Monday, February 28, 2005

King Arthur, Part II

Last year, when King Arthur came out, I ended up doing a lot of reading around the legends of King Arthur, and the history and archaeology of the immediate post-Roman period in Britain. The end result of that reading is this post. As part of that I read Michael Wood's chapter on Arthur from his book In Search of the Dark Ages (based on the first tv series he ever did). So I was interested in seeing what Wood had to say about Arthur when he revisited the subject in In Search of Myths and Heroes, more than twenty years later.

By and large, it was okay. Not earth shattering - my Anglo-Saxonist friend Simon Trafford thought it said very little - but I think it was the best of the series. Wood wisely concentrated on the evolution of the legend, in order not to make the same programme twice - twenty years ago he'd looked at the historical evidence for Arthur, and evidently his opinions haven't changed much.

Most interesting was his discovery of a new sixth century candidate for the 'real' Arthur. In the Life of Saint Columba (1.8), Columba prophesies that Arturius, son of King Aidan of Scotland, will fall in battle. This appeals to Wood, who has always been favourable to the notion that some of the Arthur myth comes from the Strathclyde/Cumbria area. I'm not totally sure myself - Arturius belongs to the late sixth century, so is a bit late, but he could have contributed to the evolving legend.

Other points:

Wood called Britain the 'Jewel in the Crown of the Roman empire'. That's just not true.

Wood talked about the way Henry II of England manufactured the discovery of the graves of 'Arthur' and 'Guinevere' at Glastonbury. The way Wood presented it, Henry's sole intention was to deprive the Welsh of their hero, to prove that he was dead and not coming back. Now, that's part of it, but Henry had another motive. He was King of England, but he was not himself English - he was French. The Norman French domination of England was less than a century old when he came to the throne. What Henry wanted was a national hero who was not English. Geoffrey of Monmouth had been writing about just such a hero in the previous reign of Stephen. Henry seized on Arthur as a national myth that could bind together the England, his troublesome Welsh vassals, perhaps even the Kingdom of Scotland, and some of his French territories, notably Brittany, where Breton bards composed lays of Camelot.

I also noted that Wood presents the common picture of the Anglo-Saxon settlements, with the Saxons landing in Kent, and then expanding from there. Now, I can't believe that Wood, who did his postgraduate work on the Anglo-Saxons, hasn't kept up with developments in scholarly ideas on the Settlements in the last twenty years. Which probably means he's quite happy with the old view. I have some sympathy with that. I'm happy to believe that there's much more continuity of settlement than has previously been acknowledged. However, I think that there must have been some incoming settlement, if only because our one contemporary source, Gildas, tells us this is what happened. Now, I know it's fashionable to write Gildas off as polemic, and to an extent that's true. But this doesn't mean he can be written off entirely. He's like a Daily Mail editorial about asylum seekers. Now, that Mail leader writer may be exaggerating the scale of the influx, but you can't argue from that there aren't asylum seekers. And the same I think applies to Gildas - his polemic must still have some relation to reality, and I fear some attempts to reconstruct post-Roman Britain overlook that. Besides, how is Anglo-Saxon culture supposed to have been imported into Britain? People talk about an elite coming over and taking control. Well, they don't just walk in and say 'hello, we're in charge now'. That sort of control requires some sort of military conquest. Which requires soldiers, and soldiers need some reward, and need to be settled somewhere. And where soldiers settle, their wives and families settle. So I find it hard to accept that there was no influx of settlers, even if it wasn't the overwhelming wave that swept the Celts out of their old lands that used to be postulated.

It was nice to see bits of Castlesteads - evidently Wood does know that the name Camboglanna is no longer applied to Birdoswald (see my previous post). I don't know what the evidence is that Castlesteads was used as a Dark Age bandit/warlord base, but since it's known that this happened at Birdoswald, it seems plausible.

But the best moment of the programme, and indeed of the whole series, was Wood reciting Anglo-Saxon poetry, and doing so with real passion.

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