The legendary King Arthur is a magnificently glamorous figure. Like pretty much every scholar out there, I was first attracted to this archetypical hero through my exposure to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur or, at least, its adaptations. At the time, Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were creatures of fantasy and represented desirable if unattainable ideals. It was only much later that I became aware of the fact that at least Arthur himself may have been a real, living person. This revelation had a profound impact on the way I perceived the entire Arthurian mythos.
Eventually, after I became imbued with the knowledge of various disciplines a college education bestowed upon me, I dared to wonder if I might find the historical Arthur. Upon investigating the possibility, I was both delighted and disappointed to find that many had preceded me in such an endeavor. And although a few of these intrepid (or foolish?) sleuths were far more qualified than I would ever be to properly deal with the question of Arthur’s historicity, very little progress had been made in solving the mystery. What I did discover was a plethora of nonsense theories based on ignorance or wishful thinking or both.
But could I do any better? How much would I have to learn first? How many blind leads would I follow, and how many dead ends would I arrive at? Was this quest going to be relatively quick or would I be at it for years? Maybe a lifetime? Would it become something obsessive that ended up dominating any nonessential, impractical aspects of my life? And was it really, in any sense, important? What possible value would the discovery of a historical Arthur have for us?
In this modern age of youth Snapchat addiction, I’m afraid I can’t provide any positive answer to the last couple of questions. In fact, I was chagrined to read an analysis of the recent major box office flop KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD. One of the reasons listed by the author of that piece for the film’s failure was that people no longer cared about King Arthur. And beyond this, their education was now so universally deficient that most had no idea who even the legendary Arthur was! The professional academics had long ago forsaken Arthur as a historical entity. This left only a handful of isolated and distinctly fringe independent Arthurian enthusiasts (present company included) to carry the torch and to give a damn.
So I have no excuse to offer for my dogged determinism in this regard. I have pursued a historical Arthur out of selfish interest alone. Sure, there may be an Arthurian Cult lurking out there who might find my work to be of some interest, even if they (as is all too often) vociferously disagree with my findings. But its membership is rather insignificant and declining. Given enough time – say, the passing of the current generation – and it will be extinct.
Montaigne said “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.” This is especially true of Arthur. For years I’ve wrestled with those who started out with a preconceived belief and then went forward to prove that belief. One also thinks of St. Augustine, who said “I believe, so that I may know.” My credo has always been instead, “I know, so that I may believe.” And this shift in emphasis, this different mode of thinking, has run me afoul of a great many close-minded or, frankly, crazy individuals. The New Age and Neopagan communities, while well-meaning, have done their fair share of obfuscating the truth. I’ve flirted with their intoxicating world view more than once, but have always found their tenets and practices to be unwarranted and unjustifiable.
As if all that were not bad enough, I have already been accused of diminishing, nay, dismantling the great King Arthur. In seeking to make him a real historical person, I’ve inadvertently stripped him of his magical, otherworldly nature or, perhaps worse yet, have so denigrated him as to remove him entirely from the Hall of Pagan or Christian Worthies. I’ve shown him to be a man, and not necessarily a respectable one at that. From the Savior of Britain to a mercenary-federate fighting against Britons, I’ve brought him full circle. To add insult to injury, I’ve made him into an Irishman or, only somewhat less detestable, a personage of mixed Irish and British ancestry.
Should I apologize for doing so? Well, the part of me that so badly wanted to believe in the Savior of Britain says YES. I mean, go read my first book, THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY. I so badly wanted to subscribe to the notion that Arthur had, for a while, stemmed the tide of barbaric Germanic invasion that I was willing to overlook the nagging questions I could not answer – questions which I alluded to in the Introduction to this book. This is the level to which our own personal biases or subconscious drives or nationalistic or religious/spiritual tendencies or whatever will take us.
Yet when I admitted to myself that I was wrong in my first book, when I managed to overcome the constraints of ego, I simply had to go on. I could not accept the shortcomings of my own prior arguments, and I could not abide a defeatist posture. There was only one thing to do: go once more on an Adventure into the Perilous Forest. Surely I had missed something, either out of ineptitude or willful resistance. The Grail was to be found, and not just in a dream. I would not be quiet this time as it passed before me in the grand progression.
This book is a result of that Adventure. A letting go, a trusting in Fate or Providence as a guiding force, a traversing of the trackless waste in no particular direction whatsoever. At the end of the movie INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, we learn that the Grail is not some spectacular jeweled golden cup. Instead, it is the simple, rather crude wooden cup of a carpenter’s son. The Arthur I have revealed herein is like that.
Was he any less stalwart than his romance counterpart? Surely not. The latter is the stuff of myth and fantasy. The former is a real man, driven by all the usual needs of a leader trying to preserve his people. We tend to glorify the desperate. Heroic actions, at root, are generally brought about by those seeking a better life elsewhere. Who are we to say that a British Arthur credited with staving off the Saxon invasion for a generation is somehow superior to an Irish-descended Arthur who carved out a kingdom for himself in Wales and managed to keep it by fighting battles in southern England in alliance with the Saxons for the British high-king? This is all a matter of perspective. What the British lose, the Irish and the Welsh gain. And, in what is perhaps the most profound irony, the English gain by it also. For was it not Ceredig the Bear-king who spear-headed the foundation of Wessex?
I feel I can now rest content with having done everything in my power to reveal a truly viable candidate for a historical King Arthur. Indeed, I have no remaining compulsion to again set forth on an Adventure in that Perilous Wood. What fellow Arthurians make of my work I cannot predict. It is entirely up to them what to make of “my Arthur”, as opposed to their own Arthurs. For as we all know, and too well, there are a legion of Arthurs out there, and doubtless many more to come.