This Week’s Book Review – King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Dive into the historical background of the legend of King Arthur

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 25, 2018

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham, Yale University Press, 2018, 392 pages $32.50

King Arthur is probably the world’s best-known fictional character. Writers from the 11th century’s Chrétien de Troyes to Bernard Cornwall in the 21st century have written stories about him. And the King Arthur’s legend keeps growing. A story this well-known must have a historical basis.

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham examines that issue. It’s a search for the source of the Arthur legend.

Arthur’s Britain, when and where a historical King Arthur could’ve existed, belonged to a chaotic and obscure corner of history. The Romans had retreated from Britannia. The island was being invaded by barbarians, and de-civilizing as it broke into a constellation of petty and competing kingdoms. Written accounts were spotty, and most history fell under oral tradition.

Higham sifts through all of this in a quest to track down the original sources creating the Arthur legend, including proposed foreign sources. Few verifiable records from the period exist indicating a historical basis for Arthur. Some researchers concluded the historical Arthur, if he did exist, came from outside Britain, with the story somehow transplanted into an obscure island in Europe’s northwest corner.

There are surprisingly many proposed “foreign” Arthurs. They include a Dalmatian centurion, Sarmatian horsemen, Georgian warriors, and stepp tribesmen. Others speculate Arthur was a Roman or Greek legend recast, Arthur as a British Hercules. Higham picks through all these theories, revealing few strengths and many weaknesses in these candidates.

Higham also examines the historical record of early dark ages France and Britain, seeking historic leaders who might have formed the basis of the Arthur myth. Higham believes clues to its origins lies in Historia Brittonum, a 9th century work, attributed to Nennius, a Welch monk.

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend” offers some surprising conclusions. Meticulously researched, Higham takes readers through every step of the journey he took to arrive at his conclusions. It is more a scholarly examination of Arthur’s legend than popular writing. Yet for those more interested in the Arthur myth and its origins than another retelling of the Arthur story, this book should not be missed.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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One thought on “This Week’s Book Review – King Arthur: The Making of the Legend”

  1. I just read a review of this in the TLS.  From that review and yours, it seems this book would be more aptly titled The Unmaking of the Legend.

    Ive spent decades reading Arthurian literature and lore and attempts to place him historically.  Why?  Idk. It may have been seeing Camelot  at the Pocono Playhouse, then the movie with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, that prompted 14 year old me to take up Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and…the rest is pseudo-history!

    Tennyson relied on Mallory (“he who tells the tale”) but in Mallory, Arthur is a much less saintly character.  Didja know he pulled a slaughter of the innocents worthy of Herod?  In response to a prophecy that the babe who would grow up to destroy him had been born on Bealtine, he collected all such infants in his knigdom and sent them to sea in death-ships. And of course, only ONE survived, rescued by a charitable fisherman: Mordred.

    I remember reading that even Monty Python fell under the spell of the legend when making their hilarious spoof. ( I believe Graham Chapman did not die, but sleeps,  and will return to rescue the troupe in their hour of need.)

    I’ve also read the tales involving Arthur and his Knights in the Mabinogion.  While I’ve been able to memorize some of the other cycles, involving Pwill, Rhiannon, Pryderi, Manawdan, the Arthurian ones  are so inconsequential (by which I mean episodic, not insignificant) that I haven’t been able to commit them to memory.

    Arthur woulda been 6th century, when the Britons were getting rid of Rome.  But then after that, they were invaded by the Saxons, and then the Danes.  Before reading the teriffic Saxon Tales (thanks again @jzdro!) it never occipurred to me to wonder where the Arthurian legend sheltered and grew during those periods.  And how this Welsh Celtic myth became the defining one for the entire kingdom.  Maybe this book has the answers?  I’ll check it out.

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