Dowsing for King Arthur

March 31, 2011

A few weeks ago, Bob suggested I write a post on the “historical” King Arthur. My immediate reaction was “meh.” Arthur is, of course, quite important to medieval literature: the Matter of Britain is the subject of many important works of Middle English, including Laȝamon’s Brut, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Stanzaic Morte Arthure, The Awntyrs off ArthureSir Gawain and the Green Knight and many more. Finally, in the late Middle English period, Sir Thomas Malory produced Le Morte d’Arthur, in which he brought together disparate stories from French and English sources and attempted to tell the whole tale from beginning to end. As you might expect, Malory’s work has some organizational problems. For instance, I distinctly recall that Lancelot killed the same knight three times in thirty pages. Nonetheless, Malory’s compilation has become the story of Arthur that we all know.

I have from time to time read about the “historical Arthur,” but my main reaction is, “I don’t care” because even if (and it’s a big “if”) Arthur existed, he is so far removed from the Arthur we know as to be unrecognizable. A historical Arthur would have nothing in common with Malory’s king; he’d have precious little in common even with Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the historical Arthur. From time to time, I have watched the BBC series Merlin, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything remotely historical. However, the actors who play Merlin and Arthur in the series, Colin Morgan and Bradley James, also appear in a program in which they gallivant across Wales in search of “The Real Merlin and Arthur,” although Merlin gets pretty short shrift. They arrive late everywhere, but–hey–the scenery is pretty and so are the actors.

Their first stop is the Arthurian Collection in Mold, Flintshire, which houses over 2000 books related to Arthur. Unfortunately, they arrive after the library has closed. Regardless, author Scott Lloyd gamely tells the actors about the documentary evidence for Arthur’s existence. Here it is:

Want to see it again? It’s like this: Arthur is supposed to have fought the Germanic invaders of Britain, briefly halting the Anglo-Saxon advance. This would place him in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Arthur is first mentioned in the 9th century.  The Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin mentions a warrior named Gwawrddur who, though mighty, was “no Arthur.” Unfortunately, Y Gododdin survives in a manuscript from the 13th century. Although there is scholarly debate over the date of composition, it may be as late as the 9th century. Even if the poem is much earlier, say 6th or 7th century, it has undergone extensive changes in its oral and written transmission. There is no way to know whether the almost throwaway reference to Arthur is original.

A more substantive account of Arthur appears in the Historia Brittonum, usually (though quite possibly erroneously) attributed to a Welsh monk named Nennius. The Historia Brittonum is a disorganized mish-mash of material written or compiled in the first half of the 9th century. Arthur is mentioned as a dux bellorum (leader of battles) who fought with the kings of Britain against the Germanic invaders. This would suggest that he was not himself a king, even if he existed. Nennius associates Arthur with a number of wonders or marvels and twelve battles. Of course, the wonders are of extremely dubious historicity, but the battles are questionable as well. Although people have tried to make connections, most of the battles cannot be identified. Furthermore, Nennius claims that Arthur personally killed 960 men in one battle, which seems a tad unlikely.

This battle, the battle of Mount Badon, is, however, almost certainly historical. It is mentioned by Gildas, a 6th-century British monk, in De Excidio et Conquestu de Britanniae. Gildas says that he was born in the year of the battle of Mount Badon, so he would have been a younger contemporary of Arthur’s if Arthur had existed. Guess who isn’t mentioned in Gildas. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the same guy who isn’t mentioned in any works by Anglo-Saxons, such as Bede‘s Chronica Maiora (725) and Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731) or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (begun in the 9th century). They mention other characters from the “historical” Arthur’s story, such as the British king Vortigern, who invited the Germanic mercenaries to Britain. Indeed Bede was probably the first to mention Vortigern. Two manuscripts of Gildas name him, but these are from the 12th and 13th centuries. Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mention the twin brothers Hengest (stallion) and Horsa (horse). Both Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg also mention a fella named Hengest, who may or may not be the same guy.

The “historical” Arthur is largely the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae, but Geoffrey was writing in the 12th century, more than half a millennium after Arthur’s time. In addition, Geoffrey’s work is not considered historically accurate by any credible authority.

So, that is the documentary evidence: bupkis. Some people cite archeological evidence to support Arthur’s likely existence, and indeed settlements and earthworks have been uncovered from the right time period, including the South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset and Tintagel in Cornwall and several others. But, come on, we know the 5th and 6th centuries existed; we know the Britons fought the Germanic invaders. Evidence of hill forts is not evidence of Arthur.  A few objects have been found with direct, but questionable, links to Arthur. In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury discovered the bodies of a man and woman, along with a lead burial cross that identified them as Arthur and Guinivere. The bodies and the cross disappeared during the Reformation. Most believe this was a pious hoax. At the time, the monks were trying to raise funds to rebuild Glastonbury Abbey which had been gutted by fire. Occasionally, the cross allegedly makes a reappearance, but such glimpses are also the result of hoaxes.

Amateur historians Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett have found another grave of Arthur. They identify Arthur with Athrwys ap Meurig. This is the opening paragraph of their official website:

King Arthur I son of Magnus Maximus of the late 4th Century AD and King Arthur II of the late 6th Century AD, can both trace their family lines back to the British Emperor Constantine the Great, and continue on back to the Holy Family itself which entered Britain in AD 37. Both King Arthur’s continue tracing their bloodline all the way back to King Brutus, himself a great grandson of Aeneas of Troy.

Neither the Da Vinci Code-ish content nor the grammar fill me with confidence. Nor does the fact that they’ve also found the Ark of the Covenant. But let’s look at their findings objectively. In 1983, they discovered a burial stone that reads “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius,” which supposedly means “King Arthur, the son of Mauricius (Meurig).” In 1990, they discovered an electrum cross that reads “Pro Anima Artorius,” “for the soul of Arthur.” The problem is, as the Bad Archaeologist points out, that “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius” actually means “King Arthur Mauricius, of the son” and “Pro Anima Artorius” means “Arthur for the soul.” Oh dear. This is not terribly complicated Latin grammar, although one could imagine that it might fool people who put apostrophes in plurals.

There is one inscription that definitely seems not to be a hoax or a forgery: the Artognou stone found at Tintagel. Actually, there are parts of two inscriptions on this piece of slate. Only the letters “AXE” survive from the one inscription. The other reads “+ PATERN… COLIAVIFICIT… ARTOGNOV… COL… FICIT…” The Celtic Inscribed Stones Project translates the inscription as “Artognou descendant of Patern[us] made [this]. Colus made [this].” Artognou and its Old Breton and Old Welsh cognates Arthnou and Arthneu do look a bit like Arthur. This similarity was enough to get people excited, even such an august body as the Archeological Institute of America. The name Arthur may come from the Roman gens name Artorius or it may be a Celtic name which derives in part from arto/arth, meaning “bear.” If it is the latter, then it does share an element with Arthneu, but it is not the same name. Now I admit I know virtually nothing about the Celtic languages; however assuming that “Arthur” and “Arthneu” are close enough to be considered the same guy because both names contain the element “arth” seems to be like assuming that Thorbjorn and Arnbjorn are the same guy because both names contain the element “bjorn,” which means “bear.”

In short, the archeological evidence isn’t much stronger than the documentary evidence. Is there any other kind of evidence? Well, back in Wales, the actors may have found “spiritual” evidence.  On the second day of their trek, they arrive in Gwynedd at the supposed site of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur was mortally wounded. There they meet Santa’s disreputable older brother, Laurence Main

a Druid in a fetching miniskirt, who uses ley lines to dowse for Arthur’s burial site (another one). So, they’re walking around in the dark (they arrived late again), and their rods cross once they run into a tree. It is also possible that Main is unconsciously indicating to them where their rods should cross. At any rate, they hit one of the major ley lines and, Main explains, if it were day time and wintertime with no leaves on the tree, they could see the church where Arthur was buried. What more proof do you need?

The actors seem somewhat disappointed that they didn’t find definitive evidence of a historical Arthur, but at the end, Colin Morgan makes what I think is an excellent point:

Maybe it doesn’t matter because…the legends are always going to be there. They’re always going to be reinvented and reinterpreted, and maybe you don’t need a final answer because that’s what it’s all about: the stories are there to be enjoyed.

And that’s always been true. From very, very early on, the Arthurian legends have looked back nostalgically to a time that never really existed. Every age has reinterpreted the stories to fit the time and culture. A real Arthur probably never existed, and if he did, he had almost nothing to do with the king we know.