Ronald Hutton shows how historians' perceptions of the legendary figure have changed over recent times.
Forty years ago both scholarly histories and historical novels had a common view of Arthur: as a historical warrior, whose leadership enabled his people, the native inhabitants of post-Roman Britain, to halt the advancing tide of Anglo-Saxon conquest for about half a century. Nobody was exactly sure when this was, because it had been in the obscure period between 410 and 550, which has left almost no contemporary documents. Nonetheless, there was general agreement that Arthur had flourished somewhere in that time and had been the greatest British personality in it, establishing a fame which laid the basis for the later, more romantic and fantastic, medieval Arthurian legend.
This happy consensus had mostly been produced by the new discipline of archaeology, which had excavated some of the main sites associated with Arthur in that later and fully-developed legend, such as his birthplace at Tintagel and Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which local tradition held had been his court of Camelot. In each case, amid great publicity, spectacular remains had been found of occupation by wealthy people at just the right period. For many, this was enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the legend was rooted in historical truth and books such as Geoffrey Ashe’s The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (Pall Mall, 1968) and Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain (Allen Lane, 1971) carried this message to a wide readership. It was taken up by historians, who now felt encouraged to reconstruct a story for the years around 500 by combining the meagre early medieval sources with a wealth of much more dubious data from later periods; this approach was epitomised by John Morris’s fat, exciting book, The Age of Arthur(Weidenfeld, 1973). The interest stirred up by scholars resulted in a flood of historical fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Most was produced by Englishmen, though Englishwomen such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart were among the most prominent authors. All treated Arthur as a historical character in a post-Roman setting, with realistic British landscapes and careful use of historical and archaeological data.
The reason for this virtual unanimity was that the Arthur it portrayed was so useful. With the loss of Britain’s Empire and its status as a great power, there was a real possibility that the cement was being taken out of the United Kingdom. It needed a new common past to which to appeal and the ‘age of Arthur’ promised not only a glorious one but a hitching of mainstream British identity to the kinder, greener one of the Celts. In addition, Arthur could become the ideal countercultural monarch. Usually portrayed on the book covers of the time as a long-haired guy with trailing moustaches and designer jewellery, he could easily be transplanted to a motorbike or a rock festival. To those who mourned the loss of imperial Britain he could be viewed as the last defender of Roman civilisation; to those who identified with revolutionaries, he was a resistance-leader against English aggression. He was a genuinely classless, pan-British hero who made patriotism, monarchy and history seem cool.
Today this view of Arthur seems almost as distant as post-Roman Britain itself. Most experts in that period now ignore him altogether, while those who don’t have no agreement over how he should be regarded. Thomas Green’s Concepts of Arthur (Tempus, 2007) called him a pagan Celtic god or giant turned into a historical hero because his people needed one; this is at least kinder than Nicholas Higham’s King Arthur (Routledge, 1992), which had decided that he was the invention of a ninth-century Welsh journalist. Graham Anderson’s King Arthur in Antiquity (Routledge, 2004) thought him a misunderstanding of ancient Greek myth and Howard Reid’s Arthur the Dragon King (Headline, 2001) rooted him in Caucasian mythology. Edwin Pace, in Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain (Invermark, 2008), has decided that he was actually a different fifth-century character, usually known as Vortigern, while Miles Russell announced in Current Archaeology (April 2009) that he was a later confusion of two others, the British general Ambrosius and the Saxon king Aelle.
Meanwhile, novels about him are more numerous than ever, but the typical author of one since the 1980s has been an American woman. Not surprisingly, the British landscape portrayed in them has become distinctly hazy and any connection with the known history and archaeology of the sub-Roman period has almost disappeared. The Romans have now joined the invading English as stock hate-figures and Arthur is firmly a romantic Celt, normally operating in a world in which fairies, gods, werewolves and unicorns are as important as human figures. The prototype of this whole genre was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (Michael Joseph, 1983).
In part, the change has been due to a shift in scholarship. Archaeologists have abandoned their quest for proof of his existence, as none has appeared, and sites without Arthurian associations have proved just as rich in post-Roman finds. Historians have admitted that there is no solid documentary evidence for it and none is likely to be found. In fiction, fantasy literature has replaced historical and detective novels as the most popular genre. More generally, however, it is because of a further shift in culture, from a yearning for cohesive national identities to a celebration of multi-ethnic, multicultural societies. This is where Arthur can win again and so ensure his continued popularity; in an age of individual choice, the nebulous nature of his historical character ensures that we can all have the Arthur that we want. The greatest medieval hero has become the perfect postmodern one.