The Future of History

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Finding Arthur

Very exciting to see this in the Scotsman newspaper yesterday.  It's a short piece about Adam Ardrey's latest Arthurian publication, Finding Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Once and Future King.

I've had some contact with Adam Ardrey in recent years - although, keen as I am to preserve my historiographical independence, we've not exactly compared notes.  I read his Finding Merlin when it came out in 2007, and we've communicated once or twice since then.  But we're hardly collaborators.

I stress that for a couple of reasons.  First, let me quote Ardrey's words from the back cover of Finding Merlin:

"If I am right, it would appear that, for 1,500 years, those with the power to do so have presented a history that, literally, suited their book, irrespective of its divergence from the evidence, and that the stories of Arthur and Merlin which form the British foundation myth are almost entirely pieces of propaganda based on various biases.  If I am right, British history for the period from the late fifth to the early seventh century stands to be rewritten."

Sounds a bit like me, doesn't it?  I too have argued that propaganda and bias have dictated the retelling of the Arthurian legends through the ages - just as propaganda and bias dictate what we allowed to hear, think and believe about William Shakespeare.

What is more, though, Adam Ardrey argues in his Finding Arthur book, not only that Artur mac Aedain was the original Arthur, but that he was buried on the Isle of Iona.

So we agree on that, too.

In other words, both of us have - independently - identified a known historical prince as the original "King Arthur", and we have both tracked down his grave to the sacred royal burial isle of the Scottish kings.  That's two intelligent and inquisitive individuals who have each devoted years to the subject arriving at very similar conclusions.

I posted the piece in the Scotsman newspaper (link above) to Facebook yesterday, and it was quickly shared by a very successful historical novelist.  The responses were most telling.

First came the observation that a Scottish historian had received coverage in a Scottish newspaper for his theory that Arthur was Scottish.  Evidently, this was all very suspicious (I pointed out that I'm an English historian with Welsh roots, and so the suggestion that only a Scot would think Arthur might have been Scottish doesn't quite stand up).  What makes this kneejerk rush to judgement so interesting is that there is no basis for it.  It is, in fact, a form of projection.  The fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that Arthur was what the English like to think he was gets instantly spun round, becoming no other culture is allowed to claim Arthur as its own, regardless of the evidence.

I posted a few days ago about the Ossian poems, translated from the Gaelic and published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, and the English response to the evidence of a thriving, heroic Gaelic culture at a time when England didn't even exist.  The response was nothing short of blind fury - a kind of spluttering outrage that the "primitives" and "savages" of the Highlands and Islands should presume to imagine that they had any pedigree, any marvellous history, for such cultural treasures belonged only to the English!!!

The same prejudice shows itself whenever the Scottish Arthur is mentioned.  Without viewing the evidence, the instinctive response is: "No, he can't have been."  I repeat - without viewing the evidence.  So we are not dealing with considered judgements here.  We are dealing with prejudice, pure and simple.  The implicit racism is apparent in the suggestion that only a Scottish historian would try to place Arthur in Scotland.  Even though the very first Arthur to appear in any historical record was a Scot!

There is, then, a wall of prejudice encountered by anyone who, having spent years studying and researching the evidence, concludes that there was only one viable candidate for the prestigious role of the original Arthur - and it was Artur mac Aedain, whose father was ordained as the King of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.

It is reassuring, then, to find that others who have devoted themselves to uncovering the historical truth behind the Arthur legend have arrived at much the same conclusion as me - he was Artur mac Aedain, and he was buried on Iona.  The question, then, is when will the tide turn?  When will the wall of prejudice crumble in the face of the evidence?  When will the English finally admit that they have no claim at all to Arthur?

(I don't include the Welsh here because Arthur was British, and Welsh-speaking Britain extended at least as far north as the River Forth in his day; there are no grounds for presuming that, if Arthur was the son of a Scottish king, then he couldn't have been Welsh: rather, that argument is based on a misunderstanding of the geopolitics of 6th-century Britain.)

I'm tempted to post, over the next few days, a number of indisputable facts about Arthur.  These are not assumptions, but genuine facts.  And they all point in one direction, and one direction only.

The English might fight tooth and nail to cling to their myth of King Arthur.  But there can be no reasonable doubt as to who the original Arthur was.

Unless you're determined to ignore the evidence, that is.

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