Arthur: What remains?

Forget all the glamourised movie versions. The real Arthur was a grim, unromantic figure fighting a harsh war in the dark period of our history after the withdrawal of the mighty Roman legions
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"...What remains?
This: that when Rome fell, like a writhen oak
That age had sapped and cankered at the root,
Resistant, from her topmost bough there broke
The miracle of one unwithering shoot
Which was the spirit of Britain - that certain men,
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed about them, rose and stood
And charged into the storm's black heart..."

These verses come from a long poetic sequence, The Island, written by Francis Brett Young, better known as a popular novelist. It was published in 1944 and this poem has the title Hic Jacet Arthurus Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus. The significance is obvious, the Churchillian echoes resonant. Of Arthur's men, Young writes, "they were so few''. So they are linked to the Battle of Britain pilots and to Henry V's "happy few'' at Agincourt. Arthur, the once and future king, sits surrounded by his knights in a death-like sleep, awaiting the call to return to save Britain once again.

This Arthur is a figure of legend, and most of the cycle of Arthurian romance - the Round Table, Camelot, the quest for the Holy Grail - is fanciful, the creation of poets and, later, of film-makers (most recently in King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, which opened yesterday). Such creations are heavily embellished by imagination. Yet the folk memories on which they draw are real.

More than 2,000 places in Britain claim some association with Arthur, from Cornwall to the Highland Line in Scotland. Many of these associations were doubtless invented in response to the popularity of the legend. But there is a substratum of fact. Arthur, misty as he was, is a historical figure. Forget the gorgeous trappings of Camelot, though. The real Arthur was a grim, unromantic figure, fighting a harsh war in the dark period of our history after the withdrawal of the Roman legions.

The fullest evidence of Arthur is offered by Nennius, a Welshman, who wrote his History of the Britons in Latin in the early ninth century, which is admittedly some 300 years after Arthur's probable dates. But Nennius is convincing because he is so matter-of-fact.

More and more Saxons, he says, had been settling in Britain and their kings controlled more of the country. "It was during this period that the war-leader Arthur, together with the kings of Britain, was fighting against them."

Nennius then lists 12 battles in all of which Arthur was victorious. The first took place "on the bank of the river Glein". The next four were fought by another river "called the Dubglas which is in the Linnuis region". The sixth was sited on the river Bassus, and the seventh in the Celidon Wood, which is called "Cat Coit Celidon". Describing the eighth battle, Nennius emphasises that Arthur was a Christian: "He bore the image of the Holy Virgin Mary on his shoulders: on that day the pagans turned in flight, and were slaughtered in great numbers, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary."

After listing three other battles, he tells us the last was at Mount Badon, a battle already mentioned two centuries earlier by the Romano-British historian and monk Gildas, born in Strathclyde around 550, though Gildas does not name Arthur as the commander, or one of the commanders.

According to a later Welsh historian, Gerald, this omission is because Arthur had killed his (Gildas's) brother. "When he heard of his brother's death, or so the Britons say, he threw into the sea a number of outstanding books he had written about Arthur's achievements. Accordingly you will find no book which gives an authentic account of that great prince."

But there is a mention of Arthur in a poem almost contemporary with him and Gildas. It is called The Gododdin, which was the name of a tribe whom the Romans had called the Votadini, and who inhabited south-east Scotland. The poem was composed, traditionally, in Dun Eidyn (Edinburgh) by a bard, Aneirin, about the year 600. One stanza is written in praise of a warrior called Gwawrddur. We are told of his might, deeds and great qualities, of how "he would feed black ravens on the wall/of a fortress; though he were not Arthur/Among the strong ones in battle/In the van, an alder-palisade was Gwawrddur..." The suggestion is clear: Gwawrddur was a great warrior, but less than Arthur.

Some three centuries after Nennius, William of Malmesbury (described in the Oxford Companion to English Literature as "the first full-scale writer of history in England after Bede''), has two stories about Arthur. He tells us that the Britons would have been totally destroyed by the Saxons had it not been for "Ambrosius, the last remaining Roman leader, (who) repressed the swelling hordes of barbarians through the distinguished achievements of the warlike Arthur ... who is a man more worthy to be extolled in true histories than to be dreamed of in fallacious fables". He adds that "the tomb of Arthur has never been found, for which reason ancient fables claim that he will come again..."

Neither Nennius nor William of Malmesbury gives Arthur the title of king, let alone emperor, as in the later pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which inspired so many medieval romances. Nennius calls him a "war leader". William implies that he acted under the command of "the last remaining Roman leader, Ambrosius". This makes sense. If Arthur were the commander of an itinerant cavalry force, serving, at different times perhaps, a number of the petty kings of late-Celtic Romanised Britain, it would account for the variety of locations which claim an association with him. He was the war leader who, striking now here, now there, checked the advance of the Saxons in the South and East, and also threw back the incursions of the Picts from the North.

Most of the sources are Welsh, and most of the sites traditionally associated with him are in the South-west of England. It was, for instance, at Glastonbury, at Easter 1278, that, according to Adam of Domerham, the abbey's historian, Edward I, "at twilight, had the tomb of the famous King Arthur opened. There, in two caskets with their images and arms depicted on them, were found separately, the bones of the said king, of wondrous size, and those of Queen Guinivere of marvellous beauty..."

So was Arthur a Welshman? (He certainly wasn't an Englishman, since it was the English, that is the Saxons and Angles, he was fighting against.) Up to a point, perhaps: but only if one remembers that the word Welsh is the Old English, Anglo-Saxon, for "foreigner", applied to all the Britons, whose country they had invaded. The Gododdin is a Welsh poem, written, that is, in Old Welsh - though composed probably in Edinburgh. What is one to make of this?

An ingenious explanation has been offered recently by Alistair Moffat in his book Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms. His theory is that Arthur was a prince of the Gododdin - the Romanised inhabitants of south-east Scotland who spoke the variant of Celtic known as "P-Celtic" - and that his base was in the Scottish Borders. Moffat is himself, I should say, a Borderer, so there is partiality in his argument. He is, too, a friend of mine, so in accepting his thesis as being at least a probable, I am not altogether impartial myself. But it makes sense for a number of reasons.

First, it's unlikely that Arthur would be singled out for praise as the matchless champion, in The Gododdin, if he did not belong to that tribe. The language it is written in is Old Welsh, for that was the tongue of all Scotland south of the Forth in Roman and post-Roman times. Scots Gaelic, which belongs to the linguistic group known as Q-Celtic, came to Scotland from Ireland around the time that Arthur lived.

Second, the Gododdin were horse-people. The poem tells of "The retinue of Gododdin on rough-maned horses like swans,/With their harness drawn tight,/And attacking the troop in the van of the host..." Making Arthur a chief of the Gododdin, themselves under pressure from the Angles who were settling in Northumbria, fits with the idea of Arthur as the leader of a troop of itinerant cavalry, available for service over all that survived of Romano-Celtic Britain.

Third, Moffat has identified, convincingly to my mind, the possible - he would say probable - sites of the 12 battles listed by Nennius.

Finally, since the origin of Merlin - reputed wizard, possibly one of the last Druid priests, possibly rather a follower of the God of the Roman Legions, Mithras - can himself also be located in southern Scotland, in the wood of Caledon, later the Ettrick Forest, the association of Merlin with Arthur in the medieval romances makes sense, even though the evidence suggests that the historical Merlin lived perhaps half a century after Arthur. No matter: the Romance poets needed him, as mage and the prototype of the spin-doctor.

There was one other battle, "the battle in the West where Arthur fell". It is recorded in the 10th century Annals of Wales where the date is given as 537, "the battle in which the famous Arthur king of the British and Mordred his betrayer fell by wounds inflicted by each other..." In some versions of the story Mordred is his nephew, in others his bastard son, born of Arthur's coupling with his own half-sister, Morgan-le-Fay.

It is this battle, Camlann, which serves as a bridge carrying Arthur from history, fragmentary and doubtful as it is, into romance.

What gives the story its enduring resonance is that it is a tragedy as well as a history of heroic resistance. Arthur, war leader turned king-emperor, strives to restore the Empire, that Virgilian empire of high duty:

"Has tibi erunt artes, pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos..."

(These shall be your arts: to impose the habit of peace, to spare the conquered and subdue the proud...)

The enterprise fails. The Round Table is broken. The defences give way. Barbarism returns. The threat of a new dark age looms. But the hope survives; that Arthur will rise again.

This is the theme, this the drama, that for more than a thousand years now, a thousand and a half indeed, has drawn poets, romancers, novelists, playwrights and now film-makers to the Arthurian story. The real Arthur may indeed have been a grim figure, fighting desperate battles in a dark age of which we still know too little. Much that we surmise must be conjecture.

But the Arthur of the imagination, the Arthur who has evolved through the ages, the Arthur of Camelot and the Round Table and the Grail legends, never utterly parts company from that dark original, from the true Matter of Britain arising in that hour when "certain men/Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood/Loved freedom better than their lives..." The once and future king will not die as long as our language is spoken and the dark past speaks to us.

Allan Massie's novel, 'Arthur the King', is available in Phoenix Paperbacks, priced £6.99