arthurian literature, reading

Review: Arthur’s Britain

I picked up Leslie Alcock’s book during the same library trawl that found In the Land of Giants. Again, I got tired of renewing it and bought a copy (my library visits are great for book sales).

It’s rare in my experience to find a book that takes Arthur’s existence as historical without the author of said book coming off as a crank or at least a hopeless romantic. Although one is free to dispute Alcock’s interpretations of the evidence, at least he doesn’t seem to be a crank. The first part of this book consists of an in-depth description of challenges facing any literary historian of this period: the sheer scarcity of written records, changes in language, changes in dating systems between events and their record when there is one, the chance of human error (or deliberate alteration, even with the best of motives) whenever records are copied by hand, etc. He goes on to describe the source texts he considers worthwhile as evidence for a historical Arthur.

Having thus laid out his reasons for believing that there was an actual person by that name, albeit one he places much earlier in history than popular culture does, he dives into the archaeological record–which is just as fragmentary as the literary one–to describe the world such a person would have lived in. What was the situation like during and after the loss of Roman control, what kinds of buildings and material objects do we have evidence for, what movements of peoples took place during the relevant times, how did they actually carry out warfare, etc.

The book is frequently dry but readable for a non-expert. If you’re looking for mythology it will be most unsatisfying. This is a sober examination of actual records and physical evidence, with barely a whiff of romance to be found in its pages, and Alcock’s conclusions regarding Arthur are notably modest. I found it fascinating if slow going, not least because I now have a great appreciation for the challenges faced by anyone studying this field, whether in documentary or archaeological form. While I can’t speak to the quality of the author’s research, he is careful to label speculation as such and to make plain the many areas where we simply don’t know enough to draw firm conclusions. Some of the topics near the end of the book seem a bit rushed, but on the whole I would consider it a solid resource.

4/5 stars, will certainly revisit.

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