- King Arthur: The Making of the Legend by Nicholas J. Higham
Few topics in late antique and medieval history elicit scholarly groans quite like the idea of a supposedly “factual” King Arthur. Yet historians and other scholars made cases for Arthur’s existence in historical and literary studies until the 1980s. For academics today, the question of the realism of King Arthur has been largely banished to popular books, video games, and movies. However, Nicholas Higham, in King Arthur: The Making of a Legend revisits the topic. In this long-overdue work, Higham gathers all the disparate theories surrounding a factual King Arthur and one by one negates or refutes them, arguing instead that Arthur was entirely the invention of those who wrote about him, no more real to the British people than Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who. [End Page 221] Because this topic had been all but abandoned by specialists, Higham claims that the reading public needs guidance to better understand and refute the competing claims about the so called “true Arthur.” As the author of several works on what myths and legends can reveal to modern readers about their authors, Higham is well-suited to this task. His efforts to better understand the relationship between myth and history has culminated in this work, which sheds light on what the Arthur legend can tell us about the societal values that engendered its creation.
After a few pages briefly outlining King Arthur’s cultural importance, the goals of the work, and a brief exposition on the various accounts of the Arthurian legends, Higham analyzes the most famous versions in greater detail. He divides his analysis of the stories into two sections: the first section examines the sources of theories which claim that Arthur is not from Britain, while the second deals with theories which claim Arthur to be British. The first part focuses on several popular hypotheses, including Arthur’s status as a Roman or Greek figure and Arthuriana’s commonality with Nart mythology. The theory that Arthur is a Roman figure identifies him either as L. Artorius Castus, or as the leader of a group of Eurasian Sarmatian Cavalry sent by the Romans to keep order in Britain around 175 AD. Each of these theories is tested by Higham against their primary sources, and all are found lacking in historical accuracy. Roman Arthur thus disproven, the second half of the book turns its attention to the textual evidence for Arthur’s existence as a local within Britain. Analyzing the various annals and chronicles that mention Arthur—from the late antique writer Gildas through medieval works such as the anonymous Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae, and Geoffrey of Monmouth—Higham leaves little out. Higham argues that Arthur is the individual invention of the different periods that produced an Arthurian myth; from the Romans fighting Saxons in late antiquity to the romantic and chivalric “knights in shining armor” of the Middle Ages (219). Higham concludes with a brief exposition on why he believes a realistic Arthur has become such anathema to modern historians, arguing that the smoke and mist surrounding the legend of the king have wasted enough scholarly time, and that the shift in the field to understanding the legend will yield much more than another theory of some Roman general who could have been Arthur.
Though at times Higham’s syntax is difficult to sift through, such as the Jane Austin-invoking opening line, “King Arthur today is a truth universally acknowledged,” his ability to contextualize a story that has aggravated historians since the nineteenth century should be appealing to scholars and general readers alike (1). It is a useful volume, not only for its information on the subject matter, but also as a treatise on the inherent difficulties of analyzing textual history in the premodern era. [End Page 222]