The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur: Notes

1

Another example of a non-historical personage who is often mistakenly thought to be historical is, as Geoffrey Ashe has recently pointed out ('The Origins of the Arthurian Legend', Arthuriana, 5.3, pp. 1-24 at p. 6), Sherlock Holmes: "He is so vivid that countless people have taken his existence for granted. For many years the office on the site of his Baker Street lodgings (not really identifiable, but given a street number) received a steady trickle of letters addressed to him... Yet we know how his saga began, and it was in Conan Doyle's imagination, not in the biography of a real detective." It needs to be said that the above are only interesting examples of the the historicisation of mythical/fictional characters and that the question of whether such historicisation occurs does not by any means rest on these few examples alone (or even primarily). That historicisation could and did happen is beyond doubt -- not everything we are told by medieval authors about events many centuries in the past need be the complete 'truth', even if the authors themselves might have believed it.  Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

2

Only names in the form Art(h)ur and its Latinisations concern us here as they are the only relevant forms. The case is occasionally made (though not in academic literature) that all names with the element art(h) should be considered -- this is, however, simply a very common personal and place name element (in early Gaul, Ireland and Britain) meaning 'bear' and, as such, there is absolutely no reason to think that there is any special relationship between the large number of names with art(h) as an element and the name Art(h)ur -- they are all separate and distinct names. This important fact relates directly to a very recent find during the excavations at Tintagel of a sixth-century stone inscribed PATER COLIAVI FICIT ARTOGNOV, which translates as 'Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had (this) made/built/constructed.' (English Heritage press release, Thursday, 6 August 1998; S. de Bruxelles, 'Arthur: is this where myth meets history?', The Times, Friday, 7 August 1998, p. 5). English Heritage have chosen (despite the strong and perfectly understandable reservations of the archaeologists in charge of the dig) to milk this find for publicity by pushing the notion of an association between the names Arthur and Artognou -- Artognou is, however, not in any way the same name as Art(h)ur; the only thing they have in common is the apparent presence of the very common personal- and place-name element art(h) (a relationship that the name Art(h)ur shares with many other names, from many different periods and places) and, as such, claims that this stone refer to a 'historical Arthur' are completely unjustified, a position which would seem to be in line with that taken by those scholars in the best position to evaluate the evidence: Chris Morris, in charge of the excavations, has (in an online statement made by the archaeologists rather than English Heritage) said that "we must dismiss any idea that the name on this stone is in any way to be associated with the legendary and literary figure Arthur... As Professor Thomas states, "All this stone shows in the name ARTOGNOU, is the use of this (Celtic) element [art(h)]."" (http://www.gla.ac.uk/Acad/Archaeology/, Friday, 15 August 1998). The following sensible comment was posted on alt.legend.king-arthur:

I find it amusing that the news has already switched to claiming that the inscription mentions the name "Arthur". There are any number of early Brythonic names with the initial element "Art(h)-", including several examples of the name "Artgen" (see Bartrum "Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts"), which contains the same basic elements as the inscription's "Artognou" except that the latter has the zero-grade form of the second element (see Evans "Gaulish Personal Names" for "-gno-"). Unless the legendary Arthur wasn't really named Arthur, I don't see how the inscription can have anything to do with him. It's a different name. (Heather Rose Jones, alt.legend.king-arthur posting, 07 August 1998 17:42).

It should also be noted that Adrian Gilbert, in The Holy Kingdom (London, 1998), has claimed that Arthwys, a king from southern Wales, is Arthur, on the assumption that Arthwys is the Welsh form of Art(h)ur and some highly dubious archaeological 'finds'. This is demonstrably false, at least with regards to the name, as the Welsh form of Art(h)ur is very clearly Art(h)ur! Arthur is never referred to as Arthwys in vernacular sources and, indeed, 'Arthwys' is an entirely separate and well documented Welsh personal name that cannot be in any way associated with the name Art(h)ur or with the Latin name Artorius that is often assumed to lie behind the name Arthur, as asserted by Gilbert.  Indeed, the correct form of the name is actually Athrwys, not the more Arthur-like misspelling Arthwys, in any case. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

 3

The mid-seventh-century poem Marwnad Cynddylan refers to Arthur in much the same way as does Y Gododdin, this text implying that the military deeds of Cynddylan and his brothers are of such great valour that these warriors might be seen as canawon Artur fras, dinas dengyn, "whelps of great/stout Arthur, a mighty fortress" (see R. Bromwich, 'Concepts of Arthur', Studia Celtica, 10/11 (1975-6), pp. 163-81 at p. 177; R. Bromwich et al, 'Introduction', in R. Bromwich et al (edd.) The Arthur of the Welsh. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature (Cardiff, 1991), pp. 1-14 at p. 5; A.O.H. Jarman, 'The Delineation of Arthur in Early Welsh Verse', in K. Varty (ed.) An Arthurian Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Lewis Thorpe (Glasgow, 1981), pp. 1-21 at p. 4. 'Fortress', dinas , here has the sense of 'defence, defender'). If this is accepted -- Rowland in her Early Welsh Saga Poetry: a Study and Edition of the Englynion (Cambridge, 1990), p. 186, suggests an alternate reading for the text of the poem but this doesn't seem to have gained general acceptance -- then it shows that the concept of Arthur as a 'peerless warrior'/'superhero' was present in East Powys (roughly modern Shropshire) in the seventh century (its contribution to the historicity debate would, of course, be the same as that of Y Gododdin, just discussed). Whatever the case, Y Gododdin's concept of Arthur as the 'paragon of military valour' is clearly shared by other non-Galfridian Welsh sources too, such as the poems Kadeir Teyrnon, Gereint fil[ius] Erbin, Ymddiddan Arthur a'r Eryr, and Marwnat vthyr pen[dragon]. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

4

Whilst Charles-Edwards is right to point to similarities between the works of Bede and Paul the Deacon and the Historia Brittonum, the reputations of the former as 'reliable' historians are solely a result of the fact that they deal mainly with near-contemporary events. The author of the Historia was, however, dealing with events 300 years or more in the past and for such distant periods both Bede and Paul the Deacon are equally unreliable (see D.N. Dumville, 'Historia Brittonum: an Insular History from the Carolingian Age', in A. Scharer and G. Scheibelreiter (edd.) Historiographie im frühen Mittelalter (Wien/München 1994), pp. 406-34 at pp. 418-19). Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

5

It is worth noting that it has been argued that the tale of Arthur carrying an icon of the Virgin Mary into battle -- which is often taken as part of any hypothetical poem, most recently by Koch -- must have had its origins in the ninth century and quite possibly in a monastic context (see R. Barber, The Figure of Arthur (London, 1972), p. 101ff.), like that in which the author of the Historia was working, implying at the very least a similar origin for the poem that supposedly contained it. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

6

Howlett, in his book Cambro-Latin Compositions, Their Competence and Craftsmanship (Dublin, 1998), argues convincingly that the the date 496AD for Badon is inset into the Latin of early medieval texts as part of the Celtic-Latin tradition of Biblical Style (see D.R. Howlett's The Celtic-Latin Tradition of Biblical Style (Dublin, 1995) on this), with 540AD being inset as the date that Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae was completed. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'.

 

 7

It is sometimes claimed, deriving the name Arthur from the Welsh word arth 'bear', that Gildas does mention Arthur when he refers to Cuneglasus as urse -- such an interpretation of Gildas is, however, wildly speculative and unacceptable (see K.H. Jackson's 'Varia: II. Gildas and the Names of the British Princes', Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 3 (1982), pp. 30-40 at pp. 32-34 for a full investigation of this passage, which is entirely understandable within the context of Gildas's text). Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

 8

In fact, it is worth remembering that some of the unidentifiable names look like they may well have been invented, thus further casting doubt on the Historia (see K.H. Jackson, 'Once Again Arthur's Battles', Modern Philology, 43 (1945-6), pp. 44-57). A brief word should be said regarding the very many theories of a 'local' Arthur (a good example is W.G. Collingwood's 'Arthur's battles', Antiquity, 3 (1929) pp. 292-98) which have been based on the list of battles in Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum. With sufficient 'imagination' and linguistic gymnastics the list of battles can be made to fit just about any locality one can think of and as such these theories are mutually cancelling and methodologically indefensible -- thus Collingwood succeeded in 'discovering' all the battles in the south-east, which happily fitted his theory that Arthur only fought the Jutes; Anscombe ('Local names in the "Arthuriana" in the "Historia Brittonum"', Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 5 (1904), pp. 103-23) 'found' that all the battles were fought in the Midlands and Skene (The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Edinburgh, 1868), I, pp. 52-58) 'discovered' that all the battles could be identified with places in Scotland! Such conclusions can only increase our concerns regarding the contents of the Historia. For a scholarly and level-headed approach see Kenneth Jackson's articles 'Once Again Arthur's Battles', Modern Philology, 43 (1945-6), pp. 44-57; 'Arthur's Battle of Breguoin', Antiquity, 23 (1949), pp. 48-49; and 'The Site of Mount Badon', Journal of Celtic Studies, 2 (1953-8), pp. 152-55 (the site of Badon is much disputed though). Incidently, it should be noted that Peter Field ('Gildas and the City of the Legions', The Heroic Age, 1 (1999)) has argued for an identification of the ninth battle differing from that which is usually accepted. Whilst an interesting suggestion, it is no more than a possibility and not necessarily the most plausible one. More importantly, even if it were to be accepted, his notions with regards to the nature of modern criticism of the Historia Brittonum and the significance of his suggestion to this cannot be endorsed. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'.

 

9

This last point is, in fact, a very important one. If any investigation into the history of the post-Roman period in Britain is to have any validity at all (and appear acceptable to academic historians) then it must be done with a sound methodology. This impinges directly on the problem of Arthur in view of the fact that "no contemporary or near-contemporary source makes any mention of him [Arthur]": Dumville has made the important observation that "History must be written from contemporary sources or with the aid of testimony carried to a later era by an identified and acceptable line of transmission" or "it will not be worth the paper it is printed on" (D.N. Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages (Varorium: Aldershot 1990) X, 55); he rightly rejects "the old foolish game of trying to write narrative history of an effectively pre-historic period with the aid of unhistorical and non-contemporary sources" (ibid., IV, 4). As Chris Snyder has recently written, "If you are trying to argue for an historical Arthur..., you cannot stray from the primary sources for the period: i.e. Patrick, the Gallic Chronicles, Constantius of Lyon, Gildas, etc.  NONE of these sources mention Arthur. Therefore, building an Arthur theory by starting with later sources (e.g. "Nennius," the Welsh Annals, the Gododdin, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Welsh genealogies, Geoffrey of Monmouth) and then trying to argue backwards to Gildas and Badon is an unsound methodology according to modern historiographic principles." (Arthurnet posting, 02 June 1998, 17:55). Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

10

With regards to the comment that "our sources are simply not of the quality...", this refers exclusively to their value as historical sources for the post-Roman centuries. As Howlett has observed, "The Historia Brittonum has received harsh criticism from modern historians," but such criticism can deflect our attention from the intrinsic quality of the Historia as a text of the ninth century: "His work shows that an early-ninth-century Welsh scholar could cope with the difficult sixth-century prose of Gildas... He could interweave multiple arithmetic features into his prose, each different from the others, each discretely perfect, none impeding or thwarting any other, none drawing attention to itself flamboyantly, all contributing to the harmony of a richly polyphonic narrative. The Historia has for a long time been misprised and undervalued. It is time now to read and appreciate it properly." (D.R. Howlett, Cambro-Latin Compositions, Their Competence and Craftsmanship (Dublin, 1998), chapter 5). Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'.

 

11

Such considerations have, to a large extent, led to the adoption of Dumville's concluding remarks on Arthur by academic historians, namely that "The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books" ('Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend', History, 62 (1977), pp. 173-92 at p. 188), and Arthur is noticably absent from (or dismissed in) the latest research concerned with the post-Roman period (for example, S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London,1989); A.S. Esmonde-Cleary, The Ending of Roman Britain (London, 1989); N.J. Higham, Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons (London, 1992); K.R. Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800 (London, 1993); B.A.E. Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (London, 1995); C.A. Snyder, An Age of Tyrants. Britain and the Britons A.D. 400-600 (Pennsylvania/Stroud, 1998)). Whilst Dumville's remarks may be a little harsh in places, even if one accepts the above 'perhaps' as a 'yes' then one can go no further: the evidence simply is not of the quality that it would allow us to say anything at all concrete about any possible historical Arthur. Charles Thomas perhaps summed up best the modern historian's attitude to such figures as Arthur, only recorded in very late and highly untrustworthy sources, when he wrote that "Many will agree with Dr Dumville's cri de coeur: 'The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books.' Any sane person would agree. These enticing Will-of-the-wisps have too long dominated, and deflected, useful advances in our study." (Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, 1981), p. 245). Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'.

 

12

In some ways Padel's approach to this problem is far preferable to my own and should be consulted by anyone at all interested in the question of Arthur's nature and origins. However,  it was felt desirable to first provide a summary of the latest research into the texts that are usually turned to when looking at the 'historical Arthur' and make it clear that a historical Arthur cannot be assumed to have existed, before moving on to methodological issues etc.. Those already familiar with the methodological problems and Padel's important reassessment of the whole question will find much, of course, that is already familiar -- I can only hope that a slightly different approach to the sources and a slightly fuller consideration of certain pieces of evidence and problems than Oliver Padel could give may be found to be of some small benefit to these readers. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

13

That is to say, not localised in any particular region. That Arthur was pan-Brittonic from the very first is clearly evidenced in the pre-Galfridian material which places him in southern Scotland, Southwestern Britain, Wales and Brittany (see Padel, 1994, pp. 1-14 for a demonstration of this) and is true even of the earliest references to him (the 4 or 5 people named 'Arthur' in the sixth  and seventh centuries are to be found as far apart as south Wales and south Scotland, whilst Marwnad Cynddylan indicates a knowledge of Arthur in mid-seventh-century Shropshire). Basck to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

14

It should also be noted that this folkloric Arthur not only dominates the pre-Galfridian material but also appears in the later works -- he is clearly present in non-Galfridian Welsh tradition that post-dates Geoffrey's work and, indeed, he is also to be seen in Galfridian and post-Galfridian materials. To quote no less authorities than Gwyn and Thomas Jones, "What of Arthur himself? His nature is unmistakable: he is the folk hero, a beneficent giant, who with his men rids the land of other giants, of witches and monsters; he undertakes journeys to the Otherworld to rescue prisoners and carry off treasures; he is rude, savage, heroic and protective... It is remarkable how much of this British Arthur has survived in the early twelth-century Historia of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the mid-fifteenth-century Morte Darthur of Malory. Arthur setting off with Kaius and Bedeuerus to slay the swine-eating Spanish giant, and bursting out laughing when the monster crashes like a torn-up oak, or his battle with the beard-collecting Ritho, are cases in point... Behind the royal features in Geoffrey and Malory may be discerned the ruder lineaments of the folk hero..." (The Mabinogion (Dent 1949) p. xxv). It is in local folklore that the continuing dominance of this folkloric Arthur is most obvious however, as we might expect and as Padel has shown (see 'The Nature of Arthur', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 27 (1994), pp. 1-31, in particular pp. 25-30. See also Grooms' The Giants of Wales. Cewri Cymru, Welsh Studies 10 (Lampeter, 1993)). Thus, for example, in Cornish folklore Arthur was, even as late as the nineteenth century, largely pre-Galfridian in nature, his name being attached to a large number of 'remarkable' topographic feature in just the same way as it was centuries before (with similar features that were not associated with Arthur being ascribed to giants) and Arthur was additionally renowned for ridding the area of the giants who compete with him for prominence in the topographic folklore (R. Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England. The Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall 2 vols, (third edition), II, p. 307. This situation also existed within Welsh and Breton folklore, see C. Grooms, The Giants of Wales. Cewri Cymru, Welsh Studies 10 (Lampeter, 1993)). Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

15

This is not to say, naturally, that a historical post-Roman Arthur is disproved -- one can only very rarely prove that a particular figure never existed (just as one can never prove that aliens did not assist in the building of the Pyramids or Silbury Hill). Rather what is being said is that, by the adoption of a sound methodology and the consequent viewing of the very few 'historical' references in the context that they must surely be seen in, the burden of proof is transferred from both parties in the debate over historicity to that which would argue that Arthur was a historical fifth-/sixth-century personage; it is not simply that a historical Arthur is not needed to understand the legend but rather that, in the absence of proof, the postulation of a historical post-Roman figure behind the pre-Galfridian material is completely unjustified and we must follow the vast majority of the evidence in seeing Arthur as a legendary figure. What we have to do is decide what is reasonable and what is not, and while Arthur could have been a real fifth-century personage, on present evidence there is absolutely no reason to think that he was. Of course, some will be unwilling, despite the above, to let go of a historical Arthur for whatever personal reasons -- in such circumstances one can only think of the following words by Bertrand Russell:

I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it. (Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays, I (1928))

Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'.

 

16

In Cornish oral tradition there is absolutely no trace of Arthur being renowned for fighting and defeating the Saxon invaders of post-Roman Britain -- in fact he is not associated in any way with the Saxons. Rather he is renowned for defeating the Vikings in western Cornwall, on Vellan-drucher Moor (see R. Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England. The Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, third edition (reprinted Felinfach, 1993), I, p. 181, and II, pp. 305-08; M.A. Courtney Cornish Feasts and Folklore (1890) p. 74) and for driving the giants out of Cornwall in antiquity (this is, of course, in addition to the topographical folklore, of the type identified by Padel in his 'The Nature of Arthur', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 27 (1994), pp. 1-31 that is present in Cornish folklore. Arthur was renowned for driving out the giants in Welsh oral tradition also -- see C. Grooms, The Giants of Wales. Cewri Cymru, Welsh Studies 10 (Lampeter, 1993), pp. xlix-l). The first is obviously a historicisation of Arthur into a period many centuries after that which the more commonly read sources refer to; the latter may require a little more explanation. Whilst, first and foremost, it quite clearly reflects the 'original', legendary Arthur's folkloric role as giant-killer, it would also seem to represent a historicisation, as the belief that giants inhabited Britain before 'normal' humans (and that they had to be vanquished) is well evidenced both in, for example, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Cornish and Welsh folklore (see, for example, C. Grooms, The Giants of Wales. Cewri Cymru, Welsh Studies 10 (Lampeter, 1993), Introduction) -- thus the association of Arthur with this vanquishing of the giants is, at least partly, a historicisation of Arthur into distant antiquity. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'.

 

17

Geoffrey Ashe ('The Origins of the Arthurian Legend', Arthuriana 5.3 (1995), pp. 1-24) has given several reasons why, in his opinion, Arthur has to be historical. These have been dealt with in full by Padel in his commentary on Ashe's article in the same journal ('Recent Work on the Origins of the Arthurian Legend: A Comment', Arthuriana, 5.3 (1995) pp. 103-14), who has shown that they do not offer anything like the proof of historicity that Ashe suggests they do. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'.

 

 18

It is occasionally asked whether it is likely that the victor of an important battle such as Badon might be replaced, after several centuries, by someone else. In answer to this, four points need to be made. Firstly, the historicisation of legendary/mythical figures is, as has already been noted, often achieved through the association of these figure with some major event of the past. For instance, Hengest and Horsa were given as an example of mythical personages historicised at the beginning of this study and these were dioscuric horse-gods who were historicised with nothing less than a pivotal role in the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England by the eighth century, replacing the likely original players in this event (see, for example, D.J. Ward, The Divine Twins, A Indo-European Myth in Germanic Tradition, University of California Folklore Studies vol. 19 (1969); D.P. Kirby The Earliest English Kings (London, 1991))! As such, the replacement of an original victor of (or player in) a major battle/event by a mythical/legendary character in the centuries after this occurred is not in any way implausible. Secondly, Badon is not the only battle that is suspected of being attributed to Arthur in Historia Brittonum Chapter 56 but originally fought by someone else, the significance of which should be obvious. For example, Arthur's supposed battle of Bregouin would seem to have been a battle originally won by Urien of Rheged but attributed to Arthur by the ninth century, with Urien being a very important figure of early Welsh literature (see O.J. Padel, 'The Nature of Arthur', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 27 (1994), pp. 1-31 at p. 18; K.H. Jackson, 'Arthur's Battle of Breguoin', Antiquity, 23 (1949), pp. 48-49; R. Bromwich, 'Concepts of Arthur', Studia Celtica, 10/11 (1975-6), pp. 163-81). Thirdly, as was demonstrated earlier in this study, the association of Badon with Arthur is present only in a very few sources, all of which would seem to be ultimately derived from the Historia Brittonum Chapter 56. Indeed, as was also earlier noted, there are good reasons to believe in the existence of early medieval traditions regarding Badon which did not associate it with Arthur and which were originally more widely acknowledged than the those that did. In light of this it is clear that any replacement that occurred was not by any means universally accepted.

Finally, there is the question of the status of the Battle of Badon. Historians are used to giving it a pivotal role in the history of post-Roman Britain, based on the fact that Gildas mentions this battle and no other. Whether this is justified or not is to be debated, given that Gildas dates it by saying that it was fought in the year of his birth. However, even if it was pivotal, we have to acknowledge that the Britons of later centuries were not inclined to view it as particularly significant. Whilst non-Arthurian Welsh sources do mention Badon (though not in association with Arthur), as a whole it was clearly not seen as that important. Their main interest was rather with the sagas of later sixth- and seventh-century heroes such as Urien of Rheged and Badon is rarely mentioned (see R. Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein. The Welsh Triads, second. edition (Cardiff, 1978)).  Probably the most interesting evidence comes from the poem Armes Prydein, composed in the tenth century and in which the creation of a confederacy (of the Welsh, the Irish, and the men of Strathclyde, Cornwall, Brittany and Dublin) to defeat the 'English' is both advocated and prophesied.  This featured a number of important people from the past designed to rally the Britons and their allies against the Anglo-Saxons, including the seventh-century Cynan and Cadwaladr, who are expected to return to lead the Britons in their confederacy, but neither Badon itself nor the victor of Badon (be he Ambrosius or Arthur) gets any mention whatsoever, surely a damning comment on the place of this much lauded victory against the Saxons in the British consciousness at this point (roughly the same point that it is suggested that Arthur's name becomes attached to the battle of Badon). Given all the above, it can be concluded that the replacement of Ambrosius as victor of Badon by Arthur in a few texts all related to the ninth-century Historia Brittonum is in no way implausible. Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

19

As Kemp Malone long ago wrote, "It will not do to take the name Arthur in all isolation, and look for a phonetically possible etymology. We must consider the name in connextion with the entire body of Arthurian material. The etymology which fits with this material is the etymology that we must adopt." (K. Malone, 'The Historicity of Arthur', The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 23 (1924), pp. 463-91 at p. 468). Back to 'The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur'

 

20

The earliest mention comes from a Spanish Chronicle of 1582 which asserts that it was common talk (fama cumun) that Arthur had been enchanted to the form of a crow and that many penalties were inflicted on anyone who killed one of these birds. Cervantes also refers to this belief three times in his Don Quixote (Vol. 1, 1605; Vol. 2, 1615) and his posthumously published Persiles y Sigismunda (1617). The following quote from R. Hunt's nineteenth-century Popular Romances of the West of England. The Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, third edition (reprinted Felinfach. 1993), II, pp. 308-09, based itself largely around an eighteenth-century note, brings some of these elements together nicely:

I quote the following as it stands:- [from Notes and Queries, vol. viii, p. 618]

"In Jarvis's translation of 'Don Quixote,' book ii. chap. v., the following passage occurs:-

"'Have you not read, sir,' answered Don Quixote, 'the annals and histories of England, wherein are recorded the famous exploits of King Arthur, whom, in our Castilian tongue, we always call King Artus; of whom there goes an old tradition, and a common one, all over the kingdom of Great Britain, that this king did not die, but that, by magic art, he was turned into a raven; and that, in process of time, he shall reign again and recover his kingdom and sceptre, for which reason it cannot be proved that, from that time to this, any Englishman has killed a raven?'

"My reason for transcribing this passage is to record the curious fact that the legend of King Arthur's existence in the form of a raven was still repeated as a piece of folklore in Cornwall about sixty years ago. My father, who died about two years since, at the age of eighty, spent a few years of his youth in the neighbourhood of Penzance. One day he was walking along Marazion Green with his fowling piece on his shoulder, he saw a raven at a distance and fired at it. An old man who was near immediately rebuked him, telling him that he ought on no account to have shot at a raven, for that King Arthur was still alive in the form of that bird. My father was much interested when I drew his attention to the passage which I have quoted above.

"Perhaps some of your Cornish or Welsh correspondents may be able to say whether the legend is still known among the people of Cornwall or Wales.

EDGAR MACCULLOCH

"Guernsey."

I have been most desirous of discovering if any such legend as the above exists... Nowhere do I find the raven associated with him, but I have been told that bad luck will follow the man who killed a Chough [a red-legged crow], for Arthur was transformed into one of these birds."

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