Friday, August 26, 2016


WORLDS OF ARTHUR is one of those books that neatly divides the Arthurian community into two warring halves.  On the one hand there is the party - which includes myself - that thinks we have some justification for adhering to the possibility of a KNOWABLE Arthur, whether he be a historicized mythological entity or a mythologized historical personage.  Then there are those like Halsall himself who insist there is really nothing at all we can know about Arthur.  And because we can know nothing about him, those who are searching for him as not only wasting their time, but are more than a little foolish.

Professor Halsall begins his book with some bold, but indefensible statements.  For our purposes, nothing of note really occurs until Page 66, which is where the author provides us with his less than comprehensive (and, frankly, truly pathetic) treatment of Arthur's battles.  He mentions that the City of the Legion battle "might actually be the battle of Chester (c. 613-16).  That Mount Agned "is replaced by Bregoin [correctly Breguoin]", that "Tribruit appears as Tryfrwyd in a later Welsh poem, with no connection to Arthur [which is outright wrong; the poem he is alluding to is the Pa Gur, and it contains references to battles in which Arthur and his men fought], that "Badon ought to come last in the list [for no other reason than it was the most famous battle]", that "The other five locations are found nowhere else in surviving literature, making it at least 'not proven' that they are a diverse medley of famous battles assembled and connected with Arthur", and that 'With the exception of the 'Battle of the Caledonian Forest', which ought to be somewhere north of Hadrian's Wall, and Linnuis, which might be Lindsey (Lincolnshire), the locations of all of these battles are unknown and unknowable."

He then stresses:

"This is of supreme importance if reading modern pseudo-histories so I'll say it again:  THE LOCATIONS OF ALL OF THESE BATTLES ARE UNKNOWN AND UNKNOWABLE [emphasis by the author himself]."

Halsall has more to say on these "pseudo-histories",  a dubious collection of papers and books which undoubtedly includes my own THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY.

"The battles themselves have engendered any number of pseudo-histories, purporting to reconstruct King Arthur's campaigns.  Their locations are suggested and a putative military context invented, within the traditionally supposed overall situation of a war between defending Britons and invading Anglo-Saxons.  Of course the locations are usually chosen with the context in mind, so it is almost invariably a circular argument."

I will first say this: for a Professor to say that all of the battles are unknown or unknowable, without first actually bothering to look for them himself, and without providing at the very least a comprehensive discussion of the various respectable candidates that have been proposed in the past (he does not even include references in his End Notes to standard works such as those produced by Kenneth Jackson and subsequent place-name/language experts, instead giving us only works of textual criticism to consult), is either extremely myopic, lazy or downright dishonest.  In addition, the fact that several of the battles are found no where else and are restricted to this early Arthurian context may just as well prove that they belong only to Arthur, as they were not used for anyone else in the heroic tradition. 

Secondly, I spent decades searching for the battle sites of Arthur.  Why did it take me so long to find them (and I'm reasonably certain I have done exactly that)? Precisely because I approached the search objectively, not with a personal bias or with a political/propagandist/regional/nationalistic agenda.  I literally looked all over Britain for these places.  Many times I stumbled along the way, making false identifications, chiefly because my level of competence in the field of toponomastics and my knowledge of the ancient languages involved were not yet sufficiently developed.  Combined with these deficiencies was the chronic difficulty of being able to access the earliest extant forms for place-names. It was only once I found the sites and actually plotted them out on a map that I realized I had something - something that no one else had yet managed to discover.  Something that scholars such as Halsall should look at before making specious authoritative statements.  While it may not matter, as it happens I'm an American, born and raised, who has never even been to Britain.  Any suggestion that I have some kind of prejudicial relationship with a Northern Arthur candidate is ridiculous.

The rest of Halsall's book, while a decent enough, mostly up-to-date overview of what we know about sub-Roman Britain, is not particularly helpful from the perspective of an Arthurian researcher.  As one would expect, little attention is paid to Northern Britain, as the Arthurian Tradition migrated to and became embedded primarily in the South (whether this be in Wales, Southwest England or Brittany).  Birdoswald (my candidate for Arthur's ruling center) gets good mention on pp. 121-22 and 216.  On the latter page Halsall states:

"By the sixth century some forts - most famously Birdoswald on the Wall - had acquired many characteristics of 'high-status' sites.  The hypothesis currently advocated sees the Wall garrisons gradually evolving into local warlords and their retinues.  This is very plausible.  However, the absence of official metalwork is very significant and argues strongly that this evolution might have begun rather earlier than usually envisaged, and in a more official manner."

Finally, on pp. 291-298, the author addresses the situation in Northern Britain at Arthur's time.   I find his account of affairs in the region confusing.  He attempts to make a case for the Picts north of the Forth having "political overlordship" extending "as far as Hadrian's Wall, encompassing people like the Votadini, the Selgovae, and so on."  He even admits that the argument "the Votadinian capital was Corbridge... is not especially compelling" but "has a number of attractions."

I find nothing in any of our sources (including the earliest British royal genealogies) that would indicate the Picts had any such control of the region between the Antonine and Hadrianic Walls.  While it is quite likely Picts raided and even launched major offenses from time to time on their southern British neighbors during the sub-Roman period, the earliest written traditions do not support Halsall's contention.  The Picts who are supposed to have been in Galloway, for example (see the carvings at Trusty's Hill), were almost certainly descended from Irish Cruithne, not from Picts with origins north of the Forth.

Possibly the most important statement Halsall makes in his book is found on p. 297.  Although clouded by his Pictish Proposition, he also says:

"Into this area [the region between the Walls] the British warlords of Hadrian's Wall were drawn, expanding their kingdoms."

It is exactly this area where I place several of Arthur's battles.  I also situate his "capital" towards the western end of Hadrian's Wall.  Other battles, roughly along the line of the old Roman Dere Street, extend further south of the Wall.  In fact, the Arthurian battles between the Walls also tend to cluster not far from Dere Street, suggesting that this ancient road was perhaps the frontier zone between Britons and Saxons.

While a more exhaustive analysis (as opposed to merely a standard peer review) of Halsall's WORLDS OF ARTHUR will be thought desirable by some,  I have dealt briefly only with those points which I feel have the most bearing not only on the 'Arthur Problem' in general, but specifically on the findings contained in my own book, THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY.  Ironically, while Halsall did not intend for his work to support my own "pseudo-history", that is, ultimately, exactly what it ends up doing.  Both in its refusal or inability to delve into much of the material in a genuinely investigative fashion,  and in the implications inherent in its portrayal of Northern sub-Roman Britain, it does much to lend credence to my own candidate for a historical Arthur.

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