Book review: Worlds of Arthur

Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, by Guy Halsall, is about the legendary King Arthur, where by “about” I mean “not about”.

One could be forgiven for thinking “about” means “about”. After all, there’s Arthur’s name right there in the title. In the blurb on Amazon, Arthur’s name appears nine times along with “Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad and Gawain, Merlin, Excalibur, the Lady in the Lake, the Sword in the Stone, Camelot, the Round Table.” The introduction talks a lot about Arthur, as do the first few chapters.

So there’s the first problem with the book, or at least with the title and the marketing of the book as well as its first pages: They lead you to expect an entirely different book than what this is. It is not about Arthur. Having counted occurrences of Arthur’s name in the promotional material, now let’s count it in Chapter 9 of the book: Twice. In Chapter 10, not at all. By the end of Chapter 11, we’ve seen his name infrequently enough that it’s no surprise to read, “Indeed, whether or not one of the post-imperial British kings was called Arthur is probably the least interesting question that one can ask about this important period.”

So what is the book about? Having read it… I’m not sure I know. I mean, if there’s a cogent, 1-sentence theme of the book, I’m not sure I can come up with it. What Halsall does in the book is to discuss the evidence regarding post-imperial Britain — written accounts from that time and soon after, and archaeological evidence; he summarizes some of the ideas people have had about this place and period in history, and the evolution of those ideas; and he gives his own views on what is and is not known, and interpretations he believes are plausible.

(I am no historian nor much of a student of history, so keep that in mind.)

Halsall argues that much that has been believed is based on bad assumptions, misinterpretation of the evidence, and wishful thinking. The arrival of the Saxons in Britain, for example, has been claimed to have occurred in the year 449, “a date as evidently precise and important as 1066” but for which there is no real evidence. The usual picture is of a wholesale Saxon invasion, pushing the British natives along a front moving east to west until Angeln was emptied and England was Saxon. There apparently has recently been a contrary view claiming that the Saxon migration never happened at all. (In this view the English language’s Germanic forebear was spoken in Britain from a much earlier time.) Halsall dismisses the latter as ridiculous, but spends much more time arguing against the former and in favor of a scenario where the Saxon migration began, perhaps as mercenaries for Magnus Maximus, in the late 4th century, and gradually continued over the following decades, not in a simple east-to-west moving front, not simply as a British-versus-Saxon conflict, but as something more subtle and complex than that. In fact, he argues, it is likely that many of the Saxons were British: that is, people who had Saxon names, spoke the Saxon language, and kept Saxon customs, but who were the descendants of  British forebears. Ethnic identity, that is, is to some degree changeable and chooseable.

I wouldn’t say Halsall changed my mind about anything, because I didn’t know enough about post-imperial Britain to change. I have a slightly better grasp of the facts now, and my cautious and skeptical self appreciates that Halsall seems to treat the subject even-handedly, being careful to point out where facts are lacking (and they are lacking to a great degree) and where unfounded assumptions have been made. So his picture of the period, which he acknowledges is plausible but not to be regarded as proven, seems to make some sense. Given that, I suspect Worlds of Arthur may be the best available book on the subject today — though, again, I am no expert, and I haven’t read any others, so really I’m only guessing.

It’s a shame, then, that the book isn’t written better. Structurally it’s a mess. Halsall keeps coming back to topics he’s discussed before, trying to make some sort of a new point or come at it from a new angle, the result being that what he has to say on the subject gets fragmented into shards scattered through the book, complete with forward and backward cross references, and he has to resort to howlers like this: “The Chronicle’s authors were thus doing something rather similar to what in Chapter 8 I will suggest the author of the Historia Brittonum might have been doing a couple of generations previously.” (That is, “I’m not going to tell you the point of what I just said, because it’s too similar to the point I’m going to make later about something that occurred earlier.”)

I appreciate that Halsall is careful not to jump to conclusions and assign “obvious” meanings to things that in fact could have meant something entirely different. Such is the nature of inquiry in progress, and too often popularizations and pseudo-scholarly books try to pull certainty out of an empty hat. The problem is, though, that this kind of caution can make for rather confusing and un-compelling reading: “In the current state of play it is difficult to know what these forts represent, or which sort of site is the more typical… It is possible that early, large sites like Burghead represent an earlier phase of large, but perhaps quite weak, kingdoms and that the small sites represent the domination of smaller areas”. So? Too many caveats and too few firm conclusions make for a problematic book; it’s hard to know how to overcome that, other than perhaps by deciding it’s not time to write a book on the subject yet. In that unfortunate sense, Worlds of Arthur may be ahead of its time.




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