“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham, Yale University Press, 2018, 392 pages $32.50
King Arthur is probably the world’s best-known fictional character. Writers from the 11th century’s Chrétien de Troyes to Bernard Cornwall in the 21st century have written stories about him. And the King Arthur’s legend keeps growing. A story this well-known must have a historical basis.
“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham examines that issue. It’s a search for the source of the Arthur legend.
Arthur’s Britain, when and where a historical King Arthur could’ve existed, belonged to a chaotic and obscure corner of history. The Romans had retreated from Britannia. The island was being invaded by barbarians, and de-civilizing as it broke into a constellation of petty and competing kingdoms. Written accounts were spotty, and most history fell under oral tradition.
Higham sifts through all of this in a quest to track down the original sources creating the Arthur legend, including proposed foreign sources. Few verifiable records from the period exist indicating a historical basis for Arthur. Some researchers concluded the historical Arthur, if he did exist, came from outside Britain, with the story somehow transplanted into an obscure island in Europe’s northwest corner.
There are surprisingly many proposed “foreign” Arthurs. They include a Dalmatian centurion, Sarmatian horsemen, Georgian warriors, and stepp tribesmen. Others speculate Arthur was a Roman or Greek legend recast, Arthur as a British Hercules. Higham picks through all these theories, revealing few strengths and many weaknesses in these candidates.
Higham also examines the historical record of early dark ages France and Britain, seeking historic leaders who might have formed the basis of the Arthur myth. Higham believes clues to its origins lies in Historia Brittonum, a 9th century work, attributed to Nennius, a Welch monk.
“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend” offers some surprising conclusions. Meticulously researched, Higham takes readers through every step of the journey he took to arrive at his conclusions. It is more a scholarly examination of Arthur’s legend than popular writing. Yet for those more interested in the Arthur myth and its origins than another retelling of the Arthur story, this book should not be missed.