Monday, September 26, 2016


For the record, it is important to state out front that N.J. Higham (in his ‘King Arthur: Myth-Making and History’, London and New York: Routledge, 2002) does not discount the possibility of a historical Arthur.  Unfortunately, he does ultimately settle for the Roman-period Lucius Artorius Castus as the ultimate derivation of the hero – and this despite his awareness (pp. 76-77) of “a group of Arthur names within the secular elite in the late sixth century”.

Higham does address the argument of several scholars “that this apparent rash of Arthurs requires, or at least implies, that an Arthur figure of renown had recently caught the attention of these several families in western Britain.”  And he does astutely acknowledge that “this upsurge in Arthur-naming seems to be exclusive to Irish or Irish-connected families.”  But he then makes some grave errors in reasoning.

He concludes that this naming occurred because the Irish in Britain desired “to capture whatever mythological kudos and religious potency already surrounded the name”, while British/Welsh families avoided “its use primarily because of its newly acquired mythological connections, which might have been considered un-Christian.”

It apparently does not occur to Higham that the famous Arthur of the 6th century may not have been a resident of Wales (or the Southwest of England); in fact, all my research indicates he is to be set on the western half of Hadrian’s Wall.  Nor does he allow for the possibility that the famous Arthur may himself have been half British and half Irish, something that would immediately have endeared him to the Irish newcomers, and not necessarily to the native royal families.  Finally, and most importantly, as we know the Dalriadan Aedan son of Gabran was a supporter of St. Columba (he actually crowned the king!), and Aedan’s son (or grandson) bore the name Arthur, it is absurd to suggest that Arthur was chosen because it had un-Christian connotations.

On p. 97 of his book, Higham states that “The most plausible conclusion is, therefore, that the historical Arthur of the central Middle Ages has his roots in a Roman Artorius who had been taken up and developed within British folk stories already widespread by the beginning of the ninth century.” He does not elaborate on why this Roman Artorius should have become so famous.  Nor can he demonstrate the process through which a third century prefect of York “was adopted into overtly political, ‘historical’ texts in order to provide a prototype of the successful British warrior…”.

The outright invention of a ‘Savior’ hero is not a task undertaken lightly.  To begin with, an author of such a forgery would surely have to contend with contemporary opinion. Furthermore, the gap between Lucius Artorius Castus and an Arthur whose dates are firmly situated in the 6th century is immense.  If you are going to concoct of military hero as the primary opponent of the Germanic invaders who were post-Vortigern in date, why on earth would you choose someone FROM THE SECOND OR THIRD CENTURY?  That would require a major temporal shift, and is not something any learned men of time would have tolerated.

Higham compounds his difficulties when he claims (p. 272) that “In the late 820s… this warrior/hero-type Arthur-figure was adopted into his Latin text by a Welsh cleric writing in Gwynedd… this author transplanted Arthur as a martial exemplar into an historically organized, political polemic which he was sketching out for very specific and immediate ideological purposes at (or at least for) the court of Merfyn Frych…. Arthur was used therein symbolically to serve as a British Joshua figure and constructed as the second half of a pairing of virtuous Britons, alongside St. Patrick.  So Patrick was presented as a British type of the Old Testament Moses and Arthur as his younger contemporary and successor as leader, the dux bellum Joshua.”

On the surface this seems like good theory.  However, there are a couple of inherent problems with it.  I have shown in my book THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY that both Arthur and Patrick MAY WELL ORIGINATE IN THE SAME PLACE, viz. Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall.  If Arthur’s main power center was not Birdoswald, it may well have been Stanwix further west on the Wall.  In either case, these two men of renown heralded from the same region.   This alone would be reason enough to associate them – were it not for the fact that both appear to have excelled in their respective sphere of expertise.

But, truth is, the parallel between Moses and Joshua and St. Patrick and Arthur that Higham appears to see in Nennius’s text does not exist!  St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.  Arthur brought military success to Britain.  For there to be a Moses-Joshua parallel, Arthur would have had to bring military success to Ireland – or Patrick to Britain.  If a British Moses were to have been chosen, the St. Germanus who occupies much of Nennius’s text would have been the logical choice.

One of the concluding statements made by Higham (p. 273) also desperately needs to be addressed.  He announces that “Nor does the Annales Cambriae provide original information on Arthur of any obvious historical merit.”  Could any pronouncement be any more wrong?  For it is the Welsh Annals dates ALONE which give us a very firm fix on Arthur’s date.  And it is the Welsh Annals that gives us our first reference to the fatal battle of Camlann (the Camboglanna Roman fort on the west end of Hadrian’s Wall) and to the name Medraut (the later Mordred of romance).  

I’ve elsewhere shown (and have had Oliver Padel agree with me!) that Medraut is actually a Welsh form of Cornish Modred, itself from the Roman name Moderatus.   If we did not have these dates and names in these earliest texts, we would have to depend on a source like that of Geoffrey of Monmouth of the 12th century.

All in all, I find Higham’s book to be a rather weak contribution to the field of Arthurian Studies.  It does succeed in further defining the “Arthur Problem”, but fails to do anything other than offer as a sort of consolation prize for those seeking a historical Arthur a third century Roman  whose characteristics do not in any sense qualify for the hero of 6th century Britain.

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