Guy Halsall, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Oxford University Press, 2013)

“Historians have thought for centuries that King Arthur was only a myth, but the legend was based on a real hero, torn between his private ambitions and his public sense of duty” (Official synopsis for the 2004 film, King Arthur).

HalsallWhat some people believe historians actually do is a constant source of surprise and irritation. My father – a retired biochemist – has been locked in arguments for years with people who believe that medieval historians defend some kind of ‘orthodoxy’ about the past. As ‘past police’, maybe. Locked into a conservative narrative, historians would never admit to the ‘problems’ with what they have built over time. Part of this, of course, is to complain about historical inaccuracies wherever they may appear, especially in film and tv. The fuddy-duddies.

Actually most historians enjoy a good argument. It’s just not often they get one. And this is where Guy Halsall’s latest book starts. Reading a review of a book with a ‘plausible’ new theory about King Arthur, he became annoyed at the endless parade of ‘pseudo-histories’ – his term – which pile weak inference on weak inference until they have a proof for something ‘historians’ have missed, so they can tell us who the real Arthur was. So he has written Worlds of Arthur, both to expose the lack of forensic care employed in these pseudo-histories, and to set out his own radical thoughts on what was going on in the world of Arthur (i.e. Britain from the late fourth to the early sixth century). In doing so it underscores the point that most professional historians – or at least most good ones – are prepared to reimagine the past considerably, as long as due care is taken in both establishing and interpreting ‘fact’. Reason and logic trumps romanticism.

There are a cluster of problems that make study of the world of Arthur difficult.

1) Many people already have some kind of idea in their head of what happened. Usually, it is a variation on these lines: as the Roman Empire began to spiral into terminal decline and ‘withdrew’ from Britain (in AD410), the beleaguered British sought help against Pictish raiding from the (non-Roman and pagan) Saxons of northern Germany. Unfortunately the Saxons proved rather lively and flooded the island – right to left – killing and subjugating many Brits, and chasing the rest into Cornwall, Wales and Brittany. Arthur must have been a hero of the Brits in these troubled times.

2) It is also common to assume that ethnic identity is ‘essential’ – that is, that it is an unambiguous fact of genetics and style. It is therefore easy to determine British/ Germanic differences in these wars on the basis of archaeological finds (even though it rarely is in practice).

3) Britain between the fourth and seventh centuries is terribly undocumented. Anyone interested in Arthur has to rely on the sermon of Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain (which doesn’t mention Arthur) from the time plus archaeology, while hoping that references in later legendary material somehow reflect accurate historical traditions.

4) Finally, few people actually spend any time comparing developments in Britain with similar developments on the continent. The island stands in isolation.

Unpicking these issues is not necessarily a lot of fun – which is to say that it relies more on that reason and logic stuff than romanticism and telling lovely stories. But to double the interest, Guy has written Worlds of Arthur consciously as a polemic against lazy history, professional and lay. So we get lovely, direct moments like this, about a list of battles in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum which has caused endless debate and speculation because of its references to Arthur (p. 67):

The locations of all of these battles are unknown and unknowable. This is of supreme importance if reading modern pseudo-histories so I’ll say it again: THE LOCATION OF ALL THESE BATTLES ARE UNKNOWN AND UNKNOWABLE.

That’s you all told.

We could perhaps divide Guy’s arguments into two, the destructive and the constructive. The destructive ones undermine many weak assumptions about sources. Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, for instance, is shown not to be able to support much weight as a historical narrative of Romans vs barbarians because it isn’t one: it is a sermon, laced with Old Testament prophetic ideas, which talks about struggle and sin and the problems of civil war and the Arian heresy. (Civil war and the Arian heresy, as Guy rightly points out, not being two things you would dwell on in the way Gildas does if an invading army of pagans really was destroying civilisation). Careful examination of the Historia Brittonum, meanwhile, exposes that its internal inconsistencies in dating are less likely to reflect ‘lost annals’ which tell us about Arthur and Saxon migration, and more the competencies of the author. There is no good reason to suppose its references to Arthur are historical rather than legendary. Gododdin’s reference to someone not being like Arthur, meanwhile, really tells us very little at all. And so on. If Arthur ever existed – and Guy remains agnostic about that – his career and importance is lost to us.

The negative case, happily, leaves something else to consider, as Guy constructively builds up a different way of thinking about this period of Britain’s history out of the rubble. Let’s find a new narrative, and let’s see Britain as part of European history. Then, we can see communities in Britain responding to Great Crisis (the collapse of effective Roman state authority) much like they did elsewhere. There was local factionalism and civil war. Non-Roman (or anti-Roman) group identities gained more political capital. Members of a Saxon confederacy brought into the mainland (not on the coast) to fight Picts found themselves well-placed to provide effective local power, while the collapse in Roman authority also encouraged subgroups in the confederacy to articulate their own identities, for example by starting to explain that they were really ‘Jutes’. All the while, various elements of their ‘material culture’ (brooches, houses etc) developed as one part of a North Sea cultural zone which incorporated, yes, Saxon and Frisian communities, but also Frankish and Roman ones. The ‘Coming of the Saxons’ (adventus Saxonum) was a more complex cluster of socio-political phenomena than its reputation as an ‘invasion’ might suggest. If we shake ourselves free of the misformed old narratives, then many of the problems with the sources – written and archaeological – start to suggest new ways to understand the period. It’s not just pseudo-historians, but historians and archaeologists too, who could do with reassessing their assumptions.

In his Arthurian quest, then, Guy Halsall comes to the unromantic conclusion that focussing on King Arthur doesn’t really tell us much about the world he was supposed to live in. Arthur fans will not be happy. But rather than leaving us with that sad conclusion, he encourages us to understand anew how complex societies dealt with the collapse of the Roman Empire, how they reorganised themselves, and how they found new identities.

“Many people will be unsatisfied by this but – in my view it must be more interesting and exciting than chasing answers to unanswerable questions. Fact, after all, is stranger than fiction” (Worlds of Arthur, p. 307).