As my essay from c. 2010 treating of Thomas Green’s CONCEPTS OF ARTHUR has been lost through a series of computer and human errors, and as the theory of a mythical King Arthur continues to enjoy a fair degree of popularity in both scholarly and non-academic circles, I feel it is necessary to revisit the topic.
Thomas Green (apparently a pseudonym for Dr. Caitlin Green (http://www.caitlingreen.org/) first made available her study online at http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/historicity/arthur.pdf. The Web article then appeared in the professional journal Arthuriana as “Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend” (Lindes, 2009), pp. 3-46. CONCEPTS OF ARTHUR evolved out of this article, becoming an “up-to-date expansion, development and revision of the views presented” in the original paper.
While it would be far easier to address only Dr. Green’s article, that process would not be fair to her. Much additional supportive material appears in her book, and doubtless she has sought to strengthen her conclusions. For this reason I will instead tackle CONCEPTS OF ARTHUR entire. My method will be to address chapter summary statements and whatever final point is made at the end of the work. Readers of my critique should not restrict themselves to those portions of her book which I quote here, but should seek out those premises utilized by the author to make valid her argument.
CHAPTER 1 THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY: THE EVIDENCE AND ITS CRITICS
P. 43 - “The weight of the non-Galfridian material (early and late) provides, it has frequently been asserted, a very clear and consistent picture of Arthur as a thoroughly legendary figure of folklore and myth not associated in any way with either the Saxons or Badon, and with this figure resembling in many of its characteristics the Gaelic Fionn who was a mythical figure – originally a god – later historicized with battles against foreign invaders… the nature of Arthur in the earliest sources would indicate that there is really no possible justification for believing there to have been a historical figure of the fifth or sixth century named Arthur who is the basis for all later legends. In the blatant absence of anything even approaching proof of his historicity...there is simply no reason to think that a ‘historical Arthur’ is a serious possibility.”
This is really nothing more than a rehash of Padel, whom I have dealt with elsewhere (http://www.geocities.ws/vortigernstudies/articles/guestdan9.html). The important thing to recognize in these kinds of deceptive statements is that they confidently assert to be true what is plainly contraindicated in the sources under discussion. Sure, if you discount the Historia Brittonum and the Welsh Annals (and even later medieval stories such as The Dream of Rhonabwy), Arthur is not associated with the Saxons or with Badon. Identifying Arthur with a known mythological figure like Fionn serves really only one purpose: to demonstrate the author’s ignorance of how folklore originates, evolves and is transmitted. We know of any number of examples of DEMONSTRABLY HISTORICAL FIGURES who were subjected to folkloristic development. Arthur continues to be mythologized today – by those very scholars who have proven unable or unwilling to coax new information from the earliest sources and to bring such into accord with the most recent work being done in related disciplines (e.g. archaeology).
CHAPTER 2 THE EARLIEST STRATUM OF THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND
“This chapter has taken a similar approach, but focuses specifically on the earliest material, including some literary sources that Padel only briefly touched upon (such as Preideu Annwfyn). The conclusion from this present survey is clear – in all the sources which seem to be as old as and, in some cases, perhaps up to two centuries older than chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum, Arthur appears to be conceived of as a figure of myth, legend and folklore, not history. The focus on these early sources only, along with the very clearly mythical nature of Arthur in many of them, does in many ways make our conclusions even more robust and clear-cut.”
There is a fundamental flaw in Green’s reasoning here. Her logic runs like this: as the earliest material we have on Arthur is of a nonhistorical nature, it follows that Arthur himself is not a historical entity. Well, this view completely misses the fact that what little we have extant on Arthur may well be merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In other words, there may once have been - and almost certainly was – much more historical material on Arthur from the early period. Some of this might have been oral. The rest of it was simply lost through the usual processes of destruction and decay arising out of the chaos that was sub-Roman Britain. Let us propose the following model as a metaphor of what I’m talking about here. We start out with a dozen eggs. Eight of them are yellow, while only four are green. Over time, through sheer chance, or perhaps because people like the color better, three of the green eggs survive, but only one of the yellow eggs. Someone then comes along and takes a look at the surviving eggs, yellow and green, and naturally concludes that there were probably originally more green eggs than yellow ones. However, in making this assessment they would be quite wrong.
And once again, until the value of the few historical Arthurian sources are understood and appreciated outside of the relentless and ruthless textual criticism which has produced little of value, it will continue to be all too easy to dismiss these sources as unimportant, or as aberrations, or as a simple example of early medieval euhemerism, akin to what the famous medieval Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson did with some of the Norse gods at the beginning of his Heimskringla. [The difference between Arthur and, say, Odin, is obvious; while we have a huge amount of evidence for the latter being a god, we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Arthur was. I will return to this point later in this critique.]
CHAPTER 3 THE NATURE OF ARTHUR: ‘A MIGHTY DEFENDER’?
“… in addition to Arthur the Hero Protector being a very common and fully folkloric concept of Arthur, it is also clearly attested from the earliest period. Thus it is found in the Marwnad Cynddylan, probably our earliest datable Arthurian reference which provides more than just the name…. Placed alongside the obviously very widespread nature of this concept and its almost uniformly mythical and folkloric character, it helps confirm that a primary role for Arthur was indeed that of mythical Protector of Britain and a paragon of martial valour.”
To address an error here first: as Jenny Rowland has shown, the M.C. does not contain the phrase “whelps of Arthur”, but instead “strong-handed whelps.”
Let’s look at this in the opposite way. Had there been a great war-leader named Arthur who successfully staved off Saxon invasion in the North (something I have written about extensively in my THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY), it would have been an easy matter to cast him in the role of ‘mighty defender’ or ‘hero protector.’ Why? BECAUSE THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT HE WAS HISTORICALLY. At least for one region of Britain.
Mythological elements would have formed as accretions around such a great military leader. Thus Green (and Padel) completely misunderstand the significance of one of their most commonly examined motifs: Arthur’s hunting of the monster boar Twrch Trwyth, the Welsh version of the Irish Torc Triath, which features in the story of Fionn. In Green’s mind, because Fionn is mythological and hunts the monster boar, and Arthur hunts the same creature, Arthur like Fionn is mythological. This is just plain bad logic. Firstly, the Welsh cognate of Fionn is found in the Arthurian version of the hunt – Gwynn son of Nudd. Because it was the story teller’s goal to make Arthur paramount, Gwynn is simply made one of the hunters who are in the employ of the king. Thus is does not at all follow that Arthur partakes of the nature of Fionn. Rather, Gwynn does. The boar hunt was borrowed from the Irish tale and “co-opted” into native Welsh stories being told of Arthur.
CHAPTER 4 THE NATURE OF ARTHUR’S WAR-BAND AND FAMILY
“Taken as a whole the companions of Arthur in the pre-Galfridian legend are mainly non-historical in character, with those few who have historical origins being drawn from a wide range of periods and a great expansion of the court – drawing in many previously unrelated figures, mainly fictional, folkloric or mythical – occurring from the eleventh or twelfth century… many of Arthur’s closest and, most particularly, earliest associations are with figures who are clearly Otherworldly in origin… These occur even in the earliest stratum of the Arthurian tradition and, by their very presence, testify to both Arthur and the Arthurian legend being mythical from its earliest occurrence.”
What can one say about this? Well, Arthur was of the 5th-6th centuries. Our earliest sources on him are centuries removed. If we study other KNOWN historical figures of the period, say Urien of Rheged, we note immediately that very few family members or associates of such figures were remembered. For Urien we know a few names from the early genealogies and heroic poems. While we have a fair amount of material on his famous son Owain, we have absolutely nothing about the members of his retinue. As I mention in my book THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY, Urien seems to have been a sort of successor to Arthur, at least in so far as he operated in the same region against the Saxons at a slightly later period. Had Arthur not preceded him, we might easily suppose that instead of a famous Arthur we would have a famous Urien. And poets and story-tellers and romance writers would have fleshed out his court in a manner similar to what they did for Arthur.
To claim that because it was thought necessary to fill up Arthur’s court with other famous heroes of the past, as well as with thinly disguised deities, proves that Arthur is himself a mythological figure is nonsense. Once again, we can go from the Matter of Britain to the Matter of France to see the numerous heroes who were brought into connection with Charlemagne (the so-called Carolingian Cycle). Because some or many of these paladins are legendary or unhistorical, does it follow that Charlemagne was a god or creation of folkloristic processes?
CHAPTER 5 THE ORIGINS OF ARTHUR
[NOTE: I’m passing over in near silence the various false etymologies for the name Arthur which are broached by Green in this chapter. It has been very well established by several notable scholars that the only good etymology for Arthur is the Latin Roman name Artorius. While opinions vary on an etymology for the latter, trying to concoct a purely British origin for the name or, worse yet, some derivative from Arcturus, making him out to be the Bear Star, are sheer folly. There were bear gods in Britain, to be sure. One, called Matunus, was worshipped at Arthur’s Bremenium. I have discussed the possible significance of this “coincidence” in my book. The Math of the MABINOGION appears also to have been a bear god. The Welsh (as evinced by Geoffrey of Monmouth making Arthur into a bear in the dream-sequence where he fights the dragon that is Rome) would have associated the king’s name with their own word for bear, “arth.” Mythologically speaking, an Artorius/Arthur name could then have drawn to itself characteristics belonging to a bear god or bear hero. But this does not mean Arthur was in origin a bear god.]
“This then is the case for ‘Arthur the God.’ It cannot be said to be in any way conclusive or “proof”. Rather it takes the comparison of Arthur and Fionn and asks whether it can be extended to the question of divine origins too. I see no convincing reason why it cannot… His ultimate origins – either as a folkloric Protector from all threats or as, presumably, some benevolent and protective deity (a discussion of some possibilities as to the exact nature of this hypothetical deity will be saved for the final chapter of this study) – obviously belong to a period before we have good records.”
A “hypothetical deity”? So, because she can find no evidence for a historical Arthur, she would substitute a god for which we also have no evidence. Or so it would seem. To properly address this issue, we need to skip ahead and take a look at the last chapter of her book.
But what about CHAPTER 6 THE HISTORICIZATION OF ARTHUR? There is not really anything in this chapter that merits discussion. It is a survey, of sorts, of the various historical or pseudo-historical roles Arthur was cast in, beginning with the Historia Brittonum and then devolving into accounts preserved in hagiography. [I would only note in passing that the appearance of ANYONE in a Saint’s Life, or of any role performed by someone in such a source, should automatically be considered more than suspect. In fact, it should be discounted as history and relegated to the realm of “sacred history”, which was a history invented to indoctrinate the faithful.]
CHAPTER 7 THE ARTHUR OF THE BRITISH
“Arthur was primarily a folkloric and mythical Protector of Britain, who may have always been such a folkloric hero or who might, just possibly, have developed from a Brittonic protective deity of some sort… Although he was historicized in the ninth century with a role defending Britain against the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the fifth century [correction, Arthur’s two known dates belong to the first half of the 6th century, so 5th-6th centuries is more accurate], this seems to have had little effect on the nature of the ‘Arthurian legend’ proper until Geoffrey of Monmouth took the historicization, combined it with the legendary material circulating at the time (which saw Arthur being granted an increasingly dominant role in legendary Britain by learned authors in particular) and, through the considerable application of his own inventiveness and imagination, popularized this on the international stage.”
There are many things in this chapter I could discuss, but all have a distinctive quality about them. That is, they are specifically designed to emphasize the folkloristic nature of Arthur. Green spends a fair amount of space on the Arthurian legend’s imprint on the landscape – the features that have been referred to as Arthur’s this or that. Such features are found all over Britain, even in the farthest reaches of Scotland. And, of course, they are found all over Brittany. Merlin (the later version of the Welsh Myrddin) and other figures with Arthurian associations have likewise left their marks in the geography. “Migratory” legends contributed largely to this wide dispersal of sites dedicated to the heroes of yore. Aetiological place-names explain how some giant rock got here, or who built some Neolithic chambered tomb.
But does this in any way impugn Arthur’s historicity? No, it doesn’t. When studying ancient Germanic heroic legend, I became aware of the same kind of monuments or natural features being given the names of characters from the Nibelungenlied and the Dietrich Cycle. In most cases, the characters in question, while legendary by the time they appear in German heroic epic, can be traced to historical personages of the Merovingian period, to the time of the German Invasions of Rome, and to the time of the Huns. They were not nonexistent “hypothetical” deities. Once upon a time, they were very real people. And very important ones.
The same must be said about King Arthur.