I first started reading The Mammoth Book of King Arthur two years ago and only finished it this month. It’s mammoth, after all. Author Mike Ashley covers all the original references to King Arthur, all the possibilities of historical characters who might have served as the original of the legends, and then all the threads of development, from Geoffrey of Monmouth through Chrétien de Troyes, Malory, Tennyson, and Monty Python together with hundreds of other stories, poems, novels, plays, operas, and films in between. The result was well worth the two years it took to read, but I’m glad I took some careful notes on the early parts.
I’ve loved King Arthur ever since it befell me in my seventh year that I did read, in Sidney Lanier’s version for children, these words: “It befell in the days of the noble Utherpendragon, when he was King of England, that there was born to him a son who in after time was King Arthur.” Like most Arthurophiles, I want the great King to be real. Sir Winston Churchill said, in words close to these: Arthur ought to have been real, so let us declare him to be so. (Did Churchill’s appearence in the Darkest Hour represent the long awaited return of Arthur? It ought to be, so let us declare it so.) But definitively locating a real Arthur in the spotty chronicles of a mostly illiterate Dark Age Britain is impossible; names similar to “Arthur” show up rarely and in stories that conflict with each other. Ashley’s solution as to the identity of the Ur-Arthur was disappointing: after promising to locate the winner of the Battle of Badon, ca. 500 AD, he ultimately identifies the source of the beloved legend in two Welsh kings, one from the seventh and one from the eighth century, whose stories got told and confused in a centuries-long game of telephone.
But I have a theory much more satisfactory to myself – a theory based on one of the most curious inconsistencies of the medieval record. A fellow from the ninth century named Nennius lists twelve battles led by Arthur against the Saxons, who to Britain did pour, culminating in the Battle of Badon. According to Geoffrey (in the twelfth century), after finally ridding the realm of invaders, the great victor then reigned over a pax Arthuriana, supposedly the beginning of the legends of the Round Table of chivalric knights. A monk named Gildas, writing in the early sixth century, also wrote about a series of battles ending in Badon, which he says happened in the year of his birth (probably in the 470s). So, if Nennius and Geoffrey have anything right about Arthur at all, Gildas should have grown up under the rule of King Arthur. Yet – and here’s the inconsistency that drives the legend hunters wild – he doesn’t mention Arthur, instead giving credit for the victories against the Saxons to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a character that Nennius and Geoffrey both name as well.
Now, just about the time Geoffrey wrote his Historia regum Britanniae, one Caradoc of Llancarfan wrote a Life of Gildas, in which he most definitely says that Gildas not only lived during Arthur’s reign but knew him and helped him retrieve Gwenevere after she was abducted by the King of Glastonbury. What to make of it all? Gildas is the one writer who should be able to give us a definitive contemporary description of the great, original King Arthur whom other authors place in his time and even in his acquaintance. And yet he doesn’t mention him.
OK. Suppose that an oral tradition passed down stories from the fifth century that didn’t always make their way into books in timely fashion but came down to Nennius and Caradoc and Geoffrey. And suppose that someone with a name like “Arthur” (maybe Riothamus, as Geoffrey Ashe theorizes, or perhaps Athrwys ap Mar, a descendent of Coel – the Coel that the nursery-rhyme describes as a merry old soul with fiddlers three), with help from Ambrosius Aurelianus, really led victorious battles including the Battle of Badon and became a great king whom “everyone” in “England” loved and respected. Finally, suppose that this king’s queen really was kidnapped and that Gildas was called upon to help his king get her back. Might not Gildas have been disappointed to find that the glorious warrior who was already a legend in his own time couldn’t protect his own wife? Might he not have become disillusioned when the man whose reputation was built on strength, courage, and prowess in battle asked a bookish cleric to help him out against his rotten neighbor? I’ve read several authors from our time puzzling over Gildas’s not mentioning Arthur, but no one acknowledging this rather obvious explanation. Gildas didn’t want to add his voice to the rousing chorus of praise for the invisible clothes on the naked king.
Alternatively, here’s a less obvious explanation. What if Arthur asked Gildas for aid precisely because he was a frail, scholarly monk? What if the mighty soldier had learned to regret his bloody ways and wished to meet the kidnapping crisis with spiritual ammunition? Maybe the kidnapping even forced him to face the wickedness of the violence he had so long embraced. He might have asked Gildas to preach to the King of Glastonbury on the need for repentance, hoping to win back his queen by appealing to his fellow monarch’s sense of righteousness. Would not an Arthur of this humble frame of mind have asked his confidant not to name him when he came to write his history of the evils of the time? In fact, if Gildas was Arthur’s confessor, would Gildas not have been bound to keep his name from the record? Let us declare it so.