“World of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages” by Guy Halsall; Oxford University Press (384 pages, $34.95)
The myth of King Arthur, his queen, Guinevere, and the knights of the Round Table is too ingrained in our collective psyche to be overthrown by mere facts questioning his very existence.
But British academic Professor Guy Halsall tries anyway.
He has written an excellent book in “Worlds of Arthur” using archeology, manuscripts and migration patterns to prove that Arthur never existed; and if he did, he didn’t resemble any of the legends, pseudo-histories, romantic fantasies, scholarly works and a thousand years of publicity that have grown up around the legendary British warrior.
Halsall understands this. His unusually readable scholarly tome starts with why he wrote the book.
A history teacher at the universities in London and York and a war gamer, he was reading “the latest populist Arthurian history” which other reviews said offered “a plausible, scholarly case. It didn’t, and this annoyed me.”
So he buckled down to find out what scientists and academics really “know” about the period. Using archeology, forensics and extensive literary research, including the migration plans of the Anglo Saxons and Pictish cemeteries, he thin-slices the legend of Arthur into steak tartar.
“Worlds of Arthur” is broken into six parts, some which are entertaining – “The Antimatter of Arthur: Reassessing the Written Sources” – and others which are harder to read through, such as “Beyond brooches and Borchs: Rethinking Early Medieval British Archeology.”
He takes aim at popular media, such as the movie “King Arthur” with its Sarmatian (from the Balkans) influence, and other books in a chapter named “Red Herrings and Old Chestnuts.”
His feeling is that “most modern populist pseudo-historical theories about the historical Arthur seems to require you to have had a skin-full of alcohol or other mind-enhancing substance in order to believe them.”
So, after exhaustively taking readers through the evidence, he comes to this conclusion: The legendary King Arthur never existed.
This won’t mean anything to those who enjoy Arthurian legends.
For example, the fourth season of the U.K. show “Merlin” on Syfy recently drew more than 1.5 million viewers, a very good number for a cable channel. The series finale has been held until May.
In late May comes the big kahuna of Arthurian publishing: an unfinished work by J.R.R.Tolkien called “The Fall of Arthur.” It’s bound to be a best-seller.