, by the year 450, 'civilized life, literacy, education and Christianity were stamped out and the Dark Ages settled on Britain. …

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