Book Review by Mark Ollard
To say that the stories of Arthur are enduring and popular is an understatement. Second only to Jesus as the Once and Future King, he has become iconic in english culture, and so potent was Arthurian mythos that had the elder son of Henry VII survived, he would have been crowned Arthur II.
Most of us understand that Arthur's realm is no more real than Tolkein's Middle Earth, or that medieval knights in shining armour are ridiculously anachronistic in that dark age between the Roman provinces of Britannia and Anglo-Saxon Britain. One writer complained that no-one else has generated so much pointless literature. Another muses that to research Arthur is to study the history of the myth of the legend.
Nonetheless people often exhibit an alarming need to find truth in stories. You need only see the hold conspiracy theories have over modern society. Chris Barber's King Arthur - A Mystery Unravelled, is another attempt to identify the man behind more than a thousand years of storytelling. The traditional connection to England is discarded and a trail of evidence is produced to show he was from Wales. This isn't the first work to support that theme, which must be said does often come across as more convincing than the usual attempts at identifying places and events.
The book doesn't wait for the end of the book to conclude who Arthur was. In the very first chapter the author lists the various documented Arthur's relevant to the mythology and pulls his choice from the mix. Why this man? Well, there's another twenty chapters to expain that for us. If that sounds as if the reader should expect a detailed and convoluted argument, the reader will not be disappointed. Unravelling any coherent argument for a real Arthur requires one to wade through obscure source material, much of it unknown to the average person.
Next we arrive at the door of Geoffery of Monmouth, the medieval cleric derided by his contemporaries for his outrageous writing and the man generally credited with recreating Arthur as a king of England. This is in some ways a bold step in Barber's narrative given how Geoffery was writing far more of a fantasy than history, but the important message is that Geoffery used material with far better provenance than his own, and this is a springboard to discuss the relevance of a swathe of older documents.
The author spends two chapters placing Arthur in context, describing his family and relationships with better known individuals from history. Compiled from thirty years of work the information is delivered wholesale, and although broken down into themed sections, it does require some patience to finish it. We move on to subjects in following chapters concerning the misleading red herrings of Arthurian mythos, the realm that Arthur actually lived in, and significantly discusses exactly who the enemies were that Arthur fought against.
The various battles said to have been won by Arthur are discussed with the same level of deliberation and research. The majority are just as difficult to place on the map as for any other writer who tries but Barber makes a fair shot of it. That last battle, Camlann, where Arthur receives his mortal wounds and abdicates gets a chapter of its own, and of course the infamous Battle of Badon Hill - the victory that supposedly secured decades of peace, also gets a chapter. Better yet, there's another chapter that looks at Arthur's campaign in Gaul, and even compares these with the sweeping tales of Geoffery of Monmouth, who claimed Arthur fought campaigns on the Roman periphery, and once, for no other reason than there wasn't anyone left to fight, took on the Roman Empire itself. Of course the author is wise enough to see the exaggeration for himself, making this book as thorough as is practical.
This unravelling of the puzzle is what the book is about. We have a hero of the Dark Age who is thought to have been a tribal warlord. Or a noble King. Or a Roman Count. Or Duke. Some have even credited Arthur as Emperor. Which piece fits? What picture emerges? Here we inadvertantly stumble on perhaps the book's biggest and most subtle issue. In science, the responsible way is to gather data and derive conclusions from your findings. This book reads more like the opposite, start with a conclusion and gather evidence to prove it, which in science has caused more wrong conclusions than anything else. Maybe this is unintentionally harsh - after all complete evidence is not possible, the source material fanciful and inconsistent, or even completely invented.
What you will find is a book that is serious about the conclusion it describes. Patriotic or personal, the authors passion is obvious, but I note the absence of distractions which detract from objectivity, a very difficult accomplishment when discussing a legend. The style is sraightforward and the book has a number of colour photographs and illustations that are both contextual and conform to the atmosphere of the subject.
For all that is good about this book there is something uncomfortable about it. An origin outside of England isn't so hard to accept, but the native welsh names lend an almost alien quality, and in fact the publishers of Chris Barber's previous book on this theme had asked him to anglicise names for that very reason. He was right to refuse, but the issue remains, made worse by the mismatch of latin and welsh names even between brothers. Perhaps more insidious is the love of mystery. As much as we are fascinated by the debate, how many will prefer the legend to the rather understated Welshman we are introduced to? One cannot help wondering how this man spawned the inflated romances of the Middle Ages, never mind our modern obsessions.
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Has Chris Barber won noble victory in his quest for the real Arthur? No, but he returns to Camelot with honour intact, and a book that for all its faults contains important messages for those delving into the darkness of early medieval Britain. This is a work of flawed excellence. Great for Dark Age information, insight, and debate - but Arthur? You'll have to decide that yourself.
Chris Barber is a well-established author with thirty one books published to date. They cover such subjects as mountaineering, industrial archaeology, prehistoric standing stones, and the mysteries and legends of Wales. His skills as a photographer are widely acknowledged and his illustrated lectures are very popular. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded the MBE for ‘Services to the Community and Tourism’ in the 2008 New Year’s Honours list. His many interests and achievements have also been recognised by an entry in ‘Who’s Who in the World’.
Book Review of King Arthur: The Mystery Unravelled - Related Topic: Roman Emperor List