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Barnard Faraday’s novel Pendragon (1930) is one of the earliest novels to treat King Arthur as a historical person living in the sixth century and fighting the Saxons. It’s a departure from the Arthur of Malory and Tennyson and helped mark a trend toward realistic historical Arthurian fiction as opposed to fantasy.

The novel is not without its faults. The few reviews at Amazon on the novel complain about its verbosity, stale characters, and lack of action—these are all fair criticisms. It’s really not a long novel—only 272 pages in its first edition, and it is a small sized book, about 4 x 5, so there should not be a lot of room for verbosity, but there is.

However, Pendragon has many good points. While we have to acknowledge that it is not always historically accurate and that Faraday did not have access to all the historical research that has been done in the nearly a century since he wrote it, he does try to give us a good feel for a Britain abandoned by the Romans, in which the tribes are squabbling among themselves while trying to fight off their enemies—in this case the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts, and Irish are all amassing against the Britons.

When the novel opens, Aurelian claims to be ruler of all Britain because he is a scion of the Proconsular family of Imperial descent. Aurelian’s father, Ambrosius, was the first to call himself king of Britain, realizing Rome had fallen. The novel takes place in 502/3, a generation after Rome fell in 476. Aurelian claims to be king of all Britain, but there are many other petty kings who claim their own territories. Most significantly, Guitolin was the ruler of Cornwall, but when the novel opens, he has been abducted by the Saxons and it’s not known whether he is dead or alive.

Artorius (King Arthur) is the general of Aurelian’s armies and the novel’s narrator. Early in the novel, he comes upon Princess Gwendaello of Cornwall, a niece to Guitolin. She has survived the attack that Guitolin was taken in and gets protection from Artorius as he escorts her home. She is quite uppity and sure of herself, and eventually, she makes it clear she is “Pendragon,” the rightful ruler of all Britain because that title belonged to her ancestors before the Romans came to Britain.

Artorius also meets Gildas and Mereddin (Merlin). Mereddin has apparently been plotting against Gwendaello, but Artorius decides to protect her. Meanwhile, Gildas is condemning the rulers of Britain as sinners, but before the novel’s end, he will show he is not just a crazed religious fanatic but capable of acting when needed and doing what is best for Britain.

There are some treasonous plots Artorius gets involved in that need stopping, and in time, he manages to convince the Britons that they must all band together to protect themselves from their enemies. Eventually, it’s learned that Guitolin did survive his abduction, and he is seeking to betray his people into the hands of the Saxons, letting them have portions of Britain in exchange for recognizing him as overlord. Fortunately, he fails in his mission and ends up being killed when he tries to attack Artorius.

A great conference is now held in which the kings argue among themselves. By this point, Artorius has fallen for Gwendaello and supports her claim to be Pendragon and rightful ruler of Britain. The novel culminates in the Battle of Mt. Badon, in which the Saxons and their allies are driven from Britain’s shores. Artorius is wounded in battle and wakes when it’s over to find himself lying in Gwendaello’s arms, and she telling him they have won the day, and then she kisses him.

The ending doesn’t make it clear whether Artorius is dying or whether he will live and presumably marry Gwendaello and become Pendragon himself through right of his eventual marriage to her. I suspect the latter, but Gwendaello cradling Artorius in her arms just resembles Morgan le Fay coming to take King Arthur to Avalon too much to make the reader not wonder whether Artorius is dying.

The novel does suffer from digressions and a lack of dramatic action. At one point, a major battle is described in a letter from Gwendaello to Artorius, which weakens the dramatic effect. There is a lot of arguing among the Britons, which slows down the plot. There are also a lot of characters to keep track of, although most of them are relatively insignificant.

The most fascinating character in the novel is Gwendaello because she is a strong woman, determined in a man’s world to assert her right to rule. Ultimately, she is able to convince Artorius, the strongest and most righteous of the men, to support her claim. I don’t believe another depiction of such a strong Guinevere would appear for decades, and that a man wrote this novel makes her depiction all the more remarkable.

Gildas is a complete anachronism in the novel. He’s described as being about eighty years old, and yet he wasn’t actually born until about 516 AD, some thirteen years after the novel ends.

But altogether, the novel is readable, and it is not as wordy and slow as it might have been had it been written in the Victorian period, even if it’s not fast-paced enough for the twenty-first century reader.

The biggest question is what is to be gained by such a novel that does not depict Arthur as a king but just a warrior, a general? Obviously, we gain a better understanding of who the original King Arthur may have been and what conditions he had to deal with, but we lose the magic of Camelot, of the knights and quests and mysteries. Personally, I prefer the historical fantasy approach where magic is still allowed in the Arthurian world while trying to be historically accurate. That said, Faraday’s novel is significant for how it blends not only history but also Welsh myth and British legend into the story—for example, a crown is found and worn by Gwendaello that belonged to Dynwal Moelmud, a legendary British king mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Faraday is trying to recreate the mindset of sixth century Britons who still believed in their ancient history and legends. Such beliefs are at times brought into question, but eventually Mereddin convinces Artorius to let the people believe what they want because when their beliefs die, it leads to sorrow and loss, which is why Artorius eventually agrees to support Gwendaello as Pendragon.

It seems then that Faraday wants to have it both ways—to create a more historical version of Arthur, and at the same time, let his readers continue to believe in their legendary Arthur, and perhaps make them into one and the same. This debate over how to depict Arthur—historical or legendary—continues on today as two schools—historical fiction and fantasy—have arisen among Arthurian fiction. But this literary division is wonderful because it provides diversity and room for creativity, and it will likely continue on as two schools of Arthurian fiction until the day the truth about King Arthur is known, and even then, it is questionable whether the fantasy versions of the Arthurian legend will cease to be read, and loved, and even rewritten again.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other historical novels. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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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.

TheReignofKingArthurChristopher 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.

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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

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