Academic journal article Medium Aevum

King Arthur: Myth-Making and History

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

King Arthur: Myth-Making and History

Article excerpt

N.J. Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History (London: Routledge, 2002). xi + 303 pp. ISBN 0-415-21305-3. £25.00.

When new books on Arthur range from improbable biographies to banal fictions, N. J. Higham's scholarly and intelligent study of the early materials associated with Arthur is highly welcome. Reporting and evaluating the substantial research of recent years, both in early textual studies and at what he calls 'the ragged interface of history and archaeology', and operating essentially as a historiographer, Higham identifies in detail and with clarity the variety and the varying functions of the figures of Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Higham is no Arthur-idolater liable to go misty-eyed about the end of Roman Britain like too many other Arthurian analysts: his focus is On the idea of King Arthur and its shifting utility'. He extends historiography in his final chapter, exploring lucidly the medieval uses of the incursive king, and examines fairly briskly though also pointedly twentieth-century attitudes to the historical Arthur and his replacement of Alfred as a less Germanic national myth in the first chapter - which seems as a result rather oddly placed. In between, different in mode but not unrelated in direction, are three long and closely worked chapters assessing the early texts, Gildas and Bede, the Historia Brittonum, the so-called Cambrian Annals. Major points to emerge are the localized and purposive nature of the texts - the positions of Gildas and Bede are fairly well known but new detail is provided; Higham casts good light on the relation of the Historia to Merfyn Frych's mid-ninth-century Gwynedd, both anti-Saxon and anti-Powys; then he outlines the less clear but insistent anti-Gwynedd thrust of the Dyfed-based Annals. He permits no independence to the Annals in its discussion of Arthur's battles, and is also sceptical about the Chadwicks' idea that the Hisloria battle-list was derived from a Welsh heroic poem.

With regard to the notional historical Arthur, Higham remains agnostic. Dismissive of 'Riothamus', he admits Ambrosius Aurelianus 'remains a plausible candidate', but seems, without any strong reasons, to have a little more belief in the second-century Lucius Artorius Castus as a name that collided with a later need for a hero and, it seems, with an existing folkloric hero, traceable in the Historia 'Marvels' and elsewhere in early Welsh tradition. …

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