I am constantly being asked whether or not King Arthur was real. I usually reply that there is some historical basis for him and leave it at that. Although I have read several books about King Arthur that propose various theories to prove his existence, so many of these books seem to draw sweeping conclusions while lacking hard evidence, instead relying on mysterious manuscripts hidden away in the Vatican or the need to read forgotten languages, so honestly, I can’t judge whether their sources or theories are legitimate or not.
Christopher Gidlow’s The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend now has solved my dilemma. I am not a trained historian, linguist, nor an archeologist, but I do have a Ph.D. in English and understand the importance of close reading of literary sources. Gidlow, who is a graduate of Oxford University in history and the former president of the University Arthurian Society, also understands that we need to look closely at what the texts state to come to conclusions. He does his close reading of the major early Arthurian texts by looking at them in chronological order and tracing what does or does not appear from one text to the next.
The texts Gidlow explores are the usual suspects—works by Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and several others most Arthurian scholars will be familiar with. The conclusions Gidlow draws reflect how various authors borrowed information from their predecessors’ texts or where we might assume oral tradition was relied upon. What I appreciated about Gidlow’s argument was that he stayed focused on the literary evidence and stayed true to his primary purpose. Too many other authors stray off into questionable theories or try to cover everything, but Gidlow ends with discussing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Historia Regum Brittaniae, and rightly sees no purpose in looking at later texts by Chretien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, or other authors who clearly were creating works of fiction based on these earlier works that at least purported to be historical.
I won’t go into detail about all of Gidlow’s conclusions, but I think he makes a strong argument for why we have to believe there was a historical King Arthur. Just exactly who King Arthur was remains a bit of a mystery, but Gidlow assures us that he was not a mythological or fictional figure who has been inserted into history books, but rather a historical personage who has been used for fictional purposes. Gidlow’s analysis especially of Welsh sources, such as the Mabinogion, Annales Cambriae and various Lives of the Saints, especially add to this argument.
I think anyone who wants to know more about the historical King Arthur will find this book enlightening. It isn’t a page-turner that leads us to a mind-blowing discovery. It’s better than that—it’s the work of a methodical, level-headed author, who is willing to look at all the evidence and draw logical conclusions. I believe it is the most balanced discussion on the subject of King Arthur’s historicity I have ever read, and in the future, if people ask me, “Was King Arthur real?” I will refer them to The Reign of Arthur so they can examine the evidence and draw their own conclusions.
Gidlow is also the author of Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot, in which he moves beyond the texts to the archeological evidence for King Arthur’s historicity. I’ll be adding this book to my reading list. Both books are available at online bookstores.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com