The Traveller's Guide to ARTHURIAN BRITAIN
A guide to the history and fantasy, poetry and romance,
A "biography" and its setting
Monmouth, Geoffrey's presumed birthplace, is on the south-east fringe of Wales. His family background is unknown, but he was familiar with Welsh traditions, and interested in the Celtic Britons from whom the Welsh were descended. A cleric, and probably a teacher, he was at Oxford from 1129 to 1151. In the late 1130s he produced a Latin History of the Kings of Britain covering a stretch of time not far short of two thousand years. It makes out that wandering Trojans founded a monarchy in the island then called Albion and re-named it Britain. Geoffrey runs through a long series of British kings including Shakespeare's King Lear, nearly all of them fictitious. When he gets to the Roman conquest, and thus to recorded history, he has to be a little more factual. But he claims that it wasn't a true conquest, and British kings went on reigning as tributary rulers.
Britain, in his narrative, breaks away from the Roman Empire, and here he begins building up to an Arthurian climax. He tells us that a sinister British noble, Vortigern, made himself king, and two rightful princes went into exile. The usurper had trouble with the Picts in the north, and invited some Saxons, led by Hengist, to cross over from the Continent and settle in Britain as auxiliary troops. More Saxons flooded into the country and got out of control, seizing land for themselves and spreading chaos through Britain. Vortigern fled to Wales, where he encountered Merlin, who prophesied his doom and the advent of a deliverer. The princes returned, Vortigern was killed, and the Saxons were partially contained, though still turbulent and aggressive.
The elder prince, Aurelius Ambrosius, reigned for a short time. His brother Uther succeeded him. At a banquet in London Uther was seized with ungovernable desire for Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. Gorlois withdrew from the court taking her with him. Uther considered himself insulted and led an army into Cornwall to ravage the ducal lands. Gorlois left Ygerna for safety in a fortress out on the headland of Tintagel, accessible only along a narrow ridge, and marched off to oppose the king. He was outwitted. Merlin gave Uther a magic potion that turned him into an exact replica of Gorlois, and in that effective disguise he entered Tintagel past its guards and found his way to Ygerna, who, thinking him to be her husband, made no difficulties. She conceived Arthur. The real Gorlois had just fallen in battle, so Uther resumed his own shape and made Ygerna his queen.
Uther was poisoned by a Saxon, and Arthur became king while still in his teens. He soon showed gifts of leadership, and launched a series of campaigns, routing and dispersing the Saxons and subduing the Picts and Scots. He had a special sword called Caliburn, forged in the Isle of Avalon. He married Guinevere and made himself popular with his subjects. Next he conquered Ireland, and then Iceland (which would not have been difficult, because in those days Iceland was uninhabited). Twelve years of peace and prosperity ensued. Arthur founded an order of knighthood enrolling distinguished men from various lands. Britain was fast becoming pre-eminent in Europe. This was the time, or at least the beginning of the time, when the adventures related in romance were said to have happened.
The Roman Empire still had a shaky hold on Gaul, now France. Arthur had designs on the Empire himself. He won over many Gauls to his side, crossed the Channel with an army, and took possession. Around this part of the story we are beginning to get familiar names in the royal entourage – Gawain, Bedivere, Kay. Some years later Arthur was holding court at Caerleon in Wales when envoys arrived from Rome demanding that he restore his conquests and pay tribute, as earlier British kings had done. Judging attack to be the best defence, Arthur led another army to Gaul, leaving his nephew Modred at home as his deputy, in joint charge with Guinevere. While he was away Modred proclaimed himself king, conspired with the Saxons, and persuaded the queen to live in adultery with him. Arthur, who had got as far as Burgundian territory, was forced to return. He defeated and killed the traitor in a battle by the River Camel in Cornwall, but was seriously wounded himself and "carried off to the Isle of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to", handing over the crown to a cousin. It is not stated that he died. Geoffrey knew of a folk-belief that he was still alive, and left the door open for it, but did not commit himself.
As to the time when all this is supposed to have happened, an important clue is that western Europe still has a Roman ruler. Since there were no emperors in the west after 476, Arthur's continental exploits must be before that. Allusions to a real emperor Leo, who ruled in the east from 457 to 474, narrow the range. This context for Arthur is in harmony with his family relationships. Unfortunately Geoffrey's readers are also given something rare in his History, an exact date, and it doesn't fit. Arthur's passing is assigned to the year 542. Its total incompatibility is one of several reasons for thinking it an error, and it can in fact be brought into line as an error of a known medieval kind, which we need not go into. If we dismiss it and take everything else together, we see a fairly coherent picture of a reign lasting twenty-five to thirty years, largely in the 450s and 460s.
So again, where did Geoffrey get this from? Did he get it from anywhere? Or was the entire Legend born in his imagination?
We need to understand how he works. In the previous part of his History dealing with the Roman period, where there is solid information, we can compare. First, he is not really writing history and he can never be trusted for facts. What he says about Julius Caesar and others is a travesty of the truth. Secondly, however, it is a travesty of a truth which is on record, and which he does to some extent know. He habitually uses history, or what he would like to think is history, to evolve his fiction. Except in the early chapters on mythical Britons in an impenetrable past, he doesn't contrive major episodes out of nothing at all. He draws his inspiration from real events or established stories or names or monuments; always from something. With his biography of Arthur, we can be sure that he has some basis for it ... or thinks he has.
As far as the hero's setting is concerned, he has. Post-Roman Britain is very poorly documented, but we can allow that his story shows knowledge of things that actually happened. Archaeology, while not supplying all the support we could wish, does supply some.
Most of Britain was under Roman rule for well over three hundred years. Its people were British Celts, ancestors of the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons; there were no English as yet. The upper classes received a veneer of imperial civilization and, in course of time, Christianity. As the Empire weakened in the west, under pressure from barbarians, the island on the fringe was exposed and hard to defend. Britain was beset by Irish, Picts and Saxons.
About 410, political upheavals cut if off from the centre and it broke away. The emperor authorized the Britons to look after themselves.
The administration carried on for a while, but regional chiefs were rising in importance, and one of them seems to have attained paramountcy over a good deal of the country. This was the Vortigern whom Geoffrey medievalizes as a crafty usurper. He played a leading part in a policy on imperial lines, providing a group of barbarians with land and supplies in return for keeping order and driving off other barbarians. Saxons, Angles and Jutes, ancestors of the English, were settled in Britain on this basis to contain the Picts. Here again, in the tale of Vortigern and Hengist, Geoffrey romanticizes facts. More settlers arrived without permission. Somewhere in the 440s the reinforced Saxons allied themselves with the Picts they were supposed to contain and began raiding far and wide, right across to the western sea. This phase of revolt probably dragged on into the 450s, a side-effect being a flight of Britons across the Channel, laying the foundations of Brittany.
At last the raiders withdrew into their authorized enclaves. The sequel was without parallel anywhere else. Alone among Roman ex-provincials, the Britons had become independent before the barbarians moved in. Now, alone among Roman ex-provincials, they cared enough to fight back. A noble, Ambrosius Aurelianus, organized counteraction. His name shows that his family was still Roman in its traditions and sympathies. To-and-fro warfare followed, and Saxon incursions at new points. Britain probably had long spells of partial and even general peace, but fighting in the 490s culminated in a British success at "Mount Badon", unidentified, though almost certainly in the south. For a while the situation was stabilized. A brief Celtic resurgence was marked by activity in the Church and swift growth of the colonies that were forming Brittany. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons took over most of the country and made it England – Angle-land – but the Britons' descendants held out in Wales and elsewhere, handing down songs and stories about the phase of independence.
Gildas, a monk writing in the 530s or thereabouts, testifies to the main post-Roman course of events. He is a sermonizer, not a historian. He makes terrible mistakes, and the only Briton whom he names between the break with Rome and his own time – a stretch of well over a century – is Ambrosius. Nevertheless he is an early witness for the Saxon disaster, the partial recovery, and the battle of Badon.
Geoffrey, in his corresponding chapters, is giving his own treatment to these happenings. He knows of Vortigern and he knows of Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom he turns into King Aurelius Ambrosius. Since he did have some awareness of this near-anonymous turmoil, we can reasonably ask whether he found a real Arthur in it – not, of course, the King Arthur of the Legend, but some Briton whom he built up into his towering monarch.
If we could trust his preface the answer would be "yes". He claims that he translated the History from "a certain very ancient book in the British language" given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. The British language could be either Welsh or Breton. Geoffrey and Walter were acquainted. Moreover, Geoffrey makes one specific statement about the book's contents, that it gave him information on Arthur's downfall: hence, presumably, on his reign. What he says about the book is, alas, incredible. He is simply trying to make his inventions more respectable by alleging an older source for them. Other medieval authors do much the same. Still, the touch about Arthur's downfall is an extra. Geoffrey may have had some Welsh or Breton text, now lost, that told of him.
While "may have" is not an argument, an original Arthur would at least fit into the sequence of events, as a leader during the phase of British recovery. There is a curious piece of evidence for him. His name is a Welsh form of the Roman "Artorius". It suggests someone from a family like Ambrosius's, still not remote from the imperial world. It doesn't suggest a Celtic god or fairy-tale paladin. Such a being would hardly have had a Roman name. The name is actually on record in Roman Britain, proof that it was known. Lucius Artorius Castus took a legion across the Channel in 184 to suppress a rebellion. He is much too early to be the original, and the notion of his having descendants or namesakes is a pure guess. But after a long gap with no other men so called, we begin to find several in the sixth century, up and down Britain, even in Scotland. It looks as if some saga had elevated a post-Roman Briton into a national hero.
We may be closing in on him. Failing the ancient book, what can we say Geoffrey of Monmouth knew that gave him inklings of such a person?
Arthur in Wales
Before his time, Welsh bards, story-tellers and clerics had generated a varied body of literature – much more, written and oral, than survives today. Arthur occurs in several connections. Poems extolled him as proverbial for prowess in war, and one said there was a mystery about his grave, though it stopped short of saying he was immortal and never had one. Other poems gave him a train of followers, some decidedly larger than life and credited with slaying monsters as well as enemies. Popular tales abounded. Most of them are lost, and we must infer their contents from tantalizing summaries grouped in threes, called triads. Early triads mention Arthur quite often, attesting his fame, but they are not much help as background for Geoffrey's narrative. From that point of view the only interesting ones are a few that refer to a sort of feud between Arthur and "Medrawd", and to a fatal battle at Camlan. There are hints here for Modred's turning against Arthur, though not for the circumstances, and for the final clash by the River Camel.
A single pre-Geoffrey tale has survived complete, composed in its present form late in the tenth century. Culhwch and Olwen ("Culhwch" is pronounced Kil-hooch, with the ch as in "loch") is colourful and extravagant and savage and comic. Arthur is the chief prince of Britain with a court assembling most of the men and women of note in Welsh tradition, as well as many mythical figures. Pre-Christian Celtic beliefs make their presence felt. One was that there are "Otherworld" regions – places not in our world yet somehow in contact with it – which are abodes of spirits and fairy-folk. An Otherworld ruler, Gwyn, is among the characters. Arthur and his company have fantastic adventures. They hunt a colossal boar, Twrch Trwyth, who is really a wicked king under a spell. This boar-hunt has left its mark on local lore. Apart from its literary merits, Culhwch and Olwen is a storehouse of information on Welsh legend. However, it is hard to trace any use of it by Geoffrey. He may have got the idea of Arthur's court from it, but the court he portrays is very different.
Finally, several Latin "Lives" of Welsh saints include anecdotes of Arthur. They are rather hostile, and inconsistent, making him sometimes king of Britain and sometimes a war-lord or "tyrant". A recurring motif is the saints' superiority, shown when their supernatural powers make him repent of his misdeeds.
From this Welsh matter, Geoffrey picked up some notions, and he picked up some characters – Merlin (originally Myrddin), Guinevere, Kay, Bedivere, Modred. However, none of it adds up to a real source for his Arthur story or any large part of it. Fabulous adventures, as in Culhwch and Olwen, don't disprove Arthur's reality. Fabulous adventures were ascribed to Alexander the Great and other real people. But we are certainly a long way from history.
Just two Welsh items – Latin items from Wales – are on a different footing. A tenth-century chronicle, the Annales Cambriae or Annals of Wales, has a couple of Arthur entries. It notes the victory of Badon, noted long before in Gildas's tract, and assigns Arthur a major role in it, saying he "carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ" – probably meaning an emblem, or one of the reputed fragments of the True Cross that were treasured as relics. Arthur is a Christian champion here against the heathen Saxons, as he is not in the Saints' Lives. The Annals also note "the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell". While Medraut is Medrawd or Modred, the chronicler does not say that he was a traitor or even that the two were opposed. Attempts have been made to argue that the Camlann entry was posted from a more trustworthy chronicle nearer to Arthur's time, but there is no sound reason to think so.
Delving back farther, we come to a book written early in the ninth century, the Historia Brittonum or History of the Britons. It is attributed to a monk named Nennius, perhaps wrongly, but it is convenient to say "Nennius" to mean the author. The book is a medley of Welsh legend, just-possible history, and fantasy. It includes two local legends bringing in Arthur. If we stick to the parts that may have some relation to fact, we find an account of Vortigern, his opening the door to the Saxons, and the consequent catastrophe. There is also an account of his meeting a mysterious boy-prophet in Snowdonia, named Ambrose, with discouraging results for himself.
Nennius has a chapter on Arthur. Dropping out of the blue without much preamble, it consists of a rapid survey of twelve battles which he is said to have won against the Saxons. It may be based on an older Welsh poem in his praise, though no such poem exists now. Nennius is unclear as to his status. He makes him the British warleader, dux bellorum, co-ordinating the efforts of Britain's "kings" or regional rulers. This chapter was used briefly before Geoffrey by two non-Welsh historians, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. William infers that Arthur was a great, charismatic warrior in Ambrosius's service, not a king himself; Henry, that he was "the leader of the soldiers and kings of Britain". Both might have been the case at different stages of his career. Arthur is a Christian champion here too, carrying a holy image.
Nennius mentions Mount Badon, credited to Arthur as in the Annals, and presented as the climactic twelfth battle. The others build up to it, identified by puzzling place-names. The most comprehensible are in different parts of Lincolnshire, in the "Forest of Celidon", and in "the City of the Legion". The Forest of Celidon was in southern Scotland. Another passage shows that for Nennius the City of the Legion was Chester. All these battles, seven out of the twelve, would fit best into a mid-fifth-century setting. The Lincolnshire battles would have been against Angles encroaching up the Wash and Humber. There were no Saxons in Scotland till long afterwards, but during the anarchic phase of revolt and cross-country raiding they had Pictish allies who might have provoked reprisals. Chester, too far west for relevant war later in the century, could be allotted to the same phase, as the target of a cross-country raid.
Geoffrey makes use of these two texts. He improves Nennius's account of Vortigern, the Saxons, and the young prophet, though he makes out that the prophet was the youthful Merlin, thus introducing his second most famous character. He adapts some of the battles. He turns Medraut into Arthur's nephew Modred, deputy-ruler and traitor. He has Arthur fall at Camlann, revised and interpreted as the Camel. So parts at least of his Arthur story draw on earlier matter and are not total fantasy. His habitual practice is confirmed. However, if we are looking for real history, and particularly if we are looking for a real Arthur, the earlier matter is not early enough. It is written closer to the events, if any, but still centuries after them. And it already has touches of legend that cast doubt on it. At Badon, Nennius assures us, Arthur killed 960 of the enemy himself in a single charge. Heroes' deeds get exaggerated over the years, but not to this extent in contemporary reports. Because the Welsh present Arthur in such different guises – as a feuding chief, as a protagonist in impossible exploits, as a foil for the saints, as Britain's war-leader – sceptics have urged that he is too inconsistent to be true. Not so. The best parallel here is not Alexander but a more recent person, the American folk-hero Davy Crockett, given juvenile cult status by Disney during the 1950s. Born in Tennessee in 1786, he hunted in wild country and fought Indians, then went into politics, entering Congress in Washington as a picturesque backwoodsman. In 1836 he joined the Texan volunteers defending the Alamo against a Mexican army, and died there. In his political campaigning he had made his mark by telling tall tales from the frontier and encouraging supporters to embroider his own life-story in the same spirit. After 1836 legends clustered around him. Within a year or two he was alleged to have killed 85 Mexicans during the siege – not 960, admittedly, but the time for exaggeration was shorter. He was rumoured to be still alive. Yarn-spinners took up his tall-tale aspect in print, going beyond anything in Culhwch and Olwen. Their fictitious Davy rode on the lightning, climbed Niagara on the back of an alligator, greased the earth's axis to set it spinning again in a freeze-up. An American historian once complained that Crockett's biography could not be written because there were half a dozen of him. Yet he existed, and he shows that Arthur's inflation and diversification don't disprove his own existence.
To revert to Nennius, he need not be rejected as dis credited. He may be giving us facts, and so may the Annals. Some at least of the battles may be authentic; Gildas's tract is a much older testimony to Badon. But if we do try to treat this matter as history, we face an immediate problem. It makes Arthur's life-span absurd. The most acceptable battles, before Badon, only make good sense in the middle of the fifth century. Badon itself occurred not far from the year 500, probably a little before. So we would deduce from what Gildas says ... but the Annals contradict him, putting Badon in 518. They put Camlann in 539. To cover all the data Arthur would have to be an active warrior when over a hundred years old.
If these texts gave a chronological fix – a statement calibrating him with known history – we might be able to pin him down somewhere in the time-range, and then find explanations for whatever won't fit. The Welsh matter never gives such a fix. It never says Arthur was born when X was emperor, or died when Y was pope. Historically he hangs in a void.
All is not lost, however. We have one more resource, Geoffrey's account of the Gallic warfare, and it is far from negligible. It takes up half his Arthur story. Assessed by allocation of space, his Arthur is more a continental campaigner than anything else. He thinks this part of the king's career is very important. Romancers after him do not go so far, but their Arthur often has a continental domain. Modern readers and novelists are not sympathetic. After all, contemporaries across the Channel don't seem to have noticed any major British invasions. Yet if we dismiss this part of the story as imaginary, we must assume that Geoffrey is fabricating half of Arthur's career out of nothing at all. It is not his style. There has to be something, and since Welsh tradition has no trace of it, it must be elsewhere.
Furthermore, in his Gallic chapters he supplies what the Welsh never do, a chronological fix – the only one Arthur ever gets. The Gallic campaigns happen in the reign of the aforesaid Leo, emperor in the east from 457 to 474. Clues from other names tie down the final campaign much more closely, to a couple of years, 469 – 70. Geoffrey's indications of date are not often so precise. When writing of the final campaign he is thinking of something relevant which happened about then.
Something did. We are touching bedrock at last. In 467 Leo appointed a colleague, Anthemius, to take charge in the west. Anthemius tried to retrieve the situation in Gaul, much of it overrun by an assortment of barbarians. He negotiated an alliance with a man described as "the King of the Britons", who crossed to Gaul with 12,000 troops. Historians have underrated him in the belief that he was only a chief of Bretons, but that opinion no longer holds. He did come over from Britain. One historian, James Campbell, suggests that he had authority on both sides of the Channel.
After a pause north of the Loire, when he may have aided British settlers against marauding Saxons, he marched into central Gaul to oppose the Visigoths who were advancing from Spain. But Arvandus, the imperial governor, had been acting treacherously, proposing to the Visigoths that they should crush the Britons and share out Gaul with the Burgundians, who held parts of the east and south. Though Arvandus was detected, the Visigoths pushed ahead to Bourges, which the "King of the Britons" had occupied. After fierce fighting he retreated into Burgundian territory, probably in 470. No more is said about him.
Here we have raw materials for Geoffrey's story. The "King of the Britons" was in Gaul with his sea-borne army at the right time. He advanced to the Burgundian neighbourhood. He was betrayed by a deputy-ruler who conspired with barbarians. When we last see him he is even moving in the direction of a real town called Avallon (still there). Geoffrey's Latin form of that place-name doesn't correspond to its Welsh original and may well have been influenced by the town in Gaul.
Several authors have noticed this king and wondered if he was Arthur. The drawback is that he is referred to, with slight variations, as Riothamus. The h is due to scribes copying manuscripts with notions of their own about spelling. The correct form would have been Riotamus. Anyhow Geoffrey almost certainly has him in mind when relating Arthur's continental adventures. He inflates wildly, he changes the politics, he invents British successes – things he does in other parts of the History. But here, at last, the trail leads back to someone living at the right time who could be the original. Riotamus is the only documented person who does anything Arthurian, and he really is documented. We even have a letter to him.
The natural objection is, "Yes, but Geoffrey just took a hint from what this man did and made out that Arthur did it, or an exaggerated version of it. That needn't mean he thought Riotamus was Arthur. After all, the name is wrong." That fails to settle the question. Other people did think Riotamus was Arthur. A Breton, probably before Geoffrey and certainly not copying him, introduces a legend of a saint with a preface reviewing events in the fifth century, and sketches the activities of "Arthur, King of the Britons" (the same title) in terms that fit Riotamus. Half a dozen chroniclers, later than Geoffrey but still not copying him, concur to give Arthur a reign running from about 454 to 470, the year when Riotamus drops out of the record. Apparently they see the two as the same, and very likely they draw on somebody earlier who took that view. One other chronicle has an intriguing touch. It calls Arthur's betrayer Morvandus, which looks like a mix-up of "Mordred", the more literary form of the traitor's name, with "Arvandus", the name of Riotamus's actual betrayer.
As it seems that these authors equated Arthur with Riotamus, Geoffrey is probably doing likewise. The identification means that there has to be a solution of the name difficulty. Otherwise it could never have happened. It could be that Riotamus simply had two names, as some Britons did, that the other name was Arthur or rather Artorius, and that he passed into tradition under that one. A less conjectural notion would follow from the meaning of "Riotamus". It is a Latin version of a term in the British language, Rigotamos, "supreme king" or "supremely royal". It may have been a sobriquet, even a title, bestowed on a man after he rose to prominence, and used in addressing him or referring to him. He could have been Arthur.
That is to assume that "Arthur" came first and "Riotamus" was additional. It might have been the other way round, with "Riotamus" as the king's original style: more likely perhaps, since it appears later in Welsh adaptations as a proper name. As noted, a previous Arthur, Lucius Artorius Castus, took an army across the Channel. A leader taking another army across the Channel might have been hailed by some knowledgeable poet as a "second Artorius". And there is a last possibility, which is odd yet worth mentioning. If "Riotamus" was the king's original name, "Artorius" could have been a sort of nickname derived from it. ARTORIUS is almost an anagram of RIOTAMUS, and could have been suggested by a reading of the letters on (say) a medallion. RIOTAMUS, plus an r for rex, king, can be arranged quite neatly to give that result.
RIOTAMUS reads clockwise, omitting the R, which is slightly nearer the centre. The reading counter-clockwise, starting from A and bringing the R in, spells ARTORIUS. The M is left out, but it doesn't break the sequence of letters. Frivolous? Maybe. Still it is interesting that this can be done at all.
Nothing is on record concerning Riotamus, as such, back in Britain before he went overseas. However, he was important enough for word of him to reach Rome through the tumult of western Europe, and cause an emperor to seek his alliance. "King of the Britons" looks like an excessive title, but he was king of some of them and probably a good many, since he could raise a substantial army and assemble a fleet to carry it. His cross-Channel contact suggests that he ruled in the West Country, Arthurian territory, and he could just about have initiated the biggest "Arthurian" project revealed by archaeology, the refortification of Cadbury Castle, reputedly Camelot. If he was involved in the anti-Saxon resistance, all of Nennius's locatable battles could find a place in his timeframe. By the date of his overseas expedition, Saxon pressure had presumably eased.
We have a provisional answer to the question "Did Arthur exist?" though not the impossible yes-or-no. Arthur is almost entirely legend, at one level or another, but he has a real original, and that original may well have been the King of the Britons who went to Gaul. There is no firm evidence for any rival "real Arthur". Yet when we study these beginnings, we face legend-making in Britain as far back as we can get, even apart from the slaughter of 960 Saxons. No single leader is likely to have done everything Arthur is supposed to have done, fighting all the battles and falling at Camlann, especially if the Annals are right in putting Camlann in the sixth century. The Riotamus candidacy works well in the early part of the time-range. It gives an answer, if any is needed, to a cavil sometimes heard – that Arthur's name doesn't appear in Gildas. If he lived that much earlier, beyond living memory, no reader who has struggled with Gildas will be surprised that it doesn't. However, the candidacy runs into trouble later. If we forget all the medieval growth, Arthur still has to be a composite figure. The same could be said of Merlin, who presents difficulties of much the same kind.
In Riotamus we may have an authentic glimpse, a moment in continental limelight. But when he or some unknown became a British hero, under the great name, the saga absorbed the exploits of others, possibly others called Arthur. A Welsh poem indicates that a war-band known as "Arthur's Men" may have continued in being after his death, perhaps long after. If so, bardic praises of Arthur's Men, on dimly-recalled occasions, might have inspired legends of their founder's presence in person when he was long since dead. In discussing places associated with Arthur, we must sometimes content ourselves with meaning "the man who is said to have done such-and-such at this place", with no commitment as to identity. The mystery, in the end, abides.
The Anglo-Normans who ruled England in Geoffrey's time were receptive to his History, partly, no doubt, because it put the "Saxons" whom they had conquered in a poor light. Their successors ruled a large part of France as well, and were glad to have their parvenu empire given proud antecedents. In 1155 a poet named Wace, from Jersey, produced a free paraphrase of the History in French verse that made it more accessible. It was giving shape and coherence to a process which Wace noticed, the spread of other Arthurian matter. The saga which had grown up in Wales, and in Cornwall and Brittany too by now, was being disseminated piecemeal. A book by a French priest had recently recalled a visit to England as early as 1113, when West Country locals pointed out Arthurian sites, and, in Bodmin, insisted that King Arthur was still alive. Bretons were saying the same. There were at least two versions of this belief, that he was on an enchanted island – Geoffrey's Avalon – or that he was asleep in a cave. Either way, his return was hoped for. Breton minstrels said many other things about him, and spread through French-speaking lands and farther. Arthurian characters were carved over a doorway in Modena Cathedral, in Italy.
Without Geoffrey and Wace, it is unlikely that the scattered traditions would have converged in a single body of literature. Because of them, however, the latter part of the twelfth century saw the beginnings of an outpouring of narrative poems and prose tales in several languages. The great name is Chrétien de Troyes. The romancers created the full-blown Legend. New characters took the stage, among them Lancelot, and the Lady of the Lake. Merlin, who, in the History, had virtually dropped out after masterminding Arthur's birth, became the wonder-working sponsor of the whole reign. Other themes from Geoffrey were taken up and improved upon. He had introduced the knighthood, but the actual Round Table, imported by Wace from Breton folklore, became a ritual piece of furniture with symbolic meanings. Geoffrey had made Arthur hold court at Caerleon, an already-existing Roman city. Now he was given a headquarters of his own, Camelot. His sword Caliburn became Excalibur. Sometimes drawing on Celtic sources, more often not, romancers developed themes that are now familiar: the sword-in-the-stone test proving Arthur's right to the crown; the loves of the principal women; the fall of Merlin through his own love for an enchantress, who trapped him in a magic imprisonment; the acts of the ambiguous Gawain, though his greatest adventure, with the Green Knight, was a later topic; and the Quest of the Grail.
The last of these themes raises issues beyond the scope of fiction. Underlying it are pre-Christian myths about magical cauldrons and other marvellous vessels, and possibly, also, idiosyncrasies in the practices and beliefs of Celtic Christians. At its literary debut the Grail has a strange and rather disquieting ritual context. When fully Christianized it is explained as a cup or dish used by Christ at the Last Supper, with miraculous properties. It came to the "Vales of Avalon" in Somerset through the agency of Joseph of Arimathea, the rich disciple who provided Christ's tomb. He had caught drops of the Saviour's blood in it. Some time after its arrival in Britain it passed into the custody of a succession of guardians in an elusive castle. Many of Arthur's knights went in search of it. The romances are puzzling and contradictory. In the most important, the vision of the Grail is a spiritual initiation which only Galahad is worthy to achieve fully.
The key to the symbolism may have been lost. Ecclesiastics generally ignored the Grail and made no attempt to interpret it. From their point of view the stories, however Christian, were suspect. However, Joseph was named as the builder of the first church at Glastonbury, in the "Vales of Avalon". There, the monks of the Abbey had nothing to say about the Grail. Their chief chronicler made some use of the romances, but he told only of two small vessels called crnets which Joseph had brought to Britain, containing drops of the Lord's blood and sweat. These were holy relics with no mystical implications.
Glastonbury was also woven into the legendary fabric by the Abbey's assertion that Arthur was buried there and it was the real Avalon. Some accepted the claim, some did not, though no one seriously challenged it with a rival grave. In a famous version of his passing, when lying wounded after his last battle, he tells Bedivere to cast Excalibur into a lake. The knight demurs twice but finally complies, whereupon a hand rises out of the water, catches the sword, and draws it under. The king is then taken away to an Avalon that is not defined, perhaps to be healed and wait undying till the hour comes for his return. His golden age may not be lost for ever, it may be reborn.
Throughout much of the medieval period, the romances enjoyed a large public among the aristocracy and upper middle classes. One reason was that women were gaining ground socially, and their literary tastes carried weight. Unlike the martial epics of earlier days, Arthurian fiction had something for everybody. The love-stories – Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult – were a novelty, and while Guinevere was slow to mature as an interesting character, Iseult was always vivid and capable. Lords and ladies held "Round Table" entertainments at which the guests enacted Arthurian roles, feasted, and engaged in jousts and other suitable sports. Ironically, Arthur became a national hero of England, his role as enemy of the early English forgotten. Plantagenet sovereigns took him seriously. Edward I held five Round Table entertainments, and bolstered his claim to rule Scotland by saying Arthur had ruled Scotland. Edward III contemplated reviving the Arthurian knighthood, though, in the end, he founded the Order of the Garter instead.
The Arthurian wave gradually ebbed, but during the Wars of the Roses some of the best-known romances, most of them in French, were adapted by Sir Thomas Malory. More than an adapter, he made contributions of his own, one of them a great enhancement of Guinevere as a character. In 1485 Caxton edited and printed his writings, and Malory's version became the standard presentation of the cycle in English. It was the basis for many later works including Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the novels of T. H. White.
New perspectives, new departures
To sum up, the Arthurian Legend is a complex growth. Some of the stories belong to history, after a fashion. Some are myths and folk-tales that have been worked into the saga, and date from earlier ages as well as later. Some are barbaric, wild, timeless – products of bardic imagination. Some are due to the courtly romancers, and portray the king and those around him transformed into medieval figures. Stories appear on more than one level and in different forms. Even names vary widely and confusingly. "Drystan" and "Tristan" and "Tristram" all stand for the same person; so do "Medraut" and "Modred" and "Mordred"; so do "Gwenhwyfar" and "Guinevere" and "Ginevra"; so do "Essyllt" and "Iseult" and "Isolde".
Arthur can be pictured in quite a variety of ways. T. H. White, in The Once and Future King, was still sticking to Malory in the mid-twentieth century, though he superimposed modern ideas. But Arthurian authorship was already beginning to be affected by new research. Historians were re-examining sources, archaeologists were probing legendary sites.
An influential step had been taken in 1936 by R. G. Collingwood. Accepting Nennius's chapter on the battles, he suggested that Arthur was a Roman-style commander-in-chief who organized a cavalry corps and routed the pedestrian Saxons. The poet Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis, adopted Collingwood's theory. Others thought the cavalry fanciful, but, for several decades, were prepared to endorse the military view, sometimes looking toward the early sixth century rather than the fifth for Arthur's main activities. At length more critical studies swung the pendulum back toward scepticism. However, the "historical Arthur" issue had been raised and could not be exorcized. Riotamus, who had been noticed as a possible original long before (long before Collingwood, as a matter of fact), was rediscovered in the 1980s.
Archaeology had results which many found more exciting. Though never a deliberate search for Arthur, it drew attention to three places outstandingly linked with him: Tintagel, the scene of his conception and presumably birth; Glastonbury, with its Grail associations and grave; and Cadbury Castle, a hill-fort reputed to have been the real Camelot. In all three cases, the connection does not appear in written records for many centuries. Yet in all three cases, excavation showed that the places were British-occupied and important in the appropriate period. While it revealed nothing about Arthur, it proved that the people who focused on these places knew something about them and located him credibly. A purely accidental three-out-of-three score would have been too much. Knowledge of Arthur's Britain clearly persisted through a vast stretch of time. The story-tellers, therefore, were entitled to a hearing on other counts also.
When researchers dug into the strata underlying romance, some critics complained that their work was either destructive or pointless. New creative writing inspired by it refuted them. Rosemary Sutcliff in Sword at Sunset, Mary Stewart in novels of Merlin, Persia Woolley and Bernard Cornwell and others, bypassed the medieval scene and tried to recapture the world of Arthur as it might have been in its post-Roman reality. Marion Zimmer Bradley, in The Mists of Avalon, invented a new myth of her own with a woman as narrator. John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy in drama, John Heath-Stubbs in poetry, approached the subject by other paths again. Extension of knowledge has done no harm to the medieval cycle, which remains immortal literature. But it has enlarged and enriched the mythos itself with new insights into the enduring impression which Arthur and his companions have made.
It is because of this impression that "Arthurian Britain" is a meaningful term. Arthurian names, Arthurian lore, spread in a network over the land – a network of history and fantasy, poetry and romance, tradition and fable. Yet Arthurian Britain has an elusive quality. The map is unfamiliar. Oxford, Birmingham, Glasgow, do not appear on it. Zennor, Aberffraw, Drumelzier, do. Except at a few spectacular places like Tintagel, what often confronts the traveller is a kind of enigma: a landscape where a legend hovers; or some natural feature, an Arthur's Cave or Arthur's Hill; or a standing stone or fortification which is linked with his name or the name of someone in his circle. Why the legend, why the name? Even when a reason can be inferred, explanation may be in order.
Yet the quest is worth pursuing, the presence can be evoked. The tradition takes remarkable forms, clinging as it sometimes does to earthwork "castles" or hill-forts dating from the pre-Roman Iron Age, and to prehistoric structures older than that. With a few hill-forts such tales have a degree of substance, because they were re-occupied by Britons of Arthur's day. Sometimes, however, we get a name or a story only. We seldom know why the name was localized or when the story took shape. The process began more than a thousand years ago and has gone on into recent times.
It is striking that the Arthur of local legend appears as he does. He has very little fame in great cities and major historic settings. We are apt to find him in out-of-way places and on sites of immemorial age. Legend and folklore may belong to a half-barbaric fairyland, or carry echoes from unseen "Otherworld" realms of Celtic myth. Since the romantic image of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table has so long been the accepted one, it is strange how little impact it has had on place-lore. Moreover, most of the sites are in parts of Britain – the West Country, Wales, Cumbria, southern Scotland – where Celtic people, descendants of Arthurian Britons, kept their identity longest and in some cases keep it still. Even today, after all the literary development, Arthur's presence belongs mainly to regions where he could actually have flourished, not to the more English parts of England. As with the three archaeological sites, we glimpse a body of tradition that is rooted far back beyond the romances.