The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, Geoffrey Ashe editor. Pall Mall, 1968.
The 60s saw a rapid rise in interest in all things Arthurian, spurred on by a New Age zeitgeist which embraced all forms of fantasy from Tolkien to comics and by other aspects of popular culture, including musicals like Camelot.
In the middle of it all a more archaeological approach to the little-understood post-Roman period in Britain was emerging which sought to throw light on what was popularly known as the Dark Ages; and the epitome of this approach was the five-year investigation (from 1966 to 1970) of the Somerset hillfort of South Cadbury Castle by the provocatively-named Camelot Research Committee.
Perhaps as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the excavations the 1967 film of Camelot actually featured a map which placed the court roughly where the hillfort was situated.
Amateur historians often like to take traditional tales of semi- or pseudohistorical figures as sources for the details of their heroes’ biographies.
This is especially the case with King Arthur where legendary and folkloric tales are presented as evidence for this or that campaign or as proof that Arthur should be identified with a known historical personage.
In this essay I want to suggest that the exploits of legendary heroes in other contexts parallel some of those of Arthur’s, rendering them suspect as historical facts and thus no basis for concocting a presumed biography.
In his youth the hero does menial tasks, but displays great strength and courage despite his humble upbringing. He defends the honour of women, but his beloved is much abducted. He gains possession of a magnificent steed, and discovers an almost supernatural sword under a stone. After a lifetime of great feats with a band of followers he is mortally wounded by treachery, though his renown protects his people from harm.
Sounds familiar? Of course it does — you knew I was outlining the romance of ‘Antar (also known as ‘Antara), a folk hero from the Abs tribe of central Arabia, whose exploits also ranged across Iraq, Persia and Syria. He died at a great age in a raid around 600CE, but already by the 8th century stories of his life and deeds were being developed (Ranelagh 1979).
The point is surely this: here we have a folk-hero who flourished not long after King Arthur is alleged to have existed but who also shares some similarities with the British hero as described in Arthurian epic and saga. Is there a direct relationship between them? Before we tackle this question, it might be instructive to look at another near-contemporary hero, but from a little closer to home.
Pendragonry will feature my musings on Arthurian matters from the late 1960s onwards, mostly in an amateur British magazine called Pendragon but also supplemented by commentary elsewhere and by my current thoughts.
Half a century and more of reflection on obsessions — mine and others — with ‘King Arthur’ have led me to the inevitable conclusion that Arthur, his Round Table and associated paraphernalia are all wonderful constructs, existing in as many different forms as there are individuals to consider them.
The Pendragon Society was originally founded in 1959 in Winchester, Hampshire, with the following aims:
To stimulate interest in King Arthur and his contemporaries.
To investigate the history and archaeology of the Matter of Britain.
To study the significance — past, present and future — of the Arthurian legends. (This further clause was added later, when the Society was based in Bristol.)
Until it was voluntarily dissolved in 2009 (its golden jubilee year) the Society’s main activities were focused on projects, principally early medieval archaeology — a hillfort, a Roman villa and an Early Christian church site — and contributions to Pendragon, its magazine-style journal. The journal included news, views and reviews as well as articles, often substantial. Its members, many from overseas, included authors, academics and artists among its ranks as well as amateurs. For much of its existence I was contributing editor.
Pendragonry therefore will include many of my contributions to the journal, with additional commentary where necessary. Of course it will, since it’ll represent my opinions, be very opinionated. I do welcome comments, even criticisms (because opinions can change!) but naturally only those conducted politely.